Thursday, 29 October 2015

Callous indifference and lack of compassion: they may just reflect a Prime Minister's inability to make an effort

The Devil, they say, makes work for idle hands.

With an idle mind, however, it’s far worse: the Devil makes its owner his tool.

Underneath the surface, and despite the crass indifference of the entitled, David Cameron may well be a not entirely unpleasant human being. He’d probably be most upset, say, by the sight of a woman starving with her children. He’d almost certainly want to help.

The problem is that he has no imagination. He can’t see that woman when she’s out of sight. He can’t connect the effect of his actions as UK Prime Minister with the damage they do to women such as that one. That’s not because he lacks the capacity for compassion, or even the intellectual ability to picture someone else’s suffering, it’s because he simply doesn’t make the effort to exercise them on a scale above the individual.

It was fascinating to read a piece by Fraser Nelson in the Daily Telegraph, in other words by one of the most outspokenly Conservative commentators in one of the most loyally Conservative of newspapers, which warned us that “it’s David Cameron’s laziness that should worry us.” 

Cameron: no effort is too small
Nelson points out, among other incidents from Cameron’s time in office, that when he lost the parliamentary vote on military intervention in Syria, “it was the first time in two centuries that a Prime Minister lost a vote on war and peace – through a basic failure to prepare.”

A failure to prepare. Yes. He simply can’t find it in himself to do the work that’s needed to understand what he’s doing and the effect it will have. Fraser Nelson claims that Cameron didn’t read the NHS Reform Bill, which led to one of the most disastrous reorganisations of the NHS we have seen – and there have been many others that have been dire – until the draft legislation was published.

Nelsons account is wholly plausible. After all, recently Cameron ruled out any kind of tax on high-sugar foods and drinks to fight obesity. He then admitted that he hadn’t read the report which recommended such a tax. That didn’t stop him rejecting its recommendations.

Nelson also describes him as “utterly loyal to his inner circle” which is perhaps why he stood by the hapless Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, who introduced the NHS measures. It took years before he was shifted away from Health, and even then it was a while before he was dropped from government entirely.

Returning to our fictional woman, Cameron presumably simply can’t imagine the suffering he’s causing by actions over the NHS which will deprive her, or her family, of the kind of care which her own mother’s generation had come to regard as a right.

Now, though, there’s worse news for her. She’s struggling to get by on a minimum wage job while bringing up her children alone – yes, I’m assuming she’s a lone mother – and Cameron’s government intends to reduce her benefits, in the form of cuts to tax credits. She is likely to lose £1000 a year or more, which is painful since she only earns £15,000.

The move to cut her benefits has suffered a setback, with the House of Lords voting for transitional arrangements to be put in place to lessen the impact on people like this woman. That was effective opposition from the non-Conservative parties. The leader of the biggest of them, Jeremy Corbyn of Labour, followed up that powerful move by demanding of Cameron that he guarantee to the House of Commons that there would now be no negative impact on tax credit recipients.

Corbyn dedicated the whole of his ration of six questions at Prime Minister’s Question Time to this theme. Six times he asked. And six times Cameron failed to answer.

At one point Corbyn claimed that “he must know the answer.”

Actually, Jeremy, I think you may be wrong. It does sound like standard politician’s deviousness, ducking and evading a question he’s uncomfortable with. But Cameron’s not a clever politician. It’s far more likely that, actually, he doesn’t know the answer.

To know it, he’d have to read some of the background briefing material. Which is quite boring. He simply can’t find it in himself to make the time for it.

And so, with his idle mind, he ends up doing the devil’s work.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Tory Tax Credit cuts: observations and warnings and even a few ironies

It’s painful when the party you’d like to see in government is, in fact, in Opposition. But it’s even worse when it fails to oppose.

Not that opposition is useful for its own sake. We need to oppose government when it’s doing something unconscionable. Something like, say, the British Tory government’s decision to cut tax credits drastically.

These are not in fact related to tax. They’re simply payments to help those working poor who aren’t earning enough, and are more generous still to those who have children. One advantage of the system is that it makes sense to get into a job, even a low-paying one, rather than remaining in assisted unemployment.

Tax credits are generally credited with reducing child poverty in England from 35% of the child population to 19% over the fourteen years from 1998/99 to 2012/13 (twelve of them under Labour).

The Tories have decided that they simply cost too much. In their single-minded drive to cut the deficit on government spending, they have decided to reduce them massively. They never calculated the impact of their policies on the poorest, but the estimates there have been suggest a loss of between £1000 a year and £1300 a year, on average. For some, that could mean a loss of 10% of their income.

That’s for the poorest working families – and the stress is on working: these are the people for which David Cameron and George Osborne claim to speak, even to the extent of calling themselves the “new workers’ party.” We can’t afford to support these strivers, Osborne and Cameron seem to claim, so they must suffer. This at a time when there seems no end in sight to the growth of top salaries: between 2013 and 2014, the incomes (I refuse to call them “earnings”) of directors of Britain’s biggest companies climbed 21%.

It’s the inequity of this arrangement that is particularly shocking. The Tory view is that the economy has to be fixed. That’s not contentious. However, they feel that to fix it, the burden must be disproportionately borne by those least able to shoulder it. Meanwhile, at the top end of the scale, there is no sense of obligation to share in any of the pain but, on the contrary, an unfettered drive to take more and more – even though many of the organisations involved were responsible for the economic problems in the first place, through a crash caused by the irresponsibility of bankers.

Surely, if there were a time for an Opposition to oppose, this had to be it. And yet Harriet Harman, interim Labour leader until the September election of Jeremy Corbyn, let it be known in July that, with a heavy heart, she would back the Conservative plans. Sadly, expressions of sympathy, however well-meant, don’t actually feed children or prevent evictions.

So it was with some delight that I watched the Labour and Liberal Democrat peers, with a smattering of others, win a crucial vote in the House of Lords last night forcing the government back to the drawing board, to come up with plans to soften the impact of the tax credit changes. 

Ironically, it’s the House of Lords, home of a privileged elite
that had to take a stance against regressive policies
That leads to a number of observations, some not a little ironic, and a few warnings.

The first observations is that it’s good to see the Lib Dems doing some opposing. For the five years up to May this year, when the Tories won the election on their own, the two parties were in a Coalition government. Lib Dem Ministers tried to soften some Tory measures, but they naturally didn’t oppose them. They seem to have learned their lesson, after being slaughtered in the May election.

Secondly, following Harriet Harman’s weird stance in July, it’s good to see Labour too learning to oppose again.

Third observation: it’s a little sad that we had to rely on the House of Lords, an unelected chamber, to force the government to reflect a moment. The Tories have been swift to point out that the convention is that the Lords do not block financial measures adopted by the Commons. There is now talk from within the government about reforming the Lords, which is deliciously ironic: it’s the Tories who have most impeded Lords reforms down the years.

Fourth observation: such reform is badly needed, but not to shelter a Tory government from opposition. It’s nonsensical to have to rely on an unelected chamber of parliament to scrutinise and question government policy. We should move towards elections to a revising chamber in Parliament, and then increase its powers to challenge government, rather than reducing them. Will the Tories move in that direction? It’s probably best not to hold your breath. 

In passing, I ought to point out that supporters of the move in the Lords argue that they were within their rights. Frankly, the technicalities hardly seem to matter. The fundamental point is that the measure needed opposing, and they did.

Now for the warnings. 

The government will have to reconsider its approach. That doesn’t mean it’ll drop it. George Osborne has already announced he’ll press forward with the cuts anyway, even if he softens the blow a little.

Secondly, it has left George Osborne with a bloody nose and made the government look inept. That, however, won’t have a lasting impact on its grip on power. We’re still four and a half years from an election. In 2012, Osborne put forward such an incompetent budget that it came to be known as an “omnishambles”. Three years on, his party won a majority on its own.

Thirdly, Labour has to show that it’s learned the lesson and will keep on opposing. It shouldn’t sit back and wait for the Tories to slip up, as happened under the previous leadership, of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. The blows need to keep landing, or the Tories will turn things round in their favour again (see the second point above).

Still, for all that, I can’t deny that it’s an unqualified joy to see an Opposition learning to oppose again. 

We’ve missed you for the last five years, Oppositionists. Good to see you’ve found your tongue again. This time – don’t forget you have one.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

600 years on, haven't the few, the happy few, done well?

It’s a good time for the centuries-old English sport of Frog-bashing, or being nasty about the French.

In fact, it’s a good year for it, since the second centenary of Battle of Waterloo occurred on 18 June. That ’s the battle where the French were so comprehensively beaten by the Prussians.

Apologies, of course I meant the British. After all, one of the commanders arrayed against Napoleon was the Duke of Wellington, who was English. Well, Irish actually, but you know – Anglo-Irish.

He commanded 25,000 Brits, out of the nearly 200,000 men eventually engaged, which really underlines the extent of the purely British victory. A majority of those 25,000 were probably English, so Waterloo certainly provides some kind of basis for Frog-bashing.

This week was another high point within that year. Wednesday was the 210th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, a much more solidly British triumph. Nelson led a British fleet against a joint French and Spanish force off Cape Trafalgar, providing a name for one of London’s most spectacular squares. I always make a point of taking French visitors there, to remind them of one of those occasions when we came out on top.

John Gilbert's Morning of the Battle of Agincourt
Today, the 25th of October, is an even more significant day. It’s Saint Crispin’s, dedicated to Saints Crispin and Crispianus, or Crispian. That’s as in “this day is called the feast of Crispian: he that outlives this day, and comes safe home, will stand a tip-toe when the day is named, and rouse him at the name of Crispian.”

Yes. 600 years ago today, that fine Englishman, Henry V, led his gallant band into battle against the French on the field of Agincourt. They were hugely outnumbered, of course, some claiming by as much as 10:1, others by just 6:1. This made the English victory not just all the more glorious but also puts it hors concours, as we like to say in English, as the greatest ever case of Frog-bashing recorded.

That huge disparity in numbers also gave rise to another fine moment in the Shakespeare speech, from his play about the King cleverly entitled “Henry V”, which I’ve already quoted above.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition

Great stuff, isn’t it? It also tells us so much. 

For instance, “gentle” clearly didn’t mean sensitive and delicate or anything that soft. It meant being part of that select brood that called itself “gentlemen”, and as the speech makes clear, you didn’t get access to it by being gentle – on the contrary, you did it by shedding your blood with the King on St Crispin’s day.

Presumably, though, Henry would have preferred it if you shed the blood of the dastardly enemy. He was quite a soldier, so I imagine he’d have shared the view expressed some centuries later by US General George Patton: “no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making some other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

Shakespeare puts into the king’s mouth a smart contrast to “gentle”: the opposite is, it seems, “vile”. Clearly it’s being used here to mean common, base-born, of inferior standing. So if you’re vile, it seems you can raise your standing – gentle your condition – by killing a lot of Frenchmen and showing them (or at least the ones still standing) that, whatever their numbers, they can never be the match for fine upstanding Englishmen.

Funnily enough, it’s worth taking a look at those numbers again. Anne Curry, who did a book about Agincourt ten years ago, argues that the odds were more like 4:3 in favour of the French, and may indeed have been closer still than that to equality. Still, we won’t insist on that point here, since it rather reduces the Frog-bashing quality of the incident, and hence the anniversary.

Instead, let’s focus on the great achievements of the victory. The things we value deeply and which wouldn’t have been possible without that famous English victory. Off-hand, I can’t think what they are, but they have to be there somewhere. Surely.

It is, no doubt, to those gains that we, in the nations that think of themselves as civilised, owe the blessings we enjoy today. Most notable of those blessings is by the rule of gentlemen, made gentle either by birth or by the skilful use of lethal force, caring for the rest of us vile commoners with all the tenderness we’ve come to expect. And never being vile themselves, of course.

In that spirit, lets take up the suggestion from Shakespeare’s Henry to celebrate this day in “flowing cups”. Then we can help ensure that

Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d

Well, OK, they shall be remembered, not we. But, hey, you know what I mean.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Luton: still exploring multiculturalism

My wife and I went to see Suffragette last night. Not seen it? It’s a good way to spend an evening, with a great lead performance by Carey Mulligan, as a working-class suffragette – a refreshing break from the usual focus on the far wealthier ones. The history’s pretty accurate too, even if it dodges a few issues (like did the “militant” tactics achieve much?) Still that’s not the point of this post, so I won’t say any more about it for now.

Before the film, we went for dinner. Danielle and I both like Tapas – well, with two-thirds of our sons living in Madrid, not to like Tapas would be a heresy – but this is Luton, so the Tapas were Indian. Good though. And a lot spicier than the Spanish variety.

On the way to the Tapas place, we crossed the central square in the Town. There were some young guys there kicking a football around. Rather well, as it happens. Along the ground, or with high balls through the air, they were impressively accurate in the dim light of the street lamps. Calling to each other in Polish.

We were an hour over a dinner, and we came back out, they were still there, still playing. In fact, they’d been joined by a number of other twenty-somethings, men as well as women. In fact, I watched one of the women chase a ball that had gone outside the ring, and sending it back with a kick that dropped it back at the feet of one of the players.

They were all Polish too.

We had a while to kill before the film, and Danielle had spotted a newly opened Polish delicatessen.

“Let’s pop in,” she suggested, “and find out if they do the bread I liked so much, when we got it from the bakers which has now shut down.”

It was an impressive place, compared to the old bakery – which was fun and sold some great products, but a little seedy, run-down, or in a word, old. This new place was sparkling, well lit, welcoming – and beautifully clean. In fact, one of the staff was at work with rag and spray can, wiping down the display cabinets. It also had a bewildering variety of products, including the very bread that Danielle wanted.

Bewildering array of Polish delicacies
Great for the taste buds, not so good for the arteries
That’s not atypical of Luton. There are more and more Polish shops here these days. It seems that Poles living in London have taken to travelling here (the rail connections are good) to do their shopping.

Luton has two well-established traditions.

One tradition has been to accept, and absorb, wave after wave of immigration. Irish, Italians, West Indians, Pakistanis or Indians, and now Central and Eastern Europeans, mostly Poles.

The other tradition is represented by the English Defence League, the far right group founded here. It exists to try to resist immigration and to maintain some kind of ethnic homogeneity in England, one of the great mongrel nations in the world.

Having had an Indian meal based on a Spanish approach to food, stopped at a Polish shop, before going to watch a film about English women (one played by the American Meryl Streep), written by a Welshwoman and directed by someone with the fine Jewish surname Gavron, it may be no surprise that I’m far happier with the more multicultural of these traditions.

And delighted to see Luton maintaining it.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Born to lead, apt to fawn

Hasn’t it been demeaning, the spectacle of David Cameron and George Osborne down on their bellies before Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, begging him to buy up bits of Britain?

Please, sir, do help yourself. It's all for sale...
Cameron, born to lead, is in his element fawning on the powerful
The thing about Cameron and Osborne is that they come out of what people like them like to think of as “the top drawer” of British society. Cameron inherited money; he was educated at Eton, the very top of the British public school system, and Oxford University; George Osborne is in line to inherit a baronetcy and become the eighteenth holder of the title; he was educated at St Paul’s School, only marginally less prestigious than Eton, and of course Oxford.

Both young men distinguished themselves there as members of the Bullingdon Club. With the future Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, they left a trail of havoc through repeated evenings of drunkenness and vandalism. The damage, for instance to restaurants they trashed, was paid for by one Daddy or another. Johnson even put a flowerpot through the window of an Indian restaurant, an offence for which a poorer perpetrator would probably have served time, or at least probation, and would have found distantly career-limiting.

This background classifies such people as members of the old English ruling class. You understand that you don’t actually have to be good at anything, or particularly competent, or even particularly hardworking – you just have to be what you were born. There are enough voters prepared to give you their preference simply on that basis – “you’re in the ruling class, so you should rule over us.”

This, you might think, would make them imperious and arrogant. As indeed it does, but only to people below them in the social scale. George Osborne, for instance, is overseeing the introduction of massive cuts in the system of tax credits which allows the working poor to pay survive on low incomes. The policy was the subject of a high-profile attack on live television recently, in which a woman who'd voted Conservative wept as she accused the Party she’d supported of breaking its explicit word not to make these cuts – “Shame on you,” she called out.

But Osborne feels no such shame. He’s described himself as “comfortable” with the policy. Well, why wouldn’t he be? He’s been comfortable since birth. By birth, indeed.

Where all trace of arrogance disappears, and indeed all pride, to be replaced by the most obsequious subservience is when such people meet others wealthier or more powerful than they are. And that is the sight we’ve enjoyed with the Chinese leader.

No other country in Europe, and certainly not the United States, is prepared to open up its nuclear industry to the Chinese. Simple security considerations rules such a notion out – the Chinese are trading partners, but they are also formidable adversaries of the West.

One might imagine the British Conservatives would feel the same way. After all, they criticise the views of the opposition Labour Party as inimical to national security. You might therefore expect them to be highly touchy on the subject of Chinese control on matters so sensitive.

Indeed, it’s interesting that Germany, the most successful economy in Europe, has not only not allowed foreigners to control its nuclear industry, it is moving rapidly towards eliminating any nuclear power stations at all. Far from suffering by this policy, Germany has become more prosperous and more powerful still by taking a dominant position in renewable energy technology.

Cameron and Osborne, on the other hand, have been pleading with the Chinese to make serious investments in British nuclear technology. The main business of the visit by Xi Jinping has been to tie up that deal. So not only do we remain dependent on dangerous technology, we’ve made it still more risky by giving a measure of control over it to a nation with little in common with Western values. And all this has been done in response to the supplication of our leaders-by-birth.

There were also other deals, of course. One involved an agreement not to carry out cyber attacks. Since many of the cyber attacks around the world originate in China, this sounds terribly like the kind of deal that’s struck with someone in a long overcoat and a fedora hat: “give us a piece of your nuclear industry, and nothing nasty will happen to your computer systems. Just remember: we know where you live, and some of my associates are far less scrupulous than I am.”

Meanwhile, there are other issues that need dealing with. Cameron has spent so much time wining and dining Xi Jinping that he has found it difficult to turn his attention to them.

For instance, the NHS is under pressure to generate savings of £20 billion. It spends some £5.1 billion annually on treating the effects of obesity. In an intelligent move, Public Health England was asked to investigate the problem and come up with suggestions. It has produced a report one of whose principal recommendations is a tax on high-sugar food and drinks. The researchers found that consumption of such products is sensitive to tax levels.

Cameron’s response? To rule out such an option. And, as he admits himself, without even reading the report.

He has, no doubt, been too busy doing what he does best – hanging around with the rich and powerful, flattering them and enjoying sumptuous banquets. Actual work has had to be rather sidelined.

You see? You don’t have to be particularly able. You don’t have to be particularly assiduous. All you need to rise to the top in Tory Britain is to have been born and brought up in the right circles.

And know how to fawn on wealthy autocrats.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Ah, the ever renewed joy of housework

Virtue, they say, is its own reward.

There are few other human activities where that’s as true as in house cleaning. It’s one of those wearisomely extended jobs, only made bearable by listening to podcasts or music while you’re doing it. Like swimming, or even worse running.

Certainly, the only reward for having done the work is the work itself. The extraordinary thing about having got a place clean, is that no one notices. If they noticed, they’d have to be negatively observant: they’d have to be aware that they hadn’t made the observation that the place was dirty. Cleanliness is the default state, so it doesn’t impinge.

Dust on a bookshelf stands out; a spotless bookshelf is – well, just a bookshelf.

So the only person who really notices is the one who did the work. He or she looks at the kitchen floor that used to have that unsightly coffee stain near the sink, and that suspicious sticky patch near the bin, as well as all sorts of miscellaneous bits of twigs, mud or food, scattered by ourselves, brought in by the cat or spilled by the dog from her bowl. For a brief moment, he or she feels a passing sense of satisfaction at seeing it gleam.

The joy that just keeps giving...
Passing because (a) you get used to it in about twenty minutes and (b) in about four hours, its pristine state is spoiled. Yep, it’s raining outside, and pets don’t wipe their paws when they come back in… When you pull a garlic bulb from a string, some of the peel falls off… Thanks for wiping the working surface where you spilled that tea, but did you notice the floor?

You understand, that when I say “you spilled the tea”, I’m not actually talking to anyone else. That’s me the cleaner talking to me the tea spiller. And, believe me, that fact that I can only blame myself for undermining the work I’ve done only makes it more, not less, exasperating.

A dark carpet looks so good when it’s entirely lint free, from top to bottom, but only if you remember how it was before. Which only the person who struggled up it with a vacuum cleaner does. It’s a pleasure simply to walk up it, if you’re that person. But boy, just as you alone notice how clean it is, you alone notice that it isn’t any more. There’s that one little bit of fluff, which is probably grey but against that background stands out as glaring white, that bores into your consciousness.

At first, maybe, you try to pick such eyesores up by hand. When there’s one bit, you can. But at some stage, you’ll have missed their accumulation for a few hours, and there’ll be dozens. The only way to deal with it is to get the vacuum cleaner out again.

Which, as it happens, you might as well do, because it’s next week now. Time to start the whole process all over again.

Oh, joy! More virtue whose reward will be itself. You can hug it to you. You can really treasure it.

Monday, 19 October 2015

The bishops denounced the government that fawned on China that bought the companies that cripple the people...

There’s something wonderful about news stories that tumble in on top of each other, reinforcing each other and occasionally producing some delicious ironies.

So we recently had 84 Anglican bishops denouncing the “increasingly inadequate” British government response to the current refugee crisis. As well as being a welcome reminder that, however widely they may be shared, the xenophobic views currently in vogue are deeply immoral, the Bishops’ message also further undermines repeated claims by Tory Ministers to endorse Christian values.

That came within days of some remarkable TV, when Michelle Dorrell, attending the recording of the BBC programme Question Time, launched a forceful attack on Tory Minister Amber Rudd.

I voted for Conservatives originally, cos I thought you were going to be the better chance for me and my children. You're about to cut tax credits after promising you wouldn’t. I work bloody hard for my money, to provide for my children to give them everything they've got - and you're going to take it away from me and them. I can hardly afford the rent I've got to pay, I can hardly afford the bills I've got to do, and you're going to take more from me. 

Shame on you!

Michelle Dorrell: denounced the betrayal by the Tories she trusted
It was a powerful denunciation of a betrayal Labour predicted before the General Election. What a sad indictment it is that the Tories were able to dupe people like Dorrell, saddling us with Conservative government for at least another four and a half years. Dorrell, it seems, has learned the lesson and decided to vote Labour next time; to those who haven’t, I’d merely pick up her closing words “Shame on you”, and repeat the old American saying: fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

On top of that, we have the edifying sight of Conservative Ministers – first George Osborne visiting China, now David Cameron with China’s leaders here in Britain – fawning on the Chinese. It seems the Conservatives want to hitch the British economy to China’s, so that it can draw all the benefits from such an advantageous relationship. Cameron is famously lazy; perhaps he hasn’t got round to the reading the recent briefing papers warning him that China’s economy’s slowing down.

The obsequiousness towards China has an ironic quality. The Tories are deeply opposed to state ownership of industry – or at least, they are if the state is British, which is a little odd, since they tend to be on the nationalistic end of politics. They’re apparently more than happy to invite the Chinese state to take positions in some key industries in Britain, notably in the second high speed railway line and more questionably still, in the nuclear power industry.

They seem happy with French state industries, too, buying into the British economy.

It appears that it’s only the British state the Tories distrust which, considering they run it, may say a lot about them.

One part of the state they’re running particularly badly right now is the National Health Service. It’s facing a financial crisis of historic proportions. The latest horror story is that neonatal intensive care units are unable to provide adequate staff cover any more. Terribly vulnerable infants – babies, mind – are at risk of death thanks to government policies.

A lot of the deference to China flows through the Foreign Office. So it was instructive to read of the cleaners there who wrote directly to the Minister – Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond – to complain about the lamentable wages they’re paid.

The cleaners aren’t employed by the Foreign Office but by a subcontractor, Interserve. Hammond passed the letter on to them. The cleaners now face disciplinary action and several of them, including their spokesperson, redundancy.

Michelle Dorrell got it wrong when she voted Tory. Perhaps it’s time for a lot of people to wonder whether they got it right when they go along with Tory Trade Union bashing. It seems that if you need any kind of help, you need someone powerful in your corner: the Labour Party or a Union.

Because while they may fawn on foreigners with a lot of money, the Tories certainly don’t have the time or the inclination to look after the less fortunate at home.

Even though they like to call themselves Christians…

Sunday, 18 October 2015

That’s it. I’m not putting teeth under my pillow any more

It’s enough to make me lose faith in fairies.

The Rugby World Cup’s been a strangely unsatisfactory competition, especially from the point of view of anyone English. Despite the tournament being held here, England failed even to get out of the pool stage and into the quarter finals. I’m always pleased when an English team sets a new record, but I wish it hadn’t become the first ever host nation to fail to qualify.

Still, one could as an Englishman switch one’s allegiance to one of the other Northern Hemisphere teams. Four of them had made it into the quarters, along with with four from the South: France, Ireland, Wales and Scotland joined Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina.

Of the four Southern teams, Argentina looked the weakest. It has been steadily improving for a couple of decades, but it’s only recently made it to the big time. On the other hand, among the European teams, the one that has performed the best in the last year or two was Ireland, which won the premier competition here, the Six Nations, in both 2014 and 2015.

As it happened, Ireland was playing Argentina, so that looked like about our best bet for getting one Northern team through to the semis.

South Africa looked vulnerable, beaten in their first match by Japan, a nation which looks like Argentina a decade or so ago: improving but still not a major side. Wales, one of the stronger European sides, might just beat them.

As for New Zealand and Australia, their performance had been spectacular throughout the competition. There was little chance of off-colour France beating the former, or Scotland, near the bottom of the Six Nations, beating the latter.

So what happened?

South Africa avoided the mistakes that cost them against Japan, and beat Wales.

New Zealand did a demolition job on the French, leaving them bloodied and bowed.

That took us to Ireland-Argentina, our best chance. Within thirteen minutes, Argentina were 17-0 up. Ireland fought back, but were well beaten in the end.

The only hope left was for Scotland to beat Australia. But Scotland is one of the weakest of the Six Nations. Australia have been magnificent throughout this tournament. Surely only a miracle could give Scotland the victory.

A miracle or a fairy tale. One of those great sports stories, beloved of Hollywood, where the unfavoured underdogs come good on the day and beat their fancied, powerful opponents.

Well, it nearly happened. With three minutes to go, Scotland was two points up. Then Australia was awarded a penalty, worth three points if successful. Which it was. So in the end Australia went through by a single point.

Scotland came so close to beating Australia
And making a fairy tale come true...
The fairy tale was not to be. 

It’s enough to shake my belief in the Walt Disney World. Its enough to cast doubt on the existence of Father Christmas, even if you call him Santa Claus.

Anyway, the result is that we go into the last two weekends of the Rugby World Cup with not just the host nation eliminated, but the host hemisphere. The English often complain that we invent sports for the rest of the world to beat us: football (what everyone but the US call football, anyway), cricket, now rugby.

Indeed, as far as rugby’s concerned, it isnt just the country of its invention that disappoints, its the whole continent.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

An early and illustrious exponent may explain why politicians indulge in so much BS

When it comes to BS, I’m sure most would agree that few can rival politicians. 

To be fair, I’ve worked, and even enjoyed working, with a number of salesmen (which includes women, by the way) who would give them a good run. Overall, however, I have to say that none achieve quite such outstanding mastery of BS as our statesmen.

Generally speaking, the ‘B’ in ‘BS’ stands for ‘Bull’. That’s why I was amused to come across a case of a fine BS performance by a politician where the ‘B’ stood for ‘Bird’.

The particular politician who established himself as a champion in this field was William Henry Seward. He would later win his place in history, firstly by being the front runner for the Republican US Presidential nomination in 1860. To the amazement of many, he failed to become the candidate, and then showed his quality by backing the rival who beat him, Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, at a time when the tradition was that candidates did not campaign for themselves, Seward did more to secure Lincoln’s election than any other man, canvassing 15 states, all but one of which went to his candidate in the general election, giving Lincoln the White House.

Seward then became Lincoln’s most valuable ally and his Secretary of State throughout the Civil War.

His great BS moment, however, came some time before all this. Back in 1856, then Senator Seward took legislative action to address the growing needs of US agriculture. At the time, one of the world’s main fertilisers was guano – sea bird excrement. BS, in fact.

Guano was mostly collected from islands on which the stuff had gathered for years or centuries. Rather like the Bull form of BS, which piles up in every increasing depth in our great legislative arenas.

Seward brought forward a proposal to give the US the right to occupy any guano island not already in the possession of a foreign nation. He was successful, and the Guano Island Law was enacted on 18 August 1856. Seward had made it clear that it was not intended to provide the United States with a means to extend its possessions, but only to give it access to sources of guano not claimed by anyone else, which could be given up later, once the supply had been exhausted.

However, though it left in this option for the US to withdraw from such islands, it didnt make it obligatory to do so. Guano ceased to be a particularly useful fertiliser, as other new forms became available, soon after the law was adopted. But of the more than 100 islands claimed, the United States still holds on to twelve. One at least is relatively well known.

Within six months of its attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, which failed to eliminate the US threat to Japanese naval dominance of the Pacific, Japan had another go at achieving that aim. On 6 and 7 June 1942, a major battle was fought that cost Japan four aircraft carriers to the US’s one. By then, Japan no longer had the resources to make good such losses. In other words, it was a turning point in the war in the Pacific, after which Japan never again had the opportunity to knock out the US as a naval rival.

By what name do we call that battle? By the name of the American naval base that was the key to the Japanese attack: Midway.

Idyllic Midway Atoll.
But the airstrip shows that the military matters more than the guano
The Midway atoll was a collection of islands seized by the US under the provisions of Seward’s Guano Island Act. One of the twelve such possessions that was never given up. Even though the guano is, presumably, no longer anything more than a bit of an unsightly nuisance.

All this, I feel, makes Seward something of a BS star. I mean, how many politicians have achieved anything of such lasting effect from mere BS? He became a major American statesman later, one of the great Secretaries of State, but you have to admit that you can already see from his guano measure, that he would leave a lasting mark on American history.

Incidentally, the Guano Islands Act has never been repealed. It’s on the US statute book to this day. It’s still in effect.

Perhaps that’s why so many politicians go in for so much BS: they know from Seward’s example that it can be of historic importance.

Sadly, however, they seldom get beyond the Bull variety.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

John McDonnell: what matters is that the decision was right, not how you got there

The commentariat has been going wild in Britain this week. It’s been fascinated by the question of whether John McDonnell, newly appointed Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer under newly elected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, had made a right hash of things.

The background is that the actual (as opposed to Shadow) Chancellor, George Osborne, has proposed new legislation binding future governments – including his own – to running budget surpluses in “normal times.”

At best, this is a gimmick (I’ll come on to what it is at worst in a bit). It’s ill-thought out: it doesn’t, for instance, distinguish between investment and current expenditure. Investment may well generate a big return in the future (perhaps a new railway line, or a government-financed scientific breakthrough), so it makes no sense to treat it as merely a cost today and not count any of the future benefit against it.

More crucial still, it’s a law that can’t be enforced. Parliament makes all laws, and therefore unmakes any law it wishes; it can’t bind itself by law, because all it would take if it became disenchanted with a law in the future, would be a quick act repealing it. By extension, since under what passes for a constitution in Britain, a government has to have a parliamentary majority it’s hard to see how parliament can pass a law to bind the government: it can simply use its majority to repeal anything it finds irksome.

At worst, what the proposal really intends is to justify further massive cuts in public expenditure, by passing them off as prudent financial management. Many suspect that there’s an unspoken agenda on the part of the Conservative Party to shrink the State. That’s a legitimate aim, naturally, but it ought to be expressed openly, not slipped in disguised as something else. On the other hand, one can understand why the government would want to disguise such an aim: we’ve learned just recently that the NHS, for instance, is on the brink of bankruptcy, with a deficit approaching a billion pounds in a single quarter, making it a little difficult to argue for further cuts.

Finally, it may be just a trick to try to embarrass Labour, by challenging them either to support the government or to paint themselves as opposed to financial prudence.

Which takes us neatly to John McDonnell.

Just a couple of weeks ago, at the Labour Party Conference, he announced that he would be supporting the government initiative.

Now, however, he’s switched round 180 degrees and decided to oppose it.

Imagine the uproar! “U-turn!” cry opponents or the media. “A mess and a muddle!” “Labour in chaos!” At their least ungenerous, hostile commentators point out that McDonnell’s new in post and his wobbles and inconsistencies are all part of the learning pains anyone might expect to go through.

In any case, they make it clear that the whole episode reflects badly on Labour. But then, they would, wouldn’t they?

To me, the whole thing’s another gimmick, just like the government proposal itself. It’s an attempt to paint Labour as incompetent – whereas, to me and a great many others, what matters isn’t that McDonnell changed his mind, but that he ended up taking the right decision.

John McDonnell
Why care that he changed his mind, if he got it right in the end?

This puts me mind of a story about Abraham Lincoln, the man I regard as the best politician in history, bar none.

In 1861, during the American Civil War, a US Navy ship intercepted a British mail vessel, RMS Trent, put men on board and seized two Confederate envoys who were heading for Europe to stoke up support for the rebellious States. Britain was furious, the United States delighted; Britain threatened war, and the US responded with the diplomatic equivalent of “bring it on.” Britain at that time had the world’s most powerful navy; Lincoln knew that he was in no position to fight a second war alongside the great struggle in which he was already engaged. But he didn’t want to back down to Britain, with all the loss of pride that would entail, to say nothing of the opprobrium it would excite around the country.

His Secretary of State, William Seward, on the other hand pointed out that such a sacrifice would be a lot smaller than the cost of a war. He recommended handing over the envoys to Britain.

Lincoln told him he couldn’t do that, and would prepare a paper arguing against Seward’s position that very evening. However, the next morning he turned up at the Cabinet meeting without a paper, and agreed with Seward’s proposal. Surprised by his agreement, the latter caught up with Lincoln after the meeting, and asked why he hadn’t submitted the promised paper.

“I found,” Lincoln replied, “I could not make an argument that would satisfy my own mind, and that proved to me your ground was the right one.”

Yes. If your second thoughts are better than your first, go with them.

Getting it right first time is great, and it’s a pity McDonnell didn’t. But getting it right at all is what matters. Nothing’s worse than sticking to a bad position come what may. That’s what Maggie Thatcher used to do, refusing to back down from any of her ideas, however misguided; that gave us the poll tax and the Section 28 homophobic legislation, and ultimately led to her downfall.

So well done, John McDonnell, for recognising that you had it wrong. And for having the courage to admit it and change your view. 

Because what matters is the quality of your final decision, not the route by which you got there – even if it was a little convoluted.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Try, try and try again said the spider. But the spider isn’t always right.

The time-honoured story of Robert the Bruce is especially popular in Scotland, where there is considerable taste for any tale in which the plucky Scots ultimately kick the stuffing out of the dastardly English. Sadly, in most of the historical confrontations, the outcome was the opposite. But Robert was one Scottish leader who did eventually pull off the trick.

Robert the Bruce, who led the Scots to victory over the English
But he cheated: he was helped by a spider
On his way to what my Scottish friends assure me was a highly desirable achievement, he encountered some terrible reverses. According to legend, at the low point of his life, he was in a cave which a spider kept attempting to span with her web. Each time she failed, she started again. Robert watched this struggle with great interest and, instead of reaching the obvious conclusion that, since one side of the cave was pretty much as miserable, wet and dank as the other, it was a colossal waste of time, he drew from this spectacle the courage he needed to persevere in his own struggle to win the Scottish crown.

So he tried, tried and tried again, until he won triumphant success.

Great story. And a moral from which we can all learn, no doubt.

Except that there is, in my garden at the moment, a spider from the Bruce school of strivers. She has chosen the garden’s narrowest point, between the house wall and the fence, to weave herself a web. This means that each time I follow the poodle Luci into the garden, after she has done her business (a great illustration of the truth that certain kinds of business often leave the rest of us with a mess to clear up), the first thing that happens is that I walk straight into a web. Which is annoying for me, because the stuff gets in my hair. But it must be annoying for her, because there’s little left of the web afterwards.

In fact, on one occasion, I emerged with the spider herself sitting on my shoulder and giving me what I could only feel was a deeply reproachful look. I tried to reason with her, explaining that unlike many fellow members of my species, I have nothing against spiders – indeed, I value the work they do on flies – and would far rather not destroy her web.

However, she has failed to take my advice to set up her web somewhere less heavily trafficked. So every morning, the experience is repeated. With little pleasure for either of us.

It seems that she truly believes that, if at first you don’t succeed, you should try, try and try again.

So you can fail once more.

That’s an aspect the Bruce legend somehow fails to capture. I’d like to suggest that sometimes it might not be such a bad idea to decide that, if at first you don’t succeed, you might try something else. Or at least, in the case of our spider, somewhere else.

On the other hand, I’d have been delighted if the English rugby team had applied a policy of try, try and try again, in the current world cup. It proved beyond them. 


Saturday, 10 October 2015

Could the Jews have shot their way out of the Holocaust? Or, Ben Carson and self-caricature in politics.

When Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, Tom Lehrer announced that he would give up singing satirical songs. In a world in which that could happen, he felt there was no longer any place for satire.

Well, it’s curious to discover that things could decline still further from that low point. The US is once again providing us with a wonderful new political spectacle.

The front runner for the presidential nomination of the Republican Party – that’s the party of Abraham Lincoln, mind – is a man who prides himself on having dragged himself up by the bootstraps from colossal wealth to even more colossal wealth. Donald Trump is one of those characters who like to throw the abusive comments out there, and then apologise for any offence they may have caused, but in such a way as to suggest that their targets (in Trump’s case, principally women) are themselves at fault for lack of a sense of humour.

Behind him, in second place for the nomination, is Ben Carson. It’s a commonplace to describe something as not being brain surgery, as a way of saying that there’s nothing more complex or requiring more intelligence. Carson gives the lie to that facile notion. He’s a neurosurgeon but seems to show that either you can operate on brains without having huge capacity in your own, or having used up so much of your brain for the surgery, you have too little left for politics.

Ben Carson: proof that even if you operate on brains,
you don't necessarily make great use of your own
I suppose the clue was provided by Rupert Murdoch, who tweeted about Carson “what about a real black president who can properly address the racial divide?” Ah, yes. Carson is a real black, unlike the present occupant of the White House.

Murdoch has since said he was sorry for the tweet, proving that Trump isn’t the only exponent of the late, empty apology. 

In any case, if Murdoch likes Carson, that’s probably enough to make his candidacy deeply suspect. Carson has helped us out, anyway, and put the question beyond all doubt. First of all, we had his comment that no Muslim should run for President because Islam is inconsistent with the US Constitution. The US Constitution was written by men such as Madison and Jefferson for whom few principles mattered as much as completely equal rights between religions. Perhaps Carson hadn’t found the time to work much on the Constitution, between reading the medical journals.

No comment went so far, however, in proving the nature of the man than his crass comment, that had there not been gun control in Germany, the Jews might have been able to prevent the Holocaust happening. This is linked to the strange reasoning that the huge numbers of guns available in the US keeps people safe, against all the evidence (for example in 45 school shootings this year alone) that they put huge numbers at serious risk.

Even without that illogic, the Carson comment is based on extraordinary ignorance. There was resistance by Jews during the Holocaust, even armed resistance, most notably in the Warsaw Ghetto. And how did that work out? Inevitably, civilians – even with guns – were no match for a trained army with heavy weapons. Had the Russians intervened to support them, they might have won, but the Red Army stood still and waited while the Wehrmacht polished off the Jewish resistance. The mere possession of guns is far from enough.

Still. One wouldn’t expect Carson to know that. He belongs to the Tom Lehrer school of politicians or institutions that satirise themselves. Except that in his case, he’s more of a caricature than a satire.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Great British Bake Off, antidote to the bad news in a world dominated by superpower jostling

It’s great to come across the odd good news story out there, in amongst so much that’s bad.

Few are worse than the intensifying Russian intervention in Syria. What’s worst about it is that it reminds me of the behaviour of Germany in the run up to the First World War: Germany had emerged as a nation only rather late – it was proclaimed, ironically in France, only in 1871 – so it missed out on that precious time of empire building by so many other European powers.

Germany could have taken the intelligent decision that imperialism was inherently immoral (how on earth does one seriously justify a bunch of Brits, from a nation with terrible poverty, ill health and criminality in the nineteenth century, telling Indians how to live their lives?) and didn’t even benefit the imperial power that much (Britain remained racked by poverty, ill health and criminality when the Empire was at its height). Instead, it decided to get in on the act and carve out its own dominions, an ambition which led to increasingly intense clashes with France, Russia and Britain, and then the great 1914-1918 bloodbath.

So it’s worrying to see history repeating itself. The US under Dubya, enthusiastically supported by Tony Blair as British Prime Minister, went blundering into Iraq without international endorsement or legal basis, with results from which we’re still suffering twelve years on.

The worst aspect of that is that it established a precedent for ignoring the UN or norms of international legality, and simply using brute force, because one can.

Russia, reprising the role of Germany 140 years ago, instead of deciding that this kind of behaviour is reprehensible, leads to highly undesirable unplanned consequences, and ought to be avoided, has decided that anything the US can do, it can do too. So it’s blundering into Syria, making a painful situation far worse.

Why, if the latest reports are to be believed, it’s even rivalling the US in its capacity to create collateral damage, or even collateral mayhem: it seems four of its missiles may have hit Iran instead of Syria. I suppose one or two thousand kilometres of inaccuracy are to be expected in what specialists like to refer to as the “fog of war.”

Anyway, it’s in this context that I was delighted to find out about the winner of this year’s Great British Bake Off competition.

Now this is a pretty great programme. I watched it one year, though I gave up afterwards and watched neither of the last two competitions: I find the experience too stressful. It’s like watching England play rugby: it’s occasionally satisfying but often deeply depressing. In fact, in many ways the Bake Off is worse. At least on the rugby field, I know who to support and, therefore, by the simplest possible process of elimination, who to oppose. With the Bake Off, I sympathise with absolutely everyone, and want each of them to win, which means I’m distraught over the weekly elimination of a contestant, and inevitably disappointed over the final result by the failure of all the others who didn’t make it.

Nadiya Jamir Hussain, on her way to Bake Off victory
Still, I have to say that I take great pleasure over this year’s winner. She’s Nadiya Jamir Hussain, and she competed in a hijab.

We’re a long way from true assimilation in this country, and assimilation is never really reliable anyway (the Jews thought they’d achieved a high degree of assimilation in Germany in the nineteenth century, and look where that got them in the twentieth). Still, it’s good to see that a British woman can be celebrated by a British institution – the BBC had the year’s highest ratings for any programme, on any channel this year, for the final of the competition – even though she’s a Muslim.

At least there’s some progress, then.

Of course, we then have to return to all the everyday problems of racism in Britain – only today there’s been a new outcry over the poor level of dementia care offered to patients of Afro-Caribbean ancestry – but, hey, at least we can take a brief timeout to enjoy one positive event.

Postscript It was amusing to see the Guardian report that the Daily Mail failed to give front page coverage to the Bake Off result this year, as it had in the past. 

At least the paper that supported the Nazis in the 1930s has retained some consistency with its roots.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

They deserve every penny they receive: the case of Glencore and Tony Hayward

Spare a thought for that poor fellow, Tony Hayward.

I use the word “poor” in the moral sense, of course, rather than the financial. He’s reported to have made about £2.3 million in 2013, and rather more last year, so I don’t think he’s likely to fall victim any time soon to, say, any cuts in benefits support the UK government will be pushing through in the next few months.

However, £2.3 million is terrible cut from his maximum remuneration, o £3.2 million back in 2009, his last full year as Chief Executive of BP.

Ah, yes, it’s all falling into place now, isn’t it? You remember. Hayward was the man who revealed his diplomatic skills when, a few weeks after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he announced to the press that “I would like my life back.” Since he was at the head of the company ultimately responsible for the drilling rig which caused the disaster, that was a sentiment that was received with less enthusiasm than he might have been hoping for.

It was like the acclaim that greeted Jeb Bush recently when he commented on the latest school shooting in the US, that left nine dead, that “stuff happens.”

The awkwardness at Deepwater Horizon
It caused some discomfort to that unfortunate Mr Hayward
Hayward quite soon got his life back, when BP decided that it might be better all round, taking everything into account and weighing one thing against another, if their ways parted.

He then faced all the problems that those of us who lose our jobs know and dread. He was forced eventually to settle for a much less well-paid job. You can no doubt imagine the feeling of despair: going from £3.2 million to £2.3 million represents a drastic pay cut, not far off 30%. It must have felt like virtual pauperisation.

In fact, things were so bad that poor Mr Hayward, like so many inhabitants of US trailer parks, say, was forced to take not just one job, but two. As well as the interim chairmanship of Glencore, he also took charge of energy company Genel. He had a number of other charitable appointments around the City of London to make sure he could keep the wolf from the door, but you can no doubt picture the stress he had to undergo, with all those jobs.

Fortunately, Genel was able to increase its remuneration package to him last year, by 41.5%, taking him to £2.5 million. And since he’s moved from interim chair of Glencore to take the post definitively, his salary went up to £685,000. With other payments – bonuses, etc. – there’s every chance that he’ll have moved beyond where he was with BP.

All this goes to prove that you can’t keep a good man down. You deliver the goods, and you’ll be paid a reasonable, proportionate return.

For instance, the generous increase in Hayward’s salary from Genel came in a year in which he presided over the company making a loss of £213 million.

Meanwhile, and this is why I’m talking about this at all, Glencore is back in the news these days. It’s the world’s tenth largest company, but what’s most important about it is that it’s massively dependent on the trade in metals – it controls 60% of the world's trade in zinc, apparently, and 50% of the world’s trade in copper. So it’s a barometer of the problems building up for the world right now. The economies, notably China’s, on which we’ve all been relying on for growth in recent years, are slowing; they want less metal; the prices fall; Glencore’s taking a hit. 

On a single day at the end of September, Glencore shares collapsed so badly that Chief Executive Ivan Glasenberg lost $500 million of his personal fortune. That left him in relative penury, with just $1.4 billion, down from $7.3 billion in July 2014. It seems Glencore has recovered most of its most recent share price fall, but taking a longer view, shares that were trading at £5 in 2011 are now down to £1.

At least Hayward managed a small increase in salary last year despite these problems.

Aditya Chakrabortty has given us a fine piece in The Guardian, predicting the difficulties George Osborne will face in 2017, as UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, in accounting for the economic crash that’s coming. Where copper goes, he points out, the world follows, and copper’s on the way down. So Glencore’s troubles are a warning of global troubles to come.

Isn’t it sad that Mr Hayward seems again to have got himself involved in a company that’s facing a degree of unpleasantness? Why, he may be called on to dazzle us once more with his fabled communication skills, perhaps a little honed since Deepwater Horizon. This time, the disaster he fails to avert will be far more far-reaching, affecting the globe and not just the Gulf of Mexico.

In any case, we must surely be left with a sense of the general rightness of things, in a world where top executives of the companies that determine our destinies, deserve and receive the remuneration their skills command.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Poor old England: suffering so many blows, with such a long way to climb back up...

There are times when for nations, as for individuals, everything just seems to be going wrong.

Today, its apparently England’s turn.

We find that the English National Health Service is heading for a record £2 billion loss. That’s worrying but hardly surprising: we’ve known for a while that things were hurtling downhill fast. But now we learn that the government was keeping the figures under wraps so that the news wouldn’t overshadow the Tory Party conference, which is depressing but again far from surprising: we know this government has no aptitude for doing good things or doing them well, but boy it’s a past master at making it look as though things are going just fine.

We also learn that half of all teachers in England, according to a recent poll, want to find a new job outside teaching in the next two years. That makes it sound as though the school system depends for its survival on there being enough general unemployment to stop teachers finding other work. Upsetting but, again, not a huge surprise given the attitude of government.

Finally, those of us who could sit through the experience, watched the England rugby team being clinically taken apart by an Australian XV that didn’t just beat them, but outclassed them. Outclassed in much the same way as Barack Obama outclasses Dubya Bush, except that there were times the England team didn’t seem to be as quick on the uptake as Dubya.

So England’s in the doldrums.

England shattered
But Rugby may not be our most serous problem
Of the three perturbing developments, only two can really be attributed to the government (though it would be fun to blame them for the rugby defeat too). The first two are, as it happens, the most important, but hey, at least Cameron and his mates didn’t actually sell us to the Aussies (at least, as far as we can tell).

Curiously, but unsurprisingly, the only one for which we’ve had any kind of apology was the rugby. Both the team captain and the head coach have expressed their regrets for the lousy performance. Naturally, Cameron and his mates will issue no such thing. The collapse of healthcare and education won’t affect them unduly, since they can buy themselves whatever they need. Far from apologising, they are more likely to celebrate such decline as taking us in just the right direction – reducing government spending without damage to anything that matters to them personally.

When nations, or indeed individuals, go through a bad time, it’s often simply part of a cycle. There will be an upswing later. The trough leads to a demanding climb, but the effort will eventually take us back to a peak.

It certainly happens in sport. The England rugby team were world beaters in the early years of the century. They will probably be world beaters again. Fixing their problems will be tough, but it can happen quite quickly.

Sadly, when it comes to health and education, the solution tends to cost a great deal more and take a great deal longer. There’s going to be a protracted battle ahead. If we’re going to win it, we need to get started immediately.

Which probably means that, painful as it was, the quicker England puts its rugby defeat behind it, the better.