Memo to Natalie Bennett: Not everyone in India is poor

The Green Party leader thinks being poor in India isn’t as bad as being on benefits in the UK “because at least everyone else there is poor too.” This suggests Ms Bennett has a strange view of India.

Business magnate Mukesh Ambani’s $1 billion mansion in Mumbai’s business district

 

A House in Mumbai

The house of Mukesh Ambani is a rather remarkable property. Forbes magazine describes this structure in Mumbai’s business district thus:

The twenty-seven story, 400,000-square foot skyscraper residence, named after a mythical island in the Atlantic, has six underground levels of parking, three helicopter pads, a ‘health’ level, and reportedly requires about 600 staff to run it. It is the world’s most expensive home far and away with construction costs topping $1 billion.

As you might have gathered Mr Ambani is a phenomenally wealthy man. The managing director and majority shareholder of Reliance Industries Limited has a net worth of upwards of $23.6 billion. He is far from being the only billionaire in India: there are at least a hundred others.

‘At least everyone else is poor…’

Men (and a much smaller number of women) like Mr Ambani came to my mind today while reading about what Green Party leader Natalie Bennett told the Economist’s Bagehot columnist:

[The Greens] talk about the world sparingly and mainly to illuminate leftist British issues. They are broadly against consumption, for example: “The world is sodden with stuff, it cannot have more stuff,” said Ms Bennett. Yet they do not appear to have considered what that would mean for billions of the world’s poorest people, almost none of whom live in Britain. When Bagehot suggested to her that there was a problem with this, Ms Bennett said he was worrying too much: to be poor in India wasn’t so bad as to be on benefits in Britain, she suggested, “because at least everyone else there is poor too”.

I disagree with the sentiment of the entire piece. Nonetheless, it was this final sentence that struck me as a particular clanger. India is second only to Africa as a recipient of condescension from rich westerners. Ms Bennett’s image of Indian’s contentedly living in shared poverty is as patronising as it is untrue. It is true that Indian has more people living in absolute poverty than the whole continent of Africa. But it also has a middle class numbering 250 million. The World Bank estimates that statistically speaking the gap between rich and poor in Britain and India is virtually identical. However, those statistics don’t really capture the starkness of that divide because it is often the divide between comfort and desperation, between your children being malnourished or not, or between having running water or not. What’s strange about this point is that it even needs making. These kinds of divides in Indian society are obvious as soon as you step off the plane. That’s not much of an exaggeration: during my taxi ride from Mumbai airport to my hotel a few blocks away from Mr Ambani’s pad, you could see people sleeping rough on the steps of massive branches of multinational banks!

Benefit of the doubt?

There are a few points that could be said in Ms Bennett’s defence. Firstly, she claims that the Economist’s article did not accurately reflect what she said. But her explanation of the purported error seems more like an elaboration rather than a correction. She clarifies that she was talking about relative rather than absolute poverty, which seemed to me crystal clear from what appeared in the Economist though not necessarily from the coverage that followed. However, I’d suggest that doesn’t really deal with the point we’re discussing here. If you’re worried about comparative poverty then you probably want politicians to realise that the second most populous nation on earth has rich people as well as poor ones.

Secondly, we could perhaps excuse her some sloppiness given that she was speaking off the cuff. However, one would have to be a very indulgent soul not to see her comments as reflecting poorly on her. Apart from anything else she actually has a degree in Asian Studies, so this is a point that really should have been familiar to her.

New India, Old India

Finally, I suppose she could (in the unlikely event that she addresses what I’m saying here directly) respond that it’s all very well for me to come along with my anecdotes about what’s going on in Mumbai where neo-liberalism has taken hold but she was talking about life in the traditional rural communities where the majority of Indians still live. This is fair enough up to a point. However, I would observe that the figures on inequality I mentioned earlier were for the country as a whole including both towns and cities. It is also not as if rich Indians only emerged with economic liberalisation in the 1990s. In the 1940s, when India was still a firmly rural and agricultural society, Osman Ali the prince of Hyderabad was reputed to be the richest man on the planet. And even in an Indian village where there is something approaching material equality, there may well still be deeply unpleasant status hierarchies arising from the caste system. How this is being affected by economic growth and the move to cities is a complicated area. However, we can hope that the sheer mass of humanity in large cities will render the most stigmatising elements of the caste system, the notion that the mere presence of a Dalit or a member of another ‘backward’ caste is a form of pollution, will become untenable when living and working in such close proximity to so many people as one does in a city. Lest anyone think these kind of status hierarchies are a peculiarly Indian phenomenon, I would observe that the Duke of Wellington disliked the building of the railways because it would: “only encourage the lower classes to move about”.

Why it matters

I find Ms Bennett’s misapprehensions about India concerning for several reasons:

  • As the Economist’s reporter observed it perhaps speaks to a frequent flaw with leftist thinking whereby they proclaim solidarity with those in less economically developed countries but wind up treating them as props for their chosen narratives. Far from wanting saving from capitalism, a recent piece of research by Pew suggested people living in developing and emerging economies are more supportive of free markets than those in wealthier economies.
  • I would like politicians to have a reasonable grasp of big economic trends like the fact that India is now one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
  • An implication of the Ms Bennett’s comments seems to be that we choose between absolute and relative poverty. In fact, there are countries like Sweden in which both are low and countries like India in which both are high.

Postscript

None of this is to say that there is not a legitimate debate about the role of economic liberalisation and growth in India. Witness, for example, the very public battle between economists Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati in the run up to the last Indian General Election. It’s just that such debates ought to be well informed and be about India and not the West by proxy.

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Will 2015 be the year First-Past-the-Post finally breaks?

It’s the time of year when it’s traditional to make predictions about the year ahead. So here’s one from me: the upcoming General Election will leave Britain’s electoral system looking decidedly inadequate.

Its supporters will tell you that First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) gives voters a clear choice between two parties that are then able to form stable majority governments. Applying this description to any of the likely outcomes of the next General Election is a stretch.

If you like your politics orderly and binary then 2015 is going to come as a shock. Two party politics is in unmistakable retreat. UK Polling Report’s poll of polls has their combined share at 65%. Sixty years ago that figure was 97%. As recently as 1997 it hovered around 75%. This is all the more remarkable given that the traditional repository for voters opposed to the two-party system, the Liberal Democrats, has taken such a battering.

This may or may not result in a hung parliament. If it does then in time 2015 rather than 2010 may well seem like the aberration. Unless the two main parties can improve their standing well above their current levels then parliaments in which no party has a majority are likely to be the norm. And even if by some fluke one of them is able to command a majority is that really healthy: do we want a situation where 65-70% of voters supported someone other than the party that wound up in power?

The settled mood of the electorate is sufficiently disenchanted that they will likely resist being corralled by the electoral system into supporting one of two parties. So if on this basis we assume that multi-party politics is here to stay, we have to ask which electoral system best deals with it?

Not FPTP would be my answer. I think a new problem with it is becoming apparent. It penalises parties for having their support geographically spread out. The SDP/Liberal Alliance discovered this in 1983, when it won 25% of the vote but less than 5% of MPs. Its problem? Speaking in very broad terms what it managed to do was win 25% in most seats, while Labour and Tory support fluctuated wildly from seat and seat. This meant they cratered in some but came top in plenty more.

Something similar is likely to happen to UKIP in 2015. It looks very likely to comfortably outpoll both the Lib Dems and the SNP yet end up with fewer MPS than either. The reason? Those two parties have through deliberate electoral strategising in the Lib Dem case and the nature of their party in the SNP’s concentrated their support in a small number of seats. This gives parties like the Greens and UKIP a great incentive to start focussing only on specific kinds of seats.

My fear is that this tendency within FPTP will wind up giving us a politics a lot like India’s: a succession of regional contests which have to be strung together to produce a national government following an election. In such a situation, majority governments are rare and regional bigwigs can hold national governments to ransom.

I would rather have a form of proportional representation that allowed parties to win seats across the country and thus think in terms of the interests of the country as a whole. And I would really regret it if FPTP leaves us with a politics in which political parties are generally talking past each other to reach their geographically separate bases.

Nightmares before Christmas

It’s the season for goodwill and joy but no one told Charlie Brooker and Steven Moffat. Black Mirror and Dr Who were all the better for it.

 

Black Mirror: White Christmas

The late Christopher Hitchens told a story about visiting Prague while it was still part of Communist Czechoslovakia. He resolved that he would avoid the clichéd temptation to reference Kafka when discussing the city. Then shortly after his arrival he was arrested by the Secret Police. He demanded that his captors tell him why he was being detained. They replied that he had no need to know. Leaving Hitchens maddened not just at the injustice of the situation but also that it made it impossible for him to keep his pledge to himself!

A similar sense that one simply must mention Kafka applies to discussing Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. The scenarios Brooker constructs have a nightmarish quality that can only be described as Kafkaesque. Ordinary people are suddenly pulled into situations so utterly fiendish and remorselessly bleak that despair is the only option.

What makes them really alarming (and this is also very Kafkaesque) is the mundanity of it all. Yes, it’s science fiction and furthermore the kind of science fiction that focuses on engaging ideas rather than serious predictions for the future. Nonetheless, it feels very close to our own world. The innovations it depicts like ‘blocking’ feel so intimately connected with currently existing technology and it leans so heavily on familiar discomforts like hearing ‘I wish it could be Christmas’ over and over again that it all feels uncomfortably close to our current world.

I would be remiss, if I finished this review without mentioning the acting. Convincing performances are of course an important part of maintaining this unlikely sense of realism, and the impressive cast certainly delivered. John Hamm demonstrated once again that he is the master of taking charm and congealing it into something unpleasant.

 

Doctor Who: Last Christmas

In the past I’ve criticised Dr Who Christmas specials for being treacly. They’ve often neglected good storytelling for supposedly sweet moments amongst plentiful fluffy snow while Murray Gold breaks out the violins, flutes and triangles. Very often these attempts at feel good moments left me feeling grouchy.

Last Christmas was rather different. Sure it had plenty of scenes with people hugging in the snow while Murray Gold broke out the violins, flutes and triangles. But its main influences seemed to be the decidedly unfestive trio of Alien, the Thing and Inception. And it worked.

The story had the kind of menace and tension that previous seasonal outings had lacked. A monster that grabs your face and lulls you into a dream while it eats your brain is way scarier (and therefore more interesting) than trees or Dervla Kirwan hamming it up.

Serving a main course of darkness followed by some sugary moments, makes the final round of sweetness seem a lot more appealing than if you’ve been being force fed sickly sentimental scenes for an hour.

Plus the show had earned those moments. The whole of the last series had been building towards its emotional cliffhanger, so the audience could be expected to be invested in its resolution. It also helped that for once whether or not a key actor would depart had not been announced in advance.

That said, I did have a few gripes. There turned out to be a good reason that the early scenes felt disjointed and incoherent. Nonetheless, on first viewing those qualities were still jarring. More seriously, Nick Frost’s character was repeatedly referred to as Santa, which is an unacceptable lapse into Americanese for a British institution!

But these complaints aside, this was solid entertaining telly and a fitting coda to Who’s strongest season yet.

My favourite films of 2014

The title of this post is very deliberately chosen. These are my favourite films of the year rather than the best films. This is not just a concession to the subjectivity of such an exercise but an acknowledgement that I’ve probably not seen most of the best films of the year. I watch a lot of films but it’s still a small proportion of those out there. You won’t see Boyhood, Babadook, Pride, the Wind Rises, Mr Turner, Wolf of Wall Street, The Theory of Everything, Calvary, the Raid 2, Unbroken, Under the Skin, Lucy, The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel or Citizenfour on this list not because I think the films there are better but just because I haven’t seen them.

For the purposes of this post, a film was released this year if that’s when IMDB lists its UK release date as 2014.

And that as far as I’m concerned is a pretty good selection of films. Despite a relatively anaemic box office, there’ve been plenty of interesting films and encouragingly many of them have been the kind of big budget epics that people are most likely to watch. The first film I saw this year was 12 years a slave, which shortly went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. It was I thought a very worthy winner and I assumed it would my top film of the year. Yet such has been the quality of what I have seen, 12 Years is not actually in my top 5. A lot of other really great films have gone the same way.

The strength that I think unites the films I have chosen is that grapple with important (generally political) themes but do so within the context of riveting filmmaking. They are political without being propaganda. Balancing entertainment and exploring ideas is a challenge for filmmakers and many of them have risen the challenge admirably.

5. Captain America: the Winter Solider

Marvel has had a great year. Guardians of the Galaxy and the Winter Soldier were for my money the best films the studio has made so far. The reason I picked the later film for my top 5 was that it retained Marvel’s usual combination of action and humour but also added some smart political stuff about the surveillance state. Plus it had some really good performances including from Chris Evans in the lead, who I’d not really rated before.

4: Paddington

The funniest and cutest defence of immigration you can imagine. A nice mixture of slapstick, satire, visual gags and wordplay. It is sweet without becoming sentimental. The cast is pretty much perfectly chosen and the performances they deliver are great. Particularly remarkable is Nicole Kidman clearly having a riot as the villain.

3: Two Days, One Night

The Dardenne brothers latest film stars Marion Cotillard as Sandra a working class Belgium women who has a single weekend to save her job by persuading her colleagues to forgo their annual bonuses. I can’t do better job of explaining why it’s such an impressive film than the Economist’s review did: “the Dardennes’ film digs more deeply into the devastating effects of the Western world’s current financial woes than practically any previous feature film. The audience is, of course, eager for Sandra to keep the job which puts a roof over her family’s heads, and which lifts her out of her depression. But when the Dardennes show what goes on behind her colleagues’ front doors, it becomes painfully clear how important their bonuses are to them, too. “It will be a disaster for me if the majority vote for you,” says one. “But I hope for your sake that they do.” It is a complicated, humane idea, expressed with heart-wrenching directness. And there are many more of those in this impressive work.”

2: ’71

Director Yann Demange takes the spirit of Paul Greengrass and Kathryn Bigelow to Northern Ireland for this finger nail shredding tale of a British soldier (Jack O’Connell) lost in Belfast at the height of the Troubles. It is both a wonderfully evocation of a particular point in history and a universally applicable parable about the messiness of counter-insurgency.

1: Snowpiercer

My favourite film of the year barely even qualifies. It’s not had a proper cinematic release in the UK (and probably never will) but was shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival. That’s a travesty because it’s a near perfect film. In fact, I’m rather unsure which of its myriad strengths to tell you about. Perhaps the most remarkable is that its preposterous premise about the only survivors of catastrophic climate change being aboard a train that never stops is utterly convincing from beginning to end. Joon-ho Bong creates a remarkable world aboard the train and populates it with an impressive cast (including Chris Evans, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Viola Davis and Alison Pill). I’ve not seen a more compelling exploration of either personal or political themes this year.

A bear out of water story

Paddington is hilarious, charming and assertive in its politics. It tells a better story about being British than any politician has.

Writing about Paddington poses a challenge. How does one discuss such a political film without losing sight of the fact that it’s a hugely fun children’s film? My solution is to do a mini-review about how wonderful it is before I start pontificating about things like national identity.

Review

During the finale of Paddington there is a moment when the titular bear experiences what the BBFC calls ‘mild threat.’ And as his survival hangs in the balance, I could hear all of the children in the cinema simultaneously gasping. They had clearly been completely won over by it and so had I.

It is funny throughout mixing slapstick, satire, visual gags and nice wordplay. It is cute and warm hearted without being sentimental. The cast is pretty much perfectly chosen and the performances they deliver are great. Particularly remarkable is Nicole Kidman clearly having a riot as the villain.

The Pontificating

More impressive still is that Paddington makes an argument about what it is to be British that is more impressive than any politician has managed. Through Paddington’s endearing eyes we see the gap between the picture Britain presents to the world and the reality of what happens when the world comes to Britain. He comes to London because of an absurdly old fashioned explorer, who was befriended by Paddington’s Aunt and Uncle during a visit to ‘darkest Peru.’ He tells them that he comes from a land where people are polite, fair and (invoking the memory of wartime evacuees) kind enough to home the children of strangers if necessary.

When he eventually arrives in London, Paddington finds an altogether harsher reality. Notwithstanding the fact that he is a paragon of the kind of decency on which British people pride themselves – impeccably well-mannered, well-meaning and honest – he finds precious little decency in return. Hugh Bonneville’s stuffy risk analyst frets that Paddington’s story about an earthquake that destroyed his homeland and the explorer who invited him to London are invented to garner money and pity. Peter Capaldi’s meat paste eating neighbourhood busybody worries that Paddington will bring with him ‘jungle music’. In addition, to these archetypes of middle and working class suspicion there is the altogether more malevolent figure of the director of taxidermy at the British Natural History Museum (Nicole Kidman) who is glad Paddington is in the UK but only so she can add him to her collection. She is perhaps a representation of those in power who see migrants as a resource to exploit rather than people worthy of respect.

The film is if anything to soft on the UK. An immigration lawyer who reviewed the film concluded that not only Paddington but the kindly family who take him in would have faced prison.

While the way Britain treats migrants would reasonably promote anger and shame that is not (of course) what the film does. It calls forth our better angels and challenges us to be the people the explorer promised we would be. There are characters with warmer instincts notably Sally Hawkin’s illustrator who cajoles her family into taking Paddington in. She’s the kind of progressive minded Briton who is treated by her contemporaries as an affront to our national predilection for common sense, before latter generations lionise them as exemplars of British decency.  Bonneville and Capaldi’s characters are given their chance to repent. And Paddington eventually finds a place in London and comes to be accepted much as Huguenots, Jews, Irish, Germans, Indians and Caribbean eventually were.

Paddington is an effective challenge to the country that made it: if you are proud of your purported decency show it consistently. Rather than showing grave suspicion followed invariably by inevitable acceptance, cut out that initial unpleasant and unbecoming phase of hostility. Which is I think you’ll agree an impressive message to convey via a film about a marmalade obsessed bear!

 

P.S. I’d heartily recommend the Economist’s culture blog’s take on Paddington:

Some Christmas facts

In the run-up to Christmas, I thought I would revisit some of seasonal facts I’ve covered before.

Most British Christmas traditions are German in order

“How Britain’s celebrate Christmas today is largely a product of the Victorian era. It was in the nineteenth century that we began to indulge in mince pies, trees, cards, crackers and turkeys. And during this time the ultimate trend setters were the royal family, many of who had grown up in Germany (or to be more exact the states that would eventually become Germany).”

The majority of kids pretend to believe in Father Christmas to keep their parents happy

“Parents….described themselves as predominantly sad in reaction to their child’s discovery…While children experience distressful reactions such as sadness, disappointment and anger, the degree of such reactions are generally minimal and short-lived.” In fact, they were so unperturbed that 58 percent said they pretended to believe in Santa after realizing the truth—so as not to disappoint their parents.”

An absolute majority of Brits watched the 1986 Eastenders Christmas Special

“It’s the most watched non-sport or news program in British history. Its audience was bested only by the 1966 World Cup Final and Princess Diana’s wedding. It comfortably outstripped the opening ceremony of last year’s Olympics.

Even more impressively the 2nd most watched non-sport or news program in British history was the new years day special that followed on from it.”

Parliament once banned Christmas

“The attack on the feast of Christmas had deep roots. Long before the Civil War began, many zealous Protestants, or ‘Puritans’, had been troubled both by the boisterous nature of the festivities which took place at Christmas and by the perceived association of those festivities with the old Catholic faith.”