Friday, 30 June 2017

London Bridge and Borough Market: intelligence in the response to terrorism

There are two fine responses to terrorism, one military and one civilian, and two that are far less intelligent – though far from uncommon.

Shrine to the victims of terrorism on London Bridge
The unintelligent military response is to go to war. For years, we’ve had a “war against terrorism”. It’s a meaningless notion. War can be directed against a territory (which may be a nation) or against its armies: war against Nazi Germany, against the rebel American States, against the Vietcong army or North Vietnam – whatever you think of their justification, these are meaningful concepts one can comprehend.

But war against terrorism? Who or what’s the target? Where do you invade?

The answer to that last question has been Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither war has been won and both have led to a far greater threat of terrorism, indeed a far higher number of outrages. The military action was gesture politics: it showed governments doing something, with no concern as to whether it was the right thing.

The intelligent military approach requires – well, it requires intelligence. Excellent security work has foiled terrorist plot after plot in Britain. As a way to keep us safe, it has proved far more effective than, say, invading Iraq.

Even so, not all outrages can be stopped. Which takes us to the civilian response.

The less intelligent reaction is to start enacting new legislation. This is rather like invading Afghanistan. It shows governments to be doing something, but with no concern as to whether what it’s doing is useful. After all, little that a terrorist does is legal anyway – murder doesn’t need new legislation against it, and conspiracy to commit murder or complicity in murder are also crimes. Collecting the weaponry for a terrorist attack is illegal too, as is incitement to commit a crime, or perversion of the course of justice to cover it up afterwards.

Most legislation proposed in the wake of an attack is concerned with limiting thought, not action. I don’t like the idea of a worldwide caliphate being established and would do everything legal within my power to prevent it. But how can ban people from believing it’s a good thing? Why, there are people who think Trump is a good thing. How can we make it a crim to try to persuade others of their point of view? It’s the very attempt to regiment thought that excites my dislike of the notion of a caliphate.

Let me be clear: trying to persuade people that a Caliphate is desirable should not be a crime; trying to persuade people to take up arms to make it happen is a crime, as it should be.

The biggest problem with attempts to limit thought by legislation is where do you stop? In Russia, for instance, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to speak out in favour of rights for homosexuals. That’s because many – possibly a majority – in the population and certainly in power see homosexuality as an abomination. But then banning belief in a Caliphate would be based on a sense that it too is an abomination.

Limiting freedom of belief opens the door to regressive, and repressive, behaviour which is likely to have far more damaging consequences than its backers imagine. Ill though-out, unintelligent reaction is unlikely to be effective against terrorism, but is highly likely to inflict wounds on ourselves. Let’s not forget that Maggie Thatcher, in my view not maligned anything like enough, made the attempt to ban teaching in schools if it was deemed to “promote” homosexuality. Putin would have been proud.

It’s a slippery slope and it goes a long way downhill.

So how about the intelligent civilian response to terrorism? It’s the reaction that says, “it’s not going to stop me living the life I choose to live”. Fortunately, it’s a widespread attitude and one that reveals an inherent strength in our populations. That makes it probably the best guarantee of our long-term success against the attempts to undermine us by terrorist means.

I was struck forcibly by that truth when I recently wandered through Borough Market, near London Bridge. Not a month ago it was the scene of a vicious and brutal terrorist attack: three men drove a van into a crowd on London Bridge, and then chased victims enjoying the evening in the pubs and restaurants, or just the streets, around the market. They killed eight and injured 48 before being gunned down themselves by police.

There’s still a shrine to the memory of the victims on the bridge. But I was inspired by the activity in Borough Market as I walked through at 8:00 in the morning. Things were only just getting going, with stall holders beginning to open their stands, food beginning to cook, and a few passers-by beginning to appear, to stop and look and occasionally to buy (breakfast, in my case).

Normality reasserted: Borough Market reopening for business as usual
Life was already back to normal. No one had forgotten the attack. But the rights of the living had been reasserted. So the terrorists had failed..

For that I’m profoundly grateful. And hopeful.

Despite the lack of intelligence of so much else of what we do.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Oaks rather than mere iron

It’s always fun, or at least more often fun than it is instructive, to work your way through those self-help books that teach you all the wisdom you need to succeed in business, society or indeed life generally.

They tend to pick anecdotes carefully to illustrate their points. That makes me think of a vital principle from that unquestionably valuable book, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking fast and slow, “what you see is all there is”. We chuckle over one anecdote that seems to make an author’s point and conclude that it’s representative, rather than exceptional, and therefore proves a law. Often that’s a wild presumption.

Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way is the latest of these texts that I’m working through, and it’s certainly proving fun. That doesn’t mean I’m convinced: he argues, for example, that we need to focus on the thing in front of us, the task to be undertaken immediately, and not be distracted by visions of the remote goal. I’m convinced that it wouldn’t take long to find a book arguing, with equal conviction, for the opposition point of view, backing some variant of “not seeing the wood for the trees” to argue that without a vision of the whole, the work on any detail is likely to be misguided.

One of Holiday’s better anecdotes concerns Sam Zemurray. In the early years of the twentieth century, he was involved in a struggle with one of America’s leading corporations, United Fruit, for ownership of 5000 acres of land in Guatemala, ideally suited to the growing of bananas. The problem was that two individuals were in dispute for ownership of the land, so who could sell it?

United Fruit shipped in high-powered lawyers and set to work examining all the documents so they could establish, beyond all doubt, who had title to the land. This was an array of resources their competitor couldn’t match. That was a game they were bound to win.

Zemurray simply called in both putative owners and bought the land off both of them. So he paid twice. But he had the land. 

He beat them by playing a different game.

What Holiday doesn’t mention is that Zemurray later engineered a coup in Guatemala and eventually won control of United Fruit himself. A role model? I think perhaps not.

Still, he showed great ingenuity in winning that first battle. Ingenuity and above all, flexibility. That’s the notion I want to focus on.

Another book I’m not so much reading as listening to – one of the beauties of dog walking – is a biography of George Thomas. He was, in my view, probably the best of the US Civil War generals, and perhaps even one of the best generals of any war, anywhere in the last couple of centuries. He never lost a battle, he won the Union’s most comprehensive victory, and he never wasted his men’s lives in hopeless, glorious, criminal charges.

One of the generals who served with him, and later became President of the United States, James A. Garfield, said of him that he was “not a man of iron but of living oak”. That description struck me as highly attractive. Unlike iron, living oakwood is strong and yet adaptable, in that it will bend with the wind to avoid breaking, though it can also withstand a great deal. Above all, it is, as Garfield’s words especially underline, alive with all that implies of warmth and openness to other living beings.

That in turn got me thinking of a more recent time when “iron” was used as an epithet for character. The “Iron Lady” was Maggie Thatcher. She was truly iron in just the way that Thomas was not. Inflexible, sure she was right, she purused the objectives her ideology dictated to her inexorably and without compassion.

Her baleful shadow hangs over us still . Britain has been pursuing Thatcher-style austerity for seven years, with the stated aim of reducing debt – which has doubled. It still regards “regulation” a dirty word – and the terrible fire that killed at least 80 in Grenfell Tower has shown where that leads.

The difference now is that signs are beginning to emerge of a tiredness with this dogmatism. Far more people voted against the Tories in the recent general election than many of us expected. The most recent social attitudes survey shows opinion beginning to harden against austerity . And the decision to prosecute people, 30 years on, for the deaths of 96 people at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster interestingly includes charges that health and safety concerns were ignored, as at Grenfell Tower. Generally, the terms “health and safety” tend to be followed by the words “gone mad”, to make the notion a favourite butt of the anti-regulation crowd.

Well, maybe just as people are realising that austerity can be bad for your health, they’re also waking up to the fact that health and safety are to be cherished rather than despised.

Could this be the dawning of a time for people of living oak rather than iron ladies?

Those who emulate the ingenuity and flexibility of Zemurray, rather than Thatchers obstinacy?

Although perhaps we needn’t going quite so far i following him as to back coups in vulnerable foreign nations...

Monday, 26 June 2017

Three more films: an opening onto fact, fiction and the grey zone between

I forget who it was who said it – it might have been Denis Diderot – but I’ve always liked the sentence “I have read many histories that are poor novels, and many novels that are fine histories”.

It’s true that a work of fiction can sometimes be a more effective tool for conveying timeless truths that a dull history, especially if the latter is also unreliable.

Entertaining. But a truthful historical account?
Not so much
My son was so angry about the film of Hidden Figures, for its many distortions of the truth, that I made a point of reading the book before I watched the screen version. And he’s right: the film certainly takes extraordinary liberties with the historical record. “Based on true events”, the film claims, but there’s an implicit “loosely” in there somewhere. Or maybe “very loosely”.

Still, it’s an entertaining fiction making an important point: Virginia in the fifties was shamefully segregated where (the book reveals) the State closed public schools for five years rather than integrate them, creating a “lost generation” of under-educated black students. At a time when it was hard for women of any race to win professional recognition, the film tells the uplifting story of black women at the NASA operation in Virginia who, by dint of their brilliance, eventually carved careers for themselves through their vital if not always visible contributions to the US space programme.

This was the first time I’d seen Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, who were great as the three leading black, woman protagonists; and I enjoyed seeing Mahershala Ali, from House of Cards, as the man who put the “Johnson” in Katherine Johnson’s name.

Sticking with the Virginia location and the theme of racism, Loving is another film worth seeing. It’s a chilling thought that until 1967, sixteen US states still had anti-miscegenation laws: sex between races – strictly, between whites and non-whites – was illegal as, inevitably, was marriage. You may be interested though probably not surprised to know they were all in the South. A far more amusing thought is that it took a case brought by a loving (interracial) couple called Loving to put an end to that lamentable state of affairs.

Discrimination iseven more shocking than in
Hidden Figures
Ruth Negga is an outstanding actor of joint Ethiopian and Irish descent, giving her looks just the kind of ethnic ambiguity the role needed: Mildred Loving was described as Indian or Black at different times of her life, though what really mattered was that she was non-white. Negga has impressed me ever since I first saw her in Breakfast on Pluto a dozen years ago. She plays Mildred with her usual skill and entirely convincingly, opposite Joel Edgerton as her white husband Richard. He fully communicates the character, a man of few words and little education, hard working though poor (the couple could only take the case thanks to funding by the American Civil Liberties Union). He was devoted to his wife and bemused by Virginia’s refusal to let them live their lives as they wished. It’s a good story, summed up for me in the words of Richard Loving to the lawyers as they were about to appear before the Supreme Court: “Mr. Cohen, tell the Court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can't live with her in Virginia”. 

The film quotes the four key words. I’ll leave you to guess which they are.

Stranger than Fiction differs from the other two by not being at all concerned with the portrayal of fact. On the contrary, it is the chilling story of a man coming to the realisation that a writer has built him into her latest novel and is trying to find a compelling way of bumping him off. The character, understandably, resents this fictional ending, especially as it will spell his own death in reality (except that this is a film and therefore a fiction itself: see they layering?)

Too amusing to be as chilling as the plot might suggest
The film shows us his resistance to the writer’s plans, which he’s aware of because he can hear her voice recounting – perhaps I should say narrating – what’s happening in his life. A great cast, with one of the finest actors of our day, Emma Thompson, playing the writer, Will Ferrell as her hapless protagonist and victim, and Dustin Hoffmann as the professor of Literature to whom he turns to try to find out whether there’s a way out of the narrative in whose coils he is caught. The problem there, of course, is that not everyone feels the superb quality of the novel is worth sacrificing to save his one, individual life.

The film finds a neat way out of the conundrum in an ending which lives up the originality of the plot.

It’s not a new film (2006) unlike the other two, but we watched them all recently. Between them they provided a pleasant and entertaining stay in the grey area where the end of fact overlaps with the beginning of fiction. I hope you can enjoy that intriguing place as much as we did.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Celebrating the first anniversary of Britain's latest foot-shooting incident

It was fun being in Sweden at the beginning of this week. Friday was going to be a big day there: the midsummer celebration when everyone eats, drinks and makes merry. Those with the energy, the legs and the sense of rhythm will even go dancing around something like a maypole. An entertaining tradition.

Swedish midsummer dance. They have something to celebrate
In Britain, the same Friday represented something completely different. It’s the first anniversary of the latest occasion when Brits indulged their enthusiasm for another, equally longstanding but far less entertaining tradition: shooting themselves in the foot. That’s as in going all intransigent over the American colonies and losing them, deciding that the best thing to do with soldiers in world War One was charge them at machine guns (OK, I know we weren’t alone in indulging that particular folly) or, more recently, invading Iraq. There are plenty more examples.

The anniversary we’re celebrating today is for the decision that people like the Swedes are just too foreign for us and the best thing we could do is separate from them, by leaving the European Union. It’s becoming clear each passing day how bad that decision was. Many passing days, though: one of the great delusions of the debate over Brexit was the shortsighted view of the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, that even to vote to leave the EU would precipitate disaster.

It was always difficult with Cameron to know whether he was primarily clueless or mostly lazy. Personally, I’ve always wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt and regard him as indolent, but I don’t disrespect the view of others who, less generously, see him as plain incompetent. He has, incidentally, had a worthy successor: I can’t quite work out whether Theresa May is completely out of her depth, or just completely out of touch with humanity.

The Cameron line that merely to vote for Brexit would be catastrophic was always nonsense. It was a shortcut to avoid having to explain the more complex truth of what Brexit would mean and, like so many shortcuts, it took us to the wrong place. The reality is that, like most economic phenomena, the effects of Brexit will take a long time to work their way through the system.

The quickest was the loss in value of the pound. At the time earnest Brexiters assured me that this would have no impact on inflation, since retailers would absorb the increase in prices. Sadly, inflation has gone ticking upwards, month by month, gradually but inexorably.

There was a lot of talk of how the EU needed Britain more than Britain needed the EU, and we would therefore have the whiphand in negotiations. But now that negotiations have finally started, itr’s Britain that’s making concessions.

The first concerned the principle that all matters would be negotiated as a package, so that, say, payments to the EU would be agreed at the same time as a trade deal for Britain. Now the sums to be paid will be discussed first and separately.

The second concession was on the fate of EU citizens resident in Britain. Theresa May is proposing that anyone who has lived here for five years will be granted the right to remain.

Don’t get me wrong. I welcome any move towards guaranteeing EU citizens’ rights. Indeed, I agree with the EU that Britain must go further. In the end, Britain will make further concessions because, contrary to Brexiter illusion, we are not in the driving seat.

That will disappoint the large numbers of Brexiters whose real motivation was that they simply didn’t like foreigners. They wanted to reduce immigration.

That’s a growing problem. The numbers of Central and Eastern European seasonal workers who come to pick British fruit and vegetables are seriously down. Some of our crops will rot in the fields. Why aren’t they coming? Britain is increasingly perceived as xenophobic, even racist. And indeed racist rhetoric was inflamed by the Brexit vote and, with terrorism adding fuel to the fire, hate crimes are on the rise. Besides, the falling pound makes it less interesting financially to work here.

Now this is how I expected Brexit to go. Not an explosion of disaster but a slow decline as departure from the trading bloc on our doorstep starts to strangle our economy. The knot is slowly tightening, and we haven’t even left the EU yet.

The Danish Finance Minister, Kristian Jensen, got it right. There are small nations, like Denmark, that know they’re small. And then there are small nations that haven’t realised yet. Too many Brits think the country is still a global player.

They’re in for an unpleasant shock. They think the US will come to our rescue? Hey, the US needs rescuing itself, with a President who makes foreign policy pronouncements only to see them contradicted by his own State Department.

They think Brexit will give them control back? It will give control over their lives back to the kind of government – Cameron’s – that got us into this mess and the kind – May’s – that seems intent on making it worse.

They think that left to our own devices we can attain a new prosperity? As Emmanuel Macron pointed out, it was Britain that was most intent on pursuing a brutal model of “liberal” economics. That means de-regulation for the super-wealthy, and erosion of wages for everyone else. Just what Brexit will deliver, continuing the seven years of Tory rule we’ve already had.

No, Britain isn’t destined to become a lion renewed, roaring on the world stage. Instead it’s chosen to be a classic third-world economy: a low-tax, low-pay, low-service marginalised economy. Self-shot in the foot, we stumble into the destiny to which May is leading us.

Ah, well. I’ll raise a glass tonight to my friends in Sweden. At least they’ll be having a good time, with something cheerful to celebrate.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The lesson of dutifully paying my duty

What a tiresome experience it was!

Phoning a number and being told I needed to speak to someone else. Being kept on hold while trivial music played, only be told after a twenty-minute wait that I was being transferred to another department. Giving a credit card number only to have to repeat it and then being told the card had been declined, though it worked the time before and the next time too. The whole tedious business of trying to settle a bill – or rather three bills – over a telephone: never easy, certainly never pleasant, but in this case, urgently necessary.

Why was the need so great?

My work involves presentations to staff in NHS hospitals. After seven years of austerity policies of Britain’s enlightened government, many of them are close to bankruptcy. It’s good to be able to distribute a few gifts, from time to time, when we turn up: pens, say, or post-it notes, now officially banned for purchase anywhere in the NHS though still much in demand.

We get these things sent to us by our colleagues in the US. Before a series of meetings back in March, we asked them to send out a few batches to several hospitals we were about to visit, which they duly did.

Our visits and presentations went well and the gifts were gratefully received. At first. But then, a small number – for some strange reason not all – received bills from the carrier company. Duty was payable on these (free) gifts and it was up to the recipient to pay it.

A bureaucracy to free ourselves from
If only Britain were
They didn’t, of course. They raised the matter with us. Politely at first.

We were abject. Can you imagine? Clients of ours. To whom we’d made gifts. Which naturally means free of charge. And now they were being charged.

My colleagues set about contacting the carrier service to see what could be done. But these things grind slowly. Long before we’d got to the bottom of the problem, the hospitals had reached the next stage of the exercise: letters that not only demanded that they pay up, but warned of dire legal consequences to come if they didn’t.

One of the hospitals had even gone a stage further. It had reached the point of a letter with a big red banner across the top. “Do not ignore this matter, it will not go away”. You could almost hear the guillotine blade being wound up. As for our embarrassment, well, you can imagine. It was crushing.

There was consternation within the company on both sides of the Atlantic. Nothing we’d tried had worked. We couldn’t get the carrier company to re-bill us instead of our clients. And the wolves were closing in on them. Broke hospitals. Being chased for payment of sums only incurred because we tried to give them something.

Fortunately, they’d sent us their dunning letters. And they had phone numbers on them. Into the breach I stepped: “I’ll ring and make the payments by credit card, over the phone”. Hence the appalling, tiresome experience. The waiting on hold. The explanations of why I was paying, not the client. The card payments that generally worked, if slowly, but sometimes didn’t. The well-meant but time-consuming apologies from the other end of the line. My requests to be sure to provide me with receipts. On and on and on. And all for a sum which, taking three cases together, barely topped £90.

But all bad experiences teach lessons. 

What did I learn from this one? Well, I didn’t need to be taught that NHS organisations were being driven to the wall by a government which regards public service as an inexcusable imposition on its paymasters right to make huge sums of money. I knew that already.

No, what I learned was how painful it can be to try to deal with transporting goods across the Atlantic. The petty regulations, sloppily applied: after all, not all our clients were even charged duty. The dead hand of the bureaucracy involved. The impossibility of making anyone listen unless it was to meet their immediate, monetary demands.

And yet Britain is about to throw itself into hugely increased dependency on transatlantic trade as it withdraws from the European Union. And, while it will no doubt keep trading with the EU, it will be under terms that face the same kind of bureaucratic meddling that already affects trade with the States.

Brexit will bring us back control and free us from bureaucracy? Don’t make me laugh. It will allow Britain to become a major world trading power? I wonder who the people who claim that think they’re kidding. It’s going to be a tiresome pain and source of costly inefficiency?

You bet it is.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Now the French too: looking for something new - or just saying none of the above

Another election. Another result. Another cry for change – or of uncertainty.

Back in May, his electorate handed Emmanuel Macron, a man with no previous experience of elective office, the top post available in French politics when they made him president. But that was only half the job. He had promised to transform the political environment, but without a parliamentary majority, he couldn’t legislate the changes necessary.

A month on, voters handed a majority to his party, a party that didn’t even exist sixteen months ago. While that majority wasn’t quite as huge as had been projected, it was nonetheless massive: his party, La République En Marche, took 319 out of 577 seats, a healthy majority; with its ally the Mouvement Démocratique, it controls 361.

Macron has the majority he needed
Two rival parties had dominated French politics for decades. The Conservative Républicains were reduced to 125 seats but the humiliation of the Socialist Party was more severe still, as it lost more than 200 seats, leaving it a rump with just 32.

In keeping with this mould-breaking, practically revolutionary change, most of Macron’s candidates were as fresh to politics as he was. The new MPs are academics or journalists or local activists – or in one notable case, a former bullfighter.

It’s hard to imagine a result that speaks more strongly of a thirst for change. France wants to renew its politics, breaking with the parties ruled the roost so long, and even with the people that ran them.

And yet, and yet. Only 43% of the electorate cast its votes, an exceptionally low turnout. Macron certainly won among the votes cast, and technically won because he’s emerged with the parliamentary majority he needed, but the popular majority went to those who sat on their hands.

Now my wife and I are French citizens. We gave up three hours on a Sunday some weeks ago, including an hour and a half in a queue that snaked around an entire block, to ensure Macron won the presidency. But there was urgency then: there was still a small chance that Marine le Pen might beat him from the far right.

This time we didn’t go, and not just out of laziness. There wasn’t the same pressure. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Macron would have his majority. Many others may have felt the same way as we did, which may account for the poor turnout.

That would feel like a possibly adequate explanation, were it not for one disturbing recent precedent: the British General Election.

That election was profoundly different from what happened in France. Far from seeing a new party come to power, it left the two main parties sharing a total of nearly 26 million votes, an unprecedented level, applying a debilitating squeeze on any minor parties. There’s nothing new or mould-breaking there – on the contrary, it’s a return to the post-World War 2 normality.

On the other hand, the only leader who improved his position in the election was Jeremy Corbyn at the head of the Labour Party. He presided over the biggest increase in Labour’s vote share since World War 2. He’s hardly a new man – he’s been a Member of Parliament for 34 years – but he represents a more radical kind of politics and, above all, a rejection of the austerity economics that has been the orthodoxy of government and business since 2010.

Paradoxically, in a reversion to the old, the election in Britain therefore also suggested a hankering for something new. In the same way as in France. And that takes us to the other key similarity of the two countries.

However much he may have advanced, Corbyn didn’t win. Theresa May’s Conservatives topped the poll; Labour came second. Neither won a majority: May had one but lost it at this very election, when her aim was to extend it. Corbyn advanced but nothing like far enough.

May came first but the electorate refused her the mandate she wanted. I’ve argued before that this was a case of choosing “none of the above”. Now that a majority of the French seem to have made the same choice, don’t we have to conclude that alongside the hankering for something different, there is also a terrible lassitude, a paralysing indifference emerging in our electorates?

Now we have to see what gets built on these foundations. Macron needs to deliver on his promises. Corbyn needs to win next time.

Then we’ll see whether the thirst for change prevails, leading where we might hope, or whether the rejection of all politics wins the day – and opens the door to something far worse.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

The mysterious meanings of markers

The thing about pre-literate societies is that they are separated from us by a veil of mystery that we penetrate only with difficulty. Because they have left no written records of their beliefs or explanations of their actions, we’re left guessing at dimly suspected truths. It’s like reading a thriller by one of the better authors.

  • Just what was Stonehenge for?
  • Why were Neolithic burial mounds shaped like their houses?
  • Were those long mounds really for burying people or for something else and, in either case, why?

In North America too, pre-European societies have left behind traces of their culture over which archaeologists, or tourists, can only wonder and scratch their heads.

Cherokee marker tree from the Appalachians
One such phenomenon is the so-called “marker tree”. Native Americans would tie down a growing sapling so that it was forced to bend to one side and grow horizontally for a time, before growing vertically once more. The result was a shape that spoke “man made” in an unmistakeable language. By following a trail from marker tree to marker tree, others could find their way to a sacred spot, a source of water or perhaps a safe river crossing; conversely, they might understand the tree as a warning to keep out of someone else’s territory. No one quite knows. You see? A wonderful sense of mystery. Enhancing the charm.

It was a pleasure to learn about Indian marker trees when my friend Becky visited us from Texas and introduced me to the notion the other day. She’s the daughter of Mexican immigrants who was never allowed to forget it, when she was a student at her massively white, ostentatiously wealthy school. Her father, though, established at least one excellent relationship with a white, the owner of a local farm where he worked as manager.

If anything, they got on rather too well. At least, for the taste of her mother. It became something of a habit of theirs to share a bottle or two after work, making the evening a lot of fun for them, though far less for the family.

“Later he stopped drinking altogether,” Becky told me, “but at the time it was a major leisure-time activity for the two of them. They particularly enjoyed it when they took heavy farm equipment out for a joy ride after a drinking session. Two drunk men driving a combine harvester? You can imagine the scene.”

The farm has long since been sold and converted into a golf course. The designers of the course were careful not to disturb one of its key features: a bent tree, showing the characteristic signs of human manipulation that make marker trees.

“I used to hear women golfers cooing as they interrupted their game to admire it. You know – ‘I wonder what it meant. What it was pointing to. How much it meant to the people who made it what it is’. They were really awestruck.”

Becky's tree. She knows just what it marked
Again, you see? The sense of a mysterious presence, of a lost culture, whose sentiments one can only guess at. But Becky had reason to see an even greater charm in the intriguing appearance of this strange link to a distant past: she knew that the past that marked the tree wasn’t quite as distant as the golfers believed.

“My Dad and his boss took one of the farm vehicles out after several hours on the bottle. They managed to drive it straight into a fine mature tree in one of the fields and knock it almost flat.”

“And?” I asked, guessing where she was heading with this story, and wanting her to move on after her pause.

“Well,” she continued with a smile, “they thought they’d killed it but they hadn’t. Its roots clung on in the ground and it just kept on growing. They tried to right it several times, but there was no way they could move it – the tree was far too heavy. Instead, the new growth bent upwards as the trunk extended, so it resumed its proper, vertical direction. In fact, it ended up growing three great limbs looking like three trunks. Giving it the appearance of a marker tree.”

“But not an Indian artefact at all?”

“No. A Tex-Mex one. Lubricated by a great deal of liquor.”

Sadly, the tree has gone now. After evolving from farm to golf course, the next stage of that land’s existence is to be housing. The twisted oak has been cleared to make way for the new build.

It seems sad. Because if there’s charm to the mysterious old, there’s humour to spice it in the mysterious old explained by an unguessed recent truth. Still, that’s builders for you: no respecters of culture, of traditional significance, of the transcendent meaning that links us to our past.

A crying shame leading to a sad loss, I say.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

An election of all the losers

Who needs a “none of the above” option on a ballot paper? Certainly not the British electorate. It has found a way of delivering that verdict using just the classic old “pick one candidate” form.

The 8 June election was the one everyone lost.

The poor old Liberal Democrats won only a handful more seats, taking their total to 12. That’s far behind the glory days when after two generations of hard work, they peaked at 57 under Nick Clegg, becoming a real force in British politics. Unfortunately, Clegg took them into coalition with the Conservatives, securing himself a cabinet seat on which to park his bum, but turning his party into mini-Tories. Why would anyone vote for a Tory lookalike when they can choose the real thing instead? It’s going to take a long time yet to come back from the car crash the Lib Dems created for themselves under Clegg – who lost his own parliamentary seat on 8 June.

Then there was UKIP. This is the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party which used to be led by Nigel Farage. He made clear what “Independence” meant in his book: he spoke at the Republican Party congress in the US and disappeared up Donald Trump’s fundament at the earliest possible opportunity after the Donald took the White House. Farage is a perfect expression of the Brexit spirit: it removes us from dependence on all those shifty Europeans, instead making us completely subservient to the Trumpiverse.

In one of the better pieces of news from the election, UKIP saw its vote fall from 3,881,099 to 593,852. Essentially a wipeout, and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch.

Then there was the Scottish National Party. It reached previously unimaginable heights of success in 2015, taking 56 out of the 59 seats in Scotland, reducing the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour to just one seat each. There was, inevitably, only one way for the SNP to go but the extent of its fall was impressive: a loss of 21 seats, leaving it still the largest party north of the border, but much chastened. That was the price of insisting on another independence referendum at a time when the electorate had become tired of the subject.

The fate of the Conservative Party was a joy to behold. Theresa May went for an unnecessary election to convert her small majority into a much larger one. “Strong and stable” was her mantra, repeated to the point of nausea; in the event, she lost her majority altogether, leading to her scrabbling to find a little provisional stability by a pact with Northern Ireland’s pious and bigoted Democratic Unionist Party. That means fumbling to form an enfeebled government within which her own position is substantially weaker.

Theresa May promised strength and stability
but ended up feeble and fumbling
And finally, there was Labour. Most people, and I was very much of that number, expected the leader Jeremy Corbyn to run a weak campaign and take the party to its worst result since 1935 or at least 1983. Well, we were all wrong. Corbyn found an inspiring dynamism that I didn’t expect him to produce and the party did far less badly than expected. It had a huge surge in its popular vote (but even the unhappy Tories achieved an increase, if a far smaller one). Disappointingly, the surge only delivered Labour 32 more seats, leaving it just four ahead of the number it took from the defeat of 2010. However, the 2010 score had one great advantage over that of 2015: it was close enough to a majority to make the victory at a future election a realistic prospect. We are, at least, back in that position again.

In many ways, Labour emerged strongest – or at any rate, least injured – from the election. There’s no denying that it was defeated, but it is on the way up where all its main rivals are on the way down. That’s encouraging but mustn’t lead to complacency. There’s still a mountain to climb: Labour needs twice the growth – 64 additional seats – to secure a parliamentary majority at the next election than it achieved at this one.

That’s going to need some brilliant, inspiring and effective opposition over the next few years. Perhaps not many years: minority governments tend not to last long. But for that time, long or short, we’re going to need to see Corbyn at his best, the dynamic figure who emerged from the election campaign, to consolidate the party’s position today and prepare to take the huge step remaining to get back into office.

In fact, it means winning the confidence of a far bigger tranche of the electorate. So, next time, unlike this one, voters don’t go for “none of the above”. And we don’t see another election of all the losers.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Force of habit

Bribery’s a little more expensive than blackmail, but a great deal more pleasant to apply, without being necessarily less effective.

In fact, combined with the power of habit, it can be immensely powerful.

I noticed this with our dogs. Many dogs resist having their lead put back on at the end of a walk off the lead. But I made a point of always giving them a treat each when it came to the moment to have the lead clipped back on their collars. Now as we approach the gate to the park, they don’t even wait to be called, but come trotting over expectantly, straining their necks for the lead and their treat.

Toffee (left) and Luci (right)
Open to bribery as a reinforcement of habit
See? The effect of habit taught through bribery. A powerful force.

It doesn’t affect dogs only. I speak authoritatively only for myself, naturally, but if I am at all representative of humanity, then I it feels as though mankind too is very much a creature of habit.

Now, two apparently unrelated but in fact closely linked changes have considerably improved my life over the last six months or so.

The first was getting a new job, in a company with a product I believe in, and colleagues for whom I feel, almost without exception, not just great affection but also considerable admiration.

The second was buying a new car. The link with the previous change was that the company, in return for paying me a car allowance, required me to have a car significantly less old than the one I was still driving. It was a Toyota Avensis and it had served me well for eight years, though recently it had begun to develop little minor problems which quickly piled up costs to repair.

Besides, the Avensis was a diesel. I don’t like diesel for ecological reasons. And, in addition, it left what was a relatively large car, with all the comfort that implies, underpowered for its size. It just didn’t have that little bit of punch which it’s pleasant to be able to call on when you want to get past a lorry or out of a side turning onto a busy road.

So I’m delighted with the car I replaced it with. Another Toyota (I’ve become a fan), it’s an Auris, the next model down, and a hybrid – ecologically much more dependable – and fuelled not with diesel but petrol (OK, OK, transatlantic cousins: gasoline). Being smaller, it has just that little extra poke which makes it much more pleasurable to drive.

The highly satisfying new job has me doing a lot of travelling. That means that the satisfaction comes with a certain degree of tiredness. On Friday, I was returning from a client visit in the Auris – so both sources of pleasure were combined – and feeling pretty worn out – so I was paying the price.

A couple of miles from home I decided I would do my final duty of the week and fill up with fuel. And that’s where the force of habit kicked in. A habit built up over eight years and a cause for what might have turned into a minor disaster.

I carefully filled the car’s tank. With diesel.

It wasn’t till I was nearly home that I realised what I’d done, when the car juddered and lost power.

Fortunately, my breakdown recovery service was able to send someone around to drain the tank. The job wasn’t done until 11:00 at night, but at least it was done, though at more than a little cost to myself: the breakdown service covered the cost of the callout but not of the work – they said that it was down to “pilot error”, and I didn’t have the heart to point out I hadn’t been trying to fly the damned car.

That, however, wasn’t the end of my woes. At the end of the process, the car refused to start, instead displaying a message “check hybrid system”. The fuel drainage man suggested I leave it till the morning when “things will have settled down” and the engine might work again.

I regarded this as a ridiculously unlikely proposition, but it was 11:00 and I was by now exceedingly weary. I also didn’t think he could fix the car anyway.

In the morning, the same message was displayed on the dashboard and the motor still wouldn’t start. Fortunately, the breakdown service was prepared to get the car towed into the Toyota garage as part of the same incident, and at no charge.

So in it went.

By this time I was beginning to feel the car was sending me a message. “You did this to me? You were that stupid? Thoughtless and inattentive?”

I was trying to beam it reassuring messages. “Don’t get me wrong. I really like you. I really like driving in you. Please don’t hold a moment’s inattention against me.”

Fortunately, once in the Toyota garage the car was among friends. I was warned that “check hybrid system” could mean having to buy a new battery at colossal cost – like a fifth of what I paid for the whole car – but a highly friendly and immensely competent mechanic (from the Baltic states: why do Brits want to keep these great people out?) cooed over the controls, spoke soothingly to the car, and worked some sort of magic, so that within minutes the engine started up again and began running smoothly once more.

It was like being forgiven and given a second chance which, believe me, is just as gratifying from an inanimate object as from a human being.

That left me feeling well-disposed to cars of a tolerant nature. But, above all, conscious of how damaging force of habit can be. Something I really need to resist in the future.

However much I reinforce it with treats it in the dogs.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Weak and wobbly failed. Admitting errors and preparing for a different future

Well, I got it wrong. Badly wrong. I expected that under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour would emerge from the British General Election with its worst result since 1983, while the Conservatives would increase their majority.

By comparison, the actual result was far more encouraging. The Tory Party lost its majority altogether. Indeed, nobody won a majority in the House of Commons. The Conservatives emerged as the biggest party, but lost seats, and can only form a government by making a deal with Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland – who may well prove difficult bedfellows.

Even so, my forecast was entirely mistaken. I’ve fallen victim to the trap outlined by the physicist Niels Bohr: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. Simple honesty means I have to admit as much.

The results: a lot more red than expected
My first error concerned Theresa May. My view was that while she might be a poor Prime Minister, she struck me as an outstanding politician, able to run a brilliant and effective campaign. In the event it was nothing like that.

She was wooden, she was dull. Above all, she launched a manifesto which seemed to attack the very people who would normally be counted on to vote for her. She refused to debate with her opponents, an apparent lack of courage that clashed with her claim to offer “strong and stable leadership” – a mantra she repeated until it became tedious. It was a mantra undermined by the changes she attempted to make when she realised that several of her positions were putting off some of her core votes. “Strong and stable” seemed to be giving way to “weak and wobbly”.

In that context, it was interesting to hear a young voter tell the BBC that he’d been put off the Conservatives by “the number of times Theresa May changed her mind”. 

On the other side of the balance sheet, I admit that Corbyn astonished me by the quality of his campaigning in the last few weeks. He hit the right note again and again, landing effective and important blows on Theresa May. That was perhaps most notable when it came to terrorism – and there were two attacks in Britain during the campaign – where Corbyn rightly, and powerfully, argued that we were paying the price of cuts to police numbers as a result of the fixation an applying austerity policies.

He certainly needs to be given the credit he’s due. He did well. What he now needs to do is to keep that spirit going and turn his dynamism as a campaigner into equal effectiveness as leader of the Opposition.

Because let’s not get carried away. Labour’s done far better that many, including me, expected. But with 261 seats, Labour won only three more MPs than after the disastrous defeat of 2010. So a better result than forecast but by no means a good result. There are no prizes for coming second in an election. Theresa May will form a new government, Labour will again lead the Opposition.

The difference after this election is that Labour is now only 51 seats behind – a large number but a shortfall that could be overturned at the next election. Which may be soon. Theresa May will be leading a minority government and they are notoriously vulnerable. While I don’t want to rush into any more forecasts having got the last ones so wrong, there has to be at least a high probability that there will be another election within a relatively short time.

Preparing for that will need excellent opposition in the meantime. The spirit that Jeremy Corbyn generated in the last weeks of the campaign needs to be maintained in preparation for the next one. Having done so well recently, Corbyn should be encouraged to maintain that style of leadership – and I’ll be delighted if he does.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Voting Tory – you know it makes sense. Well, some kind of sense

If you’re not voting Tory at the general election on Thursday, it’s clearly because you’re just too obtuse to understand the elementary logic that makes it the obvious choice. So, as a public service, I’m going to explain it in simple terms.

Theresa May champion of simple logic. The simplest
Let’s start with austerity.

You’ve got to understand that Gordon Brown, Labour Prime Minister, single-handed and alone, or at least alone apart from all the other Labour politicians who were his accomplices, brought about a major international financial crisis in 2008. Yes, yes, it started in the US, but it was still Brown’s fault. And the depth of his incompetence is measured by the fact that it left the country massively in debt.

You can’t have that. A huge national debt is just a burden on our kids and grandkids. It’s intolerable, immoral even, to leave them to bear it.

So we have to cut public spending. Of course we do. Because overspending only increases debt.

Less on schools, for instance. Because if we’re trying to spare our kids the crushing burden of debt, why bother them with an education?

Less on the NHS, because only sick people need healthcare, and sick people aren’t our concern.

Less on the police, because who needs policemen to protect them against, say, terrorist attacks, which hardly ever happen, or at least not more than once or twice a month? In any case, when it comes to terrorism, the trick isn’t to spend more on policing and intelligence, it’s to make some new laws. That’s so much cheaper.

Who cares if we don’t have the people to enforce the new laws? The trick with laws like that isn’t to apply them, it’s to make them. Or, more to the point, to be seen to make them, because that’s where the votes are.

Anyway, even if we do enforce them, we’ll only be chucking a few people in gaol who are obviously dangerous. Because, say, they have neighbours who can swear that they’re almost certain they once heard them say that at times they got so angry, they could understand people wanting to blow a politician up. And who cares about them? They’re like the sick – in fact, they’re really sick – and needn’t concern us any more than the other kind.

Of course, sacrifices do have to be made in the pursuit of the common good. It must be quite uncomfortable for the ten million people who are now in insecure employment – temporary or on zero-hours – but hey, that’s only one in three of the workforce. And one in three isn’t a majority, is it?

And why do we do all this? Because austerity works. It cuts debt, which was the whole aim of the exercise. Look at how dramatically seven years of Tory rule have impacted on national debt: it first went through the trillion-pound level in 2011 – and by 2017 it was a mere 1.73 trillion!

Now that’s the kind of awe-inspiring achievement that we’ve come to expect from the Tory party.

And that’s the logic behind a vote for the Tories.

Got it now?

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Trump, Climate Change, and Britain's abandonment of independence

America first, we now learn, seems to mean the planet second.

That may strike you as a paradoxical position to take, America being, like it or not, part of the planet. If that’s your reaction, it only means that you’re one of those who feel we’re duty-bound to take reality into account in forming our beliefs. A great many others, and not just in America, seem to regard reality as an inconvenient obstacle, to be overcome in the quest of some transcendent truth.

Trump digs coal so much he’s prepared to sacrifice the planet to get it
Not just in America. Certainly not. If you’re a Brit in your thirties or older, you probably remember that great May Day in 1997, when Tony Blair grabbed Downing Street for Labour after eighteen years of Tory rule. A new age appeared to be dawning, hope was resurgent, a better future seemed within our grasp.

These days, it’s fashionable to focus on the disappointments that followed. That however is to belittle, to betray some remarkable achievements: a huge onslaught against child poverty, an unprecedented and sustained level of investment in the NHS, the incorporation of the convention on human rights into domestic law, devolution to the constituent nations of the UK, the Good Friday agreement, to name only some of the more remarkable. It seems a pity to focus instead on the poor performance in education and certain areas of benefits: it was a mixed bag, perhaps, but infinitely preferable to the unmixed bag of injustice and cruelty we’ve seen since Labour lost office.

Among the disappointments, however, one is particularly unforgivable: British participation in the Iraq War, which introduced further instability to the Middle East and precipitated a wave of international terror from which we’re suffering still today. It’s most recent manifestation was the suicide bomb attack in Manchester.

The seeds that disastrous adventure can be traced to the greatest weakness of New Labout. Peter Mandelson, always perceived as the would-be puppet master of the Labour government, summed it up when he declared himself “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. Those are words I never expected to hear from the mouth of a Labour Minister. That people can get rich by contributing to society seems only fair, but that:

  • Bankers can drive their banks into the ground and precipitate a financial crisis while taking eye-popping bonuses? 
  • Tony Hayward, then Chief Executive of BP, point out that he’d like his “life back” after the Deepwater Horizon disaster on one of his company’s oil rigs? 
  • Alex Cruz, Chief Executive of British Airways, refusing to take any responsibility for his company’s apparent inability to run a reliable computer system?

These are indeed examples of people who are “filthy” rich, rather than deservedly rich – who have taken their remuneration rather than earning it – and no one should be relaxed about them, intensely or not, least of all in the Labour Party.

New Labour suffered from a tendency to be star-struck by wealth and power. Its proponents felt at ease with the filthy rich and powerful. No one is more prosperous and powerful than the United States. That was enough to drive us into that war, even though it was led y the man who surely then held the uncontested crown of worst US President even, Dubya Bush.

Today Trump has seized that crown from Bush’s head. The new worst President has pulled the US out of the Paris agreement on climate change. And the saddest aspect from Britain’s point of view? While Germany, France and Italy were quick to oppose Trump, Theresa May’s Britain – Brexit Britain – wouldn’t, or possibly couldn’t, line up with them.

Certainly, there’s no reason to believe a Tory government would be any less star-struck by the US than New Labour was. But in addition, we now have another constraint on our independence of action: Brexit means we have been thrown into far greater subservience still to the US. We can’t stand up to Trump because we need him.

It’s another strange paradox. Many backers of Brexit claimed that its aim was to make Britain independent. The reality is that it will reduce our independence. And just when we should be learning what dire consequences it has on our lives when we abandon it – surely the Iraq War was lesson enough.

Taking back control? You sure? Or are we just handing it to yet another appalling US president?