Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Proud to be British, "Meh" to being English.



I rarely refer to myself as English. This is not an affectation but a genuine reflection of how I feel. And that is British. The fact that I was born in England, live in the country and have no claims to being of any other part of the United Kingdom is evidence of my Englishness should anyone want to pursue it. But for me there is almost nothing that distinguishes being English from being British - except, and crucially, that of exclusion. To be of the UK and English only really means that I am not Scottish or Welsh or Northern Irish. To define my nationality by what I am not rather than by what I am seems odd and unhelpful. But as a British citizen I am so much more than what I would be if I was just "English". The modern history of my nation is of British triumph and, a bit, of British failure. The Industrial Revolution, the growth and decline of Empire and the rest were singularly British phenomena. Having lived for some years in Hong Kong when it was still a Colony I never heard anyone call it an English territory - which is just as well as it was largely built by Scots!

The trouble with "England", except when it is used in error as a synonym for "Great Britain" (as some foreigners still do), is that if we correctly define it as the part of the UK south of Scotland and east of Wales we struggle to find any unifying factors. The peoples of Wales and Scotland, and the two peoples of Northern Ireland, have a clear view of their countries. To be Welsh or to be Scots has clear meaning - from history, culture and language. But there is no such homogenous English culture at all. If we ask a sample of  Englishmen or English women to define what being "English" means, and a matched sample to say what being "British" means, I doubt that you would see any differences at all. And if "British Values" means anything (I doubt that it does actually) it cannot be that it is any different from "English Values".

My Englishness is pretty much confined to sport and I readily admit that to support England in Football, Rugby and (to a lesser extent) Cricket is a patriotic expression of my Englishness. (The "lesser extent" for cricket is because it is officially an Anglo/Welsh team and a de facto British one. Plenty of Scots have played for England and one or two Northern Irishmen as well). So, yes, I am English at Twickenham and at Murrayfield, Wembley and Cardiff. But playing other parts of the UK/British Isles at Rugby or Football (sometimes at Cricket) is really the only time that I see England as being at odds with Scotland or Wales. I lived and worked in Scotland for three years in challenging times (during the miners' strike) - all of my staff were Scottish as were all the people outside I did business with. I don't recall my obvious Englishness or non-Scottishness being a problem once. It was never a problem and never even referred to.

The other problem, for me, with the idea of Englishness is that it assumes a cultural unity that doesn't exist. As with the Scots or the Welsh there are parts of England that are very sure of their own identity. A Yorkshireman, for example, has a distinct set of characteristics that make him different from someone from, say, Sussex. A proud Lancastrian, like my father, was no less a proud Briton. The "English" tier in-between was largely superfluous.

The United Kingdom is comprised of a happy mix of peoples. From Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and from the distinctive regions, counties and cities of England. I am much more a Londoner than I am English. I earnestly hope that the Scots next month will decide that they can stay British as well as being proudly Scottish. Because, you see, the Scots and the Welsh are my people just as much as the English are. And, we are, surely as the slogan has it "Better Together"

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Thoughts on the "Privatisation" of the National Health Service

The word "Privatisation" is being used at the moment in respect of the National Health Service - especially in Labour circles. I suspect that this is in nearly all cases an inaccuracy. Privatisation is correctly a descriptor when a publicly owned asset is transferred to private ownership. The most recent example was the Royal Mail. The key word here is "asset". If you look at the Balance Sheet of an enterprise the Assets will be listed as belonging to that entity. If that enterprise is publicly owned and is then "privatised" then the purchaser will acquire the assets. This will rarely be their book value because there will also be intangible assets such as the brand which will increase the value to the purchaser. In essence in privatising something you transfer the assets, tangible and intangible, and you also sell future income streams.

The assets of the NHS are publicly owned and so far as I am aware none of them are being transferred to private ownership. However some of the services that the NHS provides are being "contracted out". Essentially some services which have hitherto been carried out by NHS employees are being put out to tender to the private sector. This is not "privatisation" because no assets are relinquished. True there may be redundancies connected with this sub contracting and many will find this regrettable. But the trend for enterprises of all sorts only to carry out core activities and to seek third parties to carry out the rest is a feature of the modern way of doing things. Competitive tenders, so the logic goes, ensure better value than if a single unchallenged supplier carries out the work.

The key issue is not whether the NHS is being privatised but whether this huge enterprise is giving value. Surely nobody could carp if, say, the operation of the boiler house at a hospital was contracted out to a private operator. Obviously the sub-contractor would have to give value - performance against standards and competitive costs. But if that is guaranteed why would you argue against it? Where you draw the line is the key but, I would argue, this should be non-ideological. If NHS employees are the best people to carry out a service then that's what should happen. If contracting out offers better value over time then contract out. The clash of ideologies between free marketeers who probably would like to privatise the NHS, on the one hand, and those who believe that public ownership requires that there only be public employees on the other is unhelpful. The publicly owned and accountable NHS is operationally a huge public/private partnership - and has been for years. Orwellian cries of "Public good, private bad" (or vice versa) take us nowhere.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Britain and Ireland are sovereign States , but our peoples are from the same family.




This was a Tweet yesterday from Welsh Nationalist Jonathan Edwards to which I responded by saying that it was "very silly". He came back to me and asked me why I thought that. Here is my answer.

The issue that Mr Edwards is referring to has nothing to do with governance or independence. Sovereign States often negotiate bilateral agreements which allow free movement of Labour between them (and Capital for that matter). For Ireland and the remaining parts of the UK the family and other ties across the new national border in 1922 were very strong. Irish origin communities existed across England and Scotland, in Glasgow, Liverpool, London and elsewhere. To introduce travel and residency restrictions between the UK and Ireland would have been socially disruptive and unfair. In those days many people did not have passports and the idea that the Kelly family, of Glasgow, would have had to get them to visit their Kith and Kin in County Kildare would have been unworkable and unnecessary. 

The ties between Britain and Ireland were, and are, strong at a family level. There was, and is, a degree of ambiguity about nationality as well. For a couple of centuries to be "Irish" was also to be British. Whilst at a Governance level Ireland broke away from the UK at a family and social level many Irish people have strong British ties and affiliations. That works in reverse as well. Many of us who are not Irish regard them as close cousins rather than foreigners. To visit Dublin is very different than to visit any other European capital. These emotional, social and family ties and feelings did not go away with independence. And the Governments of Britain and Ireland had the good sense to recognise this and agreed total freedom of movement for British and Irish citizens across the British Isles from the start. This includes (well ahead of the EU) the right to work and even to vote. The Irish from the Republic may not be British anymore, but they are family and we recognise them as such and in my experience this is reciprocated. The absence of the need for any travel documentation between our nations is simple a bureaucratic acknowledgment of this reality.


Friday, August 08, 2014

The US as the world's policeman? Another bad idea from Dan Hodges


This appears to be a standalone Tweet from Dan Hodges, not a trailer for reasoned argument. Never mind I guess we could all write the piece for Dan if we put our minds to it. The style, if not the whole aphorism, is borrowed from Churchill who once said
 "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." In other words it ain't good, but any alternative is worse. 


The "might is right" argument is surely one of the most dangerous imaginable, but that is where Hodges is coming from. The US has the military power to be the "world's policeman" and nobody else has. True. Then, he would no doubt say, the US is a democracy so there are checks and balances. Well not really Dan, not really. When you were a spotty youth did you not listen to your Mum telling you about Vietnam? That was a policing operation as I recall that got, shall we say, a tad out of hand. Then you might remember Iraq and Afghanistan - they went well didn't they?  


The truth is that the US launches military adventures on the assumption that the world's biggest and most sophisticated Armed Forces will always prevail. But they don't. EVER! In fact if your neighbourhood copper was as incompetent as Policeman America you'd campaign to have him sacked. 


The United Nations has the capability to be the world's policeman and the independence to be so. If the United States, instead of launching its deadly and ultimately futile military adventures had supported the UN unequivocally things might have been very different in recent times. But the UN doesn't get that support and worse was treated with contempt by Bush, and not much better by Obama. Support the UN and tell the US to keep its pistols in their holsters. Now that does make sense.

Boris Johnson - style over substance. And a bit of a shit...

Politics is about achievement or it is nothing. Obviously electoral achievement is usually a pre-requisite. Style might win you an election, but winning an election is only a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. Boris Johnson beat a discredited Ken Livingstone. Just. A more respectable Labour candidate would have won easily. But let me not be churlish - Boris did indeed win. Twice. Since then what? That's when style was no longer enough - he needed substance. And that was a lot more difficult. Agreed Mayor of a London is not much of a job - but Boris hasn't done much in it. Name me one thing BoJo has done which has made life for the Londoner better. Tricky eh?

The style of Boris is a populist one. A bit of a card. Genial. A "nice man" as a bizarre love letter to him on the ConHome blog site by someone called JP Floru put it. But many would say he is a shit in his private life. Does this matter in a post Puritan society? Well yes it does. I don't want a cruel philanderer as Prime Minister, someone who is a serial adulterer who has treated his women as playthings for his entertainment. Doubt me? Ask Petronella.

To achieve you have to work hard. Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown (especially) put in the hours. BJ is a lazy sod. Because he's bright he thinks he's smart enough not to have to work. Sorry but you can't have a PM who is indolent, even Cameron isn't that.

To achieve you have to be consistent, or reasonably so. Boris sways with the wind. Not to put too fine a point on it he lies. Most recently over whether he would stand in 2015, but on most things. He has principles - and if you don't like them he's plenty more. How long before he modifies his (admirable) pro immigration stance? Not long I'm sure.

To summarise. On character Johnson fails, badly. On effort it's D--. On experience it's - well not much. He is a fluffy, self-confident, lazy lightweight. The Tories, and by default the Nation, have tried the "back to the future" idea of an elitist, out-of-touch Etonian in Number 10. We won't fall for it again. 

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

"Europe unites on a day of solemn remembrance"

The headline in "The Times" (above) was accurate and moving. One hundred years after the beginning of the first modern European War, and just under seventy after the end of the last one, Europe is united in peace. This hasn't happened by chance and Winston Churchill was one of the creators of unity, in his noble rhetoric at least. In September 1946 he said this:

"This noble continent, comprising on the whole the fairest and the most cultivated regions of the earth; enjoying a temperate and equable climate, is the home of all the great parent races of the western world. It is the fountain of Christian faith and Christian ethics. It is the origin of most of the culture, arts, philosophy and science both of ancient and modem times.

If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance, there would be no limit to the happiness, to the prosperity and glory which its three or four hundred million people would enjoy. Yet it is from Europe that have sprung that series of frightful nationalistic quarrels, originated by the Teutonic nations, which we have seen even in this twentieth century and in our own lifetime, wreck the peace and mar the prospects of all mankind...

What is [the] ..remedy?

It is to re-create the European Family, or as much of it as we can, and provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe."

Nationalism was and is lethal. "Nationalistic quarrels", as Churchill called them, meant that "prosperity" became impossible and, more venally, they killed, in their millions - twice in the lifetime of my parents generation. They lived through two grotesque conflicts. I, born a couple of months after Churchill's speech, have lived in peace. And, as I say, this hasn't happened by chance. From the early days of the creation in 1951 of the European Coal and Steel  Community (ECSC) to today there has been a determined effort to be united across Europe, as Churchill had wished. And from the start peace was the goal. The French foreign minister Robert Schumann said that the ECSC was a way to prevent further war between France and Germany. He declared his aim was to "make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible"

Peoples with a "common inheritance" should not fall out and fight, but they did. But add substance to that inheritance and create a pragmatic reason for unity and you've a better chance. That reason has, of course, to be economic. Peace treaties can be and have been broken, all too often. Remember Munich? But economic treaties are solid providing they involve mutual interest. From the "Treaty of Paris", which set up the ECSC, to the "Treaty of Rome" seven years later which established the "European Economic Community" (EEC) and beyond. The greatest achievement of my lifetime has been the move towards Churchill's dream of a "United States of Europe". We may quarrel about the extent of federalism that is desirable, and we may squabble about the details (it would be odd if 28 Sovereign States did not!). But we mostly surely agree that Peace in our Time in Europe could not have happened without a solid economic base and structure for unity. 

In 1954, in Washington, Churchill famously said "... to jaw-jaw always is better than to war-war” . The European Union requires us continuously to Jaw-Jaw. But as we look at the War cemeteries across Europe can any of us truly doubt that these occasional disagreements, peacefully resolved, are far better than the deadly alternative?

Monday, August 04, 2014

The Lie about the Glory of War...



Wrestling with the story of the First World War is to wrestle with a monster. You think that you’ve tied down one bit and it rears its ugly head again and bites you. So there is a tendency to simplify – to say it was “evil” (which it was) or that it was “just” (which it may have been). And ultimately we cannot avoid the often crude descent into simplification or sentimentality. We cope with horror by cleansing it. The War Graves are one example of this. The gravestones are white and in neat rows with clean readable inscriptions. It doesn’t glorify war, but it purifies it. There is no blood. We symbolise the blood with poppies, the same colour but again clean and pure. The stench of the trenches is replaced by the tranquillity of remembrance, the sadness of bereavement by symbolism. We play the “Last Post” and we reach for the poetic –

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them”.

The Great War was barely month old when Binyon penned these lines. These are not really verses for the fallen but for those who survive. It’s almost as if those who perished are the lucky ones for, unlike us, they will not age and weary and die – they are gone already. This is sentimental claptrap of course. There are many stories of the guilt of the survivors “Why me?” – or “Why them?
There is no “glory of war” and three years later that Wilfred Owen told the truth:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.” 

The “Lie” here was it is “sweet and right” to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to perish in a noble cause. “No” says Owen, it was vile.

And so we remember the fallen and ascribe to them values most did not have. They fell because they were unlucky – victims of happenstance on the battlefield. Some were brave and if we knew of their bravery we posthumously awarded them a medal. Some were scared beyond our understanding – and, shamefully, some of these were shot for cowardice. Most, however, were innocent victims of man’s failure to avoid conflict and of a mistaken belief that we could prevail with just one more push over the top.

It is right to commemorate the fallen at this time but most of them were not heroes and would have been horrified at the thought that they should be. There was a gallows humour to much of the coping:

Up to your waist in water,
Up to your eyes in slush,
Using the kind of language,
That makes the sergeant blush.
Who wouldn't join the army?
That's what we all inquire;
Don't we pity the poor civilian,
Sitting beside the fire.


A hundred years ago today Britain’s leaders took a giant leap into the unknown. The tools of their adventure were first volunteers, then conscripts and then anyone from across the Empire who could be fitted into khaki. Hundreds of thousands of them perished and the Victory that four long years later they won was Pyrrhic. Twenty years later the trains full of troops rolled again. The Bells of Hell were silent for a very short time.

The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling, for you but not for me.
And the little devils have a sing-a-ling-a-ling, for you but not for me.
Oh death where is they sting-a-ling-a-ling, oh grave thy victory?
The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling, for you but not for me.











Saturday, August 02, 2014

Obama: "We tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values"



I guess that we can all "understand why it happened". 9/11 was the most traumatic event of modern times. Americans were killed by an enemy in their hundreds on their own soil for the first time since Pearl Harbor. But this was not an attack by a Sovereign state but by a shady, insubstantial group of terrorists who got lucky beyond their wildest, wickedest dreams. The men in the caves were well funded by their Saudi millionaire evil genius and they had plenty of willing volunteers who would happily trade their lives for a victory over the anti-Islamic forces of evil in the West (as their distorted values saw it). But they were a mosquito bite on the body of America, not any real threat to American global hegemony.

America could not cope. Just as in Vietnam they were not being dragged into a conventional war where their undoubted might would prevail but into a conflict where the enemy used will-of-the-wisp tactics to disappear and regroup whenever they needed to. Like the Vietcong neither bin Laden's Al Quieda nor the Afghan Talban could be defeated by conventional Armed Forces. Which, of course, did not deter the US from launching them. There were Pyrrhic victories along the way as the US Military powered first into Afghanistan and then into Iraq ( the latter for no discernible 9/11 related reason). But almost ten years after 9/11 bin Laden was still at large and the enemy had regrouped and despite the rhetoric America's "mission" was far from "accomplished".

In the end Osama bin Laden was finally taken out. But the threat was only barely reduced with this vengeful assassination. By then the US knew that its Afghan and Iraqi missions were disasters. Neither had even the smallest semblance of a post war strategy. The only question was when both countries would descend into a chaos at least as lethal as what had existed before America intervened. Meanwhile over the years the comprehensive failure of Plan "A" - the "shock and awe" - was replaced by Plan "B" - the extralegal detention and torture of those who someone thought might be a threat. At Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and around the world America forgot it's constitution, it's Bill of a Rights and American Values. Where the rest of us in the West could previously have said that, warts and all, America stood for what was right we no longer could. 

The torture that the President of the United States now admits took place was a response to failure. It was a response to the fact that a nation with more Arms than the rest of the world put together could not defeat those who had inflicted a grievous wound on them. It was a response to the failure even remotely to understand the wider religio-politics of the world of Islam. It was a response to the failure to build alliances - a compliant and complicit Britain aside. It was, maybe, an act of desperation underpinned by some distorted view that international law could be put aside because Manhattan had been briefly placed under a carpet of ash. 

It will take the United States a long time to recover its prestige from the frank admission that it has behaved as badly as the worst of its enemies. Its continued use of the Death Penalty, uniquely among Western nations, is a further example of an insular and arrogant contempt for Human Rights. Those of us who have bought the positioning of the United States as a beacon of democracy and freedom can no longer do so. Can it recover? It won't be easy. It must begin now. 


Thursday, July 31, 2014

There is no such thing as a singular, homogenous "British culture" any more

 "Not a single institution has spoken clearly about the values that Britain expects of its citizens. " So says Graeme Archer on the"ConHome" website today. 

That is because the whole idea of "British Values" is preposterous nonsense. What is expected of British Citizens ( and indeed from non British residents and visitors) is compliance with the Law, no more and no less. If you find a cultural practice "unwelcome" that is your affair because unless that practice is illegal you do not have a case. 

Of course you may, like the bigots of UKIP, have an objection to multiculturalism. You may hanker after the Britain that I grew up in in the immediate post war years. Predominantly white, Christian and deferential. But it's gone and it isn't coming back. That parts of a city like (say) Bradford are unrecognisable from how they looked 50 years ago is true as is the fact that the "values" of the present day citizens are quite different from the values of 50 years ago (and, indeed, of yours and mine today). But providing those values as applied are legal that's the end of the matter. Take FGM. It's abhorrent to human values and yet it is practiced widely by some Muslims. In a Britain it is, rightly, illegal. We oppose it and legislate against it not because it is in conflict with some spurious set of "British Values". We do so because it is wrong. Or take the veil that covers the face and is adopted here by a minority of Muslims. In my opinion that practice should be banned in Britain - it also offends against human values and we should join the French in taking a lead against it.

The thing about the values of Britons today compared with half a century ago is that they are greatly more diverse. They always were quite diverse - we've had Jewish butchers for centuries, now we have Halal ones as well. But we have more mosques, more Hindu and Sikh temples, and more cafés where you can smoke a hookah. We have greater varieties of dress, and you hear more languages spoken. The cinemas offer Bollywood as well as Western movies. And the range and choice of restaurants is almost infinite. There is no such thing as a singular, homogenous "British culture" any more (if there ever was). And when it comes to "values" frankly anything goes so long as it is within the law. You better get used to it. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Gaza - can the cycle of violence be broken ?

Unless you're a psychopath you don't do wicked things without a reason. The 9/11 terrorists and Osama bin Laden were not psychopaths. They had a reason for what they did. That 99% of the world's population would think that reason offensive and unsupportable doesn't mean it was not a reason, it means that we view that reason as wrong. 

Israel's attack on Gaza is not without reason, nor are Hamas's rocket attacks on Israel.  I suspect that most of us would deplore both but, of course, see that they are linked in a spiral of violence. The more rockets are fired, the stronger the Israeli response. And the stronger the response the more rockets will be fired. In the short term Israel's overwhelming power may neutralise the rocket launchers. But come the grim dawn Hamas will regroup and the rockets will begin to fall on innocent Israelis again. And the cycle will begin again.

The war in Vietnam told us that you cannot beat a determined, skilful, flexible enemy with overwhelming force. Since then around the world big armies have tried to beat irritating insurgencies - and usually failed. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya... the Middle East bears witness to the futility of thinking that the big battalions always win. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) is a big battalion. Hamas, well backed and financed though it is, is an insurgency. 

The only permanent solution to the problem of Palestine is a "Two State" solution. A self governing Palestine and, of course, a free and independent Israel. They may never coexist in absolute harmony - but a workable model can surely be agreed. If you believe, as I do, that such an outcome would be just and more important that it would have support from ordinary Israelis and Palestinians alike why not? 

No good can come of the current Gaza horrors - no good at all. But when the killing stops can people of principle and decency on both sides of the divide work towards a negotiated solution that includes fairness for all ? That's the human challenge. We must not duck it. Never again.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Commonwealth - a bad idea whose time never came.

The Commonwealth stretches back to 1948 - the year Britain finally gave up that Jewel in the Imperial Crown - India. I doubt that there was ever much point to the Commonwealth even then.  It was a device to soften the blow of the loss of Empire and in part to reduce the guilt that Britain rightly felt for its Imperial past. If, the logic perhaps went, once colonies can voluntarily gather together in a "Commonwealth of Nations" then the British Empire can morph into this new construct so proving that the Empire had a valuable unifying value even across disparate nations. But the only thing that held the Empire's countries together was sovereignty - the British Monarch was the titular head of state of all of them. Take that away, and the logic breaks down. True a few Commonwealth countries still have The Queen as head of state - a preposterous anachronism that will surely go with her passing. But that aside there is nothing holding the Commonwealth nations together except pomp and waffle.

Were the Commonwealth to have some logic over and above pomp and sentiment then maybe a case could be made. If, for example, membership required Nations to adhere to agreed minimum Human Rights standards then that would be something. But many of the current members still have the Death Penalty and others criminalise homosexuality. Democracy is absent in some Commonwealth countries and shaky in others. It is not even an economic club, nor could it ever become one. The idea of "Commonwealth Preference" rightly withered on the vine. There are plenty of transnational bodies around which have logic and purpose. Starting with the United Nations and, of course, including all the increasingly important regional economic partnerships. 

The test of anything is how non members see it. Would an American, or a Brazilian or a Chinese praise the Commonwealth? I doubt that most of them would even have heard of it. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Judging Michael Gove.

The most puzzling aspect of Britain's (mainly England's) educational system to foreigners must be its diversity. Whereas in most developed countries schools are broadly consistent in their construct and activities here there is virtually no consistency at all. We have Independent Schools, Grammar Schools, Comprehensives, Academies, Free Schools, Faith Schools and a host of minor variants of almost every conceivable type (and probably some you couldn't conceive of at all).

The education a child receives is directly proportional to the wealth of his or her family. Richer kids get better education than poorer kids. They are either in the 7% in the Independent where Daddy pays, or their parents can afford to buy a house in a good area with good State schools. It's a postcode lottery, but one that is fixed. You can buy your way in.

If you are old-fashioned enough to be a supporter of the long-replaced Grammar schools do not despair. Move to Kent where they still exist! If you want a religious experience daily for you good little Catholic, or Jewish or Muslim child - no problem. There will be a Madrassa (or equivalent) somewhere for her. Prayers seven times a day and nuanced teaching - even creationism. You'll find it if you want it.

This has to be "all good" doesn't it? Freedom of choice. Little Jimmy or Jane can get the education that is right for them. But of course it isn't good at all. Little Mohammed won't get a proper education at all - he'll get one with a hefty dose of indoctrination thrown in. And Tracey in Sunderland will get a totally different, and less good, education to Emma in Ewell. Tarquin will go to Daddy's posh school and come away with exam results that will guarantee Oxbridge entry. And will have played sport on playing fields that his State school equivalent will have sold off long ago. The "culture" of Tarquin's school won't guarantee success - but look at the results. They deliver, at a price.

And that's the real test of Gove, did he change all the above in a positive direction at all? Under his longish jurisdiction did equality of opportunity shift? Did he make any move towards creating a fairer education system? Not by levelling down, but by levelling up? We have great schools across the board in Britain, and some truly appalling ones as well. "Give me a child to the age of seven" say the Jesuits. Build on that another ten years or so of education and I'll give you the man. The better the school, the better the prospects, the better the life. Education. Education. Education. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ken Clarke - principled and right on Europe.

Writing a tribute to Ken Clarke in the Daily Telegraph today  Iain Martin says "...he was wrong about European integration and the EU, on an epic scale."

This is the reverse of the truth. Ken Clarke has been the voice of sanity on Europe throughout his career. Where all too many Tories live in some phoney golden past in which Britain stands alone again, Ken has seen it and told it as it really is. The modern world is interdependent and you either build firm alliances or you sink. No European country eschews cooperation and only the uniquely rich Switzerland and Norway can afford to. Britain is bigger than these two States put together - and some - and central to the building of a modern cooperative Europe. 

The supreme folly of those who peddle the Europhobic line has challenged Ken for decades and he has fought them with style. He has always had right on his side and his Eurorealism has been consistent and admirable. It was the Conservative Party, especially under Heath, who pushed for Britain as a member of the EU (and its predecessors). Ken Clarke has been the inheritor of their vision. I hope that he will continue to fly the European flag - and his Party would do well to listen to him not to scorn. Britain's new Foreign Secretary is on record as wanting to leave the EU. Whether Hammond is playing internal Party politics in his Eurosceptism I don't know - he is seen as a possible leadership contender so he probably is. That alone shows the difference between the world of the Hammonds and the world of Ken.

Ken Clarke has not been wholly unpragmatic in politics - he wouldn't have succeeded as much as he has if he had been. But when it comes to what he truly believes in - especially over Europe - he has been consistent and honourable. There are not many in politics today with beliefs and values that are true and not created for personal advantage. We will miss the man who at times stood alone surrounded by colleagues always ready to stab him in the back. Well they've got their man at last - and the Government is much morally weaker for Ken's departure. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Alastair Cook could learn from Mike Denness




Sport can be brutally cruel at times. It is the flip side of the joy of the winner - the grief of the loser. The penalty miss in the shoot out. The broken gearbox in a GrandPrix. And the depression of the batsman when he gets out - again - for a low score in a Test match. For cricket is so exposed. The long walk to the crease and the even longer walk back. In front of 15,000 people with the dressing room full of your mates who will look down when you enter and avoid eye contact because they are embarrassed for you. And that is where Alastair Cook is, and has been for what seems a long time.

Cook failed again at Trent Bridge. On a flat batter's wicket he contrived to find another way to get out, bowled off his thigh pad. When a sportsman of quality loses form we tend to grab at the cliché that "Form is temporary, Class is permanent" - and of course that is true. But that doesn't explain the loss of form - it just acknowledges the hope that it won't last. Well sometimes it can last a very long time! Take the Tottenham Hotspur and Spain striker Roberto Soldado. At top Spanish Club Valencia over three seasons he scored a goal in 50% of his games. At Tottenham last season he made 28 appearances and scored only six times - solid from the penalty spot, hopeless from open play. The number of times he got the ball in a scoring position and blasted it over the bar became almost comical (not if you're a fan it didn't of course!). 




As fans we don't want sportsman to fail, and in that, I think, lies part of the problem. When Cook came out to bat yesterday there was not one England fan at Trent Bridge who wished him anything but well - and therein lies the rub. We were tense, it was tangible, and it must have communicated itself to Cook. And he was tense. He knew the truth - he was only opening for England in this Test match because he was captain. Any other player in his sort of trough of performance would have been dropped - ask Nick Compton about that! It's an unforgiving world. 

Beyond the fact that he is captain Alastair Cook is the shining white hope for the recovery of England cricket from the disaster of The Ashes. When the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) decided to sack Kevin Pietersen this s what they said:

"The England team needs to rebuild after the whitewash in Australia. To do that we must invest in our captain Alastair Cook and we must support him in creating a culture in which we can be confident he will have the full support of all players, with everyone pulling in the same direction and able to trust each other."

This is not an equivocal statement. Cook was to be the hero, and KP the discarded villain. The ECB was choosing to "invest" in Alastair Cook who would create a "culture" of support. It doesn't actually mention winning matches, just being a jolly bunch. It is presumed, I assume, that winning will result if the team is happy. Well England has now gone nine Test matches without a win (including the one underway which will be at best a draw). This is some way behind the woeful 18 matches under Mike Gatting from January 1987 to August 1988 but it's halfway there. The discarding of Pietersen may have improved dressing room morale (has it?) but we are yet to see that in results, though it's early days in the new era to be fair.

Another sporting cliché that is being aired at the moment is that winning is addictive. Winning teams are more likely to win their next match than losing teams. If you think you will win you probably will. The reverse also applies - at team level but absolutely at the level of the individual. Soldado must have felt that his goal scoring touch had deserted him last season. And he expected not to score. So he didn't. Even when a one-legged striker would have. Alastair Cook won't admit it, he's too proud too, but he expects to fail. So he does. In calendar year 2014 he has played seven Test innings scoring 97 runs at an average of 13.8. His confidence is shot. You can see it in his body language. And what sort of "culture" does the captain's continued failure create in the dressing room. Supportive, no doubt, but I don't think rallying round a failing batsmen who continues to fail was what the ECB had in mind.

Back in 1974/5 the estimable Mike Denness dropped himself for one match after a short run of failed performances when captain of England. He returned and scored a match-winning 188 in his comeback match. It was a gutsy thing to do and a classic, and rewarded, action by that most decent of men. Cook is a decent man as well but my guess is that the ECB hierarchy would do everything in their considerable power to stop him from taking a break. Not because he is not the best man to open for Enflsnd at the moment (he self-evidently isn't) but because they have openly "invested" in him as the main thrust of their strategy for the future. And because they (the ECB suits) would lose so much face if Cook walked away - even temporarily.

Sport is cruel and Alastair Cook is suffering at the moment. It is sad to watch. Maybe all will come right in England's second innings at Trent Bridge. But if it doesn't there is a strong case for Cook immediately to take a breather from international cricket. He IS a classy player - his overall record is beyond dispute. But he needs time away from the spotlight to recover his self-confidence and his form. Mike Denness showed him the way.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

On Pensions at least public sector employees don't have much to complain about.



I have no doubt that some Public Sector employees have legitimate grievances about their lot under this Government but Pensions is not one of them. Yes the Pensions deal, post Hutton, is less advatageous then hitherto. Pensions will be based on "career average" earnings rather than final salary and workers will work longer and contribute more towards their pensions. But compared with the Private sector Public Sector employees are in a still enviable position. Crucially in the run up to retirement   employees will know very accurately what their Pension will be. This is because their schemes remain Defined Benefit (DB) schemes which provide for a precisely forecastable Pension which will not be subject to the visicitudes of financial markets or to unpredictable annuity costs.

In the private sector DB schemes stll exist of course but most are closed to new entrants. For some time now the only offer to a new employee has been a so-called "Defined Contribtion" "Pension". In reaility these are not, and never have been, pension schemes at all - certainly when compared with what the Public Sector enjoys. What they are are workplace savings schemes with tax advantages. But what they produce in the way of an annual income on retirement is, compared with the DB alternative, completely unpredictable. The Chancellor acknowledged these facts when he removed the obligation to use a DC "pot" to buy an annuity in the Budget. 

To purchase an annuity producing an annual income of £20,000 a private sector employee saver aged 65 would have to have accumulated a pot of around £400,000. And yet there will be many public sector employees on such a Pension or more - guaranteed. And the contributions they will have made will be insignificant compared with the commitment necessary to save £400k - not that many will be able to do this of course. The average pot is likely to be less than a tenth of this.

The public sector rightly gets public support - we value our doctors, our nurses, our teachers and the rest. But when we look at how these workers are protected in retirement in a way that the private sector employees also used to be but no longer are?  Well in truth, in this area at least, the public sector doesn't have much to complain about does it? 


Tuesday, July 08, 2014

How the Eurozone is quietly making the Euro doom merchants eat their words.

The remarkable thing about the Eurozone is how little dissent there is now about the process of stabilisation of the single currency. Roll back a couple of years and the doom merchants were in full flight. Greece would have to leave. Portugal would surely follow. The Euro was dead. And so on. In fact progress has been steady under the skilled management of the EU and, especially, Angela Merkel. The Euro, far from being dead, is attracting new nations to it. The process of greater macroeconomic coordination of Eurozone countries (always a likely requirement) is moving forward without too much bleating about lost sovereignty. Meanwhile Britain stands aloof from all this, failing to use its currency independence to boost the balance of trade (the reverse in fact as we let the pound strengthen so making our exports more expensive). 

Yes there is much still to do and a continued credit squeeze is regrettable. But come the dawn the Euro will surely emerge strong, as will the finances of the countries that use it. The most successful economic union of all time will be underpinned by a currency that will almost certainly replace the dollar as the transnational currency of choice. By then Britain will probably have reverted to Pounds, Shillings and Pence!

Monday, July 07, 2014

Publicly accountable railways and gas and electricity supply are essential. But its not about ideology.

The calls for the "Re-Nationalisation" of the railways are wrong. Wrong because the word "Nationalisation" is loaded and linked with bad memories of the old inefficient "Nationalised Industries". Wrong also because it suggests that it is something that is an ideologically good idea - shades of the Labour Party's now deleted Clause IV of its constitution: "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". We need a new language.

We live in a mixed Economy within which decisions are, or should be, taken rationally not ideologically. It is, as I have written before, a big "Public/Private partnership" with as its goal the outcome of maximising utility for all. In the main the Public sector should not be involved in manufacturing, commerce, trade etc - certainly in those sectors and businesses where competition is real. The Government should not own banks or financial services institutions though of course it should regulate them (better!). Transport is, however, another matter as is part of the Energy supply sector.

Any economy has to have a reliable transport and energy infrastructure and it is the duty of Government to provide it. In the United Kingdom Government builds and (mostly) maintains the road network. The same with Rail via "Network Rail" which had to be created after the disastrous private sector "Railtrack" failed so abysmally. The Airports may be privately run - but they are public assets, as are the ports.

The energy sector also has public assets in the electricity and gas networks (pipelines and transmission cable systems). Now there is nothing wrong with private sector companies using public assets if it is in the public interest. So a busy transport activity like buses on (say) the London/Oxford route has two operators who compete on services and price. The passenger is the beneficiary and there would be no credible case for taking these operators into public ownership and combining them. The railways, however, are different. As, in my view, is Gas and Electricity distribution to domestic users.

The rail network is publicly owned, but the train companies that use it are privately owned and operate franchises. In effect they are private sector monopolies. Unlike the London to Oxford buses there is little or no competition. You want to go to London from Manchester - Virgin Trains is your only serious choice. And in the busy and highly profitable London commuter zone there is also only one operator on any one route. No consumer choice at all.

The State is involved  in the railways not only as owner of the track network but also the stations - and as the provider of subsidies as high as £4billion per annum to operators in order to keep open "uneconomic" but judged useful routes. Meanwhile the private sector monopolies, like Virgin, pay shareholder dividends and of course make profits. These would be absent without subsidy! The myriad of operators have different names, different fare structures, different booking systems and there is no consistency of offer between them. Virgin from London to Manchester is different from East Coast London to Leeds. But that is not competition - if you want to go to Manchester it's irrelevant if there is a "better" service to Leeds (or vice versa!)

The case for the railways system being truly publicly accountable is overwhelming. Consistency of offer, integrated branding, cooperative route planning and above all a pricing system for tickets that makes sense. The income generated by this operation would not go to shareholders but be reinvested in the network and services. In this model whilst the track, stations and trains would be publicly owned it would not be a recreation of "British Rail". There would be plenty of room for public/private partnerships providing they could be shown to be in the public interest. If you start with that goal of "maximising utility" then you seek the most pragmatic way to achieve it. Not all the workers in this system would need to be employed by the public sector and there would be plenty of room for "contracting out". But at the macro level all the confusion that exists at the moment would be swept away and we would have, once again, a publicly accountable and substantially publicly owned railway system.

The Energy sector is different.  Here the issue is not that there is no competition but that it is artificial. The infrastructure that delivers Gas or Electricity to your home is, like the railway tracks and the stations, publicly owned. The physical gas or electricity that is input into these systems is a commodity and like all commodities there is a broadly comparable common price. No Gas or Electricity supplier has any strategic cost advantage over another. They pay the same supply costs and the same infrastructure use costs. So the price competition between them is only tactical. British Gas may offer you a price deal to encourage you to switch from, say, Eon but over time the price you pay will be the same. There is no real competition. Consumer prices would be lower if there was a single Gas or Electricity supplier to all domestic homes. There would be no duplication of facilities, no marketing costs and no dividends to pay. Again there would be some scope for public/private partnerships but the overriding test of everything would be consumer interest not profit.

If we eliminate ideology and start with the rail passenger or the domestic energy consumer and measure what is in their interests then the case for a properly accountable railway and energy system is overwhelming. Yes politicians would set the standards and decide priorities - but isn't that what we elect them for anyway?

Friday, July 04, 2014

Getting and spending – two sides of the same coin for Government

The whole idea that you can talk about spending and taxation separately is deeply flawed. Indeed the idea that you can decouple the public accounts from the economy as a whole makes little sense. The start point of everything has to be citizen welfare in its broadest sense. It has to be bottom up. What are the needs of the people and how best should the Economy satisfy them?

If we start from a “Grand Ideology” then we miss the point completely. This is equally true whether it is Free Market Conservatives or Public Ownership Socialists who are making the noise! The economy as a whole is a huge Public/Private partnership. There are some things which fall unequivocally on the Private side of the divide and some which can only be done by the State. In between is a huge raft of consumer needs where Government has to make judgment calls about how best to manage.

Public expenditure falls broadly into three categories.

(1) Necessary, but efficient, expenditure which only the State can make.

(2) Discretionary expenditure which the State chooses to make, but doesn’t have to.

(3) Necessary expenditure which is inefficient and where either economies need to be made or which could be better carried out by the private sector.

The easy hits are in the second category. So we get cuts to Arts Funding which is likely to destroy some regional theatres and make the future of many arts institutions in peril. This is crass and deeply to be regretted. A cut to the International Development Budget would be in the same category. To its credit the Government has not done this despite the strident voices from some on the Right urging it to do so.

It is in the third category that most of the action is! If some aspects of the Health Service would be more efficient and cost effective if contracted out to private enterprise then only the Socialist ideologue would object. But if the motivation is some “private sector first” Conservative ideology then it is a very bad idea indeed – not least if the private sector beneficiaries are Conservative Party donor companies! The subsidies paid by Government to keep some rail services afloat and the utter confusion across the “network” of operators, fares and service standards are scandalous. This was a privatisation that was botched and had made us a laughing stock. Nobody wants British Rail back – but a publicly accountable Rail network that is consumer not profit driven seems a necessity to me. It’s not a call for renationalisation exactly, but it is a call for a publicly accountable revolution!

So let’s get away from arguing about expenditure and cuts as if they were separate things – they are of course two sides of the same coin. And let’s start making decisions based not on ideology or political expediency but only on a clear understanding of consumer need. Start there and you might get somewhere.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The benefits of medical screening - a personal story



I haven't taken Fentanyl or Midazolam before - apparently they are recreational drugs as well as being pre-procedure medicines if you need to be sedated! So this blog could be more than usual rubbish if the effects haven't worn off. Bear with me!

A couple of weeks ago I was called to St George's Hospital, Tooting because a routine test had shown a small amount of blood in a stool sample. This can be a sign of bowel cancer although, overwhelmingly, mostly it isn't. The test and follow up is part of the NHS bowel cancer screening programme now being conducted across the country. 

My further screening took two parts. I spent some time a few days ago with a nurse trained in colonoscopy - the exploration of the bowel by a Doctor using a minute camera which travels the whole length of the bowel looking for abnormalities. She explained the procedure to me and answered my questions. She was knowledgeable, engaging and comforting. She knew her stuff. It was my decision whether or not to go ahead but it was pretty much a no-brainer.

Today I had the colonoscopy and that's why the sedatives were administered. The Doctor was friendly, looked the part and as with the nurse he had time to engage with me. Nothing was rushed, I won't describe the procedure in detail other than to say I could follow the camera's view in full HD colour as it made its way to my appendix and back. The close ups were crystal clear and the Doc. commented as he piloted the camera on its journey. 

Any anxiety I had was alleviated as the Doc. and I saw with him what was mostly a very normal bowel. Three very small polyps showed up and they were removed - along with the camera a tiny device travels along which can cut off an polyps and extract them for laboratory analysis. I was also shown to have "Diverticular disease" which the Doctor described as an area of the bowel which looks like Swiss cheese - it has holes in it. It is not a source of concern but can cause abdominal pain from time to time - there is no treatment other than a high fibre diet.

This was NHS treatment at its best. Screening for serious disease is always a good idea and particularly for bowel cancer which responds well to treatment if there is early diagnosis. The Cost/Benefit Analysis is hugely positive. A cancer diagnosed early and treated saves the NHS thousands compared with late diagnosis and intensive emergency cars. And of course it saves lives.

The test I apply to the NHS for me personally is this - can I imagine that if I had "gone private" I would have had better care? The answer in this one instance is an emphatic "No". The facility at St George's is modern, comfortable and confidence-building. The timespan from the abnormal test to the colonoscopy was two weeks! The staff at all levels were skilled, kind and helpful. I was never someone on a conveyor belt but at all times I was treated like an individual. Of course one should avoid extrapolating from one good (or bad) experience and drawing general conclusions. But for me this was a most reassuring and brilliantly handled event. Thanks are due to all at the St George's Endoscopy Unit. Thank you all. 

(And now for something completely different - how will the residual Fentanyl  and Midazolam in my system react to a small glass of Guinness? I'll let you know!)

Excellent analysis of Ed Miliband by Peter Oborne - essential reading




 
In the Daily Telegraph this morning there is a wonderful article by Peter
Oborne on Ed Miliband which does him enormous credit. There is no doubt that the Conservatives principal election weapon will be personalised attacks on Miliband rather than his policies. What policy critique there will be will be at the facile "RedEd" level. Having met him and listened to him live I agree 100% with Oborne's analysis. He is far too intelligent a political thinker to believe that 2015 Britain requires 1945 solutions. 

The Welfare State is not dead in the water but aspects of it are increasingly unaffordable. So radical solutions are necessary - to cope with ever increasing longevity especially. And the balance between public and private sector needs urgent review. We need new models for gas, electricity, rail transport (etc.) which deliver better value and better consumer service. Not old-fashioned nationalised industries - but for these key sectors the current private sector profit driven basis (often with subsidy!) doesn't work - we do need far higher public accountability. Ed I think knows all this.



Can he create a modern Labour manifesto that is neither Blairite nor Brownite but brave and genuinely "One Nation". I'm sure he can. Can he then communicate the key messages coherently not to the Westminster Village or fellow policy wonks but to we the people? That's his real challenge. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Cameron - it's the Judgment thing.



What Labour should do is use Coulson as the symbol of a deeper malaise, but not over concentrate on the Coulson story itself. The fact that Brooks was cleared reduces the danger for Cameron. It raises an element of doubt about the whole prosecution which apologists for Coulson/Brooks can exploit - News International has this in hand. 

Cameron is loyal to his friends. This is a good Upper Middle Class virtue, sometimes, but it also leads to cronyism. That IS a charge that can be levelled at the Prime Minister. He has made a string of dismal appointments in and out of Government and in many cases loyalty made him stick by failing Ministers. Cameron has always struck me as a decent man (albeit one with a nasty streak) but lacking in any wider experience in the real world outside his personal comfort zone. His closest advisors are mostly from the privileged Public School and Oxbridge educated elite from which he himself comes. Then occasionally he decides he needs a bit of "rough" - hence Coulson and Hilton and Crosby. He is a hopeless judge of character except by the standards of his own class. And those standards include believing a person if they tell you something. Coulson lied. Cameron believed him. It is the judgment thing.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Time for the Conservatives finally to put Margaret Thatcher behind them

The absence of giants in our current politics meant that some venerate Margaret Thatcher in a sort of misty memory of "greatness". This tendency has, of course, been given a turbo boost by her still recent death  and by Charles Moore's very good first volume of biography. The short version for those who didn't particularly like her but "admire" her is that desperate times demanded desperate measures. The problem with this is that in fact the times weren't desparate at all. 

James Calaghan's government in 1978 was actually pretty competent. Callaghan was a well-liked and able PM who regularly wiped the floor with Thatcher in the Commons and elsewhere. Denis Healey was a fine Chancellor, and most of the other Ministers were capable. Tony Benn, for example, was an excellent Secretary of State for Energy in those difficult Energy times. The Achilles heel was Union power and the failure of "In Place of Strife"  still clouded Labour's credibility as a potentially reforming force in this area. But with the "young Turks" - Owen, Williams, Rogers and with the brilliant Healey a Labour victory in 1979 would certainly have kicked off a new emphasis on Union reform. Well we all know what happened in the Winter of Discontent - the biggest tragedy for the Left and for Britain in peacetime Britain in the 20th Century.

Margaret Thatcher ridiculed the whole idea of "consensus". This is the delusion of a dictator not a modern politician. In complex modern societies you have to bring the people with you. Thatcher never did that. Her election victory in  1983 gave her a minority of the votes against the challenge of the soft (SDP/Libs) and harder (Labour) Left. Thatcher won because the Left was divided and in the still bright glow of the Falklands. The Myth was well under way to being created. Then, empowered by a wholly unjust majority in the House of Commons she elected to confront the Unions without any real grounding in public support. There was no precedent in a British society for the military-style attack on the NUM. It was contradictory to British Values and driven by an obsessional refusal to even consider consensus. (That same obsession had led to the Falklands War - that last irrational, preposterous Imperial adventure). 

Of course the hubris of Thatcher was eventually to be her downfall. Not, sadly, at the hands of the electorate but in the "Fall of Caesar" drama of 1990 when her colleagues in the Conservative Cabinet acted as a collective Brutus to stab her in the back (and the front as well). They were acting patriotically to remove from office a woman who was clearly at the time unfit for power. 

The post hoc deification of Margaret Thatcher is, as I said, a reflection of the feeling on part of many Conservatives that there are no giants of her stature around. She had charisma and a certain perverse style. She had energy and a commitment to hard work and she was a patriot. But she was the exception that proves the rule that politics is the "Art of the Possible". Conservatives should long ago have put Thatcher and Thatcherism behind them. And should they fail to do that and adopt neo-Thatcherite policies and even choose a Thatcher clone as leader (is there one?) the only result will be unelectability. Is that what they want? 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"British Values" - if you can define them you're a better man than me Gunga Din !

I have been struggling to find a good dictionary definition of "Values".  This, from a Business Dictionary, is probably the best I've seen:

"Important and lasting beliefs or ideals shared by the members of a culture about what is good or bad and desirable or undesirable. Values have major influence on a person's behavior and attitude and serve as broad guidelines in all situations."

There is a strong element of culture and community about "values" when defined in this way. It is a collective not an individualistic concept. As individuals we all, to a greater or lesser extent, have values. However the premise of "shared values" suggests that these personal values are part of and subordinate to the values derived from our culture. But there is never a precise overlap. We may have personal values which our culture does not share. Our culture may have values which we personally reject. So when we consider the idea of "British Values" we may mean British norms (what most people believe) but this cannot be prescriptive - other than in some Orwellian nightmare where we are told what to believe!

"You're so British" a foreigner, often an American, might say to you or me. They mean - often quite admiringly - that we exhibit traits in our behaviour that they see as being characteristically British. A warning bell should be sounding when this happens. Behaviour has layers and the actions or words on the outside layer - "good manners" for example - may disguise all sorts of hidden malignancies! We are not known as "perfidious Albion" for nothing and whilst I would not charge that hypocrisy is a British Value, caveat emptor should apply - especially to first meetings.

Most British people believe that having a constitutional Monarchy is desirable - that is a shared belief. Those of us who disagree with this could be judged as being UnBritish, and to an extent we are. This does not make us wrong though - at least from our subjective standpoint. We might say that believing in "Equality of Opportunity" is a British Value. Well how does that square with the extreme privilege of the Royal Family. Not very well. We might also say that Democracy is desirable and as such we have another British Value - the right to choose and dismiss our leaders. And yet we have an appointed not elected second chamber in our Parliament - hypocrisy in spades?

In the definition above there is a description of values being shared by "members of a culture". Clearly whether we find this useful or not depends on what we see as a "culture". Whether a large Nation like Britain has ever been a homogenous culture is doubtful and that it isn't today is self-evident. The cultural mores of the many different, and often large, "ethnic" communities in Britain differ from one another and from the majority white Anglo-Saxon culture. There may be shared values and there is an obligation on us all to obey the Law - but the variations of beliefs and behaviour are wide. Some second, third and fourth generation members of what are often (though inaccurately) described as "Immigrant" communities may choose to shed some or all of their families cultural heritage and become more conventionally "British". But that is their choice and there is no compulsion on them to do so nor necessarily anything commendable in their choice.

Which brings us to David Cameron. Here is what he said recently about "British Values":

"We need to be far more muscular in promoting British Values and the institutions that uphold them. A genuinely liberal country believes in certain values, actively promotes them and says to its citizens: this is what defines us as a society."
 
Does Cameron here mean "Majority Values" and are the Monarchy and Parliament among the institutions he wants to "uphold"? Does he want those from a different cultural heritage to be more like him and abandon their family culture? It sounds very much as if he does. And does he want people like me to abandon my opposition to the Monarchy and not to argue that our Democracy needs urgent reform to be silent? Must I uphold institutions I deplore just because the majority isn't bovvered about them ? 

If we define "British Values" in an all-embracing way that tolerates wide cultural and belief system variations then the definition becomes so nebulous as to be neither distinctive nor useful. For example even belief in the "Rule of Law" , which all of us irrespective of background might be expected to share, is problematic. Especially for those who believe that "God's Law" is always ascendant over Laws made by man. But this is not a problem unique to Britain and it is not a specific objection to British Laws that the extremists who want (for example) Sharia - or their version of it - to prevail have. The same would apply to any State where the "Rule of Law" is NOT Sharia.

Cameron says that British Values are our  “...belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law” . You see what I mean by nebulous? "Freedom" is a motherhood catch-all that means precisely what any of us wants it to mean. "Tolerance" is much the same and highly subjective. There is nothing particularly British about "accepting personal and social responsibility" either and how we define what it means is very dependent on our core cultural mores. I'll give just one example of this. In Chinese cultures there is an inherent acceptance that one generation has an obligation to look after it's parents' generation. Care for the Elderly is not avoided or left to the State. It is a part of an individual's "personal and social responsibility". Many of us would argue that this example is far from the only one where British Values, if that is what they are, lag well behind best practice.

So I conclude that the search for "British Values" is largely a waste of time. That there are behavioural norms which make a Society better to live in, and that these include obeying the law and being tolerant of others, is undoubtedly true. Helping others, especially when they are in trouble, and being considerate are admirable values as well. Being free to choose our leaders and putting constraints on what we can say and do in public, and to some extent in private, are necessary requirements in any civilised society. But these are not uniquely British Values and in some areas we are far from the best around ! 


 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The NeoCons haven't gone away - but events have shown how lethally wrong they were.


There is only one good thing to have come out of the misbegotten adventures of Afghanistan and Iraq - the defeat of the Neocons. That hundreds of thousands of innocent people had to die to achieve that outcome is beyond scandalous - but those strident voices whilst not silent are thankfully back in the margins again. 

The idea that the West, and especially America and Britain, has a moral duty of care to the abused and disadvantaged living under dictatorship is a decent one of course. Indeed the United Nations was established on this very premise. But to extend that duty beyond diplomacy and aid and institute military action as the Neocons wanted? That, at least, is now off the table - or should be.

To invade Afghanistan to track down the perpetrators of 9/11 on the face of it had a strong whiff of legitimacy to it. Such a heinous crime should surely not go unpunished. But to do it so incompetently - the men in the caves were never going to be defeated by a conventional  Army and Air Force - that's another matter. And then to pursue not Bin Laden, but regime  change - the overthrow of the Taliban - what conceivable justification was there for this? It not only turned out badly - the Taliban are just waiting for the right moment to retake the country when allied forces depart - it led to the shedding of all too many young lives.

The Iraq War had little support outside the White House and Blair's Number 10. Not from the UN. Not from Europe. Not from most of the American or British public either. But the NeoCons were supportive of course, hardly surprisingly as it was their idea! Regime change was the goal and the Mission was accomplished when Saddam was swinging from the end of a rope and his statues had been destroyed. Except that it wasn't of course. The Neocons and their NeoCon President and British accomplice had the military power to change the regime - but neither the wit nor the resources to establish anything stable in its place. "Après moi, le déluge" - and how. 

That Iraq was riddled with deadly Sunni / Shiite rivalries was hardly a secret but the NeoCons either didn't understand that or didn't think it mattered! Iraq would have changed in time and the West could have helped achieve this by supporting those Iraqi democrats who wanted to achieve that in a non religiously motivated way. Saddam's regime , whilst predominantly Sunni in a Shia country, was broadly secular and in that respect it was surely a model of a modern Islamic State. But no matter the NeoCons wanted Saddam's blood and the Shia's who wanted him out agreed. Why did Saudi Arabia not support the overthrow of Saddam? They, like Saddam, are Sunni Moslems. 

The NeoCons are not gone - they are well financed and have powerful backers especially in the Republican Party. And they pop up from time to time with their "Something must be done" hand-wringing. They wanted more action in Libya, in Syria and even Iran. And some are now calling for strong intervention by the West in Iraq again. When will they ever learn? 

Well the flowers have gone. As have the soldiers - gone to graveyards, everyone. Let's not send any more.





Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The last gasp rearguard action against plain cigarette packaging is as mendacious as ever from the Tobacco Giants.


As a Formula one fan and also because I worked in a Brand Management for Shell and was at times quite close to the company's sponsorship of McLaren and later Ferrari I know a bit about tobacco marketing. F1, of course, was almost the last of the global sponsorship opportunities that the likes of BAT, Imperial  Tobacco and Philip Morris had. They hung in there to the bitter end and used every trick in the book to keep their noxious brands on F1 cars for millions of television viewers to see. Even Tony Blair fell for the soft sell ( and the money) of Bernie Eccelestone who was essentially the tobacco industry's mouthpiece for years ( in his own interests of course). Tobacco money is big money - very big money indeed. There is no lobbyist too expensive, no campaign too costly that Big Tobacco can't afford it. Every restriction on cigarette brand promotion has been fought tooth and nail and the advertising profession has been compliant in trying to stop or delay controls. But gradually advertising of tobacco products has ceased in most countries as has the sponsorship of sporting and other events. 

The latest well funded rearguard action by the tobacco industry in the UK is to campaign against the  proposal that cigarettes will have to be sold in plain packs in future. The companies unite together under the umbrella of "Forest"  (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking) and they are currently targeting the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in their campaign:



Those of us who followed the fight of the Tobacco giants to keep in F1 know how they work. They fought off restrictions for years skilfully and with lavish use of all the financial clout they enjoyed. In the end they were beaten but F1 cars stayed mobile fag packets for years after such displays were banned everywhere else.

So why are the companies so in favour of branded cigarrete packets and why are they fighting this last battle so hard? The reason is simply that they know (1) The pack design is a key component of their brand promotion. The Marlboro' pack, for example, is an iconic brand symbol. 



(2) Brands add value - massive value. The profit comes from the brand promise which is symbolised by the pack. If the promise, in the case of Marlboro, is distinctive you make more money - much more.

 

In one recent survey, the top brands in America were shown to be Apple, Marlboro, and McDonalds and Malboro generally features in the top five or so brands in most countries where it is marketed - despite promotion of its brand being prohibited by law. It is also generally the number one tobacco brand.


Philip Morris, owners of Marlboro, know that for their brand to continue to prosper it has to be visible at the point of consumption. The Marlboro brand offers benefits to its choosers which meet those consumers' needs. Those needs are partly physical - the need to satisfy a craving for nicotine. But that could be done by any generic or unbranded cigarette. The main needs that Marlboro satisfies are emotional - above all the need for status. You take your pack of Marlboro out of your bag or pocket. You display it. You tap it. The cigarette comes out and you light it and smoke it. You are seen to be doing this - you are a Marlboro smoker. You have status.

The tobacco companies argue that strong branding only encourages brand switching - you are persuaded to switch from Camel (say) to Marlboro because you are persuaded about the practical and above all emotional benefits that will accrue from doing so. There is no increase in the size of the market from the branding activity, they say, and so it is just harmless competition between brands for existing smokers. This is nonsense.

All marketing has two objectives. To persuade people to try a product and to persuade people to buy your brand of that product rather than someone else's. This is especially so of premium brands like Marlboro. A young person seeking a variety of satisfactions might not think that cigarettes are one of them but is then exposed to the world of brands conferring status on him or her. He sees the Marlboro smoker and the uber-cool Marlboro pack and maybe he's tempted in a way that he almost certainly wouldn't be by a plain pack. There is ample evidence around the world over history of how young people begin smoking because they see it "cool" to be associated with (say) Marlboro. 

So "Forest" and their paymasters know exactly what they are doing. Yes packs may encourage brand switching. But they also, and crucially, help the growth of the market among the young people that the tobacco companies need to recruit to replace their older smokers who are dying off.

I attended the recent ConHome conference - a Conservative party gathering (mostly!) and there were one or two organisations who had paid to have stalls and displays there. One of them was Forest and they also advertise prominently on the ConHome website. There has always been right-of-centre political support for the Tobacco industry - often backed up by "Freedom of Choice" type arguments so it is perhaps no surprise that the mostly excellent ConHom website rather contaminates its brand by associating with the tobacco industry. Never underestimate the power of Big Tobacco. They would not be so strongly fighting the plain packs legislation iof they did not see it as a threat to their brands and to their business!