Saturday, 23 October 2010

Gambler Osborne has fun at our expense

FOR months, ever since the coalition grabbed the reins of power, they’ve been building us up for this. I’ve never known a government spending review get so much pre-publicity.
It’s been a protracted softening-up campaign. Make us fear the worst, I thought, so they could look like good guys when it turned out not quite so bad after all.
But half a million lost jobs in public service is bad enough. More than bad enough.
A 25 per cent cut in public spending isn’t good housekeeping. It’s vandalism on a huge scale.
The theory is that the private sector will make up for it and more.
How is that, exactly?
Because lots of little Tories (or big ones) will gleefully grab the broken-off bits of public business and run them, not as a genuine service but for profit?
That’s long been a Tory dream, and everyone else’s nightmare. Or so I imagined.
It turns out to have been Nick Clegg’s dream all along too. Turns out he’s just as much a product of the grab-it-all-now Thatcher decade as his chum Cammers.
The sad irony is that even Gordon Brown, who ought to know better, was infected with the same virus.
According to Professor Allyson Pollock in her book NHS plc, Brown told her in 2002: “The public sector is bad at management, and … only the private sector is efficient and can manage services well.”
Is that why he had to bail out the banks? Because they’d been so well managed?
Is that why Network Rail had to be taken back into government ownership? Because private enterprise had been running it so efficiently?
“Public bad, private good” was the Big Lie of Thatcherism and it seems we’re all still suffering the after-effects. And now we have to suffer some more.
Which is not all the coalition’s fault. It was partly Brown who got us into this mess.
Firstly by allowing the bankers to run wild. Then by getting the rest of us to bail them out.
The idea that giving more power – not less – to self-interested private business is the way out is an insanity that threatens to dash us all much harder against the rocks.
For all the talk about having no choice, the government is actually taking one hell of a gamble.
By wielding a crashing great axe through public spending they risk devastating a lot of private businesses too.
Particularly the small ones, whose customers’ spending power will shrink as they lose jobs or benefits.
Whether the short-term pain will lead to any long-term gain is uncertain at best. I don’t know. And George Osborne certainly doesn’t know either.
Of course, it’s not his life he’s gambling with. It’s ours.
If it all goes horribly wrong it won’t leave rich kids Osborne, Cameron or Clegg jobless or penniless. More’s the pity.
They might be a little less cavalier about smashing things if they thought they might get hurt themselves in the wreckage.


THE LibDems like to talk green. Along with the mythical “fairness” Nick Clegg keeps banging on about, it’s their primary contribution to the coalition.
And it ought to be a hugely important contribution.
A little tough, then, on energy secretary Chris Huhne to have to announce the scrapping of plans for a tidal barrage across the Severn estuary that could have provided five per cent of Britain’s total energy needs entirely sustainably.
Especially as at the same time he announced eight sites – including Sizewell – where new nuclear plants could be built.
Huhne has in the past, for extremely good reasons, been opposed to nuclear power and in favour of genuinely renewable energy. Such as tidal power.
But it’s not all bad. For a start the list of nuclear sites is actually a retreat from the 11 previously named by Labour.
Secondly, without public subsidy it’s highly unlikely the new plants will actually be built.
And as for the Severn barrage, there were good reasons – aside from the £30billion cost – for setting it aside.
Environmental campaigners were always divided on the plan. And it would seem to make sense to try out the technology first by putting it to work somewhere else on a smaller scale.
If it were to prove itself across the Orwell, Deben and Blackwater estuaries, say, it would give us a clearer picture of how it might work in the Severn.
In fact, there’s a lot to be said for thinking small when it comes to power-generation.
The tidemill at Woodbridge was once cutting-edge technology. And there’s no good reason why it shouldn’t be applied again, with the benefit of improved techniques and materials, on tidal rivers throughout the land.


BEFORE the chancellor stood up, bookies were offering odds on how long he would speak for, how often he’d drink water while doing so, and how many times he’d use the word “cut”.
Apart from the opportunity that gave Osborne to make a bit on the side, doesn’t that tell you a lot about our society?
All trivia and gambling.

Monday, 18 October 2010

The joy of fungi

THERE’S something magical about fungi. Not just the ones known as magic mushrooms, but all of them.
And I don’t just mean the edible ones – though they can be truly special.
I’m not sure why we Brits are so shy of them. Maybe, as I’ve seen suggested, it goes back to a rupture in our national cooking habits at the time of the First World War.
Whatever the reason, we seem to have a phobia about wild food. Especially about mushrooms.
Hop across the Channel to France and you’ll find a variety of odd-looking specimens on market stalls.
Visit eastern Europe and you’ll see families trooping off into the woods with buckets to collect their favourites.
Here, meanwhile, there’s only one species commonly to be found on sale, unless you seek out an Oriental or Polish grocery.
And though pleasant enough, the common field mushroom – to many people the only type that gets called “mushroom” at all – is neither the tastiest nor the most nutritious out there.
Of course, you have to be careful. But knowing what you’re doing isn’t that hard if you care enough to get the right books, and err on the side of caution.
And I do mean caution. I don’t want any sick or dying readers on my conscience, thank you very much.
Many guides recommend learning how to recognise the few really deadly species so you can avoid them. Others suggest getting to know four or five of the commoner and nicer edible ones and sticking to those.
Both are sound advice.
There are pitfalls, of course.
A couple of years ago author Nicholas Evans, of Horse Whisperer fame, went gathering mushrooms in Scotland with his wife.
He thought she knew a tasty chanterelle when she saw one. She thought he did.
Result, one basket full of cortinarius speciosissimus, alias deadly webcap. Which, frankly, doesn’t look a lot like chanterelle at all. They should have known better.
Further result, both Evanses, his brother and sister-in-law are on daily dialysis while awaiting kidney transplants. They are lucky to be alive – and especially lucky that their children refused the feast.
Their experience may have added to the popular distrust of mushrooms gathered from anywhere but the supermarket shelf.
But the real lesson is about the value of knowing – really knowing – what you’re doing.
Which I reckon applies to just about anything in life that’s worth doing at all.
And it would be a shame if the amazing bounty of this autumn were to be wasted.
I wrote three weeks ago about the proliferation of fungi, especially parasol mushrooms.
Well, it certainly hasn’t diminished since then. In fact, the best season of my life for wild mushrooms just goes on getting better.
You must have noticed. Go for a walk anywhere that isn’t concreted over and the things are everywhere.
Most, frankly, I can’t identify – or not with the necessary confidence. I still find their sudden and rampant appearance magical.
But there plenty I can put a name to. And a few I’m happy to put on my plate.


The three wild mushrooms pictured here were all photographed by me in Suffolk this week, all within a shortish walk of my home.
One my mother and I enjoyed on toast. One would have killed us if we’d tried. And the other… well, the other’s perhaps the most fascinating of all.
You might recognise the parasol (picture A). Large, unmistakable, delicious. And fabulously common this year.
(At least round here. A former Evening Star colleague now living in Yorkshire tells me there are none to be found up there. He has, though, enjoyed large quantities of ceps, the most unmistakable of all edible mushrooms, while I’ve found only a couple of poor specimens here.)
You might not immediately identify the killer. It’s the little off-white fellow, picture B.
The name death cap tells you everything really. Along with the destroying angel (similar to the parasol, but white and without the scales), it’s said to be responsible for more than 90 per cent of all fatal fungus poisonings.
My father taught me to avoid anything with white gills. That would certainly save you from a fatal error with death cap or destroying angel – but would also deny you the pleasure of the parasol.
The most picturesque fungus of all (picture C) is the fly agaric, or amanita muscaria. The classic toadstool, much beloved of elves, pixies and children’s illustrators.
Though once listed as deadly, it is not known for certain to have been responsible for a single death.
It is famous for hallucinogenic highs, though I wouldn’t try it. Partly because the effective dose is highly unpredictable. And partly because the risk of a “bad trip”, possibly with long-lasting flashbacks, is simply not worth it.
It was, apparently, used by tribes in Siberia, and perhaps elsewhere, as an “entheogenic” drug – one that creates a religious trance.
The latest advice is that it is edible, so long as you boil it first to get rid of the toxins (and make sure you throw away the water).
Personally, I wouldn’t try that either. Maybe just because of the look of it.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Red George enjoys a joke with brother Vince

GEORGE OSBORNE made a joke. Quite a good joke, in fact.
It came towards the end of a rousing, but otherwise laughless speech to the Tory conference in Birmingham.
“Vince Cable and I will do this together,” he said.
“People said we wouldn’t get on. That we’d trade cruel nicknames. That we would knife each other in the back. That we’d try to end each others’ careers.
“Who do they think we are? Brothers?”
Osborne isn’t a natural stand-up. The gag, I’m sure, was not his own.
For all I know, though, he may have written most of the speech himself. And apart from a lot of weary and mostly unfair attacks on past Labour governments, it was a surprisingly good speech.
Surprising, most of all, in that I found myself agreeing with much of it.
“Britain,” said the chancellor, “has no divine right to be one of the richest countries in the world.”
That may be stating the bleeding obvious, but it has a refreshing ring of truth and honesty about it. Coming from a Tory.
He spoke of bringing common sense to health and safety.
About time someone did. Though much depends, I suppose, on what he means by “common sense”.
Then he picked out what he considers his and Cable’s achievements so far: “Council tax frozen. Income tax thresholds raised for millions. And 800,000 people lifted out of tax altogether, with more to come.”
The right-wing goon was starting to sound almost socialist.
And he said another thing I couldn’t disagree with.
“If we don’t improve our education,” he said – “for everyone, our country will become more unequal, more unfair, less prosperous.”
Spot-on, George.
Trouble is, what you and your cronies consider “improvement” looks to the rest of us a whole lot like a wrecking-ball.
When medical students face a personal debt of £100,000 before they even start practising, something must be wrong somewhere.
And I have grave misgivings about Iain Duncan Smith being put in charge of what he promises will be the biggest reform of the welfare system since 1946, when most of it was established.
There’s no doubt reform is overdue in a system that has grown ferociously tangled and complex. But if there are to be £194billion of savings, there are bound to be a lot of losers – especially among those who can least afford to lose.
Mind you, the dismay in the Tory press about cuts to child benefit has been richly amusing. (Quote from ‘a Whitehall source’: “We will be looking at what qualifies as a child.”)
Yes, the plan is unfair. And yes, it will hit working single mums. Those who earn more than £40,000.
As Osborne put it: “It’s very difficult to justify taxing people on low incomes to pay for the child benefit of those earning so much more than them.”
Right again, George. Frankly, that sounds a bit like socialism too.
Then there’s been the row within the government itself over a 20 per cent cut in the defence budget.
Actually, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing – either the cut or the row.
The bad thing is the “promise” to America to retain our phenomenally expensive, outdated and almost wholly pointless nuclear “deterrent”. The finger on the button of which, incidentally, is American, not British.
If we’re going to go on pouring billions into defence it seems a bit wonky to keep the big gun while depriving the ground forces of resources.
It seems strange too to see the party that always bigged up on law and order threatening police forces with budget cuts of up to 25pc.
The Met are proposing to meet it by getting new recruits to serve two years as “specials”.
In other words, to work unpaid for two years before going on the pay-roll.
Which sounds like a dangerous precedent for us all.
But then, as the Tories never tire of reminding us, we are in a time of austerity.
As Osborne also said: “You don’t get to choose the times in which you live – but you do get to choose how you live in them.”
Another platitude, but another that’s perhaps worth repeating and pondering.
I didn’t choose – and the majority of the British people didn’t choose – to live through this time under a Tory government.
And each time they speak of cuts, I keep remembering the business manager I overheard a year or two back.
The man responsible for making others redundant who grinned and said: “You can’t let a good crisis go to waste.”
The economic trouble we – and the rest of the developed capitalist world – are in is just the opportunity the Tories have been waiting for.
The opportunity to take an axe to the state and its dependents.
While, incidentally, allowing their old pals the bankers, who made the mess, to go on drawing billions in “bonuses”.
In what was meant as a final stab at Labour, Osborne spoke of “the national interest or the vested interests”.
He added: “I know which side we’re on.”
So do I, George. And it’s not the one you pretend it is.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Middle for diddle as Cameron tops the class

IN 1919 my grandmother wrote to her sister: “I don’t think that there is any other country where class differences are felt so much as in England.”
Considering she had just arrived here after fleeing the post-revolution civil war in Russia, that is some statement.
In fact, divisions between the haves and have-nots, the working-class and the gentry, the landowner and the serf, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – define the classes how you will – have always been intrinsic to every society.
Social justice – or lack of it – has always been crucial in politics everywhere.
Which is why I applaud Ed Miliband’s insistent use of the term in Manchester this week.
And why I was gobsmacked to read a respected Tory columnist, Matthew Parris, describing David Cameron as “middle class”.
OK, he used the expression, “upper-middle-class” (complete with all those upper middle class hyphens).
But if Cameron is at the upper end, where on earth is the middle middle? And how much room is left above him for the upper class?
I grew up thinking of myself as middle class.
I went to the village primary school, a state grammar school and finally a comprehensive, where I was the first pupil to go on to university.
David Cameron went to the same prep school as princes Andrew and Edward. From there he followed his father and brother to Eton, the most famous fee-paying school in the world and still the chief bastion of British privilege.
His time at Oxford was marked by his membership of posh, right-wing, boisterous – and very expensive – “drinking clubs”.
He probably never saw inside the kind of dark, poky former servants’ quarters that I inhabited at the other place.
Cameron is a direct descendant of King William IV. His family tree is heavy with baronets, dukes, countesses and viscounts. Most of its non-titled fruit (and some of the knights) seem to have been bankers or stockbrokers.
At birth, Cameron had more dosh than I am likely to earn in the whole of my life. Many times over.
If we’re both in the middle, it’s a darned broad middle.
Cameron’s inherited wealth makes his “magnanimous” decision to forego some of his prime-ministerial pay packet a pretty pointless, empty gesture.
And makes you wonder where the axe will cut most deeply in the coming spending review.
Presumably it’s the middle classes who will take the heaviest hit.
It has to be. Because if Cameron’s in the middle, and “middle” extends as far below the centre line as it apparently does above it, then we’re all middle class. Except maybe the Royal Family.
Something tells me, though, that the upper middle won’t feel the pain as much as the middle middle, the lower middle middle, or the bottom middle.


IT’S not that long ago – post-Chernobyl, post-Three Mile Island, post-Windscale – that nuclear power had a bad name for environmental disasters.
These days you’ll often hear it touted as a solution to the problem of high energy demand, disappearing resources and climate change.
So how have the experts managed to solve the safety issues? How have they settled the question of storing up major disasters for future generations?
They haven’t.
A big, lucrative industry has simply bought better PR.
I heard a news presenter talking cheerily the other day about supposedly “green” nuclear power “saving the world”.
There’s some sense in that.
The same sense as there is in curing someone of cancer by shooting them dead.


“LET’S start to have a grown-up debate in this country about who we are and where we want to go and what kind of country we want to leave for our kids.”
“The focus groups will tell you that there’s no votes in green issues. Maybe not.
“But taking the difficult steps to protect our planet for future generations is the greatest challenge our generation faces.”
Good words, Ed. In fact, I thought the new leader’s first speech to the Labour conference was full of fine words.
It was a lot better overall than any individual soundbites you may have heard on the news. As, in fact, the speeches of almost every Labour leader apart from Tony Blair usually have been.
I wasn’t so keen on Jack Straw ending his 30 years on the front bench by looking forward to “a Labour victory in 2015”.
I hope Ed’s chance to take charge comes much sooner than that, and that he’s ready when it does.
The Tory-Tory coalition can do an awful lot of damage in five years.