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Thursday, 30 September 2010

Equal Opportunity - except for your Brother?

Well, I have learnt something this week which perhaps only an Only Child would need to learn.

Reading the Message Boards, it's quite clear that whatever commitment people have to Equality of Opportunity it doesn't extend to their younger brothers

I read that Ed has disloyally taken David's job, like some kind of Polish plumber shoving aside a proper British worker.

I read that Ed has been cruel to his Mother by not letting her Eldest Son have his way.

Basically, I read that Ed should have Known his Place.

Well, I know that Deference remains a core value in British society, a value assiduously nurtured both by our elders and our betters.

And quite clearly there are many on the Message Boards for whom the pull of deference is stronger than the spirit of May the Best Man win. I guess they all have younger brothers.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Labour Party: You couldn't make it up

I have stopped voting, but I take a (generally bemused) interest in British politics.

The Labour Party bemuses me. Led by Tony Blair, its most hated member, it won three elections. Led by Gordon Brown, its most hate-filled member, it lost one. So what does the Party do? It gives Brown star billing at the latest party conference where he woos them with such gems as "I take full responsibility". Well, if that's the case, why didn't they take him out and shoot him? Instead, with tears in their eyes, they applauded him. They must be nuts.

As for the leadership election, they would have done better to toss a coin: David or Ed? Much better, David and Ed should have taken a lead from Ant & Dec and stood on a Job Share ticket. They would have won hands down. The electorate could then (five years from now) savour the choice between David & Ed or David & Nick.

As for policy, Labour Has No Alternative. It has to oppose Tory cuts to public services. That's because its members and backers work for those services and don't want to lose their jobs. Opposing cuts in public services implies that it wants Britain to go further into debt until it loses its AAA credit rating (and goes bust) or that it wants higher taxes (Soak the Rich).

Unfortunately, the Rich are not easily Soaked. Try to soak them and they disappear to Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man. These are the Crown Dependencies which Parliament licences to operate as havens for those who want to avoid or evade UK taxation. It is unthinkable that a Labour Government, which always grovels to the Crown, would vote to incorporate these Dependencies into the UK and its tax system.

There is an absurdity here which bemuses me. All our governments have hung on desperately to Northern Ireland, never allowing it to be suggested that mainland Britain plc should divest itself of this heavily loss-making subsidiary. At the same time, they would never ever contemplate a take over of the profit-making Isle of Man and Channel Islands. Parliament has the right to do that, but it never would. Indeed, in case the Crown Dependencies are not enough tax havens, there are also a score of Overseas Crown Territories - headed up by the Cayman Islands - also licensed by Parliament to help people avoid and evade UK taxes. You could not put a cigarette paper between Labour and the Tories on their commitment to these arrangements.

So what we have is a political class united in its determination to make it as difficult as possible to raise the money which would balance the books and fund decent public service provision. It's very strange.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

On preferring Second Best to Change

This is really autobiography.

Human beings cannot be other than creatures of habit. They are obliged to create futures which are pretty much like their pasts.

Habits can be changed, but only a few at a time and against a background of habits which remain intact. Changing a habit involves some kind of emotional and intellectual challenge, however minimal. You have to go outside your comfort zone and you have to learn something new.

Most of the time, human beings prefer their comfort zones and the absence of mental challenge to the work involved in change. Some human beings prefer to be comfortable and idle all the time.

Inevitably, this often means settling for second best. Or worse. So people end up for very long - sometimes lifelong - periods in bad marriages and bad jobs, living in fuel inefficient homes, driving fuel inefficient cars, with their money going in and out of an account with a second-rate bank, taking a break from it all on cold and wet public holidays.

I opened my first bank account in 1965 in order to pay in my University grant cheques. (My mother, who died in 1978, never had a bank account. She had nothing more than a Post Office Savings Bank account until the end of her life. When I sent her cheques by way of financial support, she asked her butcher to cash them. She was humiliated when one bounced).

I opened my first account with Lloyds in Oxford and I stayed with Lloyds until the mid 1990s - let's say, thirty years. Lloyds was all right but not more than that. I found it hard to keep track of my finances and cheques did bounce. Their rates of interest were almost certainly higher than ones I could have obtained elsewhere.

A friend spent several years pointing out to me that I could change for the better. Eventually I moved to First Direct and I have never regretted it. Here was a bank where I could check the state of my account 24/7. I am never in trouble now.

But there is something shocking about the way I resisted making a fairly simple change from one bank to another. And there are plenty of people about who would never have done it. They would have stuck to their bank as if it was written into their marriage vows that they should do so.

Elected politicians have their own unbreakable habits - in the UK, nothing will persuade them to change the way business is conducted in the House of Commons - that is to say, submerged under rituals designed to stop as much change as possible.

But politicians open to change have to contend with the electorate's resistance. Voters are people who stand there, fold their arms and tell you that they always have done and always will do it THIS way. Urged to change, they will stamp their feet and cry Shan't, Can't, Won't!

As a result, for example, the United Kingdom now has no coherent system of weights and measures which everyone uses. For a number of years, the European Union tried to get us to Go Metric. Even Going Decimal would have been a start. But TEACHERS had no intention of going metric (they didn't understand these foreign ideas), and market traders saw the chance to become METRIC MARTYRS, and like the pound sterling, wasn't it part of our TRADITION and HERITAGE to have three feet to a yard and (what is it?) 1760 yards to the mile.... and so eventually the European Union gave up. Go into your supermarket and see the result: some foodstuffs are now sold in Metric measures and some in Imperial ones. What is a child supposed to make of it all?

I once asked myself what was my most deeply embedded habit among habits which could be easily changed.

My mother used Persil, I have always used Persil, and I have never experimented with anything else. In contrast, my mother bought Lux toilet soap. I buy Occitane and (on trips to France) Le Petit Marseillais. I think the difference may be simply this: that fifty years on from my childhood, the range of freely available soaps has expanded enormously. You aren't stuck with Lux or Fabulous Pink Camay.But there are people who act as if they are, whose brand loyalty to some soap is as strong as mine to Persil.

It's a bit scary. Isn't life for the living and living about trying new things?

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Pope in Britain: How do you think the world sees us?

I suppose it is part of being an Imperial power that you do not care how others see you.

In this sense, the State Visit of the Pope shows that Britain is still an Imperial power. Our political establishment simply don't care how others will perceive this bizarre display. Nor do they care that they might have found better ways to spend their time and taxpayers' money this past week.

The biggest insensitivity implied by this red carpet visit is probably that directed towards the Republic of Ireland. Here is a small country, our neighbour, which has struggled to free itself from the burden of its past. It has turned away from its own history in order to co-operate with the UK in seeking a solution to the Northern Ireland conflict. To join the modern world, it has fought hard to put the priests back in their box. The Irish government still has a long struggle ahead to bring a vicious and devious church to account. For the UK government to flaunt the Pope is sticking two fingers up to the Republic of Ireland, a country the Pope cannot visit.

Goodness knows what the rest of Europe thinks. The Pope's visit puts us down there with Malta and Portugal, not up there with France or Germany or Spain. All our politicians who filled up their diaries this week with Popey events would have done better to sit down with their opposite numbers in mainstream Europe for a few hours. It would have been to our advantage, economic and political.

On a wider stage, one can only imagine the despair of those working to combat HIV in Africa to watch this suck-up visit unfold.

Whose fault? Blair and Brown. They pleaded with the Pope to grace us with a visit - it can even be a State Visit, Your Holiness. It was Brown who grovelled for the eventual Yes from the Vatican. This visit is part of his Legacy.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Do We Need the BBC?

I am one of the handful of people who does not have a TV licence. I don't watch TV. I prefer to watch old movies on dvd.

I do look at the BBC News website. It's been revamped recently. The main stories for the past couple of weeks have included several transparent plugs for the Pope's visit ("opportunities to see the Pope" and so on). Opus Dei must be pleased with the success of its press operation.

Then there is a new section of "regional" news in recognition of the fact that the UK is "pretty much a non-country" (to borrow a phrase from UKIP Farage).

Seven o'clock Sunday evening, this is what's on offer:

ENGLAND: "Shock at 16-year-old girl's death"
SCOTLAND: "Call for homeopathy cash pull-out" [ I think that is in the category of Recycled Old News]
NORTHERN IRELAND: "WW2 mortar bomb found in attic" [That's the stuff of over 50 years' worth of local newspaper stories, isn't it?]
WALES: "Pedestrian killed in road crash" [ Well, it wasn't a sheep so I suppose it might be news...]

Anyway, I rest my case. Do we need the BBC? No. I think I'd prefer News International garbage to this publicly-funded garbage.

Just keep the World Service for Intelligent Foreigners.

Waitrose and Duchy Originals: touching one's forelock

A year ago, Waitrose bailed out the Duke of Cornwall's firm, Duchy Originals. They pumped in money to expand the range and got exclusive dealing rights.

A year on, it's hard to avoid Duchy Originals on Waitrose shelves. They've got everything covered, except maybe tampons (I must check).

Buy one from the range and a donation to the Prince's Charities is built into the price.

Britain's hereditary aristocracy is remarkably resilient. It survived the first world war without being put up against the wall and shot, as it should have been.

It did well in the second world war. The pro-Nazi Duke of Windsor (the ex - King Edward VIII) did not go to prison for his politics, but was merely sent off to govern one of the colonies. The potential Quisling King was simply removed to a safe distance from the Battle of Britain. Steered by Churchill, King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother did a good job helping maintain morale. They had a good war.

Now we sleep walk towards another King Edward VII, as Prince Charles, Duke of Cornwall, waits in the queue for the old Queen to die and give him a few years at the top.

Meanwhile, I can't shop in Waitrose without contributing to his charities. I am sure some of them are jolly good things. But Waitrose is a decent organisation, a progressive employer. I would much rather that there were Waitrose charities and that I paid my pennies into those. There is something demeaning about having to cough for Prince Charles.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The Pope, the People and the Politicians

The Pope's visit will be a moving and momentous occasion for the whole country and he will undoubtedly receive the warmest of welcomes.

Author of those words? Gordon Brown, in September 2009.

It was Prime Minister Brown who offered the Pope this forthcoming State Visit. Tony Blair appears also to have tried when Prime Minister.

Blair no doubt thought Cherie would like it. Brown thought it would play well with working class Labour voters in Glasgow and Liverpool. Both demonstrate how out of touch British politicians are with those who elect and eject them. The majority of people profess indifference to Ratzinger's visit; a minority - including me - are incredulous and angry; another minority are in a tizz over what hats and shoes the Pope will wear.

Brown's remarks back in September 2009 simply illustrate his dissociation from the world around him.

The Pope is the reactionary head of a corrupt organisation. He is poisonously opposed to the kind of society Britain has become. In no sense is he a spiritual leader. There's not much more to say, other than that his organisation enjoys immunity from British law. It is inconceivable that Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, would allow a case to be brought against a member of the Roman Catholic hierarchy for obstructing the police in bringing to justice paedophile priests.

I didn't vote at the last Election. I felt that the political system was no longer credible and reform would only come when people declined to give even token endorsement to the antics of the political class.

For similar reasons, I can't take the Labour leadership contest seriously. These are all people who knew that Gordon Brown was nasty and a nutter, but who allowed him to plot and bully his way to the top, completely unopposed. Just as senior Liberal Democrats covered up Charles Kennedy's alcoholism when he was their Leader, so Labour's inner circle remained silent about Brown. I wouldn't like any of them in charge in a crisis.

It goes deeper than covering up the tantrums. Blair and Brown at least agreed on this: say nothing about the eventual cost to future taxpayers of Labour's half-baked private-public partnership schemes which built the new schools and hospitals but at exorbitant costs which will not be paid back for decades - and at punitive rates of interest. All the costs which were deliberately kept "off balance sheet" will creep back on to become nightmares for our children and their children.

You can't trust the Pope. You can't trust the politicians. I'm not even sure you can trust the people.