Sunday, 31 March 2013

Trains offer such insights into the human condition

Train travel, as I’ve said before, is an excellent way of getting round Britain: fast, comfortable and these days surprisingly reliable. 

It has to be said that I have low expectations, having reduced them drastically as a result of my experience travelling on the nationalised services offered by British Rail, and then taken them to absolute zero when faced with the privatised monstrosity created by the sainted Maggie Thatcher.

These days, with the tracks renationalised in all but name and private companies offering highly-regulated services on them, I can’t help feeling we’ve hit a reasonable compromise. A little pricey, certainly, and it still suffers from hiccoughs, but mostly it runs to schedule and in comfort.

But it isn’t the efficiency of railway travel that strikes me most, it’s the window it offers into the lives of others. 

Rolling classroom for education on our species
For instance, I recently enjoyed hearing a conversation between two schoolgirls.

‘You’re going out with Brian Wilson? Why? Why?’

See the subtext? ‘You have to be crazy to go out with that awful Brian, but I’m just a little jealous he didn’t ask me instead. 

Her friend came back at her hard. ‘Because he asked me.’

Wow, that answer must have hurt. I took a swift glance at the two. These were children, but I suppose the one on whom Brian’s election had settled seemed, one might say, a little rounder than the other who was, if it’s not ungenerous of me, a bit angular. 

‘Go on then, Miss Angular demanded, show me his number.’

Encouraging isn’t it? The younger generation demanding evidence before making up its mind. Miss Angular wouldn’t have gone to war just because her best friend claimed there might be weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Hope is not lost. 

‘It’s not on my phone,’ replied her friend and rival, ‘he only asked yesterday.’

Ah, I raised my hopes too high, too soon. That was an answer worthy of the Blair school of duplicity. 

‘I can’t believe it. Prove it. Prove it.’

Quite. Quite. Just remember Hans Blix. And after that challenge, Miss Angular went on the attack:

‘Why are you going out with a year 9?’

Again, the subtext is worth examining. On the face of it, we’re hearing a principled refusal of the subordinate role of the woman, necessarily cultivating the older man. But underneath, isn’t there just a touch of slightly ugly Puritanism? Denied the fruit I covet, I denounce others who enjoy it.

But the answer was powerful and irrefutable. ‘Because I look like a year 7.’

Alas. It all turns on looks in the end. She was going out with him because (a) he’d asked – the expression of a wish is enough to win consent – and (b) he’d asked because she’d successfully presented herself as 12 when in point of fact she was only 11. And th
at’s enough to turn a 14-year old’s head?

Society’s not out of the woods yet.

My only regret about overhearing this conversation was that it drowned out another, being held on a mobile phone by a character with a voice at least as plummy as the late Laurence Olivier’s. 

‘I’ll play King Lear, which is what I’m going to call the character because I can’t be bothered to work out what his real name is. But I’ll only do it if Gemma can get a full cast, with a serving girl and a Palomides.’

Quite. We may be an actor (pron. actaw) who is currently resting but we don’t do just any old part, even to please our dear friend and fellow lovely Gemma. 

Is that clear? And we mark our indifference by refusing to learn the name of the character assigned to us, instead using that of a far more prestigious role which we would otherwise be playing, no doubt in a Royal Shakespeare Company production, if we hadn’t decided to do Gemma a little favour. 

And the amenable fellow had other points to put on the record. 

‘If Gemma plays Eladine she’s doing it as a favour to me, and I’m only doing it as a favour to Chris,’ he went on. He clearly knew what was due to him, and what was due from him: it’s not just Gemma we have to please but Chris too.

That shocked me. How could so fine a personality feel under an obligation to someone with so proletarian a name as Chris? But then I speculated that it probably wasn’t a mere Christopher but at the very least a Christian. 

Sadly, the Thespian left the train at St Albans (naturally: such a desirable city, and not at all because the properties aren’t quite as eye-wateringly expensive as in London) so I couldn’t follow the rest of his negotiation, which Ive no doubt he would have gone on generously sharing with the rest of the carriage.

Still he granted us one final thought as he left the train:

‘She has an elfish look so she could play the slave.’

Well, quite. Slaves are just so elfish aren’t they? It must be captivity that does it, the freedom from every having to make any choices, that gives them that little sparkle.

Ah, what would I do without the railways? Certainly, my education in the ways of my fellow beings would suffer sadly if I lost these insights.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Happy Easter. After all, this ought to be the big day in the Calendar...

So here we are at Easter again. 

It always amuses me to see the attitude of our Western allegedly Christian societies to this, in principle the greatest festival of the year. Or at least, as a Westerner but no Christian – so half an outsider – I’m amused by the contrast between Easter and Christmas.

Easter always arrives in a quiet sort of way, without flamboyance, without fanfares. Christmas – well, like most people, I have the impression that the fanfares start earlier every year. My impression is the first intimations to appear in the shops in about late August.

‘In the shops’. Those are the key words, and it’s what makes Christmas so huge a deal: it’s the unrivalled celebration of commercialism in our thoroughly commercialised societies. That’s why the preparations can’t start early enough. If you’re trying to persuade people to part with their cash at unprecedented levels for things they don’t really want, and only to avoid your shop going straight down the tubes, then you need to get the advertising going fast.

Easter? What the heck. All you’re promoting really is some chocolate eggs, and I notice that the Cadbury variety, stuffed with some unpleasant white substance referred to as cream and masquerading as egg white, and a blob of even more toxic yellow gunk, are in the shops from January these days.

If anyone actually cared for the Christian message underlining all this stuff, they’d quickly realised that the key event, the one that spelled redemption, from the point of view of believers, was the one we celebrate this weekend: the crucifixion of the Messiah followed by his triumphal resurrection.

Dalí's view of the resurrection
I can’t claim to be a biblical scholar, so I may well have missed something here, but I don’t think either of these events involved many eggs, lambs or bunnies, whether of flesh and blood or chocolate, or even sugar.

In contrast to the execution and return of the Lord, his birth is merely a special instance of a pretty routine occurrence. So by their sheer scale of grandeur, you’d have to say that Christians have got the events completely back to front. Which probably reflects their view of the underlying values too: poverty, forgiveness, charity to all, explaining why so many ‘Christians’ find it easy to rally to politicians who champion wealth, intolerance and contempt.

If Christians meant it, they’d be out there making sure we all realised that Easter’s much the more important feast. Not an easy task, but did anyone ever claim Christianity was easy?

Of course, for the rest of us, we can just enjoy a long weekend. Even if this year, in Britain at least, we do seem to be getting a bit of Christmas at Easter. With snow on the ground, March is proving a lot colder than December ever was. And a lot of those lambs, far from gambolling in green meadows, have been frozen under snowdrifts.

Still, the break is welcome anyway.

Happy Easter, everyone.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Bad Labour, lousy weather

As Niels Bohr said, predictions are very difficult, especially about the future.

With that excellent warning in mind, I generally try to avoid cast-iron forecasts. There is one, however, which I’m prepared to put forward, though I’ll cheat a bit by offering two versions.

In Britain we’re privileged to have a superlative government. Superlative in the sense that it tends to be the first, the most, or the least in so many things. 

Few governments anywhere have ever made up so much policy on the hoof and then had to change their minds; few governments have ever shown themselves so unerringly able to target cuts on people least able to absorb the consequences; few people have spoken out so powerfully about abuse by such people as bankers and media groups and then done so much to protect their interests.

So it would be appropriate if this government achieved another first next month. 

A recession is defined as two successive quarters of a shrinking economy, and by late April we should know whether we are back into recession – for the third time in five years and without any sustained growth in between. That would be a ‘triple-dip’ recession and Britain has never had one of those, since records began.

I’m sure you’ll agree that this would be a particularly appropriate monument to the achievements of our Prime Minister David Cameron, his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and their associates.

George Osborne: might be about to record a historic first

It’s not clear whether they’ll actually accomplish this triumph or not. There are suggestions that they might miss it by a whisker, though others still feel there’s a realistic hope of pulling it off. You know, it’s like a cyclist who’s just ahead on points in the Tour de France, but still needs to win one final stage to secure the title – and Cameron isn’t even taking performance-enhancing drugs. 

I can say that with absolute certainty because there’s nothing that could possibly be described as ‘enhanced’ in his performance.

Anyway, some time next month we’ll know whether Cameron has achieved a triple dip or not.

Now, here’s my forecast:
  • If the triple dip is avoided, George Osborne will gloat over Labour, claiming that the Opposition is disappointed because they would have preferred a recession as a stick to beat the government with, and will claim that the figures confirm that the government’s doing the right thing and on course to achieve its objectives (whatever they may be) 
  • If the triple dip is confirmed, George Osborne will be entirely unbowed, and will point out that the problem was caused by Labour and made worse by the bad weather. In no way is the government to blame, and in fact the government’s doing the right thing and on course to achieve its objectives (whatever they may be)
Anyone feel like questioning that forecast?

Monday, 25 March 2013

Immigration: stop protesting, start celebrating

Back in the 1990s, the rising star in the Conservative Party was Michael Portillo. The darling of the right, he shone in the Thatcher firmament. As it happens, since he left politics and recycled himself as a broadcaster and author on history and on morality, he seems to have become more liberal and shown admirable qualities that he kept well hidden when he was a politician.

In the years of the Blair Labour government, the Conservatives ran through a string of party leaders before settling – God help us – on David Cameron. One of them was Michael Howard. He never made it to the top job, but he’d had ministerial positions under both Thatcher and Major, despite one of his colleagues, Ann Widdecombe, saying that ‘he had something of the night about him’.

Jumping back into the previous century, one of the giants of Conservative politics was Benjamin Disraeli. Among his more dramatic coups was buying the Khedive of Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal. Because the government simply didn’t have the money to buy them, Disraeli persuaded Lionel de Rothschild to stake him and pulled off a remarkably beneficial acquisition on his own personal authority.

Disraeli: grandchild of immigrants
but worth a cartoon by John Tenniel
Why do I mention all these people? Because they are all of immigrant stock. These were not men of the left, but of the solid respectable establishment (you certainly don’t get much more solidly anchored than a Rothschild, in particular), but they came from families who had only recently arrived in this country. Yet they played prominent roles in its life.

And they were far from alone. In the arts, we’ve had a Joseph Conrad or a Salman Rushdie; we had Sigmund Freud launching a psychoanalytic school that is still going strong; we had Ludwig Wittgenstein doing his philosophical work in this country.

These are all celebrities, figures whose names at least are familiar to most of us. But there are many others who have come from abroad and enriched our life as private individuals, even if it’s only by running a shop that stays open late, or providing an affordable and reliable minicab service; immigrants supply nurses, doctors and managers to the the health service; they pick our fruit and till our farmlands (during a previous anti-immigrant campaign in the early years of this century, many farmers were concerned at the departure of so many Poles, if only because it would be impossible to get the strawberry harvest in).

In addition, most of the criticisms of immigrants are less likely to be involved in crime than natives; they are less likely to be drawing benefits; they are less likely to be in social housing. And we have fewer immigrants, per capita, than the US, Switzerland or France.

So what is it about our nation that’s causing a growing proportion of the people to be tempted by the anti-immigrant rhetoric floating around these days? Why is David Cameron trying to ride this wave? Even more dangerous, what is the attraction of the anti-immigrant party UKIP, the wittily named ‘United Kingdom Independence Party’ (as though any nation our size has a chance of independence in today’s world)?

After all, if the worry was overpopulation, we might expect a campaign to concentrate on the birth rate (700,000 babies born a year) rather than net immigration (100,000 more arrivals than departures a year).

But is this concern really to do with the economic or cultural impact of immigrants in the first place? Or is it really to do with the fact that they speak a different language or belong to a different religion? Or, horror of horrors, that some of them are of a different skin colour? Isn’t that all this comes down to in the final analysis? Simply another outbreak of racism seeking to cover its ugliness in pretended worries about the impact of large numbers of arrivals from abroad. It’s sad that so few of our politicians speak out against it.

So let’s remember the vast majority of immigrants who have enriched our national life, even if a few of them did it in the Tory Party. Some have made major, globally-recognised contributions; most contribute on a smaller scale daily; only a tiny number do harm.

Let’s celebrate them and reject those mean-spirited figures who refuse to join in the celebrations with us.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Modernity: nothing so old in the world

There was a documentary on the BBC earlier today which promised to explore how it felt to be an Ancient Egyptian.

I didn’t watch it, so I don’t know what insights it offered. But one thing I’m sure of is that, however else they felt, the Ancient Egyptians didn’t feel ancient (except perhaps the very old ones). 

On the contrary, they were at the very cutting edge of modernity, my dear. So while I don’t know whether the documentary found evidence for its occurring, I’m absolutely sure that a conversation along the following lines took place somewhere in Modern Egypt, as the Ancients no doubt thought of it.

Father: Alexandria? Alexandria? What do you want to go there for? It’s just a huge commercial centre, docks – and you know the kind of riffraff you get round docks – moneylenders, people on the make, no sanctity, no religion, no soul.

Son: But Dad, Alexandria’s where it’s all happening. It’s dynamic, it’s growing, it’s the new Egypt.

Father: You mean it’s rich, right?

Son: Yeah, well, what’s wrong with being rich? Wouldn’t we like to be rich?

Father: Not at the price of selling our souls.

Son: Selling our souls? Listen, it’s a commercial centre, sure, but commerce oils wheels. You don’t become a great cultural centre without the money to pay for it. You know about the new library they’re building now? That’s going to cost a pretty penny and someone has to earn it.
Today's remains of the modern Alexandria of ancient times

Father: Library? Library? All full of Greek scrolls. Greek, Greek, Greek. That’s what I mean about selling our souls. You young people. Keep going down that road and we might just as well be Greeks.

Son: It’s a changing world. We have to adapt if we don’t want to go under.

Father: Adapt? Listen, Thebes is our capital. Been our capital for millennia. Coptic’s our language. It was good enough for Tutankhamun, it’s good enough for me.

Son: Oh, Dad, that’s just so 18th Dynasty. Just because it was good enough for them doesn’t mean it’s good enough for us. Those were the Ancient Egyptians. We need to learn new ways to live in the modern world.

My message to the BBC: if we don’t blow ourselves up or boil our brains by overheating the planet, there’ll come a time when people look back on now and wonder what it was like being an Ancient Englishman. And I want to shout down the ages to them: we’re not. We’re the height of modernity. We’ve got modern art a hundred years old to prove it. We even have post-modern novels. 

So wash your mouths out.

P.S. One of the great modern films – now getting on for 70 years old – is Les Enfants du Paradis. If you don’t know it, get hold of it and watch it without delay. The script is by one of the finest modern French poets, Jacques Prévert, and it contains the immortal line, spoken by the incomparable Arletty in the role of Garance, ‘Mais qu'est-ce que c'est la nouveauté ? La nouveauté... mais c'est vieux comme le monde, la nouveauté !’, which roughly translates as ‘But just what is novelty? Novelty... there’s nothing older in the world than novelty.’

Arletty as Garance

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Prudence, Patience: the economy needs a new Virtue

When Gordon Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the standard joke was that the woman in his life was called Prudence, since he called on her so often as the guiding principle in his stewardship of Britain's finances.

Gordon Brown: always calling on Prudence
Today, we have George Osborne and we need a new woman with the name of the virtue: Patience. As Evan Davies pointed out on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning:

One thing that can be said for George Osborne’s economic strategy is that it demands patience… The year at which the debt burden looks set to fall keeps getting put back: in fact it’s always four years away, as each year it’s put a year later.

He was in Nottingham, talking to ordinary people about the impact of the difficult economic situation we’re in. He asked the owner of the café in which he was doing his interviews, ‘How long are you willing to give them to sort it out?’

‘Not much longer,’ she replied, ‘there’s nothing happening.’

George Osborne: calling on Patience – from all of us
But it's beginning to run out...

Well, she’s right in the sense she meant: nothing’s happening that would make things better. Quite a lot is happening, quite fast, from the point of view of decline. For instance, between 5 December when he made his Autumn statement and 20 March, today, when he unveiled his budget, Osborne had reduced his growth forecast from 1.2% to 0.6%. That’s fast work in anybody’s book.

Davies also spoke to a joiner who is getting by with difficulty: he’s having to resort to the ‘necessary evil, as I call it: agencies. They’re keeping me afloat because no-one’s taking on the books any more.’ The trouble is that agencies just keep body and soul together, and no more. ‘I don’t get no pension, no holidays,’ he pointed out.

Things aren’t that bad for everyone. The third person on the interview ran a hi-fi and home cinema shop and business wasn’t going too badly for him: ‘the rich people always seem to have some disposable income, so we’re surviving.’ 

Yes, this government has certainly made sure that the rich don’t suffer too much, preferring to leave the burdens to people like the joiner, to say nothing of the disabled or unemployed.

Certainly, Osborne needs Patience at least as much as Brown needed Prudence. But how much longer will people keep patient for him? In a democracy, it’s reasonable for voters to decide to give another lot a chance in power, but there comes a time when they have to start saying, ‘OK, that’s enough. Nothing’s happening,’ as the café owner pointed out in Nottingham, ‘time to move on.’

It’s not as though everything’s bleak. I was fascinated to hear yesterday about the Swedish bank Handelsbanken, now opening its 155th branch in Britain. Its staff have no targets and no bonuses. Their mission is to know their local communities intimately and provide them with unrivalled financial services. It’s old-style banking.

When I think of the role the new-style banks played in creating today’s misery, and that senior bank executives keep rewarding themselves with indefensible bonuses, I think a touch of the old style would be most welcome.

And maybe it’s time to find another virtue to be the lodestone of our economy. Perhaps Compassion would be a good replacement for either Prudence or Patience? Combined with Competence it could even lead on to Joy.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

A great anniversary, and so many more to come

So here we are at the tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq invasion. It’s an action still vehemently justified by Tony Blair, who beats Tricky Dicky Nixon in the honest politician stakes only because he looks straighter (I never understood how anyone could look at Nixon’s jowly face and shifty eyes and expect anything even remotely resembling the truth from him).

Tricky Dicky: the caption says it all

Blair has a powerful argument that he deploys with increasingly tedious frequency against any critic: ‘surely you can’t disagree that the world’s a better place without Saddam Hussein’. 

I always want to answer him, ‘it surely is. As it would be a better place without car bombs going off daily around Baghdad, without the one hundred to several hundred thousand Iraqi civilian deaths the war caused, without powerful nations trampling on international law, and without countries going to war on the whim of policy-makers instead of solid evidence.’

Come to think of it, perhaps the big question to put to Blair (and Dubya, and their supporters) is what’s happening in Iran. Way back in the days of the Iran-Iraq war, the West’s darling was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, because anyone who was against Iran had to be democracy’s friend. In fact, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, he always claimed that he’d been given the nod by none other than the United States, and it certainly seems that at the very least the Americans had sent him some pretty mixed messages.

Today, the bogey man’s Iran again. Our good friend Israel keeps threatening military action to prevent Iran becoming a nuclear power. The West rattles its sabres, deploys its battleships, ratchets up its sanctions.

In between, the West had a couple of wars with Iraq. And where’s Iraq now? Run by a Shiite government that’s turned it into a client state of Iran. For instance, Iran is actively backing the Assad regime in Syria, and channeling a lot of its support through Iraq.

So Iran was the enemy of the West and is its enemy again. In between the West helped make a regional superpower of Iran by installing a friendly regime in Iraq.

Is it just me or does that seem – how shall I put this – a trifle incoherent?

But an anniversary isn’t it just a time to look backward. It’s a time to learn the lessons of the past and prepare for the future. So let’s see what lesson we can learn from the ten years in Iraq.

Again, it’s Tony Blair who gives us the clue. What was he telling the BBC tonight, apart from the fact that he has no regrets about what he did in 2003? That the price of not intervening in Syria might be higher than the price of intervening.

In other words, things went so well in Iraq, he can’t wait to repeat the experience in Syria.
Straight-speaking Blair, in a role he can't wait to reprise
So what’s the lesson? When you’re in the kind of place Blair inhabits, you never learn any lessons from history.

And, sadly, most of the people in power today are the worthy successors of Blair, Dubya and their mates.

On this glorious anniversary, look forward to celebrating a lot more of them in the future.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Benefits: be proud of them

We made a number of good friends while living in France, including one who I regard to this day as something of a model of business practice, and business isn’t a world where exemplary behaviour is in excessive supply.

He set up a small independent company working, which now employs 20 or 30 staff and has become the French subsidiary of an American corporation supplying a couple of highly innovative devices to improve healthcare. An attractive story, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Today, a Facebook friend shared a piece on the interview J K Rowling gave to Jon Stewart in the US. Now, I can’t claim to be a fan of the Harry Potter books, but I can’t deny that they’ve given an awful lot of pleasure to a great many people around the world, and why would I object to that?

Rowling talking to Stewart

Why have I chosen to mention these two apparently unrelated stories?

Because they have one feature in common. Both my friend and Rowling spent some time drawing state benefits. My friend lost a job through redundancy, an event that faced him, as it faces anyone, with financial difficulties but, above all, represented a terrible shock to his morale. Fortunately, France has a system of unemployment insurance which pays a large proportion of the salary from the previous job, for a significant period. It does not demand that claimants avoid doing any work; instead the authorities actively encourage them to create new jobs if they can.

That’s what my friend did, and as a result he has created 20 or 30 jobs. Which suggests that the benefits paid to him were a great investment for the French state.

It was one of Jon Stewart’s comments to Rowling that brought all this to mind. He suggested that the benefits paid to her, when she was writing her books and struggling to cope with poverty, were also an excellent investment: she has not taken refuge in a tax haven and is paying large amounts of tax to the British authorities. Certainly, like my friend in France, she has paid back many times over what she received.

Two stories, both of which turned out well. Of course, behind them are many millions of stories of people who don’t emerge from unemployment to quite such success, or in some cases never emerge from it at all.

What I can’t understand is what it is about those people that makes them any less deserving of help than my friend or J K Rowling. Sure, a minority has no intention of ever working, but far more were in jobs and had been for years, until the bankers crashed the economy in 2008.

If they were happy to work before, what makes them shirkers now? Like Rowling and my friend they’re in need of help to deal with a disaster over which they had no control. Some are suffering from disability; some are able-bodied and merely out of work. Not all will set up successful businesses; very few will become world-famous authors. But many of them will return to jobs if they’re given the chance. And even if they don’t, why does that make them need help any less?

There is a terrible and cruel current of thought rampant in our Western societies today. It suggests that benefits are legitimate targets for cuts to generate savings, making life still worse for people who are already vulnerable. It treats people on benefits as scroungers, turning the victims of the failings of our society into wrongdoers. Surely, at a time when many shameful things are being done in the name of economic orthodoxy, this must be one of the most shaming.

Why are we so keen to denounce the payment of benefits? Surely we should be proud to live in societies that help those who need it most. Sometimes that can help a businessman to achieve success, or an author to conquer global prominence. But what really matters is just – that it helps.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Re-shoring can be reassuring, if not perhaps in this case

For years, we in the West have lived with the spectre of off-shoring. 

Jobs disappeared from our allegedly advanced, high-cost economies to other countries where production costs – i.e. wages, mainly – were so much lower that not even the fact of having to transport goods far further could wipe out the savings. Most notably, the great destination for off-shoring was China.

It is however a phenomenon that has been repeated in country after country down the ages, the people who seem happy enough to live in the sweatshop nations of the world initially, rapidly become disenchanted with the idea. It’s possibly in part related to seeing the Mercedes, or even Jags, turning up at the factory each day and disgorging the bosses (sometimes called Communist officials of the People’s Republic – some of these guys have a wonderful sense of irony) while the workers satisfy themselves with pay that just about enough to buy a plastic mug from which to drink their water, if they can find any that isn’t poisonous.

Eventually, these characters start to demand better wages. The bosses, who have after all to keep up the monthly payments on the Jag and the charming little place they’ve bought on the coast, sometimes decide that a strike isn’t something they can afford, so the pay climbs. That means the costs grow and the off-storing starts to lose its sheen.

I first came across the phenomenon of ‘in-shoring’, ‘on-shoring’ or ‘re-shoring’ a few years ago, as some of the off-shorers brought their businesses back home, once the economic benefits of having the work done abroad began to erode. But the best case of re-shoring I’ve come across so far came just a few days ago.

The company Symington
s makes a product called ‘Pot Noodle’. It's just what the name suggests, and in only a few minutes a consumer can heat up a pot and have a filling meal. 

Just how appetising can a meal look?

Note that I say ‘filling’ rather than ‘nourishing’: quite honestly I have only to see one of those pots to feel my arteries clogging up, and only to smell one to have the chemical balance of my body upset at the idea of hitting it with the string of synthetic substances they must contain.

The noodles are loosely based on oriental dishes so it was perhaps appropriate to have them produced in China. But, faced with the weakening pound and spiralling production and transport costs, the company has decided to move manufacture back to Leeds. Up North (please pronounce ‘up’ as ‘oop’), in Yorkshire.

So this quintessentially English mock-up of a Chinese dish will now be produced in England. That
s bad news for the Chinese workers who may lose their jobs (and a couple of bosses who may lose their Jags); its good news for some English workers who may secure or obtain positions; it’s bad news for English consumers who will continue to be exposed to the damaging effects of a quasi-toxic but (to some) apparently tempting fast food.

Pot luck will have proved luckier for some than for others.

In any case, isn
’t this a fascinating example of the workings of an unfettered global labour market?

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Anschluss: Nazi crushing of a victim or willing meeting of accomplices?

75 years ago today German troops marched across the border into Austria, and were greeted with delirious joy by a large proportion of the population there.

A German soldier during the Anschluss
Note the air of devastation on the faces of the Austrian civilian population
This was the 1938 Anschluss or union of Austria with the Nazi Third Reich. Someone who wasn’t cheering was a late friend of mine, Bob, who had the misfortune of belonging to the Vienna Jewish community. Within months, he and his friends and relatives were out of work. They spent their days on their doorsteps, chatting and wondering how they were going to keep body and soul together.

‘I’m always amused about the talk today about household debts. We had no debts. You have to be rich to have debts. If you have no money, nobody will lend you any.’

Like a great many Viennese Jews, his family would queue daily at various embassies asking for visas that would get them out. He told me about the sheer arrogance of the staff at the British Consulate, who would treat them contemptuously, knocking papers out of their hands if the staff felt they hadn’t been completed correctly, and giving priority to those who had the money to bribe them.

Eventually, Bob and one of his sisters got out to Britain. They were the only members of his family to survive the war: the others were all Holocaust victims.

It took years to screw up the courage to go back to Vienna, and when he did he wasn’t impressed: ‘you can still cut the anti-Semitism with a knife’, he told me.

Eventually, he took the plunge and travelled to Germany itself, the heart of the darkness that had blighted his life. He went to Bonn.

‘I couldn’t believe it. What a great country!’

He tried to get back every year.

So – what was the difference between the two countries?

Some years ago I read David Art’s The Politics of the Nazi Past in Germany and Austria which traced the way each country had addressed it Nazi past. It took a while for Germany to decide it had to face up to what had happened, but since the 60s they have made sustained efforts to analyse and understand. One of the best Holocaust films I’ve seen was a German TV reconstruction of the Wannsee conference, where the third Reich formallyl adopted the final solution, the extermination of the Jews. Reconstructed from minutes and eye-witness accounts, it lasted exactly 100 minutes, just as the conference did: an hour and two-thirds to decide to exterminate 12 million people (yes, they only achieve 50% success).

When a neo-Nazi movement, the Republikaner, emerged in Germany in the 80s and 90s, all the mainstream parties unanimously combatted them: the right made no attempt to work with them or adopt their programme; the left wing made no attempt to exploit the possible splits in the right-wing vote. The result? The Republikaner got nowhere and an electorate which realised they were never going to deliver stopped voting for them.

Austria maintained the fiction that, far from being a willing accomplice of Nazi Germany, it had been its first victim. This comfortable illusion prevented their having to face up to any moral dilemmas. As a result, their neo-Nazis, the Austrian Freedom Party, became a major force, rising to the point where it became the junior party in a governing coalition.

At root, the problem was that Austria preferred to concentrate on the military invasion that took place in the Anschluss, which made Austrians victims, rather than the warmth of the welcome they gave the German forces, which would have made them accomplices.

So on the anniversary of the Anschluss of 1938, there’s a moral for us all: if we want to deal with the contamination that bigotry and intolerance represent, we have to face up to it, and isolate it and prevent its getting anywhere near power.

Whether it’s the Tea Party in the States, UKIP in Britain or the Front National in France, that’s a lesson that all of us who are committed to democracy need to learn and actively apply.

On this anniversary of that grim event, I’ll raise a glass this evening to the memory of Bob. I know he would have agreed fervently with the need to learn that lesson.

Monday, 11 March 2013

If the people don't, who'll defend rights against government abuse?

A pincer movement is a much more effective form of attack than a simple frontal assault.

That no doubt is the reason we’re facing a two-pronged movement against civil rights in Britain at the moment.

One prong is being run by the government and takes the form of legal moves to introduce secret trials, held in private and with the defence denied access to the prosecution evidence.

The other prong is still more insidious in that it is based on whipping up a popular movement. Spearheaded by the right wing of the Conservative Party and its sniping opponents even further to the right in UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), it takes the form of a campaign against the Human Rights Act. A measure of its relative success is that it has managed to make ‘human rights’ sound like a bad thing – an extraordinary piece of doublespeak, fully worthy of Orwell’s 1984.

The pressure for closed trials is ostensibly based on the need to keep certain types of evidence hidden from certain types of defendant, mainly evidence obtained by the intelligence services, used against presumed terrorists. Just how serious the issue is was made clear by the former Labour Cabinet Minister Jack Straw. In a debate on the bill on 4 March, he told the House of Commons that in certain circumstances certain types of information have to remain concealed, in order to protect secret sources. If secrecy could not be guaranteed, the evidence could not be used and a terrorist might walk free and offend again. Straw went on:

‘If we had explained how we had ended up in such a situation by saying that information had to be provided in its entirety in open court in all circumstances, people would have said, “Thanks very much, but my relative, wife or child has just died.” That is the dilemma and it is not abstract—it is absolutely real.’

That immediately reminds me of Benjamin Franklin: ‘those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.’ Britain at its best decided to put certain freedoms above protecting life – if not, it would not have fought on against Nazi Germany in June 1940, at a time when many even in government favoured surrender, in a war that in the end cost nearly half a million British lives.

Jack Straw
Once a radical, now keen on secret trials

That however isn’t the most shameful aspect of Straw’s statement. The truth, as Henry Porter pointed out in the Observer this weekend, is that the effect of revealing evidence in open court in terrorist cases has not been to free terrorists, but to embarrass the government and force it to pay damages for having behaved illegally. No wonder government wants to conceal this kind of information. 

Porter reminds us that Straw told parliament in 2005 that Britain had not been involved in rendition and torture of terror suspects; in 2009, his successor David Miliband had to admit that the statement was untrue and apologise for it. 

That’s what secret courts are about: not so much to protect us from terrorists but to protect government from embarrassing disclosures of its own bungling or criminal acts.

Which brings me to second prong of the attack, against the Human Rights Act. The popular movement against it points to the criminals who hide behind its provisions, and many do – but then criminals have always been good at abusing rights. That doesn’t mean we should do without them.

Article 6 of the Act guarantees that ‘everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law’ (my emphasis). Later, it specifies that a person accused of a crime is entitled ‘to be informed promptly, in a language which he understands and in detail, of the nature and cause of the accusation against him’ and equally ‘to examine or have examined witnesses against him’

The US constitution is remarkable for its conciseness, its ability to express fundamental rights much more succinctly than most such legislation. Coincidentally, as it is Article 6 of the Human Rights Act, it is the Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution that deals with the right to a fair a trial:

‘In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

The fact that the same rights are guaranteed on both sides of the Atlantic does rather suggest that they’re regarded as fundamental generally in democratic societies.

So why do so many citizens in Britain oppose the Human Rights Act? Especially when the government is busily trying to bring in legislation that undermines one of its most significant articles. Have some of my compatriots suddenly decided that they don’t need protection from government misdeeds and that the two-pronged attack therefore deserves to succeed?

Odd. They don’t usually show such touching confidence in the good faith of their rulers.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Stand up for the antidote to recession

Stand up comedy is something I always enjoy (if it’s good) but can never remember afterwards (however good it is). So I’m glad I remember one telling line of Alistair Barrie’s from the show I went to last night.

Alistair Barrie
Got me laughing at the Cameron clowns

‘If David Cameron thinks that money doesn’t make you happy, why doesn’t he hand some round and see if we can find ways of cheering ourselves up?’

It seemed particularly appropriate on the day that Cameron, having claimed that his austerity economics hadn’t damaged growth, found himself contradicted by his very own shiny new ‘Office for Budget Responsibility’: it told us that it had already reduced its growth estimates by 1.4% to take account of the impact of government cuts.

The government’s response was brilliant: ‘The OBR has today again highlighted external inflation shocks, the eurozone and financial sector difficulties as the reasons why their forecasts have come in lower than expected.’

Forecasts lower than expected? Let’s be generous and assume they meant to say that performance had come in lower than forecast – nothing surprising that this particular government has trouble getting its ideas in order. Or do they really mean that they have higher expectations of forecasts than they do of the economy?

That confusion aside, did you see what the government spokesman did there? He ingeniously switched attention from Cameron’s failure to realise that the negative impact of its policies had already been taken into account in the forecasts, to focus instead on the fact that even the revised forecasts were too optimistic. And made that look as though it was good news for him.

Why, it’s almost as clever as stand-up comedy. In fact, I’ve thought for a while that Cameron’s cronies ought to consider recycling themselves as a clown act. They might not be up too much, but what a relief it would be for the rest of us if they stopped trying to pretend they could govern us.

Until that happens, though, I’ll stick with the professionals. They made a good evening for us yesterday. It was all the better as my son Nicky had flown in from Madrid to join us. When the compere thanked someone in the audience for having travelled down from Sunderland, Nicky nearly pointed out that he’d come from far further. He thought better of it though, which seems wise: it’s never a good idea to attract the attention of anyone on stage at a stand-up show.

Nicky had mostly come to see Stewart Lee, who was brilliant, in a set different from anything I’ve seen him do before: a send-up of Canadian stand-up, all the funnier as the Canadian Tony Law wrapped up the show, with material as good as Lee’s.

So we enjoyed ourselves, though my wife Danielle enjoyed it rather less, debilitated as she is by a chest infection she’s having trouble shaking. Still, I think she was glad she came.

It was also good that the show was a benefit for a charity, War Child, that supports children affected by war. The name inevitably gave the comedians a couple of opportunities:

‘Delighted to be supporting the war against children,’ said one.

‘Terribly ashamed to be supporting a charity helping train child soldiers,’ said another.

The evening reminded me why I like stand up so much. And having a good laugh at David Cameron’s expense was wonderfully therapeutic. It
s the antidote we all need to the despair generated each time he does or says anything and the recession deepens.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The passing of Hugo Chávez

So Hugo Chávez is gone, despite the months of claims from the Venezuelan authorities that he was recovering. It calls to mind Spike Milligans epitaph, I told you I was ill’, except that in Chávez’s case it was the opposite: he kept arguing that he wasn’t that bad. 

Chávez: he spoke for the people
Without much of a pause to let anyone else get a word in
It’s going to be fascinating to see how he divides people in death, just as he did in life.The thing about Chávez is that he was a remarkable champion of the poor and the underdog, and more than happy to take on the power of the elites to defend the underprivileged.

On the other hand, the way he set about the task wrecked the Venezuelan economy, only kept afloat by Venezuela’s oil resources. When he came to power, oil accounted for 80% of the country’s exports; today it accounts for 96%. Such has been Chávez’s impact on the manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

But there were other even less attractive aspects to his role in power. Like a great many rulers who know they speak for the people, he began to see ordinary democratic rules as nothing but an impediment to democracy: after all, if democracy is rule by the people, and he speaks for the people, then any regulation that limits his capacity to rule is by definition anti-democratic. So 
Chávez started shutting down opposition media outlets and ensuring that his was the only voice heard, especially at election time.

This is a standard behaviour of populists who seize power. Augustus overthrew the power of the vested elites of Rome that had oppressed the people; as a result a Republic was replaced by an Empire both the elite and the people lost what rights they had. The Third Estate in France rose against the monarchy in the name of the people, and rapidly fell under the spell of men who felt that rights were best protected by a police state. Lenin took the Bolsheviks to power in Russia to speak for workers and peasants and rapidly did away with any mechanism of popular representation.

One of the other characteristics of these champions of popular aspirations is that they like to make sure they stay in power once they
ve got there, and Chávez was no exception. He managed to obtain authority in a referendum, at the second time of asking, to remove term limits from the presidency so that, had he survived, he could have been re-elected as often as he wanted. That would have enabled him to go on speaking for the people for a long time to come.

By ‘speaking for the people’, by the way, I really mean ‘speaking’. He was capable of going on TV and talking for eight hours at a stretch. And I have to confess that a man who likes the sound of his voice that much, and what’s more is prepared to take over the media and amend the constitution so that he can ensure everyone else gets to hear it too, fails to win my unqualified admiration.

I don’t much like monarchy, because I’m even less attracted to the idea of people being born to high office for life than I am to people getting themselves elected to office for life. But I have to say that despite myself, I was delighted when the King of Spain rounded on Chávez at the Iberian-American summit on in 2007, and asked him ‘why don’t you just shut up?’

Well, Chávez has stopped talking now. The next big fear is whose voice will fill the vacuum when his fell silent. Because that’s the other problem with these great authoritarian champions of the people: they open the door to successors who are even worse. It didn’t take long to get from Augustus to Nero, nor to get from the French National Assembly to the reign of terror and then the military dictator Napoleon, and Lenin was immediately followed by Stalin.

Time to hope for the best for the people of Venezuela.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Healthcare: they order these things better in the US

British doctors have set the alarm bells ringing again, over the government’s alleged drive to privatise more of the NHS.

Many fear that privatisation might make the NHS look more like US-style healthcare, with its strong and flourishing private sector. So it probably makes sense to take a look at what happens in the US and see whether its superior model isn’t one we could usefully emulate over here.

Time to revitalise the NHS with US healthcare dynamism?

Certainly, the US enjoys healthcare benefits that are denied to Britain. For instance, Kayser Permanente, one of the biggest health insurers, in its most recent report declared $1.6 billion of ‘income’ (it’s a ‘not-for-profit’ organisation), and that’s not the kind of thing we can point to in the UK. Blue Cross-Blue Shield, the biggest insurer of them all, with a monopoly presence in certain States, makes about 18 cents on every dollar of insurance it sells.

As well as the business benefits, some of the US healthcare performance figures are staggering too.

In Britain, we lose 4.56 children in their first year of life for every 1000 live births. The United States are well ahead, at 6.00.

On maternal mortality, the number of mothers lost in childbirth, Britain stands at 12 deaths per 100,000 pregnancies, but the US is achieving nearly twice that level: 21.

It’s true that life expectancy is very little different between the two nations, though here again Britain does on average impose around eighteen months longer in this vale of tears on its citizens (overall life expectancy stands at a little over 80), whereas the US releases them slightly earlier to travel to a better place (about 78.5).

The US also frees over 50 million of its citizens from the burden of carrying health insurance. Such people, unlike their British counterparts, don’t have to visit family practitioners when they are first ill (after all, they can’t pay for them); instead they have the luxury of waiting until they are really sick, at which point they will receive state-of-the-art treatment of their immediate symptoms in one of the world’s greatest hospitals, where no-one will waste their time trying to treat their underlying condition (for which they can’t pay either).

What’s most staggering of all is that the NHS costs Britain nearly 10% of its Gross Domestic Product, whereas the United States has so far limited expenditure on healthcare to less than 18%.

The poor old NHS clings on to outdated notions such as comprehensive healthcare, free to all at the point of care. In the light of the striking evidence assembled here, who still wants to protect it against the enlightened ideas our fine government wants to bring in from the US?

Friday, 1 March 2013

Eastleigh: the lesson is there's nothing to learn

The first lesson to learn from by-elections is that there aren’t any lessons to learn from by-elections.

They take place in a single constituency out of the 650 that send members to the British House of Commons. Because only a single seat is at stake, voters feel free to express anger and indignation at the established parties by registering a protest vote for one of the minor ones, which they wouldn’t go near if it was likely to affect the choice of a government.

By-elections take place when something unfortunate happens to an MP, like he dies or has to resign for fiddling his expenses or is waiting to start an extended spell in gaol. It was the latter that caused yesterday’s by-election in Eastleigh: the former incumbent had his then-wife take the blame for a speeding fine to get him out of trouble; he then got right up her nose by leaving her for a younger woman; she denounced him and he’s now waiting to be sentenced; meanwhile she’s still facing trial for her own part in the sorry story because, after all, when she denounced him she rather set herself up too, as his accomplice.

In the circumstances, you might have expected the former MP’s party, the Liberal Democrats, to lose the seat. Particularly since by joining a coalition with the Conservatives, they’ve let down their supporters, most of whom saw them as a way of opposing the nasty party without actually voting Labour.

So turn-up for the books number 1 was that the Lib Dems held the seat. Their vote collapsed over 14% but they hung on.
Mike Thornton, victor of Eastleigh, with his wifeLet's hope she takes the fall for anything he did 

Labour achieved what sounds like a miserable result, coming a distant fourth, but surprisingly their share of the vote didn’t fall at all. In an election where Labour was never really in the running, it’s an indifferent result, neither one thing or another.

The really bad performance was the Conservatives’, with a drop almost as big as registered by the Lib Dems, and forced into third place.

And the worst of it? They were humiliated by a bunch that deserves the title ‘nasty party’ even more than they do. Homophobic, xenophobic and probably hydrophobic, the so-called United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is cashing in on the fear of the outsider that emerges most strongly whenever the economic going gets tough. They are the leading anti-immigration group. The nice thing about being anti-immigration is you can indulge all sorts of racist thinking without actually saying anything actionably racist.

The really sad thing for David Cameron is that recently he’s been trying to make the Tories much nastier still, turning their rather ineffective guns against the European Union and sacrificing any credibility they had in its leading circles, but to no avail: the really nasty UKIP was more than a match for the would-be-still-nastier Tories.

The joke is that though UKIP did so well in Eastleigh, it really was only a by-election, where people could safely protest with no danger of doing any lasting damage. Polls today already suggest that many UKIP voters would come back to the Tories, or even the other parties, at a general election.

Still, in a race to the bottom with UKIP, the Tories have the advantage of not just being nasty externally. If anything they’re even nastier with their own. And they clearly haven’t learned the lesson that by-elections teach no lessons. For instance, the senior MP Eleanor Laing, speaking for the right wing of the Conservative Party, has already come out against Cameron, her leader.

‘The leadership of the party isn't tuning in to the hopes and fears of the vast majority of ordinary people out there in Britain today,’ she said today, a sentiment I entirely agree with, but then I want him and her and the rest of her party a long way from power anyway. That means I only admire all the more the deadly way in which Laing inserts the stiletto into her leader’s back. After all, by stirring up divisions within the party, she only makes it more likely that we’ll see the back of it in 2015.

So – no lessons to learn from by-elections. Except perhaps that those that don’t realise there’s nothing to be learned from them, can really dig themselves a deep, deep hole by reacting to the results as though they mattered.

It’s fun to be able to sit on the sidelines and watch that happen to all those fine people in our grand old traditional nasty party.