Sunday, January 29, 2006

Letter from London 29th January 2006

As published in the "Bahrain Tribune"

The way that we greet one another in various languages and cultures says something about our priorities. “As-Salaam-Alaikum”, for example, is courteous as well as pragmatic. If somebody begins a conversation by wishing me peace that is both charming, and disarming - and it would be churlish of me to respond with anything other than wishing my greeter peace in return. The Chinese are also solicitous in their salute which roughly translates as “Have you eaten rice today?” This reflects the Chinese love of food and (perhaps) the fact that famines over the years have meant that all too many Chinese may not have eaten every day. In Britain we invariably mumble some remark about the weather (when, that is, we cannot avoid looking away in embarrassment). “Turned out nice again” or “Dull old day” are classic greetings as is the Scottish “It’s a bit dreich today”. “Dreich” is a word which conveys a feeling of dullness, dampness and gloom – so the Scots (who can be a trifle dour at times) like it very much. It is also a very handy expression in Scotland as it applies there for around 300 days a year - so you don’t really have to make much of a meteorological judgment most of the time!

Quite why we British are so obsessed by the weather I’ve never understood – most of the time it is fairly unremarkable and there are rarely extremes in any of the seasons. Mind you when it is a few degrees above or below the norm the tabloids will explode with hyperbolic headlines like “The Big Freeze goes on” (translates as “It’s cold”) or “Sweltering London” (“It’s hot”). Margaret Thatcher at the time of the Hong Kong negotiations with China called Britain a “cold and cloudy island” and wondered why the Hong Kong Chinese would want to trade “sunny Hong Kong” to come and live here. In fact this last outpost of the empire had a pretty terrible climate (hot and very humid for much of the year). By comparison, for many of us, the British weather is actually a plus not a minus.

Having lived in some extreme climates in my time I am actually pretty happy with what we have in Britain. In Scotland, it is true, you do need to have a phlegmatic personality to cope - but you will be rewarded if you are patient. On a sunny day in the Highlands there is no more beautiful sight on earth than to climb high and look across the Lochs and Glens. A little further south there are similar sensations to be had in the Lake District which so inspired Wordsworth and other English poets. But remember that Wordsworth also wrote of London that “Earth has not anything to show more fair…” than the view from Westminster bridge. The last few days have been cold but sparklingly clear and in the thin air the sun reflects magically from the surface of the freezing Thames. And spring isn’t too far around the corner and our wonderful seasonal cycle will begin again. Have a nice day!

Monday, January 16, 2006

Letter from London 16th January 2006

As published in the "Bahrain Tribune"

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and most likely next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, recently suggested that we should create a "British Day" on which we celebrate our nation. Whereas most other countries have their "Fourth of July" or their "Bastille Day" the British do not - hence Brown's suggestion. On the face of it is a reasonable idea that we should have a "National Day" - after all we are past masters of nationalistic fervour and celebration when we feel like it. So a day on which we our encouraged let our hair down to fly the Union flag might be fun. The problem, however, is that none of us seem terribly sure what it in reality means to be British, which might cause a degree of uncertainty about what it is we are actually celebrating. This confusion about our identity has led to a plethora of recent initiatives that seek to define "Britishness", and to popular television programmes such as "Great Britons" which tried to identify who our most notable countrymen have been.

I am unsure as to whether all this ballyhoo about Britishness is a consequence of a national inferiority complex, or the opposite. Are we being asked again to indulge in that game once mocked by Ogden Nash when he said, "Englishmen know instinctively that what the world needs most is whatever is best for Great Britain"? Nash was writing at a time when Britain was most distinguished from other nations by its Empire. True a little local difficulty in North America in 1776 had meant that we had long since lost one of the Jewels in the Crown, but much of the rest of the world was still coloured pink. And we still felt confident to sing "Wider still and wider, shall thy bounds be spread" to Elgar's great tune in "Land of Hope and Glory".

It is at least arguable that the reason that we have no National Day is that in our DNA is that character trait that, with varying degree of subtlety implies "The English, the English the English are best", and goes on "I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest". (Flanders and Swann). Why do we need a Day every year to simply state the obvious? This vanity can be mercilessly mocked as Noel Coward did when he said "It seems a shame when the English claim the earth, that they give rise to such hilarity and mirth" and we might feel that it has long since been consigned to history. But, to be serious for a moment, I am not sure that this is true. In the years since we lost an empire we have too often been reluctant to give up the conceit not just that as a Nation we are different (a truism that applies to all countries) but that we are "unique" and by implication better. Tony Blair has claimed a "unique" (his word) role for Britain because we are able to be both Atlanticist and European at the same time. The danger, of course, is that we end up neither comfortable with Bush's America (much of which is alien to many of us) nor with a more bureaucratised and united Europe. And so we bumble on professing our uniqueness and occasionally waving our flags but, it seeking to be friends with all, we are actually friends with none.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Letter from London 1st January 2006

As published in the "Bahrain Tribune"

The arrival of David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party has injected a well needed bit of excitement into the dull and predictable world of modern British politics. Whatever your political views the status quo was beginning to get a bit boring. The Labour hegemony was secure with even their loss of seats in the 2005 General Election attributable solely to a switch from Labour to the Liberal Democrats. In a few cases this switch let in the Conservative candidate and the party did make some modest gains in the election. But in reality these were undeserved and it was Charles Kennedy’s LibDems that the Tories had to thank for their modest progress.

Since the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 the Conservatives have had a succession of inept leaders none of whom has captured the public imagination other than as a satirical figure of fun. The party has lost members, votes, seats and any vestige of credibility as a government in waiting. Whatever Tony Blair did (and he did some pretty odd things) Labour seemed secure in office. That has now changed, and whilst the Conservatives still have a mountain to climb, at least they have a leader, who has broken the mould of the succession of faceless, and hopeless, men who preceded him.

Much of Cameron’s current rhetoric is insubstantial and clearly designed to set a tone rather than an agenda. This is shrewd of him - he is well aware that there will not be a General Election in Britain until the year 2009 (at the earliest) and that there will be plenty of time in the years ahead for manifesto building. For now he needs name recognition (the media is helping him willingly to get this) and to establish himself as substantial in the public imagination. It is precisely the route followed by Tony Blair between July 1994 (when he became Labour Party leader) and May 1997 (when he won his first General Election). Cameron and his fellow members of the “Notting Hill” set of Tories are closet admirers of Blair and it is no surprise that they are adopting Blair’s successful methods.

As with Blair and the Labour Party, Cameron does not need to pander to his Party’s core grass roots supporters. In the same way that Blair would never get the vote of Tunbridge Wells man so Cameron will never make progress in the Labour heartlands. So what he needs to do is to win the backing of those who are not natural Conservatives, who have supported Labour and the Lib Dems in recent elections but who are open-minded to the possibility of a Conservative government. By pitching himself as “caring and concerned” he might persuade these floating voters to give him a chance, something his predecessors were quite unable to do. Michael Howard fought a shoddy campaign in last year’s election pandering distastefully to the prejudices of his core supporters (who no doubt loved him for it) whilst putting everybody else off! Cameron’s rush away from the lunatic fringe of Torydom to the very centre of British politics is the opposite of his predecessor’s approach and is wise and pragmatic - but whether it will succeed or not it is, of course, much too early to say.