Tuesday, 31 July 2012

How the NHS showed up my Olympic fickleness

It seems I have to confess to a certain fickleness. Or perhaps even double standards. Not hypocrisy, though, nothing that strong.

For weeks I’ve had barely a good word to say for the Olympics. I loathed the hype. I loathed the celebration of corporate values. I loathed the way the rest of us trying to use London were being pushed around.

So my position was clear. Perhaps I’d watch a bit of the occasional event, if it seemed interesting, but otherwise I was going to maintain my position of superior detachment.

And then came the opening ceremony. Obviously I wasn’t going to watch that. It would be far beneath me. 

‘Shall we watch the opening ceremony?’ said Danielle.

‘Why, yes, of course,’ I heard myself answering. With no connection between cynical brain and emotional mouth.

And from then on the emotion just grew. That section in the middle? The NHS bit? I had a lump in my throat. Nurses and patients taking part. Some of them had spent 150 hours in rehearsals. And it was a tribute to the NHS itself and the icon for it all was Great Ormond Street Hospital, Britain’s premier hospital for children. 

The NHS at the Olympics
How could I possibly avoid the emotion? Because we love our NHS over here. We love the idea that whoever we are, whatever our status, however much money we have or how little, if we get sick the NHS is there. Sure, other systems can deliver healthcare that’s even more effective, even more technological, even more expensive. But we know, with all its defects, we can count on the NHS to look after us.

No wonder Conservative MP Aidan Burley denounced it on Twitter as ‘leftie multicultural crap’, only to be denounced himself, by his own party leader David Cameron, as ‘idiotic’. Which is amusing considering that few of us would view the top of the party as much more intellectually gifted than the bottom.

Burley’s denunciation is completely characteristic, though as always amazing. The Right likes to think of itself as the repository of Christian values, but what could possibly better express the values of the Good Samaritan than an organisation that helps people when they need it without any question as to their means?

By then, of course, I was completely hooked. I watched rest long after Danielle had gone to bed. Since then I’ve seen a lot more of the games themselves than I intended.

My only excuse is that this is typically English behaviour. We like to strike an air of disdain, but the reality is that we’re as sentimental as the best of them – or perhaps the worst of them – and the detachment is really only a defence.

But it does look like terrible inconsistency. Not hypocrisy. But perhaps a little fickleness.

‘Well, I insist on a blog post. Come clean. Admit it to the world,’ said Danielle the next day.

So this is it. My confession. Have I atoned sufficiently?

Sunday, 29 July 2012

On Twitter as everywhere else: try to see the lighter side...

What a relief that Paul Chambers’ conviction for sending a ‘menacing electronic communication’ on twitter has been overturned.

If the first casualty of war (or terrorist threat) is the truth, then the second is the sense of humour. Chambers wanted to visit his girlfriend, but when he turned up at Robin Hood airport (hard to believe that
’s a real place and not a joke itself) he found it shut. He sent out a tweet saying that he’d blow the place up if it didn’t reopen, and the next thing he knew he was a convicted criminal. 

Though not any more, I’m glad to say. 

Nearly thirty years ago, one of my sons, then 12, became so frustrated at how he’d played, or more precisely failed to play, a point in a squash game that he hammered his racket against the floor.

‘If you’ve broken that, I’ll break you,’ I growled. Menacingly. 

One glance at his expression told me had. But I didn’t. Instead I collapsed in laughter, astonished that he’d had the strength to break a racket that easily. We found another and finished our game. 

But what if someone like the people who convicted Chambers had been listening? Can you imagine the interviews with social workers, with psychiatrists, with the police? It would have been a clear case of child abuse. Or at the very least menace of child abuse. 

Chambers’ tweet may not have been particularly funny, but surely it was of the same order as my outburst. A cry of exasperation, above all not to be taken seriously. 

It’s part of the difficulty of learning to cope with the internet. We are still in the pioneering stage of the technology. Christianity, for instance, has been around the best part of 2000 years (though it sometimes feels a lot longer) and even it took three centuries to become truly established, as a state religion.

I often think about that. The day Constantine turned all those bishops and priests into representatives of the Roman Empire and gave them a nice state apparatus to play with. At last they had the tools to serve an all-loving God properly. They could send real soldiers round to the houses of people who called themselves Christian but thought, say, that God the father might be greater than Christ the son, and they could burn them on real bonfires. It must have felt like a coming of age.

Incidentally, my behaviour on the squash court shows I’d have been on a bonfire: I evidently think the father is superior to the son. 

The internet by contrast has only had fifty years. No wonder it's still feeling its way. And Twitter’s even more recent.

Still feeling it's way, still feeling my way

Twitter is where people who’ve never met can converse in messages 140 characters long. It’s fun, because writing anything moderately meaningful and grammatical in 140 characters is one heck of a challenge.

As you exchange messages you get to know some people better. But it’s still limited. After all, a real physical meeting might start something like this:

‘It’s a real pleasure to to get to know you, I’ve heard such a lot about you already.’

‘Oh, most of it’s true. I really am just the kind of person my detractors say I am.’

‘Yes, I can see that. Someone who thinks self-deprecation will diminish the impact of character flaws.’

Now even that has consumed enough for two tweets, and there’s another 58 minutes left of the interview (I didn’t get the job, by the way).

What this means is that while you can begin to know and like some people on Twitter, the reality is that with most, your acquaintance will be slight to non-existent.

A few days ago I made a casual reference to the parties who compose the present British government as the ‘ConDems’. It’s a term used with glee but no affection by detractors, built by conflating the names of the coalition partners, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats or 
Lib Dems

The way it sounds gives it good strong negative connotations, so it works well as a term of abuse. To me that makes it a good play on words, and since I like words far more than I like these politicians, I enjoy using it.

Imagine my shock, then, when a Twitter follower told me that using the word ConDem is an ‘immediate unfollow offence’. The implication seemed to be that the brutality with which he was divorcing me would deliver a salutary shock, teaching me to mend my ways. And yet I barely know the guy from Adam, except that I vaguely remember that his name might actually be Adam.

Out of courtesy I explained my position but that only seemed to goad him to further paroxysms of righteous irritation, so I wished him well and returned his favour of unfollowing me by unfollowing him.

It feels to me that something is still missing from Twitter and its devotees (among whom I count myself). A form of etiquette? A set of conventions or protocols? Or is it perhaps simply an ability to lighten up a little?

A lesson to be learned by 
Paul Chambers’ prosecutors in their reaction to Twitter. But also, I would suggest, by some of the users of Twitter themselves.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

That's it for my Olympics

Well, that’s it. My last day in London, barring accidents, for the period of the Olympics. Two blessed weeks of working from home while Olympians and Olympics fans struggle through the traffic without me.

The whole thing doesn’t officially kick off until tomorrow but I had a couple of good Olympic experiences today. 

The torch came along Oxford Street this afternoon, two or three minutes walk from the office, so although I’d studiously avoided being sucked in by all the hype before, I tramped down with my colleagues to spend fifteen minutes standing around in the sun (yes, we’re getting some these days, after months of rain) for a glimpse of the flame going past. It was being borne aloft on the top deck of a bus (a bus! I'd expected a runner at least) and the historical moment lasted seconds and seconds.

See the torch? At the front of the bus?
And this is what we were waiting for?

The best moment of the experience came when a woman joined the crowd and asked, ‘have I missed it? Has the torch already gone past?’

‘Yes,’ I felt like answering, ‘I’m just hanging around here because I like standing in the sun in the middle of Oxford Street, and the rest of the crowd feels exactly the same.’

A while later, heading home, my eye was caught by a street sign. As you no doubt know, a number of London streets now have designated ‘Games Lanes’ running along them. Some people have re-christened them ‘ZiL Lanes’ in honour of the great Soviet tradition of keeping large chunks of roads for the exclusive use of members of the leadership in their ZiL limousines.

Granting permission or issuing an order?

What amazed me about the sign is that it seemed to be inverting the whole process.

Were they really saying that all traffic had to use the Games Lane instead of keeping out of it? In which case, what were they planning to do with the rest of the road?

Fortunately, that’s not something I have to give much thought to, as I start my break away from the madding crowds and the frenzy of the capital.

Happy Olympics, everyone. I intend to enjoy them to the full.

By keeping well out of the way.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Digestive travel

Amusing phone conversation I overheard today. A young man was explaining to a friend that, to travel to Paris for the weekend, she first had to ‘get the train to St Pancreas’.

No place to take a train

Now it’s certainly true that there are aspects of St Pancras station that occasionally make me bilious, but I’d have thought a weekend in Paris might have more effect on the liver than the pancreas. Who knows, though? I suppose it depends on exactly what they choose to eat. And drink.

As it happens, the idea of sneaking off to Paris for the weekend evoked many pleasant memories for me. Before Danielle and I decided that we really couldn’t afford the phone or travel costs and moved into together, and long before we decided that we ought to legitimise by marriage the bump that would eventually turn into a Michael, we used to meet there regularly. It was about as inconvenient for her, travelling from Eastern France, as for me, travelling from London.

Have to say it wasn’t my pancreas that took the worst beating during those weekends.

But I hadn’t finished with the young man’s travel recommendations. ‘You then have to catch the Euro Tunnel.’

Now that’s the kind of idea I enjoy, because it sets me musing.

Who’d be throwing the tunnel, exactly?

Could it become an Olympic event? ‘Nah, I gave up on the discus and javelin. I throw the tunnel now.’

And what strength do you need to catch a tunnel? After all, it’s basically a long hole, which is presumably weightless. On the other hand, it doesn’t offer much purchase, much to hold on to. Intriguing problem.

Curious the kind of people you can find to raise challenging philosophical conundrums.

Or should that be conundra?

Monday, 23 July 2012

Donne punning

I've always loved the Tom Lehrer line, ‘its a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years’. 

It was just as chastening for me to discover this morning that I’m the age John Donne was when he died. I’ve thought it through, and on balance he probably achieved more in his 59 years than I have in mine.

Not, of course, that I would in general compare myself to Donne. After all, I don’t have the slightest pretension to be thought of as a poet: whatever I write, and whatever it’s worth, it’s strictly prose not verse.

But in one respect I’m like him: I love the simple pun. My readers can attest that I take great pleasure in puns, perhaps rather more than they do. But Donne was a master where I’m a mere dabbler.

John Donne: master of the pun
Donne was a love poet and he lived his life with the intensity that informs his poems. A promising career in diplomacy beckoned when he fell in love with Anne More, niece of his then patron. Ann and John married with neither her uncle’s blessing nor, more seriously, her father’s.

Though Donne would recover his father-in-law’s goodwill eight years later, his unauthorised marriage killed his career hopes, prompting his punning remark, ‘John Donne, Ann Donne, Undone’.

He continued writing love poetry, including the magical To his mistress going to bed, with the glorious couplet:

License my roaming hands and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.

It’s interesting, and not a little attractive, that the ‘mistress’ of his title was his wife.

Following Ann’s death, unsurprisingly after childbirth – when it came to eroticism within marriage they set the bar high, and had twelve children in sixteen years – Donne focused increasingly on divine themes. He wrote often of his sense of sin, and of his hope of winning God’s mercy coupled with his fear of missing it.

You don’t have to be a Christian yourself to be moved by this writing, for instance in the three verses of A Hymn to God the Father. The middle verse goes:

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

It’s better to listen to the words than to read them, because then you can't tell whether they’re saying ‘when thou hast done’ or ‘when thou hast Donne’.

And is he saying ‘have more’ or ‘have More’? It was his overwhelming love for Ann More that opened his way to great love though, he would doubtless have argued, also distracted him from its divine form.

The last verse is:

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.

He appeals to God to give him the light of Christ, his son, who is also his shining sun. If God will do that, then he will have Donne, and the achievement of Donne's hope will banish fear. And is that not also a fear of More? Of the object of an earthly love which might have prevented him achieving the divine love he longed for?

Now that’s the way that I’d like to pun. Sadly, though, I'm not convinced that even another 59 years on Earth could teach me how.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Aurora massacre: no place for the hand of God

Overall, there’s only one possible judgment of the events in a Colorado cinema yesterday: the massacre of innocents was vile, incomprehensible, unconscionable.

Aurora: a community mourns
But the details reveal some even grimmer aspects.

First, there are the adjectives used to describe the attack. The most common seemed to be ‘senseless’ and ‘evil’. Now ‘senseless’ seems appropriate: an action that can bring no good of any kind can only be senseless. But what about evil? I distrust the word, since I think few people believe their acts are evil, but convince themselves they are serving some higher good which requires to break legal or moral codes.

Even so, we may decide that the ‘evil’ lies not in the man but in the act itself. But I think it’s not enough for an act to be destructive to make it evil, it has to be deliberate. A random violent act may be reprehensible, or even repulsive, but before we can call it evil surely we have to see a mind at work, carefully and rationally making it happen. So were the killings senseless or were they evil? It’s hard for them to be both.

As it happens, the evidence suggests that the attack was carefully planned and meticulously carried out. A mind was at work. This wasn’t mindless violence but thoroughly mindful violence. So perhaps ‘evil’ is not a bad word for what happened.

That, though, gives me my second problem with accounts of what happened.

Jennifer Seeger was one of the survivors of the shooting. The gunman came towards her, the gun pointing at her face. Then he fired, not on her, but on the person behind her. Later Seeger told her mother, ‘Mom, God saved me. God still loves me.’

Now that’s a chilling statement.

Perhaps we should just dismiss it as a spontaneous outburst by someone traumatised by an experience that I’ve never had and hope never to face. I’d like to be able to write off the statement in that way, because to take it at face value makes it shocking to the point of obscenity.

If she survived because God loved her, then the person behind died because God no longer loved him. Is that what she’s saying? The God makes that kind of choice? Save her, not him?

But even more shocking is the idea that the hand of God, of the Christian God, was at work in that cinema at all. If you believe the world is ruled by an all-loving God, a view I can understand though I don’t share it, then surely you cannot possibly believe that he can have ordained the arbitrary killing of twelve people and wounding of 59 others? After all, the choice of one victim over another owed nothing to love, and everything to a game of power and cruelty made possible only by the possession of lethal weapons.

To suggest that God was making any of those choices strikes me as a denial of anything that could be called Christian values. Which is shocking because I suspect Seeger thought she was affirming them.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Olympics fatigue

Travelling across London the other day, I found my mood distinctly curmudgeonly.

Now, isn’t that a good word? Not one we hear enough these days, I feel. I don’t know exactly what it means but I’m sure it summed up how I felt.

Everywhere I went, the Olympics had left their mark. Specially reserved road lanes for Olympic traffic. Signs showing me how to get to the stadium, whether I wanted to or not. And the worst thing of all: the voice of that ghastly windbag, Boris Johnson, mayor of London, telling me on the public address system that I needed to plan my journeys carefully during while the games were on.

London Olympics: a blessing for the city 
or a curse as bad as the naff logo?

London is a city of around eight million inhabitants. During the day, nearly a million and a half more, often including me, add to the multitude. Of those nine and a half million souls, I’m sure I
m far from alone in not giving a stuff whether the Olympics are taking place in London, Rome or Johannesburg. Same time zone within an hour or so, just as easy to watch on the box.

So why do we have to have our lives disrupted this way for two weeks? Why in particular do I have to hear that insufferable voice on the loudspeakers? The tube is bad enough without having to put up with Boris Johnson talking to me, making an unpleasant experience downright creepy.

It’s my city as well as everyone else’s, and I don’t know why a bunch of bureaucrats should be allowed to take it over and get in the way of my using it because they want to organise a sports gig.

I explained all this to my wife when I got home.

‘Oh, what’s your problem?’ said Danielle. ‘Lots of people love it. Let them enjoy themselves. It’s hardly going to cause you a major problem is it?’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked querulously (another of those good words).
 I was beginning to feel deflated. ‘They’re going to close down a lane on my bus route home.’

‘So what?’ She pointed out, always much more sensible than I am. ‘Your office is closing for the whole period.’

This is true. The company’s decided we should work from home for the whole period of the Olympics. No commuting. No 6:00 a.m. starts. No crawling back through the rush hour on the way home.

Hey. I could get used to that. I mean, why should it bother me if they take over our roads but I don’t have to use them? I’m beginning to feel we ought to have major sporting events a bit more often. Every few weeks, perhaps.

Danielle smiled at my obvious change of mood.

‘See?’ she said, ‘no need to be such a dog in the manger.’

Now I wonder whether that isn’t pretty much the same thing as a curmudgeon?

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

NHS: the lessons of US healthcare

What a sterile argument I got into the other day over the relative merits of UK and US healthcare.

The very premiss of the debate is different in the two countries. Partisans of US healthcare start from the principle that healthcare should be world beating: the best, using the latest technology and the most powerful drugs. 

That’s certainly not a claim the National Health Service can make. On the contrary, we still have old people dying of dehydration in British hospitals. And I find it particularly shocking that we seem appallingly slow at making diagnoses: I only have anecdotal evidence on the subject, but I’ve known people who’ve waited up to two years, one of whom moved to Australia where he was correctly diagnosed and began treatment within weeks of his arrival.

Those, like me, whose sympathies are with the NHS despite its faults, start from a completely different principle: it is the hallmark of a decent society that it provide adequate healthcare to all those who need it, when they need it. On that criterion US healthcare falls a long way short. 

In passing, it surprises me that so many on the right of US politics, quick to proclaim their attachment to Christian values, seem content with the situation. Clearly, they see no particular obligation on the Samaritan to cross over to this side of the road. 

Supporters of the US system counter-argue that in reality outstanding healthcare is always provided to those who really need it, insured or not, and free of charge if necessary. 

What this fails to say is that an uninsured patient with heart disease will receive no treatment until there is a crisis, say a heart attack. Then he will be superbly, and very expensively, treated in an emergency department. However, his care will focus entirely on recovery from the heart attack, and, because he is uninsured, nothing again will be done about the underlying condition. 

Eventually, this will happen once too often and he will die of a condition that could have been treated, at far lower expense, by a drug regime administered by a General Practitioner. Incidentally, it is ironic that US opponents frequently accuse the NHS of drawing up ‘death lists’ of people denied treatment: they should give some thought to this kind of avoidable death in their own system. 

Let’s just focus on the extra expense that this approach in the US entails. It’s a key question because many British supporters of the US model tend go straight from a eulogy of its wonders to an attack on the alleged inefficiency of the NHS and its consequent excessive costs. Many such people are in positions of authority and are helping to sustain the political pressure to reduce ‘bureaucracy’ in the NHS, i.e. to fire managers, even though with management costs at around 3% of expenditure, it is one of the least managed organisations anywhere. 

Recently, groups of hospitals have also been joining together to put pressure on nurses and physicians to take lower salaries. 

The Cost cutters seem to be in the driving seat. But, as the graph below tellingly makes clear, it’s odd that so many of them express such admiration of US healthcare. 

Telling comparison: percentage of GDP spent on healthcare

What does the graph show? In blue, the percentage of GDP the UK spent on healthcare in each of the eight years up to 2010. In red, the equivalent figures for the US.

The NHS closed the gap on the US slightly over the lifetime of the last British government, which substantially increased healthcare expenditure. So from just under half the US level we moved to just over half.

The conclusion? We can argue until the cows come home about which of the US or the UK has the better approach to healthcare, and we’ll never convince each other. But on expenditure, I’m afraid the case is open and shut. There’s no evidence that the US has significantly better outcomes than the NHS, but it costs nearly twice as much.

On the financial front at least, the NHS has nothing to learn from the US.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Abroad? It's not all bad

‘Abroad’ is an important concept to an Englishman, who generally sees it starting a lot closer to home than one might imagine.

For most people in the South East of England – which people who live there like to suggest is crowning glory of the nation, while others think of it as the bottom of the country – the wild lands start north of Watford, which is practically an outer suburb of London. By that measure, my home in Luton, is definitely foreign though it’s only forty miles from the capital; then again, the curry houses and Sari shops of Bury Park make it easy to believe we’re in another country, but I rather like that.

Once you get up to what we often simply call ‘the border’, the one between England and Scotland, then you really are reaching another country, culturally for now, but perhaps even technically in a couple of years when the Scots hold their referendum on independence.

One of my sons, my daughter-in-law and my granddaughter live in that uncouth land. Strictly speaking, the word ‘step’ should be in there, but ‘step-daughter-in-law’ just sounds stupid so daughter-in-law she will remain.

They came down to spend a night in the relative civilisation of Luton the other day, on their way to take a holiday in that even more foreign part, France. They’re spending a couple of weeks near Bordeaux, where the locals believe July should be sunny and warm, something we’ve rather lost sight of over here, where we spend our time digging out jumpers and looking for shelter from the latest downpour.

They got to their destination on Saturday, the 14th of July, which was excellent timing. It is of course the French national day, celebrating the fall of the Bastille prison to the ragged poor of Paris in 1789. As you’d expect, it’s now a holiday where all that is rich, together with all that is mighty including the army, decks itself out in its pomp and parades around for the simple populace to gawp at.

Happy birthday to my daughter-in-law
And, accessoirement, joyeux anniversaire to France. Of course
Curiously, it also happens to be my daughter-in-law’s birthday, so she had the wonderful experience of being in a country all of which was marking her day with parties and fireworks. She could watch what must have been the most spectacular celebration of her birthday she’d ever witnessed, sipping one of the world’s finest wines and enjoying a glorious summer evening.

Funnily enough, I too could have a whole nation celebrating my birthday, but I’d have to go to Australia. Still, Australia’s not really abroad. On the two occasions I’ve been there, I’ve taken great pleasure in informing the natives that Australia was just Britain with better weather.

Strangely, it wasn’t clear to me that they appreciated the extent of the compliment.

Even so. Britain with better weather? In January? And the wine’s not bad either.

I could perhaps be tempted.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Musical Memories

It’s hardly an original statement, but it’s extraordinary just how evocative a piece of music can be.

My father had an immensely irritating habit which I have completely inherited, of half whistling, half under his breath, some tune he couldn’t get out of his head. As a child I didn’t find this irritating: it struck me as just one of the things that adults – sorry, grown-ups – habitually did. And I still don’t find it irritating when I do it myself. But others! Why, it’s as tedious as those people in crowded carriages who insist on explaining by mobile how you change a car tyre or make a soufflé.

One of the tunes which seemed to haunt my father most was the main theme from the third movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. This is an extraordinary melody, swinging high and low, at just the right speed, neither hurried nor leisurely, like a wave heading for a shore.

It was my father who introduced me to Beethoven and for many years I regarded him as simply the very best composer there had ever been. Well, after all, what better authority is there than a father’s? But later of course the reaction set in. Why, there was Bach, there was Mozart. There was Schubert! Dashing off pieces so fast he often couldn’t always finish them. And finding his way straight to the heart.

But then today I put on the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

It really is an extraordinary piece. Dark. Then wistful. Gay. Sad. Lilting. Majestic. Whoever else I may have dallied with at times, Ludwig is special. And of course he brings back memories.

One of my father's possessions that I've inherited is the miniature copy of the Rubayiat of Omar Khayyam which he would carry in his flying tunic, on missions with the RAF during World War II. The final quatrain is the poet’s goodbye to the world:

And when thyself with shining foot shall pass
Among the guests star-scatter'd on the grass,
And in thy joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made one — turn down an empty Glass.

I’ll have to fill and empty a glass tonight. And turn it down. While, of course, half whistling the theme from the third movement of the Violin Concerto.

Still listening to your music.
And half whistling it, just like you

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Impressive move, Ed

When Ed Miliband became leader of the British Labour Party, I was far from alone in wondering whether he had the stature to play the role effectively. 

Since then he has grown, impressively, into the job. But at no point has he shown himself as smart an operator as in the way he has handled Tony Blair recently: he’s brought him in to provide policy advice to the Labour Party.

Blair (l) and Miliband: the picture tells the story
Warm cordiality and trust between an ex-Prime Minister and the next one

Did that send a chill up your spine? My initial reaction precisely.

The man who couldn’t get close enough to the bankers. The man who brought in a Freedom of Information Act but never stops saying how regrettable a mistake it was. The man who had his head stuck so firmly up George Bush’s anatomy that he dragged Britain behind the US into an illegal, bloody and unwinnable war.

But then I thought about it a bit.

Blair does have one supremely important quality: he’s a winner. Three general elections in a row. No previous Labour leader had pulled off that trick. And Labour really needs to get back into winning ways fast: it isn’t just a fortuitous coincidence of syllables that leads to the present Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition being called ‘ConDems’. A toxic brand.

If Blair’s magic dust can rub off on the present Labour Party, well, Amen say I.

But Blair has another invaluable quality. There are still large numbers of people in the Labour Party, the unreconstructed Blairites, who remain firmly wedded to his outlook. They’re a constant source of potential difficulty for Miliband, who certainly isn’t one of their number. It’s far from a dumb move to have Blair inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in. It might keep his mates in order too.

But the real ingenuity of Miliband’s gesture towards Blair lies in the field of policy he’s opened up to him.

A female colleague once told me that the difference between men and women was that men thought sport mattered. Now I enjoy sport but I’m prepared to concede to my colleague that it really isn’t quite as crucial as certain other matters. Like getting sucked into appalling atrocities in illegal wars. Or undermining your own baby steps towards more open government. Or giving a free hand to men who are wrecking the economy.

So has Miliband asked for Blair’s advice on foreign policy? on defence? on justice? on the economy?

No. He’s called on him to help mould Labour policy on sport.

Smart guy.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

London Transport of Delight

It was an apt title for a song, A Transport of Delight, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann’s salute to ‘that monarch of the road, observer of the highway code, that big six-wheeler, scarlet-painted, London Transport, diesel-engined, 97-horsepower omnibus.’

A true monarch, the London bus. I always like to head upstairs. And not just upstairs but, if the seats are available, right at the front so I can watch the streets go by, the crazy cyclists putting their lives on the line, the misguided drivers using a three-litre engine to travel at an average of eight miles an hour and, of course, the backs of the heads of the passengers in the bus in front: bus drivers in London have never lost their enthusiasm for closing the gap behind a stationary bus to something an underfed dachshund would find a squeeze, whenever they get the chance.

Upstairs, up front. It was my delight when I was nine and I see no reason why the passage of a mere half century should make any difference.

Homeward bound: my transport of delight, London's No 30
My true love is the number 30. In the morning, it’s a relief to see it turn up at my stop without making me wait twenty minutes. But at night, it’s the first stage of my trip home; big, red, airy, comfortable, it says ‘relax. It’s time to knock off. We’re working so you don’t have to. Let us take it from here.’ 

And it takes me through some of the most sought after bits of London. Even thoug it’s a mere bus. I love it when the overhead display says ‘Harley Street. Bus stopping.’ The street made famous for housing some of the most expensive and exclusive physicians in the world? That’s somewhere for a taxi at the least, if not a chauffeur-driven Jag. But the number 30 has the chutzpah to stop there.

A bus to Harley Street? Oh the delicious incongruity

Not that the display always gives good news. I’m less than enchanted by a recent habit the buses have developed. ‘The destination of this bus has changed’, the display may announce suddenly, for no obvious reason, ‘listen for announcements.’ Yeah, right. I know what that means. Another bus or a ten minute walk. A rip-off. When I climb into a bus and pay my fare, I enter into a contractual arrangement with the bus line, to take me anywhere I want, up to the place named on the front of the bus. Dropping me off short? That, as we say these days, is a trick worthy of a banker.

It can only happen because of electronic communications. Someone gets a message through to the driver. ‘That chap upstairs? The one sitting at the front and having a bit of a laugh at the jags caught in the traffic? Don’t take him to Selfridges. Drop him at Baker Street and make him walk. That’ll wipe the smile off his face.’

And I blame electronic communications for another of the disadvantages of buses. The maddening mobile phone conversation. But even more maddening than a conversation is the guy with a new phone who’s decided to choose himself a ring tone. That’s what I had this morning. It was enough to make me wish I’d walked from Baker Street where the 30 dumped me. All the way we were accompanied, at high volume, by fragments of pop music, alternating with odd chirrupings and rings, or electronically distorted extracts from well-known classical pieces.

Still, those are just the leavening of rough among the vast smooth of that wonderful institution, bus travel. Flanders and Swann, again, were clear:

If tickets cost a pound a piece Why should you make a fuss? It's worth it just to ride inside That 30-foot-long by 10-foot-wide Inside that monarch of the road, Observer of the Highway Code, That big six-wheeler, scarlet-painted, London Transport, diesel-engined, 97-horsepower, 97-horsepower omnibus.

Yep. The cheapest fare’s actually £1.35 these days, but hey, the point’s still well made.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

What we need today: the wisdom of Solomon

It’s enthralling to see the increasingly frequent and bad-tempered spats between George Osborne, British Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his opposite number and would-be successor Ed Balls, Finance spokesman for the Opposition Labour Party. 

Ed Balls isn’t much liked, and it’s not just down to his name. His opponents find him insufferable. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly and ‘fools’ in his book seems to embrace anyone who disagrees with him. In the long run, that suggests the non-fools probably come down to just one person.

He also has the unbearable defect of having been proved right. He said the present government’s policies would take Britain back into recession without doing much to reduce government debt. Since that’s exactly what’s happened, it’s not surprising Osborne is becoming increasingly shrill in his denunciations of Balls. It’s horrible to have someone saying ‘I told you so’ even if he doesn’t say it out loud. Particularly if it’s true. 

But Osborne has even bigger problems

This is a government that prides itself on its Christian credentials. So let’s open our Bibles and take a look at the opening chapters of the First Book of Kings. 

This is the story of Solomon, that paragon of wisdom down the ages. And what marked his reign? Why, a massive programme of public works. The temple, first of all. Seven years in the building. The palace too, which took almost twice as long, but, hey, he was funding the project, he needed something special.

King Solomon at the opening of the temple.
Iconic King and paragon of wealth, wisdom and Keynesian economics

It didn’t stop there either. There were other major construction jobs in Jerusalem and also in other cities, such as Hazor, Megiddo and Hezer, as 1 Kings 9 makes clear. And 1 Kings 8 tells us that for the opening of the temple, Solomon sacrificed 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep. In what was a small population by modern standards, the impact on demand and prices in the agricultural sector must have been substantial.

In other words, Solomon was a Keynesian three millennia before Keynes.

But this investment programme, and all the benefits it brought to the Israelite economy, had to be financed somehow. He had to turn to the banks.

In Solomon’s time that meant the Phoenicians, wily traders who'd enriched themselves by Mediterranean commerce. Like his father David, Solomon cultivated good relations with Hiram King of Tyre. Hiram provided the wood, the stone, the gold for all that splendid construction work. Israel must have been an attractive investment, particularly as Assyria to the North and Egypt to the South were having a bad time politically which negatively impacted their credit rating. Hiram saw a literally God-sent opportunity in Solomon and extended easy terms.

Not easy enough, though. Solomon hit difficulties. Hiram foreclosed and Solomon had to hand over some extensive real estate in Israel, evaluated by him as 20 ‘cities’ though, judging by Hiram’s reaction, they were probably little more than villages (I Kings 13). In the end, Solomon had to come up with 120 talents of gold as well.

In passing, it’s interesting that at the time ‘talent’ was a term in the financial sector. We don't see much of it these days.

But the real measure of Solomon’s failure was the price paid for it by his son, Rehoboam. When he came to the throne, the people appealed to him to reduce a burden of taxation they saw as intolerable. Against the advice of his leading counsellors, he replied (1 Kings 12) ‘And now whereas my father did lade you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke; my father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.’

A remorseless, unbending mindset. Like austerity heaped on austerity. Making the poor pay for the profligacy of the rich. It worked no better then than it’s working today. The rebellion that followed left Rehoboam with only a rump of his father’s kingdom to rule and ended his flamboyant ambitions.

What he’d needed was a moderate programme of reflationary investment in infrastructure coupled with careful control of public expenditure, reducing its level over a period of years without choking off the potential for growth. That’s the prescription favoured by Ed Balls.

And isn’t it obvious that the book of Kings is saying the same? Solomon did well to stimulate the economy but shouldn’t have let things get out of hand. When they turned sour, the disastrous reaction was to slam on the brakes far too brutally. That’s what Rehoboam did and what Osborne’s doing.

George Osborne, even the Bible’s against you. Having a go at Ed Balls might sound like a smart move, but what if he has God in his corner? Are you sure it's wise?

Friday, 6 July 2012

Tears before bedtime, when a big bang spoiled the party

Fascinating to get into a debate about the finer points of economic theory at any time, especially as my knowledge of the field is strictly limited: I try to make up in enthusiasm and conviction for what I lack in actual expertise. But then, arguing from strongly held belief without much knowledge puts me in august company, including most religious leaders down the ages.

What added spice to my most recent foray into the field was that it was conducted on Twitter. Debating the economic history of the last 80 years in 140-character bites is, frankly, challenging. Though no doubt my opponents would argue that my views don
t warrant much more.

Still, I’ve decided that I owe it to myself to take the slightly greater space a blog post affords to summarise my thinking more fully here. You, of course, by no means owe it to me to read on; however, if you do, I promise I’ll put in one or two funny bits before the end.

My potted history of the world economy over the last eighty years

There was a pretty ghastly depression in the 1930s. One of the worst ever.

A major step forward was taken when the US turfed the ghastly Republicans out. The incumbent was Herbert Hoover who gave his name to a dam. He was certainly a spectacular blockage to any kind of forward movement.

Alongside Roosevelt’s New Deal, a number of measures were put in place to ensure that no similar financial collapse would ever happen again. In particular, the Glass-Steagall Act included provisions to prevent the same organisation being involved in both investment banking and retail banking.

That makes sense since investment banking can lead to huge gains, but at the risk of massive losses. If only the money of wealthy individuals is involved, fine; if it’s the savings of millions of modest individuals, and the firms they rely on for a living, it’s not so smart.

Now fast forward to the 1980s. The ghastly Republicans led by Ronald Reagan are back in office in the US, supported with poodle-like loyalty by Maggie Thatcher in Britain.

They listen to bankers, outstandingly qualified to brief them on economics, notably by virtue of having bankrolled their electoral successes. The bankers want a bit less constraint. Reagan and Thatcher confer. There’s been no great financial crisis since the Glass-Steagall Act, so what is it protecting us from? We might as well do away with all that red tape.

As they sowed, so we are reaping. And weeping too.
At this point I’m reminded of a story told me by an intensive care physician. He was treating a man close to death from malaria. The patient went hunting each year Burkina Faso.

‘Don’t you take malaria tablets?’ my friend asked.

‘Well, I did for ten years, but I never got malaria so I thought I didn’t need them.’

Reagan repealed the relevant bits of Glass-Steagall. Thatcher brought in the ‘Big Bang’ in the city.

Released from their bonds, the bankers leaped exultantly into action. For twenty years they made fortunes and they paid themselves huge sums. What a great time they all had! As the guy I was arguing with on Twitter pointed out, ‘Big Bang was good for Britain.’ Measured by spiralling house prices, the number of Porsches on the streets and the amount of champagne consumed, that’s how it felt.

The nay sayers were, of course, saying ‘nay’. Even Alan Greenspan, then Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, warned against ‘irrational exuberance.’ But everything kept going well, year after year. And people don’t tend to think much further than a year or two. Few, apart from some of the better economists, realised that we needed to be reasoning in decades.

As it happens, two decades were all it took. The exuberance ended in 2008 when the present financial crisis blew up in our faces. The worst, surprise, surprise, since that of the 1930s. The smarter economists said it would end in tears, and here we were, crying.

How did I get into this argument? Because I criticised the present British government for trying to blame today’s banking scandals on the previous, Labour administration.

‘The recent scandals took place while Labour was in power,’ I was told. Which is true. But we mustn’t forget that it was Republicans and Tories who unleashed the bankers to wreak their worst on the whole of society.

The criticism that Labour deserves is that in office they did too little to re-establish effective regulation. It was hard, though. After ten or more years of huge apparent prosperity following the Big Bang, there was a powerful consensus that this was the way to build a stable, thriving economy. Labour wasn’t immune from that generalised belief.

Here’s an extract from a speech making clear how deeply ingrained that thinking was:

The Left advocated more intervention and government ownership. Those on the Right argued for monetary discipline and free enterprise.

Over the last 15 years governments across the world have put into practice the principles of free enterprise and monetary discipline.

The result?

A vast increase in global wealth.

The world economy more stable than for a generation.

The speaker ended by haughtily declaring ‘the debate is now settled’.

Who was the speaker? The then leader of the Conservative opposition, David Cameron. When did he make this speech? In September 2007. A year later, the crash burst on us.

And two and a half years later, God help us all, he became Prime Minister.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Oh, say can you see

Four score and seven years ago, and then another seven score and change, the founding fathers brought forth on that continent over there, a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

On this fourth of July when the Americans celebrate their independence of us, and we raise our glasses to our dependence on them, it’s not a bad idea to draw up a bit of a report card to check on progress made.

Founding principles: all men are created equal
Those men in ‘all men are created equal’ didn’t include women, who only got the vote seven score and some years later, in 1920. They certainly didn’t include blacks, practically all of whom were slaves, and who in any case only counted for three-fifths of a human: according to the Constitution, the population of the States were to be reckoned ‘excluding Indians not taxed, but including ‘three fifths of all other Persons’. 

So all men are created equal, unless they’re women or only equal to three fifths of other men.

Well, there’s no doubt that we’ve come a long way since those dark days.

Women and blacks can vote now. Sometimes the glass ceiling above women’s heads seems to be receding a bit. And of course a woman occupies the post of Secretary of State (and she might have been President, of course).

Outside its borders, the commitment of the United States to principles of equality and democracy has had huge impact. It seems extremely unlikely to me that nineteenth-century Europe would have moved away from its firmly, slavishly aristocratic ways without the beacon of the US to show that things could be different.

Why, that influence even dragged Britain into the early twentieth century, granting votes to some women, at least, marginally ahead of the US.

In fact, if we can just turf out the Etonians who are trying to run us like those self-same nineteenth-century aristocrats, men who know they are simply entitled to rule, we could even see Britain move slowly into twenty-first century. Perhaps after the next elections, in 2015.

US democracy has therefore had a beneficial effect in Europe. In Iraq? In Afghanistan? In Vietnam? Less clear. But, hey, there’s always work in progress.

Meanwhile, with young black men more likely to go to gaol than to university, that's an area where the US still has serious progress to make. Still, there’s hope even in that fraught field.

After all, the country has elected its first half-white President. And may even re-elect him later this year.

Even if that election cost a woman that post, it
’s quite impressive enough to warrant celebration.

So, to all our cousins over the sea: enjoy a great Independence Day.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Salute to an unassuming woman

From time to time I come across a politician that it pains me not to be able to support. They display qualities of decency, moderation and good sense that excite my admiration, but like a young man gone astray, they get in with the wrong sort of people, and there you go: I can’t bring myself to vote for them.

For perfectly good reasons, such as nationality, I can’t vote in German elections, but if I could, it would certainly be for the Social Democrats. Next spring, I would cheerfully cast my vote for them, especially if they were led by Hannelore Kraft, currently Prime Minister of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine Westphalia. She’s made it absolutely clearly that she has no intention of swapping Düsseldorf, her state capital, for Berlin in a run for the Chancellorship, which I suppose means that there’s a chance, if applied to with sufficient enthusiasm by friends and supporters, that she’ll emerge as a candidate yet.

Hannelore: will she, won't she? She'd get in if she did.
I’d vote for her and the polls suggest she’d get in. But I’d still feel more than a little sorry for the outgoing Chancellor, Angela Merkel. 

She first won her way into my admiration by being utterly without charisma, the most overrated quality in a politician. It makes people fall for the entirely superficial features of a demagogue, who then gets the opportunity to do the appalling damage without anyone noticing until it’s too late. Take Ronald Reagan, who had charisma by the bagful, but who used his office to force through the bonfire of banking regulation which has led to the agonising crisis we’re going through today.

Yet Merkel, despite her lack of charisma, has charm. My favourite image of her is the dowdy figure celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall by wandering into the crowd, shaking hands and sharing her joy with anybody who wanted to talk to her.

Angela mixing with the great and the humble.
Despite the weather
She also has a competence and a quiet confidence that I value far more in a leader than mere charisma. Generally, she has sailed a steady ship in her time as German Chancellor, and kept her country as the economic powerhouse of Europe in consequence.

Where she has shown less skill has been in her handling of the Eurozone crisis. Here she has suffered from the defects of her virtues: her steadiness and prudence transformed into wariness and obstinacy, so that when the situation required boldness and imagination, she chose over-cautious and blinkered devotion to retrenchment instead of investment.

In fact, she became a far more conservative figure than she had seemed in the past.

That led her to a major political error when she threw her weight behind Nicolas Sarkozy in his campaign to be re-elected President of France, and refused to meet his opponent, the eventual victor François Hollande. That compounded her error in economics, driving Greece, Spain and Italy deeper into recession by treating the policy of austerity as a rigid orthodoxy.

Since François Hollande’s election, however, she has begun to shift, principally under his prompting. Gradually she’s giving ground, she’s loosening the strings on the German purse, and giving the struggling economies of Southern Europe a better chance to emerge from their difficulties.

And that awakens my admiration for her again. Because she’s doing things that her successor would find extremely difficult.

With her hold on the Chancellorship is weakening, she must know she has only nine or ten months left to go. It looks as though she is going to use that time to implement policies she knows will be unpopular with the German people, who resent being expected to bankroll Europe. She’s taking hard decisions so the next government won’t have to.

If that’s what she’s doing, then it’s an act of extraordinary maturity in the exercise of power. Faced in Britain with a government rich in charisma but miserably lacking in either competence or compassion, I can’t help feeling Merkel’s qualities are infinitely preferable. And I think her legacy will be all the finer for them.