Saturday, 30 May 2015

Military force: limited, however great it may be

It’s hard to understand what prevents the United States understanding that, faced with a popularly supported insurrection of a majority of a population, even the most powerful military force on earth can only ever gain a temporary advantage.

What happens is that an occupying military force tends to alienate even those who are initially sympathetic to its aims. Foreign soldiers aren’t good at distinguishing between their enemies from their friends within a civilian population. They tend, therefore, to treat them all as hostile. And treating people as hostile generally means treating them badly, imposing martial law, for instance, denying their rights, even confiscating their property, and generally being arrogant, high-handed and brutal.

The result is that disaffection grows. What might have been a relatively small, localised antipathy quickly spreads, so that ultimately large swaths of the population are at least passive opponents, so that even if they don’t join the active insurgents, they don’t resist them and may even succour them. This affects every part of the occupied nation. Even those who are drafted in to support the occupiers, in some kind of locally recruited military force, lose their stomach for the fight or even worse, turn against their erstwhile allies.

They’re often quick to spot what’s happening themselves. Here’s a comment from one officer in a locally raised militia, on the behaviour of his supposed allies, and its effect on alienating the support they were initially offered.

… the people in general are becoming indifferent, if not averse, to a government which in place of the liberty, prosperity, safety and plenty, under promise of which it involved them in this war, has established a thorough despotism.

What’s got me thinking about these things?

It could have been the fall of Ramadi in Iraq. Units of the national army, exhausted and their enthusiasm worn thin, eventually collapsed in the face of the advance of ISIS, which occupied the large and strategically vital city earlier this month. There are reports of a counter-attack making some progress, but there’s clearly a hard battle ahead. Meanwhile, the civilian population is suffering the brutality that comes with ISIS rule. The Dubya-Blair assumption that all they had to do was overthrow Saddam Hussein by military force, to usher in a friendlier and democratically-inclined regime in Iraq, has been exposed as massively misguided.

The ruins of Palmyra: memento of an Empire
Now occupied by ISIS
Alternatively, the fall of Palmyra in Syria could have prompted my thoughts on this theme. Palmyra is one of the great cultural centres of the world. At one point, it stood at the heart of an Empire which for a time resisted the power of the Romans. The remains of that culture are a precious world heritage. ISIS have occupied that city too and, though they’re promising to respect the ruins, there’s no guarantee that they will. And meanwhile the civilian population is suffering the brutality that comes with ISIS rule.

But in fact it was neither of these events that got reflecting on the hopelessness of using military force to crush an insurrection.

Amazon’s streaming video service is currently offering viewers a series called Turn: Washington’s spies. Well acted and constructed, it also opened my eyes to an aspect of history that I knew little about: George Washington’s highly professional use of a spy ring against the British in the American War of Independence. It focuses on the so-called Culper ring that spied on the British in occupied New York.

Jamie Bell in the role of Abraham Woodull
a key figure in the Culper ring of spies
As it happens, the series, though entertaining, also suffers from some of the flaws of any soap. A narrative that would have been far more believable had it stuck to the historical record moves increasingly away from it as the series advances, until it becomes frankly implausible. So I’ve turned to the book on which it’s based, Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies. And I’ve found it fascinating.

You may have noticed that the remark I quoted earlier was a little archaic in its style. it comes from the book, and the person quoted was a loyalist – i.e. pro-British – officer in a Militia unit. He voiced his complaint in 1779, and what he was lamenting was the way the British, then probably the most powerful military nation on Earth, were driving loyal supporters like himself into the arms of those they regarded as rebels.

Benjamin Tallmadge
As a younger man, he ran the Culper ring, reporting to Washington
Which is why the Americans really ought to know better. They’ve been on the receiving end of the alienating behaviour of military occupiers. And they were able to turn it to their favour, to gain the ultimate victory.

The British, too, who lost their colonies through their own blundering actions, ought to have learned their lesson. Over two centuries ago.

And that brings me back to the intervention of both nations in Iraq.

What on earth were we thinking of?

Friday, 29 May 2015

M&S: good marketing. Or was it?

It’s always fun when Marks and Spencer’s decides to offer tasters of some exciting new line in its Food Halls.

The other day I was introduced to its latest pork pies. First I was offered a sample topped, as far as I could see, with chutney.

“The topping really enhances the flavour of the pie,” the friendly woman dispensing the goodies pointed out, and she was right. “And the crust is just right, exactly crusty enough without being hard.” And she was right about that too.

“What about these ones?” I asked, pointing to samples topped with something more golden in colour. “Apple sauce?”

“Indeed,” she replied, immediately offering me one to try, “and I think you’ll find the slight sharpness of the apple is exactly the right complement to the meat.”

She was right again. She knew her stuff. And so did M&S which had made, in my view, an excellent choice in adding these products to its already impressive range.

Now, it’s often said that you should never go to a supermarket when hungry, because you’re bound to come out with far more than you need. I knew what I was looking for from M&S, and it didn’t include pork pies. On the other hand, I’d been at a meeting which had taken me a long way into the lunch hour. Something to eat? Struck me as a good idea. Something appetising? Even better.

M&S Food Hall: far too temptation-charged for a hungry visitor
Oscar Wilde could resist anything but temptation. Like him, I succumbed.

“They’re excellent. I think I’ll take some. Where are they?”

For the first time in our conversation, I saw her uncomfortable.

“Ah,” she said, “we don’t actually have them in the store yet. We just wanted you to know about them.”

Know about them? It’s always seemed to me that the only reason to get a potential customer to know about a product is in the hope they’ll buy it. Adding to the general store of human knowledge? I’m really not sure that’s a grocer’s role.

M&S remains one of my favourite shops and I’ll keep right on going there. But it’s clear the initials really don’t stand for Marketing and Sales. In fact, it feels like Marketing had given up on communicating with Sales at all.

The were good and I want to say the tasting was good marketing. But marketing that doesn’t lead to sales? That sounds more like good effort, wasted.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

David Cameron: aiming high in the indolent politician stakes

On being told of US President Calvin Coolidge’s death, Dorothy Parker famously said, “how do they know?”

Coolidge was known as “Silent Cal.” A young woman who sat next to him at dinner one evening is said to have told him that she’d taken a bet that she would get more than two words out of him. “You lose,” he replied, and never addressed another word to her.

Silent Cal
Cameron sadly seems as little inclined to rise to challenges
Even more sadly, he can't emulate him in keeping quiet about it
To be fair, Coolidge was probably not quite as awful as his successor, Herbert Hoover, who presided brainlessly over the great crash of 1929. He concentrated on balancing the budget, and left the economy in free fall. It could only be rescued once he’d been voted out of office and replaced by Franklyn Roosevelt.

Interestingly, David Cameron is nothing like Coolidge in that he keeps on talking. But like him, in all other ways, he seems hopelessly unable to make a good judgement. And, like Hoover, he’s so fixated on balancing the budget, that he can’t see what he’s destroying on the way to doing it.

He behaves like a man who doesn’t want to have to read his briefing documents.

On coming to office, he oversaw the bold decision to slash spending on flood defences by £125m a year, from Labour’s spendthrift level of £665m. No doubt he felt this bolstered the macho image he was cultivating, of a Prime Minister with the guts to take the tough decisions to balance the books.

Then there was serious flooding in 2012. And – lo and behold – he found £120m to plough back in, all but restoring the cut, to relaunch delayed projects.

You could be forgiven for wondering whether he hadn't thought through the consequences of his actions.

This is just one of a series of half-baked decisions over which he’s presided. He dropped Labour’s plans for a new generation of planes to fly from aircraft carriers, preferring a different model. But there were problems with that model. So he had to revert to the Labour approach.

That bright fellow, Michael Gove, then Cameron’s Education Secretary came up with a smart idea. The GCSE, a state exam taken by most school pupils at 16, would be replaced by something far better. Except that it turns out it wasn’t – the boards that oversee exam qualifications, most educational experts and even the Tories on the parliamentary select committee on Education, pointed out all sorts of flaws in the plan, and five months later it was dropped.

David Cameron
And when you think he's half asleep, he's really half awake
It seems Cameron is starting his second term exactly how he started his first: with wild, ill-thought through proposals. And, curiously, Gove’s involved again, on the latest and most egregious of them. He’s now Justice Minister and therefore closely bound up in the Cameron wheeze to repeal the Human Rights Act.

Cameron was at it again in the parliament this afternoon: “Be in no doubt: we will be introducing legislation and legislating on this issue because I want these decisions made by British judges in British courts, not in Strasbourg.”

It seems that once more he hasn’t completely mastered his brief. Britain is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. As a result, British citizens can bring human rights cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Incidentally, this is not an institution of the European Union, but of the Council of Europe, a much bigger but looser grouping of countries. Britain’s leaving the EU would not take it out of the Council.

The idea of the Human Rights Act was to incorporate the legislation into British law, so that citizens wouldn’t have to appeal to Strasbourg, but could instead have their cases heard in Britain. In other words, to have “decisions made by British judges in British courts.”

It’s hard not to conclude that Cameron really hasn’t done his homework. Again.

Fortunately, though, he seems to have woken up to his mistakes slightly more quickly this time than he has on previous blunders. The Queen’s Speech today, where the government announced its legislative programme, contained no reference to repealing the Human Rights Act, just a vague reference to bringing in “proposals for a British Bill of Rights.”

It’s just as well. Even Conservative MP Dominic Grieve told Sky News that “I am wholly unpersuaded that the benefit outweighs the really substantial costs that will come with this.”

As for Labour, the former Justice Minister Lord Falconer was firm: “It increasingly looks like the Tories are making it up as they go along. What is clear is that if they suggest completely scrapping people’s human rights protections, Labour will oppose them all the way.”

Making it up as he goes along. Sounds like Cameron. Sounds like any lazy man.

He may not be as silent as Coolidge, but Cameron’s seems to be rivalling his inertia. As well as Hoover’s ineptitude.

Monday, 25 May 2015

John Nash: warmth in a long divorce, now sadness in a final separation

It’s not hard to believe – particularly if like me you’ve had the personal experience – that a marriage lasting over thirty years can be highly enriching. But what about a 38-year divorce? It’s a little surprising that it too can be the basis of a deep, caring relationship. To say nothing of a rebirth of intellectual endeavour.

John Forbes Nash, who died with his wife Alicia on 23 May 2015, married her in 1957. At that time, he had already done the work on games theory which won him his PhD then, and a shared Nobel Prize in Economics forty years later.

In 1959, he was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. The strain of coping with his condition led to the breakdown of their marriage, and in 1963 John and Alicia divorced.

He was repeatedly hospitalised, always, he claimed, against his will, between then and 1970. He disliked psychiatric treatment and, in particular, anti-psychotic drugs. Instead, he preferred to draw on his internal forces and train himself to avoid certain delusional lines of thinking. Once he’d learned to recognise them, he felt he could push them aside and focus on rational ideas, which meant being able to return to mathematical research. He explained in 1994:

…gradually I began to intellectually reject some of the delusionally influenced lines of thinking which had been characteristic of my orientation. This began, most recognisably, with the rejection of politically oriented thinking as essentially a hopeless waste of intellectual effort. So at the present time I seem to be thinking rationally again in the style that is characteristic of scientists.

Despite their divorce, Alicia continued to be involved in his care. On his discharge from hospital, he moved back into her home, as a boarder. So she worked with him on the long fight against his delusions. She was at his side when he took his Nobel prize, as shown in the film made of his life, A beautiful mind, from the biography by journalist Sylvia Nasar. In 2001, Alicia and he remarried – 38 years after their divorce.

John and Alicia Nash in 2002
By that time, he’d long since been allowed to return to his research at Princeton and later to teaching. It was fitting that he won another prestigious prize at the end of his life: the Abel prize, viewed by many as the Nobel prize for Mathematics, since there is no actual Nobel in the field. He shared it with fellow mathematician Luis Nierenberg, for work on partial differential equations (please don’t expect me to explain them – I’d have to try to understand them first).

He was 86, his wife of six then twelve years, was 82. They had travelled to Norway to collect the prize together just last week, on 19 May. They were in the back of a taxi returning from Newark airport from that trip when the driver lost control, and they were both thrown out and killed.

At least they went out on a high, and quickly. And yet it seems a terrible waste of so much brilliance – and of so much warmth. Russell Crowe, who played Nash in the film, tweeted that they were “beautiful minds, beautiful hearts.”

A tribute to just how supportive, and fruitful, a 38-year divorce can be between two exceptional people.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

There are pirates and pirates, piracy and piracy

Perhaps one of the few good things to emerge from piracy off the coast of Somalia, is that it has undermined the romantic, swashbuckling image of pirates.

That’s not to say that Somali pirates deserve no sympathy. It seems likely that they were originally fishermen whose grounds were being illegally exploited, or even damaged by toxic dumping, once civil war had made it impossible to guard their coasts. Later, though, they turned into brutal, cruel, mercenary criminals, as dramatically illustrated in the film Captain Phillips.

There can be little doubt that their forerunners in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were very similar. Johnny Depp they weren’t.

That being said, some great pieces have shown pirates positively, and none better than Gilbert and Sullivan’s delightful operetta The Pirates of Penzance. The Pirate King is no violent criminal, but an honest man who refuses the hypocrisy of society:

I sink a few more ships, it’s true, 
Than a well-bred monarch ought to do; 
But many a king on a first-class throne, 
If he wants to call his crown his own, 
Must manage somehow to get through 
More dirty work than ever I do.

There’s irony here, for Gilbert and Sullivan were themselves victims of a different kind of piracy. Today, the United States leads the battle against international copyright theft, but in the nineteenth century, it was a leading practitioner.

That explains why The Pirates of Penzance was the only G&S piece that had its premiere in America: sick to death of seeing ripped-off versions of their works being produced around the US, paying nary a penny in royalties, Gilbert, Sullivan and their producer D’Oyly Carte, put the new piece on for the first time in New York on 31 December 1879, to get round the lack of US protection for foreign material.

It was also important to protect the British copyright, so a public performance had to be given in England too. This took the form of a production rapidly cobbled together by actors who’d been in HMS Pinafore in nearby Torquay, appearing on stage in Paignton in whatever costumes they could find and reading their words from scripts, after a single rehearsal, simply to lay down a marker. And prevent piracy.

None of this worked. Pirates was pirated like the rest. 

It remains one of the most popular works in the G&S canon.

Some years ago, in that magical film Topsy Turvy – as charming as a G&S operetta – Mike Leigh, one of Britain’s finest film directors, demonstrated his deep affection for their work, and his ability to direct it. So it’s highly appropriate that English National Opera called on him for a production of the Pirates. And we rushed to see it just as soon as we could get tickets.

Joshua Bloom as the Pirate King, with his crew about him
in the ENO production directed by Mike Leigh
It entirely fulfilled our expectations. Leigh directed sequences of The Mikado beautifully in Topsy Turvy; he directed the whole of The Pirates of Penzance on stage brilliantly. He used a simple, abstract set, in which geometric shapes combined to give different configurations, often with a round opening in the middle, a perfect frame for tableaux of pirates, or the young women, or the policemen.

Leigh merged stage business cleverly into Gilbert’s script: wracking sobs from General Stanley when tormented by his conscience; pauses made comic by their intensity as Frederick grapples with his own sense of duty forcing him back to the pirates, and away from the woman he loves; a finely choreographed movement between the women, dancing, and policemen, marching, when they are being told to go to glory and the grave.

Incidentally, I’ve always enjoyed the police sergeant’s lines:

We observe too great a stress 
On the risks which on us press 
And of reference a lack 
To our chance of coming back!

Over thirty years before the First World War, it’s good to see mockery against high-flown sentiment about sending men to their deaths in pursuit of glory. Which isn’t to say that there’s any Ibsen-like gritty realism about Pirates: the messages are there, but we’re expected to receive them with a smile, not a shock.

Policemen in a highly nervous state
Jonathan Lemalu with his men at the ENO
Leigh had good support from his cast, too. Joshua Bloom was particularly good as the Pirate King, with the voice to fill the auditorium and make the character larger than life; Claudia Boyle, who played Mabel, sang with charm. And, having seen amateurs struggle through “I am the very model of a modern Major General”, it was a treat to see Andrew Shore take it in his stride. And the police were great.

The show naturally exposed us once more to the notion that pirates can form a well-organised, skilful and even attractive profession. Nothing like the bloodthirsty grasping thieves they really are. Still, the antidote to the lure of piracy is simply to remind oneself of Captain Phillips and the Somali hijackers. 

Or to remember some of the buccaneers from Wall Street or the City of London.

Meanwhile, there’s no reason to deny ourselves the pleasure of a fine afternoon’s entertainment.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

A desolate anniversary. But perhaps one from which we can take some spirit.

21 May. If you’re British, French or Belgian, it’s a good moment to surprise, consternation, disarray and loss.

Not many years before this day 75 years ago, two of the victors of World War One, Britain and France, had been dictating terms to their humiliated foe, Germany. Now, in 1940, French and British armies with some remnants of Belgian units, were facing an abyss of utter disaster.

The Western Front in the Second World War hadn’t followed the pattern of the First. After eight months of sporadic but limited fighting, Germany had launched an offensive into France. One of the best tank commanders ever, Heinz Guderian, made sure they didn’t get trapped into trench warfare again by leading a long, powerful, and rapid attack to cut off a large group of his enemy. French and British reeled in front of him, in disorganised retreat towards the coast.

It took just eleven days to leave some 400,000 Allied soldiers with their backs to the English Channel, pinned down by 800,000 Germans. The British Commander, Lord Gort, decided that there was no way of breaking out, and started planning an evacuation – without telling his French allies.

Of the Channel ports that could have been used, Boulogne fell to the Germans and Calais was surrounded. In any case, the best to use was Dunkirk, with a good harbour and the longest beach in Europe. Churchill ordered full-scale evacuation to begin on 26 May.

British troops being evacuated from Dunkirk
Two key players now step onto the stage. One was Guderian’s immediate superior, Gerd von Runstedt, who, afraid of a counter-attack and the marshy nature of the terrain, issued the so-called “halt order”, confirmed by Hitler. This overruled Guderian and obliged him to stand still for three days when he might have wiped out the British and French forces as fighting units.

To this day, no one understands the reasons for the order, but it was a turning point: had the British Expeditionary Force, the army that had been sent to France, been destroyed, Britain might have been unable to fight on.

The second key figure is less well-known than he deserves. Admiral Bertram Ramsay had retired from the Royal Navy in 1938, possibly over the lack of preparations for the coming war. However, when fighting broke out, Churchill talked him back. He took command of Dover-based operations, so he was in charge of the Dunkirk evacuation.
Bertram Ramsay: logistical genius
The experience turned him into an expert in the logistics of major amphibious operations. He handled the landings in North Africa, Operation Torch, the landings in Sicily, Operation Husky, and finally, his crowning achievement, the landings in Normandy on D-Day in 1944, where he had overall command of the Allied naval forces.

This was a time before computers, and all orders had to be typed by hand. There were 5000 sets of orders for D-Day, and it’s a tribute to Ramsay’s organisational ability that the operation went so smoothly (the only hitches were those inflicted by the Germans): ships picked up the right troops, equipment or supplies, and delivered them to the right place as expected.

Back at Dunkirk, he organised the long convoys of ships, naval and civilian, big or small, that travelled across the Channel to pick up the soldiers, from the harbour or the beaches. The little ships have become legendary: they were often privately owned boats that travelled across and ferried soldiers out to the larger naval vessels to travel back across the Channel. 311 out of 693 British boats were little ships, and 170 out of the 226 lost in total.

Little ships at Dunkirk
In the end, 338,000 soldiers were brought to England. Not all the French were left behind: 100,000 were evacuated. They, however, were for the most past then shipped back to France to continue the defence of their country, generally only meaning that they were killed or captured a little later than they would otherwise have been.

The British forces evacuated formed the core of a renewed army that could continue the war, to its final victory. Their return therefore left the country breathing a sigh of relief, though Churchill made it clear there was no cause for celebration: “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”

And let’s not forget another group of Frenchmen: 35,000 stayed on fighting, as a rearguard, allowing the evacuation to continue until 4 June. Many were killed, the rest captured. Their sacrifice made the rescue of British forces possible. As did the brilliance of Admiral Ramsay. And the ineptitude of Runstedt and Hitler. Of such strange mixtures of heroism, ingenuity and incompetence are narrow escapes made.

The experience also gave us what we have come to know in Britain as the Dunkirk spirit, a refusal to accept defeat, a willingness to pull something out of the fire whatever the odds, in order to fight again another day.

It’s particularly important for us in the Labour Party as we contemplate the wreck of our hopes in the face of the debacle the Conservatives handed us two weeks ago. Oh, well. Those lads at Dunkirk on 21 May 1940 faced a prospect even bleaker than ours. And in the end their side that came out on top…

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Strange tale of an extremist, a Prince and the not-so saintly Maggie

It was ironic to see the pictures of Prince Charles, tea cup in one hand, using the other for an apparently cordial handshake with Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland and for many on this side of the water, one of the great bogeymen of all time.

The Prince and the Extremist
Extraordinary cordiality
He repeatedly leaned forward towards the Prince, apparently exchanging not merely remarks, but confidences. This is particularly surprising because they both have bitter history against the other, as Adams made clear yesterday: he blames the British paras for the terrible killing of fourteen people on Bloody Sunday, in Derry, in 1972, and the Prince is the honorary Colonel-in-Chief of the regiment. However, Adams did also recognise that Charles had “been bereaved by the actions of Republicans”, in a reference to the IRA killing of Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India and a relative to whom Charles was particularly close (his “honorary grandfather”).

None of this was half so ironic, for me, than the contrast to Margaret Thatcher’s attitude when she was Prime Minister. She famously talked about the need “to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend”. That led to one of the more risible aspects of her long and painful reign: she banned the voices of extremist organisations being heard on British TV.

This meant that for six years, we could see Gerry Adams on our TVs, we could see his lips forming the words he was pronouncing, but we couldn’t hear his voice pronouncing them: instead, an actor would dub them in over the picture. Exactly the same words, mind you. The “oxygen of publicity” denial didn’t affect his message, only his voice.

This is one of the less well-remembered aspects of the Thatcher years. I always remind her fans of it, when they present her as some kind of secular saint, as they regularly do. It was an entirely pointless act, and damaged only Britain: you can imagine how difficult it made it to argue against freedom of speech limitations in other countries.

The ban kept running after Thatcher fell, perhaps out of deference to her memory. But finally, in 1994, her successor John Major dropped it. The only people who regretted its passing were the actors who were called on to dub the voices: it had been a nice little earner for them.

Today, that same Gerry Adams met and chatted for a few minutes to the next in line to the British throne. With every appearance of cordiality. No actor was on hand to repeat his words for him. And the earth didn’t fall into the sky.

In fact, what the incident did was to strengthen the growing bonds between erstwhile adversaries in Northern Ireland, as the Queen herself did three years ago, when she met Adams’ colleague and the current Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuiness, and shook his hand.

Rather underlying the fact that if you want to bring peace anywhere, it’s a lot more effective to come to terms with your resentments, however deeply held they may be, however justified, and listen to your adversary. A lot more effective than spreading further hatred by labelling him a terrorist and extremist. And then trying to shut him up.

And if it turns out you actually can't, it’s laughable as well as ineffective

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Going back to a good place, decades later.

Years and years ago, with two of my school fellows and I, with our sports teacher as guide, set out to walk the first 82 miles of the Pennine Way.

It occurs to me that there may be a few people out there who are unaware that the Pennines are the range of noble hills that run up the middle of England. Note that I carefully used the word “hills” before anyone could leap forward with corrective mockery at my use of the word “mountains” for anywhere in England.

It was over the Easter break from school. Most years we’d start training for serious hiking in the summer term, after our return from that holiday. So we set out on this walk hopelessly under-trained. That became painfully clear when we tackled an area known as “Black Hill”, and believe me that was a terribly understated name. The mud was knee-deep, like a film of the First World War. The only way we got any purchase on the ground was once we’d sunk deep enough to reach the ice. By the evening we were all groaning masses of stiff joints and pulled muscles.

Limestone pavement at Malham.
Brilliant. Though a little more sun would be good.
But we struggled on through the pain and on the third or fourth day received our reward. We came out out onto a strange landscape of limestone that had been eroded into blocks separated by deep crevices. Despite our tiredness, we jumped from block to block to the edge – and stopped gasping, looking down a sheer cliff into a bowl through which flowed a stream, way below us.

Malham Cove, with Malham Beck flowing out of it.
Grat place. Though a little more sun would still be good.
“Where on Earth…?”

“Welcome to Malham Cove,” our well-informed guide told us.

A place of great beauty, that I appreciated to its full worth once I’d recovered from the vertigo.

The place that most impressed me, however, was a little further on. Nestling among a ring of hills, restful though never quite at rest, there’s a sheet of alternating blue or grey, the upland lake called Malham Tarn. Of all that five-day hike, it was Malham Tarn that I remembered the longest.

All this happened a long time ago. For years, decades even, I’d wanted to go back. And wanted to show the place to my wife. So when she suggested that rather than drive the whole way to Scotland last week, we should break our trip and spend the night somewhere, we quickly agreed that Malham would be a good place for it.

We got there just in time to watch the sun setting over the Tarn. If you’re going to take a wander up Nostalgia Lane, and don’t want to be disappointed, it makes a lot of sense to get there at that magical time.

Malham Tarn at sunset
At least the sun shone through at the last gasp of the day
We spent the evening in Malham village, where my wife insisted on our doing a pub crawl. Which in the end was fine, since there were only two pubs. So it was a pub crawl where the only excess was its moderation. It’s just as well, since to get back to the place where we were staying we had to cross a narrow bridge across the Beck, and fortunately we were in a reasonable state to face that task.

One of the pubs even had an open fire, welcome in an English May in the hills. And both welcomed dogs and even muddy boots – a cordial gesture.

The following day we wandered around the Cove, across a limestone pavement and, eventually, down to the waterfall at Janet’s Foss. 

Janet's Foss.
Janet, it seems was a Queen of the Fairies.
And as Fosses go, hers is a good one
Though a bit more sun would do no harm

As breaks on a longer journey go, it would be hard to recommend a better one. A little more sun would have been good, but we didn’t miss it that badly.

If you don’t know Malham, and the Yorkshire Dales to which it belongs – well, you could do a lot worse than take a look. Just as long as you don’t want absolutely guaranteed sunshine, anyway.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Faced with two options, Labour should look for a third

A great debate is getting under way inside the Labour Party, over what went wrong in the British General Election. It is boldly, unflinchingly and resolutely facing up to entirely the wrong question.

Which path to the light?
The high road? The low road? Left? Right?
Or should Labour turn around and look for something else entirely?
That question is posed in terms of whether Labour needs to go back to its winning ways under Tony Blair, as New Labour, or take a more Left-wing stance, as favoured, some suggest, by his successor Gordon Brown. The Blairite view is that Labour turned its back on people with aspirations, focusing exclusively on the poor and vulnerable.

Staunch Blairite Peter Mandelson, popularly nicknamed “the Prince of Darkness”, has bemoaned the fact that under the doomed leadership of Ed Miliband, the party was instructed to get out there with the message that “we are for the poor, we hate the rich – ignoring completely the vast swathes of the population who exist in between…”

Expressing essentially the same objection, he said that “we were sent out and told to wave our fists angrily at the nasty Tories and wait for the public to realise how much they had missed us. They weren’t missing us. They didn’t miss us.”

Mandelson isn’t entirely wrong: those fundamentally negative messages would damage Labour. But as someone who also went door to door a little for Labour, I can assure you no one told me to present that view. There will come a time when Ed Miliband, gallant loser and therefore a figure much loved by the English, will start to see the sympathy flow back towards him and I’m sure, when that happens, no one will pretend he was against aspiration.

Equally, I’m convinced that neither he nor Ed Balls who, as Shadow Chancellor (Finance spokesman), was with Miliband the main architect of Labour’s defeat and even lost his parliamentary seat as a result, were opposed to wealth creation. They wouldn’t deny the entrepreneurs responsible for it the right to become rich in the process. On the contrary, I think they saw themselves as committed to wealth creation, as the only way out of the difficulties the nation faces, and merely felt that there had to be some better regulation of just what was permitted in its name – and that the rewards people took should reflect real contribution. Huge bonuses for bankers operating their institutions at a loss ought, for instance, to be curtailed.

The Blairites are at least nominally committed to the same thing. At most, there’s probably a difference in degree between the two sides: should the top rate of tax be at 45%, 50% or 55%? Nobody’s proposing the rate of the sixties, 97.5%.

Sadly, however, the debate is going to be about backing “modernisers” (read Blairites) or “old Labour” (read those closer to Miliband). Whereas it should, in fact, be about entirely other matters.

It’s true that Tory economic policy is inequitable: the richest have doubled their wealth over the the last ten years, despite the crash, while those least able to bear it are suffering devastating hardship. But the real issue is that it doesn’t even work. Growth is stuttering. The debt is up, not down. The pain of constant cuts in government spending isn’t being rewarded by gain in economic recovery.

The answer isn’t simply to call the Tories nasty or hate the rich. It’s to offer an alternative to the constant cuts. We’ve known since Keynes that austerity doesn’t work. And yet Labour’s answer has been simply to offer the same with some mitigation of its worst effects.

We should be arguing for an alternative to austerity. We need to communicate the message that there’s no better time to borrow that when interest rates are just about zero. If the funds go into stimulating the economy, more people will find real jobs. They’ll pay more taxes, and they’ll buy more goods. A virtuous cycle will be kicked off, where the economy starts to fix itself, and the need for further government borrowing goes down as tax revenues go up. Without soaking the rich – simply by the sheer organic effect of relaunching the economy.

But what that means is denying the premisses of the Tory argument. It means saying “the problem isn’t about how much austerity we should have, or where it should be targeted, it’s about dropping the policy altogether.”

Sadly, it’s the SNP in Scotland, the true victors of the General Election, who pursued that line, and not Labour, who lost.

If you haven’t already seen the election night exchange between famously aggressive presenter Jeremy Paxman, and the former SNP leader Alex Salmond, then you should watch it now. It’s a master class in refusing to accept the premises of a hostile argument. Without being evasive, you just answer “no” and keep saying it as long as you need to. Which makes the clip also a great illustration of how to deal with hostile media, about which Labour also constantly complains – though with a predominantly right-wing press, Labour ought to be used to it by now, and have learned to see it off as Salmond did.

When Salmond ran rings round Paxman
A master class in handling hostile media and fighting the right battle
Paxman asked what lay behind the SNP success and, when Salmond answered that it was Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership, tried to needle him.

“You’re a very modest man, aren’t you?” 

Salmond, unfazed, replied “modesty becomes me, yeah.”

Later, Paxman tried to get Salmond to deny the SNP’s earlier refusal ever to work with the Tories.

“Is there any possibility of any sort of deal between you and David Cameron if the Tories are just a little bit short of an overall majority?” he asked.


“None whatsoever?”


“If David Cameron offered you full fiscal autonomy, in other words control over taxes in Scotland, you’d still say no?”

“He won’t.”

“You’re guessing.”

“No, I’m not.”

Perhaps the most telling exchange came in the middle of the interview.

“I suppose you could take some of the credit for the Tory triumph in England, couldn’t you?” asked Paxman.

The reference was to the campaign whipped up by the Tories and their friends in the press about the possible election of a minority Labour government, dependent on SNP support. The SNP was presented as a bogey man, and Miliband only contributed to the damage by constantly denying he’d ever work with the SNP – in other words, he played into the lie that the SNP was dangerous.

Salmond stayed calm and told Paxman:

“No, I think Ed Miliband should take the credit for the Tory triumph in England. I think he should have fought a totally different sort of campaign. If he’d fought the sort of campaign that Nicola Sturgeon fought in Scotland, then he’d be in a much better position this morning.”

Now there’s the key issue for Labour. Not should we be more like Blair, or more like Brown. Instead, can we find a leader who doesn’t fall into the other side’s trap but fights the campaign we need and gets us elected?

In other words, can we find our own Nicola Sturgeon?

Monday, 11 May 2015

Minor mishaps, gentle charms of an encounter with officialdom

On Friday I had a call from a government organisation with whom I had an appointment today.

“I’m ringing to confirm that we expect to see you at 12:00 on Monday,” a well-spoken woman told me, “please go to the second floor and see Jackie.”

I should explain to any American readers that over here the first floor is the first above ground level. The second floor is what you call the third.

I turned up quarter of an hour early and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Some of the desks displayed names: Paula, Mary, Gloria. No men, I noticed. But also no Jackie.

So I approached a security guard. He was from a private company but seemed to know a bit about the place.

“Jackie? First floor,” he told me.

“First floor? They told me second.” 

He shrugged and made a gesture with his hand, like a mouth opening and shutting.

“Sometimes people say any old rubbish,” he explained. Helpfully, I felt.

Down I went. Again, though, I couldn’t find a “Jackie” nameplate. Fortunately, I did find another security guard.

“Jackie? She’s over there,” he told me.

She was busy with the woman she was seeing before me.

“Is this your first appointment here?” the security guard asked me.

“Yes,” I confirmed, though it was pretty obvious, I thought.

“Ah, you need to go to the third floor first anyway.”

Up I climbed.

Second floor? First floor? Third floor?
At least I was getting some useful exercise...
“I have an appointment with Jackie, but I was told to come and see you first,” I told the pleasant woman who greeted me.

She riffled through some papers and glanced at a screen.

“Yes, you have an appointment with Jackie at 12:00,” she told me, rather unnecessarily.

It was five to. I was beginning to run out of the time margin I’d left myself.

“Should I sort out what I have to do with you first?”

“Oh, no, Jackie will deal with it all. She’s on the first floor.”

I must have looked a little exasperated, because she immediately made an offer which was surely beyond the call of duty.

“Shall I take you down there and show you where she sits?”

Very good of her, I felt. But unnecessary, since I already been there once.

Down I went again. By the time I got there I was bang on time. But Jackie wasn’t ready: her previous appointment was asking lots of questions that, in my opinion, seemed completely irrelevant but Jackie was answering with, it seemed to me, great forbearance.

By five past twelve, the inquisitive woman could think of no further questions for Jackie and left. I stepped forward, but Jackie’s manager slipped in before I could get to her. There followed a ten minute discussion about abstruse functions, clearly not working as one might expect, on the computer system they were using (software that doesn’t work precisely as specified? Who ever heard of such a thing?)

Finally, at a quarter past, I got my appointment.

It went smoothly and easily. Jackie was polite, helpful, well-informed and even, since the appointment lasted longer than I expected, ate into her own lunch hour to give me my allotted time.

I have no complaints at all. In fact I was delighted with the excellent service.

As well as amused by the way it started.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Disunion and disarray, or is Cameron just too sly for his own good?

One of the most remarkable result of the British General Election on Thursday was what happened in Scotland.

The Scottish National Party or SNP won 56 of the total of 59 seats in the UK parliament. The Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats have precisely one seat each. Whoever had formed the government in Westminster – as it happens, it’ll be the Tories – they would come from a party practically unrepresented in Scotland.

This state of affairs is far from unprecedented, even in these islands. To see where it’s likely to lead, it’s worth looking at what has happened before. Let’s start with a foreign case.

In 1971, Pakistan was still formed of two wings. In East Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh, the more populous component of the country, a protest movement had been building for decades, led above all by a nationalist party, the Awami League.

In that year’s elections, the League won all but two of the 169 seats in the Eastern Wing – and not a single seat in the West. On the other hand, the 169 seats it held gave it a majority in the 307-seat parliament of the whole country, entitling it to form the next government – rather as if the SNP were now in a position to form the government of the UK.

Mujibur Rahman:
iconic figure who achieved Bangladesh's Independence
and was promptly murdered
The West Pakistanis, used to controlling most of the wealth and all of the power – particularly the military – weren’t going to wear that. So war broke out – and, with help from India, East Pakistan won. Pakistan broke up into its two separate wings and Bangladesh was born.

Now let’s return to Britain, but a little further back in the past.

At the 1918 General Election, immediately following the First World War, Ireland, still a part of the United Kingdom, elected 73 Sinn Féin MPs. They were committed to full independence from Britain. They replaced the Irish Parliamentary Party, down from 67 to 5 MPs – shades of the what happened to the Liberal Democrats last Thursday – which had been campaigning for a much more limited programme of Home Rule. The Unionist tendency, favouring maintenance of the existing relationship with Britain, won only 26 seats.

The Sinn Féin MPs refused to take up their seats at Westminster and instead met separately in what came to be known as the Dáil Éireann or Assembly of Ireland. It proclaimed the formation of a Republic of Ireland, which achieved independence four years later, with a great deal of bloodshed and ugly violence in between.

Michael Collins
Iconic figure who helped achieve Irish Independence
and was promptly murdered
Don’t these precedents rather suggest that, when component nations of a larger state, elect dominant blocs of politicians actively campaigning for independence, it is only a matter of time before they achieve it? The best that can be said for the situation in Scotland is that it unlikely we shall face the violence that poisoned independence in Bangladesh and Ireland.

Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP, stated before the election that it was not about a new referendum on independence. Since the election, she has made it clear that she intends to stick to her commitment. Consequently, her party’s victory, however extensive it was, did not deliver a mandate for another referendum.

The SNP has, however, also stated that a significant event might trigger a campaign for an independence referendum again. It’s fairly clear that a decision by Britain to withdraw from the European Union would be such an event. And David Cameron, in one of his many attempts to be sly, specifically to draw the sting of the Eurosceptics in his own party and in UKIP, committed himself to there being a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU before the end of 2017. He’s repeated that commitment since his re-election.

So imagine this scenario. Britain votes for withdrawal from the EU, because a substantial majority chooses that option in England. But Scotland votes to stay in. As a result, the SNP campaigns again for independence, this time achieving it. That seems pretty likely anyway, but on this scenario it would happen much earlier than it might otherwise.

Cameron, and Tories generally, like to big up Britain and its role on the world stage. It’s one of the reasons they want to hang on to Trident nuclear weapons (another view opposed by the SNP), in the hope that the international community will take them more seriously as a result.

In this scenario, however, Cameron would have presided over the United Kingdom’s isolation from the rest of Europe – and then the loss of its second biggest constituent nation, with over 8% of its population. On his watch, his nation would have been severely reduced in stature around the world. He might have to wonder whether he’d really been so sly after all, and many of those who voted for him would have to ask themselves whether they had really taken the most judicious of decisions.

A conundrum for him. Particularly as he still has to mollify his Eurosceptics. He must be hoping against hope that he can persuade the electorate to vote against leaving the EU – without actually campaigning openly for that outcome.

Friday, 8 May 2015

A very British spaghetti Western: the good, the sly and the downright inept

I spent the first couple of hours after the BBC exit poll for the UK General Election was announced at 10:00 last night doubting its accuracy. I wasn’t alone: former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown publicly swore to eat his hat on live TV if it were proved right. Fortunately for him the exit poll did indeed prove wrong. Unfortunately, things turned out to be even worse than it suggested.

What? What? The Tories on 316 seats?
I couldn't believe the scale of the victory
The next hour or so I spent trying to adjust my mindset to a completely different outcome from anything I’d been expecting. For weeks – months even – we’d all been forecasting a hung parliament (no party with an overall majority) and weeks of negotiations to put a coalition together to govern the country. That’s what the polls were telling us, after all.

Incidentally, I don’t believe the polls were wrong. What seems to happen is that a small but crucial number of people tell pollsters that they plan to vote Labour. They may not even be lying. That may be their intention when they say it. But then they go into the polling station and vote Tory.

In my mind, these so-called “shy Tories” are people who feel they really ought to vote Labour, perhaps because they know it represents their interests. So that’s what they tell the polling organisations.

But the Labour leaders are not unlike the Tories: educated at similar schools and universities, less wealthy perhaps but still far wealthier than anyone on the median wage or less. In the loneliness of the polling booth they think about these two sets of people, both representatives of what they may perceive as a kind of master class. If they are to choose one such person, why not make it the one born and bred to be a master – in other words, a Tory?

The final batch of polls had the following standings for the main parties on the eve of the election:

  • Lord Ashcroft: Conservative 33%, Labour 33%
  • Ipsos MORI: Conservative 36%, Labour 35%
  • Populus: Conservative 33%, Labour 33%
  • ICM: Conservative 34%, Labour 35%

All tight. And all of them adding up to a total, for the two main parties, of 66-71%.

The actual result was Conservative 38%, Labour 31%. A total of 69%, but a substantial lead to the Tories. All it takes, however, to get there from what the polls were showing is a switch by about 3-4% of the electorate. That’s probably about the extent of the “shy Tories” out there, and they determined the outcome last night.

It’s against that background that I set my British Spaghetti Western, The Good, the Sly, the Inept.

First, the good. That has to be the Scottish National Party, the SNP, and its leader Nicola Sturgeon who had an excellent campaign – rewarded by a near clean sweep of Scotland. There was a time that we in the Labour Party would laugh at the Tories for having only one Scottish seat. Now the laugh’s against us: as well as the Tories, we too, as well as the Liberal Democrats, only have a single Scottish seat.

The other 56 have been won by the SNP. It has even managed to win the election of the youngest MP for 350 years, Mhairi Black, a twenty-year old student who has to fit in finishing her degree in the next few weeks, around taking up her newly-won position at Westminster. She unseated Labour’s Foreign Affairs spokesman, Douglas Alexander, in Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

Next, the Sly. This is the only prediction I got remotely right. The Tories are like the Sandman: get too close and you’re likely to fall asleep. Back in 2010, when they didn’t have enough seats to form a government, they approached the Liberal Democrats who then had 57 seats, to join them in coalition. The Lib Dems said yes, much to the amazement of many of us who had regarded them as a party of the centre-left, much more naturally allied to Labour than to the Conservatives.

We predicted that the electorate would take a terrible vengeance on them, reducing their numbers to a level from which it would be impossible to recoer for a generation. Even so, again guided by polls, most of us felt that they might hang on to 20-30 seats. In fact, they now have just eight. Some of the party’s biggest hitters have gone, including David Laws, one of the main architects of the coalition. The leader Nick Clegg clung on, but he’s leader no more, having resigned this morning.

And finally, the Inept. My own party. Our arcane constitution allowed the Trade Unions to foist on us a leader, Ed Miliband, who is I’m sure immensely likeable, principled, honest, decent and lots of other great things. But a no leader. He appointed as his Finance spokesman Ed Balls, and together they crafted a message to the effect that they, like the Tories, would impose a policy of austerity, but they’d do it more nicely.

Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP pointed out that this stance presented the British electorate with the choice between Tory austerity, and Labour austerity-lite. Not exactly inspiring.

Working to get out the vote around Luton, I had someone tell me that she had voted Labour, but against her instincts – she felt little confidence in the party. One even said that she might not vote at all, because Labour hadn’t cleansed itself of the Blairite tendency that took us into war in Iraq.

As Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon’s predecessor as leader of the SNP, last night told TV presenter Jeremy Paxman in a master class on how to handle aggressive questioning, if Ed Miliband had “fought the sort of campaign that Nicola Sturgeon fought in Scotland, then he’d be in a much better position this morning.” Indeed. Though he might also have had to learn to handle the media the way Salmond and Sturgeon do.

Well, that’s all in the past now. Ed Miliband has also stepped down. And Ed Balls was defeated for re-election in his parliamentary seat.

Crafted the economic policy that contributed to Labour defeat
And paid by being beaten himself
They always say businesses should hire slow and fire fast. Labour elected Miliband to the leadership rather quickly. It became clear soon after that he wasn’t going to inspire enough of the electors he needed to reach. But we fired him slow. It took four years for him to go, and the price for the generosity which let him have a go at becoming Prime Minister is going to be paid by a lot of other people, during five years of continued Tory rule.

Italian spaghetti Westerns leave you feeling entertained. This British one, on the other hand, leaves you with a bitter taste in your mouth. I suppose it’s like the contrast in weather between the two countries.