Thursday, 10 August 2017

A break in the Brexit front.


Three tweets:

"Past time  for sensible MPs in all parties to admit Brexit is a catastrophe, come together in a new party if need be, and reverse it."

"Let's be honest, if we had an effective electoral law leading Brexiteers would now be in jail."

"[The main parities are] paralysed and they are terrified of being called saboteurs, wreckers and people defying the will of the people."

(As reported here.)

These very apt  comments on our present political scene come not from an enthusiastic and bewildered Europhile such as myself, but from the very heart of the Brexit team.  Their author, a James Chapman, is a former political editor of the Daily Mail, (gasp); special advisor to George Osborne, (gasp gasp); and has spent a whole year as chief of staff  for the Brexit Secretary David Davis in the clumsily-named Department for Exiting the European Union (it beggars belief).

It would be kind to suppose that Mr Chapman has now seen the light, but rather, I suspect, he has decided to "come clean."  This is clear evidence that the Brexiteers know all along that Brexit will not be the raging economic success they proclaim, and  that they achieved their narrow lead in the referendum by peddling a catalogue of gross exaggerations if not downright lies (of which the extra £350m a week for the NHS was the most blatant and influential). Their real motive remains  open to speculation.

The question is, when will "sensible MPs"  (and I like to think most are sensible) recognise that in their supine pretence that they are implementing the "will of the people" they are doing a grave disservice to the people they are supposed to represent, put their judgement before their job-security, and put a stop to this folly before any more time is wasted?

Then they can concentrate on our real problems: housing, health service, social care, climate change, a prison service which shames a country which claims to be civilised, the north-south divide. . .  All of these, and more, are being put on the back burner  as the present self-harming nonsense fills the agenda..

Monday, 7 August 2017

Dunkirk



 Yesterday I went to our multi-plex cinema to see this well-reviewed film.

Although I've been several times before I still haven't quite got the hang of modern cinema going - quite different from the good old days of "going to the pictures."  The booking counter has now started designating seats and I spent quite a lot of time in the semi-darkness looking for 12A.  Failing to find it I sat where I could, and eventually realised that 12A was not the number of my seat but the classification of the film.

Happily no-one claimed the seat I was in but this is another case of dispensing with useful employees - usherettes with shaded torches - in order to cut costs and  boost profits whilst making life harder for the customers.

In a further complication the cinema now has reclining seats with a leg-rest attachment which enables you to stretch out.  A tried every possible location for the lever to work it with.  A girl in a neighbouring set  kindly pointed out the operating button.

Most of the soundtrack was much too loud - we are approaching the "feelies" depicted in Huxley's "Brave New World" - but even so much of the dialogue was hard to catch.

The film is, I take it, an accurate description of the horrors of war.  Deaths are not sanitised, and not every "warrior" is a selfless hero.

I cannot imagine anyone seeing this film wanting to leave the European Union.

Sadly, I suspect the more buccaneering Brexiteers will draw the opposite conclusion.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Commonwealth War Graves Commission


The observances for the centenary of the start of the Battle of Passchendaele have brought  some of the Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries on to our television screens.

The first one I visited was in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s, and in the last few years, especially while helping to write accounts of the Old Boys of the school I attended who were killed  in the First World War, have visited several in Northern France and Belgium.

I count these visits as among the most moving and humbling experiences of my life: the astonishing numbers, the youth of so many who died, the immaculate care and attention given to each cemetery and each grave.  And in addition to these  the hundreds, maybe thousands, of square meters of walls with the names of the missing whose bodies were never found.

I have no idea how the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is organised, and the websites aren't very informative on this aspect.  But I suspect its directors, if it has any, are not on massive salaries, with out-of this-world bonuses just for doing what's expected of them, it is not encumbered with fancily-phrased mission statements, targets, OFSTED-style inspections or any other of the management-speak paraphernalia which today  is deemed necessary to motivate even the humblest of organisations.

And yet it does a near-prefect job.  No one would dare suggest privatising it: or would they?

Friday, 28 July 2017

How the Irish see us, and other things.


I've just returned from a fascinating week doing "touristy" things based on Galway in the West of Ireland.  I do not claim on the basis of a one week visit to have cracked the Irish perspective on everything, but here are four interesting pointers.

1.  Brexit I.  A leader in the Irish Times (does Murdoch own that one too?), on, I think, Friday 21st July, said something like

 "We are sorry to lose our friend and close ally [from the EU], but that will not preclude us from picking at the carcass"  (or maybe it was 'cadaver').

 This struck me as being surprisingly friendly, in view of the bitter history between our two nations, but, in seeking to attract those financial services, and perhaps other industries fleeing from a UK no longer in the EU, essentially practical.

And good luck to them.  Ireland shares one of the great "pull factors" which attract foreign firms to settle in the UK:  the English language.  And they speak it in a way I find absolutely charming.

2.  Brexit II. Here's a letter published  in the Irish Times on Thursday 27th July:

With the prospect of a UK-US trade deal likely to result  in the flooding of the UK with US-produced GM food products, chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-laden beef, surely any "Ireland-UK friendly" Brexit deal  will mean that we are also  vulnerable to exposure  to these products? I can think of a multitude of UK-based food outlets in Ireland where such exposure is not only a risk  but a likelihood  and wonder what the Government  is doing to safeguard  such a prospect.?  
Yours etc, Kevin Nolan.

Mr Nolan may genuinely wonder what his government will do. I don't wonder at all  about ours. . It will almost certainly be "Nothing " - a complete cave in to any demands that the  US is likely to make in order to secure any sort of trade deal.

3.The Famine. By far and away the most moving experience was to see the National Famine Monument, a Coffin Ship at the base of Croagh Patrick in Murrusk, County Mayo. This depicts skeletons intertwined with the rigging of one of the ships which took the desperately starving migrants to a better world across the Atlantic - if they survived.  For details see here.

In 1997, the 150th anniversary of the end of the Famine, Tony Blair "apologised" for it as follows:

"That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest  and most powerful nation in the world  is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today.  Those who governed in London at the time failed their people"

Sadly the collective leadership of Europe, with the UK as one of the most culpable, will need to make a similar apology  at some time in the future for our indifference to the sufferings of migrants and asylum seekers desperately, and across the Mediterranean dangerously, fleeing similar poverty today. 

4. Equality. Opposite the splendidly modern but imposting cathedral in Galway is a sculpture by John Behan depicting Emerging Equality.  In the inscription below is the definition:

Equality is but difference - respected and celebrated.

I'll try to remember that next time someone taunts those of us who believe in equality  that we want everybody to be the same.  Not at all: different, yes  please, but still equal.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

A cost-free improvement for the NHS


I have not actually seen the film "The Sense of an Ending" but was sufficiently intrigued by the adverts to buy Julian Barnes's book.  There I was delighted to read, put in the mouth of the first person narrator, Tony Webster, sentiments that coincide exactly with my own:

Do you know something I dread?  Being an old person in hospital  and having nurses I've never met calling me Anthony, or worse, Tony.  Let me just pop this in your arm Tony.  Have some more of this gruel, Tony.  Have you done a motion, Tony?*  Of course, by the time this happens,  over-familiarity  from the nursing staff  may be well down  my list of anxieties, but even so. (Page 69)


Change "Peter" and "Pete" and that's exactly how I feel, not just in the context of old age and physical incapability, but in all contexts when discussing matters with people I neither know nor am likely to know. (eg buying insurance over the telephone, receiving letters from my Party's leader).

However, Barnes is right (presuming he is airing his own views.) that the situation is most acute in the medical context, when we feel at the most vulnerable.  In that situation the last thing we need is to addressed  by authority figures in a manner which takes us back to our days in the mixed infants.

So the free improvement for the NHS is that all staff should  address people by their honorific (Mr. Mrs, M/s or something posher) and family name  and that should be the default position.   If patients then prefer their first name, nickname or something more familiar that's fine, but the initiative should come from the patient, not the practitioner.

I am not and never have member of BUPA or any other private medical scheme, but I'm pretty sure  that in those places patients are" Mistered" and "Missised" routinely.

More generally, the English language, which is so prolific is most other areas (we have half a million words and counting, compared with a mere 100 000 in French) we have no equivalent of the French Monsieur,
Madame or |Mademoiselle, which can be used indiscriminately without any sense of status difference or servility.  The French also get around the difficulty of distinguishing between Missises and Misses by addressing every woman who appears to be over 30 as Madame. (though that may be an unwelcome rite of passage)


In English, outside school, the army, police  and high-end department stores , "Sir" and "Madame" sound deferential, and outside Buckingham Palace and detective stories featuring senior female officers I suspect no-one uses the abbreviation  "Ma'am" (to rhyme with "jam," not "psalm").

I have no suggested alternatives to make but should be pleased if someone could come up with one to replace "Pall", "Mate" "Squire " (ugh) or nothing at all.

Of course, here in Yorkshire the unisex "Luv" covers all cases

*Barnes himself has dispensed with quotation marks

Monday, 10 July 2017

Great Britons


I spent last week walking on the Western edge of the Chilterns with an Anglo-French  group.  As is our custom we took a day off from walking midweek and did touristy things.  In this location the obvious choice was Cambridge, where we took a ride on a punt on the river, which was very good value, and a walking tour round the colleges, which had the cheek to charge £20 per head  ( though as "concessions" we got it for £18)   which included all " entry fees to colleges,"  but as we didn't actually enter any, or King's College Chapel, was a bit of a rip off.

When we were told of the original of Newton's Principia Mathematica in the Wren  Library (along with the drafts and sketches for Winnie-the-Pooh), the college to which Professor  Stephen Hawkins belongs,   and pointed to the pub where Watson and Crick relaxed whilst uncovering the structure of DNA, my British bosom swelled with pride.

A quick search on the internet will tell you that Cambridge University has, at 61, more Nobel Laureates than any other university in the world (Harvard is next with 48), and there are lots of other distinguished literary alumni (E M Forster, C S lewis and Bradford's very own J B Priestley) in addition to A A  Milne.

I do not subscribe to the view fostered by our school history courses that  Britain  has been "top nation" for most of the time since the reign of Henry VIII until the Americans took over, but the Cambridge experience is a reminder  that for the past few centuries we have been among the leading nations for science, medicine, exploration, literature, politics, philosophy, engineering, economics and culture.

Britons have made serious and significant contributions to making the world a more civilised, stimulating and comfortable place.

Nor do I suggest that, post-Brexit, no one from these islands is ever gong to write another decent book or make another scientific discovery.  But if we go ahead with Brexit not only shall we be economically poorer - that seems now to be almost universally accepted - but we are deliberately dropping out of the big league.  The implications, especially for  science, are particularly severe.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Corbyn, Labour and the Single Market


In her pre-election literature my Labour MP, Mrs Tracy Brabin, who was re-elected, made an explicit promise that she would fight for "full access to the single market, vital for jobs in our community."  I quote her words exactly.

Yesterday, 29th June, a senior Labour MP, Chuka Umunna, moved an amendment to the Queen's Speech calling for the government to try to obtain exactly that, full access to the single market.  Mrs Brabin did not vote for  the motion.  Some fighter.

Well, I suppose she's not the first MP to break an explicit promise, and in any case (I'll get this in first) who are we Liberal Democrats to cast stones?

But I am genuinely puzzled by Labour's attitude on this issue.  On this blog I have consistently praised Mr Corbyn for his honesty, consistency , integrity and ability to enthuse others, and especially the young.   I've welcomed his manifesto as "a  breath of fresh air" and rejoiced at the progress he made in the General Election.  I am still hoping that the tectonic shift he has achieved in our politics will lead to some form of progressive alliance and an end to the damaging Tory misrule.

The curious thing is that both Corbyn and the Labour hierarchy, including their responsible shadow minister , Sir Kier Starmer, have consistently argued that we should make  the economy and jobs in the UK a priority in the Brexit negotiations, and clearly full access to the single market would be a considerable help.

 Some Labour big-wigs could be anxious that some of their support could be disgruntled if access to the market involved a bit of a trade-off on immigration, but Corbyn himself has been refreshingly and , in my view admirably, relaxed on immigration, stressing the enormous benefits that past immigrants have brought to our economy, culture and society, and being reluctant to follow the Tories in their quest for draconian and unsustainable reductions.

It may be that the Labour establishment are timid about being seen to go against the so-called "will of the people"  as expressed by by a narrow majority in a seriously flawed referendum.  But even senior Brexiteer Boris Johnson assured us during the referendum campaign that voting to leave the EU did not imply leaving the single market.


So Labour don't have that excuse.

Yet Labour MPs were officially instructed to abstain on the Umunna amendment.  49 of them defied the whip and voted for it,  along with all our gallant band of Liberal Democrat, the one Green and I think most if not all of the SNP and Plaid Cymru. But not the doughty Mrs Brabin.

I am saddened but not surprised by Mrs Brabin's lack of fight, but genuinely puzzled by Labour's stance.  It is becoming increasingly clear that public opinion is moving against a hard Brexit.  Here was a golden opportunity to run the government close if not actually defeat them and Labour just didn't take it.