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God Bless America!

Seeing as we’re off to America tomorrow (don’t miss us too much), we thought we’d leave you with a American themed post to satisfy your political appetite whilst we’re soaking up the Californian sun.

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 Have you ever wondered what the differences between American and British politics are? Or did you think they were pretty much the same? In fact, there are a whole host of differences and seeing as we’ve got a flight to catch early tomorrow morning, we thought we’d leave you with a few to mull over before we return.

Shall we begin?

  1. The most important difference, really, is the constitution, or the fact we don’t actually have one! The United States has a written constitution which underlies all American politics. The UK, however, does not have a single document and instead its constitutional provisions are littered over various Acts of Parliaments (which can easily be changed.)
  2. It’s logical then, that over the pond, politicians often refer to this so-called constitution. Some parties will suggest that opposition parties initiatives are ‘unconstitutional’ for example. Despite the fact that British politicians love to disagree with each other, it is incredibly rare for them to suggest that opposing policies are illegal.
  3. You might have noticed that the Yanks love their flags – they often fly proudly outside houses. The flag holds a special place in the political heart of the nation and people sing to it. The Union Jack sadly rarely gets an outing at political events.
  4. In the USA, blue signifies states held by the Democratic Party, the more left-wing. In the UK, blue identifies the Conservative Party, the more right-wing.
  5. In the USA, red signifies states held by the Republican Party, the more right-wing. In the UK, red identifies the Labour Party, the more left-wing.
  6. In America, the term ‘conservative’ means really right-wing, especially on social issues. In Britain the name ‘Conservative’ means mainstream right-wing, especially on economic issues.
  7. In America, the term ‘liberal’ generally means quite left-wing. In Britain, the name ‘Liberal’ means broadly centrist.
  8. In the States, politicians often emphasise their patriotism and desire to serve America. This side of the Atlantic, however, it is assumed that anyone who wants to be a politician and run for national office cares for their country.
  9. In the States, virtually every political speech seems to mention God, especially in the final call “God bless America”. In Britain, no politician mentions God and none would think of inviting Him to show a special preference for his or her nation state.
  10. The American general election effectively lasts almost two years, starting with the declaration of candidates for the primaries. The British general election lasts around four weeks.

There we have it, a brief introduction to American politics to satisfy your political needs whilst we’re gone. In the mean time, can you think of any more differences? Hopefully we’ll come home with some first hand political evidence (and a tan, of course). 

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April Fools to Remember

You might have noticed it was April Fool’s Day yesterday (pinch punch first of the month…) – we hope you managed to play out some good pranks. 

Here’s a slice of lighthearted news for you today – some handpicked April Fools gems for you: 

1878: Edison’s food creator

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American newspaper The Daily Graphic published news of a technological breakthrough: Thomas Edison had invented “the Food Creator… a machine that will feed the human race!”. It was unclear how exactly, but this magnificent invention could manufacture meat, vegetables, wine and biscuits using only air, water and “common earth”. A concluding paragraph revealed the “Food Creator” did not exist, but many readers did not get that far and many wrote to Edison to congratulate him.

1957: Swiss Spaghetti Harvest 

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Panorama ran a segment that detailed how Swiss people harvested spaghetti from trees. CNN said it was “the biggest hoax any reputable news establishment ever pulled.” Approximately 8 million viewers were told of Swiss farmers struggling to cope with “an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop”. Among those fooled were then-director of the BBC, Ian Jacobs, who admitted having to look up “spaghetti” in his encyclopaedia.

 1974: Alaska’s volcano

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In Sitka, Alaska, the volcano Mount Edgecumbe had been dormant for around 9,000 years when, one morning in 1974, residents noticed dark smoke spooling from its top. A coastguard helicopter investigated and saw that 100 tyres had been doused in cooking fuel and set alight in the volcano’s crater. Someone (a local joker Oliver Bickar who had planned the prank 4 years previously) spraypainted “April Fool” in 50ft letters around the rim.

 1980: Digital Big Ben

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The BBC announcement that Big Ben’s clock face would be replaced with a digital display sparked outrage nationwide.

 1998: Left-handed burger

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Burger King’s unveiled a “left-handed Whopper” – a normal burger, with “the condiments rotated 180 degrees.” Obvious, you may say, but it still fooled thousands in the US and UK with left-handers going out of their way to order one, and righties making it clear they’d prefer the original version.

2012: Green Tax on Chilled Champagne 

The Mail on Sunday reported a government plan to mitigate “pasty-gate” with a duty on chilled champagne. “Serving warm champagne, says No 10, is good for the environment.”

2012: Non-slip Banana 

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Sainsbury’s vowed its new non-slip variety of banana would bring an end to the 300 injuries reported each year in the UK caused by run-ins with the fruit. 

You better get your thinking cap on for 2013…

 

The Tax Issue

You might have seen the word Tax sprinkled across a few headlines in the past few days, given George Osborne’s (Chancellor) reshaping of the system –  but what exactly are they? Well, without wanting to send you to sleep, we’ll make it snappy: they’re basically the government’s way of raising money to pay for public services and these can be anything from education, health, defence to emergency services.

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You might have heard your parents talking in a foreign tax-related language, but it’s really not too difficult to understand (you’ll soon be fluent too, trust me). For starters, here’s what you need to know about the main types of taxes in the UK:

  1. Income Tax: you will pay this on the money you earn in employment and there are different bands depending on how much you earn.
  2. National Insurance Contributions: these were originally introduced in 1948 to provide funds for welfare benefits – NICS (in tax lingo) are what the government raises sneakily while promising not to raise income tax.
  3. VAT (Value Added Tax): This is a tax on goods and services exchanged in business transactions, paid for by the consumer (i.e. you as the buyer). It now stands at 20% (whereas previously, it was 17.5% and in 2009, Chancellor Alistair Darling reduced it to 15% in a bid to boost the economy).
  4. Council Tax: This contributes to local government revenue, helping to pay for things like rubbish collection and recycling services, etc. How much you pay will depend on where you live, the type of property you live in and who else you live with.
  5. Business Rates: the business equivalent of Council Tax.
  6. Excise Duties: taxes levied on alcohol, tobacco and other things such as petrol (sometimes called ‘vice taxes’).
  7. Corporation Tax: taxes on the annual profits that companies make.
  8. Other taxes: these include road tax, the TV licence, etc, etc.

See, it’s simple isn’t it? There’s no excuse next time you hear your parents discussing their road tax, to not chip in with your impressive knowledge of the range of taxes levied in the United Kingdom. What’s more, is that taxes have hit the headlines in the past few days for the dramatic changes proposed by George Osborne.

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Osborne is cutting the tax rate for earnings over £150,000. He is also going to raise the threshold at which people start paying tax to £9,205 (leaving millions of working people much better off)! Others might not be as lucky; 4.4 million pensioners will be worse off next year when age-related tax allowances are frozen and cut completely.

The key measures outlined by Mr Osborne were as follows:

  • Corporation tax to fall from 26% to 24% in April 2012, down to 22% in 2014
  • New 7% stamp duty rate for properties worth more than £2m and a 15% rate for £2m homes bought through companies
  • Child benefit cuts to be phased in for families with at least one parent earning £50,000, and axed for those on £60,000
  • UK growth forecast raised slightly to 0.8% and borrowing to be £1bn less than previously forecast
  • Tobacco duties to rise by 5% above inflation from 1800 GMT – equivalent to 37p on the price of a packet of cigarettes.
  • Fuel duty rise of 3p a litre to go ahead as planned
  • State pension age to be automatically reviewed, to ensure it keeps pace with life expectancy.
  • VAT loopholes – from hot food bought in supermarkets to static caravans and sports nutrition drinks – to be closed.

Delivering his third Budget, he said: “This Budget supports working families and helps those looking for work…It unashamedly backs business. And it is on the side of aspiration: those who want to do better for themselves and for their families.”

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Mr Osborne said the Budget “rewards work” but Labour Leader Ed Miliband labelled it a “millionaire’s Budget”. Others suggest that the chancellor has taken a big risk with changes that might not benefit the economy and take a serious toll on politics in the future.

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John Cridland, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said: “Family budgets have been under great pressure, and by putting more money in the pockets of ordinary people, the chancellor has provided a much-needed confidence boost.”

It’s definitely a divisive issue, but it’s now one you can discuss with your parents at dinner. Surprise them with your lingo, go on…

Who is Joseph Kony?

Have you seen this video yet? It hasn’t been hard to miss – the internet has been frenzied with mentions of the word Kony this week. Just in case you’ve had your head in the sand and think Kony is a new type of computer or ice-cream, here’s what you need to know:

‘Invisible Children’ is an organisation, set up by three Californian filmmakers back in 2006 with an aim to stop Joseph Kony – leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army – who has terrorised communities in Uganda for years by abducting children and forcing them into child soldiery and sexual slavery.

This week, Invisible Children have stirred up a worldwide frenzy, capturing headlines with the launch of the ‘Kony 2012’ campaign, which aims to stop Kony and raise awareness of his actions – i.e. make Kony ‘famous.’ They aim to do this through a social media strategy built around a viral video (watch above) that relays the roots and vision of the organisation. In just a few days, the video was viewed over 10 million times and its current viewing figures weigh in at just over 78 million – impressive, eh? Celebrities such as Bono, Justin Bieber and Oprah are among the high profile names to be endorsing the campaign.

As I am sure you will gather, there is much to admire in the Kony 2012 campaign. There’s little doubting the goal to stop a man whose name has topped the list of “International Criminal Court’s Most Wanted” list for years. Neither can we argue with its ability to engage the public worldwide to care about a humanitarian crisis in Africa without an obvious lead or news hook. Even more, it shows the sheer strength of the Internet and social media in enacting change and raising awareness.

However, in all its intended goodness, the video has come under fierce criticism. The Telegraph reported that many Ugandans are outraged by the film, claiming the film exaggerates Kony’s current presence in Uganda. Some argue that this could undermine the country’s efforts to rebuild. Others are suggesting that my making “Kony” famous may have the opposite effect of reinvigorating his forces and provoking aggression, as opposed to decreasing it.

“What that video says is totally wrong, and it can cause us more problems than help us,” Beatrice Mpora, director of a community health organization in Uganda, told the Telegraph.

An added problem, some argue, is that the key goal of the Kony 2012 campaign to put public pressure on the American government to keep a small U.S. military presence on the ground in Uganda – yet the film doesn’t offer enough information about the cost of this presence and what it would actually achieve.

Others simply say the campaign makes it look, well, too easy: you can’t change the world with one tweet, sceptics suggest. In fact, there is a complex web of international diplomacy and humanitarian aid (see last post – ed).

So, what do you reckon? Does the video dumb down a whole series of big issues in desperate need for attention? Or do you think that the video represents something much more – a way of spreading ideas to spark change and engage the population?

Aid – What is it for?

A political issue which has been at the centre of much debate recently is the question of whether or not the UK should give Aid to India.

So what is Aid, and why should it be the focus of so much attention?

Aid is the voluntary transfer of resources from one country to another. This transfer can be made either by the first country giving its resources to the receiving country directly, or the resources can be dispensed through charities. Either way, aid is often given from developed nations, such as the UK to developing countries, in order to try and help these countries build up their economies and provide for their citizens.

A term aid givers often like to identify with, is that they are helping countries to help themselves. This means that are not just providing the necessary resources to solve short term problems. Rather, the resources they provide will have a long term impact, because they will include functions such as education, which will help a country develop.

So why is there so much controversy surrounding the issue of whether or not the UK should give Aid to India?

British people are divided over the issue.

Many see India as a byword for poverty. In a country which is home to a third of the world’s population who live below the World Bank’s Extreme Poverty Line, many Brits find it hard to shake off the image of India as being poor and destitute. India has 600 million people who live on less than 2 dollars a day. It is perhaps easy to see why many believe India is in need of Aid.

However, many in the UK take the opposite view.

Many economic experts predict that within 10 years, the Indian economy will be the 5th largest in the world, overtaking that of Britain, and causing some to suggest that the Aid may even begin to flow in the other direction. The Indian economy is growing at 10 per cent a year, and the country is a donor of Aid itself.

Many in Britain are angry that the government, after making cuts on pensions, education and other public services, is donating $440 a year to India.

Dr Richard Wellings, from the UK Institute of Economic Affairs is one person who strongly opposes Aid to India.

He said:

“It’s crazy really – foreign aid is one of the few areas of the UK budget that’s actually increasing substantially over the next few years. But that money could make a huge difference over the next couple of years if it was spent on tax cuts for low paid workers, or  it could make a huge economic difference if it was spent at home.”

Many in the UK share this view. As India has more billionaires than the UK, there is a widespread view that it is India’s richest citizens who should be helping their poorest ones.

Does it make sense for the UK to keep giving Aid to India? What do YOU think?

The Mayor of London

Every town has a mayor, but its London’s mayor who receives nationwide attention. Why is this, you might ask? Well, for starters, it’s the capital city. However, the fact it’s playing host to the Olympics this summer means the world is watching. The Mayor of London is, quite simply, an elected politician, who along with the London Assembly (25 members) is accountable for the government of Greater London – that is, makes decisions as to how the city is best run.

(Boris Johnson, left, Ken Livingstone, right)

Conservative Boris Johnson has held the position since May 4th 2008. You might recognise him without even realising; his blonde mop isn’t hard to miss. If you live in London, or have visited, you might also be familiar with the term the ‘Boris Bike’ (the Barclaycard public access bikes you might have seen parked on pavements) which encourage people to cycle. The position was previously held by Ken Livingstone from the creation of the role on May 4th 2000 until succession by Johnson.

With the elections looming again, the time has come again to ask the question – Who is going to be the next London mayor? Boris and Ken last shared a platform on May 2nd 2008, when Boris was elected mayor following Livingstone’s eight year supremacy.

Nearly four years later and it looks like we’ve got another battle between the rivals on the cards. Polls open again tomorrow (Tuesday) and the results will be announced on 3rd May – it all feels terribly familiar.

However, it’s looking like it’s going to be a hard election to call. Recent polling has given the Labour camp hope (N.B. Ken) as the lead Boris had enjoyed since June last year disappeared when a YouGov poll published just over a month ago put Ken narrowly head by two percentage points (51%-49%).

One of the main issues in winning or losing Londoner’s support is that of transport costs. The findings indicated that the former mayor’s (that is, Ken) flagship pledge to cut public transport fares by 7% appealed to Londoners, who were hit by a New Year fare rise.

However, another poll in the Evening Standard last week showed Boris closing the gap to secure a narrow lead again. What is certain, however, is that this race has two main competitors and the pressure is on for both Ken and Boris to avoid any mishaps.

Ken?

or Boris?

Tony Travers, director of the Greater London group at the London School of Economics, says that in such a close-run race, any significant slip by either candidate could determine the outcome.

“Whereas normally the odd gaffe, the odd mistake or wrong statistic cited wouldn’t be a problem in a race that is largely predetermined; in one where it could come down to 200 or 1,000 votes, then any one mistake could be fatal. In this kind of two-horse race, which is very very tight, then the slightest slip-up could make all the difference.”

The Unemployment Issue

The number of people without jobs in the United Kingdom has been a point of constant debate. In the same way you might struggle to find a Saturday job, plenty of adults are finding it hard to find a full-time job.

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 In fact, the unemployment rate (that is, the percentage of people unemployed) has stayed at its highest level since 1995 – 8.4%.

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 Figures were released on Wednesday that show the number of people without work had increased by 48,000. Of course, there is much to be said for a link between this increase and the state of the UK economy, which will have undoubtedly heard about in the news.

 Many of these unemployed people claim benefits, which are commonly referred to as ‘Jobseekers Allowances.’ According to figures, more than 300,00 people have been stuck on this allowance for more than a year. This data also showed that 1.04 million 16-24 year olds were out of work in the three months to December.

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Sam Gyimah: Would benefits be enough? 

The issue of benefits has been heavily discussed in the commons: many feel MPs are unqualified to really understand the problems faced by the unemployed. Today, for example, a BBC Radio 5 journalist hosted a debate with an audience of 200 unemployed people in Salford, who were given the opportunity to air their grievances to the Government. One audience member, rather humorously, challenged one MP to try and live on the £65 allowance for a week. I wonder if he’ll rise to the challenge…http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17038832

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Tower Block of Commons: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/tower-block-of-commons/episode-guide/series-1/episode-1

Interestingly enough, I just discovered that some politicians have already done it…albeit in the name of a Channel 4 documentary. This programme saw politicians swap their comfortable homes for council estates across the country. Give it a watch – it might have been made a while ago, but the issues are just as relevant today. I know what I’ll be watching tonight…

 

 

NHS Reforms.

 

The NHS Reforms have created an issue at the fore of British politics today. The Health and Social Care Bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation from the coalition government.

It is controversial for several reasons. It gives GPs and other clinicians more control over NHS spending in England. This will encourage greater competition with the private sector. The private sector refers to the section of the economy which is run by private individuals or groups and it is not controlled by the state.

The Labour Party believe that this increasing privatisation would come at the cost of the care of patients. Many MPs opposed the plans last spring, and so the bill was put on hold. Some changes were then made to the Bill, and the revised version passed through the House of Commons.

However, the bill then faced even more opposition, just before Christmas, when it was opposed outright by the royal colleges of nurses and midwives.

Labour are urging for the bill to be dropped altogether, so a series of fresh amendments have been created which aim to tackle the concerns of its critics.

However, it is not just Labour who are calling for the dissolution of the legislation. There are deep divides within the Conservative Party over whether the bill should be passed.

So, what do you think? How important is it that the NHS remains a governmental organisation and service?

What is the point in Politics?

You might have wondered what the point of politics is. Why are so many people eager to state their view? Are all politician’s the same? It might seem obvious, but there are actually some very important reasons for why politics exists as we know it. It has some serious functions that affect you in ways you might not even realise. Here are a few:

 

1. Resolve conflict: Ok, so they might not get involved if you argue with your siblings over who last did the washing up or whose turn it is to watch TV, but the principles are the same. We don’t all agree on everything and the same can be said about society at large. For example, some people might support demolishing an old house to build new flats, whilst others might want to protect the house for its historic value. The two groups, although protesting against each other, are unlikely to have a physical battle because they have access to politicians to press their views and help diplomacy (your parents might play very similar roles in the washing up battle!) Politics helps harmonise battles and provides a peaceful way of airing different points of view.

2. Encourage compromise: As you probably know, we don’t all agree on everything and in all arguments, you are likely to reach a compromise. This means, you might do the washing up, whilst your brother does the drying. Or you might watch 15 minutes of The Simpsons, before letting your sister watch Friends. Imagine this on a larger scale and you’ve cracked it: politics is about compromise for the greater good of the country. People often will accept things happening they might not agree with because they respect the mechanics behind the political process (whether it be its traditions or legality.)

3. Accommodate different interests: Politics is an outlet for different organisations and groups to state their view to encourage support and enact change. For example, your sibling might think the best way to get those pesky dishes clean is to put them in the dishwasher, whereas you might take the proactive approach of washing them up instantly. In a roughly similar fashion, pressure groups are professional bodies which have expertise and policy objectives for a particular area they are interested. For example, the British Medical Association have an interest in how the National Health Service is run. These groups are very important and politics plays a key role in allowing their views expression. They do this through lobbying government ministers for change.

4. Determine who exercises power: In most societies, someone is in charge. Politics is the way people can decide who governs the United Kingdom. Those registered to vote (above 18 years old – not long to go now!) elect around 650 Members of Parliament and the party with the biggest grouping of these MP’s goes on to form the government of the country. The daily interest in political affairs helps shape people’s decisions for future elections.

There we have it, point proven — politics is important.

What about the Queen?

Monarchy is a crucial part of our history. However, the monarch’s role in ruling the country has changed significantly over time.

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The first kings of England came to the throne over a thousand years ago and their powers have been reduced (this came when Charles I was executed following the Civil War). However, the monarchy isn’t just a way of increasing tourism and Elizabeth II still has a role to play in British life and politics.

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In the United Kingdom’s unwritten constitution (the set of laws and principles under which our country is governed) the monarch’s powers include the following:

  • Opening and dissolving parliament
  • Appointing the prime minister
  • Giving consent to bills passed by parliament (without this consent a bill can’t become law)
  • Appointing bishops and members of the House of Lords

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This might seem like a lot of power, but these roles are largely ceremonial. For example, her power to appoint the prime minister sounds mighty, but in fact it is simply a convention that the monarch must appoint the leader of the biggest party in the House of Commons.

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Under a convention of the UK’s unwritten constitution, the monarch must always take advice from their ministers — i.e. the elected government.

What do you think? Is it important to maintain our historical identity or is it now an empty ceremony? 

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Either way, the UK does not look like it will become a republic anytime soon! (a state that doesn’t have a monarch). All the main political parties support the idea of a monarchy.