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.

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.