Monday 28 August 2017

Labour shuffles towards sanity

The big political news of the weekend is that Labour has realised it would be a good idea for the UK to remain in the EU single market for a transition period after Brexit until trade deals with others have been sorted out.

That this should be big  news, hitting the front pages and leading the bulletins, illustrates the pathetic lack of backbone in our politicians.  Note what policy has actually changed.  Not what surely is now obvious, that we should stay in the EU, but just stay in the single market.  And not in the single market permanently, but just for a traditional period..

So effectively, if this Labour idea wins the day, we are lumbered with the Norway option, of obeying all EU rules but having no part in making them, and then just for  while until we plunge out into the commercial cold.

Politicians with any guts would have had the courage to state, immediately after the advisory referendum, thanks for your advice but, on such a small majority after a flawed referendum and fraudulent campaign, we won't take it: we'll stay where we are but give urgent priority to those issues which we think motivated you, quite rightly, to give us a metaphorical kick in the teeth.

Either that or the rather less courageous Liberal Democrat option: we will waste time  in carrying out negotiations to leave, and then have another referendum on whatever  deal we achieve.

Some time ago a leading Labour politician, I forget which,  admitted that, if public opinion changes Labour's policy could change too. This is spineless populism: tell us what your principles are and we'll adopt them.  The late Tony Benn delighted in pointing out that he regarded his function in politics to be a signpost and not a weathervane.  Our political parties should have the courage to lead and not be blind followers of a superficial public emotion whipped up by well-financed agitators and a biassed press.

In fairness it may be that Labour are playing a long, or "softly-softly" game in which,  to curry favour with their Brexit voters they have initially adopted a policy identical to that of the Tories.  Now they have shifted a bit.  Maybe, in some sort of Fabian gradualism,  there are more shifts in the pipeline.  I  hope so.

This is certainly a step in the right direction, but, as the overwhelming evidence of the folly of Brexit is revealed day buy day, it is both timid and time-wasting.  

Friday 25 August 2017

An administration unfit for purpose.

No, not the US, but here, the UK.

All these illustrations are taken from reports in yesterday's papers.

Since the phrase "unfit for purpose" first came to our attention in relation to the Home Office, we'll start with them.

1.  Amber Rudd, our Home Secretary, failed to comply with an order of the High Court  that a detainee be released on the 11th August.  The victim is an asylum seeker, originally from Chad, who was initially ordered to be released on the 26th July.  When the authorities failed to comply the case went to the High Court and the 11th August date was given.  The Home Office applied for two extension to the order, for the 18th and 25th August.  When the case again came to court M/s Rudd failed to send a barrister to present the Home Office  case.

Readers of the previous post will know that the rule of law is an essential element of a democracy, and that the government of a democracy  is subject to the law as much as anyone else.  Our government seems to be prepared to ignore  the law, I hope not with impunity.  But if the victim receives the damages he clearly deserves, the money won't come out of M/s  Rudd;'s pocket, but ours.

2.  Still with the Home Office,  they have apparently sent letters to 100 EU nationals telling them to leave the country within a month or risk deportation.  Now this is recognised as an "unfortunate error."  The error came to light when one of the recipients of the letter, a Finnish academic who has lived  here with her British husband for 10 years,  challenged the letter in court.  She is to be compensated for her costs of
£3 800, again out of our pockets, not M/s Rudd's.  There can be no compensation for the distress caused to her or the other 99 letter recipients, or the spin-off of uncertainty felt by other non-British EU citizens living here.

3.  The people at Manchester Airport who search us for penknives, nail-files and other potentially dangerous "weapons" before we can get on an aircraft (are they public employees or have they been outsourced to the private sector?) failed to notice that the Heath-Robinson triggering device in the zip lining of a man's suitcase actually contained explosives, so they let him continue  his journey, though they kept the device.  Later they realised it contained nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose, so they arrested the man on his return, but admit that they really should have arrested him in the first place.

4.  The examination Boards have published the GCSE results for this years 16-year-olds.  On government instructions they have "improved" the grading system by replacing the old alphabetical  A to G  nomenclature with a numerical 9 to 1, with 9 at the top and 1 at the bottom.  For much of much teaching career the grading was  numerical, but 1 was at the top and 9 (if it went that low, I can't rememberer) at the bottom. By comparison, changing the deckchairs on the Titanic may not have helped, but it didn't add to the confusion.

While these and similar idiocies continue (while MPs are on holiday so less likely to notice the government continues to issue Brexit papers assuming we can still have our cake and eat it) prominent politicians occupy themselves by claiming that the world as we know it has come to an end because Big Ben will be silenced for four years in order to protect the hearing of workers repairing its tower.

Banana Republics seem sophisticated  by comparison.

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Sense from Trump: well, welll well!

To me the most significant sentence from President Trump's "Afghanistan" speech yesterday is this:

"...we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands  or try to rebuild other countries in our own image."

Here here.

British imperialist (and there are still many around) please noteAnd they're not all Tories: I think Tony Blair called it "Liberal Interventionism."

The mistake has been to think you can dump yourself on another country, institute "free elections" and walk away thinking you have created a democracy.

Any text-book will tell you that there are many ingredients which together form a democracy.  These include: freedom of speech and assembly (including the rights of organised labour); respect for human rights; a free press; a measure of equality; an independent judiciary;  the rule of law, to which the government is subject; separation of powers; several tiers of government with defined responsibilities; and yes, a peaceful means of changing the government, normally by regular elections with a universal franchise.

Which of these ingredients comes first will vary from country to country.  In the UK the universal franchise came quite late in the day, and, given that it still excludes sixteen and seventeen year olds some (though not me) would argue that it is still not quite universal enough. Even in relatively mature democracies such as the UK and the US, there is still much room for improvement.  In the US, for example, Mrs Clinton received three  million more votes than Mr Trump, and some states still execute people. In the UK  the duties and independence of local government are not entrenched but subject to the whims of Westminster.

And regular readers will not be surprised to know that I believe  the type of electoral system is crucial.  First-past-the-post (FPTP) is a recipe for disaster in those countries where there are several ethnic groups and one is dominant (as several African countries have discovered.)  Even where the population is relatively homogeneous, as in the UK, FPTP leads to woefully inefficient government.

So the conclusion must be that neither the US system, nor the Westminster system which the UK has proudly imposed on umpteen former colonies, fits the bill for each and every situation.  Some countries may welcome a little help from their friends, but each must find their own ways.

Sunday 20 August 2017

"What did the EU ever do for us?"

Yesterday the editor of the Guardian's   "letters page" published an article explaining the characteristics of  those readers' letters most likely to be published.  Since it seems to me that   I follow most of the rules (be short and to the point, relevant, accurate, avoiding abuse, and referring to the Guardian article to which you are responding) I can't think why more of mine aren't printed, but there you are.

To illustrate what constitutes a "good " letter the editor reprints one from a Dr Simon Sweeney of York University in 2013.  Here it is, using the Monty Python lead-in (see title)

Not much, apart from:  providing 57% of our trade; structural funding  to areas hit by industrial decline; clean beaches and rivers; cleaner air; lead-free petrol; restrictions on landfill dumping; a recycling culture; cheaper mobile charges; cheaper air travel; improved  consumer protection and food labelling; a ban on growth hormones and other harmful food additives; better product safety; single market competition bringing  quality improvements and better  industrial performance. . ."etc.

I'm not sure whether the "etc" was part of the original letter  or whether there was actually more.

Be that as it may, we Europhiles could well  print the letter off  (perhaps as bullet points)  and learn to recite it to the doubters - surely a dwindling species..

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


 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?