Saturday, 31 May 2014

The US: autocracy and tolerance, ever since the founding fathers. And the men who inspired them

Jon Meacham, in his fine biography, tells an anecdote of Thomas Jefferson’s about a meeting with his colleague and nemesis, Alexander Hamilton. At the time Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury and Jefferson Secretary of State in George Washington’s first administration, though they were already becoming political adversaries. 

Hamilton called at Jefferson’s lodgings.

... Jefferson had decorated the walls of his quarters with a collection of portraits that included Sir Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Sir Isaac Newton, all men of the Enlightenment. Hamilton asked Jefferson who they were: “I told him they were my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced, naming them,” Jefferson recalled.

Taking this in, Hamilton paused, thinking. After a moment, he broke his silence.

“The greatest man that ever lived,” Hamilton said, “was Julius Caesar.”

Julius Caesar, military autocrat, inspired Alexander Hamilton
The story matters not only for what it says about the two men, but for what it reveals of the two currents that have always battled with each other in the United States, down to our days.

Jefferson was the author of significant works on politics and the philosophy of government; most notably, he drafted the Declaration of Independence. Hamilton was the leading writer of the Federalist Papers, spearheading the campaign to convert the loose confederation that won independence from Britain into the tightly structured United States that persist today.

Both men had accepted political responsibility when called on to serve, but Jefferson had never been a soldier. In fact, his blackest moment came when as Governor of Virginia he retreated in front of advancing British soldiers and was accused by opponents of not doing enough to defend his State. Hamilton, on the other hand, had been an aide de camp to Washington during the War of Independence and arguably his leading adviser (certainly, he would have argued it).

Both were thinkers, both were men of action. That makes it all the more interesting that they chose objects of admiration who were so different.

Of Jefferson’s trinity, perhaps the most influential was Locke. In Two Treatises of Government he wrote:

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions: for being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into this world by his order, and about his business, they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorise us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are made for ours.

Reason is derived from God and is the bedrock of the rights of Man. Remind you of anything?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It’s true that it’s hard to reconcile a view that there can no subordination of one man to another with the ownership of slaves, and Jefferson was a major slave owner. That has long been the great unresolved and probably unsolvable paradox of Jefferson’s existence.

A little later, Locke wonders about considers what power one man may have over another who has committed some offence. He can have:

... no absolute or arbitrary power, to use a criminal, when he has got him in his hands, according to the passionate heats, or boundless extravagancy of his own will; but only to retribute to him, so far as calm reason and conscience dictate, what is proportionate to his transgression, which is so much as may serve for reparation and restraint.

That’s a principle that deserves reasserting: punishment is to be calm and reasoned, and its aim must be reparation and deterrence, not hotheaded vengeance. Some of that thinking emerges in the US Bill of Rights, particularly in the Eighth Amendment:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

John Locke, apostle of reason and government by consent,
inspired Jefferson
Locke’s spirit presided over the very foundation of the United States. But Hamilton didn’t recognise his portrait, and instead gave his admiration to a wholly different man, Julius Caesar. 

Caesar turned a rotten and corrupt Roman Republic into a vehicle for his personal ambitions and by doing so, ultimately undermined what little was left of its republicanism. If he failed to take imperial power himself, it was only because he was assassinated first, but by then he had created the conditions that would sweep his adopted son Octavian to power as the first Emperor Augustus.

The great drive behind his ascent had been his military prowess. He had stormed through Gaul (with even a brief incursion into Britain) and crushed all his enemies.

So Hamilton chose the soldier and autocrat. Jefferson chose the man of moderation and of government by consent.

And aren’t those the two trends that have run like golden threads through all American history to today?

The successors of Hamilton are the gun lobby, worshippers of the armed warrior. They sing the praises of the men and women of the armed forces, strong, brave and powerful. They cling to their firearms, even at the cost of the lives of the innocent. They like fierce punishments, the 900-year sentence when they can’t be granted an execution. Their influence ensured that Chelsea Manning was subjected to treatment that even the authorities eventually found excessive.

The successors of Jefferson stand for the subordination of interest to law, to the treatment of all men and women as equal because they are all human. They care for the warrior too, but not just when powerful and victorious, but also when they’ve returned broken, incapable of re-assimilating, living rough and desperate for help. They try to moderate the behaviour of government, and plead for its authority to be limited to respect the rights of the citizen. They understand why Edward Snowden won’t return to face a US court, while a public interest defence is barred to him, against charges carrying a sentence heavier even than Manning’s.

The great unanswered question is which of these trends will ultimately predominate, Jefferson’s or Hamilton’s, Locke’s or Caesar’s. On that question, the jury is still out. Sadly, for all of us.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The passing of a phenomenal woman

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style,” wrote Maya Angelou, who died yesterday, leaving the world with less empathy, fewer smiles and that much less elegance.
Laughter and wisdom
Her words are something to remember in times when far too many of us seem to be giving the primacy to bitter, damaging emotions. We’re traversing a period in which many see the outsider, the other, those who are different in race, faith, sexual orientation or simply nationality as to be shunned or turned into a scapegoat.

Instead of passion, compassion, humour and style, we end up with fear, hatred, intolerance and ugliness. It seems acceptable in far too large a minority of our populations to complain about the diversity around us, to complain for instance that there are parts of Britain that feel foreign, perhaps because we feel
 uncomfortable when no one around is speaking English.

That strikes me as odd. I’ve always found that experience something to revel in. I’ve walked along London streets and heard no English. It made me proud of our tired old capital that so many people were prepared to travel there, whether for a brief visit or to stay for longer. I was sure they would enrich us, in the narrow sense by spending money in our shops or working in our companies, more generally by bringing us a flavour of other places and other cultures. That was something in which I took pleasure. At the simplest level, there was a game to play in trying to recognise some of the languages, with a certain delight when I did, but a rueful admiration of the variety of mankind on the far more frequent occasions when I couldn’t.

Maya Angelou, I like to think, would have found that diversity, that mixing and cross-fertilising of cultures inspiring. Conversely, she would have found the desire to exclude despicable. In I know why the caged bird sings she wrote:

“It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense. We should all be dead. I thought I should like to see us all dead, one on top of the other. [...] As a species, we were an abomination. All of us.”

It’s that abomination that is growing around us today, in Europe and the United States. Large numbers of people, scared no doubt by the instability and suffering that our crisis-torn societies are imposing, run to build walls beyond which they can drive their scapegoats. What they fail to understand is the scapegoats are false and excluding them will achieve nothing, while the walls don’t just create a defence, they also build a prison.

Combating these trends is going to take a long battle. For that we’ll need just the kind of spirit that Maya Angelou left us. And also what she identified as the greatest of human strengths:

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can't practice any other virtue consistently.”

We’ll miss her. But the best tribute we can pay to her is to take up the cudgel against the views she abominated.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

After an Earthquake, reconstruction

So now we’ve had the earthquake in Britain. UKIP topped the poll for the European elections. We know the worst, and we know its extent.

After an earthquake, the first task is rescue and recovery. But actually this one wasn’t that scary. It’s nasty to see success for a party which, while strenuously declaring itself to be neither racist nor homophobic, somehow keeps turning up spokespeople who express thoroughly racist and homophobic views. Nevertheless, these were elections for the European Parliament, and though UKIP ran a campaign claiming that 75% of our legislation is made in the EU, the reality is that power still remains in London.

Victory in a forum which exerts little power over us? It’s not as catastrophic as success in Westminster elections would have been.

So no rescue or recovery. Instead we move straight to the next phase: reconstruction. And there we certainly have a lot of work to do.

While UKIP came top, it took just over 2% more of the vote than Labour. The last time the elections were held, in 2009, Labour fared miserably; it has rebounded into a perfectly respectable position. It has even forced the Conservatives into third place. That’s the first time they’ve fallen so low in a national poll. Not the first time for ages, the first time ever, in their entire history.

All that’s good. What’s much more worrying is that Labour took under 1.5% more of the vote than the Conservatives. That’s far too anaemic a lead for an Opposition party a year out from a general election: there tends to be a swing back towards government in the last few months and Labour is perilously close to losing its lead.

It isn’t clear whether that wisdom remains true in the new environment created by UKIP, with four parties in contest. Or five, if we include the Greens, and we should, since they overtook the Liberal Democrats, junior partners in the present government, last week. 

Maybe there will be less of a resurgence of government popularity in these circumstances than in the past, but I don’t think Labour should rely on that faint hope. Especially as a lot of UKIP supporters in these elections are likely to return to backing the Conservatives next year.

No, reconstructing a politics in Britain based on simple liberalism and tolerance is going to depend on Labour taking positive action itself. And the big question is going to be, what sort of action?

Commentators are all saying that UKIP’s success is going to force the other parties to consider its agenda more seriously. And that agenda has just two points: anti-immigration and anti-EU. The Tories will find it easy to move closer to those positions, but what about Labour?

Ed Miliband's task for Labout
win support back from UKIP without adopting its positions

Adopting a similarly little-England and xenophobic stance would be wrong in itself. Labour stands for inclusiveness and for international collaboration. Coming down hard on immigrants and opposing the EU means betraying fundamental principles.

But in any case it would do Labour no good. If I’m going to vote for a party which has those views, why would I vote for one that has only adopted them recently and doesn’t really believe in them? I might as well vote for the real thing. No, Labour needs to do something much harder. It needs to take on the UKIP discourse and show how profoundly misguided it is.

It has to argue the case for the EU, a reformed EU by all means, but the EU all the same; and it has to argue the case for Europe’s open borders – surely one of the great extensions of human liberty the European experiment has given us. And also deeply necessary, at a time when we need immigration to shore up an ageing workforce.

Labour needs to argue that case with conviction to win back enough supporters from those tempted by UKIP to give it a 5 or 6 point lead. That would be sufficient. But it isn’t going to be easy.

Put off by the scale of the challenge? 

Marine le Pen: the French have a real, devastating earthquake
Think of our friends in France. There the elections were won by a Front National which even UKIP is shy of, because of its racism. And the Socialists, far from coming second, came a poor third, massively diminished by a weak and ineffective President Hollande.

At least reconstructing after our own earthquake is a much more manageable task.

Monday, 26 May 2014

European Elections: the earthquake finally happened for UKIP. But it wasn't that big...

Well, it’s been an interesting night here in Britain, as it has throughout Europe, as we counted the votes for the European Parliament.

The results in Britain, as shown by the BBC
In Britain, UKIP came first. And that means that the commentators who’ve been talking up a UKIP earthquake, will feel justified. They’re not entirely wrong: UKIP have never previously won a national election of any kind, so we have to say well done to them. Even if it’s between gritted teeth.

Then, however, we can qualify that a bit.

First of all, and it’s part of the problem with the European Union, no one cares very much about the European Parliament. So they don’t mind voting strangely in European elections, handing the mainstream parties a kicking when it’s not actually going to change very much. There were indications of that in the fact that the elections were held in Britain on the same day as the Europeans, and in those local elections – which can actually affect voters’ real lives – they handed the victory to Labour.

Indeed, though UKIP came second in terms of new council seats gained, that still left them fourth in terms of representation, and in control of no councils. It seems that UKIP could only gain its victory in an election that voters felt wouldn’t affect them. 

Besides, the victory wasn’t that big: they have a lead of only 2.1% over Labour.

In many ways, what matters more was what happened to the other parties.

The Liberal Democrats are down to just one seat and saw their percentage of the vote halved. It seems that they’re being punished for having won themselves a great reputation sniping from the left at Labour when it was in power, and then joining a government of the right led by the Conservatives. We all saw it coming – I’m sure even they did – and now it’s on them.

The Greens overtook the LibDems, taking three seats and moving to near 8% of the vote and fourth position.

The Conservatives came third. That’s the first time in the entire history of the party, since its foundation, that it has come below second in any national election. Quite a record to break.

And then there’s Labour. It was only given a clear advantage over the Conservatives by the London result, a massive victory for Labour that left UKIP in third place. A result which made me feel less bad about staying up till 3:15 to see it announced. But Labour
’s lead over the Tories is under 1.5%.

Labour leading by 1.5% a year out from a General Election? That’s far too tight. As I wrote about the local elections, there’s one big lesson for Labour to come out of these elections: the party needs to lift its game and lift it big.

Meanwhile, of course, this wasn’t an election just about Britain. The saddest aspect of it? A huge victory for the Front National in France, despite its deeply xenophobic message: even UKIP, itself frequently suspected of racism, regards the FN as too racist to work with. A victory for the far right in Denmark, and in numerous other countries around the Continent. Perhaps the most worrying for its symbolism, small though it is numerically, is the election of a neo-Nazi from Germany.

There are difficult times ahead for the whole of Europe. And Britain’s problems are just part of that big picture.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

The British journalist and the UKIP victory that looked terribly like a defeat

Not enough has been said about the herd mentality of political commentators.

The story of the British local elections on Thursday was trailed way in advance: it was going to be a huge triumph for the far right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-EU and closet anti-gay party, UKIP.

So as the results started to come in on Thursday evening and during the day on Friday, we had a continuous flow of commentary about the “earthquake” achieved by UKIP. The “fox”, we were told, was now well and truly in the “Westminster hencoop”.

I heard the hype, but couldn’t make it tally with the actual results.

The final figures showed that Labour had gained control of six more councils, taking its total to 82. They did that by winning an additional 338 seats around the country.

The Tories had lost control of eleven councils, leaving them with precisely half as many as Labou: 41. They lost 231 seats.

The Liberal Democrats’ meltdown continued. They lost control of two more councils leaving them with just six, and they lost a staggering further 307 seats.

And UKIP? They added 161 seats to the total of just two they already held amongst those contested on Thursday. That was the only spectacular aspect of their achievement. They controlled no councils on Wednesday, they controlled no councils on Friday. They made half the gains achieved by Labour, and took a total of 163 seats – behind not just Labour (2101) but also the Conservatives (1359) and even the Liberal Democrats (427).

The BBC does an “equivalent share of vote projection” for this kind of election, to work out what it would correspond to in terms of a full national election (not every area has local elections every year – for instance, we in Luton didn’t this time round). On that basis, UKIP achieved 17%, well below its poll standing – and worse still, 6% down on last year.

This is what they call 'victory'?
If this is what victory looks like, one shudders at the idea of defeat.

The reality is that there was only one victor of the local elections: Labour. It was well short of the kind of victory it was looking for – it needed 500 gains to feel it was on course to win outright in the general election next year – but it was a victory all the same. UKIP emerged on the stage, and turned our system into one with four parties not three, but as clearly the fourth party, well-beaten into last place.

There’s still a chance of a sting in the tail, however. We had European elections on the same day as the locals. It’s possible that some voters chose UKIP for the Euros and someone else for their local council – perhaps feeling that the Euros don’t count, and they don’t want UKIP anywhere near power where it matters. The European votes don’t get counted until Sunday, at the same time as the rest of Europe, and we may face a nasty upswing in UKIP votes then.

For now, though, based on the local elections only, there’s some satisfaction in seeing UKIP achieve far less than its ugly boasting suggested. And yet the commentariat was united on Friday in describing what had happened as a breakthrough for UKIP. It was as though no one wanted to be the first to break the consensus, and say something different from what all the other journalists were saying. See what I mean about herd mentality?

It reminded of that brilliant piece of doggerel:

You cannot hope To bribe nor twist, Thank God, The British journalist.

But when you see What the man will do, Unbribed, There’s no occasion to.

Fortunately, British journalism does acquit itself better after a good night’s sleep, and the Guardian was a lot more sensible this morning.

It’s headline was: “Ed Miliband told: raise your game”.

Now that makes sense. Miliband had a lousy week, among many lousy weeks, appearing on TV unbriefed, and generally running a lacklustre campaign in which he made the mistake of not taking on UKIP. Indeed, the paper went on:

“Labour tops vote in local polls but campaign criticised as UKIP makes a mark.”

Ed Miliband
If he really wants something to smile about, it's time to change gear
Yes, that sums it up. Nothing like enough from Labour. And a mark by UKIP, but no more than a mark.

Good to see British journalism redeem itself a little. And UKIP put back into its box, at least for now. Fingers crossed for Sunday’s count.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Euro elections, curious elections

Just been to vote. For the European Parliament. A curious election.
Where the action happened
On the one hand, we had the Conservatives, David Cameron’s Party. 

As usual, there’s the smell of corruption around them. The most recent scandal concerns the bright idea they had to encourage private colleges to spring up all over the place to offer higher education courses to anyone who could pay their fees. The London School of Science and Technology in Wembley has been signing up students as though they were going out of fashion, without getting too obsessed with banal details like qualifications or talent. 

The students pay the college £6000 a year for the privilege of registering. They collect £11,000 a year in dirt cheap student loans underwritten by the taxpayer. Rather a lot of them then don’t bother with any of those boring aspects of student life, like actually attending classes. It’s win-win: they gain, the college gains. OK, win-win-lose if you include the taxpayer, but hey, why bother about them if the government is applying its ideology.

This comes on top other wonderful experiences with privatisation, such as Serco failing to deliver on its contract to provide out-of-hours GP services, or G4S artificially inflating its invoices. None of that has stopped the government pursuing its privatisation agenda, with one of the most sensitive of services, child protection, the next in the firing line.

The main opposition to the Conservatives is Labour. Sadly, its leader Ed Miliband prefers substance over appearance. I say “sadly” because not many people seem all that interested in details of tedious hard work, like the drawing up of policy, and that’s what he seems best at. The policies are often good, but then he goes for an interview where it turns out he doesn’t know the name of the local representative of his own party or, when discussing the terrible standard of living problems he’s rightly identified as besetting ordinary people, the amount it costs most of them to shop for food.

That plays into the hands of those who want to write him off for his looks or how he talks, rather than listen to what he says.

What used to be the third party is rapidly becoming an also-ran. The Liberal Democrats used to be a great ginger group, snapping at Labour’s heels and occasionally helping to keep them honest. Now they’ve sold their soul to the devil, joining a coalition with the Conservatives, losing two thirds of their electoral appeal in the process and rapidly disappearing into irrelevance.

The great unsung story of the last few years is the rise of the Greens. Their share of the vote climbs slowly but steadily. It would be surprising if they don’t move ahead of the Liberal Democrats in this election.

And finally we have the great shocking spectacular of this campaign, the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP. They are the reverse of Labour. They have lots of image but practically no policy at all.

You might think this might weaken their position but it has the opposite effect. Firstly, they don’t bore those people who find substance tiresome. Second, you can’t tie them down to anything. Every time an opponent says, “ah, yes, but UKIP want to do such and such,” a spokesman will reply “oh, no we don’t. That’s not our policy.” And that’s true, since they have no policy.

Instead they rely entirely on the politics of appearance over substance. Above all, that means the appearance of their leader, Nigel Farage. He seems friendly, approachable, honest. Where the operative word is “seems”.

The reality is that in the absence of any policy, he has concentrated on peddling a position based only on attitudes. And those attitudes are entirely negative. He and his party are against the EU, they’re against immigrants. They don’t seem to be in favour of anything much, unless it’s taking Britain – or more likely just England – back to a golden past, which is doubly impossible, firstly because you can never get back to the past, and secondly because it never existed in the first place.

As for honesty, you should watch Farage when he’s being quizzed about his own behaviour as a Member of the European Parliament. He started by declaring that he would have his expenses subjected to an independent audit. He then decided that actually he wouldn’t, unless the other parties did the same. When it was pointed out to him that the other main UK parties did just that, he said that it would be a decision to be taken by the entire UKIP group as a block.

Anyone else, in any other party, would be regarded as thoroughly shifty for dodging around like this, changing his ground and avoiding the issue. Farage seems to be allowed to get away with it, for reasons that escape me.

So what’s this election going to give us?

The most likely outcome: a thumping win for UKIP.

What will that show? That a sizeable proportion of the electorate prefers form over substance. And that it’s happy to be driven by a politics of fear and hatred, of reactionary nostalgia.

Quite a tribute to the deviousness and tactics of UKIP. Not much of a tribute to the good sense and good judgement of the British electorate.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Misty's diary: God and Mice and other transcendental questions

Another entry from the diary of Misty, cat and thinker. In which he turns mystical and considers the great questions of Cats relationship to the universe and to God.

May 2014

Today I had one of those moments, as we surely all do, when we get to thinking about the nature of the universe, why we are here, and the relations between Catkind and the Godhead. 

First of all, let me say at once that’s it time to debunk the rubbish so many humans talk. They have this quaint but outlandish view that they’re created in the image of God. Laughable. They’ve got only two legs, no tail, barely any whiskers and a stupid vestige of hair instead of proper, sleek fur coats.

And they think this is the image of God?

It’s as if they’d missed the point that the divinity is feline. Or perhaps I ought to say, forgotten the point. Back in Egypt, when humans were properly grounded, they knew better and understood the worship due to cats. Today they’ve lost a proper sense of awe before the great Cat above, the one that put the cat into catalysis, to say nothing of catastrophe and cataclysm. It’s enough to make you want to fire them from a catapult until they’re catatonic.

How could the divinity be anything but feline? How could one explain the existence of mice? They’re certainly not placed on Earth for the pleasure of humans, are they? Humans mostly loathe them. But to us they’re a source of hours of harmless pleasure with the prospect of a pleasant snack at the end.

Only a Cat God could have created the mouse.

Watching: part of the joy itself
Mice are enthralling. Some may think it boring to sit waiting for them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes the anticipation is as great as the pleasure itself. I love to see it prolonged, if anything. Gratification is only momentary, at the end of a joy that can last hours. 

I sit there, silent as the tomb, unmoving, alert, nerves aquiver and ready for the pounce. Meanwhile, the poor dumb creatures are gradually lulled into a sense of security.

Completely without foundation.

And then – they come sneaking out. And meet – me. Who put the cat in catch.

Sometimes, with the help of the domestics,
I get to take a closer look
I know there are some cats that don’t eat their prey but drop them indoors, as a kind of offering to the domestic staff. Poor saps. Wouldn’t catch me doing that. There’s nothing left when I’ve finished.

Well, to be strictly honest, sometimes I’ve taken the dead little thing into the house. But not often. Only if it’s proved too easy to catch several of them and I’ve had my fill. And only if I can leave the corpse somewhere the domestic staff will step on it when they come downstairs still half asleep in the morning. Preferably barefoot.

Oh my! You should hear the language. Enough to turn my ears pink, if my ears ever turned pink.

Otherwise, four or five bites and a chew or two, and the little thing’s gone to a much better place. Deep inside me. Leaving me replete and murmuring a little prayer of thanks to the great Cat in the sky. My catechism.

I’m the cat in catharsis.

A world with mice in it is so obviously made for the joy of cats. What possible grounds can our human servants have to think it was made by a God in any way concerned with their pitiful happiness?

Even Janka, our stupid dog, has understood
the fascination. Though I wish the great
lumbering oaf would keep out of the way

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Privatisation: good in principle, we're told. And great for child protection

We always like our politicians to be principled. Though sometimes we forget that principles are abstract, and reality can be worth taking into account too. Detaching ourselves from reality exposes us to the danger inherent in pure principles, which is that they can be the skeleton on which ideologies hang. 

“...ideological thinking,” wrote Hannah Arendt, “becomes emancipated from the reality that we perceive with our five senses, and insists on a ‘truer’ reality concealed behind all perceptible things...”

Emancipation from reality. That’s the hallmark of ideology. Things must be this way, because that’s the principle we live by, and anything else must therefore be untrue.

Parties of the Left suffered from ideological thinking for decades. For instance, the British Labour Party became so obsessed with common ownership of the means of production that it became simply the party of nationalisation – though that meant ignoring the reality that the way the railways or gas distribution were run as nationalised industries was far from ideal, something that was obvious to their customers. The principle, nationalise the “commanding heights” of industry, trumped the reality of bureaucratic ineptitude and poorly delivered services.

Today, though, it’s the Right rather than the Left that is dominated by ideology.

It was a Thatcher/Reagan thing. Anything would be better run by the private sector than by government. And it didn’t matter how or on what basis: just get it outsourced, by hook or by crook, and hang the consequences.

The consequences were often dire. The railways pretty much hit the buffers. Labour had to renationalise part of them to get things back on an even keel – at which point they actually became rather good. Certainly better than I’d ever seen them. Expensive but good enough for me hardly ever to use the car for any trip over an hour and a half.

The railways make a powerful point. The solution we’ve reached fits no ideology. Those committed in principle to nationalisation or to privatisation both lost out: we have private train companies – and one nationalised one – running on nationalised tracks. A messy compromise, but it works. That’s reality. It doesn’t always fit any ideology.

Private train companies running services on public track
Though this private company happens to be publicly owned
Confused? That's how it is with non-ideological compromises.
The Right, however, sticks with its ideological fervour. Privatise anything that moves. Parts of the police service, parts of the prison service, increasingly large parts of the health service. Because it’s bound to be better than running those services publicly.

Except that it hasn’t been, particularly. At best, things seem little different. And at worst, they’re lousy.

  • Serco won the contract to provide out-of-hours GP services in Cornwall. That contract is to end 17 months early because the company couldn’t meet its delivery commitments. Besides, some staff were found to have falsified returns to try to make it look as though targets were being hit.
  • G4S won the contract to provide security at the London Olympics. It failed to put the service in place, and instead the army – the publicly-managed army – had to be called in instead and did an excellent job.
  • G4S also won a contract to tag prisoners on parole. After being found to have systematically overcharged on invoices, it was forced to pay back nearly £109m.
  • Now Serco faces charges of not having acted appropriately over allegations of sexual assaults on an inmate at the Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre, which it runs and which contains particularly vulnerable people: immigrants facing deportation.
So there are some worrying concerns about these two giants of the privatisation world, and precious few spectacular successes to allay our fears.

Despite all that, Michael Gove, the Conservative Education Secretary, is proposing to put child protection services out to private tender.

Child protection is about looking after children who are deemed at risk of abuse, physical or sexual. There are few tasks that deserve to be treated more seriously. If the inmates at Yarl’s Wood are vulnerable, surely no one is more so than a child at risk. We’ve seen sickening cases in recent years of children abused and murdered because the Child Protection services failed to intervene in time.

These are the services that Gove wants to put out to tender? To a market place dominated by organisations like Serco and G4S? He feels they should be given this immensely delicate responsibility?

Curiously, one of the few services he does not propose to outsource is adoption. He was adopted himself. Has that played a role in his thinking?

The proposal is a wonderful example of ideological thinking. Privatisation, the Conservative Party has decided, is good. So we’ll privatise anything we can. And the mere reality of poor performance, or even fraud, isn’t going to deflect us from our mission.

That needs resisting. And in case anyone feels that we need to answer the principle of privatisation with another principle, this one should do: child protection is far too precious and far too fragile to allow the pursuit of profit to have any influence over how it’s delivered.

Now there’s a principle I’m prepared to go along with. Because it’s firmly rooted in reality.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Technobabble: a powerful weapon in well-trained hands

Are there specific courses to train people in technobabble?

They’d have to have modules on obfuscation and misdirection. They would train people to use terms like entity-relationship model as though they had nothing to do with human beings’ desire for pretty, scantily-dressed fashion objects of either sex, or sprint backlog as though that didn’t concern a runner behind on his practice. Above all, they must train the would-be arch-technobabbler to use terms with enough confidence to make anyone listening think (a) that the terms mean something even though we have no idea what, and (b) that the babbler knows what they mean whether anyone else does or not.

Caution: dense technobabble ahead
Another module of the course would deal with time management. By which I don’t mean sticking to time. Oh, no. The technobabbler is a man who makes a schedule serve him, and doesn’t slavishly bow to a schedule.

He sets a deadline for delivery of, say, a new product which is so far in the future that you can’t believe he’s really serious. Eventually, he browbeats you into submission and you accept his ludicrously leisurely timetable. He then does nothing until a week before the deadline, at which point he explains why it’s inevitably going to be missed, and through no fault of his own.

“The user stories haven’t been signed off,” he’ll explain sententiously. 

You nod because you don’t want to look ignorant, although it sounds to you like a fairy story.

“You saw the Risk Register, didn’t you? It was clearly marked in there as a threat to the project.”

“The Risk Register?” you say in innocence, giving him precisely the opening he needs, to drive you into a corner and finish you off.

“Yes. The Risk Register. You obviously saw that we needed one, from the TOR.”

A three-letter-abbreviation: now that’s a real killer. A blow below the belt. How are you supposed to cope with it?

The TOR? you think. What on Earth is a TOR? Isn’t it a granite outcrop on Dartmoor? Thinking about Dartmoor Tors is a mistake, because it gets you dreaming of far more congenial places and activities. Ah, a blissful walk on the moor. A joy, in sunshine. And better than this discussion even in fog and rain.

But you drag yourself back to reality.

“Ah, yes, the TOR,” you say, “of course.”

“Which, as it happens, haven’t been signed off either.”

“Haven’t”? The TOR are plural? But again you interrupt your reverie when you catch sight of his sardonic smile. He’s just waiting for you to give him the opportunity to say “you haven’t read the TOR, have you?”

“Is that the time?” you say, “I’m supposed to be in a meeting,” and decamp.

The other time management skill these guys have is an ability to write off anything that looks like an agenda as a mere challenge. Certainly only a constraint for lesser men than they.

“You gave me thirty minutes? ME? Technobabbler-in-chief?” they seem to say, as they ignore the time allocated to them and keep talking until they judge from the audience’s comatose state that they’ve been punished enough.

The finest example I had the honour to witness was the Technobabbler who put up a slide with twenty or thirty points on it – one of the lighter ones in the set he inflicted on us – and announced “I’ve already covered most of this, but I’ll go through it again because I think it’s worth it.”

Worth it? Worth what? Worth it to pummel us into submission?

Because that’s what the technobabbler does. He turns words from mere vehicles of meaning into instruments of attack. Used to ensure the best defence. None of us knows what he’s saying, but it sounds as though we ought to. We don’t dare admit he’s talking gibberish because we’re haunted by the idea that, if we had the slightest notion of what he was on about, we might find it was something we shouldn’t admit is beyond us. So his status is inviolable. Unchallengeable, because none of us dares challenge it.

No wonder technobabblers occupy such an honoured position in industry.

Postscript: Since you ask, TOR are Terms of Reference, of course. Hence the plural.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Misty's Diary: I did try to be nice

Another entry from Misty’s diary, following our return from holiday.

April 2014

So the domestic staff’s back. Just as well. These jaunts to strange places are just disruptive and ought to be discouraged.

And what a strange place they went to this time! Tunisia. OK, so it’s practically nothing but coastline and the fish, I understand is good, but the cats are a mangy lot for the most part, leading a claw to jaw existence. You can trust me when I say that
’s a lot worse than hand to mouth for both the perpetrator and the victim.

I don’t understand why the domestics don’t just settle down and enjoy life at home. After all, so much is just as it should be here. There’s a box full of food, and however much I eat of it, it keeps filling up again. OK, I have to remind the staff from time to time to move some from box to bowl, but domestic 2’s pretty smart about that if I remind him hard enough.

I did try to persuade them to take me with them. 
Just so they didn't get lonely. Personally, I prefer home
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining about the service when they’re away. They get domestic 3 in when they clear off, and she’s fun. It’s true she tosses around in bed a lot, which is a pain in the backside, sometimes literally, and instead of learning to stop when I bite her feet, she just chucks me out, which feels like insult on top of injury. But mostly she’s fine: she knows who’s boss, and when I drive the bloody dog Janka off the sofa to reclaim my rightful place, she just laughs – a good, sensible reaction.

Even so, it’s nice to get 1 and 2 back. So nice in fact that the morning after they came home, I was my winsome best with domestic 2. Not so much cat as puss, if you get my meaning. Pretty damn adorable, if I say so myself.

Me being winsome to Domestic 2, in bed
Hamfisted stroking. 
I only let him get away with it because I was feeling winsome
But he’s hopeless. Clumsy oaf. Left my bowl empty all afternoon. Domestic 1 wouldn’t let me on her knees while we were watching TV so I had to use his lap and, honestly, the guy is hopeless. Fidgeting. Moving his right foot over his left foot, then his left foot over his right. Practically throwing me off by moving his knees apart, then nearly squishing my fine food-filled stomach when he remembered and moved them together again.

Putting up with the lap of Domestic 2
Only if the Head Domestic's not available
I had to go and lie next to him on the couch instead. And even then he came up with some silly comment about “don’t be so bad-tempered” when I drove the bloody dog off it. 

Bad-tempered? Does the dog honestly think she has the right to lie on the couch when I need it? What kind of entitled thinking is that?

Why, domestic 2’s lucky I let even him share the couch with me.

Then he tried to make good by stroking me. It was no use though. It was that cackhanded, hamfisted style of his, far too fast, far too clumsy. I’d let him get away with it in bed in the morning, but by the evening I’d had enough. And he’d made the mistake of wearing a short-sleeved shirt. A joy when you’ve got claws and jaws. Did I get him!

Don't get casual with me, mate. Or cast aspersions
Winsomeness? Forget it. A puss? That’s for the birds. I’m a cat. The birds are for me.

Normal service resumed, in other words.

Monday, 12 May 2014

A Muslim nation that offers an object lesson in tolerance

Warmth. That’s what I remember most from the week we spent in Tunisia the week before last.

Not just the physical kind, though there was that too: in the mid-twenties Celsius. It’s the perfect level, comfortably warm without being unbearably hot.

But the main thing was the human warmth. An awareness that others too had rights. A willingness to treat them as you’d want to be treated yourself.

The Tunis Souk.
Lively, bustling, diverse. Fun
There was an expectation that we would bargain over any price, so starting offers were always high. Once an agreement had been reached, however, that was the price. Neither side would change it. And what was to be delivered, would be delivered. Cars we ordered turned up on time (actually, ahead of time we generally found), and the price on a bill presented for payment was the price agreed.

But even that reassuring honesty wasn’t what mattered.

No, what really mattered was the tolerance, the willingness to live and let live. Tunisia is undoubtedly a Muslim country, and most restaurants and cafes we visited served no alcohol. However, it isn’t an Islamic nation, so there were plenty that did sell alcohol, and they served it to Tunisians as well as tourists.

What I found interesting is that those places had their conventions. I’ve cut down recently on the amount I drink (not just doctor’s orders, though I’ve had those too – well, actually, nurse’s orders: I’ve never yet managed to see a doctor at the Practice where I’m registered, instead always being palmed off on a nurse but, hey, they’ve been great so why should I complain?)

One evening I decided to stick to water with the dinner. After the meal, the restaurant offered us a liqueur on the house – but the waiter brought four to the five of us. Clearly the restaurant was used to mixed groups of guests, some of whom were drinking and others not, and tactfully offered no drink to those who weren’t.

I was impressed by the delicacy of the gesture.

Later on, the manager did still better, having one of the staff drive us back to our hotel through a torrential downpour. I’ve never known a restaurant anywhere else offer that kind of service.

As it happens, it was a bit like the courtesy drinks. There was only space for four, so I walked. I
m not sure whether that was related to not drinking alcohol – the one who was drinking only water might as well be the one who got wet, perhaps? 

My overall impression of the country was one of charm, generosity and above all a willingness to admit that there are many ways to live a life, and no-one needs to tell others what’s wrong with theirs.

Sadly, there are elections later this year, and many fear that the Islamists will make gains. I know the difference between Muslims and Islamists, and I’d much rather see the former continuing to live as they do than the latter taking their place. Insha’Allah, the present happy arrangement may continue.

If it does, well, Tunisia will have a lesson or two to teach other countries, not least the democracies of the West. A lesson in basic liberalism. And its most important component: tolerance.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Banks and the NHS: the joy of numbers

Numbers are such fun.

Here are a couple. Barclays Bank has 481 senior staff who were paid over a million pounds last year. A large proportion of that money came out of its bonus pool that amounted to £2.4 billion.

Meanwhile, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which offers guidance on safe practice in healthcare, has reported that nursing levels have fallen to levels at which many hospitals can no longer operate separately.

Nurses: numbers are falling to levels where safety is compromised
The government maintains loudly and repeatedly that this has nothing to do with funding: “...hospitals must balance their books whilst ensuring compassionate quality care for all. We know this can and is being done – safe staffing levels lead to better care and can save the NHS money.”

Nevertheless, the service itself knows that faced with the challenge to save £20 billion by 2015, 
issued when the current government took office in 2010, many hospitals responded by cutting staff numbers. The Royal College of Nursing finds that there are hospitals now with 16% of their nurse posts unfilled. 

Ironically, the economy drive while damaging hasn’t even achieved anything like the savings wanted, as the service is spending several hundred million pounds a year on bank nurses. Just to avoid confusion, that’s not the same kind of bank: it’s the system by which nurses can earn more by doing extra shifts for a fee significantly higher than normal pay. That’s what hospitals are having to pay to make up shortfalls.

NICE now calculates that to get back to safe levels would require in the region of 20,000 more nurses in the service. The cost would be around £700 million: the rule of thumb figure used is £35,000 per year per nurse.

That’s what it would cost to make us all safer at those moments when we most need to be protected, when we’re ill enough to be in hospital.

Now let’s look at those figures again.

481 staff at Barclays bank made at least a million last year. That’s enough for nearly 30 nurses each. And that’s a minimum: many of those million-plus executives took a great deal more.

Barclays Bank set aside £2.4 billion to pay its staff bonuses for last year, a year in which the Bank’s performance actually fell. So for bad performance, it set aside nearly three and a half times what it would cost to make the whole of the NHS safe for all of us.

Barclays Bank has also just announced 19,000 redundancies. Those powerful executives, being paid enough to staff an entire hospital ward on their own, are going to earn their money by taking a lot of people paid a great deal less, and throwing them onto the unemployment scrapheap.

Meanwhile, the government is extremely unlikely to dig up the funds to find the 20,000 extra nurses our hospitals need.

It may, of course, just be me. But I feel these figures say just one thing: this society of ours has got its values into a complete mess.

And just one question springs to mind: how can anyone still be planning to vote again for the parties that make up the current ConDem government? Or, given that UKIP shares its stance on the NHS, its main challenger to the right either?

Thursday, 8 May 2014

May the Eighth

The 8th of May. Funny old day. Here’s what the Guardian had to say about unusual events in Dublin:

“About 3 p.m. passers-by in the centre of the city were surprised to see students of Trinity College hoisting the Union Jack and the Red Flag over the main entrance to the University.... A large crowd gathered and the students assembled at the window and sang [...] ‘Rule Britannia!’ amidst an outburst of booing from the crowd.”

Unheard of. A few windows got broken and soon enough the Union Jacks came down, but still – the British flag flown and celebrated in Dublin?

But strange sights were seen in London too. “Five years ago it would have seemed the wildest of dreams that Soviet flags would fly in triumph in the City of London, as they are doing today...”

Wild indeed.

By now you’ll have guessed that these extracts from the Guardian don’t come from today’s issue, but from this day 69 years ago. The day, 8 May 1945, when Germany surrendered to the Allies and ended the Second World War in Europe.

8 May 1945, VE Day: when the Second World War ended in Europe
In a third article, the Guardian remarked: 

“Not the Beginning of the End but the End of the Beginning, said Winston Churchill after Africa. Today he might well say: Not the End but the Beginning.” 

It was thinking of the huge job of reconstruction that lay ahead.

It ended that piece:

“In his last speech – which sadly he was not able to deliver – President Roosevelt wrote, ‘More that an end to war we want an end to the beginning of all wars – an end to this brutal, inhuman, unpractical method of settling differences...’”

Since 8 May 1945, Britain has not known a single entire day when it has not been involved in war somewhere in the world. It’s just possible that when we get to the 70th anniversary of that victory, in 2015, this country will at last be at peace everywhere, for the first time in a century.

Then we might begin to approach the ideal Roosevelt referred to.

In the meantime, we can celebrate the victory, but I suggest in a muted way. Which, curiously, is much the way the nation celebrated it then, despite the students in Dublin. On 9 May 1945, the Guardian again reported:

“After five years of ‘blood and tears and sweat’ the British people found it difficult to express their joy and relief. We are a little out of practice. Many could not find it in their hearts to rejoice when there is still so much suffering in Europe as well as another war to win.”

I remember my mother saying much the same. There was a sense of relief in London that night, and a pleasure at seeing the lights come in the evening for the first time in over five years, instead of the constant blackout. But there was not great outburst of celebration. There was still the war in the far East to win. There was a lot too much to do.

A lot has since been done. We have, for instance, built a European Union in large part to stop such wars happenig again. But it has a long way to go and, today more than ever, a generation that has forgotten what it protects us against, is trying to dismantle it. Even the small steps we have taken towards ending “this brutal, inhuman, unpractical method of settling differences” are under threat.

But that’s enough of the gloom and the caution. There are ironies to the 8 May anniversary too, and I enjoyed them greatly when we lived on the Franco-German border. The French have a public holiday on that day, but some of my French friends didn’t realise that they could still do their shopping if they came across to Germany.

“Don’t they celebrate it, then?” they asked.

Oddly enough, no they don’t. Few countries in Europe are as opposed to Nazism as Germany. But they still don’t hold a party to mark a national defeat.

On the other hand, they’re vigilant against any renewed rise of the nationalism that precipitated a conflict in which their ancestors inflicted and underwent so much suffering. They snuffed out their neo-Nazis quickly when they started to make progress in the eighties. And they give the strongest support to the ideals of the European Union.

An example that we, who were on the victorious side on that 8th May, would do well to follow.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Politics of hope not hatred

Curious. I got into a bit of a storm with UKIP supporters on Twitter today. 

I’d suggested that part of the appeal of the party is that it provided people who have been treated as worthless by society with a way of feeling superior to somebody else. In UKIP’s case, that would mostly be immigrants (Nigel Farage, the party leader, has said how unpleasant it would be to live next door to Romanians; I can assure him, from bitter experience, that there are Brits I’d swap for some decent Romanians as neighbours any day of the week). 

Interestingly, the people who replied seemed so upset that I can’t help feeling they saw some truth in what I’d said.

Having people to look down is important. You may remember Arlo Guthrie talking about how good it is, when we’re having things bad, to have a friend point out to us, “hey, look at that guy, he’s got it worse than you.”

Well, this is the same kind of thing. Read Gone with the Wind. The contempt with which it talks about “white trash” is fascinating to behold. But such “white trash” could still look down on somebody: the black slaves who had it worse than them.

The same was true of apartheid South Africa, where poor whites were at least better off than any black. Or Nazi Germany where any struggling German could at least congratulate himself on not being Jewish. So today it’s true in Britain or the US, among others, of immigrants, particularly the illegal ones: we may be having a bad time, but hey, we’re better than that lot.

At least whites despised by other whites
had someone else to push around
And a lot of people are having a bad time right now. We heard today that unemployed people in Britain risk having their benefit stopped if they don’t take zero-hour contracts. Zero-hour contracts offer no fixed hours and therefore no fixed pay. They treat human beings as having no employment rights at all. But we want to deny benefits to people who won’t accept that further humiliation.

It’s pretty obvious that people in that position, or the many other positions of extreme precariousness and vulnerability society has generated across the wealthy nations, feel full of gloom, pessimism and hatred for what is being done to them. So an organisation like UKIP which provides a way of directing their feelings against a group it can blame for its troubles, and which can’t hit back, offers them the dream of a lifeline.

Unfortunately, it is only a dream. An illusion. Hating Romanians isn’t going to fix the health service, improve education or get more people into proper jobs. It’s just going to increase hatred.

What we need in society right now isn’t more hatred, it’s more hope. And more people to work together to give us back governments that will help realise that hope. Which would give worth back to the very people who have been treated as worthless – and who have real worth and only need to be allowed to fulfil it.

Rather boringly, that means backing a party that actually has policies to do that.

UKIP has no such policies. In fact, from reading its manifesto it doesn’t seem to have any policies at all, unless you count wanting to cut taxes while simultaneously improving services as a policy, rather than wishful thinking if not, quite simply, a pipe dream.

On the other hand, UKIP does offer some good targets to fulminate against. The European Union, above all. And, of course, immigrants. 

Great if you think what we really need in politics is scapegoats.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Tunisia: land of warmth. With an afterthought about Britain's cold shoulder

As the time approaches for us to leave Tunisia, I’ve been thinking about all the aspects that have struck me about this smiling country, before I head back towards my own, with the rather sterner face it seems to want to cultivate these days.

What shall I miss about Tunisia?

First of all, warmth of early summer, to be replaced by the cold and grey that has returned in Britain. And which, as we shall see, rather reflects the attitudes of these two nations.

Because I shall also miss the easy, warm-hearted people we met everywhere we went in this short break. All those people who did what they could to help us when we needed it, and always ended by wishing us welcome to their country or, quite simply, welcome.
I shall miss the honesty we encountered. People who told us they would meet us at 8:00 were there at 8:00 or a little before. If we agreed a price of 120 dinars, then the charge they made was 120 dinars. It made life feel safe and easy.

I’ll also miss the food. A lot of fish, in a country only 95 miles across, and in which I don’t think we ever got more than about 30 miles from the sea, but varied, interesting and delicious. And accompanied by harissa. 

Harissa: wonderful with every meal
You don’t know harissa? It’s the wonderful, deep red hot sauce that sets your tongue a-tingling, followed shortly afterwards by your throat. There’s something wonderful about being able to have harissa at every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner. The hotel had a great pancake chef at breakfast time, and a cheese and ham crêpe with harissa is a wonderful start to the day; going on with highly-spiced food at lunch and dinner takes things forward just the way I want.

In addition, being able to wrap up with a mint tea – and why not with pine kernels floating in it? – just finishes off the experience perfectly.

What about the things I’ll be happy to do without?

I thought that I might mention the call to prayers. In Marrakech, that certainly got to me: it woke us each day, and not just in the form of a simple statement that God is great or anything – that assertion would be followed by what sounded like “my most recent essay for the school of advanced imammic studies” and went on for what like ages. Particularly at 6:00 in the morning.

But here in Tunisia it’s all so much more discreet. God is great, we’re told, maybe three or four times, as though to say “well, that’s it, I’ve let you know this would be a good time to pop in for a prayer, now it’s up to you.” Since the statement and the prayer are two of the five pillars of Islam, that sounds like a pretty reasonable call, especially as it really doesn’t disturb any of the rest of us.

I also thought I might be happy to get away from people who pester us for money, but that’s barely happened. Again, it was far worse in Morocco. Here, people invite you to buy from you but take “no” as an answer, politely and immediately. I was going to say that I didn’t like the small numbers of people who seem to attach themselves to us, and try to show us things we can already see, obviously for some small payment. But I won’t say even that, since to my embarrassment the last time I got irritated by a man who insisted on following us into a restaurant, it turned out he was the proprietor and was trying to show us to a table. So perhaps it would be better to say nothing.

So really I have nothing to complain about in this country. It’s my first visit, but it won’t be my last. And this holiday was just what a holiday should be: a real break, a real rest and wonderful change.

The saddest aspect? I saw some mixed couples, which should have been a matter of great satisfaction: such couples are the phenomenon that will save us from ourselves, if anything can, by showing that underneath all superficial differences, we really are all one race. But today the thought occurs to me that if either half of the couple was from Britain, then they would find it hard to settle there.

Because we’ve decided that people from nations like Tunisia are beneath us and walls are needed to keep them out. All in the name of immigration control. And so we knock down bridges.

I’m just glad that Tunisia doesn’t share that attitude or, to get back at us for our ill-placed contempt, don’t cut off their own noses, and ours, by refusing to share their charm-filled country with the rest of the world.

The Tunis Souk
Lively, cheerful, colourful bustle
The warmth rejected by British cold

Friday, 2 May 2014

Let's have more walls...

What the world really needs right now is more walls. They’re such fun, after all.

Obviously, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the most edifying we have right now is the one being built in Israel. In the most cheerful and amusing way it divides farmers from their land, families from their relatives and, above all, the good guys (with the money and the massive firepower) from the bad guys (without much money and with a lot less firepower).

Israeli West Bank Barrier
A fine monument to international harmony and inclusiveness
But while Israel may be building the most visible wall, there are plenty more going up round the world which only lack its concrete substance, but are just as good at dividing people.

Take Britain, for instance. In recent weeks, I’ve come across three married couples, each with one partner from outside the EU. One of them even has a child. But the law does not allow them to come freely to Britain or live there. Fortunately for those couples, the other countries involved are less exclusive, or they would simply not be able to build family lives together anywhere.

Now there’s an interesting state of affairs to reconcile with British leaders’ oft-proclaimed insistence that our country is fundamentally Christian.

Incidentally, if these couples could point to a job already won and earning a minimum of £18,600 a year, they could come across. Britain is a Christian country in the sense that it’s decided that the poor should find it as hard to get in as a camel going through the eye of a needle.

I’ve also come across a non-EU couple involved in medical research whose view is simple: getting a visa to a Schengen country (most of the EU) requires some paperwork but it’s straightforward and it can be done. To get into Britain? It takes months and costs as much again as the airfare. They simply won
t bother.

Britain wants to carve itself a niche at the forefront of world scientific research. How will it achieve that if researchers choose not to attend its conferences?

Finally, I know of business people, again from outside the EU, who wished to visit a British company with whom they were considering placing a significant order. It took months to organise, and the British company had to guarantee their visitors’ expenses.

We like to think of ourselves as a major business centre. So where’s the benefit of putting obstacles in the way of clients ordering from us?

What makes all of this particularly extraordinary is that we have an increasing clamour from across the political spectrum, but above all from the right, to increase the severity of limitations on immigration to Britain. UKIP, for instance, has released a manifesto for the European elections which accuses the EU of granting to 29 million Romanians and Bulgarians the right to settle in Britain, which is strictly true – but only if the entire population of both countries upped sticks and moved, en masse, to the UK.

UKIP, with the right wing of the Conservative Party trailing in its wake, clearly feels that making such hysterical statements is appropriate in order to protect our shores more effectively. As though it weren’t already hard enough to get in.

Nor is Britain alone in behaving this way. In France, in Greece, in Holland, in numerous countries across Europe, virulently anti-immigrant parties are making serious progress. It’s possible that the European elections will leave us with a parliament over 25% of which is opposed to the very idea of the European Union.

And walls will be going up in more and more countries across the Continent and beyond.

Because they’re such fun, aren’t they?