Tuesday, 30 September 2014

It just takes a little patience, and a bit more money

A homeowner with a leaking roof called in a man who claimed to be a roofer.

“Ah,” said the roofer, “it’ll cost a lot and it’ll take at least a year.”

After grumbling a bit, the homeowner agreed to the terms, even though the sheer cost meant a lot of pain, cancelling a holiday, not entertaining friends, even eating rather less.

At the end of the year, the roof was still leaking.

“Yes,” said the roofer, “but it’s leaking less. If you’ll pay me rather more than last time and give me another year, I’ll get it fixed for you.”

A man flagged down a taxi and asked how much it would cost to drive to the airport. The driver quoted a figure that sounded excessive, but the passenger was in a hurry and accepted.

They drove for so long that the passenger was far too late for his plane. Then the driver pulled in and told him they’d arrived.

“But this isn’t the airport,” said the passenger.

“No, but it’s closer,” said the driver. “If you pay me even more I can get you to the airport in time for the next plane.”

An internet user was absolutely delighted to have been put in a position to receive £10 million from the manager of a Nigerian bank. He willingly paid the £60,000 asked for, since it was dwarfed by the amount he was due to receive.

He waited six months but no funds showed up. He wrote to the same e-mail address and, slightly to his surprise, received a reply.

“Good sir, there is now chance we make available not £10 million but £14 million. You please send £130,000 more and we transfer whole sum.”

The UK Prime Minister David Cameron campaigned in the 2010 election pledging: “We will protect Britain’s credit rating with a credible plan to eliminate the bulk of the structural deficit over a Parliament.”

At the end of the following Parliament, the deficit is still out of control but Britain has suffered austerity which has seen the proliferation of food banks, disabled people denied benefits, the poor made poorer, while only the wealthiest have done well.

At the Conservative Party Conference yesterday, George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, the man in charge of our finances, told us that he was “humbled by how much more we have to do.” And he declared that “we here resolve we will finish the job that we have started.”

All he needs is the chance to impose five more years of austerity to make it happen.

George Osborne: didn't do the job, but would like to try again
What's not to trust?

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Great to see the Tories suffering, but sad it should be by UKIP lying to and ripping off more voters

The discomfiture of the Tory Party would normally give me a pleasant surge of Schadenfreude, so I ought to be glad that the start of its conference has been overshadowed by adverse publicity. But when that publicity comes courtesy of gutter journalism by a tabloid and of a vicious far right-wing organisation, I take no pleasure from it.

The tabloid poison came from the Sunday Mirror. I don’t know the details because I refuse to read the articles, but apparently they trapped a junior Minister into sexting explicit pictures of himself, forcing him to resign. It seems to me that the role of the press is to expose incompetence or dishonesty in politicians, not to mount sting operations to embarrass them about their sexual weaknesses.

When it comes to being toxic, however, no one beats the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP. It held its party conference this weekend, just before the Conservatives assembled for theirs. The conference was in Doncaster, where the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband is Member of Parliament; on Friday, indeed, the conference focused on trying to win disaffected Labour voters to its banners.

We even had a UKIP member and long-time Labour voter telling us that she remained a socialist, but a “commonsensical socialist”. She’d joined UKIP because she felt it represented more closely what she believes. Presumably she feels that it’s socialist common sense to stand for xenophobia and scapegoating immigrants for a crisis that was caused by the failures of our financial system.

That was all on Friday. On Saturday, party leader Nigel Farage announced the defection of a Conservative MP to his party, the second in a month. Mark Reckless justified his decision on the grounds that “people feel ignored, taken for granted, over-taxed, over-regulated, ripped off and lied to.”

Mark Reckless joining the feckless
With an image of his party leader Nigel Farage gloating behind him
It was wonderful for UKIP to be able to announce this news just hours before the Prime Minister turned up for the start of the Conservative Conference. David Cameron, not a quick thinker, if he’s a thinker at all, was unable to answer the many questions from journalists, both on the defection and the ministerial resignation, preferring simply to walk grim-faced into the conference building.

A real coup for UKIP, in other words.

Except when you start looking into the reality behind the words. All that stuff about having a stand that should attract Labour voters was curious, when the joker they had up their sleeve wasn’t a Labour defection but another Tory. That does rather confirm the general view that UKIP is simply a more dangerously right-wing version of the Conservatives. Saturday’s message had little in common with Friday’s.

Sunday continued to build on UKIP's return to its Tory roots. The party announced a new tax policy that would generate savings of £43,000 a year – three-quarters as much again as median annual earnings in Britain – for anyone being paid a million a year. It would make no change at all to those on £10,000 a year.

So when Reckless talks about being “overtaxed” then, like any Tory, he means the people on top incomes.

As for being “ignored, taken for granted” and “ripped off”, if you’re on low earnings UKIP intends to treat you exactly that way.

Indeed, when a suggestion was made by a UKIP spokesman that the party might put a tax on luxury items such as shoes and handbags, Nigel Farage went out of his way to kill the idea right off. He told the BBC “I’m pretty certain that while I am leader that will not be in our manifesto.”

Reckless claimed sympathy with those who are being lied to, but if UKIP is trying to appeal to Labour supporters with the suggestion that it might tackle inequality in society, it’s not providing the most shining examples of truth-telling itself.

But then Reckless is hardly a man to turn down the opportunity to gain a political advantage by a falsehood. It seems that as recently as Friday, he left a voicemail for the Tory Party chairman Grant Shapps, assuring him that he would be attending the Party Conference. Within 48 hours, he was announcing his defection at a time designed to do the most damage to his former colleagues. It
’s hardly unreasonable of Shapps to claim that Reckless lied, and lied, and lied.

Ignored, taken for granted, lied to, ripped off. Anyone naive enough to be taken in by the UKIP message is going to find out how that really feels. Which is why I take little joy over the news that has caused so much distress to the Tories. Couldn’t happen to more deserving people. But it shouldn’t be this way.

As for the woman who regards herself as a commonsensical socialist hoping to achieve her aims through UKIP, I have just one question: might that approach not prove just a little reckless?

Saturday, 27 September 2014

In praise of praise for a place called home. However flat.

A journalist doing a piece about a village lost in the back of beyond is said to have interviewed, amongst others, the oldest inhabitant.

“Have you been here all your life?” he asked.

“Not yet,” replied the old man.

Since this morning I’ve been inspired by a book by a FaceBook friend, Cheryl Unruh, Flyover People. It
s an edited compilation of pieces she wrote for The Emporia Gazette and celebrates the joys of living a life in Kansas, which Unruh is clearly well on the way to doing (but hasn’t yet).

The title itself is appealing. When my (French) stepson came to live in England, kids at school started calling him “Frog”, displaying the innate kindness that children like to show to newcomers everywhere. Fortunately, he took to the name and started using it of himself, at which point it stopped being a weapon to tease him with. There's nothing better, when faced with a term of disparagement, than to adopt it and wear it with pride, as Unruh has done with the notion of a flyover state, a place one leaves mercifully below oneself as one travels by plane from one place of considerably more interest, to another.

It was an attitude I used to share at a time when, having made a number of visits to the US, I realised that I had only once set foot in a state without a seaboard. But then I visited St Paul, Minnesota, and fell in love with it. That made me realise that some of those in-between places deserve a better reputation than they enjoy. Unruh certainly gives me that feeling about Kansas.

“We know home when we see it,” she tells us, and as well as being charmed by the pen portraits she paints, I was amused by the sentiment. It’s hard to imagine a life that contrasts more strongly with my own. My grandmother once accused me of having completely filled the letter “B” pages of her address book, I’d moved so much; and though I’ve lived principally in Western Europe, the places I’ve called home have wandered across four language communities.

So it’s fascinating to read someone who displays a true rootedness. And that rootedness goes deep, is expressed in a boundless love for her rectangular state. I have to confess, but then I have a nasty sceptical mind, that sometimes I feel she protests too much, making a virtue of the sheer lack of what outsiders would see as features in her state. But there’s no doubting the sincerity of affection with which she takes us deep into the finest details, describing her husband taking photos of the pinpoints of light made by insects feeding on plant leaves. Nor can one be anything but inspired by the descriptions at the other end of the scale, of the immensities of skies of every shade of blue, forming a bowl over the vast swaths of varied greens on the plains beneath them.

The plains. That surely is the hallmark of Kansas, known even to people who know as little about the state as I do. It’s flat.

Members of the Kansas flatness research team at work
Its flatness was put to the test by a group of geographers from Texas and Arizona, Mark Fonstad, William Pugatch and Brandon Vogt. They set up a definition of flatness based on the ratio between the major and minor axes of an ellipse, as many surfaces can be approximated by ellipses or parts of them. 

This is true, in particular, of the surface of Kansas, and that of a pancake.

Since, sadly, they couldn’t gain access to “either a Kansas-sized pancake or a pancake-sized Kansas”, they had to resort to mathematical techniques to compare the two. I quote without comment the authors’ own words at this point, as they seem self-explanatory: “for both Kansas and the pancake, we approximated the local ellipsoid with a second-order polynomial line fit to the cross-sections.”

Who could disagree that this was an eminently satisfactory approach?

“We purchased a well-cooked pancake,” they inform us, “from a local restaurant,” and proceeded to microscopical analysis. 

“The importance of this research dictated that we not be daunted by the 'No Food or Drink' sign posted in the microscopy room,” a sentiment we can only applaud, as it granted us insight into a matter that might otherwise have remained a mystery. 

The mathematical index of flatness they used would give a value of 1.000 for perfect flatness. On this basis, the pancake scored 0.957, “which is pretty flat, but far from perfectly flat.”

What about Kansas? The state’s cross-section presented a problem.

“The state is so flat that the off-the-shelf software produced a flatness value for it of 1,” the authors point out. “This value was, as they say, too good to be true, so we did a more complex analysis, and after many hours of programming work, we were able to estimate that Kansas’s flatness is approximately 0.9997.”

There are results of scientific experiment that are ambiguous or uncertain. This is not one of them. This is conclusive.

“That degree of flatness might be described, mathematically, as ‘damn flat.’”

The conclusion? “Simply put, our results show that Kansas is considerably flatter than a pancake.”

The proof

There's nothing flat about Uruh’s writing, though. I haven’t finished the book yet, though I shall soon. And I’ve no doubt about her claim that the sheer flatness of the landscape makes the Kansas skyscapes all the more breathtaking.

The upside of flatness

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Beefing about nationalism

“All meat sold in this store,” said the sign, “is British.”

That had me smiling wryly. Because I lived in France for ten years and out there they had signs proclaiming all the meat they were selling to be French. Indeed, during the mad cow disease crisis in Britain, French butchers were strident in their insistence that none of their beef was British.

A guarantee to make us feel safer
Well, unless you're French. Or from anywhere outside Britain
Now I have no objection to people demanding that their food be safe. To be frank, I’d also rather prefer it that way. I’m not convinced, though, that the fact that it’s being produced by compatriots offers any guarantees. I really don’t see why I should expect British farmers or food companies to be any safer than French ones – or vice versa. They all, after all, use the same techniques and products as each other.

But food is a visceral matter. I’ve known Jews or Muslims, for instance, who have abandoned every aspect of the practice of their faith who can’t free themselves of their dietary laws: once your body has learned that pork is unclean, it’s hard to shake that feeling. Bear in mind that it is a feeling, far more than a belief. The faith, say that certain rituals must be performed on certain days, is relatively easy to shake because it is a matter for the mind; but the body is far more basic and far more conservative.

So when we feel threatened in our food, we run for atavistic cover: back to what we identify as our community. So British (or French) food is safer because France (or Britain) is our country.

Nationalism is the belief that one country is better than others, simply because it
s ours. And the example of the fatuous posters about locally produced meat underlines how widespread and baseless, that belief is. 

It wouldn’t matter if that was as far as it went. But in England today we see the rise of a viciously nationalistic party, UKIP, which wants to further inflame national sentiment and build its popularity on it. So its primary stance is anti-immigrant and, make no mistake about it, their objection to immigrants isn’t truly economic or even political, it’s simply based on the crassest of gut-feel dislike of the foreigner for no other reason than he or she is foreign.

Unsurprisingly, as the two nations are so close, and not just geographically, France is seeing the parallel growth of an equally vicious, xenophobic nationalist party, the Front National, with views that mirror much of UKIP’s stance.

Both parties would, naturally, strongly maintain the superiority of their country’s meat over that of the other – or indeed any other. The people of their nation are better, the foodstuffs of the nation are therefore better.

Sadly, these attitudes are spilling over and infecting far too much of the life of each of these nations. The French FN is whipping up Islamophobia as part of its hatred of anything it sees as extraneous and those attitudes are spreading through an increasing portion of the institutions of society; in Britain, both the Conservatives and, sadly, Labour are trying to woo support among UKIP voters by making dangerous concessions to its views.

It’s no surprise that for all its talk of sympathy with the sufferings of Syria, Britain has let in just 24 refugees from that country.

Nationalism is toxic and it’s deeply anchored. Indeed, there’s only one sentiment capable of supplanting it. Curiously, that’s best exemplified by another matter of nationality of meat. 

When the European Union decided to ban beef imports from Britain because of Foot and Mouth, many Northern Irish farmers asked to be reclassified as Irish.

Wonderful, isn’t it? Many of these men are the descendants of Edward Carson who proclaimed “no surrender” to the attempt to push the North into an independent Irish Republic. Many would have voted for Ian Paisley
’s party during his “Never, Never, Never” phase. Over their dead bodies would they ever be made to give up their British status and become Irish.

Until, that is, they were hit in their pocket books. Then, yes, being Irish was a legitimate demand and they pursued it energetically.

Come to think of it, that might be the best answer to the threats nationalism poses. Not guns and bullets. Just a little money to persuade its adherents that their bread might be better buttered on the other side. In the long run, it might be a lot more effective.

And, actually, cost a great deal less.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

An example to us all: Tesco and the Holy Grail of private sector management skills

I’ve been accused by some of not being sufficiently enthusiastic about the great, internationally recognised truth, that they do things better in the private sector. Worse still I persist in remaining lukewarm despite having worked in private companies for thirty years.

I utterly reject that charge. 

There’s no “despite” about it. It’s all “because”.

In any case, how can anyone be anything but sceptical with the edifying example of Tesco before our eyes?

In its early days, Tesco was a decidedly downmarket grocer. “Pile it high and sell it cheap,” was the slogan of its founder, Jack Cohen. In the 80s and 90s, it moved upmarket, committing itself to quality and with prices that remained competitive but weren’t specifically aimed at being cheap. In 1995, it overtook long-time leader Sainsbury’s to become the number 1 grocery retailer in Britain.

But then the pioneering generation that had founded Tesco’s, and the equally entrepreneurial successors who took it upmarket and to the number one slot, began to give way to top executives who were only that: senior corporate executives. Hungry new low cost retailers entered the market and Tesco’s couldn’t react; it began to lose market share and profits.

On 29 August this year, the company had to issue a profit warning, cutting its forecast for the year from £2.8 billion to £2.4 billion. Now some of us might regard £2.4 billion as a not unreasonable sum – nearly a hundred thousand times more than the median income of a British employee – but last year, the company brought in just short of £3.3 billion.

Yesterday things turned even more embarrassing. Tesco had to make a further profit warning. It seemed that the previous forecast had, inexplicably, been overstated. Not by much – £250 million, and what’s quarter of a billion between friends? – but that was still enough to set a few nerves jangling amongst those friends (the City of London has the reputation for friendliness and loyalty one would expect from any major international financial centre).

Tesco: every little helps.
They seem to have lost sight of a little. It helped their forecast
Now, you don’t want to be too hard on those guys. After all, you can’t always find the staff these days. I mean, the Finance Director was such a washout that when they got rid of him, all they had to pay him was £970,000 to go away. What’s more his salary was £886,000, not even eighteen times median earnings. 

You know what they say: pay peanuts and you get monkeys. And, as we all know, monkeys can’t count. No wonder £250 million got lost in the accounts. 

It was no doubt a matter of chance that it was lost in a way that seemed to boost the company’s standing instead of undermining it.

Now the people who built Tesco’s had flair. Like them or loathe them, one can’t deny their business sense. In my career, I’ve met many executives who understand what leadership means and can inspire a company to do far better than might have seemed possible.

But I’ve met a great many nonentities of just the same calibre as Tesco’s seems to have recruited in recent years. What amuses me is that they still command eye-watering salaries. And they manage to persuade so many that the private sector management skills they exemplify are just what our railways lines, utilities or hospitals need to open up prospects of a brilliant future.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve met a great many incompetent hospital managers in a long career working with the NHS. But, as Tesco’s so aptly demonstrates, I remain deeply sceptical that the mere fact of being a private sector manager qualifies you to take over and make things better.

Perhaps the private sector could start by setting its own house in order first.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Yet another redundancy and the obsession with privatisation

A friend of mine has just been made redundant. Two years before he could have taken his pension.

He worked for the local Council for many years, but then his department was hived off to the private sector, to an outsourcing company which offered to provide the same service. Two years on, the company has decided to rid itself of most of the staff it took over. So my friend is unemployed, at a time in life when it isn’t always easy to find a job, and his pension isn
’t fully paid up.

You may wonder why I tell this story. It’s far from uncommon. Why focus on one case?

Put it down to the old Stalin principle, that one death is a tragedy, a million a statistic. Talking to a man who’s putting a brave face on misfortune makes the pain far more palpable, far more poignant than just hearing about the tens or hundreds of thousands of others who’ve suffered the same fate.

It’s happening all over the public sector. The NHS, for instance. Government policy is clear: any service that can possibly be put out to tender, must be. It used to be cleaning and catering, but these days it’s diagnostic services, therapeutic services, anything that can be delineated and handed over.

Emblematic of failed privatisaion:
Serco and out-of-hours service in Cornwall
And how well has it worked? It seems to me that the poster boy here is Serco, one of the big boys of the outsourcing business in the UK. It had to cut short its contract to provide out-of-hours healthcare services in Cornwall because it couldn't fix problems that led to a barrage of complaints about quality; it also cancelled its arrangement to provide clinical services to Braintree Community Trust. Then in August it announced it was pulling out of the clinical services market entirely, as it was losing far too much money trying to run them. 

Think about what
’s going on here. The company ran a lousy service that failed to meet patients' needs. But even at that level it couldn’t make the clinical services business pay. Not that such considerations stopped senior executives paying themselves generously: in 2011, the Chief Executive collected £1.86 million and the Finance Director £948,000.

Now that’s healthcare, and my friend was in local government. But the same considerations apply. Private companies don’t have a glowing track record of managing services any more effectively than the public sector; as often as not, it’s because in pursuit of a profit, they cut staff to the lowest levels they can manage, whether or not that allows them to meet requirements.

That thinking’s cost my friend his job.

Poor service. Dissatisfied service users. Employees’ careers destroyed through no fault of their own. And yet, no great profits to delight shareholders. Though wonderful pay to executives to prove they can
’t deliver them.

Those are the results of today’s blind fixation with privatisation in the Western world. Yet the victims are far more numerous than the beneficiaries, and we all have votes. Why do we leave in office the people who pursue this distorted dream instead of showing them the door?

Meanwhile my friend’s out of work and looking for another couple of years to shore up his pension. All I can do is swallow my anger and wish him well. And put out a few feelers to see if anyone I know is recruiting.

Without much hope of success, in this Brave New World that is ConDem Britain.

Friday, 19 September 2014

The United Kingdom saved but not preserved

So in the end it wasn’t even close.

Yes to Scottish Independence
But this time at least it was No to ending the Union
Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom by a wide margin – 55.3% to 44.7%. A substantial difference. Nothing like as wide as the 20-point leads the ‘No’ campaign was notching up in polls two years ago, but still decisive, and nothing like the close result the polls predicted last week. Why, a couple of polls even put ‘Yes’ ahead.

Had the ‘No’ campaign failed, David Cameron might have found his position untenable. As it happens, Alex Salmond, after a long and highly successful career as Scotland’s First Minister, has decided to resign. Odd. It was a bad defeat but it was only one defeat, and no-one has been a more outspoken champion of Scotland. Surely his commitment would have been just what was needed for the next round of the debate.

For a next round there’s certainly going to be. David Cameron wasted the two years of the campaign, when he could have prepared proposals for increased Scottish autonomy. There might have been a Constitutional Convention, involving all parties. That would have put Alex Salmond on the back foot. He could have taken part, and looked as though he was hedging his bets on independence, or stayed out, and looked petty.

Such a Constitutional Convention would have prepared proposals to lay before the Scottish electorate as an alternative to independence. But it would have required effort from David Cameron, who’s shown himself no great friend of hard work. Instead, he waited until a poll showed the ‘Yes’ campaign ahead two weeks ago and then rushed around, stitching ideas together in a panic.

Suddenly, out of the shadows, stepped a figure from the past. Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister, emerged as the only champion of the United Kingdom to produce coherent, well-argued proposals for transferring more power to Scotland, his home country. He was a transformed character. My wife, watching him speaking passionately to a campaign meeting, said “why couldn’t he be like that when he was in Downing Street?” I was amused to notice next morning’s Guardian asking the same question.

Brown brought together the leaders of the three main UK parties, David Cameron for the Conservatives, his Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats, and Ed Miliband for the Opposition Labour Party. They published a ‘Vow’ to hand over powers to Scotland in the event of a ‘No’ vote, while maintaining the current net transfer of public funds to Scotland.

On the front page of the Daily Record
The vow all three party leaders now have to honour
Now that vow has to be kept. Partly because to break it would be to lose all credibility. Even more because we remember the lesson of the two independence referendums in Quebec: the 1980 vote saw independence rejected by nearly 20 percent; a triumphalist response in Ontario and no concessions to the nationalists, meant a new referendum in 1995 where secession was defeated by only just over a single percentage point. 

To avoid that fate, the UK has to grant substantially more autonomy to Scotland. But that’s not without its own difficulties. Voices are being raised in Wales about whether the other nations of the UK can expect the same enhanced powers as Scotland. And in England an old question is being asked again: should Scots MPs in Westminster vote on English issues, since English MPs have no say on the same issues in Scotland, now handled by the Edinburgh Parliament?

Equally, voices are being raised to ask just why the rest of the UK should continue to fund significantly higher public spending per head in Scotland than anywhere else.

The worst problem is that we don’t all, in England, give the same answers. Should some issues in the Westminster Parliament be regarded as purely English with only English MPs entitled to vote on them? Or should there be a specifically English Parliament just as there is a Scottish parliament, a Welsh Assembly and a Northern Ireland Assembly? Or is it tolerable to leave Scots with a say over English education, social security and healthcare, while the English have no say over theirs?

Personally, I like the idea of an English Parliament in principle, but not at all in practice: it would have an entrenched Conservative majority for a long time to come.

As for the extra public spending in Scotland, is it reasonable since the whole of the UK has benefited from the North Sea oil found off the Scottish coast? Or is it money taken from England, Wales and Northern Ireland and handed, without justification, to the Scots?

Tough questions with no easy answers. And we have only a few months to find a response. We’ve just emerged from a tough campaign, only to go into some tough negotiations.

I was asked this morning whether I was celebrating last night’s results. The answer is ‘no’. What I feel is relief that the Scots aren’t leaving us. But celebration can only start once we’ve solved the difficult questions we’re facing, and come up with a new constitutional settlement that meets the aspirations of all four nations in this newly reunited Kingdom.

No hope, by the way, of stopping it being a Kingdom any time soon.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Is progress inevitable? And will the future laugh at us?

The other day – ploughing up and down a swimming pool and therefore badly in need of delight – or even merely solace – I discovered the pleasure of listening to BBC Radio 4’s programme The Philosopher’s Arms. The premise is that it takes place in licensed premises, a pub, where professional philosophers (or near-philosophers: we’ve had an anthropologist and a psychologist already) mix with amateurs in the audience, to debate a notable philosophical issue.

One of the podcasts concerned the issue of judging the assumptions and beliefs of another culture or, indeed, of the same culture in another age. You know – “how hilarious that they thought that, before society progressed to the level of enlightenment we enjoy today.”

The Philosopher's Arms being recorded.
In an actual pub
The presenter, Matthew Sweet, had enough self-awareness at least to ask at the end what our successors might find to laugh at us over, in our views and attitudes.

I’d have two possible answers to that question. Two because I think standing still won’t happen, but I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that there’s anything inevitable about progress. Regression is at least as possible

Here then are two possible conversations between a father and his teenage son sometime in the twenty-second century.

“Dad, is it true that back in granddad’s time, men could wander around the streets holding hands and – well – kissing?”

“More like his granddad’s time, but yes, they did. Men with men. Women with women. Those were degenerate days. It took a long time, and a lot of purification, to put all that behind us.”

“Didn’t the godly deal with such evil?”

“Well, of course. But it took hard work. People in those days weren’t all of the true faith. You wouldn’t believe it – you could have looked down this street and seen all sorts of temples and churches for every blasphemy imaginable. And some of them, and not the smallest, even allowed sexual deviants in. They called them ‘gay’, as though there was something joyful about denying your God.”

“Wow. At least we’ve got rid of that kind of vice.”

“Not entirely. Why do you think you see the hangings at the South Gate? We’re never free sin, you know. It’s a test God sends us. To see how we deal with it.”

“That’s why we deal with it so firmly.”

“Yes. And even that’s something new. I mean, some countries were still pretty good at eradicating evil back then, but some actually did away with the death penalty. They thought it was backward. That just because the Lord tells us not to kill, we shouldn’t execute.”

“But… that’s nonsense. How can you truly value life if you don’t hang people?”

Now things might not go that way. Here’s an alternative version of the conversation.

“Dad, what’s this? People in granddad’s time used to die of cancer?”

“Well, his granddad’s really. But you know, medicine was pretty much in its infancy then. If someone got cancer, they’d often treat them with chemotherapy, which basically meant injecting huge quantities of highly poisonous stuff into them, in the hope that it would kill the cancer.”

“But didn’t it sometimes kill them?”

“I suppose at least the cancer would be gone.”

“Killing people was pretty much the answer to a lot of problems, wasn’t it?”

“Yep. If you wanted something, you went and took it, and if the people it belonged to objected, you used guns to persuade them they’d got their sense of values wrong. And the nice thing about a gun is that if you use it effectively, the mistake goes away with the person who espoused it.”

“Just like the cancer. But why didn’t the victims use their own guns?”

“Some people had a lot more guns than others.”


“They had pink skins. Which they called white. That made them top dogs. And anyone darker had to do what they were told.”

“They thought that skin colour mattered?”

“They did. And anyway they had more money.”

“Ah, yes. Is it true that it all it took to come out on top and succeed in any field, and get your hands on power too, was to have a lot of money? And it didn’t matter how you made it?”

“That was the way society was organised in those days.”

“But isn’t it exactly the same now?”

“Yes. You don’t think progress changes things as fundamental as money, do you?”

Ah, well. At least I won’t be around to find out which scenario is realised. Though I hope I can do a little to make sure it isn’t the first.

The one sure thing: in either case, they’ll be looking back at us. And laughing.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Appointment in Samarra, on my father's birthday

One of the more shameful injustices of life is that my father missed reaching the age of 92, as he would have done this 15 September, by an unforgivable 31 years. 

Happy birthday!
If only you could share it with us
My father had a great many outstanding qualities, among which was his ability to tell stories. Many he would make up, long rambling picaresque rambles, starring my brother and me, that wandered aimlessly for hours without ever reaching a conclusion, but kept us mesmerised throughout. Excellent proof, if any were needed, that the journey matters far more than the destination.

At other times he would tell us anecdotes from his own life, about his wartime service in the Royal Air Force, or his time in various countries he visited, often places that would soon become trouble spots (not I hope due to his visit): the former Belgian Congo, Ethiopia, Afghanistan among others. The US, come to that.

The teller and (half) his audience
Though I think I was older when he told this story
And finally he would occasionally tell us tales by other people, and they were often no less fascinating for having a different author. One of my personal favourites was that of the Appointment in Samarra. It struck me from the outset as a perfect story: brief, immediately engaging for its premise, and with a devilish sting in the tail. It also makes an essential point about human life, specifically about human destiny, a point that has significance even if one believes that men, and not heaven, create their destinies.

In fact, that belief makes it if anything more powerful, since it illustrates how we contribute to our own fate.

The story has doubtless been told countless times. One elegant, succinct version comes from Somerset Maugham. 

So today, in tribute to my father on his birthday, here it is. In full.

Appointment in Samarra

The speaker is Death

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me.

She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.

Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?

That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Ian Paisley: salute a man who found a voice for reason

It’s difficult to work up much of a sense of bereavement over the death of a politician who, during their lives, voiced views that we find toxic.

For my part, I felt no desire to celebrate Maggie Thatcher’s departure – I reserved that for her fall from her office, after which it was a matter of complete indifference to me whether or not she still lived, since she no longer exerted any direct influence over things I held dear. That baleful influence persists, for instance in the 2008 crash caused by the deregulation of banking presided over by Ronald Reagan with her enthusiastic support, but it’s exercised by others who deserve our opposition today. When she died, the matter seemed to me just a footnote in the news.

But I feel different about the death of Ian Paisley yesterday. While I have no sympathy with Ulster Unionism, I can appreciate the stature of the man. He was a far greater figure than Thatcher could ever be.

Ian Paisley in his prime: the megaphone voice of Protestant Unionism
Thatcher was a politician without compassion. She ruthlessly destroyed whole communities in pursuit of beliefs she held with utterly dogmatic, unshakeable certainty. She was incapable of giving any consideration to the possibility that she might be wrong on any issue. It strikes me as particularly powerful wisdom on the part of Tim Minchin to point out that while it’s true, as the popular expression has it, that opinions are like arseholes in that everyone has one, opinions differ from arseholes in requiring to be regularly and closely scrutinised.

It always struck me about Thatcher that she would never have been open to the idea that an opinion of hers deserved scrutiny. She would probably have denied that anything she believed was tenuous enough to be called an opinion rather than a fact. But then I doubt she could have been prevailed upon to admit she even had an arsehole: she took herself far too seriously to allow anything so low.

It was that utter humourlessness, particularly with regard to herself, that was her defining characteristic. Her determination to be taken seriously meant she couldn’t admit that any view contrary to her own might have merit; that made her rigid and intolerant. It was those qualities that led to her ultimate fall. Having pummelled her way into gaining acceptance of such policies as the poll tax, she made herself unelectable, the deadliest of sins within the Tory Party. After having worshipped her for more than a decade, it unceremoniously knifed her.

Now Paisley seemed to be a politician cut from exactly the same block. The phrase most associated with him, a continuation of Edward Carson’s “no surrender” that did such damage to Ulster for decades, was his notorious “never, never, never.” It echoed Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” (Tina as we came to know it, though not uniformly with affection).

There is always an alternative. Paisley unlike Thatcher saw it. On 12 July 2006, eight years after the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement, Paisley said of Sinn Fein that they “are not fit to be in partnership with decent people. They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland and it will be over our dead bodies if they ever get there.”

And yet on 8 May 2007, a mere ten months later, he became First Minister of Northern Ireland, with as his deputy Martin McGuinness, who is not only from Sinn Fein but a known former IRA commander. Paisley said “today at long last we are starting upon the road — I emphasise starting — which I believe will take us to lasting peace in our province.”

Now it takes real courage to make that kind of a turn in politics, or in anything else. To do it for the sake of peace in a riven community shows real greatness.

Thatcher famously – or infamously – said “the lady’s not for turning.” Paisley turned on a question central to his whole political being. And proved himself far the finer statesman by doing so.

Rest in peace, Ian Paisley. My disagreement remains as strong as ever. But it comes with a substantial dose of admiration too.

Postscript. I was once told a story about Paisley whose truth I’ve never been able to establish, and indeed have never investigated: I’d hate to discover it was an invention.

Bernadette Devlin was for a while an MP at Westminster, and the sworn enemy of everything Paisley stood for. She once told him that unionism was unfair. He admitted that she was right but pointed out that he’d “rather be British than be fair.” That at least has the merit of being honest, especially as many Brits like to believe that to be British is to be essentially fair – or at least to believe in fair play, which may or may not be the same thing.

Bernadette Devlin: MP at 22
Firebrand nationalist and nemesis of Paisley
The story I was told was that after a late night sitting of the House of Commons, Paisley was waiting for a taxi in the queue outside the Palace of Westminster. A taxi drew up, but he stood back to let the next MP have it.

“But it’s your cab,” the other replied.

“I’m waiting for Bernadette,” he told him.

Bernadette was a young woman, it was late and London is a big and sometimes dangerous place. She might be a sworn adversary, but Paisley saw it as his duty to see her safely home.

A BBC journalist told an anecdote last night which rather suggested that this might be true.

He found himself, by coincidence, sitting next to Paisley on a plane to London. They chatted all the way over, but Paisley spoke so softly that the correspondent had difficulty hearing him over the engine noise. As they arrived in London, they were besieged by reporters. Paisley switched on his trademark megaphone voice and used it to proclaim some inflammatory and unbending statement or another.

And then turned to his travelling companion and winked.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Thokozile Masipa: above all, a fine judge

There’s been a lot of talk about the judge in the Oscar Pistorius case, Thokozile Masipa.
A remarkable judge
A woman sitting as judge in such a high profile case. Today, that’s not so remarkable, though not many years ago it would have been.

A black judge presiding over the trial of a white celebrity. In South Africa. That remains remarkable even today. South Africa took its first stumbling steps towards racial equality only in the 1990s. Masipa sitting in judgement over Pistorius is something of a milestone.

But the quality of Masipa
’s that hasn’t attracted anything like enough attention, is that she’s an excellent judge. Black or white, man or woman, anywhere aspiring to democracy needs all the Masipas it can get.

Yesterday, Masipa acquitted Pistorius of murder (there was no jury). That’s a judgement that has shocked a great many people.

And yet, what she pointed out was that much of the evidence against Pistorius was hearsay. Witnesses had testified to hearing screams, but it was impossible to rule out that it was Pistorius himself screaming. Angry texts exchanged by the couple only revealed how human relationships fluctuate and did not prove murderous intent. Overall, she felt that the prosecution had simply not proved its case “beyond reasonable doubt”, and therefore the charge could not be made to stick.

In those words, Masipa spoke out for an essential and threatened principle. In Britain today presumption of innocence is in jeopardy. Those who give way to terror in the face of terrorism, not realising that this gives the terrorists their greatest victory, have called for people suspected of fighting with Islamic State in the Middle East, to have to clear their own name.

Masipa’s judgement restates the opposite view. She didn’t say Pistorius was innocent of murder. She said that the prosecution had failed to prove him guilty, and that’s all it takes for an acquittal. The prosecution has the police on its side and the colossal means of the state. If it can’t convince a reasonable person of its case, which is what proof beyond reasonable doubt means, then its case must fail.

Oscar Pistorius in happier times
This was shocking only to those who suspect, as surely a great many of us do, that Pistorius deliberately killed his girlfriend and and believe that’s enough to convict him. Masipa has replied categorically, “no, it isn’t.”

She did also go on to accuse him of being negligent by firing four shots through a locked door without even establishing who was behind it.

Today she confirmed that his negligence was criminal, when she convicted him of culpable homicide. That was a judgement as clear-sighted as yesterday’s. Pistorius doesn’t deny he fired the shots that killed Steenkamp. What Masipa has now said is that by doing so he behaved with disregard for human life, whether or not he knew who was behind the door. That has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt, and so it has led to his conviction.

Masipa got it exactly right. With so many apparently ready, even enthusiastic, for many of these things to be done wrong, that’s far more important than the immediate matter of the Pistorius case. It’s a beacon to nations that would be free.

And that’s what really matters about Thokozile Masipa.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Thirteen years to start to measure the impact of 9/11

So it’s the 11th of September again.

It was a shocking day back in 2001. But 13 years on it’s clear we haven’t finished measuring the damage it did.

As the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, it was clear the West had to do something. Sadly, in many circles, and above all in government circles, that view became translated into a sense that the West could legitimately do any old thing.

What we did first was invade Afghanistan. Now Britain fought two Afghan wars in the nineteenth century, and even a small postscript Third Anglo-Afghan war in the twentieth. Afghanistan never fell to Britain.

Brilliant success in the First Afghan War
The last British survivor gets back to base
In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Just over nine years later, in 1989, it was forced back out. The opposition it couldn’t crush was spearheaded by Muslim jihadists which the United States armed and financed. The government put in office by the Soviets struggled on for another three years and then fell to the US-backed insurgents, and the fallen President was eventually brutally assassinated.

But just because Britain and Russia failed, that wasn’t going to stop the US leading a coalition into the country to show the Afghans who was boss. And they’ve succeeded. A decade later, the last forces are poised to leave and the Taliban, now the enemy of the US, is poised to move right back in.

Just like after the Russians left.

The second thing the West did was to invade Iraq. There was some rationale behind the Afghan adventure, since the government there backed Al Qaida and offered refuge to its leader, Osama Bin Laden, who organised the 9/11 attack. But Iraq? It had nothing to do with it. One could have understood an invasion of Saudi Arabia, Bin Laden’s home nation and the source of much of his financial support, but Saudi has lots of oil, so it’s an ally. A rich ally.

The justification for Iraq was weapons of mass destruction. They hadn’t been used on 9/11 (the idea that aircraft, which were used, are weapons of mass destruction has some merit, but tends to be held only in more fundamentalist ecologist circles). People who really ought to know, like Hans Blix, then in Iraq as a weapons inspector, reckoned it was unlikely Iraq had such weapons. But we went in anyway.

A decade later, the situation there is if anything worse than in Afghanistan. Iraq is riven by violent sectarian conflict. It is impotent and heavily influenced by the West's great enemy in the region, Iran. Worse still, the fighting has given impetus to the emergence as a major force of the fundamentalist movement Islamic State, which makes the Taliban look almost civilised.

Ah, yes. 9/11 was a disaster. Firstly for the brutality, cynicism and ruthlessness of the perpetrators of the attack. But secondly for the myopia that caused the West to walk straight into the trap before it, eyes wide shut.

The anniversary is a good time to remember the victims. The horror such violent bigotry can cause. But also to bring back to mind just what disasters human folly can lead us to, when we allow it to lead us in our response to terrible events.

Brilliant success in Iraq
The West bringing peace and democracy to the Middle East

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Riding a bike: it's just like programming a relational database

There’s something gratifying about trying your hand at something you haven’t done for years, and discovering that it all comes back to you. You might only be as good as you were then, and that may not be saying much, but at least you’re no worse.

It turns out, to my amazement, that working with the Microsoft relational database system SQL Server is just like riding a bike. Well, if you exclude the wheels, pedals, saddle, handlebars and, naturally, Lycra. Or come to that the ghastly hills.

Actually, no, that’s not right. The hills are there. You keep meeting an Alpe d’Huez here, a Mont Ventoux there. They’re logical rather than physical, but no less daunting. Or exhausting.

The joy of cycling.
Or, alternatively, of the SQL Server Query Analyzer
One of the aspects that I like the most about my present job is its variety. Whether by design or merely good fortune, I’ve found myself in something of a firefighter role, where I try to leave well alone and only get stuck in when things are going wrong: the project that’s beginning to drift seriously off timetable or is facing a major setback. The kind of task that requires all those involved to get stuck in, roll up their shirtsleeves, get their hands to the pump, and mix metaphor clich├ęs to their heart’s content.

Hence my dusting off of my SQL Server skills, such as they are, eight or nine years after having last used them in earnest. Or do I mean in anger? Often the anger of other people, especially those who had to clear up my errors.

It’s been like meeting of old friends again. Those glorious struggles with convoluted logic: if I want to know this, then I have to get that from here, and combine it will all of those from there. Heady stuff. Exhilarating.

I wouldn’t want to do it for ever. My colleagues wouldn’t want me to do it for ever. Or, indeed, any longer than absolutely necessary. But it’s fun until the next project comes up.

It’s all come flowing back. Just like riding a bike. But I have to say I was never a Tour de France rider. I never even attempted London to Brighton as a friend of mine recently did, exciting my admiration but none of my envy. No, I was strictly a local cyclist – you know, home to office, office to shops, that kind of thing.

Still, it worked. And my SQL’s working. And that’s gratifying.

Haven’t fallen off the saddle yet.

Monday, 8 September 2014

The anniversary of Bannockburn: this time, there may be no winners

“The pound’s ours as much as yours,” supporters of Scottish independence keep telling me, and they’re right. And our shared pound, like our shared union, is looking shaky today, ten days from the independence referendum. That’s because on Sunday we had the first poll ever suggesting that the ‘Yes’ vote was ahead of ‘No’.

Bankers, among their many other sterling qualities, are terrified of change, any change, so the possibility of the dissolution of the union fills them with fear. And when they’re afraid, they sell. So the pound has taken a bit of a nosedive.

Bannockburn: Scots at their most fearsome,
routing the English, in 1314
The news media and conversations generally are dominated by the approaching vote. Few in England want to see the Scots go, but many of us are beginning to wonder whether they might, after all. I have to confess my position remains what it was before: were I a Scot, I’d probably want independence; as an Englishman, contemplating the prospect of losing 41 Labour MPs, and probably seeing the Conservatives encrusted onto power for another parliament or two, fills me with dread.

That being said, even if I were Scots had a vote, I’m not sure I’d vote for independence on the present terms. The Scots want to cling on to the pound – hence the mantra that it’s theirs, too – but in a currency union with the remainder of the United Kingdom. Why on Earth do they want to do that? After all, they’re in a currency union right now. Why leave the Union but maintain a currency union?

The Irish didn’t after all. They split the pound at the same time as their union with Britain. They even renamed it the punt which, as a friend recently told me on Twitter, is the only currency with the merit of rhyming with “banker.”

In any case, one of the main reasons pro-independence Scots give for their view is that they want to get away from the austerity policies being imposed on us by our Tory-led government. I can sympathise with them: they elected one Tory MP, out of the 59 Scotland sent to Westminster in 2010, and yet they got Tories dictating their politics all the same. Scots are keen on keeping the NHS free at the point of care, universities without fees, pensions higher and benefits more generous. Many of us in England want the same, so I applaud their aspiration. Like them, I lament the fact that the Tories deny us the opportunity to fulfil it.

Leaving the UK would give Scots the opportunity to pursue such policies. But not in a currency union. As Greece has discovered in its dealings with Germany, being in a currency union with a much bigger economy leaves you with little room for manoeuvre. Scotland would find itself constrained by policies, on taxation and public spending, imposed on it by the very Tories they wish to escape.

What on Earth’s the sense in that?

Meanwhile, the No campaign maintains its lacklustre approach, awaking no passion, opposing independence with arguments from an accountant’s ledger: leaving the Union might cost Scots the equivalent of a fish and chips supper a night – a painful price if you’re on the bread line (or do I mean chip line?) but hardly a rousing call to arms (“once more unto the chip shop, dear friends, once more”? I don’t think so).

And now the main Westminster parties have suddenly discovered that they can offer Scotland a great deal more autonomy, more devolved powers. The question sceptical Scots are asking is, “why didn’t you mention that before?” It does indeed look terribly like panic in response to a growing momentum for Yes.

The reality, I suspect, is that David Cameron, the most indolent Prime Minister I can remember, probably never thought of it before. He could have organised a constitutional convention a year or two ago, to consider some kind of federal arrangement within these islands. Just think. Alex Salmond would have had to take part, and look compromised, or stay out, and look curmudgeonly.

That would have put us in a strong position now: we could have been saying to the Scots, “look what’s on offer. Are you sure independence would give you more?”

But such an initiative would have involved Cameron in hard work, including tough negotiations. And he’s never shown much inclination for rolling his sleeves up.

Instead he’s left us on the back foot as we go into the referendum on the 700th anniversary of the famous victory of the Scots over the English at Bannockburn, on 18 September.

Sadly, I think on this occasion the Scots might inflict a grievous defeat not just on us, but on themselves too. A battle without winners. With little hope of gain either side of the border.

Friday, 5 September 2014

How bankers make their money, and why we let them

Liar’s Poker is the first of Michael Lewis’s books I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last. It explains something that has always been obscure to me: how bankers can make huge amounts of money without doing anything remotely useful, indeed despite doing a great deal of harm.

Invaluable insights
Liar’s Poker was published in 1989, which means it’s way out of date. But ironically that only makes it all the more interesting, since it describes precisely the practices that would lead to the crash nineteen years later.

Here’s how they work. Somebody takes out a $100,000 mortgage to buy a house. Next the lending organisation gets worried for some reason, and decides it would like someone else to take over the debt. But no one will step up unless there’s something in it for them. So the original lender agrees to take less than the full amount of the debt, say $80,000, perhaps because its immediate need for cash means it prefers taking less now, than hanging on for a larger amount in the future. 

So someone has bought the debt and how holds a piece of paper, a bond, entitling him (it’s almost always a man) to cash in $100,000 for an outlay of $80,000. A good deal even if he has to wait 20 years for the profit.

But he may not even need to wait. Someone else hears of the transaction and says “wow! I missed out. I want a piece of that.” So he offers $90,000 to take over the mortgage himself. Buyer 1 doesn’t hesitate: a $10,000 profit after a few days is highly desirable even at the cost of a larger profit 20 years away.

Now something interesting has happened.

Initially, the transaction was about buying a house. That’s something made of brick and mortar, a solid, tangible asset. It has real value: you can live in it.

Then there was the mortgage. Well, that has value too, if at one remove: it made it possible to buy the house.

But then we started trading the mortgage itself, the bond. It’s two moves from reality. It has little value itself, but it does now have a price, since it can be traded.

The reality is that a bond won’t cover just a single mortgage, because that’s too open to risk: the borrower might default leaving the bond without value. Instead bonds cover a thousand loans, as the chances are that there will be defaults on only a small number, leaving enough to generate a healthy profit.

The really clever bit is what the broker does. He charges a fee, which means he makes money on each trade, whether the buyer or the seller does well or not.

My examples involve large percentages: $20,000 out of $100,000, for instance. What Lewis explains is that traders in bonds look for gains as small as one eighth of a percentage point. They might themselves charge one-eighth of a percent in fees. However, one-eighth of a percent of $100 million is $125,000, which is not to be sneezed at. And if the broker sells bonds to one buyer, and then persuades that buyer to sell them two or three days later to another, he’ll double that to over $250,000 for his firm, just by judicious use of a phone.

Not one person will have been fed, educated, housed, clothed, transported or cared for as a result of his actions. The trader will have moved a number from one account to another and then to a third, and generated in days the equivalent of six people’s average yearly earnings. That will doubtless be reflected in his annual bonus.

Remember that this is based on the price of the bond, not what was paid for the house or the size of the mortgage. As long as someone will pay a little more for the bond, the broker keeps making money. Where it all goes pear-shaped is when people stop feeling it’s worth paying a higher price than the last guy. Then someone is left holding a bond he can’t sell.

Imagine what happens if, to satisfy the demand for this kind of bond, people have been out there offering mortgages on properties that simply aren’t worth enough, to people who’ll never be able to pay them off?

Then the person left with the bond when the bottom falls out of the market – the bond market, mind, not the housing market – has only one way of cutting his losses. He forecloses on the mortgage holders, forcing them to sell their properties. And if it turns out that the properties aren’t worth enough to cover the debts, then both the homeowner and the bondholder are in serious trouble, with only one difference between them: if the bondholder is a large bank, the taxpayer will bail it out, but the now homeless borrower gets no help at all and is even blamed for the failure.

Lewis explains that what his company, Salomon Brothers, did with mortgage debt was done with corporate debt on a scale hundreds of times greater, by Michael Milken. He was the innovator in “junk bonds”, the debt of companies regarded as a bad risk. He found that many of these debts were undervalued, and Lewis explains why: “investors shunned [such companies] out of a fear of seeming imprudent.”

Michael Milken: pocketed half a billion while he had the chance
Milken persuaded banks to throw prudence to the wind and buy the debts of dodgy corporations. While the value of the bonds kept climbing, everybody prospered. In particular the brokers who traded these bonds made a fortune: at the height of his powers, Milken paid himself $550 million in a single year, according to Lewis. 

Since then, and since his release from gaol (he eventually spent a couple of years inside), Milken has made himself a name as a charitable donor, funding medical research in particular. That’s very commendable, though we ought to remember that he only made the money by awarding himself astronomical pay for contributing next to nothing to society – and arguably stoking the disaster that engulfed us all in 2008.

Lewis tells us that as a child he learned from his father to believe “that the amount of money one earns is a rough guide to one’s contribution to the welfare and prosperity of our society.” But Lewis himself had to abandon that comforting belief: “when you sit, as I did, at the centre of what has been possibly the most absurd money game ever, and benefit out of all proportion to your value to society...; when hundreds of equally undeserving people around you are all raking it in faster than they can count it; what happens to the money belief?”

He got out of banking, but the belief still pervades society. As Thomas Piketty points out, “modern meritocratic society, especially in the United States, is much harder [than the nineteenth century] on the losers, because it seeks to justify domination on the grounds of justice, virtue, and merit, to say nothing of the insufficient productivity of those at the bottom.”

It may be the belief that if you’re not making much money, you’re not worth as much as the Milkens of this world, that explains why we treat them with so much deference, allowing them to buy our politicians and helping them protect their privilege and power, even from the consequences of their own fecklessness.

There are a lot more of us than of them, and we all have votes. If we could overcome our obsequiousness towards money and those who control it, we could free ourselves of some particularly unpleasant parasites. What a great step forward in justice that would be. 

To say nothing of the of the damage we could stop them inflicting on us.

Monday, 1 September 2014

From humourless Thatcher to paranoid Cameron

During last Friday’s ‘Reunion’ programme on BBC Radio 4, former Sun jounralist Wendy Henry told Sue MacGregor about the time she met Margaret Thatcher.

I went to Downing street to interview her, and I’m a little ashamed to say that I lost control of the interview around about the third minute... She just spoke on and and on and I remember desperately sitting there thinking “Oh my God, what am I going to get out of this?”

Then I made the fatal mistake of trying to inject a bit of humour, I suppose probably very sort of tasteless humour. We were talking about Ireland and conflict and things like that, and I said, “Oh well, I know how we can solve the problem.”

She went “Oh, really?”

I said, “Yes, if we take the IRA and put them on the Gaza strip, and we take the PLO and we put them on the Falls Road, we’ll have solved the problem.”

There was a deathly silence and she said “Right, well, I think this interview is finished” ... so I slunk off.

Wendy Henry’s joke wasn’t that amusing, so the funniest part of the interview is Thatcher’s response: grim, self-important and above all humourless. It amazes me that a country like Britain which prides itself on its sense of humour still insists on sanctifying her. She was so dour, so dull, so unbendingly solemn.

Not all Tory Prime Ministers were like that. Winston Churchill was famed for his banter. When Manny Shinwell, a fine figure of the radical socialist Left, asked Churchill if he could borrow twopence to phone a friend, Churchill apparently offered him four pence with the words “phone all of them”.

It’s not as though Churchill was any less courageous than Thatcher. He led the country at a time of far worse danger to it, and it was his combination of courage and humour that made him so admired.

If we could face them with a smile, why are we so panicked today?
Thatcher faced risks too, redoubtable enemies even though they were not as dangerous as the Nazis. It might have been her lack of humour stopped her seeing how risible was the most ludicrous measure she adopted against them. 

She argued that terrorists ought to be denied the “oxygen of publicity.” Now one can argue against this proposition. One can argue that it implies a restriction of a fundamental right, freedom of speech. One can argue that it is better to hear what the terrorists have to say than to leave them in the dark to hatch ever more desperate plots. But even if one agrees that they should be denied publicity, one can’t argue is that it makes any kind of sense to allow their words to be heard, though not their voices.

That was the situation Thatcher created. In 1988, she banned leaders of organisations associated with terrorism from being heard on broadcast media. So for six years we had the ridiculous sight of people like Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness being interviewed on TV with an actor dubbing the words they were speaking. Words but not voices? Was that denying them the oxygen of publicity?

That was only the most laughable act against the IRA. Far less funny were the repeated attempts to crush them by military force, which created martyrs and gave the movement momentum, or the use of deeply anti-democratic actions, such as detention without trial, which also attracted new support for the cause. None of these were specifically Tory, incidentally: Labour was just as guilty of them.

If the troubles came to an end, it wasn’t ludicrous restrictions on broadcasts or administrative measures taken in flagrant contradiction of democratic principles that beat the IRA, it was outstanding intelligence operations leading to deep penetration of paramilitary organisations, and action to alleviate the difficulties of the minority in Northern Ireland, so that the IRA was denied the pool of disaffection from which it recruited.

Now roll forward nearly twenty years.

Britain once more faces a terrorist threat. Indeed, there hasn’t been a moment since the Good Friday agreement when we haven’t faced such a threat. And what has been the reaction of government, and indeed of much of the people? Churchillian good humour and a courageous stand to protect the very rights the terrorists threaten? Sadly, anything but.

No, it’s back to authoritarian measures. Worries that young Britons who have travelled to the Middle East to join organisations such as the Islamic State, might come back as hardened jihadists, is leading to a popular wish to deny them entry to the country. That’s denying British citizens entry to Britain. And on mere suspicion.

That undermines the very foundation of what citizenship means.

Certainly some of those banned, if these powers are adopted, will be wholly innocent of any offence or even the intention of committing an offence. The fact of banning even real jihadists will whip up sympathy for them and probably for their cause. The move will be as counter-productive as detention without trial was in Northern Ireland.

And what threat do we face? We used to have IRA attacks in London every couple of months. We have yet to see a single attack by Isis. IRA members could travel to the rest of the UK without passports and without any kind of check. Isis members coming back from Iraq will be known to the security services. It’s hard to see how this can be as serious a threat as Thatcher faced, let alone Churchill.

It’s time to grow a little courage. See the threat for what it is. Prepare for it, arm ourselves against it (above all with more of the kind of intelligence that beat the IRA), but don’t give up our fundamental principles in panic at it.

And above all – find that old Churchillian sense of humour. Laugh a little. Overcome fear. And only then dig in.