Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Among all the noise about the NHS, a little quiet should be a great improvement

There’s been a lot of noise in Britain recently about the failings of the National Health Service.

Popular anger, or at least anger in the media, has focused above all on the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust. The scandal has its roots in a study by hospital information company Dr Foster Intelligence, which found that 400 more people had died in the hospital over a three year period than might have been expected given how ill they were. A public enquiry revealed a harrowing string of cases of appalling care: patients suffering dehydration because they weren’t given anything to drink, patients left in their own faeces, patients left to suffer in pain as buzzers rang wildly throughout the wards with no nurses answering.

There’s been less talk about the people who sent flowers and chocolates to the hospital, to thank the nurses for the care they or their relatives had received, though some of those making the gifts have been among the most outspoken in their criticism since. Equally, not a lot is said of the encouragement the Trust was given to opt for the much vaunted status of a ‘Foundation Trust’, even at the cost of economies that left too few nurses to ensure adequate coverage. Nor is much said of the findings, again from Dr Foster, which classified the hospital ninth in the country for quality.

Instead, those orchestrating the media noise seem to be intent on directing outrage against nurses, once universally seen as angels, now increasingly portrayed as fiends.

The truth is that in a professional body of 370,000, there are bound to be a few rotten apples. But, overall, the vast majority of nurses are deeply committed to caring for patients, just as nurses always have been: it is after all the overriding motivation for choosing the profession in the first place. But the government chooses to proclaim that nurses have lost their compassion and demands, for example, that in future nurses have more hands-on care of patients – washing them, feeding them – as part of their training, to teach them the compassion it’s alleged they have lost.

This from a government that has just imposed the deepest cuts for a generation in benefits for the poorest people in Britain. But then I suppose we don’t all have the same notion of compassion.

It should also be said, in passing, that the government has launched a programme of reform of the NHS which seems destined to fragment it and undermine its public service commitment. That will encourage the government's friends in the private sector, who want to take over apparently lucrative parts of healthcare, although few of those who’ve tried so far have made any money from it and the scandals about quality from private providers have already begun.

Against this background, I was fascinated to hear of an initiative in my local hospital, the Luton and Dunstable, or 
L&D as we fondly call it. 

Instead of responding to the problem of patients ringing buzzers to no avail by demanding that nurses answer them more quickly, the hospital is planning to do away with buzzers altogether. Rather than giving nurses more non-nursing duties, as the government seems to favour, they’re recruiting more clerical staff to free up qualified staff to concentrate on nursing.

The L&D: quietly improving where others just shout

The hospital has been piloting the idea of a ‘quiet ward’. The approach is widespread in Germany, which is where the L&D came across it. I believe something similar was tried in Gwent, in Wales. In England, however, it
’s an innovation.

On a quiet ward, there are no buzzers, phones or faxes. There is a nurse and a healthcare assistant for every ten patients. Nurses are freed of tasks such as cleaning, ordering x-rays, coordinating discharges, answering phones or making beds. Instead, that work is carried out by support staff. 

This means that the nurse and healthcare assistant can devote far more of their time to nursing, including simply walking the ward and checking on patients welfare. So patients can expect to see a nurse far more quickly now, without a buzzer, than was ever possible by ringing one before. And without buzzers, phones or faxes the ward is quieter so the patient's experience better.

The pilot at the L&D went so well that the hospital is now rolling out the approach to other wards, and recruiting 105 ward clerks and other staff to support it. 

Without all the recriminations and impassioned debates that surrounded Mid Staffs, the L&D is quietly making radical changes in its approach to nursing, with the profession’s enthusiastic support. The pilot suggests the new arrangements will greatly improve healthcare quality.

It remains to be seen whether our ‘compassionate’ government will support this pioneering initiative by a hospital in the old, public and much-maligned NHS.

Postscript. On Mid Staffs, I was amused to see that 40,000 local people – or possibly 50,000, depending on who you believe – turned out to march through Stafford to try to save the hospital, now slated for closure. The difficulties the hospital experienced were always on the front pages, but the support march  received very little coverage. The march is just boring old news; the high death rates, on the other hand, were a story.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Why reading the instructions can be a smart move

Some may feel that 5:00 a.m. isn’t the ideal time to start a Saturday. But if your wife’s a keen birdwatcher, it’s her birthday and that justly exalted institutions, the National Trust, is organising a 6:30 birdwatching walk in that breathtaking place, Ashridge Forest, well, 5:00 is when you get up.

I’d made all the arrangements. I’d planned our departure time based on normal conditions but, of course, there’s no traffic at that time of day, so we arrived dead early. And then we sat in the morning cold watching the minutes tick by, while no-one else showed. I wandered over to the visitor centre, naturally shut, and checked out the posters: there it was, 6:30 on the 27th, beginners birdwatching walk.

The kind of thing we might have seen. But didn’t.

So where was everyone?

Danielle had been checking the web and had the answer.

‘At Steps Hill car park,’ she informed me.

Steps Hill car park? Where on Earth was that?

Ashridge doesn’t do helpful little road signs, marked with useful indications such as ‘Steps Hill car park this way’. In fact, it doesn’t even put names up on the bits of land it’s flattened here and there and designated as car parks. They’re just marked ‘car park’, which isn’t what I think of as uniquely identifying. Be fair, National Trust. I’d call that ambiguity, except that there’s loads of them. Multiguity, perhaps.

Eventually, though, we found a car park with several cars in it plus two National Trust ranger vehicles.

‘This must be it,’ said Danielle. Her tone wasn’t icy, precisely, but had just that kind of non-iciness voices take on when their owners are trying to be kind to the afflicted by not revealing their feelings.

It was 7:00 by then so we went home. Where I checked my e-mails. The one from the National Trust proudly proclaimed that the attachment contained ‘all the information you will need for your visit.’ I looked. And there it was: the meeting point wasn’t the visitor centre but Steps Hill car park. As marked on the attached map. With a grid reference and everything.

If only I’d read it. If only I’d printed it out. If only I’d taken a glance last night.

How did Whittier put it? ‘For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: "It might have been!"’

Ah well. There’s always next year, I suppose. Perhaps by then I
ll have learned to read instructions.

Meanwhile, happy birthday, Danielle.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

UK economy: two cheers for the government

‘We are building an economy fit for the future,’ the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced today.

The reason for his satisfaction? The figures for GDP in quarter 1 show we have avoided a triple dip recession: to my heartfelt relief, GDP grew in the quarter and the unrelenting decline seems to have been stemmed. For now.

But how much was the growth? Just 0.3%. If that’s a harbinger of the economy of the future, there isn’t a lot to look forward to. 

On the other hand, looking back isn’t particularly heartening, either, at least for the administration.

The British ConDem government, the so-called coalition between Conservatives who run the show and the Liberal Democrats who rattle along behind, like cans attached to the back of a newlywed couple’s car, doesn’t play the blame game. Of course. No-one does. 

It merely points out that it inherited a miserable economic position from its Labour predecessors.

That’s not blame. That’s recognition of the fact that Labour was in power before them and applied its economic policies. So it’s obviously their fault. Not blame, just a statement of fact.

What they’ve never explained, at least not to my satisfaction, is how the presence of a Labour government in Britain caused so much damage to the economies of the United States, Italy, Ireland, Spain and, indeed, most of the rest of the world. It had always seemed to me that there might have been some kind of global economic crisis, of which Britain, even under Labour, was more a victim than a perpetrator. But, hey, I may just be naïve.

Just for the sake of argument, though, let’s say that what happened back in 2008 really was the worst financial crisis since 1929. Wouldn’t you say that to get us back out of recession after just five quarters, and then take growth to 7% as part of five consecutive quarters of growth, was quite impressive?

Alistair Darling: a comparison that doesn't flatter Osborne

Well, so would I. Quite an achievement by Osborne’s predecessor, Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling. 

Particularly if ten ConDem quarters later, as the graph shows, we’ve had only five quarters of growth. One was impressive at 0.9%, but the rest were pretty anaemic. And the latest, as we were saying, was just 0.3%.

An economy fit for the future? Osborne
s not really very ambitious, is he? Or maybe he prefers to keep us looking forwards rather than back. Because he’s way behind the performance achieved under Labour just before he took office. 

No mileage for Osborne in drawing attention to that comparison...

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Slaying dragons, or perhaps dinosaurs

It took a message from Catalan friends to remind that today is the Feast of St George, the pretext for a huge party out there. And its the day of our patron saint, too, back here in England (not Britain – England).

Barcelona's going to be having fun tonight

At first sight, it’s a curious coincidence that Catalonia and England share a patron saint, but a lot other places share him too, including Greece (and they really need a patron saint right now) and, naturally, Georgia.

St George has become a bit of a thing in England over the last couple of decades. The flag, red cross on a white ground, has begun to rival the Union Jack, that mish-mash that’s supposed to represent the whole of the United Kingdom: it
’s made up of bits from the flags of England, Scotland, which is in the throes of an independence campaign, Ireland, most of which has long since gone, but not poor old loyal Wales. 

More about Wales later.

You see the flag of St George flown quite a bit these days, above all from church steeples. Church of England steeples, I suppose.

Flag of England on a Church steeple
The flag’s growth in popularity seems to be a reaction to the increasing nationalism of the Welsh and the Scots, which is a bit of a cheek, when you think that Welsh and Scots nationalism has grown in reaction to English nationalists lording it over them for centuries.

In any case, the most attractive aspect of St George is nothing to do with nationalism, but with his legendary exploits in slaying dragons. Now that’s something that we badly need again today. Or if not dragons, at least a few dinosaurs.

  • The dinosaurs that inhabit the clubs of London, including the big one that meets in Parliament, and runs the Tory Party on the basis that the measure of a man is his wealth, and the greater his wealth, the better qualified he is to run the show.
  • The dinosaurs in the US senate who’ve decided to react to the killing of twenty kids in Newtown by doing precisely nothing, even blocking the most limited control on guns, though they’ll doubtless react to the three deaths in Boston by clamouring for a war somewhere.
  • The dinosaurs on both sides of the Atlantic who feel that the rights of an embryonic collection of cells in a uterus trump those of the grown, sentient, suffering woman to whom it belongs.
  • The dinosaurs everywhere who think there’s a lot too much love in the world, so that any that occurs in couples of the same sex really ought to be locked away in the dark somewhere or, better still, banned.
  • The dinosaurs who think that the best thing the poor can do is suffer a bit more to make sure that the fine people who run the place, can add a bit to their wealth. Maybe that’s just restating the first entry in this list but, hey, sometimes I feel it can’t be said loud enough or often enough.
So, come on St George! Show us what you’re made of and slay a dinosaur or two.

Which brings me back to Wales. That’s the country that’s not even significant enough to warrant inclusion on the Union Jack, but just when England, proud bearers of the flag of St George, were about to clinch the triumph of a Grand Slam in the Six Nations rugby championship – victory over every one of the other nations – who stepped up to deprive them? Wales, of course.

In the words of an Irish friend of mine, who adds insult to injury by living in Wales, they didn’t just beat England, they trashed England. I phoned to check whether he’d perhaps misspelled ‘thrashed’, but no, ‘trash’ was what he meant. And a trashing was what it was.

So, St George. If you don’t fancy taking on a dinosaur for us, let me point you towards Cardiff. There’s a dragon there on whom you might like to wreak revenge.

Welsh Dragon.
A target for St George if dinosaurs aren't his cup of tea
And, in the meantime, have a great party, my friends in Catalonia. And you Georgians too. As for the Greeks – see if you can at least drown your sorrows for one night.

And everyone else – happy St George’s, even if you don
’t celebrate it.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Let them live, however vile

Nearly two thousand years ago, a group of aristocrats decided to defend the privileges that they and their ancestors had enjoyed for centuries, by striking down the military leader who seemed intent on putting an end to them.

On 15 March 44 BC, they mobbed Julius Caesar in the Roman forum and stabbed him to death. The assassination sealed their own destruction in the civil war that followed, along with the end of the republic they had been so keen to defend. For self-fulfilling prophecy, to say nothing of own-goals, the assassination of Julius Caesar is right up there with the all-time greats.

Just under a century and a half ago, a mediocre actor achieved far greater fame than he ever could on stage, by bursting into Abraham Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre and shooting him in the head. To crown his act, John Wilkes Booth shouted ‘sic semper tyrannis’, the words Brutus is said to have proclaimed after killing Caesar, to signal that all tyrants would die. 

John Wilkes Booth.
May not have been much of an actor, but I wish he'd stuck to it.
As it happens, anyone less like a tyrant than Lincoln would be hard to imagine: his consummate skill was in persuading, cajoling or indeed buying (as the recent film Lincoln showed) enough support to compromise his way to success.

How might things have been, in the counter-factual hypothesis that Lincoln had survived? We can’t know, of course, but I guess that we might not have had to wait until Franklin Roosevelt to see a president re-elected to a third or fourth term of office. What effect that might have had on Lincoln and his commitment to good government and democratic principle it’s hard to say.

More significant would have been the effect on post-civil war reconstruction. My suspicion is that the reintegration of the southern States would have been quicker and more complete, and on the basis of a more rigorous equality among races. The fourteenth amendment freeing slaves was passed in 1865; a century later, their descendants were still battling – in many cases literally – for their civil rights. A lot of bloodshed might have been avoided.

So those were two successful assassinations that were wholly unsuccessful in achieving any useful aim.

On the other hand, there have been assassinations successfully avoided. For instance, late in the Second World War, the British Special Operations Executive launched a plan to murder Hitler. Who opposed these action men, the blowers-up of bridges, the killers of officials in occupied territory? The more established agents of conventional intelligence with their cooler heads. Why? They believed any replacement would run German military power more effectively than Hitler, lengthening the war and making victory less sure.

SOE: Bravest of the brave, but a little misguided over Hitler?
Why am I dealing with such morbid issues? Blame my youngest son Nicky who criticised me for talking too much about the natural death of Maggie Thatcher, having promised to stay silent on the subject. He insisted that I spend some time on violent political deaths, to make up for my inconsistency. 

As an inhabitant of Madrid, he’s particularly well placed to make that demand. I first got to know Spain well in the early nineties. Already then, I had trouble remembering that the country had been under the thumb of a thoroughly vile dictator, though he had died less than twenty years earlier. Indeed, in between, there had been the 1981 attempt by Antonio Tejero, latter-day John Wilkes Booth, to seize power by an armed attack on parliament. Friends in Barcelona described that terrible night in 1981, as they drove about the city to track each other down and try to decide what to do: to wait, to fight, to fly? But then in the small hours, the King finally broke his silence, and called out the army to put down the few rebel units, which it duly did, and the coup was over.

Antonio Tejero: misguided, wrong and thankfully a complete failure

So Spain was a strong enough democracy to resist even an armed attack.

Now would it have been the same had Franco been assassinated? That’s another counter-factual, but again I have little doubt over the broad outlines: Franco would have become a martyr, the far right would have been revived,  crushing repression would have been imposed and many opposition figures murdered or worse. I’m not at all sure that Spain would have been a democracy even today.

Killing an individual leader, however evil or incompetent, seems seldom to produce the desired result. Sometimes, as in the case of Hitler or Franco, it’s best to learn some patience and wait: the effect seems far more profound and longer-lasting.

That’s a lesson the West would do well to learn. There was such celebration over the execution of Saddam Hussein, but might he not have been dead by now anyway? Would things have been much worse? Or rather, when we look around the bloody, Iranian-dominated state Iraq has become, might they not have been a great deal better?

Friday, 19 April 2013

Getting over that death and getting a life

It’s sad that the very qualities that win Brits grudging admiration abroad, alongside the usual derision, are the ones that tend to go fastest when some major event occurs.

The qualities are a sense of humour and a certain civility. You know, the good manners that mean we check with our hapless victim that the electrodes are comfortably attached to his genitals, sir, before turning on the current.

The major event was the death of an old age pensioner last week. She’d played a significant role in politics a generation ago, had been stitched up by her closest friends, and had left the stage in some disarray.

That’s her in disarray, but also the stage. Her immediate legacy was decline, into a corruption without even
 the redeeming feature of grandeur – you know, the larger-than-life drama that goes with a Richard Daley in the States, a John Profumo in the UK, a Mohammed Karzi in Afghanistan – and marked instead by the sleaze that merely provokes ridicule. 

One remembers, for instance, a fine tabloid paper set up a Conservative MP, Piers Merchant, by getting a young woman to kiss him in a park – oh, and he kissed her back too, naturally – while their photographer was lurking in the shrubbery snapping the whole scene.

Cue one career-challenged MP and the Beckenham constituency needing a new representative.

However, twice as much time has passed since Maggie left office than she spent in it. When she died, it seemed to me to be a moment for historians, politicians and journalists to make a few appropriate comments, maybe publish a paper or two, but for the public to do no more than any other historical footnote merited.

But of course the Conservatives are back in power now, and not doing well in the polls. Whatever they could do in the way of riding a Maggie wave back into some popularity was worth trying.

And that’s when the sense of humour and civility failures click in.

First the civility. There were a number of parties celebrating Maggie’s death. Odd, really. In dying, Thatcher became the equal of all of us, who will in turn also have to face that same dreary exit some day, in a way she hadn’t been for years. Surely that was a moment for some restraint; the time for parties was at the time of her political assassination by her supposed allies back in ’90.

Much funnier than the parties was the campaign to get people to download the 1939 Wizard of Oz song, Ding, dong! The witch is dead. I refused to take part, for the same reason I wouldn’t have gone to a party: I’m against celebrating death. But the controversy was great to follow. Why, the other side decided to get in of the act too, and set out a little late to persuade people to buy I’m in love with Margaret Thatcher. In the end, Ding dong didn’t quite make it to number 1, falling one place short. I’m in love only got to 35.

What amazed me is how few people can make that much difference to a song’s place in the charts: Ding dong sold just 52,605 copies. In a nation of nearly 60 million. That’s what it takes to get to number 2.

Even more amusing were the reactions. Tory grandees were lining up to suggest that, despite their total and unshakable commitment to democratic principle, and all that free speech stuff, doncha know, they really rather felt that the BBC should do the decent thing and not play the song on its Chart Show. A new entry. Straight in at number 2. But the BBC caved and another victory was notched up for the humourless, over the adherents of the good old phlegmatic British inclination to say, ‘boys (and girls) will be boys (and girls); let them have their fun.’

Then protesters travelled down to her funeral to turn their backs on the procession as it went past. Strikes me if you want to reduce the event to its real insignificance, the best thing is not to go at all. By turning up in person, you surely give the moment substance – as though protesting against Thatcher hadn’t become irrelevant two decades ago.

That’s where the sense of humour failure showed through too. Nigel Lawson, Lord Lawson, told the BBC that the protesters were exercising a right Maggie had done everything she could to protect. On the other hand – oh, wasn’t it obvious there was another hand coming along? – it would be a terrible pity to show the world an image of Britain as a place that couldn’t show respect to that fine, fine woman.

This from the man whose resignation from Maggie’s cabinet triggered her eventual fall.

Hey, lighten up a bit
It’s pretty significant that he mentioned that point about the image of Britain abroad. Many eulogies to Maggie have pointed out that she converted ‘basket-case’ Britain of 1979 into a nation that won the respect of others.

Well, basket-case Britain had one child in ten living in poverty. Eighteen years of Tory rule later, internationally respected Britain had taken that ratio to one child in three.

International respect paid for by little children? You can keep it. The kind of respect I’d appreciate – and show myself – would be for those who did what they could to alleviate the suffering of little children, not to increase it.

And I might also feel more respect for the country if it learned to take itself less seriously again. To see the funny side. So that instead of working up outrage in response to a little tasteless protest, people just shrugged, walked off and got a life.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

In memory of an outstanding woman

Today’s a particularly good day to salute the achievements of an outstanding figure of the twentieth century. She was a woman who opened doors in ways that are being felt as strongly today as they were in her time. 

And she wasn’t Margaret Thatcher.

A single photograph is the key to the significance of her years of careful work. Of course, as a complete layman, 
I have to admit that when I first saw it, I was inclined to ask, ‘err... yes... but just what are we looking at?’

The justly celebrated Photo 51.
'Yes, dear, very nice. But what is it?' is not the right response.

However, for those in the know, it provides powerful evidence that DNA is not only a spiral, but a double helix, with the ‘bases’ – the bits that code the genetic message – on the inside. In other words, it was the key to understanding the structure of what has come to be known as the language of life.

It was taken by a crystallographer at King’s College London who, as well as being a skilful and painstaking experimentalist, was also, apparently, a little abrasive, a quality that cost her a few friendships. So it was without her knowledge or permission that her colleague Maurice Wilkins showed the picture to two scientists from the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick, giving them the decisive push to build their successful model of the DNA molecule.

James Watson wrote up the story of the discovery in his book The Golden Helix. I heard Watson speak at a conference in 1970, at which he claimed that the US government could save a great deal of money and achieve precisely the same progress, by shutting down all cancer research programmes other than his own. It didn’t seem to me that he was joking, and I was left with the impression that no-one could surpass him in enthusiasm or sincerity of admiration for James Watson.

The book is less than flattering about Rosalind Franklin, who took the key photo 51. Later, Watson admitted that he had been unnecessarily dismissive of both her personality and her skill. But by then he’d shared the 1962 Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine with Crick and Wilkins, in recognition of their work on nucleic acids, including DNA. Franklin didn’t get a look in. But then she’d died, at the pitifully young age of 37, in 1958. 

On 16 April, as it happens, which is what makes today so suitable for commemorating her life.

The Nobel Prize isn’t awarded posthumously. But it’s also never shared between more than three laureates. Had she been alive in 1962, would Franklin have been the also-ran? The fourth scientist, the one whose work wasn’t recognised? Perhaps it’s just as well that we’ll never know for sure.

And congratulations to the American National Cancer Institute for establishing the Rosalind E. Franklin Award for Women in Science, to the Royal Society in London for setting up the Rosalind Franklin Award for outstanding contributions for any area of natural science, engineering or technology and to the Finch University of Health Sciences/Chicago Medical School for changing its name to the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science (which, to be honest, trips slightly more easily off the tongue, too).

And what a joy, one day before all the pomp and circumstance of Maggie Thatcher’s funeral, to remember another woman of that time, whose contribution may actually prove more lasting – and certainly a lot less controversial.

Rosalind Franklin at work

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Suffer little children

If we are to believe St Matthew, Christ called on us to ‘suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.’

And he still more pointedly proclaimed:

‘But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.’

It’s a theme which runs through many cultures, I’m sure, and is certainly a mainspring of ours in the West. As an example, take the much more modern gospel of The West Wing. In the early days of his run for the White House, the best president the US never had, Josiah Bartlett, says:

‘Today for the first time in history, the largest group of Americans living in poverty are children. 1 in 5 children live in the most abject, dangerous, hopeless, back-breaking, gut-wrenching poverty any of us could imagine. 1 in 5, and they're children. If fidelity to freedom of democracy is the code of our civic religion then surely the code of our humanity is faithful service to that unwritten commandment that says we shall give our children better than we ourselves received.’

Matthew is the key gospel writer of Christianity, and Bartlett a devout Catholic. Surely, though, one doesn’t have to be a Christian or, indeed, to belong to any religion to believe that the greatest duty any of us has is to strive to leave the world better for those who come after us than we found it.

That flows from the words of the Indian sage who taught us that ‘we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.’

In turn, that makes the greatest measure, the absolute acid test, of the value of any government, what it does for children. Elevate them, by however little, and it cannot have entirely failed; increase their suffering, and no other success counts for much.

Among all the celebrations of the life of Thatcher, let’s not forget that in the eighteen years of her government and her successor’s, child poverty in Britain tripled. The Blair/Brown Labour governments, for all their failings – the rash invasion of Iraq, the craven obeisance to wealth – took 1.1 million children out of poverty. Now the forecast is that Cameron’s government will plunge 600,000 straight back. 

Grim prospects for British children. And they're set to get worse

Last week, UNICEF published a new report showing that the steps taken towards reducing child poverty under Labour, were threatened by the present regime of cuts. It provides a measure of what’s being done to think that even Thatcher maintained a 1:1 ratio between spending cuts and tax rises; the present government’s ratio is 4:1.

Suffer little children. Well, they’re certainly going to suffer in far greater numbers than before. On the other hand, some already immensely comfortable people will feel more comfortable about the tax regime. Government may begin to shrink, though certainly less than partisans of such action sought. On some measure of efficiency, some things will be more efficient than they were. But children will be suffering hunger, ill-health or general deprivation, to fund those changes.

That’s the acid test of government. ConDems in Britain, Tea Party people in the US recklessly cutting necessary spending, the apostles of austerity throughout Europe, are failing it massively. And that includes those who are self-proclaimed Christians. Doesn
t that make the case against them open and shut, the argument over?

I find it hard to understand how anyone with a conscience can defend such policies during the day, and be at peace with themselves in the evening. 

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Raising the dead for that funeral

It seemed odd to hear the BBC announce that, among the 2000 people invited to attend the Thatcher funeral next week, were all surviving British Prime Ministers and US Presidents.

It was the word ‘surviving’ that puzzled me. Had there perhaps been debate, in the circles that decide this sort of thing, about inviting some of the dead ones too?

‘We really ought to get Stan Baldwin to pop along, you know, and what’s his name, the other chap, blotted his copybook over Suez?’

‘Eden? Oh I’m not sure he’d be appropriate. Bit of a loser. No Falklands spirit there.’

And the discussion would continue till someone pointed out the obvious problem. 

‘Hang on, chaps, hang on: how many people can St Paul’s hold? If we have all the dead fellows along, where will we put the living?’

Still, it would have been an amusing idea, wouldn’t it? To invite some of the dead?

Especially if they’d turned up. What a show that would have been if we’d had, say, Benjamin Disraeli and Harry Truman along to say farewell to Thatcher (or do I mean welcome?)

Now that would have made for a truly unique ceremony.

Meanwhile, the antis are getting their retaliation in early. In particular, in Britain there’s a movement under way to get people to buy ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead’ from The Wizard of Oz. So many have downloaded the song that it may jump straight to number 4 or 5 in the charts this weekend.

Legitimate opposition but terrible taste
In turn, that raises a problem for the BBC: normally, they’d certainly play a new entry that came straight in so high up the charts. So that presents a bit of a conundrum: do they stick to normal policy and risk the ire of the Thatcher eulogists by playing the song, or do they risk the charge of censorship by not playing it? Poor old Beeb. Between a rock and a hard place, which is where the venerable institution seems to spend most of its time these days.

My advice? The pro-Thatcher bunch are the majority of the country, and they run the government too; the rest of us are a minority and we all love the BBC so nothing’s going to stop us listening. Just offend us and keep the song off the air. We’ll forgive you soon enough and at least you won’t get your knuckles rapped again.

As for the song, I have no intention of downloading it. I feel just as repelled by the old girl as I ever did, when she was wrecking communities, encouraging greed and giving free rein to her bigotry, but I deeply dislike people who take pleasure in death. 

However, that's anybody’s death.

So when I hear Tories telling us, in sententious and self-righteous tones, how demeaning it is to exult in another human being’s death, I wonder how they reacted to news of the death of Osama bin Laden? Muammar Gaddafi? Slobodan Milošević?

They’ll say, of course, that Thatcher wasn’t a terrorist or leader of a dictatorial state (no, don’t voice that thought: she really wasn’t). To which I’d reply: that’s not the point. If it’s wrong to celebrate a death, then it’s wrong to celebrate any death. 

So no downloaded songs for me. Dignified silence only, if without grief. And certainly no hours glued to the TV coverage of the gun carriage rolling slowly up the Strand to the sound of muffled drums.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The tale of Corporal Barnett: antidote to Thatcher stories

Such a relief to come across a news item to raise a smile, in among all the Thatcher nostalgia. 

Honestly, they do go on about her. She may have been a giant of the twentieth century, but they seem to forget that giants can be dangerous creatures, who grind your bones to make their bread. After all, she was the one to tell the merchant banks they could gamble with retail banks’ money – our money – just like her mate, Reagan, told US banks. Seeing how that worked out, you might think a little decorous silence might be in order now. But no. The eulogies just go on and on.

So I was delighted when the wall-to-wall coverage was interrupted with the tale of the Court Martial of Robert Barnett of the Royal Marines. He, it seems, is the latest victim of a modern error – the belief that social media are private – and the oldest of weaknesses, the desire to ‘big it up’, as his counsel put it at his trial.

He was at a wedding in June last year. Having been an acting sergeant the year before, his dress uniform had sergeant’s stripes on it and, he claimed, he didn’t have time to take them off. Although once more a corporal, he therefore attended in that uniform. To make matters worse, he wore medals which his father had passed him but which he hadn’t actually won himself.

This was the behaviour that his defence would later argue was just down to his desire to ‘big it up’ at a family occasion. A private occasion. Or at least an occasion that would have remained private had his mates not posted pictures on Facebook. Which were seen by his other so-called mates back in the Marines.

Result? A court martial. And a conviction for conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline. The maximum sentence was two years in prison, but I’m glad to say the Court was lenient. After all, when dealing with an offence so old and so ingrained in the human psyche, a little understanding is essential. He merely has to pay a £300 fine.

It would have been awful if they’d demoted him. After all, his hard work and devotion to the Marines had only recently won him promotion – to the rank of sergeant.

Robert Barnett. Wearing the strip he has now earned

Entirely unrelated postscript

I absolutely loved the expression I heard in a meeting recently: ‘if that roadblock becomes a show-stopper, let’s flag it up.’ Yes indeed. Then we could launch a targeted initiative to take focused action to deliver a value-adding solution. In, to borrow another phrase from the same speaker, a ‘holistic and all-round way.’

Tom Stoppard talks about lego language in Professional Foul. It was sheer joy to come across so wonderful an example of clicking together business-speak clichés to build what passes for a sentence in the language that Austen, Orwell or Stoppard himself had earlier done their obviously inadequate bit to adorn a little.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Drugs: hard to say no when they’re free

I went out on my regular, three-monthly run to buy drugs yesterday.

It wasn’t as exciting as it sounds. Those weren’t the drugs you buy on a street corner from a man in a black BMW but the kind you get from a perfectly ordinary pharmacist.

This particular drug dispenser had a sign up declaring him to be the ‘responsible pharmacist’. I was half tempted to ask to see the irresponsible pharmacist instead,if only to see what kind of drugs might be on offer, but decided not to: I’ve reached the age where I’m beginning to realise that such comments don’t make me sound endearingly humorous, just irritatingly condescending. 

Not so responsible pharmacists
The age I’ve reached. Funnily enough, that was precisely the point that preoccupied the responsible pharmacist. 

‘Do you pay for your own prescriptions?’ the assistant had asked me. It’s the form of words they always use, though I’ve never understood why. It only makes me want to ask ‘Why? Who else’s do you want me to cover?’ though, again, I usually think better of actually voicing them.

‘Yes,’ I said yesterday, as I always have.

But the responsible pharmacist intervened at once.

‘You don’t pay for your own prescriptions,’ he assured me. I was about to inform him with some indignation that I always had when he went on, ‘you’re sixty.’

Blimey, as we like to see in the East End of London. Got me bang to rights there.

‘Why, yes,’ I said, ‘I’ve had a birthday since last time I was in.’

How could I have forgotten? We went to Lanzarote specifically to celebrate it. But I hadn’t realised that it meant that I could, from now on, get my daily fix for free. Wonderful.

‘There are benefits you see, sir,’ went on the pharmacist.

That ‘sir’ hurt more than ‘you’re sixty’: a statement of fact is just that and therefore neutral but a deferential title conjures up a wealth of connotations about condescending kindness to the decrepit. But I’d only just come off a badminton court, feeling a lot fitter than I did thirty years ago when I still smoked. No-one venerates me, to my knowledge (though if anyone feels like starting now, please feel free: I shan’t be offended). Despite all that, here I was, aged and venerable. It felt weird.

Still, I went out clutching my free packet. I’m not so old as to start looking gift horses in the mouth, after all.

I suppose it’s unlikely, though, that those guys in the black BMWs on the street corners operate the same kind of system.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Immigration, benefits and the words to say it all

Now Kathleen Carroll may not be a household name, but she’s done something that deserves a lot more publicity.

She’s a Senior Vice President with the Associated Press. Yesterday, she announced a decision to drop the words ‘illegal immigrant’ from AP’s vocabulary. On what grounds? That ‘illegal immigrant’ is a label that applies to an entire being whereas what is actually illegal is a behaviour. 

Kathleen Carroll, speaking out. Which she does rather well
So she proposes that instead of talking about the millions of illegal immigrants in the US, we talk of the millions of people living illegally in the US. The phrases are pretty much of the same length, but hers shifts the focus from the person to the illegal activity. In other words, it’s a restatement of a truth recognised by humanity and in particular by its religions for centuries: hate the sin, not the sinner.

Now I’m not keen on political correctness and I’m glad it’s been tamed in recent years. On the other hand, I like even less those who were so quick to attack it: too often they seemed to me to be denying the power of words, a power it
’s dangerous to ignore and which Kathleen Carroll seems to have grasped fully.

There was an excellent illustration of the misuse of that power this week. George Osborne, slated to be the former 
British Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2015, has had an agitated week. It saw the start of major reductions in benefits which could cost the poor close to £1000 a year in income, while this weekend tax cuts come into effect which will give, among others, bankers paid over £1 million a year an increase of £54,000. The gift comes just as a new report establishes how the ‘recklessness’ and ‘incompetence’ of the top bankers at HBOS drove that august organisation to bankruptcy and a taxpayer-funded bailout worth £20 billion.

So it was instructive to see Osborne pick on the other big story of the week, the sentencing of Mick Philpott for setting fire to his house and killing six of his children. Osborne pointed to the case as a glaring example of the debilitating effect of the benefit culture.

Now I’d be perfectly happy to see all arsonists who kill six children denied benefits, except for the board and lodging they can receive in jail.

Of course, we all know that only one person would be affected. But Osborne’s denunciation of the welfare state subtly communicates the idea that anyone on benefits is tainted, that they’re on a slippery slope that leads to kids burned to death in their beds.

It’s the same phenomenon that Kathleen Carroll pointed to: an ‘illegal immigrant’ is a tainted person meriting contempt or even hatred; but that ‘hard-working father and generous neighbour who happens to be living here illegally
 suggests something much less easy to dismiss.

Carroll outlined her views to the BBC, which went on to interview Sir Andrew Green of a group called Migration Watch, where ‘watch’ is, I suspect, the kind of thing you do from behind a twitching lace curtain.

Notice that ‘Sir’ in his name: the man’s a knight. Although I usually regard such titles as pretty empty, in his case it fits a treat – I’ve seldom heard someone take a position as benighted. 

He just couldn’t get his mind round the subtle distinction Carroll was making. Instead, he retreated into his stockade of platitudes, talking about people who’ve broken the law and who should face the consequences, about how we shouldn’t adopt a form of language that waters down that fundamental truth. Seeing the complete man or woman and not just the offence? Out of the question.

I was inclined to write him off as what I’ve always thought him to be: a mindless bigot. But that wouldn’t be right, would it?

So let me just say that Sir Andrew Green is a knight of the realm and a man prepared to put his head above the parapet in defence of his principles. By voicing mindless and bigoted views.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Women see the light

For many years, that grand old institution the British Conservative Party has been able to count pretty consistently on winning a higher proportion of women’s votes than its main opposition, Labour. 

It was almost enough to make me question the wisdom of having granted the right to vote to women: after all, if people are given a serious authority, like the vote, and use it for people like the British Tories, one has to wonder whether they were ready for it in the first place.

That however has recently and dramatically changed. It is one of the few tributes I can make to David Cameron and his government, and certainly the only instance I know of where he has managed to inject greater equality into society: he has made rejection of his party equal among the sexes and even, on occasions, higher among women. 

Indeed, there are times when I wonder whether we wouldn’t do better to withdraw the right to vote from men, as women seem better able to see off the Tories in just the way the country needs.

One such time, as the graph below from the excellent UK Polling Report site shows, was early in 2012. 

Conservative Lead in Britain among men and women
From UK Polling Report
Note the tick up in Tory support among men at that time. What was this down to? The one striking phenomenon of the period was the moment when Cameron said ‘no’ to the European Union. He vetoed plans to reform the EU so that Eurozone countries could collaborate to shore up the single currency. 

The veto had no effect whatever. The Eurozone nations simply went on meeting without consulting him or any of the other non-Euro countries, but on the face of it, he sounded strong. It’s a bit like listening to a tennis player’s grunt and ignoring the effect of his stroke; Cameron’s a great grunter, even though the ball as often as not leaves his racket without the energy to reach the net.

The graph shows female support for Cameron continuing to fall at that time. But what about men? They seem to have rallied round, apparently inspired by his empty gesture. Too many of them homed in on the grunt.

Fortunately things seem to have settled down a little since then. Men are still lagging behind women – banning men from voting would still be a useful step in favour of liberal politics in Britain at the moment – but they’re not far behind. The gender differential in support for the Tories is close to zero.

Isn’t that heartwarming? In our increasingly divided society, we’ve found one are of equality and it’s all thanks to Cameron and his cronies.

Yep, when it comes to finding them repellent, we’re all in this together, men and women, sharing our revulsion.