Sunday, 27 December 2009

For the want of a handful of grit….

Last weekend it snowed, not a surprise at the tail end of December but the whole country was still thrown into chaos. Empires rise and fall, fashions change and yet Britain’s inability to cope with a handful of snowflakes remains the one fixed point in an ever changing world.

It isn’t that we struggle to cope with ‘extreme’ weather such as the floods that swept through Cumbria last month or the six inches of snow we had last weekend, we seem incapable of coping with any kind of weather at all, in a country where the sad souls who read out the forecast on television are minor celebrities that is utterly inexplicable.

The problem, I suspect, has a lot to do with out treasured pose of amateurism, not for us the swift response to far heavier snowfalls made on mainland Europe and in parts of America; that simply isn’t cricket old chap. We’d much prefer to muddle through whilst talking about the Dunkirk spirit, which is fine apart from all the times when it isn’t and muddling through just turns into a muddle.

The best example of muddling through gone bad presented by the great, six whole inches as one wide eyed forecaster exclaimed live on air last week, snows of December 2009 was the abject failure of Euro Star to run its trains through the channel tunnel. They hadn’t, as a parade of Euro suits informed the nation’s media, considered the prospect that it might be a good idea to buy some trains capable of coping with the fact that it gets cold in the winter. Blue sky thinking of that sort, or, I suspect thinking of any sort doesn’t really happen in Euro boardrooms.

You could be rather facetious about the wrong sort of cold weather or snow on the lines, at least you could it you hadn’t watched the news footage of the despairing little huddles of stranded travellers gathered on the freezing platform of London’s St Pancras station looking like nothing so much as troops waiting to be evacuated at the start of a war the Euro suits of their time had told them wouldn’t happen this year or next.

Every missed connection on the day the trains didn’t run through the channel tunnel and the motorway network turned into a frosty car park was a miniature nightmare. Filled with the last words of elderly relatives or the first steps of grandchildren missed because a medium sized nuclear power can’t get its governmental head around the notion that it often snows in December and so it might be a good idea to make some preparations beforehand, for the want of a handful of grit and a little common sense thousands of lives were needlessly disrupted for which however sincerely they might have been made the apologies given by the Euro suits can never compensate.

Not that they were sincerely made, it doesn’t work like that, to make a sincere apology the person doing the apologising has to have something to lose, like a large salary and an equally generous pension, but the Euro suits haven’t got anything to lose. The worst that will happen, if anything happens at all, is that a few of them will get to draw that generous pension a little sooner.

In a dictatorship, so the saying goes, the trains always run on time because if they don’t somebody gets shot, in a democracy that’s no way to run a railroad, but if we genuinely want our trains to run on time we need to create a situation where it they don’t somebody gets fired. I’d set my cross hairs on somebody wearing a Euro suit.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Heroically ordinary.

Last Sunday footballer Ryan Giggs was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year, weather conditions in the teacup have returned to normal now but for a while you could have been forgiven for thinking he had been implicated in the murder of the first born.

Within hours of the announcement being made the radio phone ins were abuzz with people calling in to say he was too successful, eleven Premiership medals and two European Cup winners medals and counting, played for the wrong team and anyway footballers shouldn’t win awards because they’re all millionaires. The only exception to this rule is when they’re called George best, who, by the way never won the BBC’s endorsement as a sports personality because they gave the award to Princess Anne instead, another injustice to make people who call radio talk shows hot under the collar.

George Best seemed to be a sort of totem for the people who had decided to use part of their Monday morning bemoaning who won a sporting popularity contest live on air. As one unusually articulate, by the admittedly low standards set by his contemporaries, caller put it Giggs wasn’t ‘fit to lace the drinks of good old Bestie.’

Maybe not, and for me that’s why he deserved to win the prize. Listen to a certain type of football supporter and sooner or later and he will tell you there are two types of footballer, the ones who are ‘characters’ and all the rest. By this standard Best was a character and Ryan Giggs belongs to the amorphous category of ‘all the rest.’

They haven’t, I suppose read Gordon Burn’s ‘Best and Edwards’, perhaps one of the cleverest books written about football in recent years in which he tells the contrasting life stories of Duncan Edwards and George Best. Both of men played for Manchester United and could create something close to art with a ball at their feet. Edwards died young in the Munich air crash, Best lived long enough to drink himself to death, and by doing so became a ‘character’ in the minds of people who don’t think about football or anything else any more than they have to.

They make, in the case of Best and the many other footballers who have followed the same sad route since, of seeing a man in the grip of an addiction that would ultimately kill him for the life and soul of the party. Giggs, by happy contrast, seems at ease with his prodigious talent and the fame and fortune that go with it.

I don’t usually subscribe to the notion that success on the stage or the sports field is a qualification for being a role model, but in the case of Ryan Giggs I am willing to make an exception. He seems to see playing football as a lucky break for an ordinary, in the best sense of the word, young man rather than a free pass to tabloid notoriety.

Best died a drink sodden wreck who failed to do justice to his remarkable talents, Duncan Edwards died too young in a plane crash on a snowbound German runway, if you want to take a guess at how he might have turned out and how he might have carried his talents in an age when footballers are tabloid clowns, you should look at a quiet hero called Ryan Giggs.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Taming the black dog.

There is a picture of Gordon Brown that has been pretty much a regular feature in one newspaper or another since he began his ill fated tenure in Downing Street. It’s the one where the photographer has caught him in the act of brushing a hank of limp hair away from his forehead with what looks like a full set of luggage under his lack of sleep reddened eyes. If the punishing pressures of high office combined with the ravages of unspecified personal demons had a poster boy, this is what he would look like.

I wonder if Health Secretary Andy Burnham had this picture in mind, and not just as a momento mori of the likely outcome of his own reported leadership ambitions, when he announced the government’s plans to use the NHS, Job Centre Plus and other agencies to identify and support people at risk of suffering mental health problems.

Speaking to the BBC he said that mental health issues are still ‘all too often shrouded in mystery, stigma or simply ignored.’

The ‘elephant in the drawing room’ is a lazy shorthand for our very British habit of trying to pretend those things that make us feel uncomfortable will disappear if we ignore them. In truth we don’t so much have one elephant in the drawing room as a herd of the darned things, most of which in recent years we have managed to acknowledge, where one we feared talking openly about sex or money now both subjects are the common currency of the dialogue between the tabloid press and an ever more salacious public.

The one exception to the rule is anything connected to mental health and in particular the depression that is an ever more prevalent feature of modern life. If such issues are raised at all it is either in an embarrassed whisper or through the protective prism of the sort of blunt humour used by an emotionally awkward people whenever it doesn’t want to talk about its feelings.

This is more than a little strange since some of the most prominent figures in our history have had to overcome significant problems with their mental health.

The ‘madness’ of King George III is more discussed than his long and successful reign, the long widowhood of Queen Victoria added to the age to which she lent her name its distinctive sombre tone. Winston Churchill was afflicted throughout his long career by a depressive streak he referred to as his ‘black dog’, Anthony Eden buckled under the pressures of the Suez crisis and these days almost the only thing anyone remembers about Harold Wilson is the extent of his paranoia.

The mental health of politicians is, of course, primarily put under pressure by the toxic collision between the immovable object of their ambition and the irresistible force of what Harold McMillan called ‘events dear boy, events’. They are lucky enough to be cushioned from the worst consequences of experiencing mental health problems by the innate ability of the political class to look after its own, the majority of the one in six Britons likely to suffer from mental health problems during their lifetime are not. Put in the most blunt terms mental health problems can break up families and destroy lives.

However good its intentions, and more often than not they are good, the government led by Gordon Brown has been criticized for being needlessly interventionist, maybe the source of his own mental problems, or one of them at least, is the intolerable stress imposed by attempting to micro-manage every last detail of running the country. In this case the government are right to intervene because nobody else has the money or the muscle to do so.

To date the plans have received a cautious welcome from groups that campaign on mental health issues, Peter Farmer Chief Executive of Mind praised the government for setting out a new ‘vision’ for tackling mental health issues, but warned that what was needed now was an ‘action plan for how that vision can be turned into a reality.’

And there lies the real problem, the biggest of all the elephants lumbering around our national drawing room if you like, addressing the problems caused by mental illness will take time and money; and the current government doesn’t have much of either. It can though, and it must, get the process started with a willingness to continue it if returned to office next year or failing that to put pressure on an incoming Tory government not to abandon some of this country’s most vulnerable people.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Johnson’s weakness proves he’s not the man to save Labour from disaster.

Once upon a time there was a political party that had tried hard, too hard perhaps, to make the public like it. Just as it looked like the party was heading for disaster, a stranger came riding into town who looked like he could save the day because he was the first politician ever to be born without a trace of ambition.

Until recently, until last Friday to be precise, a significant number of members of the Labour Party used to tell themselves a version of the fairytale written above with Home Secretary Alan Johnson cast as the hero. Surely a man so nice he behaved like he really didn’t want to be Home Secretary let alone PM would make an ideal leader, no more spin, no more expenses scandals; with Captain Alan at the wheel everything would work out fine.

Anyone with a passing interest in the subject will know, of course, that in politics everything very seldom works out fine, in fact the moment when things look like they’re going well is usually when they start to go wrong.

Things went wrong for the nice Mr Johnson because, ironically in a year when politicians have been regularly tarred and feathered for the things they’ve done, usually on expenses, of something he didn’t do. What he didn’t do was stand up to America over the extradition of Gary McKinnon.

He, you will recall because his case has been taken up by several newspapers, proof positive that sometimes even cynics can be on the side of the angels, is the computer hacker who embarrassed the land of the free by breaking into its supposedly impregnable computer system in search of information about UFO’s. Yes it was wrong for him to have done so, but the fact that he has Asperger’s Syndrome and so has only a sketchy understanding of the link between actions and consequences means his case should be judged in a way that takes his mental health into consideration.

That isn’t something that is likely to happen amidst the bear pit of the US prison system, which is why his family have lodged a last ditch appeal for him to serve any sentence he is given in a British prison, an opportunity that has been denied him by the Home Office.

A little earlier I said that Gary McKinnon has only a sketchy understanding of the link between actions and consequences, it seems the people advising our affable Home Secretary have the same problem. Nothing else could be to blame for their being deaf to his mother’s statement that her son had been living in a ‘heightened state of terror’ for eight years at the thought of being thrown into prison on the other side of the world.

Mr Johnson, however, was not obliged to take the faulty advice offered by his civil servants; he could have said that compassion carries more weight than the wounded ego of a superpower or the finer points of the law. He could have done, but he didn’t, he turned down the appeal on the grounds of having ‘sought and received assurances’ from the US authorities that Gary Mc Kinnon’s ‘needs will be met.’ As displays of cynical hand washing go that has a place alongside the best work of Pontius Pilate.

It seems we were all wrong about Alan Johnson, the media who have given him an easy ride, the party members who thought he was ‘one of us’, all of us; we were all taken in. He is an example of everything that is wrong with politics in this country, a timid unimaginative bureaucrat.

Politicians, whatever their party have one duty that overrides all others, particularly if they manage to attain high office, and that is to protect the vulnerable, there are few people more vulnerable than Gary Mc Kinnon and in failing to prevent his extradition to the US Alan Johnson has dodged that duty and in doing so shamed his party and his country; he should not expect to be forgiven by either.

Friday, 27 November 2009

The sad, sad world of Katie Price.

This week ‘model’ Katie Price, also known as Jordan, the favourite hate figure of the tabloid press, walked out of jungle based reality show ‘I’m a celebrity, get me out of here.’

Her exit was in response to having been voted to undergo six successive ‘bush tucker trials’, a unique dining experience involving chomping on fried insects and Kangaroo genitalia. Having been told she had been voted to be thrown into a snake pit, what did they expect her to do, eat the snakes?, Price said ‘Someone else has to do it; I’m just not doing it anymore.’

Since the news broke on Monday morning I have been telling myself that I’m a serious person and don’t care, and its true I don’t care, but I do find it interesting because our attitude towards the car crash that is Katie Price says a lot about the state of our culture.

It is impossible not to warm to Katie Price the former page 3 model with a shrewd head for business and an even more shrewd understanding of the prejudices and aspirations of her audience; it is, though, equally impossible to do anything other than recoil in horror from Jordan, the pneumatic poster girl for all that is most brash about modern Britain.

The problem is both Katie and Jordan are halves of the same split personality and we the public sometimes struggle to know where one ends and the other begins; worse still Price herself seems to have the same problem.

Just now in this Jekyll and Hyde tale for the noughties nasty Jordan seems to have the upper hand. It was the brash, attention seeking half of Price’s personality that led her to mark the end of her marriage to fellow micro celeb Peter Andre with a series of ever more lurid capers played out on the front pages of the red top tabloids ending with a bizarre attempt to find ‘closure’ by appearing on a television reality show so witless if it were a person it wouldn’t be allowed to cross the road on its own.

The public liked ballsy Katie Price when she was standing up to the polo club snobs who didn’t want her sort soiling their manicured lawns because she was striking a symbolic blow for everyone who has been patronised for not having the right accent or connections; they hated super slapper Jordan for abandoning her children and falling out of nightclubs at three in the morning because it reminded them of how often they put self pity dressed up as the right to have a good time ahead of responsibility. That was why more people than can be bothered to turn out at a general election voted to see her have snakes and spiders tipped over her head on a nightly basis.

Perhaps flouncing out of the jungle will earn Katie Price a sort of ‘closure’, in the sense of the door closing once and for all on her media career leaving her alone in her mansion telling her reflection in the mirror that she is still big it is reality TV that has gotten small. In the long run that might be the best possible outcome for the damaged, but even now not unlikable woman behind the gaudy fa├žade.


Tough Lessons.

rom 2011 children in British primary schools are to be taught about domestic violence and gender equality as part of a ‘Together we can end violence against women and girls’ strand in their personal and social health lessons.

Campaign groups working with victims of domestic violence had welcomed the initiative, Sandra Horley of Refuge said ‘This huge social issue will only end when people are educated about why it happens and where they can get help.’

While welcoming the steps taken so far Ms Horley stressed ‘Prevention will help in the long term, but in the meantime there is an urgent need for services for abused women and children to be improved.’

Doubtless there are legions of people who will bridle at the though of such a contentious subject being introduced to young children, listen closely and you can already hear them huffing and puffing about ‘political correctness gone mad’ and anti-male agenda and an attempt by evil social engineers to further damage the ‘innocence’ of childhood.

After all, they will say, most children are lucky enough to live in families that are free of violence, why spoil their few years of being insulated from the cares of the world?

To which the only answer is, yes but for 750,000 children violence is part of their everyday life with consequences that extend far into adulthood, there is no innocence for them, only pain and fear. It is our responsibility to offer them all the help we can and often the only way to do so is through the school system.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Speaking for himself.

Is there a sillier man in British politics than speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow? Please don’t write in on a postcard because the question was a rhetorical one to which the answer is no there isn’t.

Last weekend Mr Bercow popped up on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme to tell us all that in his esteemed opinion MP’s should expect to receive ‘rough justice’ from the parliamentary authorities over their excessive expenses claims.

In full theatrical flow he declaimed that ‘the public perception of the way in which we operate is so negative that it is necessary to accept a wholesale, fundamental and irrevocable change. There’s an element of rough justice, but it is necessary.’

Justice is certainly needed, but it is never necessary for it to be ‘rough’, not in the way Mr Speaker means it anyway since he is merely trying to cash in on the wave of outrage about flat screen TV’s and Kit-Kats paid for out of the public purse that has been washing around since the summer. What we need, but still haven’t had, is a reasoned debate about just what we pay the people who make our laws, with men like John Bercow on the job we may never get one.

There is, even worse, a distinct touch of hypocrisy in John Bercow’s call for rough justice to be applied to MP’s caught fiddling their expenses, after all he is still battling allegations that he spent £45,581 renovating his lavish apartments in the Palace of Westminster. He initially claimed the work cost no more than £20,000 and then that he had no control over how much was spent, although, of course, he did by exercising enough common sense to realise that when the public is up in arms over just how high on the hog its representatives live its not a good idea to be planning some expensive DIY.

Common sense though does not seem to be something of which the current occupant of the Speaker’s Chair is ever going to have a surplus. He is a lightweight so light he must need led ingots sewn into his turn ups just to keep him on the ground.

John Bercow presents himself as a bold reformer, most recently in an article written for the usually sensible New Statesman, but is version of change is always cosmetic. Replacing the Speaker’s, admittedly absurdly anachronistic, robes with a lounge suit and an academic gown does not constitute modernisation, merely half hearted window dressing.

The word is that Mr Bercow gained one of the highest posts in the land by virtue of being more articulate that his predecessor and because certain Labour MP’s value his ability to annoy his fellow Tories. There is, of course an even better method of annoying the Tories, they could formulate some half decent policies, sadly this week’s Queen’s Speech suggests that Labour have largely missed that particular bus.

The good news is that former UKIP leader Nigel Farage is to break with precedent and stand against John Bercow at the general election, he might just win too. If that happens a newly elected crop of MP’s might just be persuaded to drag a real reformer to the chair.

Farewell to the Equalizer.

The death was announced this week of Edward Woodward star of horror classic The Wicker Man at the age of 79.

His agent Janet Glass told the press that he was ‘universally loved and admired for his classic roles on film and television’.

Perhaps the greatest of all those roles was that of soulful hit man Callan in the television series of the same name, a programme that captured perfectly the weary cynicism and simmering rage of Britain in the seventies, unlike many programmes from that era it is still watchable almost forty years later.

The stature of a performer is measured in the respect offered to him by his peers and the extent to which his work remains relevant; Edward Woodward passed the test of true greatness by excelling by both standards.

Friday, 13 November 2009

A slip of the pen spells trouble for embattled Brown.

These days saying it’s been a bad week for Gordon Brown tends to prompt the question ‘does he have any other kind?’

As ever his misfortune is mostly the product of his own by now legendary social awkwardness. This time round he has been in the firing line for spelling the name of Grenadier Guardsman Jamie Janes as James in a handwritten letter of condolence sent to the boy’s mother.

Speaking to the Sun newspaper, no friend of the Labour Party these days, Mrs Janes said the mistake made her feel ‘so angry’ and matters were made no better by the poor state of Gordon Brown’s handwriting, about which Mrs Janes said : The letter was scrawled so quickly I could hardly even read it.’

To his credit Brown telephoned Mrs Janes to apologise, but with the sort of bad luck that only he seems to attract the transcript of the call in which she berated him about the lack of decent equipment for British troops fighting in Afghanistan made the front page of the Sun the day after.

You have to feel for a mother who lost a son in a war that no longer has the support of the British public or, it seems, any purpose beyond avoiding the embarrassment of pulling the troops out and admitting that nothing can be done. She had every right to take Gordon Brown, or any other politician for that matter, to task about the shameful way this country treats its troops.

It would be hard though not to feel a little sympathy at least for Brown who told the press following the incident ‘I have at all times acted in good faith seeking to do the right thing. I do not think anyone will believe that I write letters with any intent to offend. After all however awkward the presentation he does act in good faith, or at least what he believes to be good faith anyway.

And yet sympathy has been in noticeably short supply, the accusations thrown at Brown range from the practical, someone in his office should have proof read the letter before it was sent, to the hysterical with the PM being accused of disrespecting the brave boys who lay down their lives for this country and, since he didn’t bow his head when laying a wreath a the cenotaph last Sunday the memory of the dead of the two world wars too.

Just why is it that we refuse to ever cut Gordon Brown any slack, other Prime Ministers have been unpopular but none to my knowledge have been subject to the constant deluge of criticism and ridicule directed at the present incumbent.

Ok he is the author of many of his own misfortunes from failing to call an election in the autumn of 2007 through the 10p tax debacle to this week’s announcement that child care vouchers are to be snatched away from the majority of working parents. Brown exhibits a wooden headed determination to follow policy decisions that have been demonstrated to be wrong because like all fundamentally weak men he fears changing his mind will highlight his weakness.

He made few friends amongst Labour Party grassroots members when he pledged to abandon spin, remember the phrase ‘not flash just Gordon?, and then proceeded to lead a government that spins like a top. Treating the party leadership as his for the taking without the people who plod the streets posting leaflets for the party having a say was also an arrogant mistake.

In person I suspect Gordon Brown, like Edward Heath before him is an awkward and rather selfish man with no small talk and little interest in life outside Westminster; not for him the hinterland of interests that keeps politicians sane and in touch with the world of the people they govern. When, as it will next year, his time in Downing Street comes to an end the rest of his life will, like that of Heath, be a void filled with resentment.

All of these things make him a less than sympathetic man, but not a man undeserving of sympathy.

The fact that the media and by extension much of the British public are rather enjoying the slow implosion of Mr Brown’s ambitions says something not at all nice about our character. Just like the sort of children who stand and laugh when a smaller boy cries because he was pushed over in the playground it amuses us to see him hurt because the hurt shows. Doubtless Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair were plagued by dark nights of the soul and frequently doubted their ability to bear the great burden of office; Churchill, the greatest man ever to hold the office of Prime Minister was haunted all his life by a depression he called his ‘black dog’, but in public all three presented a front of dauntless optimism, however grave the situation.

Gordon Brown does not have that ability, every slight from a newspaper columnist who never took a decision more difficult that choosing to have tea or coffee, every jibe in the commons from a disgruntled back bencher who believes he should have been made a minister, every stick; every stone leaves a visible scar on his increasingly haggard face. Like a boxer being pummelled on the ropes the question is not if but rather when he will go down for the count.

All politicians enter their trade knowing that their every action will be subject to criticism, that is only right in a democratic country, but every now and again they way in which we highlight their failings throws an unflattering light on our own.

Friday, 6 November 2009

A brush with broken Britain.

Last weekend I caught the train back to my home town of Stoke-on-Trent after spending a weekend in Manchester. I’d like to be writing about the delights of travelling by train through the hidden back side of one of our great cities or the charmingly British practice of always standing on the right of an escalator so that people rushing for their train can pass by quickly on the left. A rule, I might add, that is enforced by our innate good manners rather than the demands of the station authorities.

I’d like to write about those things, but I can’t because of an incident that showed me a much uglier aspect of life in modern Britain.

After getting off the train I walked out of the station into a busy street, as I waited for a taxi to draw up at the rank I became aware of a dozen or more young men running towards me from the direction of the North Stafford hotel grunting like Neanderthals, from somewhere to the rear of the station came another party of young men, within seconds a pitched battle in which fists, bottles and even a pool ball were thrown with malicious intent had ensued.

For ten minutes or so a street in a civilized town in a major nation was turned into violent chaos. The two gangs of thugs, obeying their own warped moral code, did not deliberately attack innocent bystanders, in fact one apologised for knocking over my suitcase. That, of course does not alter the fact that a beer bottle when thrown is not a smart bomb primed only to hit its ordained target, rather it is a blunt instrument that injures anyone and anything unlucky enough to cross its path.

I don’t usually buy the line sold by David Cameron and his policy advisers that British society is in some way ‘broken’, since I see too much that is good and hopeful about this country, whatever problems we may face at the moment. And yet, having experienced what I did last Sunday it is hard not to feel there is something seriously wrong.

The young men fighting on the street that afternoon did not belong to a desperate underclass driven to violence by poverty you need a disposable income to follow football. These young men had chosen violence and stupidity in the way others choose to study for an exam or to marry and start a family.

They are the ugly, snarling representatives of an arrogant sub culture in which gratifying the demands of their own ego is their primary concern and any challenge to their doing so is a threat to be met with extreme violence. Whoever wins the next election will find the task of teaching such people to respect the property of others and the rule of law as great a challenge as reviving the economy.

Brown’s effigy goes up in smoke.

It is probably an accolade he is less likely to crow over than being named ‘Statesman of the year’, but it is none the less an significant achievement, Gordon Brown is to become the first British Prime Minister to be burnt in effigy within home shores.

The mock immolation is to take place at Ripon and John Richmond of the committee organising the community bonfire explained the reasoning behind it saying, ‘Guy Fawkes did want to blow up the houses of parliament, it was a political plot, so we wanted to keep a political theme with the economic situation as it is and an election coming up.’

Burning, ok only in effigy, politicians at the stake, after the expenses scandals of the past year its something that might just catch on.


Free tickets for our boys in uniform.

I started this week by writing about the ugly violence that spoils so much of British life and does irreparable damage to our reputation abroad; it is a pleasure then to end with something that shows our country in the way we would most like it to be seen.

This week saw the launch of a scheme backed by Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker and Johnson Beharry VC, amongst other luminaries; that will allow military personnel to enter a ballot to win free tickets to concerts and sporting events.

Lineker, who visited British troops serving in Afghanistan earlier this year, told the BBC ‘An important aspect for any person in the services is that they feel appreciated.’

The scheme would, he said, show our troops that people at home ‘really do care and respect their sacrifice for our country.’

We are, alas, a long way away from adopting the American practice of spontaneously applauding people in military uniform when they pass through, say, the departure lounge of an airport, but this excellent scheme is a small step in the right direction.


Thursday, 29 October 2009

Brown backs Blair for EU top Job.

He may have done it through teeth so tightly gritted they showered the front row with splinters but Gordon Brown has finally made his support for Tony Blair’s candidacy, should the Lisbon Treaty go through and the job come into existence, to be the first President on the European Union.

Speaking at a press conference in Brussels ahead of a summit meeting of EU leaders he said his predecessor would make an ‘excellent president’ and that concerns amongst European leaders about his involvement in the Iraq war belonged to the past.

The peoples of Europe, he said, ‘want to look forward’ to being in a position where they can ‘shape their own policies.’ As the man who sold capitalism to the Labour Party and a war for oil to the British electorate super salesman Blair is, it would seem, just the man to lead them to that point.

The question hanging in the air, whether or not the Czechs do the decent thing, from the standpoint of Brussels, and sign the Lisbon Treaty is does Europe really want or need a president? Everything about the office seems suggestive of all that is expensive, pompous and remote about the European Union.

From a British perspective another question begs to be answered, do we want to be part of Europe at all? There is a good case to be made for our continued membership and a long list of reasonable doubts regarding its value in a world that has changed immeasurably since the EU was founded, the only thing missing is a rational debate.

The problem is no government since that of Harold Wilson in the mid seventies has had the nerve to ask, David Cameron has made encouraging noises about holding a referendum, but he has to date, been rather vague as to when. The twelfth of never sounds like a likely date.


The strange case of the bureaucrats who listened.

It’s almost like something out of a Bateman cartoon, maybe one showing a throng of people belonging to the chattering classes gawping in horror at, as the caption below tells us ‘The bureaucrat who changed his mind.’

I mean of course the decision by Secretary for Education, Schools and Families Ed Balls, not always a sensitive or particularly sensible man, to review plans to make parents taking part in voluntary activities with children not their own to sign a special register.

The move hasn’t been popular, Sir Roger Singleton, Chair of the Independent Safeguarding Authority told the Guardian ‘I hear phrases like common sense and proportion,’ in relation to the public backlash against the plan, he continues to say ‘I don’t know how you can make sure a person considered is who they say they are’ without some king of screening process.

Quite so Sir Roger, but the process itself is doomed to fail if it is devoid of the common sense and proportion about which you spoke so scathingly. Yes people who have regular contact with children need to the checked but paranoia never protected anybody.

He may be a charmless and overambitious oaf in many respects but by calling for this silly and panic driven plan to be re-examined and hopefully replaced with something more workable Ed Balls is very much on the side of the angels.


Bong! ITN to axe Big Ben.

ITN is to remove Big Ben from the titles of its flagship News at Ten bulletin in an attempt to make the news less London centric. The legendary bongs will be incorporated into a new soundtrack.

Don’t worry though as part of the re-branding process and to ‘retain the heritage that people recognise,’ a spokesman for ITN said, a clock face will be incorporated into the new studio design. Well that’s ok then isn’t it?

Re-branding, if there’s a worse word in the English language I don’t know of it. It’s always used by media types as a short hand for treating the audience like idiots whilst spending shed loads of money.

Here’s a late news item, viewers don’t like familiar formats being messed with and they positively detest being treated like idiots. That’ll be why most of ITV’s bonged off to the BBC years ago.


Saturday, 24 October 2009

The slow suicide of an old and trusted friend.

On the Thursday of this week 42,000 drivers and mail centre workers employed by the Royal Mail went out on strike, a day later they were joined by 80,000 delivery workers, and for two days not a letter was delivered from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

This latest round in the seemingly endless battle between the Royal Mail and its employees resembles nothing so much as another step in the slow suicide of an old and trusted friend. He might have had his leadership abilities questioned, again, at PMQ’s by an opposition that can smell blood in the water but it is hard not to agree with Gordon Brown when he told the BBC ‘This strike is self defeating. It’s essential everyone gets around the table.’

The table in question being in the office of arbitration service ACAS, he, or rather wily Lord Mandelson might get them there, but I doubt it will do any good.

Rather like an exasperated school teacher breaking up a fight in the playground you cannot help feeing the postal strike is a classic case of six of one and half a dozen of the other.

In the blue corner we have a macho management led by Royal Mail Chief Executive Adam Crozier, a man who seems to work on the premise that it is the role of his staff to meekly ask ‘please sir how high?’ whenever he bellows ‘Jump!’ In the red corner we have the CWU, for whom the industrial strife of the seventies and eighties seems never to have happened, all they have to do is call a strike, bring the country to a halt and it will be off to Downing Street for beer and sandwiches.

Caught in the middle, as ever, are the poor bloody workers, people who know from bitter experience that times have changed and the old ways of working for managers and union alike have long ago become obsolete. They provide what is, for all its faults, a truly first rate postal service and they deserve to be better led by both the Royal Mail and their union.

Sadly the job is being done by people who think this strike is how the revolution is going to start, be it the free trade one where the market carries all before it or the one where the workers unite to build a better world; they are wrong. This is how revolutions end, in bitterness, strife and disappointment.

Source :

Not in front of the children.

Have you seen the new television advert put out by the Department of Energy and Climate Change? It cost £6million and uses images of cartoon animals drowning in an epic flood to scare (I mean educate) us about the dangers of climate change.

The Advertising Standards Agency has received 357 complaints from viewers who said their children had been frightened by the advert, which uses a father reading a bedtime story about the horrors of global warming to his child as a framing device.

I don’t know about scaring the children, the wild eyed evangelism of the green lobby on this issue does a good job of scaring most adults.

Undoubtedly Energy and Climate Change minister Joan Ruddock has a point when she says ‘Climate change is not just a problem for generations of people in the future, it affects us and our children owe it to them to take action now.’

Indeed it is and we certainly do have to act, but when we do so we have to be guided by rationality and a willingness to question everything, not the hysterical propaganda put out by a green movement the is in the throes of turning itself into a fundamentalist faith that, like all such faiths, sees reason as a threat.


Storm in a teacup.

What is your favourite type of biscuit? Not, you would think, a particularly tough question, even if it was put to you by Jeremy Paxman rattling the biscuit barrel under your nose.

Nevertheless when mumsnet asked Gordon Brown to name his biccy of choice (twelve times as it turns out, so maybe Paxo was on the job after all) he was unable to give an answer, eventually a spokesman let it be known that our beloved leader likes ‘anything with a bit of chocolate on it’.

The mind boggles at the tortuous round of negotiation, hand wringing and hastily convened focus groups the inmates of the Downing Street bunker must have gone through before arriving at an answer that leaves nobody any the wiser. Bourbons or chocolate digestives; make your mind up man.

The leaders of the two opposition parties had no such problems giving an answer, for the record David Cameron likes organic oatcakes and Nick Clegg prefers either Hobnobs or Rich Tea, how very Liberal Democrat to have two contradictory policies on the same issue. The press haven’t, as yet, asked the oik Griffin what sort of biscuit he likes; mostly because nobody cares.


Friday, 16 October 2009

Dear MP’s- cough up!

As they troop back to Westminster from the champagne and bright lights of the conference season MP’s will find in their In-Tray a letter that may ask them to pay back wrongly claimed expenses.

The letters are a result of an inquiry into MP’s expenses led by former civil servant Sir Thomas Legg held in the wake of the revelations about everything from duck houses and moat cleaning to mars bars and blue movies being charged to the public purse by our elected representatives made in the Daily Telegraph over the summer. All three party leaders have issued instructions to their members to pay up and shut up in the name of not dragging the reputation of the mother of all parliaments any further through the mud.

Things may not, though, go quite so neatly to plan. Many MP’s feel Sir Thomas had overstepped his remit by applying the new rules retrospectively, calling for the repayment of expenses that had been signed off by the fees office up to five years ago.

Sir Stuart Bell, of the influential Commons Members Estimate Committee, to whom Legg will have to submit his report, told the BBC at the start of the week that many MP’s feel ‘Sir Thomas is not staying within the remit, he’s not respecting decisions made by the fees office in accordance with the rules at the time.’

It may be about as popular just now as saying Bankers? Of course they deserve their bonuses, but our embattled MP’s do have a point. Yes the people who made deliberately fraudulent claims should be made to pay the money back and thrown out of parliament, but far from being shameless freeloaders the majority of MP’s do give value for money.

As an example I would site the MP for my own home town in the West Midlands, a man recognised by website ‘They Work For You’ as one of the hardest working MP’s in the commons whine it comes to dealing with cases brought to him by his constituents. No questions at all have been asked about his expenses, but in the court of lazy saloon bar opinion he is judged to be guilty along with the criminal few among his colleagues.

Perhaps we, the permanently outraged British public, should be asking ourselves a few awkward questions.

A large proportion of the MP’s caught with their arm up to the elbow in the cookie jar represented constituencies where one party had a virtual monopoly, if the public took enough of an interest in politics to make no seat safe, the chances of the person representing it becoming complacent and possibly corrupt would be much reduced.

We also have to ask ourselves just what who we want to represent us in parliament. If we want, as is so often claimed on radio talk shows, the job to be done by ‘people like us’, then we will have to pay those people a decent wage and provide them with reasonable expenses. Those expenses should pay for essentials not luxuries and claimants should have to justify every penny they take from the public purse, but there is no way around paying the money out, nor should there be.

The alternative is being governed by a mix of celebrities and people who are rich enough not to need a salary. It won’t work, politics succeeds or fails on whether or not its practitioners can connect with the people they have been elected to represent, whatever talents they may have in other areas I doubt very much whether Jordan or some aristocrat rich enough to think of Devon as his back garden are really up to the job.


Come Dancing? I’d rather we didn’t.

As if they didn’t have more important things to concentrate on at the moment, you know like the recession and climate change turning the poles into a giant slush puppy, the government has decided that we aren’t dancing enough.

Don’t worry though because they’re going to send out teams of ‘dance champions’ to coax us off the sofa and onto the dance floor.

The campaign is fronted by former ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ judge Arlene Phillips, who will be holding a series of ‘dance celebration’ events across the country. Speaking to earlier this week Phillips said: ‘We want to start a revolution to get the nation on their feet and onto the dance floor.’

Ok, so this is all part of an admirable attempt to get the 100,000 people in the UK who don’t exercise enough up and moving around, but I fear it is doomed to failure.

We Britons are just too shy and body conscious, at least when we’re sober anyway, to dance in public. However good the intentions behind this initiative press ganging a few people into giving an exhibition of ‘dad dancing’ in a dreary shopping mall whilst being ignored by passers by will do nothing to change that awkward fact of national character.


Veg and no meat for this spider.

Scientists at Villanova University announced this week that they have discovered the world’s first vegetarian spider.

Bagheera Kiplingi does not use its web to trap or hunt prey and instead feeds on Beltian bodies, a special leaf tip found on acacia plants.

It might be facetious but I have to ask anyway, do you thing vegetarian spiders are as annoying as the human variety? Do they waft about the place in a haze of smugly half starved moral superiority refusing to let anything that hasn’t been sanctified by St Linda McCartney pass their lips? I think we should be told.


Sunday, 11 October 2009

Cameron and the Tories growing confidence.

In his keynote speech to the Conservative Party conference this week David Cameron told the party faithful that an incoming Tory government would be ‘ready to be tested’ by the ‘tough’ times ahead.

In a direct attack on a befuddled Labour government lumbering to the tar pit along a road paved with faction fighting, broken promises and economic chaos he said ‘Don’t you dare lecture us about poverty. You have failed and it falls to the modern Conservative Party to fight for the poorest who you have let down.’

If, or when, if the polls are to be believed, a Conservative government took office he pledged ‘If you’re frightened, we’ll protect you, if you risk your safety to stop a crime, we’ll stand by you, if you risk your life to fight for your country, we will honour you.’

In this, easily the best speech of an otherwise rather dismal conference season the message was clear, society is broken, the economy is struggling and social mobility has stalled; only pone party can turn things around and he was going to lead it back into power after thirteen years in the doldrums. Stirring stuff and, unusually for a speech made by a party leader made to an audience of journalists and party activists it seemed to resonate strongly with the wider electorate.

The responses made by the government and the Liberal Democrats to the speech show why at the moment nobody seems able to land a glove on Mr Cameron.

Liam Byrne, Chief Secretary to the Treasury called Cameron’s speech ‘emotive but deceptive’ and said that it ‘concealed the judgement that he has consistently got it wrong’ when it comes to tackling the recession. Danny Alexander for the Liberal Democrats said there was ‘a huge gulf between the sunny rhetoric of David Cameron and the grim reality of Tory policy’ and claimed that at a time of crisis they had ‘the wrong solutions and the wrong priorities.’

Both the government and the Lib Dems have misread, again, the public mood, by emphasising the tough times ahead and the traditional values needed to cope with them Cameron was giving the voting public what it has been crying out for over the past year; honesty. This stands in sharp contrast to the shrill and mixed messages sent out by the government and the inability of the Liberal Democrats to find a sense of purpose even though the greatest political opportunity the party has had access to for eighty years could be presented to them if the next election produces a hung parliament.

The media has made no better a fist out of challenging the rise and rise of David Cameron and the Notting Hill bunch, the best it seems able to come up with is an endless recycling of the ancient photograph of Cameron and his chums done up in their Bullingdon Club regalia and rumours about his youthful drug use.

There are serious questions to be asked about the Tory renaissance, such as, which is the real David Cameron, the stern defender of the poor or the media friendly Notting hillbilly who wanted to let sunshine win the day a couple of years ago? If he wants to challenge a culture that believes ‘for every problem there is a government solution’ and to fight the ‘steady erosion of responsibility’ that is a consequence of being dependent on the state, does have the will to devolve the power to change their lives and communities to individuals, many of whom are not natural conservatives?

At the moment these and many other questions are going unasked because the media is recalibrating itself to deal with a shift in the balance of power at Westminster and the only other opposition party lacks the stomach for a fight. As for the Labour Party, it looks ever more likely that their last month in office will be eaten up by the first round of a long and bitter fight between the tattered remnants of the New Labour project and the supporters of old style socialism.

With the party conferences out of the way and the leaves turning brown the starting gun for the election has been fired, they may not yet have it in the bag, but for the first time in almost twenty years Britain’s conservatives look like they have the confidence and connection with the public to win.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Has Labour lost it?

The Labour Party has ‘lost the will to live’ and resembles nothing so much as a football team that desperately needs to raise its game to avoid being relegated from the Premiership, said Chancellor Alistair Darling on the eve of the party conference in Brighton this week.

He may well have been speaking figuratively, but his comments still cast a dark shadow over the conference that no amount of brave talk from the podium was able to dispel.

This was the week when the party leadership hoped to inspire the rank and file membership to face what Business Secretary Peter Mandelson called ‘the fight of our lives’, or, more accurately for their political lives as an Ipsos Mori poll conducted on the day Gordon Brown made his keynote speech put Labour in third place on 24% for the first time since 1982. That may have been the intention; the reality was that the conference merely paraded on a very public stage the problems Labour has struggled with for the past two years.

The largest of these problems is the leadership style of Gordon Brown; despite his notorious difficulties with communicating with party and public alike his previous two conference speeches have been successful enough to give his approval ratings a short term boost. In the first he managed to convince starry eyed party activists and cynical media hacks alike that he really did represent a change from the politics of spin and sound bytes, in the second he saw off the challenge to his leadership presented by David Milliband and Harriet Harman.

The lift both speeches provided was, of course, only temporary, in 2007 he flunked calling the general election that would have given him a real mandate to govern and after the 2008 speech came a year of scandals, slip ups and increasingly odd behaviour that overshadowed his expert handling of the financial crisis. This time there was no discernable lift at all and the speech that could have bought the party a little much needed breathing space only served to add to their problems.

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Having Brown’s wife Sarah introduce his speech, a big success last year mostly because she seemed to be almost the only un-spun individual in the entire conference hall, fell flat this time round because after a year of being photographed with Michelle Obama and Bono Mrs Brown no longer resembles a wife thrust into the limelight to stand up for her misunderstood husband so much as yet another cynical PR operator trying to work the crowd.

Brown’s delivery also fell flat, his call for party activists to ‘dream big and watch our country soar’, sounded cheesy and unconvincing delivered by a man who had spent much of the week having whether or not he needs anti-depressants to get him through the day debated by the media. The Prime Minister did his cause no favours on the day after his big speech by exhibiting signs of extreme stress when he stormed out of an interview with Sky’s Adam Boulton, for him at least, it seems, the dream long ago turned into a nightmare.

Brown’s speech also demonstrated another problem faced by Labour, too many policies and too little idea of how they might be delivered on before the next election. He announced, amongst a slew of other plans and initiatives, ten hours of free child care for families on ‘modest incomes’, a £1 billion ‘innovation fund’ to help businesses during the recession and, most controversially a plan to house teenage single mothers in shared houses rather than council flats where they would be given support and parenting advice by social services. Few of these announcements were new, how they might be paid for in a time of severe constraints on the public purse was a mystery, but still they came pouring out in the hope that one might catch the public mood and deflect a little of the criticism being heaped upon his beleaguered government.

Traditionally party conferences in the run up to an election are an opportunity for the leadership to stiffen the sinews of their troops ahead of the trials to come; at least they are for parties with a decent shot of winning. For Labour this week was something else, it was an unwelcome confirmation of what they knew all along, the party is exhausted by twelve years in government, bereft of fresh ideas and deeply unhappy within itself. Like a battered heavyweight it may yet claw itself upright using the ropes, but will only be knocked down again.

Symbolic of Labour’s declining fortunes was the decision taken by the Sun newspaper, the in house journal of the UK’s ‘white van men’, to withdraw the support it has given to the party at every election since 1997.

Party veteran Margaret Beckett said the Sun’s change of allegiance was a ‘problem’, but not an ‘insurmountable’ one, union boss Tony Woodley ripped up a copy of the paper on the conference platform and won a standing ovation and, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Gordon Brown said ‘In the end we like the support of every newspaper, you’d like to have the support of lots of people that are not giving you support, but it is people that decide elections.’

However brave the tune there no doubt that Gordon Brown et al are still whistling in the dark. The Murdoch press may have less power to influence public opinion that it would like us to believe, but it has a near unswerving accuracy when it comes to reflecting what the public think. As the Sun’s headline ran on Wednesday morning ‘Labour has lost it’. Lost touch with the public mood, lost touch with its core values and, it looks ever more likely, lost the next election.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Clegg and co still desperately seeking a purpose.

This week the Liberal Democrats held their conference in Bournemouth, traditionally this is the point at which the rest of the country asks itself just what the party stands for before deciding that is doesn’t matter all that much after all.

Nothing much happened this week to change the general indifference felt by most Britons towards the perennial bridesmaids of the parliamentary system. Party leader Nick Clegg got tangled up over how to justify the calls be made for ‘savage’ cuts to public spending on the eve of the conference with the calls for ‘tax cuts for ordinary people’ paid for by ‘closing tax loopholes for the very rich’ he made from the conference platform.

Treasury spokesman Vince Cable, aka the most trusted man in politics, laid another egg when he announced a ‘mansion tax’ to be imposed on anyone owning a property worth more than £1million, no sooner had the announcement been made than the wheels fell of the whole policy as it was pointed out by the media, conference delegates and pretty much everyone else that the tax would trap countless people of modest means unlucky enough to live in a home that had seen its value rise during the property boom.

The whole conference had hanging over it the distinct air of a party trying desperately hard to appear relevant and dynamic only to be continually tripped up by its inherent amateurishness. All the faults that have been evident in the Liberal Democrat brand for years were again exposed by the cruel light of media scrutiny, lets just tick a few of them off.

Nick Clegg still resembles nothing so much as a man recovering from a successful charisma bypass, there is no coherent vision of what, in the unlikely event of one ever being elected a Lib Dem government would actually do in office apart from trying very hard to be nice to everyone, and as a whole the party seems to lack the confidence and the hunger necessary for a concerted push to improve its standing with a jaded electorate that shows every sign of genuinely being on the lookout for something different after the sleaze and scandals of the past year.

All told the conference could be written off as one big missed opportunity, but to do so would be to miss an important point. The Liberal Democrat conference was, and this may make party managers at the heart of the Labour and Tory party machines throw their hands up in horror like a party of Edwardian spinsters who have had their tea party gate crashed by Piltdown man, was a genuinely democratic event.

The party leadership may have fumbled the ball over cuts in public spending, student loans and the ‘mansion tax’, but unlike their contemporaries in the other two parties the grassroots membership were able to express their opposition through motions moved on the conference floor. That would never, of course, be allowed to happen at a carefully stage managed Labour or Tory conference, something that does both parties a grave disservice.

In his speech from the conference platform Nick Clegg noted the value his party still places on that quaint old thing called democracy, telling a national audience that would mostly never think of voting for his party that through their vote ‘power’ was theirs to ‘give away to whoever you choose’, refreshing sentiments in an age when too often politicians treat the voting public like naughty children rather than equal partners in the democratic process.

The ‘liberal moment’ some commentators predicted might be upon us as voters desert a moribund Labour Party and fail to warm to David Cameron’s Conservatives looks unlikely to arrive any time soon, the party needs a new leader and a lot more grit before it can win the battle to be an effective opposition let alone a government in waiting, and yet it is hard not to warm to Nick Clegg when he promises ‘hope for a different future, a different way of doing things, if we are brave enough to make a fresh start.’

However angry they are over MP’s expenses, the troubles besetting the economy and the general feeling the political class has lost touch with ordinary Britons and the challenges they face the electorate may not yet be ready to turn to the Lib Dems to show them how to make a ‘fresh start’, but they may be by the time of the election after next. The question is will the Liberal Democrats themselves be ready to meet the challenge.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Any cuts to public services must be made on grounds of principle alone.

At long last the cat is out of the bag, in his speech to the TUC conference on Tuesday Gordon Brown finally used the ‘C’ word, he said that if re-elected a Labour government would: ‘Cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programmes and cut lower priority budgets.’

All well and good, but the real issue is the size of the cuts that would have to be made by any government after the next election, treasury documents leaked to the press this week suggest a cut of 9.3% over the four years from 2010. The only alternative to this, as suggested by the Institute for Fiscal Studies this week is a huge hike in taxes at the very moment when the economy is starting to take its first faltering steps towards recovery.

An IFS source told the BBC this week that the recession and the banking crisis could put ‘the tightest squeeze on spending on public services since the UK was negotiating its spending plans with the International Monetary Fund in the 1970’s.’

Predictably the Conservatives sought to make political capital out of the government’s embarrassment with shadow chancellor George Osborne saying that Gordon Brown had ‘misled’ parliament over spending cuts and David Cameron accusing him of being the prime mover in a long term ‘cover up’ of the extent by which the public purse strings will have to be tightened.

The Liberal Democrats, in the shape of their economic affairs guru Vince Cable, took a more high minded line criticizing the Tories for trying to make ‘a big political issue’ out of spending cuts that, he said, most people had known were imminent for months.

As sunny Jim Callaghan put it back in the seventies ‘the party’s over’, now we have to face the mess it created in the cold light of a hung over morning and it is not a pretty sight.

Over their twelve years in office Labour have splashed the cash in relation to public services often with the very best of intentions, but little idea of how to bring about the much needed reform of the public sector, matters weren’t helped, of course, by their inability to negotiate with the unions representing public sector workers.

Now the battered and bewildered government led by Gordon Brown must spend its last few months in office contemplating a question that will define political life in the UK for the next decade, what is to be cut and why?

It is, to say the very least, something of a curve ball thrown at a political class that long ago abandoned tricky subjects such as defining what it means to belong to the left or the right for media friendly sound bytes and a cosy seat on the fence.

The method favoured by Mrs Thatcher in the eighties of standing back and letting the markets fix the problem, or not fix it if that suited their mood has been proved a failure. Whole cities have been turned into little more than reservations for the disengaged with a disastrous knock on effect in terms of health problems and spiralling welfare costs, social problems that have become engrained over a generation will take the same length of time to cure and cost billions.

Cuts are an inevitable part of reducing a budget deficit that has been allowed, again for the very best intentioned reasons, to reach levels never before seen in peacetime by a government that is fast running out of time and energy. Whoever wins that next election must make them though from a standpoint of first having decided what services it wishes to preserve and how much pain we will all have to endure in order for it to do so.

Soaring levels of debt, deep social problems and a growing suspicion on the part of the electorate that the political class simply isn’t up to the job of governing the country are returning Britain to the status of the ‘sick man of Europe’ it held in the seventies. The cure will be painful in the extreme, but to work in must take the form of laser surgery not the brutal and often counterproductive butchery practiced by an eighteenth century barber surgeon who knows how to cut well enough, but must rely on trial, and often fatal, error in order to work out where to do so.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Save our election night.

Well upholstered Tory Chairman Eric Pickles, now there surely is a name made to appear on the marquee outside the theatre on the pier of a run down seaside resort, is not a happy man. He weighed in ( really I must stop it) to criticise the growing numbers of councils believed to be considering moving the counting of the votes for the next general election from Thursday night to the following morning.

The move, claimed to be due to the rising numbers of people using postal votes and the high cost of paying council employees to work until the early hours of the morning counting the votes, mirrors current practice for all European Parliament elections and most local elections.

Employing the sort of rhetoric Seneca would have given his right arm for Mr Pickles said delaying the count until the Friday morning meant the event that defines our democracy would have ‘all the impact of a soggy sparkler on Bonfire Night.’

He isn’t alone in seeking to defend the traditional election night festivities; Jonathan Isaby of Conservativehome has launched a Facebook petition devoted to the issue.

Good luck to them and shame on the Town Hall penny pinchers who want, as usual, to spoil the fun.

Seriously, it may not rank up there with seeing the Grand Canyon or sailing down the Nile, but everyone should attend at least one election count before they die.

As an event it is somewhere between a farce and a thriller with boxes being rushed in from the polling stations and, once the counting is under way people, most of whom you don’t know and may never see again rushing around passing on results from constituencies around the country that have already declared their result. You’re up by five percent, no you’re down by three; your party is set to form the next government, no its out of the game and heading for an embarrassing leadership race before the conference season starts.

The whole thing ends with the candidates, at least in a general election anyway, stepping up onto the podium to make their victory speech or to try and get at least one sentence of their gracious concession onto the local news.

It is all pure theatre and of a decidedly amateur dramatic sort, and all the better for it. Election night, when careers are made or made to founder is one of the few moments when politicians cannot duck making contact with the most important people, the voters. I am on the side of Eric Pickles, Jonathan Isaby, the massed ranks of Facebook and anyone else fighting to save our election night.

Should the BNP appear on Question Time?

This week the BBC confirmed that it may invite BNP leader Nick Griffin onto its popular discussion programme Question Time, which may cause problems for the three main political parties all of whom refuse to share a platform with the far right party.

How does this make you feel? Angry that an oafish man representing a party that shamelessly trades on misery and ignorance has been given a platform on national television? So do I, however, I also find it hard to disagree with the BBC’s chief political adviser Ric Bailey when he points out that the BNP has ‘demonstrated evidence of electoral support at a national level’, meaning that under its own rule our national broadcaster has to treat them with due impartiality.

This is not, necessarily, the disaster it at first appears to be, by refusing to share a platform with the BNP the three mainstream parties are, unwittingly, protecting their most dangerous rival from having its policies exposed to public scrutiny.

Far from excluding the BNP from appearing on national television Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems should be taking every opportunity to pick their policies apart on national television, exposing them for what they are, racist thugs who neither understand or truly love this country.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Light bulb ban could leave us all in the dark.

Some day soon I might have to write these weekly notes on the passing parade of English life by candle light, or at least by something that gives a good impression of it.

Why might that be? Because the EU has banned the sale and manufacture of traditional 100 watt light bulbs and decreed that their place must be taken by ecologically friendly compact fluorescent ones instead. A move that could, according to the Energy Saving Trust, cut the amount of electricity used for lighting by up to 80%.

All to the good you might think, and you might go on from there to think that anyone who complains about the change is just a stick in the mud. While the intentions behind the ban are on the side of the angels the way they have been implemented leaves much to be desired.

Take, for example, the health concerns relating to the use of fluorescent lighting, which can have an adverse effect on conditions such as lupus, migraine and epilepsy. Earlier this week David Price of Spectrum, a federation of charities representing people with light sensitive health conditions told the BBC that the government and through it the EU is ‘disregarding’ the concerns of the people fro whom his group speaks and the wider public.

The problem is, for the UK government at least, is that it finds itself caught between the rock of ever tougher environmental legislation being handed down from Brussels and the hard place of dealing with a green lobby that grows ever shriller and more unreasonable by the day, a combination of circumstances that is anathema to common sense.

All sensible people agree now that something has to be done to preserve the planet’s finite resources for future generations, the problem is how to go about doing so. Banning things, be they light bulbs, unnecessary flights or anything else that springs to mind is seldom the answer and almost always the default response of politicians who have been pushed into a corner by single issue lobby groups.

In a few years time the UK may well have a shortage of electricity to power its light bulbs, be they traditional of eco friendly, as an energy gap created by the closure of old nuclear and coal fired power stations and the lack of a sustainable alternative source of power. Government, green lobbyists and the EU have a role to play in helping to find a solution, but before that happens a little common sense must first enter the debate.

It is particularly important the green movement, who are one of the few political forces in the UK untouched by public cynicism about MP’s expenses and broken promises, learns this lesson. The time has come for them to put off the grimly doctrinaire attitudes of student radicalism and with them the hair shirt and embrace a willingness to compromise that creates enough public support to actually get things done.

Is it Dee time for Ross and co to go.

Simon Dee, one time chat show host and, for a brief moment, the epitome of everything that made London swing during the 1960’s died in obscurity last weekend aged 74.

Dee gave his name, so his obituaries told us this week, to a phenomenon referred to by cynical media types as ‘Simon Dee syndrome’, meaning the sad situation when a former celebrity is now only famous for no longer being famous. His brief career and the long littleness that followed can be seen as further confirmation of something that everyone in show business knows but pretends not to know; that fame is transient and that talent is the only guarantee of longevity.

You have to wonder if in the households of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, never mind those of the legions of people made fleetingly famous by reality television the announcement of Simon Dee’s demise caused this awkward truth to hit home, followed by the realisation that his sad ending might one day be theirs too. I really rather hope so.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

A light in our darkness- maybe.

If you’re willing to ignore the mutterings of the pessimists who say it will only turn out to be the headlamp of an oncoming train it seems the UK might be beginning to see a little light at the end of the long, dark recessionary tunnel we entered when Northern Rock collapsed in the Autumn of 2007.

This week the Institute of Chartered Accountants reported that its index of business confidence had risen to 4.8% and predicted that the UK economy would grow by 0.05% in the second quarter of 2009. Chief Executive Michael Izza said: ‘This quarter’s business confidence monitor suggests the UK recession is at an end,’ although he warned against ‘underestimating’ the challenges ahead it looks like the good times may be about to start rolling again.

An impression further confirmed by the announcement by Ben Bernake of the US Federal Reserve that the world’s largest economy looked set to join Germany, France and Japan in emerging from recession before the year is out.

So, I ask myself, why aren’t we all out dancing in the streets or at the very least dusting off our credit cards and heading for the shops? The answer is because it isn’t that simple.

Growing confidence amongst business professionals and the emergence of major economies from recession are good things but real people care about and are influenced by much more than just the economy stupid. A number of other factors mean that the good times aren’t going to start rolling any time soon for a large number of Britons.

If, like me you live in a town that has lost the industries that were its sole reason for existing over the past thirty years the recession didn’t begin in 2007, it began around the time Denis Healey went to the IMF with his cap in his hand.

You will also have received the figure released this week that 3.3 million homes in the UK have no adults in work not as an indictment of a too generous welfare state, but as a stark reminder of how many lives are blighted by poverty and a lack of purpose.

While it is good news that business leaders feel more confident and that Lord Turner has started the debate about tightening the way the city of London is regulated, although it would be a mistake to think said debate should end with his rather student union proposals for banning ‘socially useless’ banking activities, real steps will have to be taken to mend our fractured society before the man and woman in the street feel a similar boost in their confidence levels. As Churchill might have put it, this isn’t the beginning of the end of the recession so much as the end of the beginning of our journey along a long and difficult road.

Big Brother, we’re not watching you.

There is at least one thing about which the joy of all right thinking people can be unconfined this week, Big Brother the granddaddy of all reality television programmes has been axed. Makers Endemol said the 2010 series would be the last citing falling ratings and the dismal nature of the current crop of contestants.

Lets not be under any illusions Big Brother isn’t and never was any kind of social experiment; it was a tawdry freak show. A few of the freaks, the late Jade Goody being the most prominent example, made sizeable fortunes and achieved a larger than expected place in the nation’s affections, but they were freaks none the less and we all demeaned ourselves by taking an interest in their antics for so long.

One question remains though, what will all those self obsessed nonentities out there who want to enjoy the trappings of fame and fortune without having to trouble themselves with either working hard or having any discernable talent do now their prime outlet has disappeared? I hear there may be several hundred vacancies at an establishment very similar to the Big Brother house situated in Westminster up for grabs next May.

Poetic Justice.

The conference season will soon be upon us, made a little more interesting this year by the impending general election. Never mind fending off a challenge to his leadership from Foreign Secretary and part time Jerry Lewis impersonator David Milliband Gordon Brown looks certain to lose the election and with it the place at the top table of British politics he has dedicated his whole adult life to achieving.

A haiku published on the New Statesman’s reliably amusing competitions page summed up his predicament and that of his party perfectly, it reads as follows:

Sound of no music
Fills the upturned half-lit hall:
Yesterday’s party.

Talk about many a true word being spoken in jest.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Tory education reforms are bottom of the common sense league.

Over the past week or so much has been made of the attitudes of David Cameron’s new model Tories to the dear old NHS. While he’s been at pains to distance himself from the comments made by publicity hungry MEP Daniel Hannan there is a lingering suspicion that outside its Notting Hill branch most of the party would happily see it consigned to the dustbin.

Naturally this is a cause for concern, however bureaucratic and wasteful it may be the NHS does at least ensure that people get medical treatment regardless of their ability to pay up front, not something that can be said for most of the alternatives on offer. Can the Tories be trusted with the NHS? Up to a point, if only for the reason that dismantling it would be a public relations disaster from which the party would be unlikely to recover.

Let’s ask ourselves another, equally important, question. Can the Tories be trusted with Britain’s education system? Based on their performance over the past week I doubt it.

The normally sensible Michael Gove this week announced that an incoming Conservative government would give schools extra league table points for steering students towards ‘hard’ A Level subjects such as maths and the sciences and knock points off for students enrolled to study ‘soft’ subjects such as media studies et al. Striking a resolutely populist note he told the BBC that the current A Level system had been ‘dumbed down’ and that league tables were largely to blame.

Too much pressure, he said, was being placed on students likely to get a C grade in hard subjects to take easier options in the hope of getting an A and thereby improving the school’s place in the league tables, as a result potential high achievers aren’t being stretched and students who are struggling were being pushed to one side.

This position is based on a report written by Richard Sykes, a former rector of Imperial College London and contains, as most muddled thinking does, a germ of common sense. League tables have gone from being a useful measure of a school’s performance to being an opaque public relations exercise that confuses parents, students and schools alike. A point highlighted in a report from the Teaching and Learning Programme this week, which called for school league tables to be published with a ‘health warning’ because they often have the potential to be so misleading

Handing out extra points to schools on the basis of pushing students into studying subjects that are perceived to be harder will do little to address the problems inherent within the system, and may even make things worse for schools if the drop out rate increases. The plan is also flawed because along with the government’s failed diplomas it ignores vocational courses altogether.

Unsurprisingly a group of Oxbridge educated conservative politicians has, yet again, made the mistake of believing the only test of educational success is whether or not a student makes it into university. While we do need more graduates we also need to educate the next generation of trades people, but if schools are actively discouraged from providing vocational courses because there are no ‘points’ to be gained from doing so that simply isn’t going to happen, much to our national cost.

Tinkering with league tables isn’t going to improve the life chances of the kids who won’t be amongst the 26.7% of students celebrating getting top marks at A Level; neither is downgrading the vocational training that offers them a chance to get ahead in a tough jobs market.

What might improve things is killing off the AS Level that has turned A Levels from a time when students can explore the world of learning and even read a few of those funny papery things called books that haven’t been cut into chunks to be regurgitated in an exam room into just another hurdle on the educational obstacle course, and having done so placing it on an equal footing with vocational courses so that the age old divide between academia and ‘trade’ is finally done away with.

So long as they continue to play to the gallery and perpetuate prejudices that should have been rejected long ago the Conservatives cannot do more that pretend to be equal to one of the greatest challenges that faces any government, educating the next generation of workers.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Is Britain really the land of the lazy?

Never mind swine flu Britain, it seems, is in the grip of a potentially more serious epidemic, of laziness.

According to a survey carried out for the Nuffield Trust a third of the people they spoke to said they were too lazy to run for an bus and half of the dog owners surveyed admitted to being too lazy to take their pet for a walk.

Dr Sarah Dauncey, medical director at the Nuffield Trust told the website this week that ‘ready meals, remote controls and even internet shopping’, have all been contributing factors in making the average Briton ‘dangerously lazy and idle.’

Doesn’t the good doctor sound like a bundle of fun, well she does if your idea is being told scolded by nanny before being given a large spoonful of cod liver oil and sent off to bed early.

Perhaps a little perspective is needed on whether or not we’re idler as a nation than we used to be a few years ago. Undoubtedly the rise of car ownership and the decline of heavy industry, never mind the fact that the nation’s couch potatoes no longer have to trek across the room to change channels on the TV, mean we are less active than we used to be, but is that necessarily a bad thing?

I’ll admit there is nothing worse than being trapped in unwanted idleness by unemployment, old age or serious illness; it is also scandalously wrong that we fret ourselves into convulsions about childhood obesity whist keeping school sports facilities locked up at weekends and during the long summer holidays so the nation’s children have nothing much to do in the way of entertainment apart from eating Pringles and playing on the X Box. As for the wilfully stupid practice of selling off school playing fields, well don’t even get me started.

There is though, even the energetic Dr Dauncey would probably have to admit, a difference between being active and just being busy, and that it is important to draw a clear distinction between the two.

Being active means moving about, be it on a sports field or just trotting between the sofa and your computer screen, with a definite purpose in mind, be that scoring the winning goal, taking five wickets in a single over or just writing a halfway decent sentence. Being busy, on the other hand, is entirely different and usually much less productive.

Consider, if you will, the case of our own dear Prime Minister, nobody could doubt Mr Brown’s work ethic, what with his early morning calls to cabinet members and the huge wad of memos and documents he seems to carry with him perpetually like some unfortunate cursed by the gods. The same work ethic can be seen in operation in the endless stream of policies, statements, initiatives and re launches of the policy we started off with in the first place that pour out of Whitehall on a daily basis.

All very worthy I don’t doubt, but how much of it is actually effective? In all probability very little, the awkward truth is that activity alone is neither healthy nor efficient, to do our best we occasionally have to take the time out to do nothing at all.

Are there clouds on the horizon for Little Miss Sunshine?

This week Hazel Blears, the one time Secretary for Communities and Local Government had the tyres of her car slashed by vandals whilst out campaigning in her Salford constituency.

Ms Blears, who earlier this year had to pay back £13,000 in capital gains tax during the scandal over MP’s expenses and came close to derailing the government when she resigned from the cabinet after the debacle of June’s European elections, is not, it seems, well loved by her constituents. In fact she only narrowly survived being ousted by local Labour Party members.

You would, in one sense, need a heart of stone not to laugh at her predicament, from parading around on the day it looked like the government might collapse wearing a badge reading ‘rocking the boat’ she has ended up in a position where her own boat looks like it might be holed below the water line, and yet the newspaper pictures of her sitting in her wrecked car with her head in her hands call for a different and more compassionate response.

Being a victim of crime is no less traumatic just because you happen to be a member of parliament, the same goes for experiencing the dawning realisation that your hopes have been dashed because you decided to back the wrong horse.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Quotas aren’t the answer to making politics more representative.

Almost one week on from the event and Labour Party Deputy Leader Harriet Harman’s claim that one of the two top jobs in the party should always be held by a woman still seems like an instance of a politician committing the cardinal sin of her trade, speaking without thinking first.

The logic behind the claim, as she explained to the Sunday Times that men ‘cannot be trusted to run things on their own’, seems, by turns patronising, poorly thought through and rather anachronistic. As for her assertion on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that Britain needs a ‘team of women and men ministers’ on hand to help us through the current economic crisis takes stating the obvious to absurd lengths.

That isn’t, of course to say that Ms Harman doesn’t have a valid point, even if she did choose to express it in the terms of a 1970’s student activist rather than a seasoned professional politician. Parliament is indeed overloaded with mediocre middle aged white men, having more women MP’s, along with having more members from ethnic minorities and a generally wider mix of social backgrounds represented in the commons chamber would do much to revitalise a moribund institution.

The all important question is just how such a change should be brought about.

Not, I would suggest, by going down the route of imposing quotas for selecting prospective candidates from under represented groups for which many senior Labour figures seem to have such a misplaced enthusiasm for two very good reasons. First of all the suggestion they might have achieved their position by a process of positive discrimination saddles capable candidates with baggage they have no need to carry and second it can create a situation where fulfilling the quota starts to take precedence over selecting the right candidate for a particular seat or position, providing mediocre but ambitious time servers to access positions of power for which they are not at all suited.

If Harriet Harman or anyone else is truly keen to make politics more representative they must look beyond taking such a simplistic approach and address the way politics operates in this country.

The current system under which back bench MP’s are little more than crowd players in an ongoing drama of ministerial egotism and local government, traditionally a training ground for prospective parliamentarians, is treated as an irritating irrelevance does little to inspire talented people, whatever their gender, race or social background, to enter the political fray. To create a truly representative parliament MP’s must again feel empowered to hold the government of the day to account and local politicians must be able to bring real change and improvement to their communities.

Until that happens it might be a good idea to impose just one quota on senior politicians of all parties, one that would require them to think first and speak second.

Ban airbrushed pictures from magazines, say the Lib Dems.

The Liberal Democrats have also spent much of this week debating women’s issues and earlier this week, in a policy document overseen by Jo Swinson MP they called for air brushed pictures to be banned from magazines and advertisements, particularly where they might have a detrimental influence on young women.

Speaking to politics’ earlier this week Ms Swinson said ‘today’s unrealistic idea of what is beautiful means that young girls are under more pressure than they were even ten years ago’, she went on to say ‘airbrushing means that adverts contain completely unattainable images that no one can live up to in real life.’

It would be hard to argue against either point, the advertising industry does portray unattainable images, and not just to women either, because they create insecurity and insecurity is the most powerful sales tool of them all.

Sadly, as is so often the case with the Liberal Democrats, all the high minded effort put into addressing an important social issue has been overshadowed by the antics of one man; the eternally ludicrous Lembit Opik.

This week Mr Opik was pictured in the press with his latest paramour, Kate Green, a former underwear model who now ‘fronts’ the ‘say no to size zero’ campaign aimed. If you thought his antics didn’t overshadow the worthy statement made on the same issue by his party then you’re really going to be shocked when you hear what bears get up to in the woods.

Biggs has done his time- let him die in peace.

Ronnie Biggs, the most notorious of the great train robbers has been released from prison on compassionate grounds so that he can spend his last days with his family.

It’s an outrage, was the reaction of much of the tabloid press, after thirty years spent thumbing his nose at Britain from various exotic locations he deserved to die in prison; if you can’t do the time don’t do the crime, they chorused.

As ever the knee jerk reaction is both wrong and counter productive. Biggs was no hero and, so long as he had his health, deserved to be incarcerated for his part in a brutal crime. However, given that he has been turned into a broken husk by a series of strokes and may not live more than a few more weeks, keeping him in prison would be a denial of the one thing that truly separates honest people from criminals, the ability to show compassion to someone our basest instincts tell us is undeserving of it.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Barbecue summer- don’t make me laugh.

When is a barbecue summer not a barbecue summer? When it’s predicted by the Met Office of course.

As they’ve spent the past week pointing out with a Tour De France style display of back peddling of the sort usually put on by a junior government minister caught in an embarrassing situation, the Met Office didn’t actually say we we’re going to have a good summer. What they said, and you can probably hear the sound of a hair being split lengthways here, was that there was a 65% chance of it being a good summer.

After all we did have a couple of good weeks in early June and a rain free Wimbledon meant that Cliff Richard didn’t end up ‘entertaining’ the crowds on Centre Court. Anyway long range forecasting is jolly difficult and so we shouldn’t grouse when they get things a tad wrong.

As Brian Goulding, a spokesman for the Met Office told the BBC this week ‘seasonal forecasting is a difficult thing to do and this places some limitations on our forecast.’

Tell that to the marines Mr Goulding, actually, no, go tell it to all the families who in these environmentally conscious and recession haunted times opted for a staycation this year and as a result spent two weeks trapped in a caravan listening to the rain drum on the roof as their children wailed ‘we’re bored; there’s nothing to do.’

The British are a patient people, we’ll put up with just about anything from bent MP’s to trains that don’t even try to run on time, never mind customer service that is all but non existent; but having the weather forecast exposed as little more than so much over optimistic spin may well be too much.

You can be honest we don’t mind the rain, moaning about the weather is a national sport, tell it how it is and leave the spin and shifty evasions after the fact to the real experts; the politicians.

Oh David; you are a twit.

Its official, the silly season is well and truly upon us, noting else could explain the acres of newsprint devoted to David Cameron’s slip of the tongue during an interview broadcast on Absolute Radio last week.

He was talking about why he didn’t have any plans to join the growing number of MP’s who broadcast their thoughts to a breathless world via Twitter and said:

‘I think politician do have to think about what we say. And the trouble with Twitter is the instantness of it. Too many twits make a t**t.’

You got that right Dave, to his credit Mr Cameron issued an almost immediate apology saying ‘You always have to be careful what you say. If I’ve caused any offence I obviously regret that.’

As he enjoys a trashy novel on the beach this summer perhaps the Eton educated Mr Cameron might like to ponder a little maxim that was prominently displayed at my much less august alma mater ‘engage brain before opening mouth.’

Not such a nice guy Alan.

A few months ago I wrote an article on another site suggesting that Home Secretary Alan Johnson might make a future leader of the Labour Party. I was wrong.

A point proved this week by his shameful refusal to take action to ensure that Gary McKinnon, a rather sad young man suffering from Asberger’s Syndrome who hacked into the Pentagon’s computer system searching for information about UFO’s, would face trial in the UK rather than being extradited to the US.

Mr McKinnon’s guilt isn’t in question, rather whether a fragile man liable to self harm were he to be thrown into the bear pit of the US prison system wouldn’t be better served by being tried and punished on home soil.

The first duty of any leader is to protect the vulnerable; Alan Johnson has failed in that duty as has the government in which he serves; shame on him and on them.

Farewell Sir Bobby
On Friday the death of Sir Bobby Robson the former England football manager was announced and, for once, the tributes that followed from the great and the good of the game to dozens of ordinary fans were utterly genuine.

In the silly, self regarding world of professional football he was, despite filling his trophy cabinet with silverware over a fifty year career and later facing a horrific illness, a true original; a quiet and humble hero; a true gentleman of a type we may never see again.