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Tuesday, 11 November 2014

How Governments Waste Your Time

Here's a letter from the 1940s when the Royal Mail was a government department and they could incorporate government policy into postmarks. This one reads "Staggered Holidays for Comfort". Don't all go on holiday at the same time, folks - it only leads to crowded roads and trains. I've never seen this postmark before and I don't expect to see it again.

The idea it incorporates was short-lived. If British governments had their way, we would all take our holidays at the same time. There are two main instruments for enforcing this policy. 

First, nowadays and with some vigour, parents are taken to court and fined if they take their children out of schools in term time even if it is for the Holiday of a Lifetime. Since all schools have more or less the same Term Times - no obvious reason why they have to but they do - that means that there is more or less guaranteed discomfort at airports and on the roads at holiday times. And it ensures high prices at hotels and for flights since everyone wants them at the same time. Doh!

Second, there is the rather weaker instrument of public holidays - the dates on which government shuts down its own business and advises other businesses to do likewise. It has less and less success in enforcing this policy. Nowadays, the Town Hall closes but Tesco stays open. So public holidays nowadays are more or less public sector holidays. Any excuse, really.

A while back, 25 September 2013,  I published on this site an essay, "Private Time Management, Public Time Mismanagement" - one of my more successful Posts with 333 visits as of today. It's about the ways in which governments waste our time by mismanaging what I call Public Time - the organisation of the calendar, the setting of the clocks, and so on.

Governments don't think of Time as a finite and precious resource. It's like other people's money. It's there to be squandered. Go to the original essay if you've time for the full argument

Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Misuse of Public Space

Every day I go down to the sea and take my exercise as a walk along the seafront. I'm afraid it's not very brisk and not very long, and at the moment I'm trailing a stick, but it's good for morale.

A seafront in a coastal town - the Promenade - is a very good example of public space. It's maintained out of taxes and there are no restrictions on access. Taxpayers fund the paving, the lighting and the cleaning though private donors often enough fund seats and benches In Memory of a dead family member. There is no policing and though there are signs prohibiting this and that (it varies from town to town), everyone and anyone is free to come and go, more or less as they please.

And, of course, some people behave anti-socially. And each of us will have their own ideas about what is the most anti-social form of behaviour. Take your pick:

- Is it young men, heads down, cycling along as fast as they can?
- Is it skateboarders?
- Is it dog owners using the Promenade as a convenient place for their dogs to shit?
- Is it children running and shouting?
- Is it alcoholics leaving tins and bottles everywhere?
- Is it rough sleepers lying on benches?
- Is it people lighting barbecues on the beach?
- Is it smokers?
- Is it people playing loud music?

Whatever you think, I want to emphasise that there are two different kinds of anti-social behaviour illustrated by this list.

First, there are behaviours which impose a cost on taxpayers through the demands they make on public services. Councils clean up the dog shit and even if dog owners Pick Up after their animals, then the bins have to be emptied and the shit carted to landfill. Actually, not a very pleasant job. In effect, there is a subsidy here to dog owners, since everyone has to pay towards the - not insignificant - costs of clearing their muck. We wouldn't tolerate it if it was the dog owners who deposited their own shit on the promenade; it's unclear why we tolerate their dogs' shit.

But when a dog owner allows their animal to jump on a complete stranger who happens to be passing, then this is a different kind of anti-social behaviour. It's an invasion of someone's personal space and their right to go about their everyday business peacefully and unmolested. It's in the same category as barbecue fumes, loud music, and second-hand cigarette smoke. Curiously, dog owners seem to think strangers should welcome assaults from their dog - but imagine what they would think of another human being who came up to them,uninvited, and started pawing - even if that person was saying "It's all right, I'm friendly!"

Of course, there has to be some Give & Take. Promenades after all aren't meant to be places for those who (like me) enjoy silence and solitude - though I am pro-children and I don't have any problem with them running and shouting and so on.

But in the Give & Take, questions do arise about just how much an average user of Public Space should Take. I'm not sure we really know how to debate this. I'm not sure that John Stuart Mill's On Liberty will yield an obvious answer to the question, Should barbecues on beaches be allowed?

The easy solution adopted my many English seaside councils is to partition public space - on this beach you can barbecue, on that one you can't. But of course, barbecue smoke does not recognise such distinctions.

Our most famous beach at Brighton has Dog Friendly sections, quite big ones, though it doesn't have any Child Friendly ones. It's not really satisfactory because dogs off the leash run everywhere. In Worthing, the council expects dog owners to leash their dogs when walking on the promenade. But, of course, they don't.

In Brighton, cyclists are directed towards cycle lanes painted along the promenade. In Worthing, the lanes were there once and have now been painted out. Cyclists can cycle anywhere. I think this is a better idea: the lanes encourage those young men with their heads down and that's dangerous because children will without thinking run into the cycle lane. Even adults will wander into it as they stroll along chatting. I am pretty sure that No Lanes is the safer option, since everyone has to stay more alert.

Well, there are some thoughts.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Lost in Translation

Fifty years ago, my school history textbook for the French Revolution described a king called "Lewis XIV". Even then, I thought this strange. Why translate "Louis XIV" into "Lewis XIV"? You lost information ( you didn't know what the French called their king) and it wasn't necessary to do so: "Louis" is a perfectly good name in English. Fifty years on, I can only think that the author of this old textbook was a Scotsman - in Scotland, "Lewis" is almost certainly more common than "Louis".

But the author was only doing something we do all the time. In English, the Maid of Orleans is always called "Joan of Arc" and never "Jean d'Arc" or "Jean of Arc". In inconsistent contrast, 'l'Arc de Triomphe is never called " the Triumph Arch"  or "the Triumphal Arch" but usually "the Arc de Triomphe". And the Champs-Élysées is never - but never - "the Elysian Fields".

If I was writing a style book (as I am now), I would start with one rule: Avoid translations which lose information unnecessarily. Many English versions of capital city names fail to meet this simple requirement. Consider three examples:

"Roma" is rendered "Rome" in English, so we lose a bit of information about what the Romans do in Rome, namely, how they pronounce the name of their capital. There appears to be no reason why "Roma" should not be rendered "Roma" in English.

"Wien" becomes "Vienna", a nicer name it's true but partly misleading. It's maybe helpful that the "W" becomes "V" to reflect differences in how these letters are pronounced in German and English, though it's very rarely done - "Weimar Republik" is never rendered as "Veimar Republic" . In fact, German place names are usually left unaltered: think Wiesbaden, Wuppertal, Worms ...

Back to Vienna. Why isn't "Wien" either retained or rendered as "Vien"? What is the " - na" doing on the end?

"København" becomes wonderful, wonderful "Copenhagen" This is massively defective. First, there is no need to change the "K" to a "C" to indicate the pronunciaton - "K" works in English. Second, it's true that when accents (diacritical marks) are missing from our keyboards  we need a substitution rule, but in this case the correct substitution for "ø" [ for which I have to type Alt + 0248) is "oe" which gets closer to the Danish pronunciation than the completely incorrect "o" which in English leads to the pronunciation "Cohpenhagen". Third, when "havn" becomes "hagen" we lose the information that this city is a port, a harbour, a haven. But there are many English harbour names which include the ending "-haven" (Peacehaven, Newhaven, Whitehaven ...) and only the very dim-witted would fail to pick up the link between "havn" and "haven". In addition (and fourth), "-hagen" removes information which might help us to the correct pronunciation: it takes a way a soft "a" and gives us a hard "a". Fifth, we have this slippage from "b" to "p" which is unnecesary even though there is a complicated issue about "b" and "p" pronunciation (just as there is for "r" and "l" in Chinese).

Result? In English, and in the absence of Alt + 0248, the Danish capital should be referred to as "Koebenhavn"

I could go on at great length. Even more fun can be had when you get into transliteration. The Cyrillic of the Russian capital transliterates as MOSKVA and if you pronounce that in English you get close to the way Muscovites talk about their city. But "Moscow"? Forget it.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The State versus Free Riders, Hold - Outs, Short Termists

All good states are Nanny states; they protect us from ourselves. Left to our own devices, we would not even protect ourselves adequately against invaders and marauders.

Free Riders are part of the problem. There will always be some people who want the Benefit without contributing to the Cost and there are many goods (what economists call Public Goods) where it is impossible to exclude the non-payers from the Benefits. Enforcing Clean Air legislation costs money, but there is no way to stop someone breathing the cleaner air when they avoid paying their share of the cost. Instead, they have to be tracked down and coerced into payment. And that also costs money. Free Riders are a pain.

Unchecked, would-be Free Riders can be sufficient in number to raise the cost of building roads, paving sidewalks, safely disposing of human sewage,  controlling infectious diseases, providing public green spaces, and so on, to levels at which no one would want to contribute.

Hold-Outs are Free Riders on Speed. They are people who would rather no one received a Benefit if they are to receive less than the Full Benefit to which they feel entitled. This is the case where so-called Vulture Funds buy up public debt which is going cheap because of likely default. When the default happens, they decline to take part in any re-structuring which would give bond holders something rather than nothing. Instead, they hold out for full payment even if it means nobody (themselves included) gets anything. Hold-Outs are the kind of people who favour children's playgrounds only if their own children can monopolise the swings.

Hold-outs need a cuff round the ear from the Nanny state: You will accept what the other 95% have agreed to accept or you will get nothing.

But the big problem for the modern democratic state is short-termism. The job of the state is to protect us from our own short-termism which always leads us to prefer jam today to bread and jam tomorrow. Left to our own devices, we simply won't insure adequately against ill health or old age just as we don't spend enough maintaining our homes, keeping them insulated and dry.

Unfortunately, the short-termists are also the voting population. It is a Sysyphean task to persuade voters to think of the morrow and it is a vote-winner to tell them that, No, they don't have to suffer - they can have tax cuts today. And no public services tomorrow.

This is what we will see being played out in England over the next few months, as the voters are treated and bribed. The future is a lost cause. The stupid party will win again.

Monday, 22 September 2014

England's Green and Pleasant Land

Finally, we say, Enough is Enough. We will use our new Devolved Powers and we will say that Pavements are for People. Parks are for People. Beaches - even in Brighton - are for People.

We have tried for long enough to curb the anti-social behaviour of Dog Addicts. We have spent millions on telling them to Clear Up after their pooches and many many millions more shovelling their shit into lorries and carting it away to landfill.

We have tried without success to persuade them to keep their dogs on leads at all times. We have tried to curb their taste for dogs which bark and attack and sometimes kill. Enough is Enough.

From now on, no dogs on pavements; no dogs in parks; no dogs on beaches

No longer will parents have to navigate their child's buggy around pavement dog shit. No longer will parents have to check that the grass or the pebbles are clear enough of shit for their children to play. No longer will everyone have to watch out as they walk the pavements or go to sit on the grass.No longer will people have to get away from the "He's Friendly" dog jumping all over them

We've waited a long time for Devolution and this is how we are going to use it.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Paradoxes of Centralisation and Devolution

In a centralised system of government, people may end up feeling that the context of their daily lives is mismanaged or misunderstood simply because the System is too remote. It may indeed be physically remote - and very few countries manage to locate their capitals in the middle of their territory. It may also be remote because mediated through layers of bureaucracy: the centre gives orders to the next layer down which gives orders to the next layer down .. and so on. One weakness of this approach is that it is incompatible with any ideas of local initiative. The System ends up being staffed by people who only do what they are told, though not necessarily with any great enthusiasm. But such officials are more likely to be sacked for showing initiative than for showing laziness.

Occasionally, centralised systems try to solve the problem of what one might call "follow through" by appointing local representatives of the centre to monitor the work of local administrations: my guess is that this is one aspect of the French system of "Prefects". In the old Soviet Union, local party representatives also had the function of ensuring that local administrations implemented the central line.

Centralised systems are designed to hold together societies which might otherwise fragment and people are more likely to accept them if they feel that everyone in the society gets treated more or less the same way and gets more or less a fair share of whatever benefits are on offer. But the reality is, centralised systems often fail those tests. And so pressure builds up for devolution of power. That's what has happened in the UK over the past few decades. Westminster and Whitehall have lost credibility as effective policy makers and system managers and so those in favour of devolution have argued for local policy making and management.

The more devolution you get, the more you are likely to want. The centre seems not only increasingly remote but increasingly irrelevant. Why do we still have to give them money? It has quite often been theorised, but there are actually very few functioning federal systems where the centre occupies itself with little more than foreign affairs and defence against external enemies, issuing passports, managing borders, and so on. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, there were those like Gorbachev who pushed for a new federal structure of this "weak" kind. It didn't happen. Given a taste of power, local power chiefs decided to grab all the power.

So devolution designed to address the problem of a remote centre ends up making the centre even more remote and even less loved. Devolution sets up inexorable pressures for independence, real or de facto. In Scotland, the opponents of independence all want more devolution - what is called "devo max". And there are those, like Gordon Brown, who quite fancy a future as Chief of a devomax Scotland, both running its own affairs and  still sending MPs to Westminster to special plead the Scottish case and superannuated MPs to the London House of Lords to do the same.

A formula for catalysing the rather weak forces of English Nationalism.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Their Referenda and Ours: Ukraine and Scotland

On Sunday December 1st 1991, 84% of registered voters in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic turned out to vote YES to independence from the Soviet Union. In the former Austrian and Polish areas to the west - Galicia - over 90% voted Yes. In the more ethnic Russian east, the Yes vote was still over 70% : in Luhansk it was 83% and and in Donetsk 77%. Even in majority-Russian Crimea, the vote was 54% in favour of Ukrainian independence. [ For Source, see Footnote]. The Russians in Ukraine thought that they has a better chance of a good future in an independent Ukraine than in a crumbling Soviet Union.

Boris Yeltsin's Russia, itself in the process of freeing itself from the Soviet Union,  had already signaled that if Ukraine voted for independence, it reserved the right to raise boundary questions: Crimea and eastern and southern Ukraine were identified as areas over which Russia had a claim. But the large majorities for independence contributed to those boundary questions not being pursued.

Some candidates in the Ukrainian presidential election, held at the same time as the Referendum, favoured a federal Ukraine - it's a big country, created out of territories ruled in the past hundred years by Austria,Poland, Germany, Romania and Russia. But other candidates, fearing separatist tendencies, held out for a more unified structure, among them Leonid Kravchuk the outright winner of the presidential election with 61% of the vote.

The failure of independent Ukraine to deliver on the hopes of its citizens, the specific economic problems created by declining industries in the east, and a clumsy overlay of Ukrainian cultural nationalism fuelled the separatist tendencies which have come to a head in 2014. That gave President Putin of Russia the opportunity to pick up the border questions abandoned by his original sponsor, Boris Yeltsin, with consequences with which everyone is familiar. But they are not perhaps familiar with the fact that these issues go back to the period of the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990 - 91.

But what interests me here is the massive pro-Independence vote in 1991. It's the kind of vote you need if you are really going to disentangle yourself from relationships and structures going back hundreds of years - it was not just in the Communist period that Ukraine was tied to Russia. Russia and Ukraine were the double heart of Romanov Russia, dating back to 1613.

So though I really, really hope that Scotland will vote YES and try to take itself out of the crumbling Union state run from Westminster and Whitehall, I don't think that 51% is enough to make it work or work successfully. It's a toss of the coin figure. It means that in everyday life in Scotland, for every person working enthusiastically to create the new state, another person will be feeling cheated of the benefits of the Union. Scots will not be pulling together and half of them will be colluding with the Union apparatchiks in Westminster to make sure that independence doesn't work. There are regions in Scotland which are less than enthusiastic about rule from Edinburgh: the offshore islands, notably.

By way of example of what pulling together can mean: the first Minister of Defence of independent Ukraine, Major General Konstiantyn Morozov, was half Russian from eastern Ukraine. He had studied Ukrainian in school but, as a soldier, had had no occasion to use it. He was a Russian speaker but an independent thinker who favoured an independent Ukraine with its own armed forces. . On taking up his post, he had to promise to learn Ukrainian. On that basis, he was entrusted with the job.

Footnote: All the statistics for Ukraine are taken from Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire, Basic Books / Oneworld 2014, a fascinating book

Monday, 8 September 2014

Universal Suffrage - Fundamental Principle or Evolving System?

The campaign slogan was never "One Person One Vote" or even "One Adult One Vote" but always "One Man One Vote". Most people think that their countries had a functioning democracy even before the vote was extended to women - everyone knows Switzerland got there last (in 1971). Of those who fought and died in the trenches of the First World War, very few believed in female suffrage.

There were other, lesser anomalies which eventually got removed: in the UK, the Property Owner's Vote and the Universities Vote which gave some people two votes. Those were only abolished in 1948.

Some adults don't get the vote - in the UK, prisoners, and in other times and places, lunatics and bankrupts. No one in politics suggests that children should have the vote, though in my life time the voting age has been reduced from 21 to 18 and for the Scottish independence referendum it has been reduced to 16.

So Universal Suffrage is a bit variable at the edges but the fundamental principle, if there is one, is a bit like that of Mutually Assured Destruction - you vote Conservative and I vote Labour and we can cancel each other out. But if there are 51 of you and only 50 of us, you win. And in the British system at least, Winner Takes All.

It's relevant that in most cases, major things we associate with democracy, like a free press and freedom from arbitrary arrest, were in place before the arrival of universal suffrage. Think only of the Swiss case. In ex-colonial and other liberated countries where universal suffrage has been introduced first, a free press and so on do not always follow: universal suffrage on its own does not make a democracy.

All the history of the fight for what was also called "Manhood Suffrage" took place against a very particular demographic background, a world of young people and working people. Life expectancies in the major democracies meant that the elderly - the retired, pensioners, the elderly frail - were a small part of the population. The significance of this fact has generally been overlooked. It gave a forward-looking bias to democratic politics, sometimes disastrous for democracy itself (Fascism, Nazism).

Now the situation has changed and the increasingly elderly demographic of the advanced democracies, and even more so of active voters, gives a backward-looking bias to their politics. British political parties lack a vision for the future because they are not responding to voters who are seeking such a vision. They are responding to voters who want the past and whose time horizon is the next few years.

There is no obvious reason why this situation should be accepted. We generally treat it as natural that children should not have the vote - we don't think of them as disenfranchised. However, Googling to Wikipedia on Plural Voting, I discover that it has sometimes been proposed that parents should get extra votes for dependent children, in order to increase the importance of long-term planning as an election issue. The idea was put forward by the UK think tank Demos in 2003, by the Dutch economist Lans Bovenberg in 2007 and it is an official policy of the Christian Party of Austria.

In addition or as an alternative, I  suggest we should think about whether elderly people should have the vote or the full vote. Maybe the vote is something you should get at 18 and keep until you are 68 or, subject to fitness,78 or 88. A bit like a Driving Licence. Maybe it is something which should reduce in value as the decades pass, so that a full vote at 18 becomes a half vote at 68 and so on down.

It's not an outrageous idea. It's about securing a future. And if Scotland goes, England will be in dire need of some future-oriented thinking. And it ain't gonna get it in Clacton (see my previous Blog post)

Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Destructive Power of Elderly Voters

I have been thinking about Clacton. The Conservative Member of Parliament for this English constituency, Douglas Carswell, has resigned thus forcing a bye-election - in which he will stand as the candidate for the United Kingdom Independence Party. He will win, overwhelmingly.

This has made me think quite a bit about the destructive power of elderly voters. They are a big majority of those who will vote in Clacton and a majority throughout England. And they are a threat to the future of their country.

They look backwards, not forwards, and in terms of narrowly selfish preoccupations, they win hands down. They want to know what's in it for them and that's about it - apart from some xenophobia which they have learnt from the Daily Express. They dominate elections so totally now that younger people don't bother to vote just as people who don't own their own homes don't bother to vote. They know that the political parties aren't interested in them.

For the forthcoming Scottish Referendum - please let it be Yes! - the voting age has been lowered from eighteen to sixteen which tilts things just a little in favour of those who might think about the future instead of the past.

I think we need to push things farther in that direction. We need to break the power of elderly voters. If we don't, we have no future.

So I make the following proposal. I am happy that the voting age should remain at 18. But I think that at 18, a new voter should start with a vote which will be counted as 100 votes. At each birthday, the value of a person's vote should reduce by one, so that an 88 year old would have a vote counted as 30 votes: 88 - 18 = 70 years older and 100 - 70 = 30 votes remaining. ( On this scheme, I would currently have 50 votes)

At a stroke, this changes the whole electoral situation and would force the political parties - a complacent, ostrich-like bunch of clapped out clubs - to confront a whole range of issues they would prefer to duck. Housing would be an obvious one, but others would include drugs policy, jobs, energy supply, transport infrastructure and climate change. That's just for starters. They might even have to think about their cosy little assumption that next comes King Charles III.

The same result could be achieved by a method which is not discriminatory in the way that the first proposal is. At eighteen, a voter starts with 100 votes - and that is their life time supply of votes for General Elections. How many they use in any one general election is their decision. They have to reckon that in their life time there will be around 12 - 15 General Elections. But instead of averaging out their votes, they can vary the number they use each time. So if they are desperate to get rid of Mr Cameron, or whatever, they can use 50 or even 100 at one go.

Oh I know these are outrageous ideas. But think about it. Do you really want to be ruled by the Dead Souls of Clacton?


Back in 1968, when students occupied the London School of Economics, one of the banners read, "Beware the Pedagogic Gerontocracy". I have just changed "Pedagogic" to "Electoral".

It would be interesting to map the changing age profile of voters at  General Elections since 1945 and how the voting patterns by age group have changed.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Rethinking Political Correctness

Political Correctness - PCness -  is something everyone now loves to hate. Rightly so. No one wants to be nannied about by low level functionaries with no other job of work to do than draw up Lists or by those who, unable or unwilling to articulate a distinction between Right and Wrong, can only purse their lips and raise their eyebrows as a substitute for argument. Worse, there are things which are widely believed to be PC when they manifestly aren't. You can't read a newspaper or an academic book without having to deal with the word "gender" being used incorrectly when what is meant - and should be meant - is "sex". This is not PCness gone mad; it is simple Orwellian mystification engineered by those who would prefer us not to think about questions of Sex and Gender.

We need a fresh start from a fresh starting point.

There are lots of social theorists who will tell you that social life is impossible without a background, routine assumption of Trust. Even in the most oppressive regimes, trust is indispensable.

We can build on this idea. I want to say that at the heart of a good society is an assumption that everyone, regardless of accidental characteristics like sex, race or sexual orientation can be trusted and should be trusted until it is proved otherwise.

Let me illustrate this idea by reference to schooling, where many of our troubles start. A trusting teacher will assume that every pupil, whether they be a boy or a girl, can do any of the things which are routinely asked of them and can do those things equally well. Reading, writing, math, swimming ... it's irrelevant whether you are a boy or girl. Go on, I trust you, just try. Just do it.

Interestingly, it will then emerge that there are some things - a few things - where it's not true that the distinction between boy and girl is irrelevant. At the end of the day, at the Olympics, we have Men's Swimming and Women's Swimming and we have functionaries to ensure that you don't cheat and claim the wrong sex for yourself.

In some areas, we may end up uncertain whether there is a difference or not - Chess is a good example. In those cases, it may make most sense to run both options - Single Sex Tournaments and Mixed Sex Tournaments - and let players choose or gravitate. Nothing terrible will happen provided only that you start from the assumption that everyone can be trusted and no one will be told at the outset, "You can't do that because you are a girl".

In the same way, no one should start off being distrusted because of their race. That is to state the bleeding obvious. But there are racial differences and they sometimes need to be taken account of. Men of African heritage are more susceptible to prostate cancer (you can Google that) and if the susceptibility is significant then it may make sense to engage in Profiling. Men of African heritage might be targeted for screening campaigns on the basis that they are more at risk and that targeting them is an efficient use of scarce medical resources. There is no discrimination against Caucasians if the facts stack up. And there has been no failure of Trust.

Profiling is hated because it is often no more than an excuse for discrimination. But sometimes it's hated because it is based on fact. Sometimes people protest loudly not because they are being discriminated against but because they have been found out.

No one should be distrusted because of their sexual orientation and old-style distrust often looks absurd and sometimes confused, as when the tastes of paedophiles are attributed to gay men.

Equally absurd are beliefs that women can't be trusted to walk down the street unaccompanied by a Minder - a belief which seems to be widespread and extremely difficult to change. It is a belief which rather obviously makes it harder for life just to go on, efficiently and reasonably happily.

But Trust doesn't quite capture another feature of social life which is indispensable. That is Civility, the thing which children are taught when they are taught to say "Please" and "Thank You". Now Civility is interesting because it is something you are supposed to grant to everyone, and rightly so. You don't size up a person's sex or race or sexual orientation before deciding whether to say "Please" or "Thank You" - or if you do, you are making it harder for social life to go on, routinely and unproblematically and to the benefit of all.

In many ways, I think Civility is the thing which Political Correctness tries to concretise but does so by the mistaken method of making Lists.

I'll stop there. My proposal for now is that we start re-thinking Political Correctness by going back and thinking through the ideas of Trust and Civility.

Added 25 July 2018: See now the chapter "Respect as Political Correctness" in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

Monday, 1 September 2014

Keep on Blogging in the Free World?

I posted my first Blog here on 22 January 2010 and since then, according to my Dashboard, I have posted another 481 Blogs. By the end of the first five years I should have around 500 posts here. Some, of course, are short and very ephemeral and - when I notice them - I remove them. Occasionally, I dislike what I have written, sometimes strongly enough to remove it. But if the post just shows me getting things wrong, I try to leave it alone.

I don't use a word counter but I guess the average length of a post is about 400 words, in which case with 500 posts I will have 200 000 words - equivalent to two or three books depending on how many pages and how big the typeface.

I sometimes have the fantasy of making one (short) book from a selection of the posts. In fact, not so long ago I got someone to print off everything on this Blog with a view to making a selection. But I'm not sure I now have the energy or enough critical distance. So I thought of trying to get someone to do it for me - to edit down the material to an interesting book of short essays.

To tell the truth, the Blog began because though I wanted to write One More Book (before I die ...)  I also knew that I have never been any good at sitting down and, beginning at the beginning, writing until it is all done. Two of my published books (Language Truth and Politics; Language in Mind and Language in Society) were both written piecemeal over several years and rewritten, cut, pasted - manually in those days - until something sufficiently booklike emerged.

I did sit down today thinking that I should make myself pick 18 topics for the 18 posts still needed for the 500. I could write them between now and the end of the year and then, perhaps, close the Blog.

But I don't have a ready list of 18 topics to hand. It's not how I work - well, most of the time: in the past, I have worked from Lists, sometimes alphabetical. It's how I wrote another one of my books (Key Concepts), much more rapidly than the previous two which had been traumatic to write.

Eighteen topics. There are things I would like to write about but not here. There are things I would like to write about but don't because I don't know how to do them justice. Torturers, for example. Other things I don't write about because there are plenty of other people discussing them and probably better than I can. And so on.

Anyway, hope for - or expect - another 18 posts, after which I don't know. This year, I have been unwell off and on for several months and I see that this year's total number of posts is well down on previous years. But finding the sense for an ending is much harder than just stopping.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Watching the film, Closely Observed Trains

Last night, I sat at home and watched Jiri Menzel's film Closely Observed Trains (premiered in Czechoslovakia 1966 released abroad 1967). I don't know how many years it is since I last watched it.

Memory (which may be false) tells me that I first watched it in 1969, when I was 22 and living in the first of several Communes at 154 Barnsbury Road, Islington, North London - known to some as the "Horror Commune". Under the direction of the house's owner, Hilary Rawlings, this large North London terraced house had been refurbished to make it communal-activity friendly. The open plan ground floor incorporated a stage at the garden end. In the centre of the room, a circular or egg shaped table had a central hole cut into it through which gas pipes led to several gas rings - the idea, to make cooking a more communal activity with people sitting round rather than facing the wall at a gas stove.

Someone - maybe Vivan Sundaram, studying film at the Slade - had the idea of whitewashing the rear garden wall, thus enabling films to be projected from inside the house through the large rear sash window. People could then sit on the stage to watch. My recollection is that Closely Observed Trains was projected onto that garden wall. Whether other films were ever projected, I don't recall.

In memory, the film is linked to an incident a year or so before, when I was a student in Oxford. A young male Czech student and a girlfriend arrived (I don't know how) as refugees from Czechoslovakia, looking for help to get asylum - I think this must have been around the time of the Soviet invasion. They were put in touch with me ( as someone active in socialist politics) and I arranged for the student to meet Robert Maxwell MP at his Oxford home, Headington Hall. We went there on a Sunday morning. I remember a harp on display in the hallway and then the three of us in a large drawing room. The boy's English was not so good and Maxwell switched into his native Czech. Afterwards, he expressed some ambivalence about helping. He was worried that the student might be a provocateur and Maxwell had business interests in Czechoslovakia, where books were printed for his Pergamon Press company.

I have no memory of what happened after that meeting.

Watching Closely Observed Trains last night, I was surprised first by its candour about sexuality and its sexual liberalism. Czechoslovakia was never as prudish as the Soviet Union and though the heavy hand of Communism may partly account for scenes which fade to black, sexual humour is central to the film and is allowed free expression. The centrality of sex in the film reflects a reality of war time: faced with daily danger, people want to have sex and if it's fun so much the better.

The young hero of the film - all of 15 or 16 - wants to have serious sex (with his eager girlfriend) but suffers from premature ejaculation. He tries to commit suicide and then, recovered, talks about his problem to anyone who will listen and asks for their help. All this in Nazi - occupied Czechoslovakia circa 1943.

In the end, it is the Czech Resistance which comes to the boy's rescue: his older (and cheerfully promiscuous) colleague in the railway station where they work (and where the whole film is set) sets him up for a night with a female Resistance worker who has just delivered a package of explosives for use against a German munitions train. She does the trick. I laughed when I made the connections: The Resistance will make a Man of You!

And it does make a man of him. When the boy's Resistance colleague finds himself trapped in a gorgeously farcical disciplinary hearing (pure Bakhtin carnivalesque you might say), just at the time when he is supposed to place and detonate the explosives, the newly masculinised hero steps in, does the job for him - and gets machine gunned by an alert Nazi guard. But he died happy - he'd fucked.

As critics I have Googled remark, all this is unfolds with great sympathy and tenderness against the backdrop of a brutal war. Some of that brutality is alluded to by the railway station staff when they talk about how terribly the Germans mistreat cattle, visibly so in passing trains headed for the slaughter house. At their station, it is only cattle trains which pass but the allusion to the human cattle trains which everyone in the cinema audience knows about is very effective.

Googling I found that Ken Loach picks this as a film to be passed on to future generations. I think he's right.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Iraq: What I thought then and what I think now

Back on 31 January 2005, the Independent newspaper published this letter from me. It's what I thought then and it's what I think now:

Sir: The awful daily carnage in Iraq arises at least in part from the American decision to impose national elections on an artificial nation, created by the First World War victors and sustained ever since by not much more than foreign occupation and domestic force.
I do wonder what would have happened if separate elections had been offered to Shia, Sunni and Kurd regions with the option to federate afterwards or go for independence. It may be that this path was not followed because of the hostility of Iraq's neighbours, notably Turkey, to a separate Kurdistan and because of American fears of a pro-Iranian Shia government.
But then that is simply to say that "Iraq" is something foreign governments want to exist, whereas democracy is about securing governments wanted by peoples.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Terror, Terrorism, Terrorists

People - ordinary people, civilians - are going about their daily lives - shopping in the market, travelling on the train, flying on a plane - when suddenly, without warning, a bomb explodes or a missile hits and everywhere there is death, terrible injury and destruction. Those who died instantly did not even experience a moment of terror but if the bomb was placed or the missile was launched by someone or some group intent on causing such destruction, then such an event is our paradigm case of terrorism.

In the beginning, it was not like this. Spreading terror was historically an instrument of state and military policy. When there were only foot soldiers to do it, they might be sent out to kill and rape, more or less at random, in a densely populated town or city either as revenge for some slight or as a lesson designed to cow those who survived into terrified submission. Soldiers terrified people and they created an atmosphere of terror.

The invention of air planes added new possibilities. In the 1920s, Arthur Harris - later "Bomber" Harris of Britain's World War Two Bomber Command - wrote this in a 1924 report from his RAF base in Iraq:

"They [ the Arabs and the Kurds] now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage: they now know that within 45 minutes a full sized village, vide attached photos of Kushan-Al-Ajaza, can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape, and little chance of retaliation or loot such as an infantry column would afford them in producing a similar result" [ quoted from Y.Tanaka and M.Young, editors, Bombing Civilians (2009) page 21]

In other words, the British used aerial bombardment in 1920s Iraq -  a new country which they created and controlled, one of the spoils of the 1914 - 18 war - to terrify and cow the local population. 

But though we think a man a terrorist - occasionally a woman - who nowadays walks into a crowded Iraqi market and blows himself up along with as many other people as he can manage, we probably don't think that of the pilot of a small bi-plane dropping bombs from a great height - possibly even heaving them over the side of the plane by hand. 

Partly it's to do with the fact that we are unnerved by the ideological fanaticism of a volunteer who deliberately blows himself up. In contrast, the RAF pilot did not choose his mission. He had signed up to serve and his country, as it happens, sent him to Iraq and told him to drop bombs on defenceless villagers. He was carrying out a policy of terror without being the maker of that policy.

In this case, the maker of the policy was Arthur Harris and his policy was not uncontroversial. There were RAF officers and local civil servants who were opposed to what he was developing as an instrument of Imperial policy. But in the end, the extremist Harris won out over the moderates who opposed his policy of indiscriminate violence. 

Fifty years later, bombing civilians from a great height had become central to the Imperial military strategy of the United States in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The planes were bigger, the bombs bigger and more lethal (and some of them chemical: remember Napalm?), the accuracy of bombing probably as dismal as ever: American pilots off their heads on the illegal Substances of the era.

The strategy was to break the will of the peasants who happened to survive the fury of the American onslaught, to cow them into submission.

Interestingly, it didn't seem to work.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Future is a Lost Cause

In the first half of 2015, maybe as many as 60% of all adults living in the United Kingdom will vote in a General Election from which will emerge a new Government. Most of those voters will be property owners – the young who don’t yet own houses generally don’t vote and neither do the poor or the migrant workers on whom several major sectors of the economy depend. We have a Property Owning Democracy.

Parties will be competing with promises to maintain the status quo, though they won’t say so. None of them, for example, will promise to bring down house prices. Our way of life is based on permanently rising house prices secured by a deliberately-created shortage of housing in the right places. To challenge this would be electoral suicide.

None of the parties will ask electors to think ahead to the future, whether avoidable futures or unavoidable ones. They will say very little about climate change or the ageing population. That too would be electoral suicide. Property owners are interested in next week, at most next year. The Future is another country and we don’t like foreigners.

In the United Kingdom, the Future is a lost cause. Our voters aren’t interested in it. Our politicians even less so. The Future looks as if it might cost money. Where are the voters who will vote for jam tomorrow instead of jam today? They do not exist.

So no one will talk very much about infrastructure. Instead, they will talk a lot about Benefits – tax cuts, tax breaks, handouts: the kind of thing from which you can assemble a winning coalition of self-interested voters whose sights are firmly set on the short term.

Of course, some policies with long-term implications will be there in the background and after the Election decisions with long-term implications will be taken. We are going to continue as a country with our own stock of American-controlled nuclear weapons – we will pay and they will say. The weapons manufacturers will be happy enough – none of their business who controls the finished toys. All that really matters is that they rust fast enough.

You might object: Europe. There will be a lot of talk about Europe and one party (UKIP) campaigning on a policy – withdrawal from the European Union – with significant long-term implications. That’s why UKIP won’t win the Election. They are not talking about jam today and when the chips are down, as they are supposed to be at Election time (a childish illusion, I know), voters will predictably duck the long term.

Have no fear, the Future is a lost cause. We are so careless of it that we accept as inevitable that Elizabeth will be followed by Charles and then William and then George. Why bother our pretty little heads about things of no importance?

Friday, 6 June 2014

My Benefits, Right or Wrong

This essay tries to bring together several themes from maybe a dozen of my Blogs over the past few years

I avoid buses. In both senses. Where I live, they are involved in most city centre road fatalities. And I don’t enjoy sitting in one. Partly, that’s because we don’t have kerbside payment or conductors. If you need to pay, you pay the driver. So your journey is often painfully slow.

The people who pay the driver look like tourists, language school students, students, and mostly female workers of one sort or another – I guess, cleaners or care workers on their way to a shift. But anyway, low paid workers. The minimum fare is now over two pounds.

The people who don’t pay are the Over Sixties who flash their Bus Passes. Their fares are being paid by someone else – taxpayers.

I’ve never claimed my Free Bus Pass. I would be ashamed to wave it while paying passengers watch. Imagine that it was Coloreds who paid and Whites who didn’t (and looking at the cleaners and care workers, that’s not far from the reality).

And yet the Over Sixties, quite solidly and sometimes fiercely, now seem to believe that they have a Human Right to bus travel paid for by others – even though Bus Passes are a very recent invention.

How did this come about? The fault clearly lies with our political parties, always looking for cheap ways to gain the favour of those most likely to vote. And any party now proposing to withdraw the Passes would face a backlash of unreasoned wrath.

Bus Passes are not Pensioner Passes. You qualify by virtue of reaching your 60th birthday, well below the ages at which most people qualify for state pensions. At sixty, many people are still working, their children are gone and they have paid off mortgages. They are better off than at any time before. Many of those waving Bus Passes – of course, not all – are better dressed than they have ever been. They can afford to be.

Eventually, they will become old and even frail. It’s always stressful to watch a frail elderly person board a bus, struggling with shopping bags and sticks. They don’t need a Bus Pass any more. They need a once-a-week Taxi Pass.

Or, rather, they need adequate pensions. Free Bus Passes are not only electoral bribes. They are also one of the cosmetic means by which feckless governments have sought to disguise the inadequacy of State Pension provision. They have been too fearful to force people to pay enough into retirement income schemes to fund adequate pensions and reluctant - until absolutely forced by a huge rise in life expectancy- to raise the pensionable age. Until very recently in the UK, the State Pension age for women was set at sixty. Men at sixty five.

No one challenged that extraordinary bit of entrenched sex discrimination. It had its origins in discriminatory thinking: women filled up the workforce during two world wars and thus qualified for pensions. But allowing them to take their pensions at sixty was also meant to ease them out of the workforce, leaving more room for men who had fought. Over time, the discrimination transformed from discrimination against women to discrimination in their favour. But no one, literally no one, challenged it.

Self-respect is very much connected to ability to make your own choices. The Bus Pass is a clunking decision by politicians to make choices for you: Here, my good woman, take this Pass and use that Bus over there! And show some gratitude!

Older people generally benefit from walking or even cycling but politicians want you to take the Bus. The bus companies are happy enough. They get paid.

In a better world, older people would dispose of enough income to make their own choices: walk, cycle, taxi, train, drive - or bus, where they would pay the same fares as everyone else. It would be a better world not least because it would help maintain self-respect: better to choose the bus instead of having it chosen for you.

I realise there is something in my own history that makes me think like this. As a grammar school boy in the 1960s, my School Dinner Pass was a different colour from that of nearly everyone else. I qualified for Free School Dinners and my Pass colour indicated that, not only to the Dinner Ladies but to all the other boys queuing with me.

I qualified for Free School Dinners because we were poor –really, very poor. I lived with my mother who was most of the time not well enough to work and that meant she depended on the National Assistance Board (forerunner to the Ministry of Social Security) for five pounds per week, of which one pound fifty went on rent.

But in principle there was no reason why she should not have been additionally awarded whatever it took to cover the cost of school meals, allowing me to pay for them in the regular manner. Or even if it was administratively cheaper to issue me with a Free Dinner Pass, there was no reason for it to be colour coded.

In the same way, it would be acceptable to withdraw the Bus Passes and add to the State Pension the equivalent of the money saved. All that you lose is the self-satisfied smile of the politician who wants you to doff your cap and thank him (Gordon Brown, Ken Livingstone) for the Pass.

The Bus Pass is a symptom of a deeper problem which resides at the very core of the British Treasury and the way it relates to British governments. The Treasury hates two things above all: ring fenced money and entitlements. It is committed to the ideas that all revenues should go into a single big undifferentiated Pot and to the idea that all outgoings are a matter of discretion.

That is, of course, an understandable way for a Treasury to think. It gives you the maximum of flexibility in what is often – thanks to politicians – a struggle to make the books balance. But it is also completely symbiotic with the interest of party politicians. They too want maximum discretion. Let me give one example.

British prime ministers normally want to pick at least one war to fight during their time in office. These wars of choice can be vote-winners. They allow the prime minister to walk tall. Mr Cameron –Prime Minister as I write – was deeply disappointed when he was not able to get his war in Syria, supporting the jihadis.

But equally a government going to war does not want voters to think about the financial costs. The last thing it wants is being forced to impose a War Tax. That would make voters think twice about their gung-ho enthusiasms for invading far away countries.

Fortunately, the Treasury pot is usually big enough to absorb the costs of a small war. Money can be shifted between notional budgets and, if not, borrowing can be discreetly increased. But if monies were ring-fenced and there were entitlements, it would all be more difficult.

As a result of this way of thinking, both Treasury and politicians are committed to the ideas (though they would never admit it) that All Benefits are Voluntary Hand Outs and No Benefits are Entitlements. In other words, citizens have no rights.

The soundest way to create entitlement to Benefits is through insurance schemes. People pay into the scheme and, at the same time, they are informed of their Entitlements under the scheme. That is what Britain’s National Insurance system is supposed to be about. But it isn’t. No one pays anywhere near enough to accumulate entitlement to the Benefits they can claim. Nowadays, it is merely a concession to the idea that there can be Benefits to which you are entitled because you have insured for them. If the Treasury had its way, even that concession would be abolished. The Treasury loathes the idea of insurance. It gets in the way of tax and spend.

The Treasury has almost a winning hand in one simple fact about our psychology. We hate it when we see money removed from our pay packet before we even get it: Pay as You Earn taxes, National Insurance. If National Insurance was for realistic sums of money we would hate it even more.

But when it comes to paying 20% Value Added Tax on virtually everything we buy – well, we don’t even notice it (partly because we don’t see it separately itemised). This is the Treasury’s winning hand – taxes we don’t notice. Not only that: such invisible taxes are not linked to any specific government expenditures. The Treasury gets just the kind of money it wants, money it can use as it (or its political masters) please.

The Treasury  & Politician commitment to avoiding Entitlements and favouring Hand Outs immediately opens the door to the parlour game known as Benefits Scrounging, in which the winners are those who work out every Hand Out for which they are eligible and promptly claim them all.

The Over Sixties whose 60th birthday is celebrated claiming their Free Bus Pass are benefits scroungers. They have no entitlement to the Pass, they have done nothing to deserve it, they often don’t need it – but it’s there, a Handout, yours for the asking.


People in Britain have an increasingly shaky idea of what it means to be a citizen. The Benefits Culture created by politicians is disempowering. It encourages childishness at election times: voters shop around looking for the party which offers three for the price of two. No more than that. No expectation that you think about the future, about your children and grandchildren; certainly no expectation that you think about right and wrong, justice and fairness.

The route towards re-building ideas of citizenship involves, among much else, dismantling the Handouts culture and re-instating the idea of a Contributory system: you pay in for health care, unemployment benefit, and pensions. That must be the expectation for nearly everyone, with a non-contributory social safety net principally for those who are born disabled or become so.

It also involves challenging the Treasury & Politician collusion. There is no reason why money should not be ring fenced, why taxes on X should not go towards paying for Y and only for Y. If politicians want a war, then they must use a War Tax to pay for it. If voters want a War, then they should be obliged to put their money where their flags wave.

Added 25 July 2018: This material is included as a chapter in y book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers


Monday, 2 June 2014

A Campaign for Short Menus?

Recently, I was shopping in town on a Sunday. I was hungry and noticed an Indian restaurant with a Sunday lunch cheap Menu. I went in and was given the very short menu - three starters, three main courses, three desserts. I made my choice and the food proved to be delicious - fresh-tasting and full of flavours.

I was pleased to have found this place and soon after went again, on a weekday evening. This time I was given a Menu with 1001 choices. All at once my anticipation turned into disappointment. I know these menus and I hate them. Instead of choosing what you think you will enjoy, you try to work out which dishes are popular enough to have been served sometime in the last week. In fact, I asked the waiter just that, Tell me what is Popular! - but he was unhelpful: They are all popular, he said.

Or equally unpopular. I sighed. I made my choice and I got it wrong: I had picked a Dodgy Indian, a dish which probably no one else had chosen in the past three months. And as I soon discovered, very much past its Use By date.

Why do Indian (and Chinese) restaurants persist with these Menus which offer such vast numbers of small variants on a few basic dishes? It is almost inevitable that some ingredients will be so infrequently used that they are poisonous by the time someone asks for them.

Why is there no learning curve, no Ah Ha! experience, which points Indian and Chinese restauranteurs away from these elongated Menus? ( There are exceptions: Indian Summer, a very good restaurant in central Brighton has a splendid short Menu and the food is always served as if cooked just for you)

I think the only solution is for someone to start a Campaign for Short Menus, chivvying and badgering eating houses to cut the length of their Menus and awarding Gold Stars to those which do. Maybe someone just has to start a website.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Advocacy Politics and the Pavement Paradox

If you read (I don't advise it) a newspaper like The Guardian you will come away with the impression that politics is about advancing the interests of groups which feel they are disadvantaged and are articulate enough to say so. They want a bigger slice of the cake and know that sharp elbows are the route to getting it.

When I read some piece of sectional-interest advocacy politics, I always think of the pavements.

Everyone from the filthy rich to the stinking poor uses them and no one likes tripping over on badly-maintained ones. There is a common interest - a shared interest - in having well-maintained pavements.

That's the problem. Well-maintained pavements aren't the stuff of advocacy politics. No one group is going to get better off from better pavements. Everyone is. And no one is an advocate for every one. No one is going to pay you or encourage you to represent a common interest. If one day better pavements arrive, everyone benefits regardless. They don't have to contribute to get them.

Politicians - the professional political class with their own interests in shares of the cake - know that the route to power lies through assembling the voting support of enough sectional groups. In Britain, that mostly means people over 50 and what are always called ordinaryhardworking families - the sort of people temporarily encumbered with children but looking forward to the day when they too will be over 50.

Pavements are not an issue but housing costs and child care costs and pension benefits and Free Bus Passes are. They are slices of the cake. Politicians make promises about these things, often engaging in competitive bidding. That could end up being costly, so sometimes they try a different strategy, appealing to sectional groups who won't be a Burden on the Budget. It doesn't cost much to appeal to those wanting fox hunting bans (Labour) or gay marriages (Conservative). There's just the risk that you lose more votes than you gain.

But if you promise Better Pavements you are trying to appeal to everyone and Everyone is not a winning coalition. Pavements aren't adversarial enough, just painful when you trip over. They will remain that way, for ever.


Added 25 July 2018: See now the chapter "Macadamised" in my book, The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

Saturday, 3 May 2014

My Submission to the BBC Impartiality Review 2013 (Stuart Prebble Report)

Clearing my Desktop, I found the Submission below. Stuart Prebble's Impartiality Review has now been completed and published. I can't update the Submission in any way since I no longer read the BBC News website - it has been deleted from my Favourites Bar.


SUBMISSION from Trevor Pateman   4 March 2013

1.     This submission relates only to the BBC News website ( and only to its coverage of Religion.

2.     Over a long period of time – three or four years at a minimum - the website has created the impression that in relation to Religion, only the affairs of the Roman Catholic church are worthy of coverage and that there are only two newsworthy figures in that Church, the Pope and Cardinal Keith O’Brien.

3.     Website coverage comprises reporting of scandals affecting the Church but also uncritical reproduction of the Church’s own press releases. For example, on numerous Sunday mornings in the past few years, a main lead story has been the content of Cardinal O’Brien’s sermon for that day. There are also what might called be “Human Interest” stories about the Pope – his clothes and so on – which lend a Hello! magazine feel to some of the news coverage.

4.     There is some coverage of the Church of England, both of its scandals and occasionally of sermons by one of the Archbishops, but quantitatively far, far less.

5.     There is no coverage at all of the non-conformist churches.

6.     There is very little coverage or no coverage of other religions – Judaism, Islam and so on – as religions, with leaders, doctrinal conflicts and so on.

7.     The result is that website readers are effectively directed towards thinking that only the Roman Catholic Church is an important religious organisation and that only Roman Catholic beliefs and conflicts around them are worth thinking about.

8.     The BBC News website does have a global readership and it might be argued that this accounts for the attention to Roman Catholic rather than, say, Church of  England affairs. But if the website is intended to be global, then there should be an awful lot more about religious Islam than there is.

9.     Insofar as the website is a National site, then the coverage is completely unbalanced. Cardinal Keith O’Brien is sometimes presented in a Scottish context, but Protestant Scottish religious leaders are rarely if ever mentioned. This is not a question of space. It would be quite possible to give a “Sunday Morning Round Up” of sermons being given if sermons  to empty pews are felt to be important. The partiality arises in the editorial decision that only Cardinal O’Brien’s are (or were) worth reporting and that they are worthy of lead story coverage.

10.                         The claims here are very general but will be supported by an analysis of the BBC News website Log (which I assume is kept in some form or other). But by way of example, I will point you to my Blog post of 16 April 2011 where I felt confident enough to predict that Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s Easter sermon, whatever it contained, would  be the main religious story on  Easter Sunday – as indeed it was (see my Blog post for 24 April 2011 at  

Monday, 28 April 2014

What Ails Thee?

I was born  in 1947, my mother in 1907 and her mother in 1867. There lies one reason why I have difficulty managing my relationship to my body.

In the bad old days, people looked upon ailments, complaints, illnesses and diseases as accidents that happened to you. You couldn’t prevent them and you had to put up with them when they arrived and wait until they went away. Or didn’t. True, there were doctors and if you were in a lot of pain or if things were going from bad to worse, then you might pay to see one. Meanwhile, you might buy something over the counter.

I don’t think my parents or any of my aunts and uncles “took exercise”. Still less did they have an Exercise Target. Such things did not exist. True, most of them did manual jobs.

Nor did they Watch Their Diet. This is one reason why all the men on my mother’s side died in their fifties and sixties – strokes, heart attacks. Fat and salt. And maybe smoking, though I don’t recall any of them being heavy smokers - except for my mother's father who died over 20 years before I was born from what was clearly a tobacco-related cancer (of the throat).

As a child in the 1950s, my mother dosed me, my father and herself on Sundays with Andrews’ Liver Salts, thus setting up an association in my mind between Godliness and regular bowel movements.

But that was about it. She did project some of her own anxieties onto me and did take me to the Doctor to raise concerns she had about me, and that’s a further complication: I’m never quite sure myself what I should be concerned about. 

I try to be sensible. Last year, I took myself to the doctor and presented a symptom.

Diagnosed with A I was prescribed X, which seemed to work until I completed the course and A promptly returned.

So I presented myself again, to another doctor (you never get to see the same one, do you?), who diagnosed B – a thoroughly nasty condition with aggressive tendencies for which I was prescribed Y, a course of treatment designed to match aggression with aggression. It seemed to work for a bit but then stopped working even before the course of treatment was over. They tried a bit more Y on me, but to no avail.

When I presented myself for a third time, my new doctor was decisive. It’s not B,  it’s C – frankly not much to worry about and to be treated with Z. Phew! What a relief – I didn’t like the idea of having B or treating it with Y one little bit. I am very happy to settle for C. 

In due course, we shall see if I am now All Clear from or whether I am going to have to Blog again.

[ Added 22 July 2015: It wasn't C ... I got referred to a Consultant. It's D. It's age related. You can do nothing or have a nasty operation. I am doing nothing ]

I don’t give the medical details because I’m not trying to join a Community of fellow sufferers today. I am just thinking about a price I have paid for trying to behave sensibly when my body goes wrong.

Probably one of my uncles would have done nothing, would have put up with it and would now be in exactly the same position as I am – the ailment is there and it hasn’t gone away or got noticeably worse. I don’t seem to be dying any more rapidly than I was before. It’s an inconvenience and I would like it to go away, that’s all.

But there is a temptation to give up, avoid the doctor (like I avoid the police) until it’s absolutely necessary. From past experience, when it is absolutely necessary it is also often absolutely clear what the problem is and what will cure it. Antibiotics remain great things for acute bacterial infections.

There is also a temptation to give up on Checks and Reviews, which at my age are regular dates in the diary.

Recently, I moved house and so had to move doctor – they make you do that. Efficiently, my new doctor decided it was time for five blood tests. I failed three of them. He did his two finger typing into the computer to confirm that he had discussed my Failures with me and then advised me to come back in a year to be re-tested.  A  year?  One of the Failures was a matter for Life Style advice (Lower your Fat intake) and troubled me not a bit, but the other two were not so simple and one was a bit disturbing. So I suggested I come back for a re-test in six months. He happily agreed and typed that in.

But why is six months any more useful than a year? Presumably, it is to see if I fail so badly next time that questions arise about whether  Something Should Be Done.

But do I want anything done? On past experience of myself, I will try to wriggle out of having Something Done and if that’s the case then maybe I shouldn’t be having these Tests in the first place. Maybe I should just get on with my life until one day (this is the only sensible hope) I drop dead. Suddenly, without warning. A shock for others, but almost hassle free for me.

Just like my Uncles.

Monday, 21 April 2014

The Legacy of My Generation

Mr Cameron does not stand a chance at the next Election without the over 50s; that’s why Sir George Osborne Bt.’s last budget was so indulgent towards them. At a pinch, the over 60s on their own could swing it

What will we bequeath to our children and grandchildren?

On the credit side, perhaps the most important thing is that English society – I don’t presume to speak for the others – is not viscerally unpleasant. It’s not America or Russia or even France. People get on with their own lives, let others get on with theirs, and for the most part don’t use a lot of energy hating their neighbours. This is a state of affairs worth having.

On the debit side, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Some would begin with “The Environment” and I am fairly typical of my generation in not knowing very much about that. But I am also just a bit sceptical – not of climate change, but of “The Environment” used as a NIMBY [Not in My Back Yard] excuse for opposition to any change which threatens – er - House Prices.

My generation has fought hard to ensure that housing remains scarce and expensive and – as a side consequence – of inferior quality. We will bequeath an irremediable housing shortage to the next generations. Too many people have stakes in shortages and the consequent high prices. They will fight in the last ditch to stop things changing - and when they inherit, so will their children.

We have already chosen our Heads of State for the next century, chaps who can be relied upon to support the existing  Order : first Charles, then William, then George.

For these chaps, the material inequalities of the existing order are very much something they will want to defend. They are, after all, themselves among the very privileged few. That’s true of most Heads of State; it’s only people like the President of Uruguay who spoil the Club. Well, he’s not going to get invited to Prince Harry’s wedding, of that you can be sure. But there will probably be room for the Crown Prince of Yugoslavia and the Crown Princess, even though the Kingdom of Yugoslavia doesn’t exist. They were invited to William and Kate’s wedding, with their Mum, and the fact that Yugoslavia does not exist made no difference. They are still in line for the Throne of their fictional Kingdom.

We will bequeath large and growing material inequalities. And we will bequeath Debt. Oh yes, we’ve piled up quite a bit of that and we have no intention of paying it off. Sir George Osborne Bt. pretends that he is paying it down, but he isn’t. If he was serious about it, my generation would be looking at all-round tax increases of the order of 30%. Sorry, children and grandchildren, that’s not on. The Debt is one for you to sort out.

There is a whole department of clever people employed at The Treasury to stop the inquisitive from working out just how much Debt there is to be paid off. They use all the techniques of dodgy accountancy. Basically, it’s about keeping things off the Balance Sheet even though they have to be paid for from things credited to the same Balance Sheet.  It will be the next generations who will pay the interest and the capital on all those loans made to government under the Private Finance Initiatives and Public-Private Partnerships which enthused New Labour – very much for the same reasons that feckless Greek governments  borrowed on the international money market to pay for the recurrent costs of feel-good Benefits. No concern that no income was being generated to cover any of the costs.

Housing shortages, growing inequality, Debt. These are major things. I will choose one lesser thing to conclude.

Governments have done remarkably little to improve Quality of Life. It’s something which happens only once in a generation – The Clean Air Act which made Smogs a thing of the past; the Smoking Ban which made pubs and restaurants and cafes and buses tolerable places to be.

Meanwhile, my generation will bequeath a horrible sentimentality about dogs which has, among many other consequences, the effect of making all beaches, promenades, parks, open spaces, country paths, public pavements – all of them places which dog owners feel righteous entitlement to use as dog shitteries. All of them places where dog owners feel entitled to remove the leash and declare “It’s all right; he’s friendly” when their uncontrolled, stinking, slavering pet jumps all over some child whose parents have had the temerity to bring into places which are Dogs First and Humans Second.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Another Bank Holiday Washout?

Dear English Reader,

It's raining here in Worthing, heavily. What about where you are?

You could blame Mr Vince Cable. Or you could blame yourself.

Mr Vince Cable, our Minister for Business, Innovation [ha!] and Skills, is the man who draws up the list of dates on which employers are advised to shut out their workers - days which for some reason are known as "Public Holidays" but which would be better described nowadays as "Public Sector Holidays". Anyway, Mr Cable fixes the dates -though in the case of Easter it's true that he kow-tows to the advice of the Church of England's astrologers, who are very good at picking rainy days. After all, Easter is not meant to be a happy time, is it?

I did write a long Memo to Mr Cable about his appalling record picking Public Holiday dates - go to my Blog for 05 February 2011 to read it - but, of course, to no effect.

Or you could blame yourself, especially if you are a public sector worker. Why do you so stupidly go on insisting that we should stick with this nonsense of Public Holidays? Why not grow up and demand that you work out your own holiday dates, in conjunction with your employer, so that they suit you rather better? Or do you prefer cold wet rainy days and sitting in traffic jams?

If you want to read the full argument against "Public Holidays" try my Blog on Time Management from 25 September 2013.

If you want to go deeper into the subject, try 28 May 2011, 3 January 2012 and 6 April 2012. Something to do on a wet day.

And in case you think I am making it up, try Googling "Bank Holiday Washout"