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Monday, 30 April 2012

Borders Agency? It's Designed to Create Queues

Suppose that you went to the Dentist and were told that prior to any treatment you would need an HIV test, even if you had one last week on your previous visit to the Dentist and even if you were an 80 year old spinster.

Our approach to Borders Control is as ludicrous as this, and meant to be. We've simply borrowed a system from the old Soviet Union and enhanced it with technology (eye scanners, passport scanners) which are slow or simply don't work.

Airline passengers are a huge body of people and their movements and character are highly predictable. Huge amounts of information are available on them before they fly. They have had to show passports and visas to get on planes.

I recall that when fifteen years ago I flew to Kyiv with BA, the airline checked everyone's passport for a Visa before we boarded; they didn't want to have to bring anyone back. The Visa check at the other end was redundant, but it was carried out by a man with an awful lot of gold braid on his cap.

99.99% of what goes on at UK Border Controls is wasted labour. It is utterly pointless to scan the passport of every Brit returning from a package holiday on a charter flight or an easyjet or Ryanair flight. They are all Brits, for goodness sake, and it is predictable that they all have perfectly good passports. They only left the country ten days ago and if they had good passports then, then it's pretty certain that's what they have now. They are entitled to re-enter the country of which they are citizens without being hassled and delayed.

The manpower at Border Controls is being wasted, Soviet-style. Ninety nine percent of them should be engaged in intelligence-gathering activities designed to identify the tiny number of people who really need to be stopped at the Border, checked and maybe sent away again. This involves discrimination: it means using judgement and going after the people who really shouldn't be coming here, even if they all look the same. It means getting on the plane when it lands, not corralling everyone later in sheep pens. It means putting through a phone call before a flight leaves and telling the other end you won't accept passenger X so they may as well get off now.

It is a pitiful state of affairs to hold everyone at the Border so that it doesn't look like discrimination when you hold one person. It's equivalent to telling the 80 year old spinster she has to have an HIV test before she can have dental treatment.

You should be allowed to act on probabilities. The Home Office idea of collective punishment for everyone is simply not acceptable.

Open the Borders and let people in! Ninety nine point nine nine percent have every right to be here. Find some other way of stopping the 0.01 (or 0.00001) who shouldn't be.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Cardinal Keith O'Brien - the BBCs favourite cleric (again)

They wouldn't dare, I thought, as I clicked on the BBC News website this Sunday morning. But they did: once again the lead story is the Press Release for today's Sermon by Cardinal Keith O'Brien:

"Scotland's most senior Roman Catholic accuses Prime Minister David Cameron of immorality over tax policy, and calls for more aid for the poor"

I went to the Observer, the Independent, the Telegraph. None of them had noticed this story.

Nor it seems does BBC management monitor what goes on at their News website.

I have been Blogging about the abuse of the BBC News website on behalf of Cardinal O'Brien for over a year (click on the Tags to read back Posts). I suppose I ought to compose a Letter of Complaint. I just feel it would be pointless.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Has anyone seen Bond? James Bond? Never mind, but someone does need to water the pot plants

One day,Gareth Williams did not turn up to work. Strange, you might think, for someone known as a meticulous time keeper. Strange,too, that no one paid much attention - though I suppose that in the public sector people may well bunk off all the time.

But distinctly odd when you consider that Gareth Williams was a spook, a bona fide MI6 spook and quite a valuable Asset: he was supposed to be very clever.

It took a week for his line "Manager" at Spook HQ to summons the energy to report the strange absence of Mr Williams and a few more hours for the Police to be informed:

"Hello, Officer, Yes, One of our Spooks has Gone Missing. Can't tell you much about him - Confidential and all That - but we wondered if you might have any suggestions ..."

The Police suggested visiting his flat (Doh!) and, when no one answered, broke down his door. The stench led them to the bathroom where Mr Williams was dead and decomposing inside a North Face holdall bag.

Do you smell a rat? Don't go so fast. Yes,of course, it's possible that MI6 murdered him - exploiting their knowledge of his sexual interest in being confined in tight places (like North Face holdalls) - and then held off telling the Police he was a Missing Person until they reckoned that decomposition would have also killed off traces of the chloroform or whatever they had used to stop him crying, "Help! Let me out!"

Possible but unlikely. Much more likely that his colleagues were too busy trawling the Internet to notice that anyone was actually Missing from the Office. And even more likely that it was the sight of wilting pot plants that finally triggered a pitiful call to the Police.

Vatileaks - the story the BBC doesn't consider News

If you want to read Vatican press releases, the BBC News website is a good place to find them. The BBCs editors regard it as a sort of Outreach duty. Strangely, they have not reported a story which makes the front page of The Guardian:

The Pope has appointed Cardinal Herranz, former personal secretary to Opus Dei founder Escriva (the chap who liked to flog himself till the blood flowed), to hunt down and persecute those who have been leaking embarassing documents to the Italian press, including internal letters from a whistleblower (Archbishop Vigano) who has already been exiled to the USA for his inappropriate honesty.

The scandals touched upon in the leaked documents include the things you would expect: cronyism in the award of contracts (someone made a packet out of the last St Peter's Square Nativity display), false accounting, theft, money laundering at the Vatican Bank, the Orlandi kidnapping ...

You should expect these things. The Roman Catholic Church persuaded Mussolini to create a state-like entity, Vatican City, to house the Church's headquarters precisely to allow Church bureaucrats to do as they please, free of restraint by anyone's civil or criminal laws.

It's a scam News International can only dream of. Just imagine, with your own Wapping City State you wouldn't have to appear before committees of scum MPs or courts of learned judges.

The responsibility for cleaning the Augean stables of the Vatican rests with Italy. Reluctant as it must be to do so, Italy must repudiate the Lateran Treaty which created the bogus Vatican City State. It must bring the headquarters of the Catholic Church within the jurisdiction of Italian criminal and civil law. It's as simple as that. The Catholic Church is a church not a state, and it might be a better one - less corrupt, less abusive, less obsessed with power and wealth - if its high officials discovered that they are not outside and above the law.

It's been salutary for Rupert Murdoch to discover that; it could be salutary for the Pope.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Discipline, Discipline, Discipline! Mr Cameron joins Mr Gove in Fantasyland

Apparently - it's in the Daily Telegraph today - Mr Cameron thinks it's a good idea for children to stand up when Teacher enters the classroom - and the same when their Parents enter the room.

This simply reveals a truth which ought to be better known, that the English upper classes do not bring up their own children.

In normal, good-enough relations between parents and children, there is not a separate category of Discipline. Children grow up in close proximity to adults who care for them, praise them, chide them, have fun with them, get exasperated with them, cuddle them, share their sadnesses .... In this context, there are undoubtedly prohibitions ("Don't put it in your mouth!) and Rules ("Bedtime!").

But if things are going well between adult and child, there is no netherworld to be dealt with under the heading of Discipline. There is no Waiting Until Your Father Comes Home and no Being Sent To Your Room prior to a decision about your Punishment.

The upper classes do not get this idea since, in large measure they do not bring up their own children, who remain strangers to them. The parents have more important Things to Do. The Queen and Prince Philip did not bring up Prince Charles. He was just another person who had to stand up when his Parents entered the room. When his parents returned from a foreign trip, he stood at the end of the reception line waiting to shake their hands.

In good-enough parent-child relations, most Prohibitions and Rules can, if needed, be given a short explanation and justification.

But in School - and, later, in the Army - we have Prohibitions and Rules for Prohibition&Rules' sake. They cannot really be justified, except by lengthy and contorted argument, and thus can only be imposed. Behind them stands the threat of Punishment which, like Mr Cameron's version of Discipline, is a separate and awful category quite apart from the business of daily living. School Uniform is the paradigm case of this arbitrary world (Pierre Bourdieu would say "cultural arbitrary") of Rules&Discipline.

I recall an extraordinary occasion, which touched me.

From 1988 to 1993, I was Director of secondary teacher training in charge of the University of Sussex PGCE. It was a small course - uneconomically small - and it needed to expand to survive.

Our course had been conceived as a leftish, radical experiment but happened to fit well with rightish, radical ideas being promoted by Mrs Thatcher's governments. Exploiting the ambiguity, and conscious of the need to grow the size of the course, I sought visits from rightish politicians and think-tank policy wonks.

The day came for a Major Visit by the right-wing Baroness Cox, the Baroness Warsi of her day. As part of the encounter, I assembled a dozen of our PGCE students - able graduates in their twenties and thirties for the most part - to meet with her for an hour's discussion. They were already sitting around the seminar table when I came into the room with the Baroness. And they all stood up.

Afterwards, I asked them how this had happened. They had met and discussed beforehand. They knew the course was On Parade, even if not being officially inspected, so they decided among themselves - probably not a Tory among them - to respond to the situation. So they stood up. Bless them.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

House of Lords? Just Abolish It

Look, it's a nest of crooks. It costs a great deal of public money. Its members endlessly puff themselves for keeping the Commons in check when it fact they just insert clauses into legislation which lobbyists have paid them to insert.

We live in an age of austerity, they say. Well, get real about it then. Save money where you can.

Abolish it, and members of the House of Commons will just have to study Bills more closely before they pass them.

Abolish it, since none of the proponents of a reformed Upper Chamber can agree how to reform it which is just a recipe for another botched job, like Tony Blair's reforms.

Abolish it and forget about it.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Case for a War Tax

Democracy is the least worst form of government. People in democracies never suffer from famine (Amartya Sen made that point years ago in important work), and they are rarely subject to arbitrary detention, torture and imprisonment.

But the quality of democracies varies greatly, depending on the qualities of their citizens and the qualities of their would-be leaders. Some people are too stupid for democracy and in some times and places only crooks want to lead.

There are no doubt some dictatorships whose downtrodden people are better informed about the world than citizens of some democracies and there are surely dictators less driven by greed and vanity than some democratic leaders.

And some democracies, though careful of their own citizens' lives, are careless with the lives of others. The UK's military expenditure is the fourth largest in the world (after the USA, China and Russia) not because it faces the threat of attack but because it likes to attack other countries, preferably ones which are distant and poor.

This has become a habit and is something expected by the UKs tabloid newspapers and some of those who read them. A British Prime Minister proves himself not by Jaw, Jaw but by War,War.

Nowadays, that principally means aiming missiles at poor people's villages, but from a great distance since sentimental public opinion does not want to see the lives of British troops endangered in close or equal combat.

How do we stop this democratic carelessness about other people's lives?

I suggest a War Tax. Instead of funding all military expenditure from the proceeds of general taxation, that part of it which arises from active operations (actually using bullets, firing missiles, ferrying troops hither and thither - in other words, Campaign costs) should always be funded from a separate War Tax imposed to pay for each set of hostilities in which the UK chooses to engage.

This would immediately make the cost of War transparent and immediately weaken tabloid and popular enthusiasm for overseas aggression.

War should have a price tag. That's probably the best defence against aggression we can offer to poor people in far away villages.

Pedestrians Crossing! Brixton style, Brighton style

Once a month - for many years now - I drive to London and that involves Brixton High Street.

In front of the Underground station the road is a dual carriageway and until a couple of years ago a barrier ran down the middle to prevent pedestrians crossing except at approved points.

Unfortunately, Brixton is home to lots of young, fit men and they simply leapt the barriers. As you would. I am sure it made those older and less fit very conscious of their deficiencies as they stood at their approved crossing points waiting for the lights to change.

Then Transport for London did something unusually imaginative. It removed all the barriers down the middle of the dual carriageway. Now everyone, fit and unfit, young and old, can cross where they please when they are heading to or from the Underground.

As a result, motorists have to be more cautious since people are always stepping into the road. As a traffic calming measure, taking out the barriers has been a great success.

For a hundred and fifty years, people have been catching the train from London and heading down for a day out in Brighton. From Brighton station, they stream down Queen's Road, down West Street (Skid Row) and straight across the dual carriageway known as King's Road. Thus do they arrive at the beach, often ignoring the attempts to corrall them towards approved crossing points (including a Tunnel best avoided).

Recently, our new Green council started to fret about this situation. They started to worry about the pedestrians who for generations have crossed that dual carriageway, dodging between the cars and the charabancs.

The Council has found a solution. There is Always Money for Road Signs (see my Blog of 9 April 2011)so now we have even more along the King's Road dual carriageway. They flash urgently at motorists announcing "Pedestrians Crossing!" as if, after 150 years, it is some new discovery.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Extradition - Richard O'Dwyer, Christopher Tappin and others

I used to have no problem with the idea of Extradition. One of ours commits a serious offence in your country, leaves before he is caught, so you ask for him back in order to try him. That seems entirely appropriate for serious offences: murder, manslaughter, rape, grievous bodily harm.

But the UK now has extradition arrangements with the USA which seem contrary to ideas of natural justice in three respects.

First, you can be extradited to be tried for offences which were not committed - in any obvious sense - within the United States. In that case, why should you be tried there at all?

Second, you can be extradited for less serious offences where the whole process of extradition (not so very different from rendition) and pre-trial imprisonment (possibly lengthy) in a US jail is disproportionate to the offence committed. If the person is eventually found innocent, they will have already suffered materially and psychologically. In some cases, the US has successfully sought the extradition of people who have mental or physical health problems or who are elderly - in these cases, extradition itself can be traumatic. That would not be of consequence if we were talking about murderers. We aren't.

Third, the request for extradition comes from highly politicised US police agencies and the alleged crime is often enough one which elsewhere and among right-thinking persons would not be regarded as an offence or, at any rate, not a serious one. This appears to be true in the case of the Sheffield student, Richard O'Dwyer, who faces extradition for having created a website with links to file-sharing sites.

I conclude that the Extradition arrangements we have agreed with the USA should be scrapped. We should start again and confine our willingness to extradite UK citizens to those accused of grave offences against the person: murder, manslaughter, rape, grievous bodily harm. All the rest is very dodgy.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Charity or Taxes?

It seems that rather than pay taxes to Her Majesty's Government lots of high income (over £10 million a year) people prefer to give to charity, thus rendering their income tax-exempt. Mr Osborne, the Chancellor, has decided this must be stopped. Their charitable giving should be capped and they should pay more taxes, allowing him - as Friend of the People - to decide what is a good cause and what is not.

Put like this, I find myself in sympathy with the Very Well Off.

Give money to the Government and chances are it will either waste it (as documented month-after-month by the Public Accounts Committee) or, worse, use it to bomb from a great height poor people in far away countries. Our former Prime Minister, Mr Blair, spent a lot of money doing both: he started the disastrous National Health Service IT projects and he bombed poor people in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It goes with the job for Mr Osborne to favour general purpose taxation. As I argued a few Blogs back ( Benefits or Insurance?, 30 March ), we should start withdrawing support for this idea. It only leads to waste and criminality.

Money should be raised by governments for specific purposes and when we pay up we should know, at least roughly, for what we are paying. In many cases, that can be simply done.

When I fill my petrol tank, I should know that the tax on my fuel is used to build and maintain roads, to police them and make them safe for all users. There is absolutely no reason why the fuel duty I pay should fund some shooting war picked by a megalomaniac or electorally challenged Prime Minister. If they want a war, they should have to impose a War Tax. That would immediately scupper tabloid enthusiasm for attacking other countries.

Probably, a lot of the money the really rich give to charity is spent on jolly good causes. If there is any political intervention needed, it is only to ensure via the Charity Commissioners, that the charities who benefit really do good.

POSTSCRIPT 20 April: I probably have to change my mind on this after reading a story in today's Private Eye (Issue 1312, page 8) concerning Andrew Lloyd-Webber, one of Britain's very wealthy:

" In 1992 he set up the Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation, into which he funnels tens of millions of tax-exempt loot in order to buy paintings... he leases the pictures - bought with his tax-free philanthropy - back to himself, to hang in his home at a peppercorn rent". The paintings include a Picasso, a Canaletto and a Stanley Spencer.

The Foundation currently has unspent funds of £44 million. When it enters the art market, it does so with an effective 40% government-subsidy, representing the unpaid tax available for art purchases.

To make the case against my own argument even stronger, I should state the obvious fact that governments and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs have always known that their tax policies are designed to give a helping hand to the very very rich, for whom every little helps.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Imagine you are a Long Distance Lorry Driver, just through the Channel Tunnel onto the M20 and then ...

... one of those looming overhead electronic noticeboards warns you of a height restriction at the Dartford Tunnel:

15 Feet 9 Inches

Momentarily, you lose control of your vehicle as you desperately try to work out what that means. OK, you know you have entered a pre-modern society where they do miles and fraction of miles. But "15 feet 9 inches" in flashing lights...

This fantasy sign was flashing as I drove home from Folkestone last night. I found it surreal. I hope it didn't cause any accidents. Or block the Dartford Tunnel because someone wasn't quite up to the conversion. ( You think you can do it? Go on. Try. But not while you are driving)

Sunday, 8 April 2012

In Defence of Aggressive Secularism

Churches have little to do with religious belief. They are worldly organisations seeking to expand their wealth, power and prestige. Some are criminal businesses: most obviously, the churches founded by American evangelists in pursuit of personal profit. At best churches are like political parties, seeking to enlist (and sometimes browbeat) support for favoured causes.

They need to be kept in check.

They are always claiming privileges which a decent state will deny. Like a political party or a limited company, their finances should be transparent.

There should be no tax break deals like those only recently done between Berlusconi and the Church in Italy: I give you the tax breaks and you don't criticise me. No problem, Signor B.

There should be no Vatican state-like entity able to hide its affairs behind a bogus claim to statehood, courtesy of Mussolini: I give you a state and you don't criticise me. No problem, Duce.

They should be kept out of state-funded schools. Those should be a place where children are educated, not indoctrinated. If parents want supplementary schooling for their children, then they can seek it out of school hours in Saturday schools and Sunday Schools. Few would want it.

The lust for children under seven (as the Jesuits formulated it) is the one which democratic states should most firmly resist.

As significant employers, churches should be held to labour market legislation. That means equality of opportunity. It means that there should be no onerous conditions irrelevant to the discharge of duty: some priests will choose to be celibate but it should be illegal to demand it of them. Full stop.

Their activities should be overseen in the same way that other large businesses are overseen. There should be an OfChurch. When churches are hit by scandals, they should end up subject to probing public enquiry, before Parliament and before a Judge, just like News International. Right now, governments are too afraid to respond properly to scandals.

The state should do nothing to enhance the self-importance of church officials. Let them strut around in scarlet - we may all dress as we choose - but never roll out the red carpet for them. When a much-abused Republic of Ireland was struggling to bring the Vatican to account, it was an absolute disgrace for the UK government to bring the Pope here and grovel to him. (The invitation came from Mr Blair and was renewed by Mr Brown).

Personal religious belief often sustains people in adversity and sometimes leads them to acts of personal heroism and sacrifice. It should be respected, not least because that belief is often enough abused and betrayed by the self-serving bureaucracies and hierarchies of religious organisations.

Believers deserve better than their churches, and they will only get it if the state keeps those churches in check.

Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

This is not an easy book to read; it does not stray from the cataloguing and analysis of policies of terror, destruction and extermination between 1933 and 1945. But the analysis is new (to me)and there is much in the detail which I had simply not encountered before.

The analysis is new insofar as it places the Jewish Holocaust (six million dead) in the context of fourteen million dead from policies pursued by Hitler and Stalin in what Snyder calls "The Bloodlands" - Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and, to a lesser degree, the Baltic States.

Big numbers to the death tally are contributed by Stalin's deliberate creation of famine in 1932-33 Ukraine (3.3 million, page 411), with which Snyder begins his narrative. More big numbers are added by the German treatment of Soviet Prisoners of War, captured in vast numbers as the Nazis swept into the Soviet Union in 1941 and either shot or allowed to die of starvation in horrific conditions (3.1 million, page 184):

"In late 1941, when [Soviet] prisoners of war were very likely to starve to death, some of them survived by fleeing - to the Minsk ghetto. The ghetto was still a safer place than the prisoner-of-war camps. In the last few months of 1941, more people died at nearby Dulags and Stalags than in the Minsk ghetto" (page 230; see also the figures at page 179)

In this connection, Snyder clearly has no patience with the distinction between a "good" Wehrmacht (professional soldiers doing their duty) and the Nazis: in the Bloodlands, the Wehrmacht were enthusiasts for killing.

The tally increases hundreds of thousands at a time from other policies of Stalin and Hitler:

- Stalin's Great Terror of 1937 - 38
- Stalin's selective executions and mass deportations of ethnic groups from Soviet border areas where they were thought likely to sympathises with an invader
- Hitler's and Stalin's joint actions in exterminating Polish elites, military and civlian. The Katyn Massacre of the Polish Officer class is the most familiar. The Soviets were responsible but it could equally have been the Germans.
- Hitler's "Reprisal" killings of civilians, notably in Belarus and Poland. In Belarus there was quite a lot of Soviet inspired Partisan activity and in Poland, there was both the Home Army of the Polish government in exile and Soviet-directed Partisans. After the Warsaw Uprisings, all of Warsaw was razed to the ground.
- The advancing Soviet Army's raping and killing spree in 1944-45

Snyder's list is longer than this summary.

New to me was his emphasis on the fact that Hitler did not want either the people or the cities of the occupied East: he wanted a tabula rasa on which to start again: new inhabitants and new infrastructure. What seems to an outsider wanton destruction was almost always part of a policy. The same is true of Stalin's Ukraine Famine.

Snyder does not write about acts of individual humanity or resistance to horrific policy and behaviour. The book is unremittingly bleak. Nor does he look at the role of institutions which still existed to some extent independent of Nazi or Communist control. He says nothing about the churches, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and (in the Baltics) Lutheran. Some of them were complicit in murderous policies and that should be analysed. Some of them housed individuals who risked their lives for others.

Snyder does emphasise that the Western allies - the USA, the UK - took little or no interest in what was happening in the European lands fought over between Hitler and Stalin, and declined to act on what they did know. I quote one story which was new to me:

'Shmuel Zygielbojm, the representative of the [Jewish socialist] Bund to the Polish government-in-exile in London, knew that the [Warsaw] ghetto was going up in flames. He had a clear idea of the general course of the Holocaust from Jan Karski, a Home Army courier who had brought news of the the mass murder to the Allied leaders in 1942....In a careful suicide note of 12 May 1943....he wrote: "Though the responsibility fro the crime of the murder of the entire Jewish nation rests above all upon the perpetrators, indirect blame must be borne by humanity itself" The next day he burned himself alive in front of the British parliament...' (page 292)[* but see my Footnote below]

In the shadow and the wake of fourteen million dead people, there were also those who survived, often Displaced, often Deported, often in Exile and almost inevitably traumatised. Their contribution to the post-war world often demonstrated an extraordinary ability to triumph over adversity. At times, their contribution was not constructive - so much so that in his book Political Journeys Fred Halliday concludes that the role of diasporas in the politics of their homeland is always negative. But the world of the survivors is another book.

I am glad I read Snyder's extraordinarily broad and detailed work, cover to cover. I recommend it.

Footnote added 19 May 2012: In his 1944 autobiographical book, Story of a Secret State,Jan Karski gives a detailed and moving account of his meeting in London with Zygielbojm. But the suicide is described as having been committed at home, by turning on the gas (page 366 of the 2012 Penguin edition). The Wikipedia entry for Zygielbojm makes no mention of a public suicide. It does, however, say that Zygielbojm's body was cremated at the time in symbolic solidarity with Polish Jews and that because this was contrary to Jewish burial traditions, it posed problems for the interment of his ashes, when they were located in 1959, and which were not resolved until 1961.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Today in Tesco I didn't see a Toff ...

Nor any other day and even though it's in Hove actually.

But there's a Toff on the front page of this week's Private Eye: Mr Cameron. There's no doubt about it. He's a Toff.

How do I know? I have only once heard Mr Cameron speak when I watched a TV Election debate. He struck me as a man who had been coached in public speaking. But it isn't his voice which makes me think he's a Toff. It's his face.

A few months ago, I researched my family tree, something I had until then resisted. It's an outsider approach to one's own origins. But it proved illuminating. I went back through thirty dead people: my two parents, my four grandparents, my eight great grandparents, and my sixteen great great grandparents. That already took me to 1800. I decided to stop there.

Though there are a few gaps and uncertainties, the main story is clear: all these thirty people were born in southern England, no further north than Oxfordshire but spread across to Somerset in the west and Cambridgeshire in the east. The men were manual workers, mostly unskilled - agricultural labourer, brewer's drayman, school caretaker - but a couple were skilled: millwright and compositor. The women were mostly respectable and literate; some of them worked outside the home, as millgirls and shop assistants.

None of them married Out or Up nor were they notably mobile Up or Down: my father became a shop keeper renting a lock-up shop and that's as much mobility as you get. There was no social mixing and so no genetic mixing. When I look at old family photographs I can see my face and it's a face which fits comfortably in Tesco. Unless I dress up, I can pass comfortably as some cheery Bus Pass geezer.

I haven't researched Mr Cameron's family tree but if I am right, then his ancestors will be people who did not marry Out or Down. They preserved a physiognomy which you can see on TV but not in Tesco, in the House of Lords but not in Hove.

There was once some upward career mobility in England - I went to university and went Up a lot more than any of my thirty ancestors. But there was never much enthusiasm for social mobility and New Labour ended it, pushing the school system towards social segregation under the camouflage of "faith" .

And career mobility did not really disturb the lines of physiognomy - nor of dress sense and personal style - which means that a customer in Tesco doesn't look like a customer in Waitrose, still less like those who do not have to do their own shopping.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Why Public Holidays Should be Abolished

Every year, the British government's Department of Business publishes a bizarre list of dates on which employers are advised to shut up shop and lock out their workers. These are what we call Public Holidays. It is not compulsory to close down on any of these days and, apparently, workers have no entitlement to demand the day off.

These arrangements are unfair, enormously costly and deny many workers the satisfaction of fixing their holiday times to suit their own needs.

The public sector is only too willing to shut up shop for public holidays. It doesn't much like being open anyway and, well, any excuse. Some public sector workers have a financial stake in the shut downs: refuse workers who can't work on the shut-down Monday can demand double or treble time to"catch up" the following Saturday. GP surgeries can close knowing that there is a lot of money to be made moonlighting for "Out of Hours" services: a recent investigation found that doctors are paid around £175 per hour for such work. That's a pretty good reason to shut your Surgery. When it comes to public sector scams, the UK is definitely up there with Greece.

So it is not the prospect of a day on the beach which lines up dustmen and doctors behind the present arrangements. This is fortunate: most of our public holiday dates are selected in anticipation that it will be cold or wet or both. Enter the phrase "Bank Holiday Washout" into Google and it returns a downpour of results.

The public sector shuts but much of the private sector stays open - retail and leisure - precisely in order to provide something to do for the lost souls who have been locked out.

The relationship is never reversed: there is never a day when Tesco is closed and the Town Hall open.Not one. It would be a nightmare! All those dreadful people who might try to access public services and all at once!

Of the actual days selected for public holidays only two hit dates when most workers would like a day off anyway: Christmas Day and New Year's Day. But few employers want to open on these days. First, they have read their Christmas Carol. Second, they don't want to pay staff to turn up with a hangover. In other words, an official public holiday is unnecessary to secure closures on these two popular dates. (That the official closures are designed by a public-sector Trades Union Committee is well demonstrated by the fact that when New Year's Day falls on a Sunday, Monday is a public holiday. This is not true in any other European country).

If it wasn't for public holidays, nothing would close on Good Friday or Easter Monday. Nor do any of the other dates have popular appeal, except perhaps August Bank Holiday - the annual opportunity to sit in traffic jams, have car accidents and - if you escape those - turn yourself into a sardine on Brighton beach.

Most genuinely popular celebrations proceed without benefit of Government endorsement. This is true of Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Halloween, Bonfire Night and the Cup Final.

If Trafalgar Day or whatever isn't already a day of popular celebration, that isn't going to change because some Tory geek has a wheeze that it should become one. It would become just another public sector shut down. Period.

The fair and efficient way forward is to abolish ALL these advisory public holidays and return to workers the dignity of negotiating their holidays with their employers. That is the only way to respect people's family needs, cultural preferences and personal tastes.

Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, has pointed out that the UK lost production in 2011 because of the Royal Wedding Day Orff and will lose it again for the Jubilee Days Orff.

The efficiency gains from abolishing public holidays would certainly justify adding a couple of days to every workers minimum holiday entitlement. Those who work five days a week should expect a minimum of thirty days holiday, which would provide a conventional week at Christmas, week at Easter and month in the summer. But some people don't want that and will keep the wheels of industry turning during those periods. Instead, they might take off thirty Fridays and enjoy thirty long weekends.


Added 25 July 2018: Material from this Blog post is incorporated into the chapter, "Time Mismanagement" in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

Monday, 2 April 2012

Rodric Braithwaite, Afgansty: the Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89

American ambassadors are political appointees, rewarded for financial contributions to election campaigns, and they are often enough stupid or crooks: try the examples in Alex von Tunzelmann's Red Heat for proof.

British ambassadors are career appointees and often enough clever and honourable. Sherard Cowper-Coles who wrote Cables from Kabul is a good, recent example. So too is Rodric Braithwaite.

His book is partly an unspoken ("diplomatic") critique of the current NATO occupation of Afghanistan. Every chapter of his book about the Russian Occupation of 1979 - 1989 allows parallels to be drawn with the current disaster.

The book is remarkable for its clear-headed portrayal of the horrors of war, and especially, the horrors of wars of occupation. Perhaps surprisingly for a former ambassador engaged in high diplomacy, Braithwaite dwells at length on the experience of ordinary Afghans and ordinary Russian soldiers and technical advisers. He writes a very humane book, readable from cover to cover. But quite often, it is disturbing reading.

At the same time, Braithwaite presents the leadership and higher authorities (military, intelligence, civilian) of the Soviet Union as less sclerotic and less vicious than is often imagined. At times, I guess that what he writes will make people in the Foreign Office think that he is just another of those ambassadors who "went native". (He was Ambassador to Moscow, 1988 - 1992).

The Soviet Union got itself into a mess in Afghanistan, found it hard to get out, and when it did so left a legacy of bitterness both in Afghanistan and in Russia where veterans of the war and parents of dead soldiers felt betrayed.

15 000 Soviet soldiers died in Afghanistan; somewhere between 600 000 and 2 500 000 Afghans: no one was counting and perhaps 1 million is the safe guess. See pages 346-47 for the number crunching.

In due course, when we have left, writers will tally the figures from the current war.