Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Reacting to atrocities

Thirty-five people are killed and many more injured in Brussels, and we react, rightly, with revulsion. Nothing justified their deaths: they were wholly random victims. They were killed by men who claimed to speak in the name of Islam but, though their victims might have been dedicated enemies of Islam, it would have made absolutely no difference had they all been devout Muslims, leading lives wholly in keeping with Islamic teaching – they would have been killed or hurt anyway.

We react, first, emotionally. Monuments across Europe are lit in the colours of the Belgian flag. Crowds attend vigils or simply express their sadness and horror. And that’s perfectly commendable if, sometimes, a little excessive. After all, far more people are killed or injured on the roads, with nothing like the reaction; but as Simon Jenkins pointed out in the Guardian, we aren’t talking about rational but emotional responses. We feel, correctly or incorrectly, that we have control over whether we’re involved in a car crash; we have no control over whether a pitiless bomber chooses us as his next, random victim.

Next we react politically. But, in fact, our political reaction is emotional too. In Britain, the outrage in Brussels is informing the debate about whether we should leave the EU (in the hope that this would erect a barrier against these vile persons) or stay (in the belief that this would enhance cooperation between security services against such attacks). It also inspires a still more sinister discourse, which would have us give up more liberties in the name of security, sacrificing privacy, for instance, to allow government to spy on our e-mails or internet browsing. That argument is made though the security is against an extremely unlikely and probably temporary threat, while the loss of freedom is massive and likely to prove long term.

Then we learn of another outrage. Seventy people killed this time, as well as hundreds injured, in a park in Lahore. And our reaction is interesting. It’s nothing like as intense. The deaths matter far less to us when they happen in Pakistan. No monuments are lit up in the green and gold colours of that country’s flag. When we’re shocked at the senseless loss of human life, we really mean the loss of life among humans who look a bit more like us, and don’t live that far away. Remoteness and difference lessens the feel of shock.

That’s true even though the bombers deliberately chose to blow themselves up in an area where large numbers of children were gathered and would inevitably suffer.

And how about another example? Several hundred killed in London, and many more injured. Again, by merciless bombers who felt they were doing good work for an excellent cause. Again, the victims were random, depending on where they were at the time a bomb struck. And again, many were women or children.

Why aren’t we horror-struck by this devastation? The answer is once more remoteness. Not in space, on this occasion, but in time. That particular bombing outrage took place during the night of 7 to 8 September 1940, the first day of Hitler’s air campaign that Britain came to know as the Blitz.

That, of course, is just history, as Lahore’s just geography. But curiously, there’s a lesson to learn from it. British spirits weren’t broken by the terror that fell from the sky – any more than German spirits were broken by the same treatment, in Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin or Dresden. The raids on that last sad city claimed up to 25,000 lives in just three days. A single night’s bombing of Hamburg took 42,000 lives, against a total of 40,000 killed in London in all 57 raids of the Blitz.

But whether in Britain or in Germany, whether inflicted by the Nazis or the Allies, what all these attacks have in common is that they were far more extensive than anything we’re seeing today.

An image of the London Blitz
And of the spirit that saw people through it. Which we need to rediscover
Eventually, though, our countries emerged from those terrible experiences and built far better structures for the defence of liberties and human rights than had ever existed before.

Wouldn’t it be a pity if, in our responses to the current wave of outrages, we were to sacrifice them all again?

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Helping a stranger's child: a challenging experience

It’s a little difficult these days to work out how to behave with children one doesn’t know. That’s not a complaint: I regard society’s resolve to eradicate child abuse welcome and long overdue. But it does mean that men, in particular, have to wonder how their behaviour towards a stranger’s child is going to be interpreted, even if their motive is to help  rather than harm.

Years ago, when one of my sons was four and had just fallen flat on his face in Grafton Street, Dublin, he was picked up and put back on his feet by a young man going the other way, who didn’t even break step let alone pause to be thanked.

Today, I’d hesitate to do anything similar. Indeed, I try to avoid any kind of contact with a child I don’t know. It just isn’t worth the suspicion it raises.

A week’s holiday in France, however, reveals that attitudes there remain more traditional. In a restaurant, a woman asked me whether I would mind keeping an eye on her three children for a few minutes. It was as though I was being asked to keep an eye on a suitcase, except that had it been a suitcase, I would probably have refused – they’re a lot more dangerous than kids these days.

The biggest surprise, however, came when we were standing at the bottom of a chairlift in the ski resort where we spent most of the week. A young ski instructor appealed to our party, asking that each of us in turn travel in the lift with one of the four-year-olds in the group he was teaching.

“Come on,” he told us, “don’t be shy. They won’t do you any harm. And they know how to handle the chairlift.”

I’d forgotten that there was a limit (of height, actually – 1.25 metres – rather than age) on kids taking the chairlift unaccompanied by an adult. How does a teacher, alone, get a group to the top? Like Blanche du Bois in A Streetcar named Desire, he had always to depend on the kindness of strangers.

So we each took a kid and went up.

It was a terrifying experience, though not in fact because of any possible suspicions of our motives. No, it froze the blood for reasons of simple physical safety.

While the bar at the front the chair was plenty to stop an adult slipping out, and probably any child down to the age of seven or even six, for a four-year-old it would have been… well, child’s play, to slide under the bar and off the chair, falling ten or twenty metres to certain injury if not death on the ground below.

That might not have been too bad had they sat quietly in their place. But these were four-year-olds. How could they possibly take a chairlift ride without twisting around in their seat and waving to their friends behind them? And each time they did they slipped forward on the chair and closer to destruction.

So what was I to do? Grab the child? Hold him forcibly in place? Not a chance. I’ve been bombarded for years with clear messages that I was to do nothing of the kind with a child not my own, or without the authority of a parent.

So I sat there frozen to the spot watching every movement the kid made, making no motion to touch him unless it became the only way of avoiding disaster.

I’d made a couple of attempts at conversation, but there were pretty well six decades between us. We didn’t have an awful lot in common to chat about. So we travelled in silence, petrified silence in my case. Just before we reached the top, I did, however, have one key question to ask him.

“Do you know how to get off the chair?”

“No,” he said, with an air I can only call expectant. Clearly, as an adult, I was going to have a solution.

I racked my brain.

“Shall I hold your hand as we get down?”

“Yes,” he said, “hold my hand.”

The words, and the smile that accompanied them, convinced me that this constituted permission.

So, with the barrier up and the mound of snow to ski down approaching, I held out my hand and a little one was thrust into it. And the whole operation was a brilliant success! We were straight up onto our skis, sliding down the far side of the snow mound towards the group.

“I’ll leave you with your friends, then,” I told him as I let go of his hand.

After the event: they ski off with never a care in the world...
Filmed by Danielle

But by then he had other things to think of. Friends to catch up with, who he hadn’t seen for minutes and minutes. He slid gracefully in amongst them and took up his normal preoccupations.

And I moved away pleased that what could have been a harrowing experience, for more than one reason, had turned out so easy after all.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Mustn't take joy in Tory misfortunes. Must we?

Schadenfreude is the despicable emotion which leads us to take pleasure in the suffering of others.

Obviously, we ought to avoid it in all circumstances. At all times. That just has to be our rule.

Still, like all good rules, that one has to have exceptions, doesn’t it? And right up there with the most exceptional has to be the British Tory Party. In particular, those of its members who form the present enlightened government under which we groan. Sorry, prosper.

To be honest, I feel no shame over exulting in their discomfiture. They’re so self-satisfied, so certain of their entitlement to consideration and authority, so used to acting on their whims with complete impunity as to the consequences.

Besides, what’s happening to them is so much more commonly the destiny of the left, and in particular of the Labour Party. If there is one characteristic of a party of the left at any time, it’s that it is always being betrayed. Someone in its ranks is, it’s alleged, a crave backslider or a wild radical who risks derailing the movement in its mission. And that person is hated by someone else.

It’s a long tradition. Told that Nye Bevan, father of the NHS, was his own worst enemy, Ernie Bevin, who had been his ministerial colleague in the post-war Labour government, replied “not while I’m alive he isn’t.”

These internecine feuds rumble on for years. The whole Blair premiership was dominated by conflict between him and his Chancellor of the Exchequer and eventual successor, Gordon Brown. Even now, the conservative press has leaked a list of Labour MPs, drawn up by someone in the party, which categorises them by their loyalty or lack of it to the present leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s not clear to me that drawing up such a list was ever a particularly judicious move. Wasn’t it obvious that someone would leak it? After all, we’re always being betrayed…

It’s exasperating that anyone thought this was a good idea, and what I’d really, really like to suggest is that people stop keeping records about people’s supposed loyalty and, equally, that the people who are perhaps not as loyal as one might wish, learn to put a sock in it and knuckle down and support our present leader. For better or for worse. After all, he’s the only leader we’ve got, and any move we made to replace him by someone else would provoke further bitter feuding that would do no one any favours but the Conservatives.

Besides, quite a lot of us think he’s not such a bad leader, and maybe we ought to give him a chance. 

In any case, it would be fun if those who seem intent on making life difficult for Corbyn, turned their ire – and their fire – instead on the other side. Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of having a go at each other, all of us in Labour concentrated on bringing down a Tory government all of us know needs to go?

We can do it. Take Angela Eagle, for instance. The other day she told Parliament:

Last Wednesday the Chancellor stood at that despatch box and delivered what he farcically claimed was: "a budget for the next generation."

What we actually got was a botched budget.

A Budget which has disastrously unravelled in just a few days.

Angela Eagle, putting the boot into an inept Chancellor
flanked by Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell
That’s the kind of thing we want to hear from leading Labour voices: picking up on the ineptitude of the Tories and powerfully, effectively denouncing it. She was helped by the incompetence with which George Osborne handled his hopelessly constructed budget, but it still took talent to wield the hatchet as Eagle did.

Which brings me back to the problems of Cameron’s party. Because as well as Angela Eagle’s comments I was delighted to read this assault:

This is not the way to do government…

I believe [Cameron and Osborne] are losing sight of the direction of travel they should be going...

But these remarks weren’t made by anyone in the Labour Party. They came from a former leader of the Tory Party, Iain Duncan Smith, who dramatically resigned from his position as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions last week.

Now, he has an axe to grind. He’s opposed to Britain’s membership of the EU, and his fellow Tories at the top of the party are in favour. His resignation may have been in part to serve the Brexit cause. But it contributes to the sense of disarray in Tory ranks, and that will only increase as the EU referendum approaches. That’s a wedge that Labour should be striving to drive deeper.

Meanwhile, other fissures are also opening up among Tories. Today we learned of the views of a Tory former head teacher and a member of Leicestershire County Council, where he takes a leading role on children’s and family matters. Ivan Ould was reacting to the decision by the government to force all schools to take ‘Academy’ status and therefore leave the control of councils such as Leicestershire’s. He commented:

This seems to be throwing out good practice for the sake of dogma and risking the possibility that standards may fall. I do not believe a system driven by dogma will meet the needs of children.

He’s so right. It’s dogma that drives this government, and centralisation of power: there’s absolutely no need to drive all schools to become Academie – indeed, one of the Academy chains that Cameron identified as exemplary has been placed under investigation for financial irregularities.

It’s dogma, too, that drives the constant obsession with austerity, despite six years of evidence that isn’t delivering growth or even reducing debt.

Taken together, the kind of Opposition Angela Eagle has shown Labour can still produce, and the internal attacks that the likes of Duncan Smith and Ould are launching, suggest that we can after all really do something about this dogmatic, inept government. Which is failing to meet the needs not just of children, but those of all but a tiny minority of the nation.

So I’m doing nothing to restrain my Schadenfreude over the Tories’ woes.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Responding to the Brussels attacks: how to get it wrong

It’s Brussels this time. At least another 31 deaths and over 200 injured. Harrowing, dismal events, and the latest in a series of them.

The scene at Zaventem airport, Brussels, soon after the explosion
That’s bad enough, but then it gets worse. As usual, our own reaction will magnify the damage and give the terrorists a victory they’ve done nothing to merit.

The Belgian government, for instance, will go way over the top with security measures, making life much safer but far less convenient. People will have to leave earlier to get to work on time, earlier to catch a plane. So as well as the tragedy inflicted on the families immediately involved, the terrorists will leave a lasting mark on the economy of a major European capital, making it more difficult to run.

The British government has added to the mix by advising against travel to Brussels. I have no particular reason to go to Brussels at the moment, but fear of terrorism wouldn’t stop me: the place is going to be one of the safest on earth for the new few weeks or months. Just a pig to get around.

In any case, it would be nonsense to fear Brussels, since I commute into London. That city has to be facing a risk of terrorism at least as high as at any time since the IRA campaign of the eighties. But I still feel I’m much more likely to be involved in a traffic accident than caught up in a terrorist outrage; since I’m not going to stop crossing roads or driving a car, it makes no sense avoiding London.

Besides, refusing to be deflected denies the terrorists an easy win.

There are other, still more vital ways, of denying them. One of the most important is to resist the urge to bomb them out of existence. It was that kind of thinking that got us into our difficulties in the first place: an illegitimate, unnecessary war in Iraq spawned ISIS. The Syrian civil war has become a proxy for East-West clashes as well as tensions inside the Middle East, that are wreaking havoc in Libya and Yemen too. We’ve brutalised a great many young men, and not a few young women, and given them something to avenge.

Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy on the Syria crisis, told the Guardian that, following the Brussels attacks:

The message we are drawing out is that we need to end the fires of war. We need to find a political solution in Syria to make sure we can all concentrate on what is the real danger, in the world and in Syria.

Take away the underlying conflict, and you take away its expression in other countries – in Turkey, which suffers more often than most, but also in Europe.

Going a step further, we also have to resist the temptation to blame the outrages on Islam or Molenbeek, the district of Brussels from which the attacks against both Brussels and Paris came. Donald Trump is naturally attacking immigration itself as the source of such terrorism, trying to blame entire populations for the work of a handful of people; in Britain, the far-right UKIP attacks open borders in Europe, ignoring the fact that Salah Abdeslam, who led on the logistics of the Paris attack, was stopped at the Hungarian-Austrian border in September 2015, but was allowed to drive on. The failure wasn’t due to the Schengen groups open borders but to lousy intelligence.

Stigmatising a European Muslim population of several million for the actions of a tiny minority simply creates more enemies for us; targeting Molenbeek would be just as counter-productive, since what makes the district generate aggression so easily is precisely that it’s so poorly assimilated. 30% are out of work. One in three of the population is foreign. Increasing its pain will do no one any good.

The IRA campaign in Northern Ireland was waged by a few hundred activists. Behind them, however, there were probably many thousands of passive supporters who provided the active members with information and shelter as necessary.

Eventually, once Westminster had woken up to a more intelligent approach to the province than military repression, huge sums were invested into Northern Ireland to revive the economy. A long campaign led to reasonably fair access to jobs, housing and education for Protestants and Catholics. The effect was to drain the swamp that gave the activists their support.

At the same time, intense and highly competent intelligence work enabled the security services to break up IRA groups and thwart attacks. After all, if the IRA had to depend on many thousands, it was impossible not to have leaks to the police, and good intelligence took advantage of them.

It’s clear, if only from the fact that Abdeslam escaped arrest in Molenbeek for several months, that there’s an extensive passive support network there too. Again, there must have been leaks. But were the security forces set up to take advantage of them? Belgium is, for instance, coming to terms with the fact that the police force has far too few Arabic speakers.

Whatever Trump may say, Molenbeek doesn’t demonstrate a failure of the Community, merely a failure of Community policing.

Will we be smart enough to apply the lessons of Northern Ireland elsewhere in Europe? To respond to the latest attacks not with increased repression but with investment and highly-competent intelligence work? To help all our sad little Molenbeeks, across the continent, out of their misery rather than drive them deeper into it?

Which boils down to one simple question: will we avoid giving the terrorists yet another undeserved victory?

Monday, 21 March 2016

Opening our eyes to how we got where we are... and where we may be heading

Every now and then one reads a book that opens your eyes to what’s going on around us.

It was the case for me with Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He shows how the era of reduced inequality between the First World War and the 1980s was historically exceptional, and that since that time the process has gone into reverse, with inequality growing rapidly and reaching dangerous levels.

It was the case again with Michael Lewis’s The Big Short. This is a far shorter book, which has its appeal, and it’s also a great deal more entertaining – I found myself repeatedly irritating my wife as I chuckled over certain passages and insisted on reading them out to her. But it was also an extraordinary eye-opener.

Lewis, whose Liar’s Poker did an excellent job exposing the seamy and ultimately worthless work that was being done on Wall Street in the 1980s, generating huge fortunes without creating any value, has an extraordinary talent for describing the underbelly of finance and doing it with clear, compelling writing.

What he shows in The Big Short is that the entire market that grew out of dealings in sub-prime mortgage bonds in the first decade of this century was based on essentially a lie. An increasing proportion of the financial instruments traded were based on worthless loans, far too many of which never had the slightest chance of being repaid. But while huge, and inadequately regulated, Wall Street firms could continue to be astronomical paper sums of money from them, the incentives were on to keep making the loans, issuing the instruments, and trading them.

This was part of the trend towards inequality so well analysed by Piketty. It was also a direct consequence of the Reagan-Thatcher years of active deregulation of the finance world in particular, and of industry more generally. As Michael Lewis points out, it wasn’t so much the greed of the firms that was to blame – the greed was always there. It’s that they were allowed to engage in business that they simply didn’t understand: not the people who were producing the instruments, not the traders trading them, not the executives who were paid eye-watering salaries to keep them in control.

The firms they led also put pressure on the ratings agencies to keep rating the bonds highly – triple-A, the top value – even though they were based on junk loans. The ratings agencies, the last line of regulation, proved completely inadequate to the task. But then they too are private companies, and subject to the blackmail that if they failed to provide a top rating, they’d lose the client to someone who would. Though it’s unlikely they had any understanding of the instruments they were rating.

No one understood.

Well, that’s not quite true. A handful of people did, and that’s the core of Lewis’s story. He tells the story of that handful and of the way they bet against the sub-prime mortgage market. When people claim today to have known what was happening then, check that they were part of that tiny group – if they weren’t, they’re lying.

Michael Burry: perhaps the first to have foreseen the 2007 Crash
And he made a packet by betting against it...
The book’s well worth reading, if you want a pacy, exciting, amusing and clear description of how the biggest financial crash the world has seen since 1929 took place. They got it right, and they made a packet out of betting they were right – betting, in fact, that the sub-prime mortgage market would fail. That's the ‘Big Short’ of Lewis’s title: this handful of clear-sighted individuals made a lot of money by shorting, betting against, the certainties that dominated Wall Street and banking around the world. 

In passing, the charge made by many British Conservatives that the 2007 crash was in any way attributable to the Labour government, in power at the time, is of course self-serving rubbish. If any political force is to blame, it’s the conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, who so enthusiastically pursued deregulation all those years ago. As Piketty points out, they’re creating a world in which the  top 0.1% or 0.01% endlessly enrich themselves at the cost of all the others, and 2008 was merely a pothole on that road.

At most, one can accuse Labour and others on the Centre-Left of having done too little to roll back Conservative laxness towards the finance sector.

The saddest lesson from the experience? The journey on that road continues. Trump is an enthusiastic driver in that direction; it’s not clear that Clinton would do little more than moderate the speed of travel. In Britain, we have a new leadership of the Labour Party that might be able to force a change in course, but while the Conservatives cling on to power, we too will go that way. And the picture around Europe, or in Russia, China or India, is hardly more encouraging.

So read The Big Short for its qualities as a book and for the lessons it teaches. Then, once you’ve learned what it tells you about the recent past, ask yourself whether you’re prepared to see us heading for something similar in the future.

Because there’s only ourselves who can stop that happening…

Sunday, 20 March 2016

A sorry Kindle story. And a joke to sharpen the irony

There are times when going on holiday isn’t a luxury, but a vital necessity.

Getting back to work, after an involuntary nearly eight-month break last year, is a bit of a shock to the system. Especially as it involves commuting into London, a joy I’d been deprived of for the previous four years. Especially as that involves frequent 5:15 a.m. starts to the day.

The worst effect of tiredness, I find, is to undermine judgement. I make mistakes, try to fix them and end up compounding them with worse errors still.

The other day I left for work a little later than I usually do. The trouble is that while it’s a luxury to be a little more leisurely about getting ready to go, and the dog gets a slightly longer walk, there’s a price to pay which rather kills the pleasure: I don’t get a seat on the later trains.

That was my first misjudgement.

I’m an enthusiastic convert to the Kindle. Never, since I’ve had a Kindle, have I had a suitcase that’s overweight for air travel. And yet now I travel with dozens, potentially hundreds, of books where in the past I would take just a handful – but that would be enough to tip the scales into eye-watering excess baggage charges.

Great device, great book. A source of pride and joy
And just now a little embarrassment
The Kindle has become my newspaper too. So I was reading the Guardian on the way into work until the sheer discomfort of trying to keep my balance in a crowded aisle became unbearable, and I put my Kindle down on a table in front of me.

That was my second misjudgement.

Because when more people joined the train, I had to move further down the aisle and away from my Kindle. Out of sight, out of mind. A porous mind, at least. As a result, I left the train without the Kindle and didn’t even notice until I decided to read a little more of The Big Short at lunchtime. 

You don’t know The Big Short? It’s a must read. Watch this space for more about this brilliant insight into the sheer stupidity of the people who make the most money, but only for themselves, and lose the most money for the rest of us.

But, of course, I couldn’t read The Big Short that lunchtime. I’d lost my Kindle. Oh, the despair!

The depression over my stupidity was immense. Made worse by the tiredness. I felt driven to do something immediately, to try to remedy the loss. So I bit the bullet and ordered another one. It was a bitter bullet (a bit of a bitter bullet bitten?) as Amazon no longer had a special offer on and I had to pay full price.

That was my third misjudgement, the final error that compounded the others. Because the inevitable happened. The train company got in touch. Instead of being stolen, my Kindle had fallen into the hands of someone honest enough to hand it in, and I could go and collect it. Just, as it happens, as I received the new one.

So I now own two Kindles. Both capable of holding a regular library of books, far more than I could ever read or wish to read. An endless supply, for all practical purposes, which I can never exhaust. And each identical to the other.

That made me think. Firstly, that it was definitely time for a holiday, to get grounded again and have my judgement functioning once more. And secondly of an old Irish joke I’ve always enjoyed.

Seamus is offered three wishes by his fairy godmother. For the first, he asks for a bottle of Guinness that never runs out. She flicks her wand and there, in front of him, is the bottle. He pours out a glass and drinks it, and the bottle is full again.

“Why, that’s magical," he says.

“And what about your other two wishes?” she asks.

“Well, I liked that one so much, I think I’ll have two more of the same.”

At least I now know what it feels like to be Seamus.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

The sorows of poor Mr Osborne

You’ve got to feel sorry for that poor Mr George Osborne, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer. He’s been having rather a torrid time of it lately. As he explained in this touching personal confession.

I mean, I’m a longstanding friend of David Cameron. The one who’s Prime Minister. For now. I mean, friends from way, way back. We’ve both been members of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford, so we know what it is to have a few drinks, and trash a restaurant or a friend’s room. It builds character, that kind of behaviour, makes a leader of you. And forges a friendship.

Anyway, we had a deal, Big Dave and me. I’d do a few years in the number 2 slot and then he’d stand aside and let me have a go at the top job. And he’s doing his bit: agreeing to stand down before the next election and all that. But now it’s all going wrong.

Fetching, isn't he? Our George? In his trademark hard hat
It's his tribute to the nobility of hard work. Which he admires from afar
I mean, big Dave wants me to keep helping when I can, so I do. I’ve come out all keen as mustard for Britain staying in the EU and all that. Hasn’t done me any favours. Turns out that lots of people in the Tory Party – including in parliament – don’t like that idea at all. They’re feeling a bit riled, basically. And that creep Boris Johnson’s been slipping in with his bloody Eurosceptic position, taking advantage of the mood.

Everything ought to be going swimmingly, but it isn’t. I’ve just given my eighth budget. You’d think that’d be a bit of a high point. But we don’t seem to be able to get rid of the deficit completely, however much we cut the army, the police and support for the poor. So instead of coming down, debt’s a bit high, really. A bit of a record, actually, to be strictly honest. Which is embarrassing, seeing how I always used to have a go at the other side for having got debt so high on their watch.

That all makes even my best moves, well, a bit moot to be strictly truthful. I do try. Take this budget, for instance. I couldn’t give away as much as I’d like, of course, not in the trying situation we’re in, but I did what I could. Raised the income level at which people have to start paying tax. Raised the level at which they have to pay the next level up of tax. Got to help, hasn’t it?

OK, it helps the people who pay the most tax more than the ones who don’t pay much, but still, it’s helping people, isn’t it?

OK, maybe not the people who earn so little they don’t pay tax at all, but I don’t know any of that kind of people – they’re the ones who used to clean up behind us when we were in the Bullingdon Club, right?

OK, maybe 85% of the benefit goes to the top 50% of incomes, or so some pundit or other claims, but hey, help’s help, isn’t it? No matter who it goes to.

Some people are moaning that I’m taking £4 million out of benefit payments to the disabled at the same time as I’m reducing taxes. What’s their problem? Let’s be clear. A lot of the disabled don’t vote. And many of the ones who do, vote Labour. Get real, guys. I’ve got a career to nurture here.

The one good thing is that those sad fellows who lead Labour, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, are even less trusted to run the economy well than I am. A joke, right? A really funny one. Which made it a bit annoying when Corbyn came out with that line about the budget having unfairness at its core. How did he work that one out? No one on my side has.

Though, to be honest, it’s my side that’s the problem. What a bunch. All baying to get out of the European Union. God only knows why. It costs next to nothing compared to, say, a bombing campaign in the Middle East. And the Yanks like it. But those backwoodsmen have got a bee in their bonnet about it. And those bees are all swarming around smarmy Boris now.

Makes you want to weep, doesn’t it? I’ve done everything you’d think you’d need to do to follow my mate into the top job. Well, everything short of actually balancing the books, but just because I said we could do it doesn’t mean it was possible. And despite all that, bloody Boris is giving me a damn good run for my money.

What’s a fellow supposed to do? Do you think it’s all down to my having gone to St Paul’s School? Boris was at Eton with Big Dave. Is that what’s going on?

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Donald Trump and the Establishment's Ides of March

The Ides of March are here. Over two millennia ago, on this day, Julius Caesar was struck down in the forum of Rome by his inveterate enemies.

Well, it was fairly clear they weren’t fans. Stabbing knives are a bit of a giveaway.

Since that time, commentators have tended to see the event in one of two ways. There are those to whom the assassins were making a last-gasp stand in defence of the republican virtues and time-honoured freedoms of Rome against a would-be military dictator. Others instead see the conspirators as reactionaries trying to defend an old and outdated dispensation that needed a hero to overthrow it.

My own view is of the “plague on both your houses” variety. Brutus, Cassius and their mates were aristocrats of the old elite that had run, and indeed owned, Rome for centuries. They weren’t there to defend ancient liberties, or at least ancient liberties for anyone but themselves and their class. The common man? He was of interest to them only insofar as he could further or resist their plans for themselves.

As for Caesar, he was a megalomaniac with all sorts of weird delusions – I mean, what kind of man writes his autobiography in the third person? An aristocrat himself, he won an enviable reputation – for those who envy military reputations – by waging bloodthirsty war on the inhabitants of Gaul, who’d done him no harm at all but provided him with a good ladder towards power.

Then he’d used his military might to seize that power back in Rome.

Isn’t that so like what’s happening on the Ides of March in 2016?

The primary elections in the US today are pretty much the last gasp for the old American elite – the people we tend to refer to as the Republican Establishment – to try to block the road to power of a megalomaniac who, like Caesar, is convinced that only he can save his nation from itself. Unlike Caesar, Donald Trump is no military leader. On the other hand, to be a military leader Caesar had to raise millions to fund his legions; Trump too has raised colossal financial power to fund his legions of foot soldiers. Not all that different.

Are the Republicans heading off into a long dark night?
And will they drag the rest of us with them?
Caesar’s violence was of a different order. But Trump’s movement is dipping that way now, with increasing violence at his rallies. And isn’t it interesting that they are rallies? These arent forums for debate, they are mass adoration sessions where the providential man tells his followers what to believe, and they reward him with their worship in return.

A major difference is that the freedoms at stake aren’t merely those of an elite. One of the most striking, and admirable, characteristics of the United States is that it has a remarkable Constitution. A mere 7000 words long, it laid the foundation for a system in which no one could exert excessive power, because another body would counterbalance theirs and keep it under control.

I’m not aware of any time in history where that admirable state of affairs has ever been under greater threat than today. Sam Brownback, who is to the state of Kansas what Trump is to the entire nation (but with the additional flaw of actually being in office), has signed into effect legislation that would allow him to impeach any judge that struck down a law that he favoured. The chances are that such a step, which denies the possibility of an independent judiciary, would be thrown out by the Supreme Court in any government led by a president committed to upholding the Constitution; but would even the Supreme Court be able to resist the bullying of a President Trump, with his contempt for the Constitution?

You don’t believe he has contempt for the Constitution? Look at what he has been saying about the media. He hates journalists, he says. If elected, he claims, he will bring in legislation that would make it considerably easier to sue media outlets for libel. In other words, this keen supporter of the Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms, wants to circumscribe the effects of the First, which upholds the right to freedom of speech.

Sadly, aligned against him are only the tired old figures of the Republican establishment, as weirdly Conservative as he is. They are unlikely to succeed tonight in defeating Trump. In that respect, they are once more not unlike the conspirators against Caesar: although they did assassinate him, the act only rebounded on them, as Caesar’s party rallied its forces and crushed the assassins in war, thus ending the Republic anyway and ushering in the autocratic rule of the Roman Empire.

When it comes to Trump, there really is only one hope left of stopping him. A diminutive, not particularly trustworthy or popular woman, Hillary Clinton. An unlikely and uninspiring figure to be the last best hope of American liberty.

But, hey, we don’t always choose the weapons to defend ourselves. We just have to reach for the best we can find when we’re up against an urgent threat. Thats likely to be Hillary, and boy do we need her. 

Because being Trumped is about as threatening, and as urgent, as it gets.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Political deviousness and claustrophobic killings with subtitles, and making the news without

The French president has been assassinated. His body has barely grown cold before potential successors are jockeying to replace him. That’s the starting point of Spin, or Les hommes de l’ombre, as it was known in its original French.

Spin: French answer to Borgen and just as good
If the president was a man of the moderate right, his Prime Minister Philippe Deleuvre, is far more harshly conservative. Indeed, though they ended up in the same government, Deleuvre was the President’s sworn enemy. Now Deleuvre launches a harshly repressive response to what he represents as an act of terrorism. Security measures are stepped up, and a climate of fear generated across the nation, a climate from which he believes he is most likely to benefit.

But he has calculated without taking into account Simon Kapita, spin Doctor extraordinaire and the man who was key to the election of the now-murdered President. Although Kapita had been living in New York, and indeed about to take a senior position with the UN, he can’t help being drawn into the campaign. Especially against a political enemy like Deleuvre. Even more so when he receives increasingly convincing evidence that there was no terrorist element to the murder, an aspect of the affair that his estranged wife, a journalist, goes to great lengths and even personal risk to investigate.

So Kapita sets out to find an alternative candidate for the right. He lights on Anne Visage, far more liberal than Deleuvre, and far more to his taste. But her own past isn’t free of difficult truths, and all his skills as a master of the trade are called into action. Especially as he finds himself up against a former colleague and friend, indeed his previous business partner, Ludovic Desmeuze, who has decided to work for Deleuvre.

The result of this mix is as gripping as the Danish political drama Borgen, made even sharper by some of the edgy, violent atmosphere of the excellent French thriller series, Engrenages or Spiral as it was known in English (incidentally, Kapita’s rival Desmeuze is played by Grégory Fitoussi who was so good in Spiral).

One of my favourite moments from the first season? When Kapita gives Visage a file before she goes into a TV debate. On the outside is a word referring to a scandal of the campaign which might destabilise her opponent if the contents came out (though, as it happens, it would cause her pain too). When she asks what’s inside, he says nothing – it was merely a trick used in the 1981 campaign by Mitterand, who would glance at it whenever he felt his opponent Giscard d'Estaing was getting too aggressive.

“That’s really twisted,” she says, though she takes the file with her, ready to make use of it, dirty or not. Until, that is, her opponent shows up on stage – with a far fatter file with exactly the same word on the cover…

Trapped in a storm-isolated town: the killer must be among us...
Just as gripping, in the present crop of subtitled TV series, was Trapped. This is the latest piece of Nordic Noir, but not from Scandinavia proper this time. Trapped is set in Iceland, in a small harbour town on the East Coast, miles from anywhere, which is one of the main plot devices: the weather has turned vile (even for Icelandic winter) cutting off the town. So when a dismembered body is found in the waters of the port, there’s no way police from Reykjavik can show up to help the investigation. Or rather take it over – the officer that would head the Reykjavik team is a bitter opponent of the local chief of police, the extraordinary, bear-like figure of Andri, magnificently played by Ólafur Darri Olafsson, of whom we’ve certainly not heard the last. His estranged wife is in town, with her new boyfriend. They’re there to pick up her and Andri’s daughters, and move them to Reykjavik. Just to intensify the ambivalence, the boyfriend is rather likeable.

Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir is outstanding as Hinrika, a policewoman with brilliant use of facial expression and body language, avoiding the need for much in the way of words. The result is a great mix of the personal drama and the public, as the bodies pile up, and we work our way slowly forward among these people trapped in a town cut off by the elements, towards finding the truth about the murders and the link they may or may not have with the tragic events seven years earlier and shown in the opening sequence: the death of a young girl (coincidentally Andri’s sister-in-law) when a deserted factory goes up in flame.

And finally, a series we abandoned when we first started watching it a couple of years ago, and now wonder why we didn’t keep going with, having enjoyed all three seasons so much: The News Room. This is great work by one of the finest scriptwriters of our time, Aaron Sorkin, and as usual it’s high-paced, just avoiding the frenetic by a whisker. In principle, unlike the other two this is a series that doesn’t need subtitles for English speakers, but we kept them on if only not to miss any of the quickfire dialogue. You don’t want to lose any of the repartee, a hallmark of Sorkin’s writing.

Another hallmark, fully on show in this series, is his range of believable, highly watchable characters; virtually none of them is entirely unlikeable, and none of them is without serious faults. Nor are they above making errors. On the contrary, as they work against the clock to prepare and broadcast and hour-long TV news programme each day, they frequently screw up, often monumentally – in their personal lives but often in the programme itself. The mix makes for compelling viewing.

The Newsroom: brilliant characters and quickfire dialogue
A favourite moment? Near the beginning (but there are plenty of others later) when the leading character is asked in a public meeting, “can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” He replies, “It's not the greatest country in the world... That's my answer. It sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons. We passed laws, struck down laws – for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not on poor people… America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”

That was true when the series first emerged, back in 2012. It’s even truer today, in the age of Trump. Good for Sorkin for getting that right.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Uneasy lies the head that wields a vote

It’s been fun to be out here in the US and see a bit of the Presidential race up close, even if briefly and only in a thoroughly unscientific and anecdotal way.

Most of the people I’ve met over the last week have, I believe, been Republicans. They’re coy to admit it, but that’s how I read some of their comments and their body language. Perhaps their coyness too.

Most strikingly, they’re stumped.

How can they help decide who should win their party’s nomination? Cruz, the candidate placed second to Trump, is far too right wing, it seems.

“What,” I asked, “is Cruz to the right of Trump?”

“Way to the right,” I was told, “because he really is of the far right. Trump’s just erratic. You have no idea what his position is on anything until he takes it.”

“And not even then,” I was tempted to add.

It’s tough. Since Kasich and Rubio aren’t going anywhere, the choice seems to be between Cruz and Trump. Which is a choice between the unbearable and the unconscionable – and it doesn’t much matter which you consider to be which.

So most of the Republicans I met seem increasingly resigned to voting, against their conscience and their inclinations, for Hillary Clinton in November’s general election. No one is inspired by her. No one particularly trusts her. But given the likely choice of candidate on the Republican side of the fence, most of the people I met are resigned to having to vote Democrat and, specifically, for Hillary. And to do so only because their own party is going to put up a candidate it would be horrific to see in the White House.

Which creates an even deeper dilemma if Bernie Sanders pulls off the unlikely feat of beating Clinton to the nomination. He seems to be generally viewed as more honest and more likeable but, as I have been so frequently told, “this country isn’t ready for a socialist president.”

Preferable but unelectable? Believe me, we’re familiar with that dilemma in Britain.

Trump, Clinton, Cruz, Sanders
Decision time. And it’s a tough choice...
Equally, we British have often had to vote with a clothes peg on our noses, as we choose candidates we dislike only to avoid something much worse.

In France, too. I was there back in 2002, when the Centre-Left presidential candidate Lionel Jospin ran such a lacklustre campaign that he was knocked out in the first round, leaving only Conservative Jacques Chirac to face off to the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second. That was certainly clothes peg time, and Le Pen was trounced by more than four to one.

Funnily enough, Le Pen is one of the foreign politicians to have endorsed Trump, as is Vladimir Putin. There’s a French saying, “tell me who you hang out with and I’ll tell you who you are.” Putin and Le Pen: appropriate company, one can’t help feeling, for the authoritarian Trump.

As it happens, there are also plenty of foreign leaders lining up against Trump. Unsurprisingly, the Mexican president and two of his predecessors have denounced him, but then Trump is proposing a wall to keep Mexicans out and, to add injury to insult, wants to charge them for it. But the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has spoken out, as has the German Vice Chacellor Sigma Gabriel, and even British PM David Cameron.

That’s unusual: the convention is that politicians say nothing that could be interpreted as an attempt to intervene in another country’s elections. But if he’s anything, Trump’s unconventional. Even so, voices in the US are being raised against foreign interference. For instance, although she’s not a Trump fan, Republican and foreign policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, Danielle Pletka, pointed out:

It’s none of their bloody business. This is our election, not theirs.

Well, up to a point. When you’re talking about the wealthiest nation and most powerful military power on Earth, choosing a leader with at least a modicum of rationality is a matter that affects us all.

On the other hand, seeing how much Americans who actually have a vote are struggling with the decision, perhaps it’s no bad thing we don’t have to. Or would it be any kind of struggle at all for voters outside the US?

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Adapting to post-imperial life: hard for Austria. Just as hard for Britain.

Its always a joy to make a new friendship. I particularly enjoyed meeting a new Austrian colleague the other day. In conversations covering a wide range of subjects  work, naturally, but much else besides – he struck me by his intelligence, culture and thoughtfulness. Among other matters, on Austria itself.

The country entered the century as the dominant partner in the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. That monarchy, or rather Empire, ceased to exist after the First World War, where it made the mistake of fighting on the wrong side. That’s not wrong in any moral sense, simply wrong in the sense that it was the side that lost.

Now many years ago my wife and I visited Hungary, and we were struck by the liveliness of resentment over the loss of territory that component of the Empire suffered after the war. To give some of the peoples within the old borders of Hungary their own countries, Hungary was deprived of 72% of its territory; because borders are never neat, 31% of ethnic Hungarians found themselves outside Hungary – a total of 3.3 million people, in such countries as Czechoslovakia or Romania. 80 years on, there was still considerable bitterness on the subject.

So it was interesting talking about Austria. In 1914, at the outbreak of war, the Empire covered a population of 52.8 million. After the post-war settlements, the newly separate nation of Austria had just 6.5 million. In other words, it had lost seven out of eight people over which it had previous ruled.

The new dispensation required some radical mindset adjustments. The view an Austrian might have had of the nation’s place in the world no longer corresponded to reality. To take just one obvious change, the old Empire had been a major naval power, but modern Austria is landlocked. Above all, though, Austria no longer had an imperial role.

An Austrian fleet? Not a sight we’d see any more...
Austro-Hungarian WW1 warships at Pola, today in Croatia
Indeed, it was one of the smaller countries of Europe.

If Hungary had such difficulty adapting to these changes that it was still struggling with them eight decades on, one can imagine that the re-examination Austrians had to undergo would have left them deeply perturbed and confused. There were serious internal conflicts within Austria between the wars, leading to the emergence of extremist movements, and preparing the ground for the eventual Nazi annexation.

All this reminded me of a statement the late left-wing Labour MP Tony Benn once made: “the last colony of the British Empire will be England.”

We too in Britain had to come to terms with a post-imperial life. It hasn’t always been easy. Nor is the process complete: the Iraq War showed a continuing desire to pursue a far bigger role on the world stage than Britain’s real power justifies. At least Austria has reconciled to its position as a prosperous but small European state. That has made it a fully integrated member of the European Union.

With a referendum on EU membership due on 23 June, that’s not an adjustment that Britain has fully made yet.

Monday, 7 March 2016

The very best place to spend a day on Earth?

In Marketing, superlatives are good.

You don’t want to announce that you’ve just launched another product to do the same thing as a whole bunch of others out there. You don’t even want to claim it does those things better. To get attention, you have to claim that it’s the first to do what it does, or the best, though of course not the cheapest: cheap is bad, though cost effective is great and value for money’s good too.

In that respect, the visitor centre (or should I say center?) at the Kennedy Space Centre (ditto) is right up there with best. The brightest. The biggest.

Sunset at the Rocket Garden
So in Marketing terms, it’s a shining example of best practice (among the very best). It’s also a fun place to visit, not just because you can see the actual launch pads with the huge gantries from which rockets are fired, or walk along a Saturn V rocket hanging from a ceiling to get a real sense of the scale of these things, but because the setting, in the middle of a nature reserve just pulsing with wildlife, is pretty impressive (among the brightest). But for this fan of the understated, it does seem to slightly overdo the superlatives (among the over-the-toppest).

By the end of the visit, I was becoming a little tired of being told that those rockets represented the most complex imaginable science. Really? It’s like the hoary old saying “it’s not rocket science.” It’s hard to imagine anything much simpler than rocket science. You mix two highly inflammable liquids and then set fire to them. Please don’t tell me that there’s anything surprising about the fact that the resulting explosion is powerful enough, if you use sufficient quantities of the stuff, to hurl even a massive object into orbit. The complexity comes in the engineering which has to make sure that the object hurled actually makes it into orbit in one piece, rather than being blown to fragments. But the science? Pretty elementary. Compared, say, to the subtleties of quantum mechanics or relativistic physics.

I also found myself jaded by all the talk about the heroes who took the plunge into the hazardous unknown with a US flag on their shoulders. Not because I question their courage, but because I’m not sure others haven’t taken equal risks before. After all, Christopher Columbus who did as much as anyone to lay the foundations for the US, sailed off into the unknown with no assurance of getting anywhere, no real idea of where he was going, or any guarantee of getting back. That the men (and why weren’t there more women even in the early days?) who pioneered space travel were right up there with the most daring I’ll happily accept; that no-one came near them, I won’t.

Still, there was one claim I had to accept: that the world expects the US to lead the way in further space exploration. All across the site, there was NASA promotional material for a manned expedition to Mars. It was a theme that kept recurring with almost obsessive frequency, with even one large display area devoted to winning support for it, and an Imax film on the subject. That had to be impressive, since we still haven’t solved what strikes me as the fundamental problem, which is how to keep people alive during such an extended exposure to the background radiation of space. It’s hard not to feel that if anyone can come up with a solution, it has to be the US.

Russia and China simply don’t have the means, and perhaps don’t have the same determination to address this kind of challenge. As for Europe – well, it would be a good thing if it stopped tearing itself apart first, a message that Britain above all needs to hear. By default, that means it’s going to mean the US lead the way – which is fine, because they certainly achieve results.

All that makes it fun to visit the Kennedy Space Centre (OK, OK, I’m not going to reverse that r and e). Entertaining and instructive. But can I give my Marketing colleagues the ultimate accolade they crave and declare it the very best way to spend a day imaginable?

I wouldnt perhaps go quite that far...

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Islamophobia and the unintended power of prayer

It’s always good to replace doubt by certainty.

I’m not sure whether anyone still believes that the basis of Islamophobia isn’t racism, rather than merely religious bigotry. Some perhaps cling on to that illusion. So an incident at Luton airport the other day is at least helpful in dispelling any such uncertainty.

Laolu Opebiyi is a British citizen living in North London. He’s also a committed Christian. I repeat: Christian, not Muslim. He belongs to a group called ISI Men. I repeat: ISI, not ISIS. ISI stands for Iron sharpens iron and is a reference to the Bible: “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend” (Proverbs 27:17).

Unfortunately, sitting on a plane at Luton he used his phone to text members of his group to suggest a conference call prayer, and received a most unwelcome lesson of the effectiveness of prayer, in a wholly unintended way.

The passenger in the seat next to him was reading the text over his shoulder.

“What do you mean by prayer?” he asked.

The neighbour was soon asking to be let off the plane as he felt unwell. And a little later, Opebiyi was taken off it himself by armed police, who questioned him about his beliefs and demanded the password to his phone so they could check just what he’d been texting. They asked him to confirm that he was not only Christian, but had never considered converting to another religion.

The police quickly cleared Opebiyi of the damaging charge of religious belief with intent to be a Muslim, and said he could travel on. Then the pilot intervened, refusing to carry him. So he had to catch the next flight. Seven other passengers who’d left the earlier flight to avoid him realised that he was going to be on the one they were taking instead, and there was another bit of a scene.

Eventually, he got to his destination. But when he returned, his passport was refused by the e-passport reader and border staff questioned him again. As he told the Guardian:

Someone felt I was a terrorist because they saw the word ‘prayer’ on my phone and now I stand in uncertainty about my freedom of movement in and out of the United Kingdom.

I have nothing but sympathy for his view that:

Even if I was a Muslim, it was pretty unfair the way I was treated. I don’t think anyone irrespective of their religion should be treated in such a way. If we keep on giving in to this kind of bigotry and irrational fear I dare say that the terrorists will have achieved their aim.

An excellent point. The triumph of terrorism doesn’t lie in a bullet or a bomb. It happens in our minds and hearts.

Finally, here are some test questions for you.

What colour do you think Mr Opebiyi’s skin is?

Laolu Opebiyi: victim of Islamophobia.
Without even being Muslim
Do you still think that Islamophobia is all about the finer points of conflicting religious doctrines?

Aren’t we good in the West at illustrating our unshakeable commitment to the principles of democracy and human rights?