Sunday, 30 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn: I may have got him wrong. So I changed my mind

When you've got something wrong, you just have to admit it and put it right.

For weeks, I believed that electing Jeremy Corbyn Labour leader would damage the party’s electoral chances. His views on a wide range of issues seemed out of tune with far too many voters, and his image generally seemed too eccentric, for him to be electable Prime Minister.

It didn’t particularly help that, when taxed with this charge on TV, he replied that he clearly wasn’t unelectable since he’d been returned to Parliament again and again, by the electors of Islington, over 32 years. It’s not that the answer wasn’t well delivered – it was a refreshing change from the speak-by-numbers evasions most politicians seem to produce. But the implication was that he thought England was all like Islington and, while it might be a good thing if more of England resembled that fine London Borough, for the moment it certainly doesn’t.

However, later I heard him replying to the same question again. This time he told the BBC that we ought to wait and see, that the Conservatives were in for a torrid time with economic difficulties ahead, and they might not find re-election as easy as some think. Now that struck me as a highly intelligent response. I’ve also felt the same for a while: the Tories have had an easy ride of it, but haven’t done well (far from reducing debt, it they have nearly doubled it since they came to office). They could be put through the wringer in the coming years.

More generally, Corbyn had avoided saying any of the things I feared he might to frighten the children. He dislikes NATO, but he accepts that many people disagree and he believes Labour is a broad grouping within which compromises have to be made – it sounded to me as though there might be a debate about NATO, which is long overdue, not a commitment to leave, which might be perceived as rash.

Time, I felt, to change my mind
He’s unhappy about much of what happens in the EU, but again he doesn’t seem to have made up his mind to that Britain ought to go. Many supporters of the EU are also unhappy with they way it currently operates, but most of us feel that it needs internal reform and, above all, a new leadership.

Some of his views on nationalisation seem to strike a chord with the electorate, rather than putting them off.

I’m far from certain about his notion of “people’s quantitative easing”, i.e. printing money to fund investment: that’s never worked well in other countries when it’s been tried – the hyperinflation to which it leads leaves little of the benefits it’s designed to generate – but it feels to me as though he can be persuaded to take a more dependable approach. Borrowing to invest, as opposed to the Tories’ borrowing to fund day-to-day expenditure, strikes me as a far more sensible policy, especially when interest rates are at a historic low.

More broadly, when it comes to economics, my feeling that he wasn’t the candidate to vote for was shaken when I saw that 41 economists had endorsed his anti-austerity stance, especially as one of them was the outstanding David Blanchflower.

I’d looked with envy to Scotland during the General Election campaign earlier this year, wishing that we too in England had a leader who spoke out against austerity policies as effectively as Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish Nationalist Party – the runaway victors of the election, north of the border. Austerity has caused enormous pain among sections of the population least able to suffer it, and failed dismally in its objectives, as the constantly rising debt shows. It suddenly occurred to me that Jeremy Corbyn might be just our answer to Sturgeon.

In any case, I’m reminded of the advice of someone who was one of the most remarkable statesmen ever, while still being a supremely astute political operator, Abraham Lincoln:

The true rule, in determining to embrace, or reject any thing, is not whether it have any evil in it; but whether it have more of evil, than of good. There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good. Almost every thing, especially of governmental policy, is an inseparable compound of the two; so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.

I can’t expect to agree with Corbyn on everything; I just have to decide whether on balance he has more in his favour than against him. And both in his policies, in which he has proved himself surprisingly moderate and open to compromise, and in his dealings with the media, where he has proved himself honest and straightforward, I’ve been impressed by his performance.

By contrast, the other candidates, though some are effective, still look too much like the products of a spin-dominated machine. Nor do they speak out against austerity as we need them to. It’s now beginning to feel to me as though they simply can’t mobilise the support we’re looking for, reversing my earlier notion about Corbyn: I now suspect that he may be better placed to inspire people, gaining more support than he puts off, and therefore help Labour advance.

Besides, Tony Blair came to my rescue, stilling any doubts I might have had. He writes in the Observer of the effect on supporters of any piece penned against Corbyn, that it “actually makes them more likely to support him.” And then he writes another one against him.

Well, if even Blair is now contributing to the Corbyn campaign, what could possibly stop me?

So he got my vote.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Not easy to reach full womanhood

The transition to womanhood’s never easy. Especially for women. But it isn’t altogether smooth even if you’re of the canine persuasion. Our poodle Luci started her first heat this week, and it’s left her more than a little perturbed.

“She may be a little clingy,” said the veterinary nurse during her routine checkup.

Clingy? I’ll say. She’d never jumped onto my lap before, but since Monday it’s either a leap or, if the chair’s just a tad too high, scrabbling at my knees until I lift her up. Once there she sits content and at ease, surveying all around her, her boiling anxiety temporarily and partially assuaged.

Let me up! Let me up! It's lonely down here
Previously, she was happy just to lie down next to us, on the sofa. But now she’s become a lapdog in the full sense of the world. And, if my lap is covered, as it frequently is, by a laptop, she’ll just walk around on the keyboard until I remove it. It’s a great relief for her when Danielle’s home: far less of a fidget than I am, and less inclined to use her laptop, she provides a more satisfactory place to relax and calm the roaring hormones.

Other aspects of this experience remind me of an old friend who told me, “you’re lucky. As the father of a son, you have to worry about a boy. I, as the father of a daughter, have to worry about every boy in the neighbourhood.”

Our garden is reasonably fenced in. There are, however, points where contact between the bottom of the fence and the ground isn’t quite as hermetic as one might have wished. That’s never been a problem before. Luci, who’s now completely mastered the use of the cat (and “small dog”) flap in the kitchen door, lets herself out when she needs to do, as the received euphemism has it, her business, or when she just feels like wandering out. But as a sensibly timid dog, she’s never been tempted to grub away under the fence and let herself into the neighbour’s garden (though she likes the neighbour, and if ever we’re chatting to her with the two gates open, she dashes into the house, with never so much as a by your leave.)

Now, however, we’re worried not about Luci doing the digging, but about any stray male in the neighbourhood. Like my friend, we have to worry about all the boys around. So the cat flap has to be locked, at least if we’re both out of the house.

This can have unplanned, unwanted consequences. I discovered as much the other day, after returning from an errand. I was tapping away at my keyboard when I began to get that terrible feeling – you must know it – that I was being surveyed with intensity and little goodwill. I looked up and saw, sat quietly on his haunches, completely still and yet deeply baleful, our cat Misty. Reproachful, that look was, I’d say, perhaps even accusatory.

It took me only an instant to realise what this was about.

“What have you done to my cat flap?” he was saying, “I can’t get out into the garden. This is not the level of service to which I’ve become accustomed. Or regard as my minimal entitlement.”

You did what to my cat flap?
I naturally dropped everything, scattering laptop and lapdog in different directions, and ran to the kitchen. I unlocked the cat flap, but Misty wasn’t having any of it. He still looked at me suspiciously.

“It’s OK, Misty, really,” I assured him, and pushed the cat flap with a finger. He watched it flap open and shut with the customary sound. Then he wandered up to it himself and tried it with a paw. When the result of his own test – why trust the person responsible for the initial disappointment, after all? – he consented to stick his head through, and when that went well, slid his whole body out into the garden.

Picture my relief. I’d allayed Misty’s ill-humour, and without even being scratched or bitten. A bigger success than you might imagine.

I could now go back to Luci and stroke her again, consoling her as best I could for the overwhelming changes taking place inside her.

Not easy, the passage into womanhood. Worst for the individual concerned of course. But no one in the environs escapes wholly unaffected.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The powerless need a champion. The right champion.

Today in Britain we live with a government which has held wages down for the powerless while presiding over a huge explosion in “earnings” for the most powerful (the quotation marks around “earnings” are there because I really don’t believe any individual, however mighty, truly “earns” twenty or forty times what, say, a teacher earns – not if by “earn” we mean receiving a merited reward for a contribution).

The powerful are powerful precisely because they have the means to buy themselves power. They are the great contributors to political parties, particularly the Conservatives. The nakedness of the deal is clear from such steps as the reduction of the top rate of tax, in the last government, from 50% to 45%.

Economically, it made no sense: the government’s stated policy was to reduce government deficits and therefore debt, and a reduction in tax ran entirely counter to that objective; the number of individuals involved was far too small to justfiy the move even as a means to garner votes; so the only conclusion was that it was a measure to satisfy the people who donated the most to the predominant party in government at the time, now the sole party in government, the Tories.

What’s true in Britain is threatening in the United States too, where a crowded field of contenders for the Republican presidential nomination is made up of candidates committed to backing the wishes of the sadly downtrodden rich, against the pampered poor.

So it’s wonderful to read this denunciation of the kind of government such people favour. Though aimed at that abuse in the US, it applies equally well to the UK.

It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth cannot be produced by human institutions… [but] every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to … make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society – the farmers, mechanics, and laborers – who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing.

Doesn’t that have a certain ring to it? “The rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” Apart from those who share, and indeed champion, those selfish purposes, who would dissent from that sentiment?

So it’s both refreshing and encouraging to hear a voice raised in such clear tones against that kind of abuse.

Sadly, we won’t ever actually hear that voice. The words were spoken by the seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, in the 1830s. That of course only makes it all the more remarkable that they preserve all their freshness and, above all, their relevance today.

More sadly still, even if it were possible to get Jackson back, it’s far from clear it would be desirable. Jackson spoke up for the people, but he defined the people to suit his own bigotry: male, certainly, but above all white.

So when South Carolina announced it would nullify any federal laws it regarded as unconstitutional, Jackson was having none of it: he mobilised the army to bring the State to heel. But when South Carolina decided that it would block the distribution of anti-slavery literature, even though it was being carried by the US post office, a federal and not a state institution, he didn’t lift a finger – though the measure clearly conflicted with the First Amendment of the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech.

He was quite picky about the issues over which he would uphold the Constitution.

The Trail of Tears
As pictured by J.J. Peabody
His view on Native Americans was nothing short of tragic. They had no role, in his view, in lands occupied by Whites. They had to go. That led to an act of barbarous ethnic cleansing, as the tribes were driven across the Mississippi, in what came to be known as the trail of tears. The Cherokees, the last to go, lost between 2000 and 6000 along the way, of the 16000 who were expelled.

No, Jackson was not particularly nice.

From which I think we can draw a double lesson. Firstly, we still need a champion of the little man against the arrogant, as much today as nearly two centuries ago, in Jackson’s time. And secondly, we need to be careful who we pick to be that champion – they’re not all quite as savoury as we might wish.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Misty's Diary: Call that a jump?

Misty and his diary again, talking about life with Luci, and jumping.

August 2015

Well, life’s certainly become less dull since Luci moved in with us. 

Not always in a good way. She likes to say “hello” to me pretty well every time she sees me. Thats fine, except that she’s clearly decided it’s important to establish some kind authority over me. So she does silly things like trying to pin me down with her forelegs, as though I couldn’t just throw her off with a shake of my shoulders.

Not that it’s as easy as it always was. With the amount of food the domestics keep giving her, it’s no surprise that she’s starting to put on a bit of weight. Still, that’s done no more than move her from the featherweight to lightweight category – no challenge to a fine figure of a cat like me.

A fine athletic figures of a cat
Even so, sometimes she needs a slightly harsher reminder of who’s in charge. Just the other day, I got the teeth out, not something I often do with her. Got her on the nose. Can’t really have hurt – I didn’t bite down properly and she has so much hair, even on her nose, that it’s hard to get at anything I could hurt if I tried. Still, she squealed, but that’s just her way.

And what’s even more her way is that she came back for more punishment. Crazy animal. What does she think’s going to happen if she keeps bugging me? Fortunately, I’ve got the domestics reasonably well trained: when number 2 saw what was going on, he shouted at Luci, “leave him in peace, Luci, come away.” And, when she’d gone trotting over to him, like the dutiful little creature she is, “you know you could end up getting hurt if you push him too hard.”

He’s certainly got that right.

Honestly, though, I can’t believe how he talks to her. And she takes it all to heart.

“He said to me the other day, ‘who’s a lovely little dog, then?’ Isn’t that good? Isn’t that good? Isn’t it, isn’t it?”

“Err… yes, it’s great, if that’s the kind of thing you like…”

“Well, think about it, just think about it, Misty. There aren’t any other dogs. He has to mean me, doesn’t he? It’s got to be me who’s lovely. Isn’t that good?

“Yeah, right, it’s fantastic. But… err… like you said… there aren’t any other dogs around, are there? So he’s not really got a whole lot to compare you with, has he?”

“No, no, but so what? It’s still good.”

“And did you hear him say, ‘who’s a crazy dog, then?'” 

 “A crazy dog? Do you think that’s me too? That can’t be right. Crazy’s not such a great thing to be, is it? Is it, Misty?”

“If the fur fits, wear it,” I told her, “now let me get back to sleep.”

But she wouldn’t. So I jumped the back gate, which she can’t, and went round to the front of the house and my bed of leaves which is great to lie on.

My bed of leaves
Warm, comfortable and out of Luci's reach
Jumping’s quite a thing, actually. The domestics are training her to jump. They’ve got this hoop that they hold up for her. It’s got to be about half her height off the ground. They hold half a pathetic little dog treat on the other side, and – surprise, surprise – she jumps through the hoop to get it.

And this is some kind of major achievement? You should hear them cooing about it. “Good girl! Well done! You’re really getting it.”

Look at me, Misty, look at me, she likes to cry, “I’m jumping! And so high!

So I jump up on the table and look down at her, vainly struggling to follow me.

“Very impressive,” I say, “Now come and join me up here.

“I can’t, I can’t, Misty,” she says, “but didn't I do a great jump?

In fact, I quite often show her how jumping’s really done. I leap up to get at my food. Now that’s three or four times her height. And the reward isn’t half a treat. It’s a bowlful of proper food. And, what’s more, it’s got this brilliant system which means whenever it gets close to empty, more flows in from above.

Now that’s what I call jumping. And that’s what I call a purpose for a jump.

You should see her face. At the bottom. Looking up pathetically. So funny.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Immigration: time to get the question right

In 1951, Rosalind Franklin took a series of pictures of DNA which a colleague, J.D. Bernal, described as “amongst the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.” They led to the finding of the double-helix structure of DNA.

In 1995, Michael Portillo reached the pinnacle of his political career, when he was appointed Defence Secretary.

In 2004, Kelly Holmes took gold medals in both the 800 and 1500 metre women’s races at the Athens Olympics, the first time a British athlete had won two golds at one Olympics since 1920.

What do these three stories have in common? They all concern Britons of immigrant stock, remote or recent. Franklin came from a long family of British Jews. Portillo is the son of a Spanish refugee from Franco. Holmes’s father is Jamaican.

Admire them or not, they’ve all notched up significant achievements in Britain. We need to remember them especially in today’s atmosphere, when all we seem to talk about is the terrible danger posed by immigrants gathering ominously in Calais and threatening to invade our shores. You’d think they were a latter day Wehrmacht, from the tone of the debate, ready to undermine all we hold dear to us.

They are a “swarm” to Prime Minister David Cameron, they’re “marauding” according to Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.

The joy of an immigrant camp in Calais
In reality they are 5000 underfed, ill-lodged, unfortunates trying to find somewhere they can rebuild their lives after fleeing their homes. Most of them come from Iraq, Syria, Lybia, Somalia. These are countries devastated by war, often initiated or sustained from outside, by nations such as the US, Britain, Russia, even Kenya.

You might think that those at least whose homelands have directly suffered at the hands of Britain, notably Iraq and Libya, might expect more tolerant treatment. But our behaviour towards them is shameless: we bombed you into the dark ages, we seem to be saying, now live with it.

In any case, it’s extraordinary what a fuss we’re making about them in Britain. Only a small proportion of those 5000 will ever make it across the Channel. By contrast, Germany is expected to take 750,000 asylum seekers this year alone. And yet Britain squeals as though mortally wounded by a somehow unique crisis.

Our response is simple, too. We invest money in building more fences in Calais. We send over police to enforce the law. We treat what’s happening as a security problem, not a humanitarian one. In that respect, I’m reminded of the “war against drugs”, perceived almost entirely as a law and order issue. We make penalties more stringent, we lock up people for longer. We pay no attention to the evidence that all this effort is producing no useful results, and drug consumption stubbornly refuses to go down.

We’re coming up with the wrong answer, because we’re asking the wrong questions. The right questions are about protecting people from exploitation and helping them to find a better solution. The wrongs ones are about police action.

That’s equally true of immigration. Fences and police won’t do it. Indeed, the problems are going to get a lot worse, as immigration grows many times in the face of the effects of global warming: violent weather, food shortages, even lack of water.

Do we really want to do something about it? Then we need to make a genuine effort. Above all, on ourselves. Principally by learning generosity.

First, we need to stop making such such casual, ill-judged use of military force. Many of the migrants in Europe today have been displaced by our incompetent interventions in the Middle East.

The Iraq War:
solved nothing and contributed to the migrant problem
Next we need to invest more in the countries from which most migrants come. It’s true that as well as refugees, there are economic migrants trying to get into the advanced economies. Well, help develop their home economies and fewer of them will go looking for a better future in strange countries whose language they don’t speak and whose customs they don’t know.

So if you’ve ever whinged about overseas aid, now would be a good time to stop. It’s money well spent, and we need to spend more. As much for our sakes as for the recipients: it takes the pressure off our borders.

The other form of generosity is even more important. We need to treat incomers with humanity. They need help, and we should provide it, because we can. Who knows, some of them may turn into tomorrow’s Roger Bannister or Mo Farah, the immigrants we can celebrate. Even if they don’t, we’d do well to emulate a German woman I heard this week. As she dropped off a donation at a refugee camp, she told the BBC that there was already more than enough evil in the world, and showing a little kindness to the most unfortunate would make it a better place for all of us.

That attitude would be a great starting point to work out the right questions about immigration. Because for now we’re coming up with entirely the wrong answers.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

From Japan: a striking study of death in war, and another of peace in death

Don’t get me wrong: The Eternal Zero is not a great film. There’s far too much overacting, some of the sentiment is nothing short of cheesy, and the use of massed violins in the background whenever the plot gets poignant is so overstated you have to smile at it.

No. What makes The Eternal Zero worth watching is that it’s a Japanese view of the Japanese side in World War II, and that’s immensely refreshing.

The story starts with the discovery by a young woman and her younger brother that the man they have always called grandfather, is in fact the second husband of their grandmother and the stepfather, rather than natural father, of their mother. Their blood grandfather, Kyuzo Miyabe, was an airman of the Japanese Imperial Navy, killed in a 1945 Kamikaze mission. His role gives the film its title: he flew Mitsubishi Zero fighters.

The Mitsubishi Zero
The film has been criticised as a glorification of the Japanese war effort, which surprised me. It struck me as a well-crafted denunciation of the war. As the young people find out more about the film’s true protagonist, Miyabe, they get to know a man whose only objective in the war was to survive it and to return, alive, to his family. Already, after taking part in the attack on Pearl Harbor, where he points out to the triumphant young pilots that there was nothing to cheer about since they sank not a single aircraft carrier, he realises that the war is lost.

From then on, therefore, he sees every life lost as a waste. Some of the finest young Japanese men are being recruited as pilots; he believes that they have much more to contribute to Japan alive, after the fighting is over, than dead in a lost cause. That view only intensifies when he finds himself training these men to take part in Kamikaze missions.

Sacrificial victims in a hopeless cause
Did anyone hold these views in Japan back then? I don’t know. But it’s a pleasure to see them being advanced by a film maker today, as a legitimate view of the war, especially when leading figures, such as Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, are still not prepared to face up to the shame and waste of the nation’s war effort. And whatever its other failings, the film communicates its central message powerfully.

So how did a man committed to surviving manage to die as a Kamikaze pilot? Well, that’s the central irony of the film, and you’ll have to watch it to find out. In my view, the explanation it gave worked and wrapped up the plot well. If, perhaps, a little cheesily…

Still, well worth watching for all that.

Departures – a film I keep coming back to
Since I’m on the subject of Japanese films, did you ever see Departures? Now that really is extraordinarily good. The fact was recognised in its winning the 2009 Oscar for best foreign film (beating Waltz with Bashir which is maybe a little over the top – the Israeli study of the horror of the invasion of Lebanon is outstanding).

Departures is the tale of a young cellist with a Tokyo symphony orchestra that goes bankrupt. He’s forced to find a new job, for which he heads back to the old family home he has inherited, out in the country, where he was brought up by his mother after his father left them. He takes a job with a company called ‘Departures’. However, it isn’t a travel agency, which would have been honourable, but a company concerned with that other, final departure we all have to face, to an undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller ever returns.

The handling of the dead is, apparently, regarded as far from honourable, leading to terrible shame when the truth finally comes out.

The film deals with issues of life as well as of death, it handles loss and joy, shame and vindication, with sensitivity and poignancy. It explores what it is to be a parent, a partner or a child. It shows how colleagues can react with loyalty and support. Above all, it shows how the sensitive and, in this instance, supremely skilful treatment of a dead body can contribute to making harrowing loss bearable.

A bereavement accompanied can be more bearable
Strongly to be recommended.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Hoping to be wrong about Corbyn

It looks increasingly likely – to the point where it feels all but inevitable – that next month will see the consecration of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.

Corbyn represents a vital ingredient in British political life. The man of principle who sticks to his guns, speaks his mind and maintains pressure on the powerful to stay honest. Or at least less dishonest than they would be in the absence of such scrutiny. One of the principal characteristics of such men, however, is that they never hold authority themselves, but limit themselves to holding authority accountable.

One glance at Corbyn’s track record makes the point clearly: he has voted against his own party’s instructions on 500 occasions. That’s great from the thorn-in-the-side politician, attacking all abuses from a position safe on the backbenches. But a leader needs discipline from his MPs, precisely the kind of discipline that he has, honestly and out of principle, refused to acknowledge.

What’s worse is that many of his positions are unpopular with a large proportion of the electorate. He wants the railways re-nationalised. Now, a great deal needs to be done to improve the state of the railways, but I can’t see how their ownership is the key issue here: I remember the old, dull, bureaucratic, unresponsive British Rail, and I can’t begin to see why anyone would want to go back to those days.

It’s true that the staff might have been better treated. And that’s a crucial point in understanding positions of the kind Corbyn advances: he sees workers exclusively as producers, in this case the railway employees delivering the service, and forgets that far more are consumers, who'd actually like to see a service that is efficient, a lot less expensive than at present and delivered with a smile.

The answer, I think most people would feel, is to find a way to improve conditions for employees, and not just on the railways, and put the financing of the services on a footing which keeps the prices more manageable. Ownership is entirely secondary to those requirements. Certainly, few voters think that state control is desirable, and many would be put off by a party advocating it.

A lot more will come out if and when Corbyn wins. His sympathies with Irish Republicanism, which I regard as legitimate, will be presented as support for the IRA. His past statements about NATO will be cited against him and turned into a warning that if he wins power, the UK will withdraw from the organisation, a prospect that will drive hundreds of thousands into the arms of the Tories. There is even talk of his wanting to re-open coalmines that shut after Thatcher broke the miners’ union – while I regard what was done to mining communities as one of the more shameful acts of her shameful rule, I have also been down a couple of working mines, and wouldn’t wish that working environment on anyone.

So, these are all the issues that leave me feeling that electing Corbyn will make it far more difficult than it already is for Labour to win office again, at least any time soon. The result would be that institutions that I hold invaluable, such as the NHS or the BBC, may well be driven into terminal decline by continued Tory rule.

And yet, I have to admit, I’ve been wrong in my political prognoses before. Simply looking around my local Labour Party, I know the enthusiasm of members for Corbyn is by no means limited to a few hotheads or, worse still, “entryists” sent in by other parties to vote Corbyn for their own nefarious reasons. Good people, intelligent people, back him.

Jeremy Corbyn
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. If I'm wrong. And I hope I am
Could I be wrong in my fears? A suggestion that I might be came in a recent poll which found that, of the four candidates for the leadership, Corbyn scored most highly for being in touch, intelligent, trustworthy and able to beat David Cameron in a TV debate. Why, he even ties with Andy Burnham – on 26% each – as the leader most likely to win the next election.

Interestingly, even amongst voters backing the far-right UKIP, Corbyn tops the poll on 39%. At first sight this may seem odd – right-wing supporters favouring the most left-wing candidate – but there’s no doubt that Labour has bled support to UKIP, and perhaps the cause has been insufficient radicalism: UKIP is certainly radical if nothing else, and though his radicalism is directed to profoundly different causes, so is Corbyn – he’s seen as another way to breach the bubble of complacency and conformism of establishment politics.

Maybe Corbyn will prove me wrong. Maybe he’ll prove a dynamic and mobilising leader. Maybe votes lost to his views and background will be more than made up by those attracted by a new campaigning approach to politics.

I hope that's right and I’m wrong. The alternative’s pretty depressing.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Comets 67P and other strange celestial bodies nearer to home

Hasn’t the European Space Agency done fantastic work, with the Rosetta mission?

It’s been fascinating watching a weird celestial object approaching the climax of its orbit, spewing out increasing amounts of hot gas and jets of odd material. Though, to be fair, as I write those words, I’m not thinking of comet 67P on its arrival at perihelion, its closest approach to the sun. No, I’m thinking of that even stranger celestial body, Tony Blair One (TB1), now nearing peri-Jerry, the point of closest approach to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.

Comet 67P. Or Tony Blair at his most virulent?
Certainly, all the phenomena we’ve grown used to with 67P are to be found in TB1. The jets of hot gas are growing more violent and numerous as peri-Jerry approaches. “If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation.” “It doesn’t matter whether you’re on the left, right or centre of the party, whether you used to support me or hate me. But please understand the danger we are in.” Fierce stuff, full of frighteningly alien material and fiery gas, threatening dire destruction to anyone who gets close.

This all comes after the TB1 comet has spent some time at the far end of its orbit, lost in darkness in the cold outer regions of the political solar system, where no one paid any attention to it. No wonder that as it becomes hotter and more bothered, great billows are emerging from it.

TB1 has some key points of difference from 67P. It, for instance, has smaller objects orbiting it. For instance, there’s Number 2 Alastair Cambell, Foul Mouth Two (FM2) (“five reasons you should vote for anyone but Jeremy Corbyn”).

The irony is that both TB1 and FM2 may have a point. The election of Jeremy Corbyn may indeed make the return of a Labour government anytime soon an even tougher proposition than it was already. What they don’t seem to realise, though, is that they have grown so thoroughly discredited, that their denunciations of the man only drive more votes to the Corbyn camp. Their interventions only make more likely the very fate they are so keen to avoid.

Still, they’re good value. TB1 will be worth observing even after the European Space Agency has gone home and we’ve seen all the photos there are to be of 67P. After all, there is another conjunction in the offing for TB1. Long delayed, already six years in the making, the Chilcot enquiry into the launch and conduct of the Iraq War must report relatively soon.

Blair’s nemesis Corbyn has already said that he suspects there may be a war crime case against him. If Chilcot confirms that view or anything like it, there will be hell to pay. And the fireworks, the great streams of hot air and aggressively hurled rocks, will make today’s spectacular sights seem tame indeed.

Let’s enjoy the great pictures of 67P. And the violent spewings of TB1 and its associates. In preparation of what might be far weirder sights still to come.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Interesting times for the world. Or a Chinese curse at least

What we tend to forget about economics, is that it takes a long time for changes to work their way through. A long time, that is, relative to political careers.

Ronald Reagan, enthusiastically supported and followed by Maggie Thatcher, began to dismantle economic regulation in the 1980s. The process culminated in the repeal of the US regulations (the Glass-Steagall Act) that prevented any individual bank providing both retail functions, such as current accounts or personal loans, as well as much riskier investment services, in 1999. The repeal was initiated by Republicans, but backed by President Clinton, so no party is blameless in this sorry episode.

That means that over nearly twenty years, the structure of regulation that had been set up in the wake of the great crash of 1929, and which had prevented any bank failures in the States for half a century, was deliberately dismantled. Because the process took so long, a lot of people could claim credit for the prosperity apparently generated as a result: Reagan, Bush, Clinton and little Bush in the US, Thatcher, Major and Blair in the UK.

These leaders seemed sound managers of their own nations’ and the world’s economy. But that’s because the eventual consequences of the deregulation were only incubating below the surface. Apparent success was being furthered by a wild drive for increasingly risky financial gambling, building up a mountain of unreal value which had, eventually, to collapse.

In 2008 it did. As a result, in Britain blame for the failure tends to be assigned to Gordon Brown, Prime Minister at the time; in the US, although the crisis began to break at the tail end of the Dubya Bush presidency, Obama was in office as it spiralled out of control, and he had to take the steps needed to restore stability. For which he can then be blamed or praised, depending on taste.

It feels to me as though we’re about to see a similar phenomenon. For over twenty years now, the West has been watching the Chinese economic miracle with amazement. At times when our economies have struggled to grow by 2 or 3%, China has seen growth of nearer 10%, year after year after year. Some economists warned that the rate was too high, and could not be sustained in the long run. Indeed, a time of reckoning would come, when this house of cards too would fall.

If you keep saying that for several years, and the growth just keeps happening, eventually you sound like the boy who cried wolf. A belief becomes established that the good times will continue indefinitely, and that those claiming otherwise are merely doom sayers.

Sadly, the reality is simply that it just takes economic phenomena that long to become manifest. In recent times, we’ve seen increasing signs of weakness in the Chinese economy. There has been a steady decline in growth so that, though still high by Western standards, it has now fallen to around the 7% level (though some suspect that the true figure is lower: facts arent always easy to come by in China). The trend is firmly downwards.

Economic Growth in China: the International Monetary Fund view
In the last few months, there have been interest rate adjustments, share suspensions and now, for two days in succession, devaluations of the currency (the first of them trumpeted as a “one-off” measure).

It’s beginning to feel as though the wheels may be coming off the bus, as some economists were warning years ago. Once again, we have been lulled into false security by the fact that such processes take so long. Once they start to unravel, they can slide fast and be acutely painful for a long time – look at Greece.

The comparison with Greece is an interesting one. Because the Greek economy is a sideshow, in the global scale of things. China, on the other hand, is the world’s second economy. If it gets into trouble, Greece is going to look like a gentle dip in the smooth running of the international financial system. It’s encouraging that voices are already being raised in the US to protect its economy against the possible effects of a Chinese downturn. They need to be heeded.

As far as I can tell, it’s an urban myth that “may you live in interesting times” is a Chinese curse. It does, however, look as though we may be about to enter some interesting times. And the cause may well be a curse from China.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Lucis Diary. The world's full of strangers, but some of them are just friends waiting to play with you. 

August 2015

Squirrels! They’re wonderful. I discovered them this week. The humans say they’ve been around the whole time, and they couldn’t understand that I’d never spotted them previously. But I have now. What a great game it is to try to catch them in the open, before they can shoot up a tree.

I knew about birds already. Specially crows. They like to stand around in the park just waiting for me to chase them. That’s such fun! They wait until I’m really close – do they think I’m going to change my mind and stop or something? – and then they go flapping off making that strange cawing sound.

I’m really quick these days, so I can keep up with them for a while even when they’re in the air. What a great game.

And in the park with the lake, there are ducks too. I nearly caught one the other day. It took off for the water when I came running up, but didn’t get high enough to get over the railings, so it flew into them and came crashing back down to earth. If it hadn’t been able to slip through the bars, I’d have had it.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure what I’d have done if I had got it. Maybe it’s just as well I didn’t. It could have been embarrassing. I don’t think my jaws would fit around it. Anyway, the fun’s chasing the birds, not catching them. 

Which I never have.

As well as birds, there’s other dogs. Not the big ones. With the big ones, I find the most sensible thing is to keep behind the legs of whichever human I’m out with. 

By the way, you don’t have to be really big to be big as far as I’m concerned.

But with the ones my size, it’s just play, play, play. Which I enjoy all the more now that I’m so quick. There’s not many of them can get away from me or, when we turn around and chase the other way, catch me. In fact, the only annoying thing about them is that sometimes they just stop and lie down panting. I have to keep running up to them to get them back on their feet.

Got to be quick if you're going to catch me...
The human puppies are good too. I mentioned the ones I played with in the park before, but there are others I meet in different places. That always works out well. There was the one from Scotland who used to give me treats when she decided to let me train her, though I think she may have thought she was training me.

With my good friend in Scotland
And the other day we went and saw another favourite of mine who was always ready to run around, sit around, play around or stroke me. Little girl human puppies? You can never have too many of them, I reckon.

With another good friend
What a great world. Full of strangers you have to approach warily, or back away from. But every now and then, one of them turns out to be a friend who was just waiting to meet you. And a friend’s someone you can play with.

Like the human puppies. Small dogs. Crows. Ducks. And now squirrels.

Though the crows, ducks and squirrels may not like me quite as much as I like them.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Great advice, showing exactly what Labour shouldn't do.

Labour was warned in plenty of time, we’re told, that it was heading for a drubbing at the polls. According to the Guardian, James Morris, chief pollster to the party under Ed Miliband, reported that:

There were three very clear threshold issues where the party needs to show a new approach: immigration, benefits and the deficit/economy.

On the first of these, Morris provided useful detail:

Labour is seen as having consistently ignored English people’s views on immigration. A Labour leader who wants to show change has to show that they understand that. This is not just an issue for lost working-class voters – it was central to Middle England and a major concern for Lib Dems. Out of the 40 people who took part in the groups only one person mounted any sort of defence of a relatively open policy on immigration.

The concerns were broad. Among C2s and Ds there was a particular concern about competition from eastern European migrants for work (esp in the trades). There was a universal concern about benefits and the provision of services, with immigrants sending child benefit abroad symbolic of the issue. Just as common was a cultural concern. This was partly about people adopting British culture when they come here and partly about standing up for British and in particular English traditions and English people. There was a strong sense that people who are born and bred in England should be prioritised.

So according to Morris we lost because, among other things, we failed to accommodate the fact that a great many people in Middle England feel their jobs, or even their cultural identity, threatened by the influx of immigrants to this country.

A lot of people issue this kind of warning. It usually takes the form “we have to learn to take voters’ concerns about immigration seriously.” That’s actually code: what it means is that we have to adopt those concerns as our own, to make ourselves attractive to voters who feel them.

What about “cultural concern”? This was perhaps best voiced by the politician who complained about finding himself in a train carriage without a single other English speaker in it. The same politician also pointed out that few of us would want Romanian neighbours.

The politician who made those two comments was Nigel Farage, leader of far-right UKIP. It concerns me that a Labour Party pollster might be recommending moving closer to the kinds of positions that Farage espouses.

Personally, I always find a charm in being surrounded by people speaking other languages, since it shows what a magnet Britain can be at its best. As for Romanian neighbours, I’m delighted with out Polish neighbours and I have a close and much appreciated Romanian friend. People who share Farage’s view of foreigners, far from being emulated, should perhaps be encouraged to be more tolerant and enlightened.

Incidentally, doing that is what we call leadership. Adopting their views is followership. What Labour needs to do above all else is learn to lead. It used to know what that meant, and it badly needs to find out again.

In any case, on the subject of leadership, what Morris fails to take into account is that large swaths of voters are unmoved by policy. We have to have policies in place, because they are our pledges of what we shall do – or at least attempt to do – if put into office. But people who are genuinely interested in policy are primarily insiders and a relative small band of others who follow politics with enthusiasm.

As we know, the vast majority of the electorate is completely switched off from politics, and that means switched off from policies.

Ed Miliband: likeable, bright, honest
But not perceived as a Prime Minister. That was the problem, not policy

What will enthuse those people is a sense of confidence, and better still inspiration, in the leadership of the party. They have to feel that they can see the leader in Downing Street. I doubt many of the policies that Ed Miliband promoted cost him votes; his inability to eat a bacon roll in front of the cameras, or to remember the key passages of a crucial speech, did far more to shake the confidence of huge numbers who therefore thought Cameron was simply more suitable.

No amount of triangulation, of selection of carefully crafted policies that will please the maximum number of people for most of the time, will address that problem. For that we need a person who, with or without justification, will be trusted with the keys of number 10.

So my view is simple. If we lose an election because we refuse to compromise on matters of fundamental principle, for instance because we will simply not accommodate the views on immigrants peddled by a Farage, then fair enough. There’s a majority against us on a matter on which we can’t budge.

We need to be convinced that on such questions, we really won’t ever budge, whatever the siren voices may be saying, even the siren voices of pollsters.

If, however, we lose because we have saddled ourselves with a leader who simply can’t connect with ordinary people, then that’s an altogether different matter. That’s our fault. It’s dumb and unforgivable.

Now that, James Morris, is the problem we need to fix. Policy is secondary. And compromising on principles is intolerable.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Grim anniversary, of exceptional terrorism. By the West.

This is an excellent time to pause and think about terrorism.

We in the democracies rightly fear terrorism and want to do everything we can to prevent further terrorist outrages. We’d like to get into a position where no one any longer resorts to terrorism, because they realise that it cannot succeed and will always be defeated.

Sadly, however, our own nations are responsible for one of the worst ever acts of terrorism the world has seen. It was carried out with impunity – none of those responsible was ever made to answer for it – and it proved successful, which might rather encourage than discourage others down that route.

We’re at the seventieth anniversary of the dropping of an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, on 6 August 1945. It had a population of perhaps 350,000 at the time. Between 100,000 and 150,000 died, the vast majority civilians.

The A-bomb dome in Hiroshima
Stark and poignant memorial to a horrifying act of war
The deliberate killing of civilians for political ends is pretty much the textbook definition of terrorism.

Of course, the defenders of the decision to drop the bomb argue that they were not intending to kill civilians. There were indeed military targets in the city. But that’s a bit of a sophism. If you use the most massively destructive weapon ever developed against a city of a third of a million people, you know you’re going to kill a lot of them. If you were trying to take out Field Marshal Shunroku Hata, who was stationed at Hiroshima, and perhaps his general staff, would you really need to destroy 70% of the city’s buildings and so much of the population?

Hata, by the way, didn’t die in the bombing.

In any case, the way military authorities in the democracies described this kind of action – the same terms were used for the bombing of German cities – was that they were designed to break the spirit of the civilian population. The idea was that with that spirit gone, the enemy nations would have to give up the fight. 

Isn’t that a bit of a giveaway? It sounds terribly like the kind of objective a terrorist movement might set itself.

President Truman, despite being one of the better holders of the position, declared on the occasion of the Nagasaki bombing, three days later: “I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb ... It is an awful responsibility which has come to us ... We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.”

So we have appeals to divine justification for our use of a terrifying weapon.

What’s more, its use succeeded. Most authorities agree that the bombing of Hiroshima and of Nagasaki brought the war to a rapid close. Churchill believed that the bombing saved a million American lives and half that number of British ones. He was estimating casualties on the basis of having to invade the main Japanese islands, but many who claim that there were other ways to win the war without using the bomb or invading, estimate that the resulting Japanese casualties would have been still worse.

So the message is clear. If you’re powerful enough and can be sufficiently devastating in your action, you can get away with terrorism. You can achieve your aims by it. And, what’s more, God might even be on your side.

Not the best message to put out there. Not one that’s doing us much good today.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Two stories that deserve to be true. And provide a smile among all the bad news

It was a pleasure to read about Buzz Aldrin’s expenses claim for a trip to the moon ($33.31 using a “government spacecraft”). A pleasure and also a relief, in a week dominated by news that is dull (the fabricated crisis over migrants at Calais), depressing (the death of Cilla Black) or both (Calais migrants again).

it also reminded me of the story I heard years ago about Neil Armstrong, according to which he was heard to have said, while on the surface of the moon, “good luck, Mr Gorsky.” The story claims that he refused to explain what he meant for more than twenty years until, following the death of Mr Gorsky, he decided he could at last come clean.

It seemed that when he and his brother were kids, they were playing in their backyard when one of them sent a ball into the Gorskys garden next door and Neil went after it. It was lying under the Gorskys’ bedroom window and as he went over to pick it up, he heard a voice from inside. It was Mrs Gorsky’s.

“Oral sex? Oral sex?” she was protesting, “you can have oral sex when the boy next door walks on the moon.”

Hence the “good luck, Mr Gorsky” comment from the moon’s surface.

"Good luck, Mr Gorsky"
May not have happened, but should have
Sadly, it seems that this story may not be entirely true. At least, not true in the sense of corresponding to any kind of historical record. That being said, it’s probably not true that there was ever a British king called Arthur who drew a sword from a stone, but there are even kids who know that story, with cartoons from a reputable company to back them up, so in some sense, it is true. I like to think the Armstrong-Gorsky story is true in that sense – true because it’s too good a story not to be.

At least with Buzz Aldrin, it seems unlikely that his story is wholly made up. Why, he’s even posted images of the documentation on line – on Twitter, indeed, so it’s hard to imagine it could be false. He also included a US customs declaration for samples of moon rocks which the astronauts brought back with them.

What he hasn’t said is whether he was reimbursed for the travel expenses, or how much duty was payable on the rock samples.

Still, it’s fun that he’s made the papers available.

Of course, if you don't believe that the Apollo 11 astronauts ever actually made it to the moon, that it was all a massive conspiracy, somehow kept secret by the thousands involved, then you’ll probably give no credit to either Buzz Aldrin’s story or Neil Armstrong’s. But then you probably wouldn’t have a sense of humour either, and would miss the joke. In which case I can only leave you with the stories about migrants at Calais and Cilla Black’s death.

And my commiserations, of course.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Time to "rediscover what it is to be human."

It’s good to see religious leaders standing up to denounce immorality – especially when for once it isn’t sex they’re talking about.

It’s particularly welcome when it is a Christian leader revealing how deeply unchristian David Cameron is, despite his frequent professions of faith. In this instance, the speaker was the bishop of Dover, Trevor Willmott, commenting on the so-called crisis of migrants in Calais.

I say “so-called” because there are at most 3000 of them (compared to the 60,000 who turned up in Italy in the first six months of this year), and it isn’t even clear that all of them want to come to England. I heard one interviewed by the BBC, saying she hoped the world might hear them, and maybe someone in the world might find it in their heart to help them.

Even so, Cameron has decided to provide dogs and guards and better fences to Calais, to make sure that none of these immigrants make it to Britain. So for him the question is merely to be met with security measures, rather than to be treated as a social and political issue, that needs to be handled with compassion towards people who are fleeing some of the worst dangers on the face of the Earth.

What underlined the moral problem was Cameron’s description of the people in Calais as a “swarm of migrants.” It was that use of the word “swarm”, as though we were dealing not with humans but with locusts, that caused the worst shock.

The bishop, talking with the support of the Church of England, pointed out that “we’ve become an increasingly harsh world, and when we become harsh with each other and forget our humanity then we end up in these standoff positions. We need to rediscover what it is to be a human, and that every human being matters.”

Not an infestation, not a swarm
Just humans facing desperate hardship
A salutary reminder. And here’s another – a reminder of a previous time when we in Britain closed ranks to resist swarms of immigrants.

“The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring into this country from every port is becoming an outrage. I intend to enforce the law to the fullest.”

Thus spake a magistrate in 1938, quoted with approval by the Daily Mail, the paper which supported the Nazis in Germany at that time, and the British Union of Fascists in its own country.

Recently, the Czech Republic honoured Sir Nicholas Winton who brought 669 children out in the “Kindertransporte”, to save their lives in Britain. This was felt to be only what he deserved, including by the right wing press. They’re correct, of course, but it’s worth remembering that we’re talking about under 700.

For the first six years of the Nazi regime, the only Jews affected were in Germany, Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia. These were Jews that could have been helped, in a way that when it came to Poland, rescue was impossible: the Nazis appeared in their country so rapidly, and Britain in any case declared war on Germany. But something could have been done about German Jews.

There were a little over 500,000 of them when the Nazis came to power. By 1941, around 160,000 of them were still there. They were, almost without exception, murdered. Jews who left for other European countries, like France, which later fell under Nazi control, were also mostly killed.

Britain took about 40,000 of the Jews who got out. That’s about 10% of the total. Under 10% of the whole Jewish population of Germany. About a quarter as many as those who were killed. So while it’s wonderful to recognise men like Nicholas Winton, it would be unfortunate if we allowed sentimentalism about those 669 children to blind us to the fact that we left so many to face the horror of the gas chambers.

“We need to rediscover what it is to be a human, and that every human being matters,” said the bishop of Dover. That was something we forgot in the 1930s, when powerful men decided that the arrival of German Jews in Britain was “becoming an outrage.”

Learn the bishop’s lesson and we might avoid behaving so shamefully this time round.