Thursday, September 18, 2014

Yes, let's have an English Parliament alongside a UK one if the Scots vote "No"

There is no need for the English Parliament to be anywhere other than in our nation's capital and in Westminster. Here's how it would work. The House of Commons (the chamber) would house both the UK and the English Parliaments. The UK Parliament would legislate on UK matters - i.e Foreign policy and those other matters NOT delegated to the English, Scottish, Welsh and NI legislatures. Obviously we need to work out what is and what isn't devolved but if we apply the principle of "subsidiarity" we won't go far wrong. The English Parliament would act in exactly the same way as Holyrood, etc.

The UK Parliament would comprise members elected on an identical basis across the UK. Equal sized constituencies. 

The English Parliament would comprise English MPs only (obviously). No Scots (etc.) would vote on English matters (anymore than English MPs would vote in Holyrood). There would be no restriction on English candidates standing for election to both the UK and the English Parliaments if they want to. Similiarly an MSP could also be an MP in the UK Parliament.

Oh and the House of Lords ? Tow it onto the Thames Estuary and sink it. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

The troublesome Scots and Catalans have much in common!

A little over ten years ago we sold our house in Scotland to buy a house in Catalonia. This may sound like a frying-pan into the fire decision, in the light of the separation movements in both Spain and the UK! But in effect our affection for Scotland and for Spain's most troublesome region is not a coincidence. Both Catalonia and Scotland are beautiful - and both are distinctive from, though wedded to, their bigger partners. Their peoples are at the same time both alike the rest of their Nation State, and very different from it.

To visit Catalonia is different from, in particular, the Andalusian part of Spain. The language is different for a start. Catalan is not a dialect of Castilian Spanish, it is an entirely different language. Franco tried to suppress it, because he saw it as a threat, but you can't kill a language any more than you can a culture. Both survived the dread years of Franco's dictatorship though the legacy of those years remains. For the Catalan Barcelona is far more a capital city than Madrid. To some extent this is also true of Edinburgh though I feel that the Scots get the best of both worlds. They have a country capital in Auld Reekie - surely one of Europe's loveliest cities. In addition they have the world's greatest city, London, as the capital of the State of which they are also part. I know Catalans who hate Madrid with a vengeance. I have never met a Scot who hates London, though (of course) many are not too keen on Westminster!

At the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games opening ceremony there was a glorious celebration of things Catalan. Remember it was less than twenty years since Franco and there was an understandable wish to celebrate the extent of the recovery from those grim years. Catalans are businessmen above all else and Catalonia had in many ways led Spain's recovery. Spain's membership of the European Union from 1986 was crucial to this recovery and to this day you see more EU flags in Catalonia than you do Spanish ones. But the Catalan flag is now everywhere - for forty years under Franco it was banned.

Pride unites Catalonia and Scotland. Arguably the Catalans have the more distinct culture driven primarily by the language. But the comparison is still a valid one right down to the fact that both are autonomous regions of their mother State with a high degree of self-governance. The nationalist forces in both are strident and peaceful - the Catalans have never taken to arms against Madrid, unlike their Basque neighbours. And nor, of course, have the Scots unlike their fellow Celts across the Irish Sea.

The cases for Scotland to remain British and for Catalonia to stay Spanish are similar and strong. With devolution the Scots and the Catalans get the best of both worlds - autonomy on the one hand and a strong influence over the Governance of a major European state on the other. Both Scotland and Catalonia could function independently, and both Britain and Spain would suffer if they respectively did. Unlike the Scots the Catalans don't have the choice - though if a Scotland votes "Yes" the pressure in Spain to give Catalonia the same option would be immense.

Spain is struggling in confidence and economically in serious trouble. In such times nationalist movements flourish. The Scots "Blame Westminster" and the Catalans "Blame Madrid" are two sides of the same coin. Those of us who argue that these are times for cooperation at national and supranational level and not times to split apart sometimes struggle to fight the simplicities and the gut appeal of the nationalists. The Scots have never been forced to be English (the very idea!) but the Catalans were forced to be Spanish when they didn't want to. The resentment remains. There is no equivalent in Iberia to "Great Britain" - no concept similar to "Britishness". This creates a stridency and a polarisation absent from the debate in Scotland. Even most pro-independence Scots, including Alex Salmond, are not anti-English. They just want to be free of the United Kingdom. Not really the same thing as those Catalans who are virulently anti-Spanish.

Secession is comparatively rare and the idea that two of Europe's great nations could lose part of their historic state is alarming. I know Scotland and Catalonia well and see both as legitimately different and distinctive from the rest of the nations of which they are part. But I believe that they and those nations benefit hugely from being an active part of a greater whole. I hope that the Scots set a mature example to their Catalan fellow-travellers. We would all benefit from a bit of national unity in these difficult times.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The United States as defender of Freedom, my response to Tim Montgomerie

The above exchange with the distinguished Conservative commentator is self-explanatory. I have picked up the challenge and this is my response. The link in Tim’s original tweet was to a report in the New York Times about the announcement by President Obama that the US would be launching air strikes against the Islamic State. This announcement Tim turned into a statement that had three elements in it:

(1)   Freedom is in danger

(2)   Only one nation [The United States] counts

(3)   Great Britain” (sic) is the United States “best ally”

In response to my challenge Tim added a question (1) and an assertion (2). These are:

(1)   Who else [other than the US] will “lead the fight” against ISIS, Al Qaida and the Taliban

(2)   The US led the fight against communism

There is a surprising amount of meat here and it has been food for thought. Let’s start with the ideology. Tim Mongomerie used to describe himself as a “NeoCon” – I’m not sure that he still does but I doubt that he’s moved much away from his NeoCon predilections – indeed the evidence is that he clearly has not.

The Neoconservatives gave us the Afghanistan and the Iraq wars. On the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11 its worth remembering what the original motive for the ground War in Afghanistan was. It was to track down and punish Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida. Because these terrorists were sheltered by the Taliban the war became a war against them. As they were in charge in Afghanistan it became, in effect, a war against the Afghans. The original mission was lost and it took a decade to find and take out Bin Laden (in Pakistan!). Meanwhile the more the Americans and British (and a few others) got sucked into Afghanistan the more deadly the adventure became. And now, thirteen years on, we have the certainty that within a year or so the Taliban will be back in charge – full circle has been reached. The Afghan war went badly but the Iraq war was much, much worse.

In Afghanistan the pursuit of the 9/11 terrorists had widespread support. The extension to a war against the Taliban rather less so. But one thing led to another… In Iraq there was no pretext for war. Iraq was not a threat to the West, was harbouring no terrorists bent on attacking it and had destroyed what “Weapons of Mass Destruction” it once had – as United Nations investigations showed clearly. That Iraq was led by an evil dictator who used vile means to keep his disparate nation together was true. But that last sentence could be applied to many countries around the world in varying degrees. North Korea, Zimbabwe, Burma, Iran… and so on. The NeoCon ideology says that the West, especially the United States, has a duty to confront these dictators. Whether they actually threaten western “Freedoms” (or “Freedom’s” in Tim Montgomerie’s use of the singular) or not.

The first problem we must have with this assertion is “Who decides”? In Afghanistan in the light of 9/11 the answer was the United Nations – not the body itself but the collective that made up the Security Council. There was support for the plan to hunt down Bin Laden. For the attack on Iraq there was no such endorsement. Indeed the US and Britain received very patchy diplomatic and Military assistance indeed. Not one major European nation, for example, supported the war. And the idea that western freedoms were challenged by Saddam Hussein was absurd – there was no such threat. That “only one nation” and its “best ally” launched the attack on Iraq is true, but the idea that our freedom was under threat was not.

Back in the 1960s the “Domino Theory” held that nations would fall to “communism” like dominos in a row. Tim Mongomerie asserts that the “US led [the fight] against communism.” Militarily this was true, and it was a disaster. From the tragedy of Vietnam and Cambodia to the smaller failures in South America and elsewhere the US militarily did nothing but harm. The dominos didn’t topple over so the motivation was wrong anyway. And Vietnam showed beyond doubt that huge military power won’t defeat a guerrilla army. Roll forward to Afghanistan and the Taliban and it’s just the same. Might isn’t Right, and it rarely wins however much initial shock and awe there is.

The defeat of communism, in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, came not from military intervention (thank God!) but from economic change. Yes the US was part of this process, but so was Western Europe and much of the rest of the Free World. Yes the Cold War was won in part because the USSR could not keep up with the West’s military spending. But it was also won because young people looked across the Wall and into the West from the communist bloc and wanted change. Democratic change and above all economic change. When in 1989 Chinese students tried to do the same the West, including the US was utterly impotent. Then the Chinese decided that they liked the benefits of controlled capitalism and the US and the rest agreed. And forgot that “Freedom”, if it means anything, means more than investment and economic progress. China remains a Communist autocracy, but it makes a lot of iPhones so that’s alright.

So that’s my answer to Tim. The military fights against both real and imaginary threats led by the United States have been unmitigated disasters. We need more of these like we need a hole in the head. Airstrikes against ISIS will have some effect as for a while they did against the Vietcong and the Taliban. But guerrilla armies regroup and even when attacked with ground troops, as with the Taliban, they are almost impossible to defeat. NeoCon ideology led assaults, as against Saddam, can achieve short term goals but without coherent long term plans they will fail. And when OUR actual freedoms are not really under attack - and when the fight is “only” for the abstract concept of “Freedom” you will struggle to take people with you, even if you resort to “Dodgy Dossier” type lies. And we won’t accept any body bags this time around.

Memories of Ardrossan Refinery whose closure, along with thousands of other community-based employers, was to lead to Alex Salmond - and Nigel Farage

Ardrossan was different. It once, improbably, had an Oil Refinery. It wasn't a very large Refinery, and it was a specialist one (it produced Bitumen) . But it was the heart of the town and gave it its purpose for a time. Tankers delivered Crude Oil and lorries and trains took away its refined products. It was a busy place and it was a major employer, and it generated spin-off activities, especially small services providers. But the harshness of the economic climate in the 1980s put its future in doubt and it was soon to close, in 1986. 

Ardrossan is different from Brighton, it once had a reason to exist beyond the faux gentility of its seaside location. That created a sense of community. For 60 years Ardrossan, it's Refinery and many other commercial and industrial enterprises made it a place of significance. But when the accountants arrived, at a time when the workers' representatives were losing their power after the defeat of the miners, then it began to fade away fast. Because the neo-liberal imperative of Thatcher and her gang didn't place community very high on the agenda. Society, you'll remember, didn't exist - only families. So those once vibrant mini-societies that were Ardrossan, Ravenscraig steel works, car plants, shipbuilding and the rest in Scotland were swept away. It wasn't that it was done that lost the Consevatives their strength in Scotland (from 21 seats in 1983 to one today) it was how it was done. The enemy culture, the offensive idea that working class people were the enemy within.

So don't cry for me about Ardrossan, or Clacton or any more of the places that once were. Don't weep for me about mining towns destroyed, but with nothing planned to replace them. Don't bemoan the rise of Nationalism and other extremisms. Because the causes of all this, of political alienation, of a failure to value communities were the seeds planted in the 1980s - the decade where disposing of assets, businesses, industries, public housing - and people - became the order of the day. And Adrossan Refinery and the thousands of purpose-giving employers like it were cast thoughtlessly aside by a Government relentlessly pursuing efficiencies and carelessly destroying things that mattered. Alex Salmond is a child of those 1980s in Scotland. As, elsewhere, was Nigel Farage. Those who vote for them haven't forgotten. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Queen has a duty to hold her Realm together - we must encourage her to perform it.

I am a republican and I want the United Kingdom to have a President. But that is an argument for another day - Elizabeth Windsor is our de jure Head of State and even I would admit that she has, for more than sixty years, done a good job. A key part of this has been her acceptance that, as a constitutional monarch, she must keep out of Party politics. But she has never had to face a situation as serious as the implications of a "Yes" vote in the Scottish referendum. Let's be clear about this. The country of which HMQ is Head of State is in mortal danger of breaking up. The country of which she is Queen may disappear. Elizabeth II was not crowned the Queen of England or Scotland, she took oath of office as Queen of the United Kingdom. The clue is in the name. The UK is one "Kingdom" - it is either united, or it fails to exist.

The Head of State of any Country has to be more than a ceremonial figurehead. And at the top of that leader's list of duties and responsibilities must surely be to protect the integrity of the State from threats, external or internal. This is not "politics" - it's survival. The very concept of Britishness will go because, without Scotland, Great Britain will not exist. And with it would go centuries of history and centuries of pride. The soldiers leading the fight against the Kaiser and Hitler weren't English, the were British. The pioneers who painted much of the planet pink weren't English, they were British. The athletes who performed so magnificently at London 2012 weren't English, they were British. The world's greatest broadcaster is not the "English Broadcasting Corporation"... And so on. Britishness matters.

The Union Flag symbolises the unique construct that is Great Britain. The cross of St George is not superimposed over the cross of St Andrew - it has equal weight with it. But it will go. And Wales will surely join Scotland as independent within a few years of a Scottish breakaway.  And then Northern Ireland will inevitably join the South in a United Ireland. So the Union Flag will appear only in the history books and only St George will fly on our English public buildings.

The gloomy post a "Yes" vote prospects are something that must trouble our Head of State both emotionally and practically. That she should at the end of her reign, and through no fault of hers, face the destruction of her realm is a scandal. We all know how she must feel - we must encourage her to share her feelings. As Head of State, because she has a duty to do so. And as a person because if even the hardest nosed republicans like me admire her it is proof that she is special. I hope she speaks her mind as and as perhaps her last major act of service helps hold our nation together.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The end of Britain is around the corner - is that really what the Scots want?

Scotland is not "redefining what it means to be British" , as one commentator put it, she is deciding for us whether any of us can be British in future. To be British means to be a citizen of the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". If we are no longer "United" we are no longer "British". 

With respect to them let's forget the Northern Irish for a moment. The creation of this province was necessary, at the time, to appease the Ulster Protestants. But in modern times we have seen much progress towards the recreation of a united Ireland. The hard-nosed Ulsterman won't like it but once the Catholics have a majority in the Province a referendum will surely be held and it will lead to one Ireland.

So what of "Great Britain"? Well with Scotland gone that just leaves England and Wales. My guess is that by steps Wales will become sovereign. The Assembly will morph into a Parliament and the principality will become an independent State. Why not? It's a perfectly achievable ambition and if Scotland goes Wales will as well.

So the UK will break up and I will lose my British Passport and get an English one. Britain will no longer exist, except as a bit of history. It will be the final nail in the coffin of the British empire. The Union Flag will be consigned to the museum. The British Parliament and The British Army will go. Indeed any use of the word "British" will have to change. It defies belief but it's all true. 😩

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Some of the "people of England" are as mad as hell, and they're not going to take it any more

What do the following have in common?

Supporters of UKIP
British Asians, born and bred in England, supporting India or Pakistan in cricket
British jihadists 
The half or more of Scots wanting independence
The anti-Capitalist "Occupy" movement
The Wikileaks organisers 

... and many more. The answer is that the establishment alienates them and they want to challenge it. 

One of the positions of UKIP is that "LibLabCon" has failed us. The political establishment is, in this analysis, too much the same. Too much accepting of the liberal imperative, of multiculturalism, of the European project and too remote from Chesterton's "people of England who haven't spoken yet". UKIP speaks for these people, or believes it does.

The born and bred here young British Asians who wave Indian or Pakistani flags at cricket matches are not in the main showing their allegiances for these countries. Many of these fans will never have even visited the countries from which their families once emigrated. What they are demonstrating is that they relate more to the cricketers from India or Pakistan than they do to the overwhelmingly white, middle class team from England and its exclusively establishment coaches and officials. If you're an Indian heritage boy from Bradford you relate more to MS Dhoni than to Alastair Cook. And if you are a Hindu or a Muslim you are not going to sing "Jerusalem", a Christian hymn, to support an England team you find it hard to relate to, despite your British passport.

The terrifying phenomenum of  young British Asian citizens becoming terrorists or jihadists is a malignant variant of the alienated cricket fan. Here the alienation is driven by religion. An extreme version of Islam, we are told, but Islam nevertheless. Britain is a pluralist, modern largely secular society with freedoms which the Muslim fanatic wishes to suppress. Our nation's symbols are Christian symbols and our lifestyle with its encouragement of provocative female dress, the consumption of alcohol and other hedonisms offends against Islam - or so these fanatics believe. Only the application of Sharia, or the creation of a Caliphate can establish Allah's laws. 

The growing strength of the "Yes" campaign in Scotland is also  a response to feelings of alienation from the establishment. This is also, in part, a rejection of "LibLabCon" but with the overlay of Westminster. The perception is that the Scots could do a better job of governing themselves than the current London political elite. It is not mainly anti English but more anti the English-based establishment. If you are a young struggling young person from a deprived part of Glasgow you have more in common with Alex Salmond than you have with David Cameron, or Alastair Darling.

It is natural to look for those who cause our troubles and attack them. The "establishments" are remote, uncaring, and self-interested and they are that cause  - or so goes one response to alienation. Some activists perceive capitalism as the guilty party and that has led to the existence of the anti-Capitalist movements like "Occupy". The rich capitalist has always been a target and in an era of hugely over-rewarded bankers, industrialists and the rest it is hardly surprising that capitalism is blamed. Employees, in the private sector at least, work longer hours for poorer wages, inadequate pensions and with nobody to stand up for them now that Union power has largely disappeared. 

The establishments protect themselves in a self-interested way covering up failures and withholding the truth - or so say those behind "Wikileaks" and others who dig for facts and publish them say. A common factor in many scandals - Hillsborough, Rotherham, Northern Rock, child abuse, dodgy dossiers and the rest is cover-up. The establishment alienates itself from the rest of us by distorting the truth or burying it. So to reveal these truths, which we have a right to know, we have to find a way of digging them out - and if that way is illegal then so be it. The ends justifies the means.

At its most benign alienation from the establishments can lead to a decision not to participate - a feeling that nothing will make a difference so why bother. This is why turnouts in elections fall. "They are all the same - why should I vote?". But it can also lead, as we have seen, to activism and protest, sometimes extreme. There is a famous scene in the movie "Network" when the Peter Finch character cries from an open window "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" That is the cry of the alienated, the dispossessed, the ignored - the forgotten people. They are the "people of England" (and Scotland!) and some of them are flexing their muscles and speaking out.

It should not be only those who are a real and present danger to our lives and our security who should be listened to. If our democratic processes (the first past the post voting system which effectively disenfranchises many, for example) and our societal norms (of privilege and secrecy especially) are failing many then we should change them so that they no longer do.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

A Nation ill at ease with itself

In a couple of weeks time the British residents of Scotland, not all of them Scottish, will have the opportunity to do what Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler failed to do - destroy the United Kingdom. Much of the rather poor debate on Scottish independence has ignored the fact that a "Yes" vote will lead to this outcome. Without Scotland Great Britain will cease to exist. And without Great Britain (the Union of England, Wales and Scotland) the very concept of Britishness goes as well.

My parents generation were born in a country - the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland - which was shortly to be abolished. Am I to have been born in one which will disappear as well? To lose one constituent part of the United Kingdom may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. 

Whilst the wild men of North Britain are taking the the high road to walk away from the rest of us we, Chesterton's "people of England" haven't found our voice. At least not on the break up of our nation. In the same way, but more seriously, that we sanguinely accept that we could leave the European Union we are watching the Scots reject us and we shrug our shoulders. Some on both Right and Left seem rather to welcome a Scottish breakaway. The Right because England would have a permanent Conservative majority in Westminster. And the Left because they envy the Scots opportunity to have permanent governance from the Left, and hope they get it.

If, madly, we (whoever "we" are by then) choose to leave the EU it would be a serious setback, but not fatal. If we later came to our senses we could always apply to rejoin. But Scottish independence would be irreversible - as would the consequential break up of Britain. And if it happens then future historians might link it to other political and social trends across the country at this time. The anarchist writer Alan Moore said about modern Britain “It's cold and it's mean spirited and I don't like it here anymore.” I know what he means.

Just two years after the triumph of "London 2012" - a very British triumph - we are ill at ease with ourselves - indeed we are uncertain who we are. The Olympic opening ceremony celebrated Britain's modernity and diversity. Now we want, or some of us do, to turn the clock back and retreat into the perceived security of a comfortable White, Anglo-Saxon Anglicanism. That is the UKIP message and it strikes a chord with many. "Multiculturalism has failed" they say, and it's the cause of all our woes. Well that message is indeed "cold and mean spirited" - and it is profoundly wrong as well. UKIP and their fellow travellers on the Tory Right and in the BNP  and the EDP use opposition to immigration as code for their hatred of the fact that we are a racially and religiously and culturally diverse society. 

To want to be surrounded exclusively by people like you are yourself is a very human trait, shared by many. It is mostly harmless. But when it leads to the creation on the one hand of "Gated communities" for the rich and on the other ethnically restrictive ghettos for the poor it is potentially dangerous. The debate about "British Values" is a coded debate about the positive value of a White, Anglo-Saxon, Christian, English-speaking culture and, conversely, the demonisation of cultures in which one or more of these things is not present. Similarly the virulent anti-European rhetoric of UKIP and the Tory Right is full of words like "Sovereignty" - as if we somehow have the choice of pulling up our drawbridges and retreating to be the little self-governing island nation we once were. (Actually you have to go back a very long way to find such an England. For centuries we have been the archetypical global adventurer as a people).

The Scottish independence debate and the EU debate are alike in that they both have at their core the question of partnership, on the one hand (the status quo) or of going it alone on the other. The racists of the Right and those who share their objections to diversity but talk more in code are the same. There is, however, one crucial difference. The Scots could choose independence and it would happen. We could choose to leave the European Union - likewise. But multicultural Britain is here to stay. Restrictions on immigration would have only a minor dent on that fact. As far as I am award even UKIP is not proposing ethnic cleansing and forced repatriation. 

Churchill famously said "Jaw Jaw is always preferable to War War". The sense of unease I have about modern Britain is that whilst there is plenty of Jaw Jaw it is ineffective and strident. Everything is polarised into "Yes/No" and you have to nail your colours to the mast. If you are not with me you are against me. Society is divided more than I can ever remember in my lifetime. And these divisions are manifest in the upcoming referendum in Scotland and the one proposed on Europe. Changes in public service, in education and healthcare particularly, are described as ideological by their opponents when many would say that they are, whether ideologically driven or not, only really fine tuning on the margins.

We are not at ease with ourselves and we are as a consequence always ready to blame others for our "misfortunes". The Government (of course). Previous Governments. Immigrants. Europeans. Shirkers. Muslims. Toffs. People who are too politically correct. Racists. The Rich. Welfare cheats. Tax dodgers. The old. The young. And so on ad infinitum....

It's very sad.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bring back the adjective in Sports commentary please!

The use of proper nouns as adjectives is now almost de rigueur in certain contexts.When I was at Primary school I recall an early exercise in my English class where we had to say what the adjective was for various Proper nouns - including country names. So  for "Spain" we had to say "Spanish", for "Wales" it was "Welsh" and for " Germany " "German" - and so on. There were no rules, the adjective endings were arbitrary and we had to learn them.

Today, especially but not exclusively, in sports commentary you often hear the noun itself used as a pseudo-adjective. So a footballer is described not as a "Spanish" goalkeeper but as the "Spain" goalkeeper. My use of different articles here shows why this happens. The indefinite article use - "A Spanish footballer" - refers to the players nationality. The use "The Spain goalkeeper" has the definite article and the take out is that the player is not just Spanish, that is implied, but that he is in goal for the Spanish national team. Very clear.

"Spain" is not an adjective however and to use it as one is grammatically incorrect. In the specific case I have quoted it is as I say clear, but wrong. Often, though, the noun is used as an adjective when there is no conceivable reason to do so. Let’s say you are watching a cricket match between England and Australia and you wish to refer to the latter’s wicket-keeper. The correct usage is “Australian” (the adjective). That is clear and unambiguous. It refers to his nationality and to the team he is playing for. So why would you call him the “Australia” wicket-keeper? This is all too frequent I’m afraid.

In the “Spanish footballer” example there is some ambiguity. I would always prefer to resolve this by using the longer, but grammatical, "Spanish international goalkeeper" to the shorter but ungrammatical "Spain goalkeeper" but suspect I'm in a small minority on this one!

Most, but not all, nouns have related adjectives.The adjective to “Wood” is “Wooden”, to “Grass” its “Grassy” to “Wool” its “Woollen”and so on. But "Cotton" is a noun without a related adjective so  if your shirt is made of cotton it is a "cotton shirt" - we use the noun and it effectively becomes an adjective in this use. When it comes to proper Nouns there is sometimes a related adjective (most countries have one) but not always. Manchester has one (Mancunian) but London does not. So while we can say something like “Mancunian weather”  there is no similar adjective for the capital city so we have to use a more lengthy construct.

In short this is a plea, which will almost certainly fall on deaf ears, to use adjectives rather than pseudo-adjectives (nouns as adjectives) wherever possible. And where there isn't one to find a grammatical way around the problem!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Cameron playing narrow Party politics in his changing position on Europe

Once again Cameron is following, not leading. And he is doing so for the worst possible reason - to try and save his own skin. It won't work. The UKIP position will be "Don't trust him" - with some justice. And I doubt that one ex Tory voter now in the UKIP camp will be persuaded by this opportunism. 

The irony and indeed infamy of a Prime Minister putting Britain's best interests at stake to try and save his job is frankly sordid. Across the countries of the EU, and in the Commission, there is acceptance of the need for change. They will not accept, however, that the best way to achieve change is through bilateral negotiations. With the UK, or any other member. 

The FCO and every other adviser that Cameron has has told him that you don't change the European Union with threats. The Prime Minster has long since conceded the moral high ground on Europe to Labour. Let's hope that the electorate next year give Miliband a mandate to negotiate not in Britain's narrow interest (that won't work) but in the interest of Europe as a whole. That Statesmanlike position may lose him a few votes to UKIP. But Britain's image, tarnished by Cameron's vacillation and failure, will have a chance to recover.  

Friday, August 22, 2014

Pakistan Independence Day - and confused identity. Some concerns.

On the face of it the parade for "Pakistan Independence Day" in Manchester was, as the Bishop of Manchester David Walker said, a celebration of "Pakistani heritage". And there were some token Union Flags on display as well - though the overwhelmingly present symbols were the flag and colours of the Republic of Pakistan. Those at the event were presumably mostly British Asians of Pakistani descent who had, or whose parents/grandparents had, left Pakistan to seek a better life in Britain. The event was publicised by the office of the Pakistani High Commission:

As someone who welcomes and often defends multicultural Britain I could be expected also to welcome, as the Bishop has, this event. Surely it can only help bring harmony between the Pakistani community and the rest of us? Well I'm not sure about that. I do not wish to undermine the motives or integrity of those involved but I find it discomforting. The Partition of colonial India in 1947 was not Britain's finest hour leading not just to much bloodshed at the time but to the creation of a dysfunctional State. Pakistan has never been a stable democracy - the original crazy idea of a West Pakistan and, a thousand miles away, an East Pakistan lasted until 1971 when after more bloodshed, Bangladesh was created. Over the years since Pakistan has struggled for any kind of stability with assassinations, factionalism, discrimination rife. It is an "Islamic Republic", and that means what it says. There is institutionalised discrimination against those of other faiths, and none. Many Pakistani Christians, for example, have fled the country to seek safety in Britain and elsewhere. I wonder how the Bishop feels about that?

Pakistan is also a home of Islamic extremism and the border in the North West between the country and Afghanistan is porous - the Taliban moves freely across it. And Pakistan deliberately or inadvertently (who knows?) gave sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden. In the fight against Islamic extremism and terrorism Pakistan is more a part of the problem than part of the solution. 

To celebrate our various heritages as citizens of Britain is a perfectly decent thing to do. Where we came from is part of what we are. If we must talk about "British Values" then they surely include the celebration of diversity and of the fact that we are no longer a homogenous and monocultural citizenry. But nostalgically acknowledging where we come from is different from overtly celebrating the independence of a State from which we (or our recent ancestors) escaped for good reason. The Pakistan flag, waved at the parade in Manchester, can be seen as a provocative symbol of a country which, not to put too fine a point on it, is a threat to the West. And the more that flag is waved by British citizens and passport holders the more confused their identity will be.

The three British born 7/7 terrorists were of Pakistani descent and were trained in terrorism in Pakistan. That is the extreme variant of confused identity - as may be the killer of James Folely. Britons like these who perpetrate evil because they hold allegiance to an alien extremist doctrine  are at the darkest end of identity confusion. But if you are British your main allegiance has to be to the United Kingdom, indeed you cannot credibly hold allegiance to any other State. Perhaps the organisers of the "Pakistan Independence Day" parade would say that it was 1947 they were celebrating and that the flag of Pakistan was no more than a symbol of that celebration. I'm not so sure.

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.