Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Cameron's empty gimmick. But might it work?

It would appear that anxiety about the coming British General Election is intensifying in Tory ranks.

That’s odd, because frankly they’re not doing any worse than their main opposition, Labour. At times it looks as though they’re getting a tiny lead, at times as though Labour is. Basically, they’re tied. But I suppose that’s the trouble. Tories believe they have a God-given right to power; being tied with Labour is therefore an unacceptable dislocation to any kind of reality they can believe.

They’ve tried so many things. They tried personal attacks on Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, but those rather backfired. They’ve tried whipping up a panic over the prospect of Miliband forming a government dependent on support from the Scottish Nationalist Party, which at the moment looks like the only way he could, and presenting it as a pact with all the fiends in Hell.

Let me assure you, based on my many visits to Scotland, and conversations with SNP supporters, that they’re really not that fiendish at all. Indeed, compared to David Cameron and the Tories, they’re positively angelic.

None of this has dented Labour’s poll position.

So today we had the latest wheeze. Cameron proposed that, if returned, the Tories would legislate – legislate, mind: this is law they’d be making, not some kind of pious wish enshrined in a resolution – to rule out any kind of tax increase, on VAT, income tax or National Insurance, in the course of the next parliament.

It’s a glorious notion. The UK is a nation without a written constitution, unlike the US or Germany. So there’s no basic law that binds the legislators themselves. Law is made by Parliament and can be just as easily unmade by it. Or to put it in other words, the same body that made the law banning tax increases would also make any law to raise taxes. It can’t bind itself any more than a smoker can bind himself to keep his New Year’s resolution to stop smoking.

So Cameron’s pledge is nothing more than a promise to keep a promise. 

If we don’t believe his promise, which should we believe his promise to keep it?

Why wouldn’t we buy snake oil from this man?
Let’s not forget that before the last election he said he wouldn’t raise VAT. And then he did. He and George Osborne, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, as we quaintly refer to our Finance Minister, promised to eliminate the structural deficit on government spending in the last government (they’ve failed lamentably) and to be repaying debt by next year (there’s no chance they’ll be doing it, even if they get back in).

So, basically, the pledge is just an empty gimmick. It binds only anyone who believes it.

Sadly, those are precisely the people he’s aiming at.

Some have said that his empty promise shows disrespect for the electorate. It’s certainly disrespectful, but only to a small number of voters. The Tories and Labour are pretty well level-pegging, each with support hovering between 32% or 35% of the votes. Cameron wants to find 3%, though he’d be happy with 2%, and would settle for 1%. It’s only that small minority Cameron really treated with contempt. They’re the target of this latest hollow trick.

As I said, revealing his growing anxiety.

Let’s just hope he’s miscalculated. And there’s no voter out there weak-minded enough to fall for a deception so transparent. 

Though, sadly, I’m afraid there might be a few.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Art and the assassin. if only by association

The art of portraiture at first glance sounds monumentally dull.

Some worthy but undistinguished family with more money than aesthetic sense pays a painter to do them in oils, orders up a nice tree background, and smiles for the easel. They end up looking just as banal and dull as they probably were.

But that’s less true if the artist isn’t just painting to commission. And above all if he has real talent. As, for instance, if he’s John Singer Sargent. 

Well used to be, since John Singer Sargent’s been late for a while now.

Sargent’s remarkable ability emerges clearly from the exhibition of his works at the National Portrait Gallery, which deserves all the praise the Guardian gave it. Take, for example, the time when he was commissioned to do the portrait of a well-off lady, and then, struck by the looks of her son, asked to do his too. The result, his painting of W. Graham Robertson, is one of the most striking in the show.

W. Graham Robertson
in a picture made by the coat
The young man – he was 28 at the time though to me he looks younger – wasn’t particularly happy about posing in an overcoat in the summer. Yes, even in England, the weather can turn hot. Or at any rate, too warm for an overcoat. Sargent, however, replied “but the coat is the picture.” Certainly the coat makes the picture, and it makes it dramatically well.

Talking of drama, one of my favourite paintings was of one of the great Shakespearean actors of his time, Edwin Booth. This portrait too has a story. Booth complained that Sargent wasn’t producing a good likeness; the painter erased the head and started again. The result is powerfully effective: a look full of brooding intensity but also, with the pose, the theatricality of the actor.

The great Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth
Unfortunate in having a notorious younger brother
But that particular painting had a far greater effect still on me. Because Edwin Booth was not only a star in his own right. He came from a family of great actors. The weakest of them was his youngest brother, known more for his extraordinary good looks than for his ability on stage. Those looks led to his briefly being known as the youngest star in the world. His limited talent, however, could not sustain him on the heights for long.

So ultimately he could not rival his brother, the man in Sargent’s portrait, in fame. He did, however, overtake him, even overshadow him, in infamy.

For John Wilkes Booth, resplendent in looks but little else, was the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.

It was a chilling experience to stand in front of the portrait of his far more talented elder brother, and admire its execution.

Its only a shame that when his brother dabbled in execution, he too succeeded.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Drowning migrants: when irritation is made to matter more than disaster

It shouldn’t be difficult to draw a line between disaster and mere irritation. And yet, oddly, there are many who seem incapable of telling them apart.

This week I listened to a young East African explaining to the BBC how he and his wife had decided to make for Europe, illegally, paying an exorbitant sum to people traffickers to take them on board a hopelessly overloaded boat from Libya. The boat capsized during the crossing; he briefly had a grip on his wife but as he found himself floundering in the water, they lost touch and she drowned.

“I didn’t know anything about how to save her,” he explained from her grave in Italy. 

Now, that’s a disaster.

Behind it lies a long history of ill-advised and badly conducted interference by Western powers, who should know better, in Africa or the Middle East. The West, having for decades tolerated or even, on occasions, positively encouraged a dictator in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, decided to do away with him in 2011. Military support to internal rebel groups led to his overthrow and eventual assassination.

The West then went home, leaving it to the Libyans to sort themselves out, which they’ve singularly failed to do. We have replaced a toxic and dangerous dictatorship by toxic and dangerous chaos. Sound familiar? It should. It’s Iraq all over again. And the same kind of chaos afflicts many other countries, with or without Western help. Somalia. Mali. Syria. Yemen.

Refugees from all those countries have been travelling to Libya, where they join the many thousands of locals also trying to get out. Why Libya? Because it’s about as close as you can get to the southern border of Europe, in Italy.

Desperate migrants attempting to cross to Europe
In grossly inadequate boats
Our possibly well-meaning, but generally ill-judged interventions have massively added to the crisis in those countries. There’s no doubt that, in that way, our nations have contributed to turning huge numbers of people into victims of people smugglers. And therefore to a great many of them drowning when their grossly inadequate boats sink.

In 2014, nearly 3500 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean. This year, in under four months, estimates are that there have been nearly 1500 deaths.

So disaster has been compounding disaster.

The Aftermath
Now for the irritation. At the end of last week, Ed Miliband, campaigning to oust David Cameron as British Prime Minister on 7 May, said that a lack of “post-conflict planning” for Libya, by the Western governments, including Britain’s, involved in the overthrow of Gadaffi, had contributed to making the crisis worse.

That annoyed Cameron and his friends in the media. “Shameful” they called Miliband’s comments. “Ill-judged.” And they preferred to focus their attention on that, rather than on the drownings. The suggestion seemed to be that the hurt to Cameron’s feelings was more important than the loss of life among the migrants.

You see? An annoyance that mattered more than a disaster.

The reality, of course, is that even the annoyance was minimal. If Cameron made such a song and dance about it, his only reason was that he saw votes in it. “Look,” he was saying, “Miliband’s being rude to me. How can you vote for a man who says such unworthy things?”

And the other bit of reality is that, if Miliband had genuinely wanted to put he boot in, he could have been far harsher still.

Back in October, the Italian government gave up on its “Mare Nostrum” search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean. Over the twelve months for which it ran, it saved 150,000 lives. But the Italians decided that they couldn’t afford to keep running it on their own.

The British government, headed by David Cameron for the Conservatives and his Liberal Democrat deputy Nick Clegg, was outspoken among those in the EU who blocked any move to help Italy fund search and rescue missions.

Now that certainly led to the present upsurge in deaths. And what was Cameron’s justification for indirectly contributing to the drowning of so many people? That to keep providing rescue services would only encourage more to come.

Cameron is being outflanked by anti-immigration UKIP, which has many sympathisers on the right of his own party. So to placate them he refused help to desperate, exploited migrants left to drown. For electoral reasons.

Interesting that the word “shameful” was used of Miliband’s words. When these have been Cameron’s actions.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Things to watch, things not to watch: a tormented US cop, wily Soviets, wily Americans, bad Englishmen in Australia, a saintly Englishman in Cornwall

Nothing here to educate or edify, no gritty realism or insightful analysis: these are just series that entertain. Or, in at least one case, don’t.

Made specifically for Amazon and available to stream: Bosch. A lot of fun, if you like this genre, and it is entirely generic. The tormented middle-aged LAPD detective, hated by his superiors who are plotting against him. Above them are remoter superiors who plot and counterplot to further their careers, and are loyal to the eponymous Bosch only when it suits their plotting. He is, naturally, divorced with a clear implication that it was against his choice, and still is; he of course has a teenage daughter who’d like to see more of him. He’s incredibly attractive to significantly younger women (he’s in his forties), but can’t establish a lasting relationship with any of them. He is, of course, a maverick, frequently ignoring process and pushing regulations to their limits. From time to time he’s even in serious trouble as his enemies argue that he’s pushed beyond them.

The picture says it all
Bosch (Titus Welliver):  the tough man tough criminals do well to avoid
Throw into the mix a soulless serial killer who likes to taunt him down the phone, and you have a structure which you will, of course, entirely recognise. This particular instance of it is well acted and well directed, and can give you hours of innocent fun with the occasional jolt to keep you awake – if, as I said, you like the genre at all.

Also available on Amazon at the moment is The Americans. Naturally, as the name implies, the protagonists are absolutely not Americans. They are in fact Soviet spies, living as Americans, in the US. You’ll be amazed at how well the actors playing these parts speak English, or rather American; this actually is a little amazing for the male lead, who really isn’t American, but from a US point of view English, though in reality he’s Welsh.

The Russian spies in The Americans:
Matthew Rhys, who's Welsh, and Keri Russell who actually is American
The Russians who are openly Russian speak Russian, which is a great little touch of realism. It’s pretty much the only touch, however. The sleeper spies get away with murder (sometimes literally): people see their faces, they frequently engage in their nefarious activities in the open, even in daylight; one imagines that in reality they’d have been caught in about three weeks, instead of lasting for years (there’s a long backstory to the series). Still, there are some interesting characters, well acted, and gripping incidents. It’s also fun to watch a series where the bad guys are good guys – and the writing works well, making us sympathise with them. I did, however, keep wondering how long the series could last: the first two seasons are set at the start of the 80s, with the Soviet Union having less than a decade to survive. Will the spies be scrambling for the exit at the end of season 9, if there is a season 9?

Season 3 of House of Cards, on Netflix, has all the pace, the panache and the performance of the first two seasons. Plenty of wit and action as well, to keep us hooked and watching. Sadly, it doesn’t have anything like the same quality of story line. Manipulation of events by ruthless, amoral people was the guiding theme of the first two seasons, and what gave the series its character; that’s sadly played down in season 3. Indeed Claire Underwood, wife of the manipulator in chief and not far behind him in wiliness, seems to have been reinvented as a somewhat more moral character, which sadly makes her a lot less interesting.

Lars Mikkelsen, even more sinister as a Russian President than Putin
With Kevin Spacey, outstanding as ever
On the other hand, excellent acting by Lars Mikkelsen, Danish but convincing as a Russian at least to my ear, doing a wholly Putinesque performance as the Russian president, is almost enough on its own to justify watching the season.

I can’t say the same about the BBC series Banished, about the first white Australians – who, as Australians never tire of telling me, were selected by some of the best judges in England. The series is set in the first convict colony in New South Wales, and there’s plenty of good stuff about the setting and living conditions (rations are constantly being cut, and there are some curious consequences of having a community of 1000 men with 200 women). Still, the plot is painfully predictable and unimpressive, and leads to an ending which I won’t spoil, even though I could hardly do it more harm than it does itself. Pretty colours, though, and pretty people (yes, those English judges must have been good on beauty as well as crime), and the kind of thing you could watch while tired and having a few drinks: if you fall asleep, you’ll have no trouble catching up: what happened while you were out was exactly what you imagined was going to happen.

MyAnna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in Banished
 Good acting but an indifferent script

Finally, also on the BBC, we have Poldark. And here we can kiss gritty realism entirely goodbye – and it doesn’t matter. This is pure fairy tale, pure escapism. Right from the start. Poldark himself has just come back to his native Cornwall from fighting, under British colours, in the American War of Independence – and comments that he felt he’d been on the wrong side. Yeah, right. An English landowner (impoverished, maybe, but a gentleman nonetheless, in the late eighteenth century when being a gentleman really meant belonging to an elite), who sympathises with a democratic cause – at a time when the word “democrat” was a term of abuse?

This man is a saint. So lie back, suspend your disbelief, and enjoy a series with about as much connection to reality as Walt Disney’s Snow White. Taken in that way, it has great entertainment value and won’t disappoint. But only if taken that way…

The smouldering Aidan Turner, complete with fetching war scar
In an unchallenging but amusing fairy tale Poldark

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Beware the right, especially when it talks about markets

Any of you who had the joy of hearing Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), on the BBC Election Debate last week, may have been struck by his frequent references to “the market.”

Maggie Thatcher: you can't buck the market. Yeah, right
Implicit in this kind of statement is the Thatcherite notion that “you can’t buck the market.” This is a recurring theme in the mouths of most right wing politicians, not just Farage, but those such as Cameron or US Republicans too. It’s untrue today as it was in Thatcher’s time, as indeed it was in the time of that great guru of market economics, the darling of today’s right, Adam Smith. What people tend to forget is that the only kind of market you can rely on at all is a free one. The problem is that a great many markets are firmly rigged – in other words, someone has bucked them.

Adam Smith knew that. He talked, for instance, of the market in labour, in which workers and “masters” strive against each other to set the price, i.e. a wage. Each side tends to pull together to form “combinations” – a word which doesn’t mean simply association, but something more sinister, with a dash of the conspiracy about it – but one of the sides has far more power than the other:

The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorises, or at least does not prohibit, their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work, but many against combining to raise it.

For a time, from early in the twentieth century through to the eighties, the “combinations” of workmen did rather better than Smith suggests in The Wealth of Nations. Then Thatcher brought in serious anti-Trade Union legislation, just as Reagan did in the US, and the boot returned firmly to the other foot.

Adam Smith, darling of the right, guru of the market
Rather gives the lie to Cameron and Farage
There are times when I can’t quite work out whether Farage is as unintelligent as he likes to sound, or whether he’s just being disingenuous. I suspect the latter: he’s a knave, rather than a fool. He knows perfectly well that appeals to markets are empty if the markets aren’t free.

After all, he’s a stockbroker. One of those groups of masters, only too ready to combine to protect their own interests: we saw how they, and the rest of the financial services crowd, plunged the world into global recession in 2008 and then made sure they were rewarded for it with wonderful bail-outs, from our pockets.

So he presumably also knows why his jeremiads against migration have no place in an ideology of free markets. Again, at a time when European nations tended rather to block the free movement of labour and capital, Adam Smith lamented that:

… the policy of Europe, by obstructing the free circulation of labour and stock [capital], both from employment to employment, and from place to place, occasions in some cases, a very inconvenient inequality in the whole of the advantages and disadvantages of their different employments.

Workers moving freely, capital moving freely, are essential components of a free market. But then perhaps Conservative and UKIP politicians prefer a market they’ve rigged in their favour to a free one. Which reminds me of another fine sentiment in Adam Smith:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public…

Indeed. George Bernard Shaw expressed the same sentiment even more succinctly 130 years later, in The Doctor’s Dilemma, when he wrote “all professions are conspiracies against the laity.” Where the “profession” in question is right wing politics, we still today face a particularly toxic conspiracy.

Perhaps Farage and Cameron don’t know Smith and Shaw’s sentiments on the subject. But we do. And we should be on our guard.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Ed Miliband: coming good at the end. Now let's get the goal right

The last stage of a campaign is the most important, and with the British General Election three weeks away on 7 May, we’re into that last stage now. So it’s good to see that Ed Miliband is growing in stature in the final straight. “You want to exploit people’s fears rather than address them,” he told Nigel Farage of UKIP during the televised debate on Thursday, and it was heartwarming to hear him speak out so forcefully, effectively and succinctly.

The BBC Election Debate
Gone is the Miliband who seemed frankly accident prone – the worst accident coming when he simply forgot to mention the hardly insignificant matter of the economy in his speech to the final Labour conference before the election. Today, he speaks with real authority, with confidence, even with humour – he has a winsome smile and he’s making use of it these days.

This is causing consternation in the ranks of his Tory opponents. They were counting on Miliband imploding – metaphorically forgetting the economy again – and he’s stubbornly refusing to do so. They’ve tried flinging personal abuse at him and, as I pointed out before, he’s deflected their insults calmly and to powerful effect. Now, after years castigating Labour for unfunded campaign promises, they’re trying to throw money at the electorate – £8 billion more a year for the NHS being the latest wheeze – while still maintaining their commitment to savage spending cuts.

Miliband’s coming good at the end, and congratulations to him.

Sadly, however, while he’s holding off any Tory challenge, he’s not opening up any kind of commanding lead in the polls. In response, he’s adopted what is a time-honoured – or perhaps time-shaming – tactic of all politicians: trying to steal his opponents’ clothes. So he’s gone along with the austerity agenda too, if in a less draconian way. He backs the renewal of Britain’s nuclear arsenal. And today he’s been getting tough about immigration.

It’s certainly true that no party can win an election without attracting support from outside its core. That undoubtedly means that at times it has to adopt policies that will attract people who previously voted for others. The problem arises when that means abandoning one’s own core principles.

The saddest form that problem takes is the fragmentation of one’s own side. That was strikingly illustrated at that same debate last Thursday. The Welsh Nationalists, the Scottish Nationalists and the Greens had to speak up for traditional Labour values, desperately needed today, whenever Labour fell silent on them.

Labour’s roots are in the Trade Union movement, emasculated in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher. Today, as in the US, the unions are a shadow of their old selves and, surprise, surprise, the rights of the workers they used to represent have been eroded almost to oblivion. The greatest abomination now is the zero-hour contract, which Miliband has rightly denounced. It ties an employee to a company, but without guaranteeing any work or pay. Nearly 700,000 people in Britain now have zero-hour contracts in their main employment (perhaps that should be “employment”).

That kind of phenomenon makes a return to campaigning trade unionism vital. To quote from Thursday’s debate, the problem in Britain isn’t excessive migration, it’s the deliberate undercutting of wages:

There are real issues in terms of the driving down of wages, and that has to be addressed. The way to address that is to raise the minimum wage to the living wage, and to strengthen Trade Unions. We should be looking at repealing the Trade Union legislation that Margaret Thatcher brought in, because if you have stronger Trade Unions, then you have a stronger protection of our public services and against the exploitation of workers.

Curiously, that piece of pure Labour rhetoric wasn’t pronounced by Miliband, but by Leanne Wood, leader of the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru.

More generally, the problem of child poverty was one of the great political themes of the previous Labour leader (and Prime Minister), Gordon Brown. You might expect the party leadership to share the concern that “…we have experts saying that if we continue with austerity cuts, by 2020 there are going to be one million more children across the UK living in poverty…”

Sadly, it wasn’t Miliband who said that either, but the Scottish Nationalists’ Nicola Sturgeon. And yet that’s the central issue: how do we prevent millions more of our most vulnerable being sacrificed on the altar of Conservative austerity?

The most shocking moment was when Sturgeon directly called on Miliband.

Tell me tonight, is it the case that you would rather see David Cameron go back into Downing Street, than work with me?

It’s true that Miliband didn’t rule out collaboration short of a coalition, and maybe on 8 May when, as seems likely, it emerges that he will need SNP support to form a government, we’ll finally get a positive response to that question. We certainly didn’t on Thursday.

Miliband is looking increasingly prime ministerial. He’s developed an image people can respect and even like. He’s left it late but there may still be time. Now he needs to be clear about the goal: we need the Tories out of Downing Street before they wreak the kind of damage their austerity policies have promised. Again, Nicola Sturgeon got it right:

We have a chance to kick David Cameron out of Downing Street. Don’t turn your back on it. People will never forgive you.

Nor should they.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Luci's diary: Another skill. And some great training

Luci's Diary. She masters the flap and has great fun at training.

April 2015

Got it! I’ve worked it out! That Misty, who thinks he’s such a smart cat and knows so much more than me, can’t keep that quiet any longer.

The flap in the kitchen door, the one that lets me get in from the garden, well, I’ve found out it works the other way round too! Brilliant. There was no need to look for another flap to get out, I can just use the same one. Fantastic. What a breakthrough. I can get out whenever I like.

And it’s really nice out there. They’ve left some fantastic patches of earth, with interesting little plants in them, where I can just dig and dig. The main boss was telling the little boss all about my fine holes just when she got home today. She told me she’d get a gate. I wonder what one of those is? Could be more fun.

Misty playing with me.
He likes to make out he’s annoyed, but he enjoys it really
Misty’s still as cranky as ever, always pretending to be cross with me, but underneath it all, I know he likes me. He used to try to bite me, but he doesn’t do that any more. And when I run at him, he just chases me back and we play, until he scoots away to hide, but not really hide, because he looks out at me like he’s daring to me run at him again. Which I do. Hey, why wouldn’t I? And he’s obviously enjoying it as much as I do.

Misty “hiding” from me. But he isn’t really...
The latest thing I’ve discovered about the bosses is that they’re quite messy. They drop nice things to eat on the ground. And I’m quick. I get to them fast. I’ve had bits of orange, pear, apple, before they can even think of bending down to pick them up. It amazes the bosses, because they think I should like the boring kibble they put in my bowl instead but, hey, I say if they’re eating it, it’s got to be a lot more interesting than some monotonous little bits that always taste the same.

And another really fun thing! Yesterday the bosses took me to a training class, and I really enjoyed it. Well, I was quite worried at first, because I thought I’d be training the main boss (Misty calls her Domestic Number 1, but I know a boss when I see one, and I know better than to cheek her. Or at least only to cheek her when she’s unlikely to notice. Or at any rate when I can be terribly endearing afterwards).

Fortunately, she sent the little boss out to be trained instead. He didn’t want to go, but she told him like a good boss should. Firmly but calmly.

“No, I think it should be you. It would be really good for you to get a really close relationship with Luci too.”

“But… but… I thought you were going to do this bit…”

She just looked at him. The kind of look that has been rolling over and cranking up the endearing to max level. He grumbled a bit but still put himself on the lead to go out into the main area with me, among all the other dogs. You could tell he was terribly uncomfortable.

To be honest, I wasn’t that comfortable either. “Other dogs”. The words are a lot easier to write than to undergo. I don’t like other dogs. They bark. They’re bigger than me (well, practically all of them). They have teeth and big paws. They smell doggy. I like Loki – he’s a lot of fun and we race around and have a great time – but not many others. And there were at least a dozen in the room.

Loki's fun. Other dogs? I can take them or leave them.
But prefer to leave them

Still, I got used to them in time. By the end of the evening, I was quite relaxed. Even went up and smelled one or two of them. I reckon it was all down to the training bit. It isn’t easy to train a human, and the work distracted my attention.

It worked well though. Within minutes, I’d got him, to use a human expression, eating out of my hand. Which meant I was eating out of his. Eating wonderful little treats. It was really quite funny. I’d sit down, and he’d give me a treat. I’d stand up, and he’d give me another treat. I’d lie down, and he’d give me a treat. I’d look at him instead of at the treat, and he’d give me a treat.

A brilliant system! I love training. And he was really well trained in no time.

And the other thing that made me laugh: the training lady said “your dog doesn’t speak English.” I like that “your”. Always nice to underline the fact that I’m in my pack. But “doesn’t speak English”? Of course, I don’t actually speak it. But hey, I write it.

I wonder if she’ll ever read my diary?

Sunday, 12 April 2015

The sword and the scimitar, the Tory and the Labour leader

You probably know the doubtless apocryphal story of the encounter of Richard I, the “Lionhearted”, and Saladin (OK, OK, Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb), the great Kurdish general of Islamic forces against the Crusaders.

The subtle Saladin, the roughhewn Richard
The legend has it that Richard chose to demonstrate the might of his arms by drawing a great, two-handed sword, and using to cut through an iron rod laid between two rocks.

Saladin drew his scimitar and used it to slice a silk handkerchief in two.

Sharpness and subtlety are so much more admirable than mere brute force.

Last week, we had a marvellous illustration of the point. Michael Fallon, the man we are unfortunate to have in the position of defence secretary in Britain, launched a scathing attack on Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, and who still has every chance of becoming Prime Minister in a few weeks time.

Miliband’s chances are likely to depend heavily on the support of the Scottish National Party, which looks set to win a huge number of seats that Labour has held so long in Scotland that they seemed to be permanently assigned to the party. And the SNP has made it clear that it would never back any move to renew the British nuclear deterrent, based on submarine-borne Trident missiles.

Fallon claimed that Miliband would be prepared to drop this allegedly vital part of the defence of the nation, leaving it vulnerable and in danger, in order to win SNP support and get into Downing Street.

“Ed Miliband stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader,” Fallon claimed. “Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister.”

The allegation that Miliband betrayed his brother dates from the time they both stood for the Labour leadership back in 2010. It’s hard to see why Ed stabbed David in the back by running, any more than David stabbed Ed. After all, they both ran. It’s true that David had up to that time had a more illustrious career, having been Foreign Secretary, but surely that didn’t rule Ed out from standing too. In any case, it’s hard not to feel that Fallon was expressing allegiance to a much deeper principle beloved of Conservatives: inheritance. The Labour leadership was David’s because he’s the elder brother. In a party as backward-looking as Fallon’s, it may be difficult to abandon the principle of primogeniture.

But in any case the accusation about the price Miliband will pay for the premiership is nonsense. The SNP and Labour have categorically ruled out any kind of coalition between them. There would therefore be no coalition agreement specifying that the government could only take office it it abandoned Trident. Instead, there would only be an agreement that the SNP would support Labour on a motion by motion basis, so that it could form a government and could lock the Conservatives out.

Labour has a weak point about nuclear weapons. Even the great firebrand and father of the NHS, Aneurin (Nye) Bevan, spoke against a Labour Party Conference motion backing unilateral nuclear disarmament:

I knew this morning that I was going to make a speech that would offend, and even hurt, many of my friends. I know that you are deeply convinced that the action you suggest is the most effective way of influencing international affairs. I am deeply convinced that you are wrong. It is therefore not a question of who is in favour of the hydrogen bomb, but a question of what is the most effective way of getting the damn thing destroyed. It is the most difficult of all problems facing mankind. But if you carry this resolution and follow out all its implications — and do not run away from it — you will send a British Foreign Secretary, whoever he may be, naked into the conference chamber. ... And you call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm.

There can be no doubt that a Labour government, even with SNP support, would move to renew Trident (to my great regret, let me say). And when that happens the SNP will vote against. But will the Conservatives also vote against? That would be hard to believe. With Tory support, a Labour government would easily carry the proposal.

So Fallon’s attack was utterly misguided. It was based on brutality and ignorance, not on wit or wisdom. And what was Miliband’s response?

“Michael Fallon's a decent man, but today he's demeaned himself and he's demeaned his office.”

Tory blunderbuss against Labour rapier
Brilliant. First he calls Fallon decent, refusing to mirror his personal attack. And by doing so, he positions himself as his superior, a parent disappointed in his child’s behaviour but not prepared to write him off for it. Secondly, he gently suggests that he has harmed himself, rather than Miliband, and the office he holds, the implication being that he’s not fit for it.

Brief, gentle, calm. Saladin’s sharpness against Richard’s brute strength. It’s improved the public perception of Miliband in the polls.

Let’s hope he can keep it up enough to see himself into Downing Street. And Fallon’s lot out.

Friday, 10 April 2015

The tale of the posh grocer and the plain grocer. With a moral for the Labour Party

The earth trembled in Britain this week. The heavens shook. We learned that one of the cheeky, cheap and cheerful German supermarket chains, Aldi (the other one’s Lidl), had overtaken top of the range Waitrose, in market share.

Upstart cocking a snoot at the establishment
Admittedly, neither has a huge share, and the difference isn’t great – 5.3% to 5.1% – but it’s nonetheless one of those watershed moments, because of the characters involved. Aldi, you see, operates out near-Spartan shops, small, a little dingy – fundamentally functional and little else. A setting that says, loud and clear, no frills – and cheap.

Oddly, though, Aldi maintains high quality for its low prices. No doubt the style of shop and the small numbers of staff help, but it also has a strategy which says that it will only sell what it can get, in good quality, in time to get to the shop. The lamb chops are pretty well guaranteed to be there each time you visit, but that particular soft drink your kids liked so much last time? Nope. They may not have been able to pick up another job lot at a fantastic price.

If you shop at Aldi, you have to plan to visit two shops. You go to Aldi first and buy everything off your list that they happen to have, knowing that it will be fresh, good and competitively priced. Then you go to one of the other grocers to pick up the rest.

Waitrose, on the other hand, caters self-consciously for the toff end of the market. Wide aisles, far more choice, pleasant light, all stock replenished as it runs out (well, nearly all), lots of air, courteous helpful staff in every aisle. And prices that frequently make your eyes water.

If you like, Waitrose is the place for antipasto, Aldi for starters. Except, oddly enough, that Aldi also does antipasto. And a great antipasto at a great price. When it has any, however, and that isn’t always.

Top of the range. And overtaken
The fact that Aldi has pulled ahead feels like a parable for our times. Many would feel more comfortable shopping at Waitrose, where the experience itself is so much more pleasant, and where you can pick up grocery bags you can feel proud to be seen with. But most people have purses that suit Aldi far better. If they’re beginning to realise that, and come to terms with shopping for quality at a good price, that has to be healthy.

It’s like our politics. We have a Conservative party led by people who feel right for power. Educated at our best private schools. Accents you could cut with a knife, and fully trained to make sure it’s the right knife. Who know how to behave in at a garden party, on a yacht or in the royal enclosure at Ascot. But may be not quite so sure about a working men’s club in a colliery village where the mine has closed down.

Many people would like to have their lifestyle and admire their easy fashionable manners. But they can’t afford them. Waitrose aspirations with Aldi pocketbooks.

They’d do far better to settle for Labour. Less up market, no doubt, but more in touch with us Aldi people. Able to deliver good quality but without costing you an arm and a leg (or perhaps I should say without costing you a social safety net in case you ever need one, or decent healthcare if you’re sick).

The only sad thing is when Labour decides to be more like the Conservatives. Aldi aping Waitrose. That’s not what gave Aldi its success, and it won’t help Labour. After all, people who want Conservative will vote for the real thing, not for the imitation.

As for people trying to sell goods far below Aldi’s quality but at at Waitrose prices, well that makes no sense at all. Unless you’re a UKIP voter.

What this week’s news about the grocers shows is how important it is to be yourself. Be proud of what you are. And do what you do supremely well.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

How quickly the future becomes passé

The thing about the future is that it gets out of date so fast.

As a young teenager, I became quite a fan of science fiction. One of the writers I particularly enjoyed was Robert Heinlein, and when I came across one of his novels again the other day – pretty well half a century on – I decided there might be pleasure in wandering down memory lane with it.

Well, it was as much fun as I’d hoped, but not for the reason I’d expected. 

Quite fun. But so out of date
Even though it's set in a remote future
The novel was Time for the Stars. The basic theme is that, at some time in a century or two, interstellar ships are setting out from Earth to try to find new planets to settle. One of the biggest problems is communication, but by an almost spooky coincidence we have just discovered that certain pairs of identical twins, and even some others, have telepathic powers. And, as luck would have it, telepathic communication is instantaneous. However far away a telepath travels, he or she can be in contact with the other end of the partnership immediately.

For me, that works just fine as a premiss for a science fiction story. I mean, I’ve seen a lot worse. For instance, the notion that a galactic empire might have built a dark star death machine that can leap interstellar distances, but then get stuck behind a moon, with no clear shot of the band of poorly armed but incredibly plucky rebels on the planet beneath. Instead of just pushing a butoon to zap the entire planet from back home, without even stirring from their chairs or thrones or whatever they sit on.

You can imagine how Time for the Stars goes. One half of a pair of telepathic twins leaves with a starship while the other stays behind to receive messages. The rest of the story is reasonably enjoyable and well told, but pretty predictable, so I won’t spoil it by telling you any of it here.

What I really enjoyed about the novel was some of the futuristic technology it introduced to its readers.

We had wonderful electronic devices. All driven by valves.

Anyone remember valves? They were those large lightbulb-like things you used to find inside radios, at least if you’re of my generation or earlier. If you’re not, look them up. The idea that anyone will still be using them in a century or two, especially in the confined space of a starship, really requires a large suspension of disbelief.

So is what happens on board ship when they have news to distribute. The telepaths receive it from Earth. It’s all typed up. And then – printed out, on paper, for distribution to the crew.

But what I liked the most was the moment a complex calculation had to be carried out fast. They didn’t waste time on a computer, but had one of their resident maths specialists do the sum in her head – I presume she was gifted like Alan Turning who, it seems, was comfortable doing base-32 arithmetic without machine assistance.

The idea that programming a computer takes so long that it’s not worth doing it if you’re in a hurry is glorious, isn’t it? Of course, programming was one heck of a task but then, in 1956, when the book was written. But today it’s hard to imagine not using a machine for a complex computation.

Ah, well. That’s the danger of science fiction. Brilliantly futuristic when it’s written. Sadly out of date not that many years later.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Misty's Diary: strange how my feelings can change...

Another entry from Misty’s diary. In which he outlines his changing relationships with those around him.

April 2015

It’s funny, I’ve been getting on better with Domestic Number 2 lately. It’s almost as though the arrival of Luci has changed my attitude towards him too. I lie on his knees a bit more often in the evenings these days, and he doesn’t kick me off so soon any more.

Sometimes I think it may be our way of saying, “the other two are female, we need to look after each other a bit better.” But then I think again. After all, this is number 2. The one who needs things carefully explained to him all the time. Not like he’d ever catch a mood or seize a subliminal message or anything.

Take breakfast, for instance. I like to have a change from the dry food in the dispenser from time to time. Well, who wouldn’t? A bit of wet food. Chunks of meat and all that. Surely one’s entitled to a bit of that every now and then? Perhaps once a day? Hmm? Hmm?

So, what does it take? I’ve got him trained on the bath tap business. He knows I like to drink water straight from the tap. So if I run between his legs when he’s heading from the bathroom, as well as nearly tripping him up, which is fun, it gets him thinking along the right lines.

It may not appeal to you, but I like drinking this way
You can pretty much see his mind slowly whirring into action.

“Misty? Bathroom? Ah. He wants water from the tap.”

So he goes in and turns the tap on, carefully adjusting it till it’s dripping just right – not so fast that I get my paws wet, not so slow that I can’t drink from it properly.

“There you go,” he says, “the water’s on for you.”

Which is quite funny really, seeing as he thinks I don’t understand English.

“See?” he’ll go on, “the tap’s on. You can jump in the bath and have a drink.”

But recently I’ve just sat there and looked at him. Or even turned my back.

“What is it?” You can hear him getting worried. “What’s the problem? You don’t want water?”

The penny’s beginning to drop…

“Not water, then? You want something else? Wet food perhaps?”

Ah. There at last.

But boy, what a struggle. Who wants to go through that every day, before breakfast? You’d think after a couple of times he’d understand.

Ah, well. He may be slow, but I still like sitting on him in the evenings. Though he’s a sad case intellectually, he’s friendly, he does feed me eventually if I ask clearly enough, and there is a case for some gender solidarity.

Though, as it happens, the females are worth cultivating too. Domestic number 1 keeps buying things for the crazy little puppy Luci. Beds, for instance. She’s bought two of them for her. Two! Luci’s tiny, but she gets two beds?

Strangely enough, I’m partial to a dog bed. Not sure why. It was the same with Janka: I liked to sleep on her rug sometimes. 

Well, a lot really.

Domestic Number 1 piled the two beds one on top of the other day. Which was just wonderful! I could lie on both of them. At the same time. Depriving Luci of either of them. Boy, she was put out. Which only added to the fun. She hovered for a while, looking envious. And I stretched luxuriously and really enjoyed the warm fluffiness. Brilliant.

The luxury. Enjoying both of Luci's beds at once.
And stopping her
Though then she went rushing over to the sofa – she hardly does anything except at a rush – and leaped up between the domestics. My domestics.

I decided that the beds, even if there were two of them, weren’t quite as wonderful as all that. And wandered over myself. With dignity, mind. And hopped up on Domestic Number 2’s knees.

Quite nice really. Even he seemed to feel that. He stroked me behind the ears. And I let him.

I must be getting soft.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Happy New Year! Thanks to British Conservatism

Happy New Year!

Surprised? Asking yourself what year starts on 6 April? Whether there’s some calendar you’re unaware of, in one of the world’s great religions?

Here’s a clue. It’s not a matter of celebration for most people.

No, 6 April is the start of the British tax year. 

But is that really the answer to the right question? Or are you now wondering “why on Earth does the British tax year start on 6 April?”

The ecclesiastical year was used for centuries for administrative purposes throughout Christendom. It contains Quarter Days: Lady Day on 25 March, marking the annunciation to Mary that she is to bear the child of God, Midsummer day on 24 June, Michaelmas on 29 September and Christmas on 25 December.

Note the spooky exact nine months between Lady Day and Christmas Day. Almost as though they’d been specifically picked to correspond to the canonical length of a human pregnancy. We’re being told that the birth of Christ was a truly human event, not a supernatural one (begotten not created, and all that.)

In this system, the year started on the first Quarter Day, 25 March. The British tax authorities followed that convention. Religiously.

“OK,” I hear you cry, “but that still isn’t 6 April, is it?”

“Patience, good sir or madam,” I reply, “the story is not yet complete.”

For over a millennium and a half, Europe lived by the Julian calendar, named after that skilful general, wily politician and outstanding murder victim, Julius Caesar. Alas, however, his calendar is based on their being 365.25 days in the solar year, the time it takes the Earth to travel round the sun. The extra quarter of a day was compensated for with a leap year every four years.

In fact, 365.24 is a better approximation. So 1600 years on, the calendar was out with respect to the seasons by as much as 12 days. Pope Gregory XIII decided this had to stop, so he introduced the aptly named Gregorian Calendar in 1582. This skipped ten days, and decreed that a year divisible by 4 would only be a leap year if it wasn’t also divisible by 100 (so 1900 wasn’t a leap year), unless it was also divisible by 1000 (so 2000 was a leap year).

“OK,” you object, “but 25 March plus 10 days only takes us to 4 April.”

“Hold on,” I counter, “we’re not there yet.”

Britain is famously one of the great conservative countries, if “great” and “conservative” are words that can be used together. This is a nation whose regime, a limited monarchy, has merely evolved since the eighteenth century; by contrast, France has had three monarchies, two Empires and is now on its fifth republic.

Oddly, there’s little to choose between the two countries in quality of government. Though perhaps that’s not so odd.

Anyway, Britain was officially Protestant by the time of Gregory’s reforms, and wasn’t having anything to do with this strange Papist change to the calendar.

“What, it is a leap year, unless it’s a century years, except if it’s a millennium year? Who’ll even remember?”

Gregory XIII
Author of a necessary reform to the calendar or of a Popish plot?
So we stuck with the Julian system. Good enough for Caesar, good enough for us.

But by the mid-eighteenth century, it was all getting too much. Goods would arrive in London days before they’d been sent from Calais. A settlement sent on time from Edinburgh would arrive way over deadline in Milan. It was all too confusing.

So in 1752 Britain swallowed its pride and, with a sense of being excitingly innovative, switched from “Old Style” dates to “New Stye”. By then the gap had grown by another day, so the skip had to be eleven days, not ten. There was a lot of suspicion and resistance, as people felt they were being robbed of part of their lives, but the change went through.

Britain wasn’t by any means the last to make the change. Russia, even more conservative, clung on into the 20th century. It took the Communist revolution of 1917 to bring the calendar in line with the West, by which time the difference was thirteen days. But with all the bloodshed, I suspect losing a couple of weeks wasn’t a top priority to most Russians. Though deep-rooted conservatism culminating in violence might give them something to ponder even today.

In Europe, Greece was the last country to go, losing its thirteen days in 1923.

One body that wasn’t going to put up with being robbed of any of the time due to it was the British Treasury. So it stuck with the old dating of Lady Day, adding eleven revenue-collecting days to the tax year when the change took place. 

Well, nominally adding eleven days, though that kept it the same length, if you see what I mean.

So there you have it.

“Hang on, hang on,” you complain, “eleven days after 25 March still isn’t 6 April. 25 plus 11 is 36. March has 31 days. 36 minus 31 is 5. So why doesn’t the tax year start on 5 April?”

“OK, OK, you’re right,” I have to confess.

In 1800, which wasn’t a leap year in the new system, the tax authorities decided to nick an extra day again. So they shifted the start of the tax year on one more day, taking us to 6 April.

And then in 1900, they decided that they’d had enough.

“What, some century years we have to add a day, others we don’t? Who’ll remember?” they asked. And they stopped doing it.

And that really is the end of the story.

Happy New British Tax Year!

Friday, 3 April 2015

As we stifle in consensus over austerity, is the SNP the only hope for an alternative?

The great debate wasn’t that great. If it was even a debate.

Four men, David Cameron for the Tories, our current Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, his deputy for the Liberal Democrats, Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition for Labour, and Nigel Farage of UKIP, well for himself, and anyone who prefers bigoted belief over reason and evidence, faced off to three women, Leanne Wood for Plaid Cymru, Natalie Bennett for the Greens and Nicola Sturgeon for the Scottish National Party.

This was the single Prime Ministerial debate before the UK General Election on 7 May, televised last night. With seven contenders, no debate was really possible. Each candidate responded to a series of questions, and occasionally candidates cut across or challenged each other, but it was all a bit stilted.

The seven contenders in the Party Leaders' debate
So we learned little from the event. Except perhaps that the Celtic Fringe has a lot to teach England.

Leanne Wood persisted throughout in addressing Wales and Welsh voters. She seemed to have little to say to any other part of the United Kingdom, which seriously reduced the national impact of what she had to say. Even so, she did at least speak out against austerity, and for both the European Union and immigration, pointing out that leaving the former would do great damage, while threats to limit the latter were already harming her country.

That’s Wales, by the way, not Britain.

Nicola Sturgeon, on the other hand, was far more impressive. I’m sure that I’m far from the only Englishman who felt envious of the Scots, after listening to her. Why don’t we have someone so bravely and clearly articulating a message of the moderate left?

And I stress that word ‘moderate’. Many, and I include myself, have referred to Sturgeon as ‘radical’. But in reality she is not proposing anything revolutionary, or even particularly reforming: there’s no programme for mass nationalisation of industry here, or even of serious redistribution of wealth. Indeed, in many ways her programme is one for a conservative left wing: to maintain and protect the National Health Service, to keep access to tertiary education free. Even the most dramatic of the SNP’s positions is a demand for non-action, not for action: not to build the successor to the Trident nuclear deterrent.

This is a programme well to the right of the Attlee Labour government’s of 1945, which set up the NHS, along with the apparatus of the welfare state. It’s to the right of the programme of the Wilson Labour government of the 1960s, with its talk of storming the commanding heights of the economy. It’s telling that today the limited programme of the SNP seems to be the most daring on offer.

Amongst the representatives of the whole of Britain on show, only Natalie Bennett spoke for a similar anti-austerity view. A little dull, and representing a small minority of the electorate, she was never going to set this election alight.

Alongside her, we had Nigel Farage, beginning to sound far more wooden than he has in the past, certainly not the firebrand he once was and who won such massive support last year. To him, every question could only be solved by cutting immigration and leaving the EU – or was that leaving the EU in order to cut immigration?

And then we had Cameron proposing more and intensifying austerity, in the mistaken belief that all that matters is reducing national debt and eliminating the government deficit.

Against him, Miliband is at least speaking for the NHS, improving education and – at last – unequivocally denouncing the abomination of zero-hour contracts. This is the exploitative mechanism in which a worker is tied to an employee, but can’t count on any guaranteed level of work or earnings. That Miliband attacked it is welcome; but that he still seems committed to more austerity, if a lighter variety than Cameron’s, is dismal.

So it takes Nicola Sturgeon to speak out for the Centre-Left. The moderate Left, as I said. A little fresh air in the stifling atmosphere of the austerity consensus.

It’s sad that it should be so. But I suppose we can take some comfort that there is one voice, at least, clearly articulating arguments that badly need to be heard.