Saturday, 31 August 2013

The kindness of strangers

Friends are like our loved ones: we count on them and they make life worth living.

But a smile and a brief exchange of words with a stranger are the little dash that give our existence spice. Conversations on trains, on street corners, in shops can turn an aggravating moment into a delightful one. I look back with undiminished gratitude on the man who, when I knocked on his door and admitted I didn’t know where I lived, in the neighbourhood I’d just moved into, threw a raincoat over his pyjamas – he’d been ready for bed – and drove me home.

Strangers, I’m told, are just friends you haven’t yet made. Though, sadly, I’ve come across a few strangers who turned out to be vile excrescences it would have been a relief never to meet, in general I’ve found that sentiment true.

Blanche du Bois, according to Tennessee Williams,
always depended on the kindness of strangers
Not that it worked out that well for her
When I travel into my office, I tend to stop just before I get there to pick up a reasonably drinkable coffee from the local filling station (there’s nothing wrong with the office coffee, if you’re happy to drink something that could also be used to mortar bricks). The last time I did that, I went off to collect my drink, only to find the barista handing over a cup to the man behind me.

‘A large latte?’ he said as he held it out.

‘I haven’t actually ordered one yet,’ he replied, looking at me apologetically, concerned at being served ahead of me though he was behind me in the queue.

‘No, but I saw you coming across the forecourt,’ replied the barista and, turning to me, added by way of explanation, ‘he’s in most days.’

Clearly, I haven’t become familiar enough to the staff to have them prepare my order before I can place it. On the other hand, as I left the shop, the woman who frequently serves me did wish me a good day with a warm smile, so it seems I
ve at least reached the bottom rung of the ladder inhabited by the regulars.

That kind of cordial contact with people whose name you don’t even know is part of the necessary lubricant of everyday life.

It’s even better with people you don’t know at all. I worked from home yesterday and in the afternoon answered a knock from a man who was selling door to door.

‘I’m not going to spin you a story about working for a charity, because I’m not. But I am official,’ and he held out a police certified document to prove it.

He had lots of things, none of which I wanted to buy, and at prices that made me even less inclined to buy them.

‘Just take a look at how much the same things cost in a shop!’ he exclaimed at one point.

‘Trouble is, shop prices, even discounted shop prices, are a lot too much for something I don’t need.’

In the end, though, I got a little change out: I felt his openness and honesty meant he deserved something. But he didn’t want to take my charity.

‘Have some dusters,’ he said, thrusting them into my hand, even though the amount I’d given him was little over half the price. 

Funnily enough, that was the most successful piece of haggling I’d ever done, getting a discount of over 50%. Next time I must try it for an article I actually want.

So we parted company, he the proud possessor of a lot less money than he’d have liked me to pay him, I of some objects which I neither needed nor desired. But he summed up the experience neatly in his last words.

‘A lot better than a slammed door, isn’t it?’

Yes. A lot better. Another warming moment of kindness between strangers.

And despite my wife’s misgivings, I doubt it will lead to the house being burgled.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Syria, just saying 'no'. And the surgical breakthrough that makes that possible.

A full transplant of the spine: it sounds like an extraordinary, virtually unbelievable breakthrough. And it certainly is.

However, I’m not talking about a medical innovation, but a moral and political one. Here’s the mechanism as I see it.

The patient is a moderate and self-effacing man holding a relatively prominent position, namely leader of the British Labour Party and therefore of the official Opposition to a particularly appalling government. Indeed, so easy is it to oppose this government, with its failure to hit its own economic targets despite actions that have impoverished the population, that no-one can understand how he can fail to score easy points against it.

The patient, instead of opposing the government, offers ‘reluctant support’ to its desire to back another leader afflicted with chronic weakness syndrome, but on the other side of the Atlantic. Obama, the American equivalent of our patient, wants to lob a number of cruise missiles at Syria for having used chemical weapons against its own population.

He wants to do that without having put forward a single compelling argument showing that the missiles would deter Syrian President Assad using further chemical weapons against civilians or, even if it did, why he wouldn’t go on massacring them in huge numbers by conventional means.

Voices within the Labour Party have been offering the leader, Ed Miliband, counsel on how to tackle his particular problem of strength insufficiency syndrome. Perhaps I should say, since the condition is clearly psychological rather than physical, they’ve offered him counselling.

Ed: was he a suitable case for spinal treatment?
Now I don’t have any evidence for this, but my mental picture is of party big hitters taking Ed to one side and saying to him.

‘Ed, my son, what’s this with all the ‘reluctant support’? Don’t you realise that the country is two to one against even firing missiles at Syria? And against any more serious military action by even bigger margins?’

‘But... but... the government needs our support in these terrible circumstances,’ Ed might have replied.

‘Ah, I see the problem,’ he would have been told, ‘you haven’t completely got your head round this idea of ‘opposition’. The government might well like our support, but our role is to oppose it and, as quickly as possible, to replace it. For the avoidance of any doubt whatever, when we way ‘oppose’ that means saying ‘no’ rather than ‘reluctant yes’ when they come up with some harebrained scheme or other.’

‘Say ‘no’?’ replies Ed, as though savouring a novel idea.


‘I thought you said no?’

They sigh collectively. ‘Yes,’ they repeat, ‘it would be a good idea if you said ‘no’.’

And so he does. With gusto, because he can apparently be trained, and once he’s had a bit of an injection of backbone, he discovers it’s actually quite fun.

Then, lo and behold, what happens? The government starts to back down. It starts calling him names, accusing him of playing politics with all the self-righteousness of people who’d never dream of doing such a thing themselves, and giving ground on timetables and parliamentary votes. Basically, all the things a proper opposition would really rather like to be able to achieve from time to time.

With the result that it’s just possible Britain won’t be following the US into this latest military madness. That would be the first time the country refused to join in a crazy adventure dreamed up in Washington since Harold Wilson refused to commit British troops to Vietnam.

And Wilson was Prime Minister. If Miliband can pull off something similar from the Opposition benches, that really would be an achievement.

Amazing what a transfusion of spine can do. Because, to be fair, that’s what Ed really seems to have had, a transfusion rather than a transplant. But that’s as much of a breakthrough as the medical equivalent would have been.

It’s come not before time but it’s all the more welcome for it.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

I have a nightmare

It’s so quaint, isn’t it, that Britain continues to be a monarchy? The pageantry, the millennial rituals. And now with a baby too. It makes you feel all pink inside.

We’re about to see another glorious aspect of this enchanting tradition re-enacted. It’s called ‘royal prerogative’, and doesn’t that sound grand? It doesn’t mean the right of the queen to travel around the West End of London in a gilded coach, and devil take the traffic. It means that there are certain things the queen can do, as sovereign, without being answerable to parliament or having to consult it.

One of those things is to take the country to war.

Now she doesn’t actually exercise that royal prerogative herself these days. Instead, it’s delegated to the British government acting in her name. So Tony Blair was able to take us to war in Iraq on the basis of royal prerogative and David Cameron could do the same, any day now, in Syria.

And why not, after all? That initiative of Blair’s went so well. Iraq is now fully pacified, fully democratised; the fact that 66 people were killed this very morning by terrorist action in the capital is of course regrettable, but things are never perfect; and the fact that the nation is now little more than a puppet of Iran’s merely proves… well, I don’t know what it proves, but it proves something, and certainly not that the intervention was less than the stunning success George ‘Mission Accomplished’ Bush claimed.

I see no reason to assume that intervention in Syria will achieve anything else.

Of course, it wouldn’t actually matter if the government gave up royal prerogative: with a docile parliament and a pliable opposition leader, there’s little doubt it would get the authorisation it needed to support the military action already decided upon. Decided in Washington not London: the American War of Independence may have made the US independent of Britain, but it has left Britain entirely dependent on the US.

So on this day, the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech’, we’re faced with the depressing spectacle of a US President poised to take not just his own country but France and Britain as well, into another military adventure in the Middle East.

In King's footsteps? Or just Dubya's?
Perhaps we ought to add a line to that great speech, to bring it up to date: ‘I have a dream… that some day a black President will be sitting in the White House, and will drag his allies into another senseless war, just like his lamentable white predecessor did.’

Personally, I have a nightmare.

A nightmare that fifty years from now Britain will still be taking its most dangerous decisions on the basis of a mechanism centuries out of date.

A nightmare that at that time the ‘democracies’ will still be reaching for military means as the first resort, rather than the last, for confronting their political problems.

A nightmare that a woman in the White House, like a black man, will behave as badly as any of their white male predecessors, proving in the saddest possible way that Dr King was right, and no race (or gender) is to be preferred over another.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Slavery: seems the Blacks were just fine with it. Like victims of any abuse

A Polish émigré, Julian Niemcewicz, who visited George Washington in 1798, commented ‘Either from habit, or from natural humour disposed to gaiety, I have never seen the blacks sad.’ 

So that was OK, then. The slaves were happy. What was wrong with slavery?

Niemcewicz’s words are a striking example of the capacity we all share to convince ourselves of any belief we find convenient. At the time he expressed that view, the Northern US states were busily abolishing slavery, and yet the South would cling on to the ‘peculiar institution’ for nearly seven more decades, and only give it up after a crushing defeat in a bitter civil war.

Not many miles from Washington’s home lived another major figure of the early United States, Thomas Jefferson. He wrote those stirring words that inspired the revolutionary war: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ Yet he too was an owner of slaves, and even fathered several children on one of them, Sally Hemings.

In fact, those very words were used against African Americans by Chief Justice Roger Taney, when he wrote what must be one of the most shameful documents in US history, the final judgement of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case:

‘The general words above quoted would seem to embrace the whole human family [...] But it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration [...] The unhappy black race were separated from the white by indelible marks, and laws long before established, and were never thought of or spoken of except as property, and when the claims of the owner or the profit of the trader were supposed to need protection.’

So a proclamation of the equality of all men was turned on its head, into an argument in favour of the inferiority of the ‘black race’ and a justification for its enslavement.

What makes this kind of self-delusion particularly extraordinary is that, not only was slavery repugnant, it was also known to be economically inefficient, even in Washington’s day, as Dr David Stuart, from his extended family, made clear: ‘[Slaves’] support costs a great deal; their work is worth little if they are not whipped; the [overseer] costs a great deal and steals into the bargain. We would all agree to free these people, but how to do it with such a great number?’

I say nothing for Taney, but Washington and Jefferson were outstanding men who understood the issues. Yet even they felt powerless to act. It’s that ‘how to do it’ in David Stuart’s words that is most striking: he knew what was right and he knew it was expedient but he saw no means to do it.

Curiously the same impotence to overcome entrenched wrong has marked many of the other great abuses in history, whether discrimination against religious minorities, the denial of rights to women, the use of child labour, the refusal of minimal protections to workers. They have been preserved either by a self-delusion worthy of a Taney, or by a failure to act by those who knew that change was needed. ‘All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,’ wrote Edmund Burke. Slavery is a classic case of an evil that was not extirpated because good men did nothing (and a few bad ones did a great deal too much).

Edmund Burke: understood how evil could triumph

Once the abuse has been ended, a new consensus appears which finds it extraordinary that it had ever been tolerated. Slavery? Appalling. The wonder is that it lasted.

But when we look at the Washingtons and the Jeffersons and wonder how they could have lived with that abomination, we should pause a moment and ask ourselves a few questions too. Because right now, in our own advanced, democratic countries we’re tolerating abuses which may in turn come to be regarded as just as incomprehensible as slavery.

In Britain, thirty people a week are dying after having been deemed fit for work by an agency acting for government. This means that terribly ill individuals, often disabled, are being denied benefits, their suffering hugely increased as they go to their deaths. This is presented as tough but intelligent economics.

On both sides of the Atlantic, huge numbers of people are being denied access to healthcare either because it is being sacrificed to shareholder interest in the US, or subject to increasingly draconian restrictions in Europe. People are dying needlessly, and in greater pain, than they would if we were prepared to invest more in their care.

The kind of racist thinking that inflamed Roger Taney continues to poison the debate about immigration or about Islam, and the greatest ‘minority’ of all, women, are still far from attaining equality with men or the full protection of the law, as casual attitudes towards domestic violence or rape constantly attest.

We can look back on those grand old men of the eighteenth century and puzzle at their blindness and wilful self-delusion. If we don’t want future generations to look back at us with the same condescending contempt, we need to take a look at what we’re doing wrong in our time.

And fix it. Fast.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Everything's fine, in its season

Seasons matter.

For years England has been deprived of a proper summer. Seven years, some say. Well, this year we had one. 

OK, I appreciate that it would barely register as summer for my sons in Spain, where today the temperature dropped to 33 Celsius (91 Fahrenheit, for the benighted States). Still, by our standards England had a real summer: the skies were often blue, and it tended to be warm most of the time, bordering occasionally on the uncomfortably hot.

Having a summer makes the rest of the year so much more bearable. One can put up with a little harshness in January if one’s had some gentleness in July. 

That was a truth that was borne in on me particularly strongly today.

A fine rain was falling as I walked my dog Janka in one of those areas that redeem the often ugly environment of Luton. A stretch of wooded land follows the river Lea and runs into an old orchard, which someone – perhaps the Council – is trying to bring back to its old use, wit
h new apple trees just now beginning to bear fruit, in among the mature ones.

The presence of such a place is magical, especially as it
’s surrounded on either side by housing through which runs a major road to Bedford.

In the gentle softness of Autumn, the fruit is ripening
In that setting, the rain mattered not at all. It was the kind that doesn’t really seem to wet particularly, but instead simply creates an atmosphere of softness. Janka certainly seem unfazed, much more interested in the smells in the undergrowth than bothered by the drops. As for me, I was enjoying the blackberries, each an explosion of flavour this year – they too seem to have liked the summer – and when we arrived at the orchard with its branches weighed down with fruit, a couple of apples too.

So what we were getting was a foretaste of the next season. Autumn isn’t quite here, but it’s coming. The grey light, the cool ground underfoot, the fruit, the silence. The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is nearly on us.

And that’s fine. Because it’s coming when it ought, after a season that has delivered what it should. So we had no complaints about our walk, Janka or I. On the contrary, we
’d had a great time.

Into every life a little rain must fall, they say. But that’s not a problem. As long as it comes in its season.

Instead of just going on and on, as it has for the last seven years, right through the summer months. For Pete’s sake.

Raindrops keep falling
But in a kind, seasonal way

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Mock the State? At your peril

We’re here to protect you, says the State. Mock us not.

Because if you do, boy will we get you and get you good.

Bradley Manning
An unforgivable crime. 35 years

It’s fascinating that what Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have done is reveal to the world how cavalier an attitude the State takes towards our privacy. They reserve the right to read our e-mails, listen to our phone calls, track our internet usage. What’s private to us is public to them.

But turn that round, by making public what they want kept private and, as Manning has discovered, you’re facing a 35-year gaol sentence.

Or if they can’t lay their hands on you, they’ll start to make life tough for your nearest and dearest. That
s what happened to David Miranda when he made the mistake of trying to change planes at Heathrow. Nine hours detention, intensive interrogation and the confiscation of his electronic equipment, to teach him to be in a relationship with the man who spoke to the man who watched the men who were spying on us.

Now of course the State justifies its actions on the grounds that it’s there to protect us. And I’m sure it does: terrorists aren’t having much joy in their attempts to attack Western countries. But, as many children have learned from helicopter parents, certain forms of protection can become stifling in their excess. And 35 years really sounds like a little too much tough love.

Particularly when you compare it with the kind of sentence that gets handed down in other cases.

Lynddie England, American in spite of her name, was a US army reservist who had the misfortune to be sent to Iraq. Had she never been involved in that dismal adventure of her nation’s, she might have led an irreproachable life and died in respectable obscurity. Sadly, she was exposed to stresses beyond her moral frame to absorb, and broke. She compounded her misfortune by photographing the reprehensible behaviour that followed, with the result that she got herself caught.

Lynddie England poses
Regrettable misdeeds. Three years
And what was done to her for torturing and mistreating Iraqi prisoners? She was gaoled for three years.

Let me repeat: Manning’s been sentenced to 35.

The message from the US state? Mock Iraqi prisoners and abuse them, and we disapprove – we don’t like unsanctioned torture. But mock us and abuse our confidence, then you really rile us. Your penalty will be ten times worse. And then some.

Now that’s what I call protection. Tony Soprano would have been proud.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Miranda's rights are our rights

‘Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.’

Great words of Benjamin Franklin’s.

That’s not to say that safety’s not important. It decidedly is: if you’re not safe, you’re unable to enjoy any other freedom. 

On 7 July 2005, 52 innocent civilians were murdered in the streets of London by people claiming to speak for Islam (and who ignored the fact that several of their victims were Muslim). That’s not the kind of thing I want to see repeated, and it’s been impressive that it hasn’t happened since. I have little doubt that much of the success in preventing a repetition of ‘7/7’ has been excellent intelligence gathering and I’m deeply grateful to the security services for getting that right.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m happy for those shady, powerful figures Le Carré christened ‘espiocrats’, to run amok over our hard-won rights. And when David Miranda was detained for nine hours at Heathrow airport on Sunday under anti-terrorism legislation, with no suggestion he had been even remotely involved in terrorism, it struck me that espiocracy was reaching a great deal too far.

It struck me, indeed, that the security establishment was asking us to give up an essential liberty, too expensive a cost for a little temporary safety.

Because of course Miranda’s detention had nothing to do with terrorism. He’s the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who’s been working with Edward Snowden on his revelations of highly disturbing behaviour by the security services in the UK and US. Miranda was known to be carrying files between Greenwald and a film-maker in Berlin; it’s hard not to wonder whether the detention, followed by the confiscation of Miranda’s electronic equipment, was all to do with preventing further embarrassment to the two governments, and nothing to do with countering terrorism.

Greenwald (left) meets Miranda
on his return from detention in London
That makes the action against him merely a further demonstration, on top of the Snowden revelations, of how far out of hand the security services have gone. It was sad to hear the British Home Secretary today defending the actions of the police, showing where the Conservative Party stands on individual freedom. This is not, however, a partisan point: the legislation on which Miranda was held was passed under the previous, Labour government.

It seems that on either side of politics, power is far too easy with abusive authority.

There was another revelation of abuse today. Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian told the BBC that the security forces obliged him some time ago to destroy hard disks on which Snowden files had been held. If the action against Miranda sounds like the behaviour of a tinpot dictatorship, the action against the newspaper sounds like that of a banana republic: it’s as ludicrously funny as it is grotesque. Copies of all the files destroyed had already been sent to other jurisdictions. Rusbridger will keep publishing from them, but in the US where the Constitution prevents the kind of action taken against him over here.

It comes as something of a relief that the land of Franklin still has legal frameworks in place that go some way towards protecting the freedoms he cherished so deeply. Only some way, though: the US espiocracy has its tentacles at least as widely spread and noxiously active as in the UK. The campaign by Greenwald and The Guardian is as vital on the other side of the Atlantic as on this.

It’s curious that Miranda rights in the US are those that protect an individual against the kind of highhanded action taken against Greenwald’s partner at Heathrow. Now we need to speak out for the rights of Miranda in Britain. Because they are, after all, our birthright.

And, though safety is vital, our birthright is far too high a price to pay for it.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Cautionary tale of a good terrorist

‘The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land,’ proclaimed Thatcher in 1987. That was just seven years before Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, heading the first ANC-led government of the country.

One of Thatcher’s staunchest supporters, John Carlisle, at the time Member of Parliament for the constituency next door to mine, wasn’t even won over to the Mandela cause by the international adulation focused on the man.

‘This hero worship is very much misplaced,’ declared Carlisle in 1990.

Mandela: a terrorist being converted to a secular saint
These days, many supporters of the Iron Lady like to present her as having seen the merit of Mandela and even to have played a significant role in securing his freedom. The reality, as these two quotations show, is that she and the Conservative Party she led got it massively wrong. It’s an embarrassment, now that Mandela has become a globally adored secular saint, so now a myth has to be invented about her long time support and the ingenious, discreet ways she helped him achieve power.

The greatest irony is that neither Thatcher nor Carlisle were entirely wrong.

I’m not quite sure that there’s such a thing as a ‘typical’ terrorist organisation, since they all seem different from each other. However, Thatcher’s view that the ANC had been terrorist is undeniable. At least, it’s undeniable to anyone who looks at the evidence with anything like an open mind, though that doesn’t stop the more starry-eyed admirers of Mandela trying to deny it.

Equally, Carlisle was right to warn against hero worship. One admires a man more intelligently if one sees his faults as well as his merits. Mandela’s behaviour towards his family was often far from exemplary. And in marrying Winnie, he linked himself to one of the cruellest and most brutal political leaders I’ve seen in action in my lifetime: certainly, she didn’t carry out the kind of genocidal actions that Pol Pot took in Cambodia, but that may only have been because she was never close enough to power.

All this makes the achievement in South Africa all the more remarkable. Mandela was a flawed man and not a saint, but he had the vision and the nobility to preside over an astounding transition, from one of the most reviled regimes in the world, to a system which is certainly still shot through with problems, but at least offers hope of improvement.

To anyone who maintains ‘there’s no such thing as a good terrorist,’ I reply 
Consider Mandela. And think again.

Mandela’s ascent to power meant that many who
d said ‘we shall never talk to terrorists’ found themselves having to talk to this one. Naturally, they try to play down the terrorist side of the man. That’s regrettable: it would be much healthier and more honest if we could admit that we talk to terrorists a lot and, indeed, it’s often the best thing to do. 

And it might be no bad thing to accept that we haven
’t always been above a little terrorism of our own. If terrorism is the deliberate targeting of violence against civilians in the hope of achieving a political goal, when Britain and the US talked about bombing German cities to break the will of the German people to resist, what were they justifying but terrorist action against a civilian population?

And what of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Even now, when a US drone targets a wedding party in the hope of killing a Taliban member who may or may not be there, aren’t we in rather a grey area? To the Western powers that sent the drone, the civilian deaths are ‘collateral damage’, a beautifully euphemistic use of technical language to hide the reality of killing and maiming. To the people themselves, it must feel exactly the same as being caught up in a terrorist outrage.

The truth is that terrorism has often been used by many different political organisations, not all of them evil in themselves or pursuing deplorable goals. So the accusation of terrorism tells us little about the people we apply it to, nor about the way we ought to be dealing with them.

After all, the greatest breakthrough against terrorism in the last twenty years must have been the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. That wasn’t achieved by military action against terrorists or by refusing to talk to them. It was made possible by sitting around a table at which all sides made concession – painful concessions, bitterly given up.

Terrorism is the most acute question of international politics in our time. Whether it’s warlords in Somalia, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Qaida acting against the West in Yemen or receiving Western support in Syria, Chechens in Russia (or, apparently, the United States), or any of the other countless theatres of terrorist action around the world, it’s the ugly force we all have to confront.

It won’t be beaten by pretending that we can never negotiate with terrorists. It won’t happen by pretending they’re not terrorists. And, as Thatcher and Carlisle showed, it won’t happen by writing the other side off as terrorist so you can retreat into self-righteous condemnation of everything else they might be.

Nor does it help if, once you’ve realised how massively you’ve screwed up, you suddenly start to discover all sorts of reasons why you were, in fact, covert but effective supporters all along.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

So sometimes there can be honour among thieves

The saying that there’s no honour among thieves is generally applied metaphorically, and to certain highly-reputed callings such as politicians, bankers, lawyers or journalists. 

That makes it fun to discover a case where real thieves display a certain honour, or at least, an ability to listen to their consciences.

On 31 July, thieves broke into the offices of the Sexual Assault Services charity in San Bernardino, California. Despite a concerted effort to disable the alarm system, an alert was given and police attended with the centre’s director, Candy Stallings. They were too late: the thieves had gone and she was left disconsolate, trying to come to terms with the loss of several computers and other property .

Within two hours, more unexplained movement had been detected at the premises. She and the police headed back again and discovered – a shopping trolley containing all the stolen equipment.

Inside a laptop, they found a note:

We had no idea what we were takeing. Here your stuff back. 

We hope that you guys can continue to make a differerence in peoples live. 

God Bless.
Can't fault the sentiment.
The words on the other hand...

The English is lamentable but the change of heart is welcome.

So it seems thieves do occasionally show honour. Even if they still leave a little to desire when it comes to literacy.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

David Cameron: good at the art, however poor he is on the science

Politics is an art form and no science: it's all about presentation and hardly at all about substance.

David Cameron: good reason for self-satisfaction
Take the British government’s economic competence. According to the most recent findings, confidence in it has risen from 28% of the electorate to 40%. This seems to be based on just one piece of good news: growth last quarter was 0.6%, the level the last government achieved within a few quarters of the crash, and which it has taken this government three years to reproduce.

What else have they achieved?

  • At the last election, the Conservatives fulminated that the previous, Labour, government had saddled the country with an unsustainable level of debt. So they’ve increased it (taking it from just under 80% of gross domestic product to 90%), but there’s no more talk of unsustainability.
  • They also set out to slash the government’s deficit, and they have, by as much as a quarter though a lot less than they promised. To fail to meet their target, they’ve created conditions in which:
  • As well as the mass unemployment level of two and a half million, about a million further people are on ‘zero-hour contracts’, ostensibly employed but with no guarantee of work or pay
  • The disabled are under major attack, with benefit levels being reduced by a variety of subtle mechanisms and by deeming huge numbers as fit for work when they certainly aren’t: around 30 such people die each week
Average pay has been reduced further and faster than all but three other countries in the entire European Union

George Osborne, as Chancellor of the Exchequer responsible for this performance, staked his reputation at the last election on preserving the UK’s triple-A credit rating. He’s lost it. Entirely predictably, he has failed to resign.

In only one area has the government notched up a significant achievement: it has increased the number of people on seven-figure salaries (we have more such people in banking, for instance, than the rest of the EU together) and he has provided them with a tax reduction.

So it’s clever that, with such a track record, the government still enjoys such a glowing reputation. Clever, though not entirely unsurprising. With so many targets to hit, the Labour opposition has indulged in ‘deafeningly silence’, as a critic within the party, Graham Stringer, recently pointed out. So the Conservatives, and the government, have not been called to account for their performance.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives themselves have lost no time. They’ve had vans cruising round immigrant areas with ‘go home’ signs, in what is an obvious play for the racist vote. Brilliantly – and in their campaign manager, Lynton Crosby, they have a brilliant mind at work – they are now apologising to the immigrant communities and promising to consult them first, in future.

Why is this so clever? Because it gives them the opportunity to call off the campaign now that it has achieved its aim of attracting far right support from the party snapping at the Conservatives’ heels, the United Kingdom Independence Party, while at the same time offering an olive branch to immigrants amongst whom a recent poll showed the Tories have minimal support.

What was the Labour leadership’s response? Instead of denouncing the whole shameful charade, they decided to make a bid for the same votes. They had Chris Bryant, party spokesman on immigration, make a speech about the dangers immigration represents for British workers – in other words, they also played the racist card.

To compound this dereliction on principle, they then cocked up in the practice too. Bryant’s speech was leaked at the weekend, so that it became known that he was to denounce two major firms for using immigrant staff to undermine British labour. The companies hit back and Labour discovered that it had built its brief badly and got its information wrong. Instead of making a persuasive play for votes from the far right, Bryant therefore spent most of his time backtracking from what he’d been planning to say, defending why he’d intended to say it, and generally looking incompetent.

Presentation not principle, you see. And the Tories are getting increasingly good at it – artful, you might say – while the present Labour leadership is proving completely cackhanded. Against an appallingly under-achieving government, they’re failing to get the ball into an open goal, while constantly scoring own-goals against themselves.

I pray they may still pull off a victory in 2015, but on present form, it’ll be no thanks to any skill of theirs.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Mind what you get that British lion to roar for

If we ever successfully turned the European Union into the United States of Europe, we’d need to make sure roles were distributed among the constituent nations in a sensible way. We’d need the police to be British, the cooks French, the bankers German and the entertainers Italian.

Imagine how awful it would be if we ended up instead with French police, German entertainers, Italian bankers and British cooks?

Ironically, the only funny aspect of that joke is how desperately far from the truth it is. British police are struggling to emerge from a morass of scandal:

  • they’ve been shown to have a regrettable tendency to abuse sexually women who call them for help against sexual abusers, 
  • endemic racism seems a problem, perhaps most shamefully in the surveillance run, not on the racist murderers of Stephen Lawrence, but on the family of the victim, 
  • investigations in recent years have revealed a sorry nexus of morally if not criminally corrupt relations between the police, politics and the media

You certainly wouldn’t want that lot running the European police. Not at least until it got its own house into significantly better order.

As for Germany, when we lived there we found the country easy-going, with plenty to amuse and delight us wherever we went. The banks, on the other hand, were painfully bureaucratic and backward.

In fact, the only true aspect of the joke is that the Italians are entertaining. Not always intentionally, mind: presumably they didn’t actually elect Berlusconi to be the clown he became.

You may have picked up the implication that I don’t go with the much-vaunted reputation of French cooks. I feel that cooks in France have tended to rest on their laurels a bit. You can of course eat exceptionally well in the most expensive places, but it’s sometimes difficult to find a reliable restaurant in France, serving a good meal at a reasonable price.

Meanwhile, Britain has become a nation where it’s far easier to find a good meal easily, and one that’s good value. Japanese, Indian, Italian, even French, any city boasts a selection which will take your breath away without breaking the bank.

Back in the seventies, it wasn’t like that.

  • Sandwich bars offered two slices of doughy (white) bread with a choice of a slice of ham or cheese between them; excitement came in the form of a choice of two types of pickle 
  • Salads were piles (and not usually big piles) of vegetables served with nothing remotely resembling a dressing; if you were lucky (or perhaps I mean unlucky), you got a little plastic packet of an abomination called ‘salad cream’
  •  Main dishes were often ‘pies’, which came with a burned crust under which lurked meat-like objects possibly drawn from an animal, but not one anybody could identify, swimming in a dull brown fluid.

All that seems, these days, to be thankfully behind us. Which made a visit to Gibraltar a couple of years ago a fascinatingly nostalgic experience. Because the food seemed to be straight out of the seventies. It was like reliving my student life, without any of the pleasure that notion suggests. 
A rock and an airport in a seventies time warp
The place is also claustrophobic. It is after all a rock. The road goes round it. There are side turnings in the town, and you can get up to the top as well, but woe betide you if you go there after 5:00: the place shuts down.

Really, a seventies time warp.

Of course, there may be some people in the British Foreign Office wondering how we’ll bottle up the French fleet in then Med, when it next threatens our shores, if we don’t hold Gib. I suspect most of us have put the Napoleonic wars behind us by now, thankfully writing them off along with British seventies food.

The only aspect of Gibraltar that seems to belong to the 21st century is all the shops trading in gold, diamonds or currency. Which suggests Gib has all the innocence, purity and transparency that we’ve come to associate with international finance.

Spain has announced that it intends to go to the United Nations over the continued occupation of this rock which, geographically, clearly belongs to it. It’s imposing lots of painful controls on traffic attempting to cross the border. It’s upset that the island authorities have been creating artificial reefs that are spoiling local Spanish fishing. There have been incidents of unauthorised incursions into territorial waters.

Meanwhile the British government is talking firmly about the need to stand by the people of Gibraltar, to reject the unacceptable behaviour of the Spanish and to assert our sovereign rights.

For that place? For Gibraltar we’re prepared to put our relations with one of the main players in Europe, an ally and a partner, in jeopardy? What is the government dreaming of?

Guys, just remember London in the seventies, and add better weather. It isn’t worth losing a moment’s sleep over. Time to move on. Please.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Shameless, racist, effective

There are times when the sheer effrontery of the Cameron government makes it hard to avoid a certain sneaking admiration for its downright shamelessness.

The latest wheeze is to send vans carrying ads against illegal immigration cruising through areas of high ‘ethnic’ population numbers.

Don’t you love that use of the word ‘ethnic’, by the way? I mean, we’re all ethnic aren’t we? We belong to some ethnos or other. Even the Aryan whites who can trace a thousand years of their family’s presence in this country belong to an ethnic group, even if it’s only the tribe of the superciliously insular.

The vans carry the message ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest’, followed by information such as ‘106 arrested in your area last week.’ 
Arrested, take note, not convicted. Who knows how many were here legally.

Go home.
Just the message to display around ‘ethnic’ areas
Lord Ousely is a former Chairman of the Commission on Racial Equality. He is, of course, ‘ethnic’, in the common but deformed sense of belonging to an ethnic minority. He told the BBC this afternoon that he would, from now on, be carrying a passport at all times so that he can prove, if stopped, that he has a right to be here and isn’t just hanging around the House of Lords in the hope of earning a pound carrying a peer’s bags.

Lord Ouseley.
‘ethnic’ so he's taken to carrying his passport everywhere
It’s the ‘go home’ part of the sign that’s most offensive. It’s the slogan the far right has been using for decades. Usually, they spray paint it on walls at night. The government’s innovation is to use it on vans paid for with taxpayer’s money. 

Not much taxpayer money, as it happens. The whole campaign is likely to cost around £10,000, for the pilot stage now being run in London. And what a payback. We’re all talking about it. Me, sure, but far more importantly all the leading media outlets too. It may prove totally ineffective as a way of reducing illegal immigrant numbers, but boy it’s a great way of gaining publicity for the government.

And what publicity! Facing a major threat from their right, in the form of the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Conservatives are clothing themselves in the language of extreme racist movements, while being able to claim: ‘racist? us? we’re just trying to control illegal behaviour. Surely you can’t be against that?’

They even turn it against the opposition, claiming the measure is a response to Labour’s ‘open door’ policy towards immigrants. The hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were turned away during the Labour years will have trouble believing there ever was such a policy. Even in my memory, Labour tried on the same trick of looking for easy gains from the right by targeting immigrants who, after all, don’t have a vote themselves but get up the noses of quite a few people who do.

Why, Gordon Brown used the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’, which used to be a preserve of the far right.

So the Conservative Party is winning support from its right, and secondarily giving itself another stick with which to beat Labour. What if the initiative proves a failure as an immigration control measure? Who cares? It will have served its true purpose by generating a propaganda coup for the Tories.

It’s hard not to imagine the hand of Lynton Crosby at work here. He’s the campaign manager of the Tory party and reputed to be a man of just this kind of diabolical cunning. And it’s brilliant, isn’t it? Totally unprincipled and utterly shameful, but so effective. And, what’s more, we’re all paying for it.

There is of course a response. One can stand firm on principle but still hit back with the same kind of ruthless efficiency.

How about a campaign proclaiming that immigration control is fine, but it ought to stop short of ethnic cleansing? Equating the present Tory leadership with the likes of Bosnian Serb warlords may seem unfair, but we’re up against people who’ve got their gloves off and don’t care how low they stoop to land their blows.

What has the Labour leadership’s response been, actually? Absolutely nothing. Afraid of frightening away the racist anti-immigrant fringe that might vote for them, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls refuse to denounce ugly electioneering on public funds.

Do they believe that a softly-softly approach will work for them against this lot?

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Britain needs Labour to unleash attack dogs

Depending on how you measure it, the UK is about eighth or ninth in the world in income per person per year. So it’s quite an indictment that 500,000 people are now dependent on food banks. Over two and a half million people are unemployed, but a million more are on ‘zero-hour’ contracts: they have to be available for work but with no guarantee that they will have anything to do or receive any pay. Not unemployed, perhaps, but barely employed.

One in six children lives in poverty, a figure that is climbing rapidly after the decline that occurred under the last government. And some of the poorest people in the country, dependent on benefits, many disabled, are seeing the amount they receive cut because they have a spare room in their homes – but 96% of them have no alternative accommodation to which they could move.

A state of affairs so shameful should spell disaster for the government presiding over it. It’s true that those suffering most are also the groups least likely to vote, but there is a huge layer of people not quite as vulnerable but who are finding their living standards squeezed, the ‘squeezed middle’ as the Labour leadership calls it. There are even others who are financially more secure but ashamed at what is being done, in their name, to the most vulnerable.

So it’s galling that the Labour opposition, after over a year with an opinion poll lead of around 11% – by no means outstanding for an opposition half way through a parliament but a reasonable platform – has failed to build on it and instead sunk back to around a 6% lead. Given the tendency of the electorate to swing back towards the incumbents as an election approaches, that’s perilously close to defeat levels.

What’s going wrong?

It isn’t that the Labour leadership, of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, are preaching some kind of wild radicalism that would put off middle-ground voters. On the contrary, they’re even committing to respecting the budget cuts being made by the present government, and only to spending more for the purposes of investment.

Their message overall is that the vast majority of people are paying over the odds for economic policies which don’t guarantee economic health, but will massively benefit the wealthiest. It’s a perfectly sensible position and one that should be generating increasing support.

Ed Miliband
Probably a nice guy, possibly a great Prime Minister
But he needs to be less of the former to become the latter
No, what seems to be the problem is that they’re simply not displaying the kind of strength voters appreciate. Ed Miliband gave a disastrous interview in April in which he came across as unbriefed about his own policies on VAT, and since then has had trouble taking the initiative on economic matters. Then it emerged that the Unite union, one of Labour’s most important, and above all most generous, contributors might have been trying to influence the selection of a parliamentary candidate in Falkirk by devious means. Miliband decided to take on the union, which might seem resolute, except that it’s rather a matter of sawing off the branch on which you’re sitting.

What’s more, it led to Miliband having to part company with his campaign manager, the feisty and effective Tom Watson.

Meanwhile, the Tories have wasted no time signing up and unleashing their attack dogs.

First they appointed Lynton Crosby as their campaign manager. He won an enviable reputation as a highly effective political operator in his native Austrialia. There has been a major scandal about his possible conflict of interests (he is also a consultant to tobacco companies and the government has gone notably soft on them recently), but somehow the Party is weathering the storm. Meanwhile, one can see his hand behind some recent hard-hitting campaigns, for instance to use the Falkirk miseries to present Labour as divided and in hock to the unions.

Now they’ve also recruited Jim Messina from the States, who’s responsible for what has come to be thought of as the most homophobic campaign advert in US history.

Crosby and Messina aren’t going to be pulling their punches.

And what has Labour’s response been? Over a month after Tom Watson’s departure, the Party hasn’t yet appointed a new campaign manager. It’s as if the two Eds think that being sensible, moderate and reasonable is enough to win elections.

They need to think again. This is no time for Mr Nice Guy. Those qualities may make for a great government, but they don’t help you get into a position to form one. They need to expose the present administration as what it is: without either competence or compassion. They need to show again and again, on issue after issue, how they fail and how they damage everything we hold dear. That’s what a Crosby or a Messina would be doing if Labour had them. It’s what the Eds need to learn to do.

What the country needs is another Labour government like the one Clement Attlee led in 1945. One of the great reforming governments of the twentieth century. That’s the kind of government that can tackle the rising child poverty, the assault on the disabled, the relegation of millions into unemployment or precarious employment.

But that will only be possible if Labour’s leaders can find the relentless drive and focus that marked a Tony Blair or, in the sixties and 70s, a Harold Wilson.

Leaders with the vision and the principle of an Attlee, but the election-winning capabilities of a Blair or a Wilson? An elusive combination. Can the Eds rise to the challenge.

Maybe. But sadly the jury’s still firmly out.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Life's all a matter of milestones

Life’s all rites of passage, all milestones.

The horror of the first day at school (and we do that to five-year-olds). The extraordinary pleasure when a woman started, voluntarily, to use my surname instead of the one she was born with. The elation at the birth of a child, tinged with the shock at realising that the younger generation was now someone else
s. The pain of learning of my father’s death, a pain both for an irreparable loss but also for the departure of the figure that stood between me and the grave, leaving me directly exposed to my own mortality.

I negotiated another key moment just a couple of weeks ago, when for the first time I received an e-mail from my granddaughter Aya. It was a moment of great pleasure, so I replied at once. It was only when I’d finished that I realised I’d signed myself ‘Granddad’ completely naturally, without a second thought. I don’t know whether I’d unconsciously resisted being moved back a generation further, from parent to grandparent after the previous transition from child to parent, but in the last eight and a half years I don’t think I’d ever become completely reconciled to my grandfatherly role.

But it quickly became clear that I had now accepted it completely, during our recent visit to Aya and her family. I found myself reacting instinctively when called ‘Granddad’ and, more to the point, no longer thinking that ‘Daddy’ meant me.

More important still, I began to read John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk to her. There are a great many children’s books in English, many of them excellent. There’s no difficulty finding a book about pirates or magic, about smugglers or talking animals, about highwaymen or Arthurian knights. But The Midnight Folk has them all, woven into a story which sweeps you along in its breakneck 

My mother discovered it through her mother, and then she read it to my brother and me. I read it to my sons. Now, I’m reading it to Aya. What’s more, she seems to like it, enough to want me to continue even though I’m once more several hundred miles away. We take advantage of the wonderful technological innovation that goes under the apt name Facetime, so that we can see as well as hear each other while we enjoy this masterpiece of kids’ literature.

A new and powerful bond has been created. Between fellow fans of The Midnight Folk there can be no bad feeling. So as I fully accept, or resign myself, at last my status of grandfather, with all that implies of the wear and tear of life, along comes in compensation, a new tie of affection with my granddaughter.

Can’t be bad.

Thank you, John Masefield. And even more warmly, thank you, Aya.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Red Scares without Reds

‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism.’ 

These are the opening words of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto of 1848. Like many such stirring words, they have little or no relation to the truth. Europe was indeed exploding in revolutions that year, but they were nationalist (against the Austrian Empire, for instance) or for extended political rights (for example, in France and Germany).

The international communist movement was basically Karl Marx working in the British Museum library in London, and a handful of his friends and supporters around the place.

When I was working myself in that same library, back in the eighties, a librarian told me an apocryphal story a colleague asked, on his retirement many years earlier, whether he’d known Karl Marx.

‘German gentleman?’ he’s said to have asked in reply, ‘came in here for quite a while and then we never heard much more about him?’

German gentleman who haunted the British Museum
for a while before fading into obscurity
Communism didn’t really come out of its obscurity until a party claiming to be communist in inspiration seized power in Russia in 1917. But, wow, did things change then. If the Nazis came to dominate Germany, it was in part because a great many people, and not just in Germany, saw them as a possible barrier to the apparently irresistible progress of Communism.

Nowhere was as haunted by the spectre of Communism as the United States. America fought an indecisive war in Korea to stem its advance and then, most disastrously, took the first defeat in its history in Vietnam, a glorious example of a self-fulfilling hypothesis: US justification for war in Vietnam was the domino effect, whereby Communist victory in one country would lead to several others going the same way. When US forces had to pull out of Saigon, Communist movements had taken over Laos and, most sickeningly, Cambodia.

Fear of Communism also led to what must be still today the most shameful period in US history: the McCarthy witch hunts against alleged Communists in the fifties. All the worst aspects of a police state were there, including anonymous denunciation, conviction on suspicion and assumption of guilt.

But then along came Nixon and showed that even a right-wing President could make common ground with regimes claiming allegiance to Communist thinking. Ping-pong diplomacy opened up China to US links and, even today, the US finds itself perfectly able to work with those particular Communists.

That left the Soviet Union as the whipping boy for the anti-Communists. Until 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then the satellite nations quickly slipped away both from Russia and Communism and the West claimed the Cold War won.

For a brief moment, we were treated to all sorts of panegyrics to the newborn Russian democracy. But then we discovered that what had replaced the Soviet regime wasn’t quite as democratic as had been claimed. An invasion of Georgia showed that the Russian republic was quite as ready to behave unpleasantly towards its neighbours as the Soviet Union had, though it was perhaps incapable of acting on quite the same scale.

Several murders of critics, and the imprisonment of many others, have shown that it’s happy to be just as nasty towards its internal adversaries as those from abroad. Nowhere has this been more clearly demonstrated as in the condemning to hard labour of two members of a punk group, Pussy Riot, for being offensive towards the lay and religious authorities.

But now Russia has gone one step further. It has offered temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, who got right up the noses of the US establishment by revealing evidence of its misbehaviour. Putin is clearly not acting out of democratic motives; his action has to be a calculated insult to the US, and it’s had exactly the desired effect. 

Senator John McCain is the man who won himself a reputation for clear judgement and faultless political instinct, by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate in his vain bid to win the presidency against Obama in 2008. This was the woman who amazed us with her farsightedness (literally) on matters Russian, by claiming that she could see the place from her home in Alaska.

McCain is now gracing us with his own views on the country in response to the Snowden affair:

‘Russia’s action today is a disgrace and a deliberate effort to embarrass the United States. It is a slap in the face of all Americans. [...] We cannot allow today’s action by Putin to stand without serious repercussions.’

McCain: didn't do his reputation for judgement any good
by his selection of a running mate. But he's mad now...

Those of us who lived through the Cold War may recognise the tone of this pronouncement. And yet the Communists are gone. So here’s my question: was the animosity ever really about Communism? Or actually just about Russia? Did the Red Scare have anything to do with Reds?

I only ask because this kind of talk isn’t new. Here’s a rising star from the British Parliamentary Opposition demanding to know whether the best means had ‘been employed by the Government to establish the equilibrium, and put an end to the preponderance of Russia in the Black Sea’.

You can picture John McCain asking that kind of question. But in fact the speaker was Benjamin Disraeli, later to be British Prime Minister. He was speaking in a debate on 4 June 1855, when Britain, along with France, was actually at war with Russia in its Black Sea territory of the Crimea.

An actual shooting war, not a cold one.

Charge of the light brigade in the Crimean War
Good subject matter for poetry, not such smart politics
Seems the West’s had problems with Russia for quite a while now, certainly since long before Communism. 

With Communism way behind us, are we stoking them all up again?

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Bad hospitals: a convenient myth

There’s no such thing as a bad hospital.

When I made that statement a couple of weeks ago, it was met with some derision. That’s hardly surprising, particularly in the light of yesterday’s news that the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust is to be wound up: as well as Cannock, it runs Stafford Hospital which has become a healthcare horror story, the hospital we all love to hate. That’s all of us except, strangely enough, the population of Stafford itself, who have been running an increasingly active campaign in support of their hospital.

Stafford Hospital: notoriously run by Mid Staffs NHS Trust
now about to be dissolved.
The scandal broke back in March 2009. A report gave a catalogue of shameful failures of care. But, more specifically, the press focused on the finding that between 2005 and 2008, between 400 and 1200 more people died there than might have been expected. Now that really set the alarm bells ringing. Up to 1200 excess deaths? A place of healing seemed to have turned into a killing field. No other judgement about the hospital could possibly have been as devastating.

So it’s curious that when the Francis report into the shortcomings of Mid Staffs was published in February 2013, it made no mention of this devastating statistic.

The figure came from Sir Brian Jarman, a professor at Imperial College London and one of the founders of healthcare information service provider Dr Foster Intelligence (DFI). It was based on DFI’s vaunted ‘hospital standardised mortality ratio’, the flagship of the indicators the company has developed to evaluate hospital care.

Why wasn’t it included in the final report?

Because it is extremely difficult to interpret in practical terms. It seems to be saying that there were up to 1200 avoidable deaths in the hospital, but it decidedly does not mean that. Studies since have shown that a great many of the ‘excess deaths’ reflected factors entirely unrelated to care quality, such as including in the hospital’s mortality figures patients who were already dead on arrival, or not making allowance for the terminal patients who were there for palliative care only and were simply being nursed to a humane death with no hope of recovery.

A 2009 study of 50 questionable deaths in the hospital revealed that just one of them might have been preventable.

So the Francis report detailed many completely genuine instances of poor care but dropped all mention of the mortality figures that caused so much noise in the first place. The failings identified led to departures and even, recently, to two nurses from the particularly criticised Accident and Emergency area being struck off. The new management has made major efforts to correct shortcomings, efforts vindicated when the Care Quality Commission (the body that monitors hospital performance) officially declared that all its concerns had been addressed.

Dr Foster has also given the hospital a clean bill of health.

Oddly enough, though, that  last statement doesn’t suprise me. It’s not the first time DFI has given a favourable judgement on Stafford. Hunting through my old posts recently, I came across one from December 2009. It mentioned that Dr Foster had published a new study and again created quite a stir by identifying the ‘dirty dozen’ of ‘worst’ hospitals in England.

In that study, Dr Foster used fifteen metrics to evaluate hospitals. All of them were tightly defined, even in some cases narrowed to a single operation. For example, one concerned a particular technique for gall bladder removal. So a hospital whose General Surgeons used that specific technique well would score highly on that measure; with only fifteen being taken into account, that would probably have a major impact on its overall standing too.

Equally, a hospital with general surgeons who were not particularly competent in that approach might find its rating seriously depressed. And yet General Surgery is just one of the 25-30 specialties in even a small hospital like Stafford. The gall bladder indicator tells you nothing about any of the other specialties.

More generally, just fifteen metrics are far too few to give a clear view of performance across all specialities, or by the whole body of staff, which at Stafford is nearly 3000 strong.

That didn’t stop DFI publishing its performance ratings of hospitals based on fifteen indicators. Poor old Stafford, I can imagine you saying, being castigated again. But have no fear: it wasn’t. Far from it. On that terribly narrow range of DFI indicators, Mid Staffs, far from being one of the dirty dozen, was categorised ninth out of 146 around the country.

And that was based on data up to March 2009, the very period for which Stafford Hospital was being crucified for appalling performance.

Excellent confirmation, if any were necessary, that trying to define good or bad hospitals is an impossible task, especially if you use a highly limited range of indicators to assess them.

In fact, to get a real idea of performance across the whole range of services within a hospital would take many dozen indicators, far more than any organisation such as DFI, other companies or even the health service have the means to measure. And even if the full range were available, how could they be combined into a single value reflecting whether the hospital as a whole is ‘good’ or ‘bad’? How does one weight poor performance in cancer care (very serious) against excellence in delivering babies (huge volume)? How long must patients wait in Emergency services to cancel out the benefit of having an enviable record in avoiding hospital acquired infections?

No-one can answer those questions. Which is why I maintain there’s no such thing as a good or bad hospital: there’s no way of saying that one hospital, taken as a whole, is either particularly bad or particularly good. It’s much more likely that it will be under-performing in some areas and doing well in others.

That’s why when the dust settled, the people of Stafford became upset that in the aftermath of the original scandal, the hospital’s Accident and Emergency services were cut down to daytime only (8:00 a.m. till 10:00 p.m.) At any other times, people requiring emergency hospital care travel to Stoke (20 minutes by car) or Wolverhampton (25 minutes). Alternatively, they hang on for the local service to open and join the massive queues that now form at the entrance: Stafford, like most places around the country, has seen a big increase in Accident and Emergency attendances.

As a result of yesterday’s decision, Cannock hospital is now to be brought under the management of Wolverhampton, and Stafford hospital under Stoke’s. Will that make things any better? Only if management by executives remote from the place where services are being delivered is likely to lead to better performance than was achieved by local control.

Why have we reached this position?

Because life’s a lot simpler if we can identify a whipping boy and vent our animosity against it.

Because Stafford Hospital is synonymous with bad quality and there is mileage for politicians in running it down, and no mileage at all in defending it.

Because, in short, there’s nothing easier or more likely to generate good press coverage, than to attack a ‘bad hospital’.

Even though we all ought to know there’s no such thing.