Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Osborne bashed from right, left and centre

YOU might expect negative reaction to a Tory Budget from The Guardian, The Independent and the Mirror. And of course we got it.
But this is the Daily Mail: “Osborne picks the pockets of pensioners”.
This is the Daily Express: “5m pensioners robbed in the Budget”.
And this is the Sun: “Osborne’s dodgy plans on fuel, tax and pensions have put your money in The Wrong Trousers”.
Blimey. It can’t be often that any Tory-led department of state gets so thoroughly out of step with the opinion-forming right-wing press.
Even the sober Financial Times reported: “Business Budget faces backlash”.
Not half.
Now, I know the chancellor has a difficult job trying to please everyone. So difficult, in fact, that no chancellor ever could or should try.
And when it comes down to it, nothing in last week’s Budget was remotely as disastrous as the virtual destruction of the National Health Service voted through two days earlier.
In fact, a cynic might say the relatively minor assault on pensioners in the Budget was well timed to draw attention away from the ransacking of the NHS.
But what the Budget did more clearly than anything else we’ve yet seen from this government is show where their hearts and their priorities really lie.
Which is presumably why George Osborne and his cabinet colleagues managed to be so blind to the angry reaction they would provoke even from those they can usually rely on to support them.
Committed as he is to cost-cutting and austerity, Osborne had no money to give away. So if he wanted to pay Paul, he had to rob Peter.
In this case, Paul is everyone who earns (or, rather, who is paid – which is not the same thing) more than £150,000 a year. Peter is pretty much all the rest of us. Especially those on pensions.
If the government were really surprised at the negative reaction this reverse Robin Hood act received, it just shows how out of touch they are with the realities of most people’s lives.
But the most astounding response I heard was from one rare supporter of Osborne’s tax policy. A thrusting young entrepreneur, interviewed by BBC radio, asked: “What’s wrong with giving encouragement to people who want to get very rich?”
If you can even ask such a question seriously, you’re living on a different planet from me.
For one person to get unreasonably rich, a lot of others must get poor. Or at least relatively poor.
Absolute poverty – if you can imagine, or define, such a thing – is absolutely dreadful. But it is relative poverty that causes most ill feeling, most conflict, most unhappiness in the world.
In short, inequality.
Which is what Osborne, the big City banks, and anyone who’s set on getting very rich, are so keen not just to preserve but to increase.

MY attention was drawn this week to a curious set of statistics thrown up in America on the relative behaviour of people at the top and bottom of the cash ladder.
Under the heading “Rich people are unethical”, the report made such claims as this: “Americans with incomes over $70,000 a year shoplift 30pc more than those earning under $20,000”.
And this: “For a chance to win $50, rich people cheated three times as much as poor people.”
And this, which will surprise no one: “Drivers of expensive cars are four times more likely to cut up drivers of lower-status vehicles.”
Other findings of the study, made by a team at the University of California, Berkeley, were that poorer people give greater proportions of their cash to charity, are less likely to default on their mortgages – and less likely to cheat on their husbands or wives.
Less obvious, perhaps, is that people on lower incomes are better at reading emotions on other people’s faces. Which suggests that lack of empathy is a key factor in “getting on”.
And that in turn suggests a partial answer to the big question all this throws up: Are rich people less ethical because they’re rich, or rich because they’re less ethical?

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Dwain hopes for all-Clear

Ten years ago a young British sprinter was on his way to being named European Athlete of the Year for 2002. The most exciting speed merchant this side of the Atlantic since the heyday of Linford Christie, he ran 9.87 seconds for the 100 metres at the IAAF Grand Prix final in Paris, equalling Christie’s British and European record.
The following year that achievement was scrubbed from the official records. Dwain Chambers, the leading British athlete of his generation, had become one of several top sporting stars embroiled in what became known as the Balco scandal.
Balco – the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative– was a small business in San Francisco that was found to have supplied performance-enhancing drugs, mostly to baseball players. Supposedly monitoring “mineral deficiencies” in its clients, Balco administered a range of products developed by its brilliant chemist, Patrick Arnold.
Chambers, the superstar American athlete Marion Jones and her partner, the then world 100m record-holder Tim Montgomery, were all found to have used THG, or The Clear, a body-building steroid developed by Arnold. They were stripped of their medals, their records and their winnings, banned from athletics for two years, and from the Olympics for life.
Since his return to competition in 2005, Chambers has admitted to having used half a dozen other banned substances between mid-2002 and his failed test in August 2003. He has become a powerful advocate of drug-freesport – indeed, of drug-free life.
His advocacy is arguably all the more powerful because no one can say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
One of the sad ironies of his downfall is that, aside from that historic run in Paris, he was quicker before moving to San Francisco and getting tangled in the Balco net.
He has broken the 10-second barrier for the 100m four times as a “clean” athlete; his best British contemporaries, Mark Lewis-Francis and Jason Gardener, have achieved the feat just once each.
THG was not actually on the banned list when Chambers, Jones and Montgomery started taking it. It was too new.
You could argue that the athletes must have known they were at least evading the rules if not actually breaking them. Arnold and the Balco founder Victor Conte surely did: they served jail sentences of three and four months for their roles in the affair.
The athletes lost a lot more. Indeed, Chambers is still barred – by the British Olympic Association, not the International Olympic Association – from competing at this summer’s London Games.
Like many other interested parties, he will be agog to hear the outcome of last week’s hearing by the Court of Arbitration for Sport on whether that ban is legal.
That decision may not be announced for a month, during which we are sure to hear plenty of impassioned argument on both sides of the question. It may not be an easy question for the CAS to determine.
One can understand the feelings of those potential Olympians who will miss out if what could be their place in the team is handed to Chambers, or cyclist David Millar.
And one can sympathise with those many athletes, such as swimmer Rebecca Adlington, hepathlete Kelly Sotherton and cyclist Alex Dowsett, who continue to insist that drug cheats should never be allowed to compete in the Olympics.
It is questionable, though, whether we should really go on describing Chambers as “drug cheat”.
Had he committed an actual crime – taken some other kind of drug, say, or been found guilty of a minor burglary or assault– as long ago as 2003, we wouldn’t be allowed to mention it now.
Under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, an offence punished by a prison sentence of up to six months is “spent” – wiped off the record – after seven years. If no custodial sentence is handed down – and Chambers was never imprisoned, or found guilty in law of any offence – that limit is five years.
Perhaps it would be fairer to call him “former drug cheat”.
And there is another view, espoused recently by Britain’s current favourite athlete Jessica Ennis, that it is unfair for Britain to retain a rule that has been scrapped by the rest of the athletics world.
Marathon queen Paula Radcliffe put it well. “I actually supported the rule that if you had a drugs ban you shouldn’t be allowed to compete in the Olympics, that it should be a life ban,” she said. “But at the moment it’s unfair because Dwain is the only one who is really being penalised for it.
“He is one of the few who stuck his hands up and said, ‘I did cheat and I’m sorry.’
“I would rather see every country take the BOA’s rule on board but if not I think you have to have some sympathy for Dwain and the situation he is in.”
Sympathy, certainly. But even if the ban is ruled unlawful, should Chambers actually be picked to run for Britain in the Games?
His performance 10 days ago in Istanbul, where he took bronze in the world indoor 60m, would say ‘yes’. He is still, for now, our best sprinter.
With his 34th birthday approaching quicker than the Games, he cannot be considered a serious contender for an Olympic medal.
Neither, realistically, can any other British sprinter – this time – unless James Dasaolu or former world junior champion Harry Aikines-Aryeetey can contrive a big improvement in the next five months. For them, the true target is probably Rio 2016.
The men whose London 2012 hopes are really threatened by the possibility of Chambers being reinstated are two other thirtysomethings, Marlon Devonish and Christian Malcolm. For them, too, one can have sympathy as they too await the ruling on Chambers.
In the meantime this remains a story with more questions than answers.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Where Britannia still rules the waves

ONCE upon a time, the map of the world was splotched with red patches. We (or, at least, those a generation or so older than me) were supposed to be proud of them. They were the British bits.
Today the British Empire, the empire on which the sun was never to set, is a thing of history.
A thing to look back on with nostalgia and – according to upbringing and inclination – a sense of either loss or guilt.
Both emotions being equally inappropriate. For did you personally benefit/exploit (strike out according to upbringing or inclination) those non-British citizens of the map’s red bits? No, nor me. Not consciously or deliberately, anyway.
The benefitting/exploitation is over. Or is it?
I’m not thinking just now of the well-being or otherwise of those former residents of ex-British lands now building new lives and communities on this island.
I’m thinking, rather, of other islands entirely.
Look closely and you’ll see that the world map may have got over the worst of its red rash, but there are still spots. A surprising number of them, in fact.
Here, in order, is a list of territories in the world over which the Union flag still flies, where the British crown, and the British government, still claim sovereignty:
• South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
• Pitcairn Island
• The United Kingdom (including Rockall and the Isle of Man)
• Tristan da Cunha
• The Chagos Islands (British Indian Ocean Territory)
• The Falkland Islands
• Bermuda
• Saint Helena
• Ascension Island
• The Turks and Caicos Islands
• The Cayman Islands
• Anguilla
• The British Virgin Islands
• The Channel Islands
• Montserrat
• Gibraltar
In order? So how come the UK itself lies only third in the list, behind some islands whose total population could travel quite happily on one double-decker bus?
Because I’ve put them in order of size – not of population, or land area, but of the Exclusive Economic Zone of the sea surrounding them.
Since 1982, that’s been set at 200 nautical miles from the coast. So South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, for example, claim rights over 559,667 square miles of sea. Or about 20,000 square miles per person. (Never mind a bus, the entire population of South Sandwich could share a taxi in comfort. If there were any taxis in a place with no roads.)
Put all these little red spots – and the rather bigger areas of blue around them – together, and it all adds up to 2,627,651 square miles of sea.
And that makes Britain the fifth largest sea-owner in the world, behind the USA, France, Australia and Russia, and just ahead of New Zealand and Indonesia.
Argentina, despite having one of the world’s longer coastlines, comes in only 28th in that list, behind such giants of the world stage as Madagascar, Fiji and Mauritius.
With the world only just waking up to the enormous potential of the oceans to provide power and minerals, that ranking list is starting to look significant.
Which may help explain why Argentina continues to dispute the British right to South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands – and the Falklands/Malvinas (strike out according to inclination or nationality).
And why Britain remains keen to go on asserting that right, 30 years after we went to war over the right to “self-determination” of a population about the size of Wickham Market, of whom 90 per cent are of British origin.
Not that that is, or ever was, what it was really about.
In 1982 it came in very handy for both Margaret Thatcher and Leopoldo Galtieri to perk up their flagging popularity at home with the jingoism that always accompanies an outbreak of military adventurism.
David Cameron has other controversial military involvements to worry about.
But offshore oil, for example, may have huge importance in the fairly near future. And there could be room for argument about whose shore it’s off.


IN 1982, when the Falklands War broke out, I was living and working in Barrow-in-Furness, an off-the-edge sort of place entirely dependent on its naval shipbuilding yard.
It was where most of the major vessels in the Task Force were built, including the flagship, HMS Hermes, and Britain’s most prominent casualty of the fighting, HMS Sheffield. It was widely rumoured around the town (falsely, as I now know) that half the Argentine navy was also laid down in Barrow.
I was playing pool in my local when film of the General Belgrano’s sinking (by the only British nuclear sub not Barrow-built) came on the TV.
I don’t recall exactly what remark I made, but it wasn’t pro-Thatcher or pro-war. Next thing I knew, I’d been felled from behind with a pool-cue.
I might almost have been the subject of Elvis Costello’s finest song, Shipbuilding, written around that time.
“Somebody said that someone got filled in for saying that people get killed in the result of this shipbuilding,” sings Costello (or, in a better version, Robert Wyatt).
It’s that word “result” that really says it all.
Weapons – or warships – aren’t made because of war; war is made to sell weapons.
A sad, near-universal, truth too seldom admitted.