Friday, 23 September 2011

Politics, career path for the vacuous

NOTHING said or done at the Liberal Democrats’ conference this week told as much about the business of government as one young delegate interviewed on his way into the hall.
It wasn’t anything interesting or inspiring he said about policy, political philosophy, or even the economy. In fact, I don’t recall him saying anything about such matters.
I don’t even know who he was – if his name was given it passed me by. But that, in a way, is part of the point.
He was just another shiny young face in a shiny new suit. Another vacuous item off the production line.
Another bright young graduate eager to take his seat at conference, his desk in the office, perhaps ultimately his seat in the House.
Another well-spoken middle-class boy following a career path. One mapped out for him by a well-oiled education machine that seemed to require no input of thought on his part.
“How did you get into politics?” he was asked. “Are your parents party members?”
No, they weren’t particularly interested. Neither was he until told by a teacher that his choice of A-levels might gain him a university place to study politics.
Now here, newly graduated, he was. Maybe with a thought or two in his head. Maybe not.
But certainly with no experience of life. No firsthand knowledge of anything beyond being on the receiving end of the education system.
And there, in a nutshell, is the biggest problem with the political system today.
It has become a career in itself. No longer something people go into out of conviction after learning the hard way about life in the real world beyond the party chamber and the committee room.
No wonder the decisions taken in those rooms so often seem inappropriate to the needs of ordinary people. No wonder the people who take them are so often out of touch with the realities of most people’s lives.
Of course you may expect Liberals to have little grounding in reality.
Just as you expect Tory politicians to serve the interests of the land-owners, business people and private-school types from whose class they come.
Sadly, you can no longer expect Labour to represent directly the working class from which the party takes its name.
Its leader, Ed Miliband, is a typical example of today’s politician. He is not and never has been a labouring man.
Outstanding on political theory, and undoubtedly deeply caring, he nevertheless lacks experience of anything but politics. Just like so many on all sides of the House.
No wonder there seems to be no real passion, no real division, no real argument about the big things.
No wonder the LibDems, supposedly bitter opponents of the Tories, found it so easy to get into bed with them and so cosy once there. Because they are all essentially the same.
Politics has become merely a form of management.
And management – as every working person knows – has become a class in itself. A class of people trained to “manage” in the abstract without necessarily knowing the first real thing about the job they are supposed to be managing.
It is true that being a good engineer, for example, doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be a good manager. But to manage a team of engineers it would be helpful to have some firsthand experience of engineering.
The best teachers are most often those who have some experience of life beyond the classroom. Those who haven’t just gone from school to university then straight back into school. Who know something of the world their pupils will have to go out into.
Likewise, politics would be so much better if our politicians had lived a bit, struggled a bit, in the real world before getting up on the platform.


AT midnight on Wednesday, our time, a murder was committed.
The long-planned murder of an unarmed man. A murder conspired at and committed by persons whose identities are all known.
Yet not one of them will be punished for the act, except possibly – I hope – by their own consciences.
The one punished was the victim himself.
Punished finally, fatally, irreversibly, for a crime he may not have committed.
A crime, in fact, which much of the evidence now available strongly suggests he did not commit.
A great many people, including Amnesty International, former US president Jimmy Carter and the pope, believe Troy Davis was innocent of the murder he was sentenced for in 1991.
And that even if he was guilty, to execute him is merely to pile crime upon crime, sin upon sin.
The Georgia parole board, however, was not prepared to listen. Not prepared, one suspects, to let anyone else tell them what to do.
Not prepared to consider what was, at the very least – to use the American legal terminology – reasonable doubt.
For their stubbornness, Troy Davis had to die.
And this is the country that likes to lecture the world on human rights. On justice for all.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Belgium's way out of the economists' mess

CALL me sad, or strange, but I’ve just been reading a learned article about the state of the world’s economies.
Well, I do have an A-level in economics. Which is a bit like saying I have an A-level in astrology, palm-reading or the spirit world.
But with this difference. That while economics may be a phony science, based mostly on faith and guesswork, the things its practitioners say do have effects in the real world. Sometimes very profound effects.
The world economic crisis, for example. Economists may have no good idea of how to get us out of it. But they certainly played a part in getting us into it.
John Lanchester isn’t exactly an economist. He’s a commentator on the things economists – and bankers, governments and other general messers with the world – get up to.
His book Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, for example, attempted to make clear to a general reader what the 2007-2010 financial crisis was all about.
Which is fine, except that suggests everything’s got better since last year. Which it hasn’t.
His latest article examines things like tax, spending cuts and international (mostly American) politics in a way that probably isn’t for the general reader.
But in it he makes a point that’s worth thinking about.
It’s about economic growth – you know, that will-o-the-wisp thing that’s supposed to be the aim and measure of everything good in the capitalist world.
Growth may not really be such a good thing in a world rapidly running short of key resources.
But the developed economies, such as ours and America’s, need it in order to pay off the colossal debts they’ve spent the last few years racking up.
To the general gloom of economists, however, growth figures are looking a trifle stagnant (to use their term).
In the last quarter, the US economy has grown by a disappointing 0.3 per cent. The UK figure is an even shabbier 0.2pc – which happens also to be the average for the Euro zone.
Within that zone, German growth stands at precisely zero, while in France the figure is just 0.1pc.
All of which makes Belgium’s 0.7pc growth rate look positively buoyant.
So what’s different about Belgium? How come this little land, stuck as it is between the two stagnant superpowers of Europe, has been outperforming other Western economies?
The domestic political scene in Brussels is in such turmoil that for the past 15 months Belgium has had no government.
No tax policy. No agenda of “austerity”. No cuts in public service. To all intents and purposes, no one in control.
Is this, perhaps, the answer?


I SAW a heartwarming story and an inspiring bit of video footage the other day.
A story that struck a particular chord in the week after tickets for next years Paralympics went on sale.
Though this one wasn’t about a disabled person overcoming the odds. Not, at least, if you assume the word “person” to mean a human. This is more of a shaggy dog story.
A decade ago, when I was internet editor of the Evening Star, I had an excellent deputy called Isobel.
At the same time I had a good friend and colleague called Kahn. When he left to head north, he took Izzy with him. They are now married.
As well as being a journalist in Yorkshire, Kahn is now an aspiring – and very funny – stand-up comedian, while Izzy is a website manager.
But the real star of this tale isn’t either of them. It’s their 18-month-old border collie Teddy.
With the help of specialist trainers, Izzy has taught Teddy to do those clever things collies do which always so impress the crowds at Crufts.
And that despite the fact that he came from a rescue centre, having been blind from birth.
“When we first brought him home we deliberately moved our furniture around to try and improve his other senses,” explained Izzy. “We taught him words such as ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘jump’ and ‘over’, which he learned quickly.”
As he now demonstrates in agility classes, which he has progressed through with skill and alacrity.
Izzy added: “Teddy’s handicap doesn’t affect his quality of life. The fact he’s now confidently jumping over fences and running through tunnels proves how strong-minded he is and how well he uses his other senses.
“He loves the tunnels. The longer they are the better for Teddy.
“I think there would be a limit to the height of the jumps Teddy will be able to do because of his eyes so I’m not sure he will ever get to Crufts. But I would take him as far as he is happy to go.
“I’m so proud of him and of what he’s achieved so far.”
There. Told you it was heartwarming.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Get more from a copper without paying a penny

IT’S been a common middle-class complaint as long as I can remember that there aren’t enough police officers.
More particularly, that the police aren’t visible enough. That we need more bobbies on the beat.
Now this, I’d say, is arguable.
Those who shout it loudest are often the same people who complain most strongly when they’re nicked for speeding.
“Why,” they will wail, “aren’t the police out doing their real job – looking for criminals?”
Conveniently overlooking the fact that driving above the speed limit is a crime.
A more dangerous one, indeed, than breaking into someone’s house, nicking their credit card – or looting from a damaged shopfront.
But all those are events that occur in the real world. The not-enough-bobbies plea owes more to nostalgia for a world that never really was.
An England of cream teas, roses round the cottage door and cheery village plods on bone-shaker bicycles. (Though if I lived in those murder capitals Midsomer or St Mary Mead, I’d want more than a jovial bobby on a bike to protect me.)
Or, to put it in an urban environment, a world in which genial Sergeant Dixon could sum up every criminal incident with a cheery “Evening, all!”
Nevertheless, the common cry for police visibility is one that carries real political weight. All the major parties have been swayed by it for decades.
Now a right-wing “think-tank” has come up with a brilliant solution.
An ingenious way of making the police more visible even at a time when the Tories are gleefully ravaging the public purse.
All police officers, they declare, should be made to wear uniform while travelling to and from work.
Hey presto – suddenly there are cops to be seen everywhere. On the bus. On the tube. On the school run. In the local after clocking-off time.
Great. That’ll keep us all on the straight and narrow.
Now let’s look at it again from the police officer’s viewpoint.
In the village where I grew up, everyone knew the local copper. He lived in the police house. It seemed to work.
In a town or city it’s different.
There are plenty of places where you might not want your neighbours to know what you did for a living.
Places you might not feel safe if they did – or if people you met in the course of your duties might be able to track you down.
It might not be good for your kids to be dropped off at school by a parent in uniform.
And if you should happen to get involved in an official capacity while doing the shopping, say, are your family supposed to get involved too? As unpaid civilian deputies?
Like so many outpourings of “think-tanks”, this idea has more tank about it than think.
It reveals the true right-wing attitude to working people – in this case, the police, but it could be any working people.
That they are merely a resource to be used, a factor to be deployed. Not real people with real lives.
The think-tankers think it’s a great way of saving money on police wages. Effectively getting each officer to put in hours more work each week for no extra pay.
Or, to put it another way, robbing them.


BIG builders and developers are delighted with the government’s proposed changes to national planning laws. Which should tell us all we need to know about them.
Other organisations – those which exist to protect things, not to make money out of them – are not so keen.
The key idea is that getting planning permission will become easier – “a presumption in favour of sustainable development”.
Among those worried are the Campaign to Protect Rural England, whose chief executive Shaun Spiers says: “The new framework will make the countryside and local character much less safe from damaging and unnecessary development.”
Martin Harper of the RSPB says: “The planning system is there to represent the interests of the public in the face of complex decisions, and it will fail us all if one factor – economic growth – is set higher than any other.”
Even the National Trust, with its in-built leaning towards conservatism with both a small and a large ‘C’, is upset.
Dame Fiona Reynolds, the director general, says: “With these changes comes a huge risk to our countryside, historic environment and the precious local places that are so important for us all. The planning reforms could lead to unchecked and damaging development on a scale not seen since the 1930s.”
“Reform” as a euphemism for “wrecking” – it’s a common theme of this government.
Replacing a complex 1,000 pages of rules with a succinct 52-page cover-all might sound like a good idea to anyone except a lawyer.
But it could mean catastrophe for huge swathes of the British countryside.
Which in a county like Suffolk – beautiful, rural, but within dangerous distance of London – could be very bad news indeed.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Mystery and magic of the ancient stones

The menhir de St Jean near Scaer, Brittany
FROM a side-road on the edge of town another turning leads to a twisting country lane. The kind of high-banked lane that suggests many centuries of use – and has you praying you don’t meet anything coming the other way.
Keeping your eyes alert for signs, you eventually spot one, half hidden in the undergrowth at the entrance to an even narrower track. It says simply: “Menhir”.
A few slow turns later you’re walking through long grass between overhanging trees. And then, on the edge of a field grown high with maize, there it is.
A single stone standing a little over seven metres tall – about four times my height – deep in the heart of what is now nowhere in particular. Quietly gathering lichen and moss, as it has for more than 6,000 years.
Legend has it that the stone was flung here in anger by a giant trying to stop his daughter fleeing with her lover.
The giant’s house, from which the stone supposedly came, stands on a hilltop about ten miles to the north. And the story, though probably already old when first written down, is of course nothing like as old as the true story of how the stones came to be where they are.
The “house” is now believed to have been an ancient tomb – “covered alley” or “passage grave” in archaeologists’ terms.
There is little mystery in how the stones it is built of got where they are, for there is a massive quarry nearby. But not much else can really be told about the people who built it, except a rough date of 4000 to 4500BC.
How did they move such huge blocks of stone across the countryside? How did they erect them, or construct tombs that would stand so long?
Perhaps most intriguingly, why did they do it at all?
The dolmen at Crucuno, near Carnac, is thousands of years older than the surrounding housesWhat function were the great menhirs supposed to serve? And were the covered alleys, or the dolmens, really tombs, or did they have some other purpose?
Radio-carbon dating can give us a good idea of roughly when they were erected, but everything else is pretty much speculation.
I remember visiting my first dolmen – essentially a large flat stone supported on uprights – in my early teens. The Bagneux dolmen, near Saumur on the Loire, is tall enough to stand up and walk around inside. The largest of its four cap-stones is about twice the weight of the heaviest stone at Stonehenge.
More recently, it has become something of an obsession wherever we go on holiday to seek out whatever prehistoric monuments may be found.
It has taken us to some magnificent stone circles, stone-age villages and burial sites in the Orkney isles, western Ireland, south Wales and northern England.
And this summer it took us to Brittany, that western outcrop of France where the whole ancient culture of stone monuments may have originated.
The alignments of standing stones at Carnac are well known and well visited. Much too well visited now in August, when only a privileged few of the thronging thousands are allowed inside the fence.
They are undeniably impressive. More than 2,500 stones, the tallest around three metres high, stand in several straight rows stretching literally for miles.
But they are neither the oldest, nor the most engaging, of Brittany’s ancient stones.
A map of Europe’s Neolithic monuments shows a dense scattering all across the continent’s western fringe – what are now thought of as the Celtic nations. In Brittany the dots merge into one solid block of colour.
Ancient sites, some of them individually awe-inspiring, are equally breathtaking in their profusion. What would be an attraction elsewhere is commonplace.
You can get away from the crowds to sit alone by a hilltop stone with a panoramic view and contemplate how the landscape, and the population, has changed and changed again in the millennia it has stood here.
And consider that while the people who erected it have long disappeared, along with their society, their culture, their building methods and intentions, they were basically the same as you and me.
A little shorter and stockier, perhaps. Maybe not so long-lived. But essentially people much like us.
About as intelligent, and surely at least as well organised. How otherwise could they have left the monuments they have, without even the technology of the wheel?
Pondering the hows and whys quickly leads to the realisation that our ways of doing things are not the only ones possible.
Capitalism and democracy are not the only ways to run a society – and Communism or Fascism are not the only alternatives.
Once it was assumed great Stone Age sites such as Stonehenge or Carnac were built with slave labour.
There now seems to be a near consensus among archaeologists that dolmens and stone circles were a co-operative enterprise.
I like that idea better, but both may say more about modern attitudes than ancient realities.
Like the still-prevalent assumption that ancient works had religious causes. Which may be true, or merely a fantasy based on lack of imagination.
Because so little can be known for sure, ancient sites are fertile grounds for imaginings. It’s part of why we like them.
So consider this.
The only place in the world with more dolmens than Brittany is Korea – 6,000 miles away at the other extreme edge of the world’s biggest land-mass.
Make what you will of that.

Genes reunited

OF the 81 people present, 25 were my cousins. That includes those once, and in a couple of cases twice, removed.
Then there were 11 of my nieces and nephews, seven great nieces and nephews, all three of my siblings, a couple of my aunts, an uncle, various in-laws and out-laws, and just one or two people I’d never heard of before.
There were people born in every decade from the 1920s to the present one. Ages ranged from 90 years to six weeks, with another two not yet born but visibly present.
There were people I recognised only thanks to Facebook. Others, now middle-aged, who last met as children.
They converged on Woodbridge from Durham, Dorset, Stafford and Kent, from northern and southern France, and by the day’s end many were on their way back home.
There were teachers, students, chemists and engineers; environmentalists, language specialists, museum staff and computer wizards; several musicians, a few amateur painters and a professional sculptor. I think I was the only journalist, but not the only one to have a first book published in the past year.
There was undoubtedly a fair spectrum of political opinion present, but mostly I think various shades of red or pink. Which may have made it an unusual gathering for the sedate Elizabethan splendour of Seckford Hall.
There were, as there will be at such gatherings, one or two slightly bitter undercurrents, but only one or two I was aware of.
There were far more meetings of people delighted to see one another after many years.
And there were, inevitably, people I’d have liked to spend much longer talking with.
Many of us agreed that we must meet up again soon, and often – and maybe in a few cases we really will. I hope so.
It was not, as you may have assumed, a wedding. Nor was it a funeral.
It was a joint celebration, between the two actual birthdays, of my mother’s 90th and my aunt’s 85th.
After which my aunt, Ruth Smith, had a tennis match in Essex. Not to watch, but to play.
While my mother, Hilary, was back on Wednesday to working with the old folks’ drama group she runs in Woodbridge, starting preparations for the Felbridge Court Christmas show.
The first of these clan gatherings took place near York ten years ago, and most of us probably assumed it was a one-off.
The second, marking Ru’s 80th and Mum’s 85th, was in Somerset.
Here’s to the next one, in 2016…


IF, like me, you’re a habitual watcher of Sky Sports News you’ll be drearily familiar with the ads. No doubt they pepper other daytime channels too.
There are the ones trying to sell you loans, sometimes to pay off your other loans. As if no one had noticed that the rampant loan culture was what got us – individually, nationally and internationally – into the mess we’re in.
There are the ones that hope you’ve had an accident so they can find someone to blame. And then screw for cash.
And then there are the ones that want to help you claim back the cash you should never have spent on PPI – payment protection insurance.
That came to a head this week with the deadline for claims of mis-selling.
Well yes, the banks and finance companies have been screwing us all over for years. So let’s give the dosh to lawyers instead. That’ll help.
Like most folk, no doubt, I’ve been offered PPI a few times, and I have a standard reply.
The same reply, as it happens, that I always give anyone trying to sell me extended warranties for various kinds of equipment.
“Thanks, but no thanks.”
Overpriced “protection” plans of whatever kind have always seemed to me to follow one of the first rules of capitalism.
A rule most succinctly put in an American form (of course): Never give a sucker an even break.


I WAS out of the country at the time, so I missed this summer’s big entertainment, the riots in Tottenham, Croydon and elsewhere.
My mother, however, watched the news avidly. And like nearly everyone she was shocked at what appeared – if the reporting was at all fair – to be the primary motive among the participants.
Not protest (though heaven knows there is plenty to protest about in the country just now) but looting.
A free-for-all grab, a kind of supermarket sweep without rules.
Which is, when you think about it, a quite natural descent for a society obsessed with materialism and with getting everything cheap.
But did my mother really hear a looter address the camera, as he went by with a plasma TV under his arm?
And did that blatant thief really say: “This is my banker’s bonus”?
Seems too perfect really.
Because the only real difference between street looting and the multi-million pound pay-offs to Sir Fred Goodwin and his ilk is one of scale.
You can get an awful lot of plasma TVs on a £700,000-a-year pension.
The essential logic, the justification, is exactly the same in both cases.
They did it because they believed they could get away with it.