Thursday, 31 January 2013

Should the UK stay in the European Union?

As I am most of you will know there has been a lot of controversy over whether or nor Britain would be better off in the European Union recently. David Cameron is planning a national vote on whether Britain should quit the European Union. Cameron made a speech outlining the plans for a referendum if the Conservatives win the next election earlier this month. Ed Miliband said the speech made our prime minister seem 'weak' and 'driven by his party', and not in the national interest.

The referendum would be the first of its kind for more than 40 years.

I want to talk today about how Europe affects people's lives in the UK, so you might be slightly better informed and perhaps able to pick a 'stay' or 'go' side. The United Kingdom is a member of the European Union but isn't part of the single currency, the Euro. Being in the EU means Britain has a trade bloc (no quotas or tariffs for exporting goods and services within the EU). The EU also allows free travel of labour within it, called the internal market. UK citizens are free to move, live, study and trade anywhere within the EU. This also affects you when you go on holiday within the European Union because there are no customs limits. There are also no border controls across most of the EU either - the UK is one exception to that rule.

Many areas of Europe have benefited from the Trans-European networks policy with new roads and transport networks designed to make it easier for the different countries to transport goods and services across the EU.

There are also understandings on public health, the environment, consumer protection, transport, social policy, plus economic, social and territorial cohesion. There are common foreign, security and defence policies which run alongside the policies of member states although there is no European army or single European foreign policy.

Euro MPs don't set our taxes or decide if a local school or hospital's going to close, but they do have a big influence on how we live our lives. They make decisions in Brussels that directly affect our jobs, our family lives, the health care we get, rules about recycling and energy.

MEPs passed a law a few years ago significantly cutting the cost of texting from abroad. Roaming rates were also cut. The Working Time Directive - which gives workers the right to certain amounts of rest, stops excessive night work and gives people a minimum amount of holiday every year - means nurses and doctors are limited to a 48-hour working week. However there are also many reasons as to why Britain should leave the EU, such as the annual £4 billion membership fee. 

There are many websites where you can have your say in the debate, and if you're old enough please use your vote! I found this great website which sums it all up very well;

Tuesday, 29 January 2013


I recently watched the film 'Lincoln', an American historical drama film directed and produced by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as United States President Abraham Lincoln and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. However what makes Lincoln so important that he deserves an entire film in his namesake? Well, I am here to tell you exactly why.

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, from 1861 to 1865, during the American Civil War. He was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth just six days after most of the Confederate forces had surrendered and the war was ending.

Lincoln was sometimes called Abe Lincoln or "Honest Abe" because he started a business, failed, and unlike most people, instead of running away he stayed and worked to pay off his debt. He has also been called the "Great Emancipator" because of his work to end slavery in the United States. In 1863, he declared that all slaves held in the rebellious Confederate States were free. He also sponsored the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Ratified in 1865, nine months after his assassination, that amendment completely outlawed slavery in the United States.

Lincoln started his political career in 1832, however after he lost the election he served as a captain in the army during the Black Hawk War, and then worked as a lawyer in Springfield. He soon became one of the most respected lawyers in Illinois, using his 'fame' to protest against black slavery. In 1841 he won a court case representing a black woman who claimed she had already been freed and could not be sold as a slave.

Lincoln made a famous speech after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 called the Gettysburg Address. The battle was very important, and many soldiers from both sides died. The speech was given when they built the cemetery for the dead soldiers. It is one of the most famous speeches in American history. Lincoln was the first American president to be assassinated.

Lincoln was one of the great supporters of equal rights and played a fundamental role in ending slavery in America. He was also a natural born leader and public speaker, with his famous Gettysburg Address and leadership of America through one of it's toughest civil wars. If you haven't seen the film I strongly recommend you watch it!

Monday, 28 January 2013

Inauguration Ceremonies

For more than two hundred years America’s citizens have witnessed the Inauguration ceremonies of the President and Vice President of the United States. From the first Inauguration of George Washington, in New York City, in 1789, to today, where the 57th quadrennial Presidential Inauguration for Barack Obama has just took place. There have been 56 formal Presidential Inaugural ceremonies, held at over 10 different locations. Since George Washington in 1789, every President has delivered an Inaugural address, ranging from 8,445 words, to just 135. The first Inaugural ball in Washington was thrown for James and Dolley Madison in 1809, at Long's Hotel and there have been as many as 14 balls. The tradition of attending a morning worship service on Inauguration Day began with Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Also by tradition, the outgoing President accompanies the President-elect to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony. Until 1937, the Vice President was sworn into office in the Senate chamber. Following the inaugural ceremony on the west front of the U.S. Capitol, the outgoing President and First Lady leave the Capitol to begin their post-presidential lives. Since 1953, the JCCIC has hosted a luncheon at the U.S. Capitol for the new President, Vice President, and guests, and while early parades were mostly military escorts, by 1841, floats, citizens groups, and bands became standard.

This website which has a great timeline of all the Inauguration ceremonies since they began on
April 30, 1789 for President George Washington and Vice President: John Adams, so check it out:

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Long and Complicated History of Democracy

My most recent post about the petition to have a Death Star built in America got me thinking about democracy, and all it's failings and all that's good about it. I then began to research the history of democracy, and found some very interesting things. I planned on writing a short summary on the history of democracy however upon research I felt that a short blog post would not do it justice, so instead I have found a really great website that I personally feel says it all. Please enjoy;

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Building a Death Star?

As many of you will know, any petition with over 25,000 signatures has to be officially responded to on the White Houses's 'We the People' website. A petition boasting over 34,435 signatures asking for a Death Star to be completed by 2016 appeared recently, and I found the government response very amusing.

In a post titled "This isn't the petition response you're looking for," Paul Shawcross, Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget, outlined a few reasons why construction of a Death Star simply isn't in the best interest of America. A few of his points:

1. The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. America is working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
2. The administration does not support blowing up planets.
3. Why would they spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that could be exploited by a one-man starship?

Other famous petitions include a petition for President Obama's impeachment, federally legalized marijuana, secession appeals, to deport CNN’s British-born, progressive host Piers Morgan, and a nationalized Twinkie industry.

White House now requires ‘We the People’ petitions to have 100,000 signatures for an official response. When the administration first established the petition system in September 2011, Obama’s aides promised that any petition with 5,000 signatures would receive a formal written response from White House officials. That threshold was raised to 25,000 for 2012. However following a series of popular, provocative and disrespectful signature drives by Obama's critics, the White House have now quadrupled the amount of signatures needed to elicit an official response.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Happy Birthday Martin Luther King!

On January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of a Baptist minister. King is one of the most famous advocates for black equal rights, in 1955 he helped organize the first major protest of the African-American civil rights movement: the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Inspired by Gandhi and Jesus's teachings of 'love thy neighbour' he preached non violent resistance to segregation in the South, and to fight violence with peace. He led many peaceful protests, marches and rallies throughout the South, which were often met with violence, however King and his followers refused to fight back.

In 1963 King led a massive March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where he made his famous 'I Have a Dream' address. Over two hundred and fifty thousand people gathered outside the Lincoln Memorial to hear the great speech, over a half of which were white. In 1964 the 24th Amendment was changed, abolishing the poll tax, and a Civil Rights Act was passed which prohibited racial discrimination in employment, education and public facilities. Later that year, King became the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Peace Price. In the late 1960s, King was among those who criticised the USA's involvement in Vietnam, and fought for economic rights for poor Americans. In 1968, on April 4, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

Friday, 11 January 2013

150 years of the London Underground

On 9 January 2013, London Underground celebrated 150 years since the first underground journey took place between Paddington and Farringdon on the Metropolitan Railway. This weekend a train which carried passengers on the Underground in the 19th century will once again return to the tunnels under the capital. The Metropolitan Railway Jubilee carriage No 353, was built in 1892, and on Sunday will be pulled along by the Metropolitan Locomotive No 1 for crowds of people to watch.

The first stretch of the Tube, the Metropolitan or Met line as it was known, opened on January 9th 1863 and was the world's first underground railway. On that first day, 30,000 people took a trip on the Metropolitan Railway between Paddington and Farringdon, the temporary terminus of the line.To quash any fears passengers might have had about travelling underground, stations were designed to make use of natural light and carriages were brightly lit with gas lamps. Despite the smoke and poor ventilation, the steam underground soon became an essential feature of life in the capital. The first stretch of track was just 6km in length - tiny in comparison to the 408km of track used today - and ran between Bishop's Road and Farringdon Street.

The idea for the underground railway was first seeded by Sir Marc Brunel and son Isambard, with the world’s first underwater tunnel, the Thames Tunnel (from Rotherhithe to Wapping), built between 1825 and 1843. This passage was originally designed for horse-drawn carriages but was later used for pedestrians, and is now part of London Overground.

The Metropolitan line, the first of what we now know as the underground network, was later built, travelling a mere 4 miles from Paddington to Farringdon Street. It soon received high demand, carrying up to 26,000 passengers a day after only a few months of operation. After the success of the Underground, the Hammersmith and City line was opened in 1864 by rival company GWR, travelling between Hammersmith and Paddington. In 1890 the first network to use electric trains was built, what is now part of the Northern Line.

Increased development meant that by the 20th Century there were six different companies operating underground lines in London. Fees were exorbitant, and making changes between lines was confusing, and so in 1933 the rival companies were merged by the government into the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB), which later became simply known as London Transport.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England

I have just read a great book on Henry VII, whom I am fascinated by, called 'Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England' by Thomas Penn. I think this guardian review sums it up excellently:

Henry VII can look a dull king, so dull that Thomas Penn's title omits his name. Shakespeare, drawn to the colour on either side of the reign, skipped it. His history plays depicted the dramatic conflicts of the wars of the roses, which Henry's accession after his victory at Bosworth in 1485 brought to an end. Shakespeare later turned to Henry's son and successor Henry VIII, whose rule brought marital sensation, renaissance spectacle and the reformation. The father's government was an exercise in discoloration. Its goals, relentlessly pursued until Henry's death in 1509, were the establishment of a royal house, the elimination of opposition, and the steady accumulation of power and wealth. Fittingly he dressed in expensive black.

Yet in the hands of a narrator as accomplished as Penn, the reign acquires its own, troubling fascination. Two themes of his book preside: the permanent vulnerability of Henry's regime, and his ruthless methods of rule. His claim to the throne was tenuous and permanently contested. Only through the deaths of more obvious claimants, and after the accession of Richard III in 1483, when Henry was 26, did he become a leading candidate. Effectively an orphan, he had spent wretched years as a fugitive in Brittany. The reigns of his three predecessors were interrupted or foreshortened. Who could have expected that he would rule for 24 years, die in his bed, bequeath the first orderly succession to the throne for nearly a century, and found a famous dynasty?

It was no easy feat. The Lancastrian Henry and his Yorkist wife Elizabeth strove to reconcile the factions, but unreconciled Yorkists, to whom he was no more than a usurper, harassed his reign. The insurrections fronted by the pretenders Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck emerged from wide and formidable networks of conspiracy that drew in foreign rulers and leading English magnates, and infiltrated Henry's court. Even if the king outfaced his enemies in his lifetime, would they not forestall a Tudor succession? His bouts of grave illness brought the question repeatedly to the fore. In 1502 the death of his heir Arthur left the dynasty's prospects with Arthur's 10-year-old brother, Henry. The king's own death seven years later had to be kept secret until his nervous entourage had ensured the succession.

Henry VII ruled – as Machiavelli, just after his reign, was to advise usurpers to do – through fear rather than love. His spies and informers were everywhere. In 1621 Francis Bacon's history of the reign called Henry "a dark prince, and infinitely suspicious". He had, Bacon added, much to be suspicious about, "his times" being "full of secret conspiracies and troubles". Penn's picture of a reign of terror carries disturbing echoes of the Roman historian Tacitus's account of the emperor Tiberius, another ruler whose abridgements of liberty followed an era of civil strife.

Yet Henry's techniques of power went beyond the needs of surveillance and survival. They did as much to endanger his throne as to secure it. Their main aim was money. Bacon wanted the future Charles I to learn from Henry's reign, but the financial methods that would provoke fatal opposition to Charles look pale beside the exactions levied by Henry from often innocent subjects, who were denied legal process or threatened with trumped-up prosecutions and had to buy their freedom (though at moments of apparently impending death the king would repent of his methods and have the jails cleared and pardons issued).

Penn graphically describes a huge financial racket run by the king and his profiteering advisers. But he leaves us wondering how Henry got away with it. How did a precariously enthroned ruler, lacking a police force or a standing army, manage to run roughshod over the law? Why did the nobility accept the curtailment of the military power it had wielded in the wars of the roses and swallow the elevation of upstarts at Henry's court?

Penn is not one to understate a case. His account of Henry's government is more contentious than he lets on. Historians debate the extent of Henry's rapacity. Some of them have more to say than Penn about the constructive sides of the reign, which developed the state-building methods of his Yorkist predecessors. Still, as Penn observes, the national sense of relief in 1509 was palpable. Rarely was a father's reign so widely disparaged and disowned on the accession of the son. Thomas More hailed the end of "slavery" and the return of "liberty", "the end of sadness, the beginning of joy". He would learn better as the new reign unfolded. Penn notes something else about the paeans on the son's accession: later in the Tudor period, apologists for the regime would remember Henry VII as the restorer of national peace and unity, but in 1509 it was the king's death, not his rule, that was held to have ended a long era of dark instability.

If Penn's interpretation can sometimes seem slanted, its exposition would be hard to over-praise. The expressive and evocative power of his writing, and the union of scholarship with artistry, are rare in modern historical writing. It is a sobering reflection for professional historians that the apparently unpromising territory of Henry's reign has recently produced two memorable books, both of them written outside their ranks: this one, and Ann Wroe's biography of the pretender, Perkin (2003), a longer work on a shorter subject.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

2012 apocalypse: A brief history of end of times

Happy New Year! And perhaps I also ought to say congratulations on surviving the Mayan Apocalypse. Less than a month ago the world flew into a frenzy as thousands of belief groups started counting down the days, then hours, then minutes until the world would end. The theory of the end of the world was based on the Mayan calendar which began in a year corresponding to 3114BC, and moves in 394 year periods known as Baktuns. December 21st 2012 marked the end of the 13th Batyun, and myth of the end of the world is based on this and an erroneous reading of a Mayan tablet carved 1,3000 years ago. Archaeologists and Maya experts said the text refers to the start of a new era, however many people still misinterpreted this.

The 2012 doomsday prophecy credited to the Mayans dates back to the 1970s. New-age followers of Mayanism began to speculate that a cataclysmic event would take place when the calendar ended on the 13th baktun. Boston University Professor William Saturno has pointed out that the Mayan calendar does not end as it is cyclical, and that some calendars mark out "17 Baktuns", which gives us at least another 2,000 years.

However this is not the first time the world has got itself into a panic over a dubious doomsday prediction. As early as 634 BC, Romans feared their city would be destroyed after 120 years because 12 eagles had flown over Romulus.

Bishop Martin of Tours announced in 375 AD that the Antichrist was born and the world would end by 400 AD. Pope Sylvester II predicted 1000 AD would be the end of days. It did not happen, so in 1284 AD Pope Innocent III announced the world would end 666 years after the rise of Islam.

In 1524 a group of astrologers in London predicted floods would strike the city as a sign of the start of the end time. 20,000 people abandoned their homes and set up camp in Hampstead and the north Downs. The prior of St Bartholomew even stocked piled provisions, but it failed even to rain.

Martin Luther claimed the end would happen in 1600, London's flood was predicted to return in 1624, and in 1657 the Fifth Monarchy Men attempted to take over parliament, believing a final apocalyptic battle was imminent in 1666. The Great Fire of London, September 2 proved another source of worry for the residents of London, as the 1600s marked high times for religious superstition and 666 was the biblical “mark of the beast”. After all, 100,000 people had just died in the plague of 1665. Panic about the end of days reached a crescendo when, on September 2, 1666, a bakery in Pudding Lane caught fire and the inferno quickly spread. It burned for three days and destroyed more than 13,000 buildings. But, in spite of the wide-scale destruction and hell-like appearance of the fire, only 10 people died. It is also believed to have had the beneficial effect of preventing future plagues – by wiping out the disease-harbouring rats.

Londoners were taken in again in 1761 when a huge earthquake was predicted by William Bell, who was later thrown into Bedlam.

Christian groups repeatedly announced the imminent return of Christ - which would mark the end of days - during the 20th century. Jehovah’s Witnesses’ predicted the Second Coming was to happen on August 1914, and then again in 1941, 1975 and 1984, and again with the millennium in 1999.

In 1910 many people believed the arrival of Halley's comet would bring the end of the world on 18 May. In 1997 the Heaven's Gate cult claimed the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet marked the end of the world and that suicide was the only way to "evacuate". 38 people died.

In October of the same year a prediction by an Irish priest that, 6,000 years after creation, the world was due to end, failed to happen.

Y2K, January 1, 2000; The Year 2000 was supposed to mark the moment that Britain’s 19th century anti-technology Luddites would be vindicated and our reliance on machines would come back to haunt us. With the passing of 1999, it was feared that computers would be unable to move from a two-digit date (97, 98, 99 etc) and all manner of chaos would ensue. It was predicted that planes would fall out of the sky, trains stop running, microwaves blow up and, perhaps most importantly, banks would fail. Businesses spent billions updating software and systems to avoid the apparent peril of the “Millennium Bug”.

The Second Big Bang, November 23, 2009 - when the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland was completed in 2008, some groups feared the “doomsday machine” could trigger an all-consuming black hole. Once fully switched on it recreated the Big Bang particle collisions that created life, however some worried a black hole might emerge and swallow our planet up in a twentieth of a second. Eight seconds later, the moon would disappear - and eight short minutes after that, the Sun would be ripped apart, followed by the rest of the solar system. Someone even sued the organisation behind the LHC, CERN.

Last year Harold Camping, the 89-year-old leader of Family Radio Worldwide, claimed judgment day would happen on 21 May 2011. A number of his followers left their jobs in anticipation, despite Camping's previous predictions passing without incident.

So, as you can see the 2012 apocalypse we just 'survived' is neither the first nor last or many other predictions to the end of the world. Anyway, to end on a light note, I hope you all have a fantastic 2013 and a great New Year.