Thursday, 2 July 2009

Not waving but drowning?

Is it a policy document or a manifesto? Is the question people have been asking about ‘Building Britain’s Future’, a glossy publication setting out the government’s draft legislative programme.

The pledges made in the document are impressive, cancer patients are going to have the right to be seen by a specialist within two weeks of being diagnosed; schools are to be freed from the shackles of the literacy and numeracy hour and allowed limited freedom to set their own curriculum in these important areas; public services are no longer going to be bound by endless targets and ambitious job creation plans are going to swing into action any day now.

Motherhood and free apple pie for all don’t get a mention but the heroic determination to reshape the world set out in the document tips it closer to being a manifest by another name than a mere statement of policy.

All well and good, some of the more cynical commentators have pointed out that many of the policies announced in Building Britain’s Future are already in place or have been ‘borrowed’ from the opposition, but is heartening to see a beleaguered Labour government trying to spell out what it stands for.

At least it is if you don’t pay too much attention to the overall tone of the announcement, which, with its gimmicks, Gordon Brown spent three days touring the country by train this week, and sense of breathless urgency aimed at attracting the attention of a media that seems to be rapidly losing interest, smacks uncomfortably of the sort of thing parties do during their first awkward term in opposition.

A desperate attempt to talk very loudly about anything at all apart from just why it was they fell out of favour with the public. Despite a heroic effort to suggest something different the government still seems, like the swimmer in Stevie Smith’s poem to be not waving but drowning.


One good thing to come out of this week’s whirlwind of policy announcements is the shelving of plans to part privatise the Royal Mail.

Lord Mandleson initially claimed the bill to do so was likely to lose out as it ‘jostled’ with other items of legislation for space on a crowded commons agenda, later in the week he kicked the issue into the long grass for an indefinite period.

He was, it was claimed, acting out of pure expedience, mostly by people who also complain about the government not listening to public opinion. On this emotive and politically divisive issue they have listened, but doing so has only delayed an awkward decision.

The Royal Mail has, like the railways, been in decline for decades and, like the railways full or part privatisation is unlikely to solve any of the underlying problems afflicting the service. Like Dracula in a schlock horror movie the privatisation of the Royal Mail is an issue that will refuse to die however many silver bullets are fired at it.

The choice that will have to be made sooner or later is a stark one between a privatised service run by several providers struggling to maximise income for shareholders whilst cutting operating costs to the bone or a state run mail service free from the crueller demands of making a profit but bound by a need to justify its expense and existence that will leave little room for sentimentality.

Choosing between this particular rock and hard place could decide much more than just the future of the Royal Mail; it could also decide that of the Labour Party.


Never mind the economic crisis or the fate of the polar ice caps a far more important question has been thrust upon us this week, what will happen to her poor old pussy now Mrs Slocomb has been transferred to the great department store in the sky?

Seriously, Mollie Sugden who died yesterday and was known and loved by millions as the battleaxe shop assistant from comedy classic ‘Are You Being Served? Was one of Britain’s great entertainers, it may be fashionable for trendy media types to look down on the type of programme in which she appeared as tame and suburban; they were nothing of the sort. Are you Being Served smuggled more smut, subversion and sheer comic talent into a single half hour that makes it into an entire series of today’s more self consciously ‘edgy’ comedy shows.

We won’t see her like again.

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