Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The fox in the henhouse

Even a cursory glance at the weekend newsstands made the picture pretty clear. The national headlines told the story. Historic triumph for Ukip, shambolic disaster for Labour.
And the figures to back that up?
Labour 2,101 council seats, up 338.
Ukip 163 seats. That's fewer than half the number Labour added to a total that was already more than 10 times what Ukip now has.
Labour now runs twice as many councils as the Tories. Ukip still runs the same number it did before. None.
Funny triumph. Strange disaster.
The real story, though – the real political firebomb – was still lurking, to be revealed only on Sunday night.
Now Ukip really can claim a historic triumph. First national election for 100 years to be won by neither Conservatives nor Labour; first to be won by a party with no Westminster MPs.
Except that this wasn't a national election. It was a European election.
And that's the crucial point.
Such success as Ukip did achieve in the council vote can be put down to the fact that the poll took place at the same time as the European one.
Most of its votes were votes AGAINST Europe, not FOR a fully privatised health service, fewer rights for working people and more tax breaks for the rich.
Perhaps ironically, it is part of a Europe-wide tide of disaffection with the Union.
The tide that saw the ultra right-wing Front National top the poll in France, while left-wing anti-austerity groups won in Greece and Spain.
Whatever Nigel Farage may claim, the fox isn't in the Westminster henhouse.
He's in no position to affect egg-production, or anything much else, in city or county hall.
But he may be about to wreak havoc among the chickens of Strasbourg and Brussels.


I'm getting to like that Chris Packham more and more.
The TV naturalist – now settled in for a three-week Springwatch stint at Minsmere – has a fine habit of speaking unpopular truths.
He delivered several in an excellent interview in last week's Radio Times.
His big point – one which needs saying loudly and often – was about the thing nearly all politicians seem to consider their most important goal. Economic growth.
“If there's one mantra that we need to break,” Packham said, “it's that economic growth is a good thing.
“It isn't. It's a recipe for global disaster.”
Just so.


Changed your password lately? You really should, you know.
What do you mean, which password?
We live in an increasingly password-protected world, and I sometimes wonder just how secure it all is.
Never mind remembering my passwords, I can't even work out exactly how many I've got.
As a freelance working regularly for three different employers, I have about a dozen directly work-related ones.
Then there are the ones for banking and online payments. If you include PINs and “memorable names” etc, that's at least another dozen.
And then there's social media, my library login, those for updating the three websites I run, and three email accounts.
Thank goodness for those “Forgotten password?” links.
There's a lot of helpful advice around about password security.
They should be at least six (or eight, or nine) characters long. They shouldn't be your name, your middle name, your mum's name or your pet's name. They shouldn't be any word found in a dictionary. They certainly shouldn't be “password” or “123456789” or “98786754321”. They should include capitals and lower-case letters, numerals and other symbols.
You shouldn't use the same one for your email, your bank account or your workstation as you use for anything else.
And you should change them regularly.
All sound advice. And yet.
When ebay announced last week that all its users' passwords had been hacked, I promptly did what we were all recommended to do. I set out to change mine.
And the first thing I discovered was that I couldn't remember what it was.
No problem. Hit “Forgotten password?”, key in your email address and a link to set a new password will be emailed to you.
Bearing in mind all of the above, this is a process I go through a lot.
But it does make alarmingly clear that however many walls you barricade yourself behind, there's always just one little doorway in.
In this case, it's the single password that gives access to your email account.
Let that get into the wrong hands and almost everything else about you – all you own, all you are – potentially goes too.
And there's another thing about that ebay hacking.
If a database containing email and physical addresses, phone numbers, birthdates – and passwords – of 128 million users was hacked “between late February and early March” how come we didn't hear about it until late May?
And how come, when we finally did hear, it was on the news, not from ebay itself?


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

What's in a nation?

Do you feel proud to be English? Or British? Or East Anglian? A Norfolk bor or a Norwich maw?
Does it make much difference to you – I mean a real, deep-in-the-gut, quality-of-life difference – whether Norwich City, or England, or Team GB, win a football match or an Olympic medal?
And if the answer to any of the above is an unreserved “yes”, what’s that all about?
Well, if nothing else it’s a startling piece of evidence that we’re still a tribal species.
And if you doubt that for a moment, just consider the torrent of thinly disguised racism that distorts the currently over-heated national debate about immigration.
And yes, I did say “national”. It’s hard to get away from.
But what, when you get right down to it, is the nation?
If Scotland votes in September to leave the UK, will Andy Murray and Chris Hoy suddenly stop being “us” and become “them”?
If it’s going to change the whole nation of Britain, of Britishness, shouldn’t you and I have a vote too?
Of course, it’s about the Scots’ right to self-determination. Just as the Falkland islanders determined last year that they wanted to remain British – despite being nearly 8,000 miles from these shores.
It’s democracy, innit?
But there’s a problem here. Everything depends on where you draw the boundaries of your electorate.
Take Scotland away and the likelihood of the rump of the UK having a Conservative government rises enormously.
Draw the boundary round just East Anglia and that prospect increases further. But tighten it to include just Norwich (120 times as many people as the Falklands) and you might get Labour rule.
Allow self-determination to my street, or my house, and the political colour changes again.
What’s happening in Ukraine is interesting (even if a little scary).
The recent referendum in the Donetsk region in the east of the country – in which 89 per cent apparently voted for local independence – was declared by the government in Kiev to be “an illegal farce”.
But then Ukraine’s own independence, declared in 1991, was just as illegal under the laws of the old Soviet Union.
Ultimately, the true balance of power lies in whatever agreement can be reached between those who want to rule and those who are prepared to let themselves be ruled.
Back here, the Scottish vote could leave us in an unprecedented and messy situation.
If the nationalists get their way, Scotland will leave the Union in March 2016. At that point, 59 Scottish MPs will depart Westminster.
At present, that’s 41 Labour, 11 Lib Dem, six SNP and one lone Tory. You can see how their departure might alter things in Westminster.
If they were to go right now, David Cameron would have an outright majority and not have to rely on Lib Dem support.
So here is an all-too-plausible scenario.
Scotland votes in September for independence. Labour wins a national majority next May – but only with the support of those north-of-the-border MPs who will have only 10 months to serve before leaving for a different nation.
How will the rump UK feel about those Scots taking long-term decisions for the country they’re leaving behind? And what happens afterwards?
Like I said: messy.


Two days from now we go to the polls – at least some of us will.
As usual at any local or European election the biggest contingent will be the can’t-be-bothered.
Which is one reason why UKIP are sure to do well – far better, one presumes and prays, than they can possibly hope for in next year’s General Election.
It may seem ironic, but in fact it’s inevitable, that those who care most about Europe are those who want it scrapped. (What the future might hold for UKIP’s MEPs should that wish come true, we can only speculate.)
The contending parties have at least been busy trying to remind us there’s a vote to take part in. Well, most of them, anyway.
Last time I counted, we’d had no fewer than five Lib Dem election leaflets through our door, and two each from Labour, UKIP and the Green Party. Nothing from the Tories, which means either
a)      they’re taking this rustic corner of East Anglia for granted, as well they might;
b)      they’re leaving it to the last moment for maximum impact; or
c)      I chucked their best effort straight in the recycling bin without even noticing it, which I admit is entirely possible.
Two others factors are playing into UKIP’s hands.
With an unpopular Government, and an Opposition failing woefully to cash in, there’s bound to be a substantial protest vote. And that’s no longer good news for the Lib Dems, who are now the ones nearly everyone wants to protest against.
And then there’s what we might call the Farage factor.
How the Greens could do with someone like chinless Nigel.
Well, not exactly like him, obviously. But someone who could whip up a similar level of hype in the media.
Someone who could draw that amount of attention to the one party whose policies are actually worth protesting FOR.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Miley's no better than she should be... but no worse than she was

Back in the pleistocene era, that long-ago age in which I was born, Elvis Presley was king.
That was the era, we’re told, when two closely related phenomena were invented – pop music and teenagers.
Right from the start, part of the point of both was to get up the noses of the new teenagers’ parents.
Hard to believe now, maybe, but Elvis achieved that with his sneer and his impertinent dyed, greased quiff. Not to mention the trademark pelvic thrust.
You might wonder how the human race propagated itself before Elvis’s generation invented sex.
Only one thing was missing from this intoxicating new mixture, and that ingredient was invented/discovered [cross out whichever doesn’t apply] by the pop-teens of the next decade.
The year 1967 was a momentous one for youth culture. It would be remembered as America’s hippy Summer of Love. But before that it was the year the Rolling Stones became masters of the art of getting up parents’ noses. Partly by putting stuff up their own.
First their song Let’s Spend the Night Together so shocked America it had to be re-titled and re-cut as Let’s Spend Some Time Together.
Then came the infamous drug bust, which splashed them across all the nation’s more lurid front pages. And dumped Mick Jagger in Brixton Prison.
Who’d have thought then that pouting, hedonistic rebel would 35 years later become Sir Mick?
But that’s the way it goes. Each generation’s young shockers grow up to become staid and dull.
Leaving the young that come after them to reinvent the wheel. Or at least to invent again the cocktail so neatly summed up by Ian Dury as sex ’n drugs ’n rock ’n roll.
Not that there’s much rock ’n roll about the insipid music purveyed by Miley Cyrus. But she seems to be doing a cracking job of infuriating parents.
Not by her music. And not by her offstage life, which as far as I can read between the lines may actually be squeaky clean. But by her act on stage, which is anything but clean.
In fact, it’s downright smutty. Lots – and lots and lots – of talking and acting dirty. And talking (as distinct from taking) drugs.
Which is fine, up to a point. Well, two points really.
The first is that it all seems so phony, so calculating, so deliberately contrived to sell a new image as a naughty girl. The key word there being “sell”.
And the second – the thing which has actually upset so many parents – is that her audience is still so impressionably young.
It’s one thing to foster teenage rebelhood as Elvis, the Stones and so many others have done.
Quite another to force on primary-school children the notion that behaving as if you’re in a cheap porn movie is the way for a girl to succeed.
I’m not sure, though, that the new naughty Miley is really any worse than the goody-goody version we had to endure before.
The scrubbed-up, everything-lovely, Disney Channel sickly-sweetness of Hannah Montana was every inch as carefully designed and manufactured.
It’s shiny, materialistic, grab-what-you-can “wholesomeness” at least as damaging to the morals of our young. Not to mention their teeth.

... but Elena deserved all the love and respect 

The obsession with them is so great, the top sports stars must sometimes get mightily sick of journalists. Some of them don’t much bother to hide their contempt.
And then there are those who are engaging, polite, who seem genuinely pleased to meet you.
Elena Baltacha was very much one of the latter kind.
The expressions of grief at her death last week revealed how loved and respected she was on the national and international tennis circuits. She was – and deserved to be – as well loved by all who knew her at a less exalted level too.
Two years ago I interviewed her for the EDP and spent a very pleasant hour or so in her company. She was as warm and open with me as she was with all the staff and other members at the tennis club in Ipswich where we met.
At the time, though she had been British No.1 for most of the previous decade, she was uncertain of her place in the forthcoming London Olympics. She wanted it, she told me, mostly to fulfil a thwarted ambition of her mother’s.
In 1980, three years before Elena was born, her father Sergei was in the Soviet football team that won Olympic bronze in Moscow. Her mother, Olga, was picked for the pentathlon but couldn’t go.
“My brother was one year old at the time and she had to stay home to look after him,” Elena explained. “So I’d love to take part in the Olympics, not just for myself but for my mum.”
But for the injuries and illness which afflicted her whole career, Elena might have been the shining light in world women’s tennis that Britain has so long craved. I’m glad she at least made those Olympics.