Izzard, Fry & Zephaniah; 3 reasons to vote for AV

On the 4th of April Oxford County Council leader Keith Mitchell tweeted:

Eddie Izzard, Stephen Fry and Benjamin Zephaniah support AV. Three good reasons for voting No to AV!

This, for me, is so emblematic of not just the No campaign but of the right in general. Three people who have challenged the establishment and won public acceptance on their terms; three people who have taking the public anger to stand up for things they believe in; three people who have done more for the marginalised, the disenfranchised, the discriminated and the disadvantaged in this country than Keith Mitchell could do if he lived for another 100 years. I am so utterly outraged by his idiotic and insubstantial slander against three people I have looked up to for most of my life I cannot even think where to begin. He gives no explanation as to why they are good reasons to vote No.

Eddie Izzard

His self-indentification as a “male lesbian” and his being a transvestite whilst at the same time one of Britain’s most famous and well respected comedians is one of the most mainstream challenges to our idea of gender, and he is accepted regardless. In a world where gender and sexual preference mean the difference between success and a life of persecution, Eddie Izzard is exactly the sort of person we should look up to. And this is not to mention his running 43 marathons in 51 days for Sport Relief. I’ve never even seen Keith Mitchell run for a bus (but then I’ve never seen Keith Mitchell in person so I guess I wouldn’t have).

Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry, or to give him his full title, National Treasure Stephen Fry is a prolific campaigner as well as comedian, journalist, author, presenter and several thousand other jobs. He is a signatory member of British Jews for Justice for Palestinians and has spoken out against the Iraq War.  Through his documentary The Seceret Life of a Manic Depressive he spoke candidly about his bi-polar disorder helping to bring more understanding to mental illness and in HIV and Me brought greater public understanding of a controversial and utterly devastating disease. His being an out homosexual and at the same time so widely loved by almost all of Britain can be little more than an outrage for the sometimes homophobic establishment.

Benjamin Zephaniah

When I was 10 my mother gave me a book of poetry called Talkin’ Turkeys by Benjamin Zephaniah. This was a formative moment for me and I have looked up to and followed the career of Benjamin Zephaniah ever since. He was named one of The Times’ top 50 post-war writers, has written dozens of books of poetry and stories for children. He has campaigned to increase children’s literacy, he is one of the most prolific anti-racism campaigners in the country, has given huge amounts of support to animal rights campaigns such as the Animal Liberation Front, supports the establishment of a British Republic and is a vegan. He is also a patron of the Newham Monitoring Project that campaigns against police racism in Newham, East London and of the Tower Hamlets Summer University that offers alternative education to 11-25 year olds in Londons’ most deprived borough. He also famously rejected an OBE on the grounds that it reminded him of “how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.” I cannot immediately think of a person that would make me more likely to vote for something.

Unless he has another reason for not liking these three true national treasures and if Keith Mitchell really does oppose what Eddie Izzard, Stephen Fry and Benjamin Zephaniah stand for then it appears he thinks we should stick to rigid forms of gender expression (and, therefore, oppression), shouldn’t raise money for charity, shouldn’t have equal rights regardless of sexual preference, shouldn’t help people with mental health problems to cope or feel like they aren’t alone, shouldn’t accept people for who they are, shouldn’t campaign against racism, shouldn’t end cruelty to animals and shouldn’t help educate disadvantaged youths.

The change in the voting system is such a fundamentally important decision to make that will affect this country and possibly others for decades to come that to make it based on what a celebrity says or what a councillor says about a celebrity is utterly idiotic.

So here’s the bit where I say that Keith Mitchell might have run marathons for charity, or run for a bus, I genuinely don’t know and if he has then I am sorry for casting aspersions. And other than his tweet, in which he suggests he doesn’t like them, I don’t know his opinions on what Izzard, Fry and Zephaniah stand for.


Legal aid cuts will wreck lives and increase inequality

The Tory spending cuts are based on ideology, not sound economics. This is becoming more and more clear as the scope of the cuts are revealed. Recent revelations in the Tories’ plans to increase the tuition fee cap to £9000 per year will block hundreds of thousands of potential students from attending university, particularly the elite universities which already have a disproportionate number of students from private and public schools.

The latest cuts to be announced are to the legal aid system. Ken Clarke announced this week that the Tories plan to slash £350m a year from the legal aid bill. The legal aid system is already critically underfunded; it was neglected by Labour and is now being destroyed by the Tories.

There hasn’t been an increase in spending on legal aid in more than 10 years, whilst costs including inflation have soared. This amounts to a real-term 25% cut in spending over the last 10 years. Further cuts won’t just restrict access to legal representation, they risk the collapse of the entire system.

Due to the lack of funding over the last decade, the Legal Services Commission, the body that controls legal aid in England and Wales, is so underfunded that it cannot afford to hire enough staff to process legal aid bills from solicitor firms. This has the knock-on effect that these firms cannot pay their overheads. Many are on the verge of bankruptcy, others have stopped offering a legal aid service.

The cuts to the legal aid will impact on almost every area: clinical negligence, education, employment, immigration, benefits, debt, housing and certain family law cases. These are all areas that significantly affect many people on low-incomes on a daily basis, many of them needing this support to keep their homes, jobs and families. The repercussions of these cuts will have far-reaching consequences for the rest of society also.

If legal aid is taken away from employment cases, this will allow employers to exploit their low-paid workforces with impunity, safe in the knowledge that they don’t pay their staff enough for them to be able to afford legal representation. Included under employment law is sexual harassment in the workplace. If women, already disproportionately affected by the cuts as well as workplace harassment and exploitation, cannot get legal representation the pay-gap will increase and women will suffer further exploitation and oppression in the workplace.

There are exceptions for domestic violence cases written into the changes, but this won’t be sufficient to protect people, particularly women and children. It is estimated that only 2.5%-15% of domestic abuse cases are reported. If victims fear they could be left in crippling poverty due to legal fees fewer cases will be reported and more people will live their lives in fear and oppression.

Reform is desperately needed in the legal aid system but not because we need to make cuts and not by cutting peoples’ access to services. Whilst the vast majority of solicitors earn very modest sums from legal aid, particularly considering the amount of work they do, there are a handful of barristers who earn disproportionately more. Many of the top Queens’ Counsels can bill the legal aid system for up to £500,000 per year, on top of their salaries for private cases. I would suggest this is where the savings can be made, not by taking the services away from the people who need them and the overworked and underpaid solicitors.

Free access to legal representation for those who need it is a cornerstone of a fair and equal society. The cuts to the legal aid system will lead to increases in exploitation, sexual harassment, discrimination, segregation, poverty, debt, homelessness, domestic violence, abuse….

Doesn’t sound much like a fair society to me.

Why Media Spin is So Dangerous for Society

The recent Camp for Climate Action at RBS’ Global HQ outside Edinburgh was typically reported with all the originality of Die Hard 4. The right-wing media rolled out the usual cliches; hippies, unwashed, posh, idiots, students etc. And the left-wing media was, mostly, supportive. Nothing new there. But then the media seemed to turn on Climate Camp. Articles on the, usually supportive, Guardian website were extremely critical accusing the camp of stifling free speech and reporting our lack of interest in Twitter as a failure of the camp as a whole.

There were also many newspaper reports that were simply not true. The Sun ran with the headline “RBS Rioters Battle Cops” illustrated with a photo of some protesters next to some police. Had The Sun used a wider crop of this image their readership would have realised the inaccuracy of the article. The protestors are not ‘battling’ the police (they all have their backs to the police) but are steadying a prop siege tower that was wheeled, painfully slowly, toward the police line. There was certainly no rioting, at all, anywhere on the site. It is a wonder that the Sun ignored the siege tower, for many of us on site we thought that it would be the image that dominated the media coverage.

There was a significant amount of coverage surrounding the phantom “oil slick” on the A8 outside RBS’ head office. This was alleged by the Lothian and Borders Police, though no evidence has turned up to suggest it actually happened. Regardless of the lack of evidence, media outlets jumped on the story and reported it without a moments thought for editorial integrity.

Again, as in years before, the police paraded a “cache of weapons” in front of the media, this year it was a hammer and a chisel, though it is still unclear where these came from – there is no press release from the Lothian and Borders police relating to the items. In the Sun article on the Climate Camp, with no regard to journalistic integrity or adherence to the truth, these were instantaneously pluralised, making the alleged crime appear greater.

Another disturbing example from The Sun comes slightly further down the page. Not only do they repeat the totally unfounded accusations that Climate Campers where responsible for the phantom oil-slick on the A8 but they, either deliberately or unknowingly, attribute more legitimacy to the story through their formatting of the quote from the Police.

The placement of these comments suggests that both the police spokesperson has made this entire comments and that someone from Climate Camp has taken responsibility for the phantom oil incident – for which, to say they have not is an understatement. In fact the two statement refer to two completely separate events that happened many miles apart from each other.

These are just a couple of examples from one article in the, famously right-wing and reactionary, Sun newspaper. Though suspiciously absent from it’s website this weekend is any reporting on the activities of the National Front with a PR strategy English Defence League in Bradford. Whilst this might be commendable (personally I think fascists should be kept as far from the media as possible) their history on reporting of the activities of the EDL suggest they might have other motives.

In July this year, they reported on the arrest of EDL member John Broomfield on charges of plotting to bomb a mosque. The circumstances of this incident are subject to question as there were no charges made, but the reporting of it seems to downright support the EDL, particularly when compared to the reporting of the Climate Camp.

The emphasis throughout the article is on the accused being innocent, whilst this may be the case, were the accused of Asian descent I can’t help but feel this might be slightly different. The image used to portray Broomfield shows him ‘defiant and patriotic’ in an England t-shirt. Look at any of the articles about Muslims accused of terrorism and they are all police mugshots.

“So what?” I hear you cry “a right-wing newspaper being right-wing, big whoop”. Thing is, though, the trend in all media is towards reporting assumptions, based on cliches and stereotypes, regardless of what actually happens. So what are peaceful protests become “riots” and “battles”, all Muslims become “terrorists” and racists are heralded as working class heroes. This sort of reporting is dangerous because it legitimises these stereotypes. It is naive and wrong to say that people don’t believe things just because they are in the media, people only believe things when they are in the media.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink he references a psychology test that demonstrates how the reinforcement of images in society really can shape how people see each other. People gave significantly more positive responses to word association tests regarding black people when they had spent 30 minutes before the test looking at pictures of people like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu or Martin Luther King.

What this shows is that the views of the EDL are based on media lies. Since the majory of UK media only, or biased to the extent that they might as well only, report negative stories about Muslims and immigrants we perceive them negatively. And so it is the same for protesters at Climate Camp, the reporting turns on them, so the people don’t support them and the association with climate change becomes negative.

If you listen to the media it seems we are almost on the verge of a race war, yet there is little (no) evidence to suggest this is actually the case. The vast majority of people get along fine and immigration is a huge benefit to the UK economy, not to mention to society.

This is why I am so angry with The Guardian for turning on the Camp. The Guardian, more than any other mainstream media outlet, has supported the Camp for Climate Action. But last week it chose to put out a series of very negative articles about Twitter “backfiring” on the Climate Camp and alleged attempts to stop freedom of speech, no doubt partly in retaliation for journalists being called “weak and cowardly” and “lazy” in a media guide, even though it was written by Guardian regular George Monbiot (does the failure to research that prove them lazy?). I don’t think the Guardian has a responsibility to always support the Camp, but they, like every other media outlet, has a responsibility to be apt and not misleading.

It seems so many of the ills of modern society can be traced back to mass representations; obsession with celebrity, fear of Islam (and the perception of any Muslim as a terrorist), mass consumption, political/environmental/sociological apathy. So this is my plea: please media, just FUCKING STOP IT! If we fill the media with positive images our wider perceptions will change and it is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to do this.

Read the response from Climate Camp to the Guardian articles here, here and here.

“Football fans should be forced to pay policing bill” says Councillor

Councilor William W. McBraveheart today made a statement saying that football fans should be forced to pay an extra fee on top of their tickets to cover the cost of policing football matches in the future.
“Why should the innocent citizens of the area who have no interest in football have to foot the bill for entertaining a bunch of drunken hooligans”.

At recent games the policing costs of football matches have been known to cost more than a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money. Each game requires huge numbers of police on standby in case of violent clashes between the hooligans and police. There is also the cost of further policing into the evening after the matches and as the hordes of intoxicated yobs descend on city streets to wreak havoc – frequently causes fights and property damage.

Chief Constable B. Acon of the police force said “we have to deploy hundreds of police for each event and pay overtime, this means it can be extremely expensive to police football matches, often costing upwards of a trillion pounds.

“if we were to recover that cost from the boozed-up thugs themselves it would mean the taxpayer does not have to foot the bill” he added.

As football matches are a frequent occurrence the annual bill for policing of these events can run into the squillions of pounds. A spokesperson for the Football and Beer Alliance said “wehaaaayyy, yeah f**kin wicked mate, gonna smash the f**kin copper in the face”.

Councilor McBraveheart added “if we are able to make those responsible for crimes pay for the policing they are responsible for it takes the financial burden off the taxpayer and the accountability away from the police force, allowing them to be more effective at tackling crime and domestic extremism like the inebriated rapscallions responsible for football violence”.

Pigs with Lipstick: New Tories are Old Tories

Does anyone remember the 1980s? Think back, I know it was a long time ago – I was 5 when they ended so my memories mostly involve a puppet with a slightly better command of the English language than Jordan who spat at the TV screen – but as a society we seem to have some sort of collective amnesia that starts around about 1979 and went on right up to about 1997. The result of this is that we have lost the ability to see cause and effect.

So first point, to preempt any comments about my age – yes I was young in the 1980s but I am capable of reading so saying I don’t know what I am talking about because I wasn’t able to tie my own shoelaces at the time (not till I was 7) is inept, inapt and insipid (and a few other words beginning with ‘in-‘. Grow up. And it is my generation that is having to deal with the consequences of that most short-sighted decade.

The Conservative economic policy in the 1980s could be summed up in three main points: public spending cuts, privatisation and the creation of the laissez-faire banking sector.

The Conservatives embraced Friedman(-ist/-ite?) economic policy and in 1979 began bringing in a vast number of cuts to public services and increased privatisation. Welfare and education bore a great extent of the cuts. The current government are proposing huge cuts to welfare, particularly tax credits and the Sure Start programme, and are hinting at cuts in education – or at least an increase in the cost of education.

Ok so every government makes changes to welfare and education this is nothing new. Well, lets delve a little deeper. Another area Thatcher became notorious for was privatisation. BT, BP, BA, BAA, British Gas (soon to be BG?), British Rail (in 1997) and the National Grid are just a few of the services that were privatised. Are there any similarities with the plans of the current coalition Conservative government? Well a lot has already been said about the privatisation of education  – even though it will be government funded private education! Charter schools are a BAD idea and lead to increased social division. There are also plans to privatise 49% of the Royal Mail, with the remainder split between the government and staff. The Conservative reasoning behind this is that government regulation and intervention is bad for the economy. I think I saw this point best illustrated by David Horsey’s cartoon on the right. But the point is this is the same policy they had in the ’80s.

So what else did they do? Well they encouraged growth in the financial sector at the expense of manufacturing industry. Again, this is another policy the current government are pursuing. With the rise of the ‘casual gamer’, video gaming is set to be one of the biggest industries in the world. The UK has a growing industry in video games, particularly in Scotland where Rockstar North (formerly DMA Design, creators of Grand Theft Auto) are based. The Conservative government has scrapped the intended tax breaks for the video games industry that would have provided a huge incentive for more games developers to set up shop in the UK, providing thousands of jobs in a growing market. At the same time their banking reform policy is not exactly coming down hard on the financial services sector, Deutsche Bank analysts said “Taking 2% off the 2012 tax rate for the five banks listed in the UK would increase profit by £1.16bn, that it is should almost offset all of the banks tax. Overall a good outcome for the banks”.

Yet again it is the same old Tory policies. Worse still their lax attitude towards the financial sector is what allowed the current recession. Yes the Labour government should have done something about it but it was the Conservative policies that created the system in the first place!

And one final similarity; at the time Thatcher was warned by leading economists their economic policies would deepen the recession at the time. And it did. The current Tories have also been warned by leading economists that their economic policies will lead to a ‘double-dip’ recession. Maybe they should listen this time.

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Cuts to legal aid risk its collapse

Access to legal representation in the UK is a right, one that won’t be completely abolished without a serious outcry (I would hope at least), but the quality of that representation is something that is seriously under threat. Solicitors working in legal aid have had to swallow a bitter pill for the second time this year after being told the Legal Services Commission, the body that governs legal aid in the UK*, doesn’t have enough money to pay its bills. Cue the crying of “why should I care that some toff lawyer cannot afford another jacuzzi in his second home in Toulouse” or “I don’t want taxpayer’s money going to defend some knife-wielding immigrant gang-member hoodie scumbag”. These are misconceptions about the legal aid system.

First of all, can we all just forget the myth that all lawyers are paid vast sums of money and are simply intent on squeezing every last penny they can from people in return for doing little work. Next we need to recognise the two different types of lawyers we have in the UK that work on legal aid; solicitors and barristers (aka counsel) – barristers are the ones with the wigs and robes – and most work extremely long hours. And lastly legal aid exists to allow access to legal representation to those that cannot afford it, and is used to represent people in cases of childcare, sexual harassment, employment tribunals, domestic abuse as well as crime. It is not about tax money defending criminals.

The problems with legal aid are three-fold; legal aid fees are unbalanced, cuts and mismanagement by the Labour government has left the Legal Services Commission in a situation where it cannot work efficiently and both the previous and current governments are very hostile towards complaints made by solicitors. The net result of this at worst could be the collapse of the legal aid system, but more likely will simply mean that only inexperienced and junior solicitors will work in legal aid as there will be very little money to be made from it. This will mean that the most vulnerable will be denied access to decent legal representation.

Law is often seen as a high-paying profession with many solicitors and barristers earning huge sums of money. In some cases this is true, private tax and corporate law for example, though not often in legal aid. Legal aid is charged on a system of hourly fixed rates which have not risen in more than 10 years and when compared to the rate of inflation actually amount to a year-on-year cut of 2.5%. This means that over the last decade there has been a 25% cut in the value of remuneration for legal aid while costs have soared. Many solicitors no longer offer a legal aid service and those that do are struggling on a month by month basis to survive. And there are more changes being made to legal aid fees, particularly with regard to childcare.

The previous Labour government, under Lord Chancellor Jack Straw, took the running of the Legal Services Commission in-house, integrating it into the Ministry of Justice and made a large number of crucial staff who process bills and payments to solicitors redundant. This resulted in massive delays in payments, further compounding solicitors’ cash-flow crisis. This in turn has meant that many firms that rely on bringing in money from legal aid work have not been paid money owed since February this year and are teetering on the brink of collapse.

In addition, the new Tory government is looking to further cut funding on services which are currently available by 50%, the implications of which will be devastating. In the field of childcare there has been a massive increase in demand following the Baby P case, yet there is less money and fewer solicitors able to meet the demand and so more children not getting the help they need. The overall result of the delays in payment, the low-fees and fewer and fewer solicitors offering legal aid means that cases such as Baby P’s will be more common.

When complaints about the legal aid fees system have been brought forward before, they are shouted down by further touting of the myth of the overpaid lawyer. To prove the point, the government has in the past released figures to demonstrate that legal aid lawyers are in fact very well paid – they provide the annual earnings of the top five Queen’s Councils (a high ranking barrister) who earn c. £500,000 annually from legal aid, therefore all solicitors must be earning the same. This is simply not true and the fact of the matter is that the situation will only get worse if the Tory government goes ahead with it’s planned 50% cuts in legal aid spending, a LOT worse. Legal aid will end up being the domain of junior solicitors and the poor will lose out on representation by senior and experienced solicitors. The impact will mean that the most vulnerable in our society – children and victims of abuse – are left without help.

*It was rightly pointed out on Bright Green Scotland that the LSC governs legal aid in England and Wales, not in Scotland where it is the Scottish Legal Aid Board

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Leaders’ Debate: Lets just invite Nick Griffin and be done with it!

So the leaders’ debate was a pointless exercise in sophistry and political posturing. They all came across as outrageously right-wing and seemed to be pandering to the Express-reading “silent-majority” UKIP/BNP voter. On a question about immigration, to be fair a difficult situation without an obvious and simple answer, the leaders seemed to be competing with each other over who could be the most racist, isolationist and authoritarian.
The policies espoused by each leader were absolutely appalling, from Brown’s “we’ll steal anyone with any sort of qualifications”, Cameron’s “We’ll have maximum number allowed in” and Clegg’s (very surprising) “I’ll abolish their right to freedom of movement”! It was like watching the Yorkshire Businessmen sketch from Monty Python.
Brown: If I get in, I’ll only let skilled poor people come to the country
Cameron: If I get in, I’ll not only let in skilled poor people but only, let’s say, 6 poor people.
Clegg: Well, if I get in I’ll stop them moving around the country, and abandon Trident
Brown: Well if I get in I’ll lock them up in detention centres
Cameron: Well I’ll bring in education and family policies that keep them poor!
Clegg: Well I’ll abandon Trident
Brown: I’ll lock them up, keep them poor and have them beaten
Cameron: I’ll lock them up, keep them poor, have them beaten and take their children away from them
Clegg: I’ll abandon Trident!
Brown: I’ll lock them up, keep them poor, have them beaten, take their children away from them and demonise them in the media
Cameron: Right, Well, I’ll lock them up, keep them poor, have them beaten, take their children away, demonise them in the media and send all the boys to catholic schools where they’ll be systematically abused by the clergy!
Clegg: I’ll abandon Trident!

Immigration is a right, not a crime and No-one is Illegal.

Conservatives No-Thank-You

When the Tories make a fraudulent claim, they really make a fraudulent claim. Labour may have more MPs being charged but their crimes pale in insignificance compared to their Tory peer comrade. The Times reported this morning that Labour 3 MPs and one Tory Lord have been charged over the MP’s expenses scandal. The MPs are Elliott Morley, David Chaytor and Jim Devine – no doubt soon to be lifted from the depths of back-bench obscurity to become household names – and the peer is Lord Hanningfield.

Each of the three Labour MPs has committed serious fraud; David Chaytor having “flipped” his second home several times and claimed around £13000, Elliott Morley claimed around £16000 on a so-called “phantom” mortgage and Jim Devine claiming around £2157 and £2326 respectively for electrical and carpentry work that allegedly never happened. Now these are serious cases and should be delt as such but they are nothing when compared to the details of Lord Hanningfield’s claim.

Conservative peer Lord Hanningfield is being charged over claiming £100,000 for staying overnight in Lonodn despite living only 46 miles away. This seems to be a significantly more serious offense than those three Labour MPs are accused of.

This is just another reason that a conservative government is a bad idea. Look at the scale of the mistakes. Labour brought us two wars, both causing monumental loss of life and massive destabilisation in the middle-east. The last Conservative government gave us numerous wars, armed Saddam & the Mujahideen, destroyed British industry and created the laissez-faire economic system that brought us the recession.

Conservatives; no-thank-you-very-much.

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The Downside to Collective Amnesia

Ok so there probably isn’t an upside to collective amnesia, but still are we really so goldfish-brained that we, as a nation, have forgotten what happened the last time we let the Eton-elite get behind the wheel? They’re the ones that presided over, some might say created, the laissez-faire economic system that created the recession. A perfectly planned time-bomb that will allow David Cameron to sweep into power with a landslide and set us up for the next round. I may have been young when John Major lost out to Tony “the Butcher” Blair, but I have not forgotten who the Conservatives are and what they stand for. I was recently speaking to a young Conservative who told me that “In order for a country to operate as a competitive entity there must be an elite, educate class and the state system simply cannot provide an education system capable of teaching these people”. David may have the air-brushed clean features of a Vogue model but the the heart of the conservatives is in the back benches – a seething mass of elitism, racism, homophobia and exploitation for profit.

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Screengrab of the Day: Daily Hate

Yesterday marked 76 years since the article in the Daily Mail where Lord Rothermere, the editor at the time, declared “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”, that being the front-page headline. The article praised Oswald Moseley and the British Union of Fascists for their “…commonsense conservative doctrine”. Rothermere was also a friend of Mussolini and Hitler, praising the latter as “Adolf the Great” and hoped he would become a popular figure in Britain.

Just out of interest I typed “Daily Hate” into Google and look what turned up as the top search result (more after the image):

Rather amusingly somone set up hurrahfortheblackshirts.co.uk that auto-forwards to the Daily Mail’s website. Unfortunately after the threat of legal action from the afore mentioned rag it has been stopped.

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