Saturday, 3 June 2017

Magic Money Tree

It reminds me of a song by the late Burl Ives, Big Rock Candy Mountain. What does? The phrase "magic money tree".

You may have heard Theresa May utter it at last night's BBC election debate in York. Other senior  Conservatives, which is to say former Cabinet Ministers, have also used it - Justine Greening or Amber Rudd. Perhaps all three of them have found it useful way of contrasting their own carefully calculated manifesto plans with those of Jeremy Corbyn.

"There is no magic money tree." It reminds me of beleagued football managers distancing themselves from universal savious such as Gandalf the Wizard. "There's no magic wand," they are liable to say, as though credulous fans thought there was. 

If there was such a thing as a magic wand there could be a magic money tree and if there was a magic money tree nobody would have to pay income tax, corporation tax, VAT. Short of emigrating to Saudi Arabia there's no chance of that happening, not even if the UK government stops wasting money on climate change nostrums or paying into the EU.

I was going to say that a heavyweight politician such as the late Denis Healey would never use such an infantile phrase in a general election debate. Healey, after all, was obliged to seek a loan from the International Monetary Fund prior to the Winter of Discontent, after the Arab-led member nations of OPEC jacked up the price of crude. On second thoughts he might if he was putting somebody in their place.

Healey it was who likened a verbal assault from Geoffrey Howe to being "savaged by a dead sheep". We're not going to hear put-downs as good as that during the remainder of this campaign because campaign managers are evidently terrified of their charges - T May and J Corbyn - saying what they really think about nuclear weapons, the NHS, the state of teaching in schools and universities, the EU, the special relationship with the United States.

Whoever coined "magic money tree" should think about retiring to write cautionary tales for young children. Make sure you don't go down to the tigerish woods today, my son, lest you fall under the spell of the magic money tree and start imaging a future in which people can afford decent homes and don't have to apply for a bank loan to pay train-fares to and from work.

The Tories, of course, are sarcastically suggesting that Labour's spending plans belong to the realm of fairy stories. Unlike the economics of the last Conservative Chancellor George Osborne, whose five year austerity plan led to more borrowing, more public debt. The magic money tree that he had access to was known by an altogether more prosaic name - Quantative Easing.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Is This a Cunning Tory Plan?

Theresa May is asking people to believe in her because she believes in Brexit, whereas Jeremy Corbyn does not.

Do people believe in her Brexit plan, the 12-point plan that she outlined in January this year? Apprently they don't. I have just voted in a Daily Telegraph poll, declaring that I do not believe she will be able to achieve any of the items on her wish list, for that is what it reads like. Intrestingly, I was promptly informed that 51 per cent of the people who had voted didn't think she would or could achieve her ultimate exit Brexit either. 

Mrs May probably knows this, which may explain why she goes on addressing what looks like small groups of placard-bearing offspring of Daily Telegraph readers. In an outfit seemingly inspired by Sydney Opera House and the memory of female power-dressing in the 1980s, she bounced her Brexit message about as though she was leading a fitness exercise at a Sunday School meeting.

Is this all part of a cunning plan to lose the General Election to the Labour Party? You never know. Labour, unlike the Conservatives, has not been mandated to take the UK out of the European Union via Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Their policy is to stay in the Single Market while negotiating the UK's gradual withdrawal from the political structure of the EU, with its single currency, federal foreign policy and European defence force. 

I imagine that most middle-of-the-road Tories, not obsessed by immigration, wish that was their party's policy. Well, they know now how they can achieve that on June 8. There is historical precedent for this. Before the February 1974 General Election, former Tory Cabinet Minister Enoch Powell MP encouraged fellow Conservatives to vote Labour, which was then opposed to the UK's memberhsip of the exclusive Brussels club. The Tories were defeated.

Handy dandy, how things turn around. Next week Conservatives should vote Labour if they want to keep the UK as a trading partner in the European Union's Single Market.

Either accidentally or cunningly covertly, Mrs May, long a campaigning Remainer, has single-handedly brought about this state of affairs. Her rather forced, stage-managed public appearances, in contrast make Jeremy Corbyn's look a little more relaxed, even to the bearded wonder taking time out to wax lyrical to ITV's Robert Peston about the stress-reducing pleasures of tending his allotment.  

In what amounts to a complete change of climate, more tangible than President Trump's public coitus interruptus from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, reporters are now considering seriously the possibility of a porridge-eating Arsenal supporter in 10 Downing Street on June 9.

In the words of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - it was fifty years ago today - "I've got to admit it's getting better/ A little better all the time (it can't get much worse..").

Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Enemy of the People

One of the conceits of pundits - journalists, broadcast commentators and bloggers such as me - is that what they say about Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn (or any other subject) makes a groat's worth of difference to public opinion.

In the course of the current General Election campaign the words and actions of the two main protagonists have probably made more difference than anything said about them by self-styled opinion formers.

Conservative Party strategists, who have made a dog's breakfast of things so far, probably won't reconsider attacking Jeremy Corbyn as the friend of anti-western terrorism after his speech on Friday night in which he urged a re-think of British foreign policy. I expect him to be portrayed as the devil incarnate, the enemy of the people, hell bent on selling out this country to those who want to destroy it (unlike Ted Heath and the European Communities Act in 1972, say)

The weakness of Mr Corbyn's otherwise reasonable argument is that British foreign policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan did not cause the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on the United States: they preceded George W Bush's War on Terror and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Moreover, the US aided and abetted the military retreat from Afghanistan by the Soviet Union's Red Army by supplying Islamic Mujahedeen fighters such as Osama Bin Laden with tank-busting rocket-bombs and ground-to-air missiles. Bin Laden showed his gratitude by directing his holy warriors against what the Islamic Republic of Iran used to call 'The Great Satan'. The bearded one's excuse was he didn't like American-led Coalition forces camping out in Saudi Arabia, location of Islam's holiest places, prior to Operation Desert Storm.

Probably the person least surprised by the outrage expressed in the media is Jeremy Corbyn. "Everybody knows my views about nuclear weapons," he said somewhat wearily to Andrew Neil during last Friday's TV badgering interrorgation. Indeed. The general public knows that while he doesn't condone acts of terrorism he doesn't go in for the demonisation of those designated as terrorists.

This aspect of Corbynism troubles some Labour MPs and undecided voters. Even though governments usually end up doing deals with those they have called terrorists - Nelson Mandela, Martin McGuiness, Archbishop Makarios, George Washington - do we want a prime minister who has shared public platforms with Hamas and the IRA?

Demonising Corbyn, much as the hapless Michael Foot was demonised and ridiculed during the 1983 General Election campaign, is not guaranteed to shore up Tory election fortunes in general and the crumbling public esteem of Theresa May in particular. Not in the age of social media where people talk to one another instead of being talked at by pundits and politicians. Short of accusing Corbyn of treason, what else can the opposition throw at him as he goes on meeting, greeting and disarming people round the country, much as he did when campaigning for the leadership of the Labour Party?

Were I a Tory strategist I would counsel a different course. Concentrate on putting more hope and faith in our own strategy, I would say; don't risk making our chances worse by smearing the opposition. But then I would also feel obliged to advise Wonder Woman to stop bigging herself up at the expense of the party and her colleagues. Andrew Rawnsley shrewdly observed that her 'I, me, myself' approach, based on pre-election poll ratings against Jeremy Corbyn, has back-fired and Mrs 'Strong and Stable' is now regarded as Mrs 'Weak and Wobbly'.  

In years gone by the media believed that it shaped public opinion and determined the outcome of general elections. After the 1992 General Election - lost by Labour rather than won by the Conservatives - The Sun published a front-page banner headline: 'It was the Sun Wot Won it'.

Actually that claim is disputable. My view at the time was that Labour's then-leader Neil Kinnock inadvertently lost the General Election by sounding prematurely triumphalist and presdidential at a pre-election rally in Sheffield. "We're all right! We're all right! We're all right!" he announced to whooping Labour Party members. There was something of Welsh chapel conviction in Mr Kinnock's delight; but I'm sure that to the public at large he sounded presumptuous, too full of himself. A little more self-deprecation was called for.

"Well, who'd have thought it?" a surprised John Major self-deprecatingly told Conservative colleagues after the result. Like Jeremy Corbyn, the self-effacing Major had gone around the country with a soapbox and a little megaphone to address ordinary people, a strategy that appeared to be pedestrian and out-of-date at the time. But Mr Major was right. He relied on Mr Kinnock being overly impressed by favourable opinion polls and putting his foot in it.  

What is said is usually less important than how it is heard. Intentions count for nothing.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Bombing Manchester...Revisited

If 22-year-old Salman Abedi had taken the trouble to look at the history of World War II he might have changed his mind about bombing Manchester's Arena.

From his point of view he succeeded in killing 22 and injuring at least 59 infidels - age makes no difference to Islamic suicide bombers. For him martyrdom meant killing others. For us, meaning non-Islamic believers or non-believers, self-sacrifice means saving the lives of others. He must have come to think of himself as a man with a mission and as such above the consequences of his actions.

But let this difference - cultural, religious or otherwise - pass. As I have pointed out before, post-1945 the British people have been subjected to bomb attacks here and all over the world by sundry groups of fanatics. Probably, Salman Abedi had heard of this. I suspect he knew less about what happened between 1940 and 1945 to his home town of Manchester and other British cities. He would have done, of course, if modern British history was still taught in schools or even university. The BBC say he attended Salford University, so he wasn't one of the wretched of the earth; more like one of those misguided educated people besotted by nihilism that you find in 19th century Russian novels by Turgenev and Dostoyevsky: wanting to sweep everything away, blow up everything, to clear the way for a puritanical future.

In summary: More than 48,000 people were killed by Nazi bombs dropped from aircraft and V1 and V2 ballistic missiles launched from sites in Northern Europe. The maimed and wounded numbered many thousands. London alone had a million houses smashed or badly damaged. Coventry, Liverpool, Plymouth, Glasgow, Swansea and many other towns and cities all suffered loss of life and refuge.

Salman Abedi would have learned that more than 1,400 Manchester people were killed by Nazi bombs, in Collyhurst, Salford, Stretford, all over. The Old Trafford football ground was so badly damaged that after the war Manchester United was obliged to share Manchester City's Maine Road stadium.

But beyond these facts and figures Abedi would also have learned that the Nazis lost the war in spite of all the civilians they killed and injured; their bombers made no difference to their ultimate fate: they were crushed. Murdering and shredding children at a pop concert is not only disgusting, it's a waste of life and time. In this respect US President Donald Trump was right to categorise suicide bombers as life-hating 'losers'. They love death the way most people love life.

Far from frightening ordinary people and cowing national leaders the bombing of Britain during World War II resulted in black humour and a desire to hit back even harder. People adapted and carried on. And, such is the national habit of self-deprecation, carrying on gave rise to a series of comedy films after the war, the Carry-on series. All that Salman Abedi achieved was to bring together hundreds of people, probably thousands, who had little to do with one another before he detonated his nail bomb.

Taxi-firms offered free rides to people who escaped from Manchester Arena. Hotels offered rooms and food. Countless individuals reportedly did the same on social media. Off-duty NHS staff went into work. People queued at blood-banks. I am told that a couple of homeless men offered their help as well.  Everybody in old Mad-chester, as it used to be known in the 1980s, wanted to help. This touched me more deeply than the official voices expressing the usual post-outrage platitudes.

With armed policemen and armed soldiers patrolling busy public places, Salman Abedi has succeeded in making an impact beyond the families of the killed and injured.The understable emotion this has generated is only now starting to clear a little from news reporting so that more questioning voices can be heard.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

May Watch...Revisited

In the 2015 General Election I voted for the Conservatives because they were the only political party with a realistic chance of power to promise a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union empire.

Now that Theresa May shows every sign of buggering up the opportunity to re-define Britain's relationship with the EU that the Referendum result provided - and saddling us with complicated and extremely expensive arrangements as well - I shall be voting for another party on June 8. Which one? Probably Labour. Why? Because they don't want to rip Britain out of the European Single Market as precipitously as the Prime Minister. I'm not sure how Jeremy Corbyn's party would honestly negotiate Britain's escape from the political Laocoon of the EU; but you could say exactly the same and much more about the Conservative Party's mystery Brexit strategy as well. 

The Conservative election manifesto is another reason. As a State pensioner, why should I vote for a party that promises to attack the security of my main source of income? As a citizen, why should I support a party that intends to go after the elderly and infirm at one end and the welfare of school children at the other? I don't believe Conservatives are natural-born bastards - an interesting mixed metaphor there. I just don't feel remotely sympathetic to what's behind Mrs May's creepy quest for a Parliamentary majority big enough to crush all valid political opposition. Why should I be interested in supporting that kind of one-party dictatorship? New Labour under Tony Blair got a landslide majority twice in 1997 and 2001 and what good did that do, ultimately, either for the party or the country? 

The more I see of Theresa May on television - those spindly arms, legs and fingers - I am reminded of the blood-sucking creature played by Max Schreck in Robert Maunau's 1922 silent film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. She excels at not answering questions - one of Sir Humphrey Appleby's essential qualities for cabinet ministers and prime ministers. When button-holed by a woman troubled about reduced help for people with learning difficulties and other disabilities, Mrs May tried to give this unfortunate woman a run-down on relevant proposals in the Conservative manifesto. Even a bear of staggeringly little brain such as myself could see that what was required was a bit of genuine empathy for this woman's plight. Listen to the poor old dear, don't lecture her. My memory of Theresa May as David Cameron's Home Secretary is of her being booed by members of the Police Federation. Why would they, why should we, cheer her now? She was a bit of a disaster during her six years as Home Secretary, when immigration was at its highest (it fell by 80,000 last year, when she was no longer in charge of it). What difference will she make from June 9 if the Conservatives get the majority that the polls a week ago were suggesting?

The idea that Labour's Corbynistas might close the gap at all - let alone by five points - was as unlikely as the idea of Mike Tyson sitting at home at night in Nevada watching British television series about the Tudors. I daresay even among Conservatives die-hards there are voters put off by the way Theresa May's team have superimposed themselves on the General Election campaign where the emphasis is on Mrs M and the team rather than the party. Dial M for what? Not Murder, as in the Hitchcock movie; but Mayhem. Besides, my bullshit detector does not respond well to collectives, be they 'communi-ies', 'team GB' or 'team May'. 

Every time I try to discuss Theresa May's perceived short-comings the riposte invariably comes back: 'So you think Jeremy Corbyn is better do you?' What I think about Mr Corbyn, such as it is, can be found in the blog previous to this one. He might be in his own way another political arse who says one thing, does another and makes pledges and promises impossible to keep. However, I feel less edgy about giving him a chance to prove his worth than I do Mrs May. You may say this is because Mr Corbyn's Labour Party has as much chance of winning on June 8 as I do of scratching a £1 lottery card and winning £100,000. There may be truth in that. But so far Labour, as represented by Mr Corbyn, feels less of a threat to my future well-being than the Conservatives, as represented by their leader.

The latest Youguv opinion poll, according to Newsnight, puts the Conservatives only five points ahead of Labour - 43 to 38. I await the all-out media onslaught. Nasty piece of work though Mrs May was as Home Secretary, she was reportedly good at making sure that others took the blame when things went wrong, as they usually did. Strong and stable? I don't think so.

Friday, 12 May 2017

The Fifth General Election in Sixteen Years

Since the year of my birth, 1949, sixteen British general elections have resulted in nine Conservative governments and seven Labour.

Two or three took place every ten years throughout the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. Since the Millenium we’ve had four and by June 8 those will be joined by a fifth: five general elections between 2001 and 2017; three since 2010 when the Conservative-Liberal-Democrat Coalition brought in fixed five-year parliaments. Didn’t last long, did it?

When you feel stumped to say anything remotely interesting or amusing about what should be an important political event in the life of the nation, you can always resort to nostalgia (fings ain’t what they used to be) and facts (16 elections since 1949).

Evidently I would like to say something about the current campaign; but what? Were I a betting man I’d be inclined to take a punt on Labour coming up on the blind side of the other parties and winning by a head on June 8. It’s only the polls that say the Tories can’t lose because they are 16 points ahead and the polls, as we know from the 2015 General Election, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour’s Leader, and last June’s EU Referendum, are rarely wrong.

No, no, not fourth time around, according to media reports. Voters love Labour’s manifesto proposals to nationalise the railways, put more money into education and the NHS, scrap university tuition fees, guarantee the triple lock on state pensions and take more tax from people earning more than £80,000 a year. What voters don’t like or don’t trust is Jeremy Corbyn, they add.

I’ve heard stalwart Labour voters in various parts of the country say as much on television  news vox pops. None of them said Mr Corbyn was unlikable as a human being or untrustworthy as an MP: most of them just didn’t think the former backbench Left-winger had the right stuff to be prime minister.

Americans vote for a president, but we vote for prospective party political candidates. Only constitutional levellers such as those who adhere to the six Chartist-style principles of the Harrogate Agenda maintain that a prime minister should be voted in by the public during a general election, not chosen by party members afterwards. The British Constitution does not permit that, but that’s the way we think and feel about political leaders: they represent more than themselves. Personalities, by a process of metonymy, come to stand for, or even stand in for, party policies. Therefore, Jeremy Corbyn, whom people don’t like as a potential leader, represents policies that they do like. 

With Theresa May the other way round appears to apply: the public doesn’t care for Tory principles of privatisation, public spending austerity, tuition fees, the level of overseas aid, immigration, and much else; but they feel that Mrs May is strong and dependable. I have heard female Labour voters in the North East say so on television. 

What grounds they have for saying that I have no idea, because reporters never ask them to explain what they mean or give a couple of examples of strength and independence from a Prime Minister whose actions don’t always live up to her words.

The nature of the job inevitably means that is going to happen because politicians, not even prime ministers and presidents, control events. For example, a few months ago Mrs May maintained that she had no interest in calling an early general election; then on April 18 she called one. Surprise, surprise. Oh Laura Kuenssberg. Oh Robert Peston. Oh Andrew Neil. Did any of these oracles see it coming? 

The Prime Minister does her best to sound decisive and look leader-like in front of television cameras; but that’s precisely what I think she is: an impression, style without substance, though I’m not sure about the style either.

Her preference for appearing in public in those bum-freezer jackets, high-belted trousers and flat shoes has drawn much comment and amusement already. But when I bother to think about this, I ask myself if this slightly stooping, grey-haired vicar’s daughter really does have the political moxie to ensure that Brexit means Brexit when she comes up against the true enemies of Brexit – the hard Right of the Tory Party.

She’s better at giving impressions whereas Jeremy Corbyn struggles with sounding or appearing like anything other than he is. So the public apparently likes the manifesto policies he represents but doesn’t like him. With Theresa May the reverse applies, as though they believe she is able to and capable of adjusting reality to live up to their hopes and expectations.

Tony Blair was exceptionally good at that kind of political legerdemain. David Cameron also but to a lesser degree. Jeremy Corbyn, I would say, does not. He has four weeks to convince voters, at least the ones he meets at rallies, that far from being a charlatan or opportunist he really is as good as his word.

As I said, if I was a betting man I’d be inclined to wager against the polls. Just in case. And in the hope that the outcome of this election isn't as predictable as Masterchef.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

The Poet From Zima Junction

On Saturday night the writer who probably should have been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, died in the United States at the age of 84. That was also the night that Bob Dylan, the man who got the prize instead, was in Stockholm to collect his medal and the cheque worth about $900,000. Nice work if you can get it. Perhaps the protean Dylan, whose latest recording is a triple album of American songbook classics, should add George Gershwin's Nice Work if You Can Get it song to his sad old crooner's repertoire.

Yevtushenko's poetry made him world famous long before Bob Zimmerman from Minnesota changed his name in New York City. I read somewhere that the Russian, born in 1934 in the Siberian district of Zima, on the Trans-Siberian railway, near the Oka river, was nominated for the Nobel poetry prize in 1963 when he was just 19. By that time he had been to America and had recited his poems at the Oxford Union. W H Auden also recited by heart, or rather chanted in that trans-Atalantic twang that he had, but without Yevtushenko's fist-clenching, finger-pointing charisma.

I've Googled him up and heard him recite in both Russian and English. In his native tongue he accentuated consonants, grinding them together like techtonic plates in the way that Ted Hughes used to do in the Sixties. Maybe Russians naturally roll their 'r's'. I've also heard the late Andrei Voznesensky recite and he was much the same, relishing the hard consonants and the softer vowels. 

Poetasters in this country can only look back in envy. To be acknowledged as a poet in the former Soviet Union, during the period after Nikita Krushchev's denounciation of Stalin and Test Ban Treaty preceding the Cuba Missile Crisis of 1962, meant that the public had high expectations of you. This is part of a biographical note on the end-papers of Yevtushenko's 1963 book A Precocious Autobiography, a work of prose which should have been written as poetry:-

In the moral crisis which followed the revelation of Stalin's crimes, Yevtushenko,an ardent believer in the ideals of of the early Revolution and the need to 'restore their purity', found his public role as the poet of the young people, whose response was overwhelming. His editions of 100,000 sold out instantly, crowds of 14,000 flocked to hear him read at the Moscow Stadium. His controversial poem against anti-semitism, Babiy Yar (set to music by Shostakovich) brought him 40,000 letters from all corners of the country...

That 61-line poem is among the selection of his work published in this country in 1963 in the Penguin Modern European Poets series (it cost two shillings and sixpence for me to buy, just over 12p in today's decimated coinage). Babiy Yar was the site of a massacre of about 30,000 Jews by the Nazis in World War II. The young Yevtushenko used the past to make a jabbing point about the present in his country, brashly identifying himself with the persecuted:-

Today I am as old as the Jewish race.
I seem to myself a Jew at theis moment.
I, wandering in Egypt.
I, crucified. I perishing.
Even today the mark of ther nails.
I think also of Dreyfus. I am he.
The Philistine my judge and accuser...

The person who irritatedly annotated in red pen the copy of A Precocious Autobiography that I bought for £2.50 in Oxford in 1984 migh have thought those lines pretentious and self-conscious. I didn't uinderstand the true import of Yevtushenko until I remembered the Russsian man I saw striding along either the King's Road or Fulham Road in Chelsea. He was bare-chested, wore a folksy cap perched on his head and was bellowing out what I took to be opera. I can imagine Ernest Hemingway doing that. I can't imagine Alan Bennett doing that. Russians, I concluded, must be like Americans: larger-than-life. Not the average English writer's cup of tea.

The slim Penguin volume is largely taken up with a poem of greater length and stature, I think, than Babiy Yar. The autobiographical Zima Junction, 32-pages long, chronicles a long visit home to his family and friends at a time when the young Yevtushenko had come under fire from Communist Party hacks. It is reflective, lyrical and observant. It's as remarkable as some of the young Bob Dylan's songs of the 1960s: Don't Think Twice, It's Alrigh; One Too Many Mornings; Chimes of Freedom; My Back Pages; It Ain't Me Babe; Bob Dylan's Dream. The precocious Dylan too wrote autobiographically about escaping from expectations and definitions laid on him by others.

Unafraid of sounding sententious, Yevtushenko described how Zima Junction the place had spoken to him and told him not to be afraid of his emotions:-

Don't worry. Yours is no unique condition,
your type of search and conflict and construction,
don't worry if you have no answer ready
to the lasting question.
Hold out, meditate, listen.
Explore. Explore. Travel the world over.
Count happiness connatural to the mind
more than truth is, and yet
no happiness to exist without it.
Walk with a cold pride
utterly ahead
wild attentive eyes
head flicked by the rain-wet,
green needles of the pine,
eyelashes that shine 
with tears and with thunders.
Love people.
Love entertains its own discrimination.
Have me in mind, I shall be watching.
You can return to me.
Now go.

That poem is immediately followed by one that opens:-

Telling lies to the young is wrong.
Proving to them that lies are true is wrong.
Telling them that God is in his heaven
and all's well with the world is wrong.
The young know what you mean. The young are people.
Tell them the difficulties can't be counted
and let them see not only what will be
but see with clarity these present times....
To hell with it. Who never knew
the price of happiness will not be happy...

I'll take that any day instead of the infantile nonsense, the prattle, that comes at me from radios and loud-speakers in shops, offices, the gym, everywhere I go in fact.

I would prefer to believe that Yevtushenko's Russian nationality had nothing to do with the Nobel Prize committee's decision to give the big one to Bob Dylan, after all his antecedents were Russian Jews. The old Yevtushenko might have swanked a bit, but what would he have been without that swagger of self-confidence? 

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Lady's Not for Turning - Back

March 29: the day British Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May officially informed the European Union of the UK's intention to withdraw from the project.

Significant rather than historic, I think; Mrs May's letter to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, merely 'triggered' Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, formally the first day of a two-year divorce.

The truly historic day happened nine months ago on June 23, 2016, when the British people voted in a referendum to leave the EU. Today only happened as a result of that event. Had the referendum gone the other way today would have been more or less like any other, except that David Cameron would still be Prime Minister.

Why Mrs May chose today to kiss off the EU on behalf of the nation rather than May 29 or July 29, is anybody's guess. She may have felt that delaying an announcement would only be the cause of more irritation among hard-line leavers within the Conservative Party and uncertainty nationwide.

A political bonus for the Prime Minister is the determination of Scottish Nationalists in Edinburgh to whip themselves up to fever pitch about a second Independence referendum for Scotland. They lost the first one in 2014 and on the evidence of what I've seen and heard in the Highlands over the past few years the SNP will lose the second one as well. I wouldn't be surprised if they even lost the next General Election.

I spent today reading a proof copy of The Gallows Pole, a novel by Ben Myers based on real events in West Yorkshire's Calder Valley between 1767 and 1770, a period of transition when industrial England was taking shape in the form of factories, roads and canals. The old ways for the rural poor, including defrauding the currency, were ending.

At no point during today did I feel the hand of history on my shoulder. I may not live long enough to see the day when Britain really does cast off from the European Union's political project. Many other events are likely to happen between now and then that will determine the eventual outcome: elections in France and Germany, for example; the stability of other EU members such as Greece and Italy; the state of the euro as a currency; to say nothing of events in the United States, Russia and the Middle East.

Mrs May said there is no turning back for Britain; but who's to say what will happen behind her back? She would do well to remember the fate of Margaret Thatcher. She got the Julius Caesar treatment from Tory patricians like Edward Heath, Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine, because she wasn't as keen on the European project as they were. Some of them are still able to make a nuisance of themselves. Are they going to sit back and await the outcome of events?

I was around when the late Tory MP and former cabinet Minister Enoch Powell urged Conservative voters to support the Labour Party in the 1974 General Election because at that time Labour policy was to seek withdrawal of Britain's membership from the European Economic Community, as the project was then called. Mr Powell thought it was a stitch-up that we would come to regret. Labour's Tony Benn held the same opinion.

Winning occasional battles does not guarantee ultimate victory. The bloodiest slaughter on British soil occurred on March 29, 1461. Thousands of men were killed and maimed when supporters of Edward, Duke of York, overcame the forces of Henry V1 at Towton in Yorkshire. But the House of York only reigned supreme until the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Goodbye Richard 111, vivat Henry V11 and the Tudors.

And on March 29, 1912, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, died in a tent at the South Pole, having been beaten to his objective by Norwegian explorer Roal Amundsen. "The end cannot be far," he wrote in his diary. It wasn't for Scott. His body is still out there, under ice, snow and a cairn of rocks.

For Britain it's neither the end of the beginning nor the beginning of the end. Until the decree nisi is formally declared in March 2019 or later, this country is still a member of the European Union. To paraphrase blogger and FLEXCIT author Richard A E North: Brexit is a process, not an event.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

On Westminster Bridge...

"The world has not anything to shew more fair," wrote William Wordsworth after returning to his London lodgings from Westminster Bridge.

What the poet saw on that early September morning in 1803 is warmly described in the remaining thirteen lines of his sonnet.

His poem came to mind after I watched the television news about the killings and injuries inflicted on Westminster Bridge and inside the grounds of the Palace of Westminster by Khalid Masood, a follower of IS. Islamic State reportedly called him "a soldier of Islam". And that's maybe how he saw himself as he drove the car towards his target, justifying to his conscience what he intended to do.

IS and all the other jihadist righteous brothers bent on annihilating infidels make a great deal out of putting the love of god beyond all other considerations. Their interpretation of struggle embraces self-sacrifice and murder; the taking of life is their ticket to paradise.

I have remarked before on the absolving attraction of fatalism for those who find modern life fearful, complicated and demanding. Removing all responsibility from yourself, and hence culpability for what you do, is not simply the behaviour of the religious fanatic of a particular kind: throughout history it has been the mark of every zealot.

In The Open Society and its Enemies, the philosopher Karl Popper gave a name to this kind of depersonalised idealism: historicism. Only he had in mind not Muslims of a certain stripe, but Marxists, at least those who worshipped the trinity of Marx-Engels and Lenin, for whom the grand march of history, irrespective of human cost, over-ruled every other consideration. "One death is a tragedy: a millions deaths is a statistic," said that great 20th Century cynic Joseph Stalin.

Stalin was many other things as well, but he best fits Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic: One who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

That could be applied to the bearded leaders of IS, the Taliban and other jihadist movements, though one has to say, if paradise is as desirable as they claim why don't they offer themselves as suicide foot-soldiers? In the various forms of Christianity a martyr gives his own life to save the life of others, not take it. The embodiment of this belief, as reality and symbol, is Jesus Christ.

Whether or not the people in the vicinity of Westminster Bridge yesterday afternoon were practicing Christians doesn't matter. In the confusion and terror of the moment it is what those people did that counts. I saw the television-footage of people running towards those who lay on the bridge; I heard the same exclamations that I heard when the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center imploded on the morning of September 11, 2001: "Oh my god, oh my god, my god, Jesus Christ."

Today I was deeply touched by some of the sentiments expressed both inside and outside the House of Commons. All the big talk about liberty, democracy, tolerance belonged to yesterday in the ambiguous aftermath of ill-reported events. Realistically, you wouldn't expect anything else. Today I didn't hear many big words. Instead the talk was of ordinary people getting on with life, staying together, helping each other. Practicing curmudgeon that I am, my heart said yes to that although my mind remains on alert for the usual excuse that such attacks are a reaction to Islamophobia. I have been hearing that since the burning of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses in Bradford in 1989.

I could have taken the entirely cynical view that what happened in Westminister was a beneficial crisis as a result of which all manner of restrictions and curtailments of personal freedom would be justified by the authorities as a necessary part of the continuing war on terror.

This, by the way, was the very theme of three BBC film documentaries made in 2004 that I watched yesterday and the day before. The Power of Nightmares contended that ever since the United States aided the Mujahideen insurgency against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, a symbiotic relationship has developed between neoconservatist and liberal values in the West and Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The power and influence of both relied on creating and maintaining a climate of fear.

It was asserted, for example, that the idea of an international network of Islamic terrorists called Al Qaeda, ready and willing to rise up and strike the West at the behest of Osama Bin Laden and others was a phantasy deliberately connived and perpetuated by politicians in Washington and London.

In the blood-light of the bombings, shootings, car-kills and stabbings all over the world after 2004, including those in London in July 2005 and May 2013, that thesis sounds specious.    

More convincing to me was Antonia Bird's 2004 film The Hamburg Cell, a dramatisation of the recruitment of the 9/11 jihadists in Germany and their subsequent undercover training as pilots in the United States. Reportedly made after two years of research, the film showed that an extensive network of jihadists did indeed exist. This network supplied money, equipment, ideological support and auxiliary backup. The men chosen to fly the planes were all encouraged to believe fervantly that they were heading for paradise. The American Airlines jet planes would be their firey angels, their chariots of fire, carrying them to everlasting bliss.

The Power of Nightmares ends with a summary statement to the effect that fear of a phantiom enemy is all that politicians have left to assert their power and influence. A society that believes in nothing is more liable to be frightened of people who believe ardently in something.

Up to a point Lord Copper. A year ago today a dear friend of mind died. Lesley and I were on our way to London on the morning of his death at home, a place we had come to love. This man, John Pashley, always professed to be an atheist. But in terms of his behaviour in the lives of others he was a practitioner of the values of the Sermon on the Mount. From what I saw and heard on television, I would say the same applies to the people on and around Westminster Bridge yesterday.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Great Bastards

According to the BBC, Great Bustards are "on the point" of becoming self sustainable in the UK for the first time in 185 years.
"The world's heaviest flying bird was hunted to extinction in the country, with the last bustard shot in 1832. Over the past 13 years, a population of about 50 birds has been established from chicks brought in from Russia and Spain. It is hoped that by 2019 the number of "release birds" will have reached 100."

At first I mis-read "Bustards" for "Bastards", an understandable mistake in the circumstances; I had been glancing over the headlines about George Osborne's six jobs including the editorship of the London Evening Standard.

If the published salary estimates are accurate, David Cameron's former "Iron Chancellor" can be expected to clock up about £1.86m over 12 months. That's quite a stack of chips for Mr Austerity although nowhere near the pre-tax pay of footballers Wayne Rooney and Paul Pogba.

Three or four years ago Rooney and his agent persuaded Manchester United to agree a five-anad-a-half contract reportedly worth £350,000 a week, more than £80m for the duration.

Pogba, sold by Alex Ferguson for £1.5m to Juventus, was brought back to Old Trafford by Jose Mourinho for a reported £89m which surely makes the Frenchman the most expensive haircut ever to leave Italy.

Mourinho is very protective of the giraffe-like midfielder who has only shown flashes of ability in the matches he has played for United: against Chelsea in the FA Cup he was utterly outplayed by the smaller but more energetic N'golo Kante. The manager declared that people were jealous of Pogba's salary and so had it in for him.

My annual income is a single shred of orange in a jar of marmalade in comparison with what Osborne, Rooney and Pogba can spread on their toast every morning. But am I jealous of them? Not a jot. I don't live in their world, so you cannot judge like with like.

The only expectation I have is that they should be worth the dosh; for the money they are on they should be able to make a positive difference.

Lest that sound Gradgrindingly grudging, let me conclude this inconsequential post with a bit more of the BBC's news about Great Bustards (which reminds me of William Boot, the hapless bird-fancier-cum war correspondent in Evelyn Waugh's novel Scoop).

"An adult great bustard can be up to a metre (3ft) tall and weigh up to 44lb (20kg). Its wingspan can reach nearly eight feet (2.4m).The bustard's size made it an easy target for hunters, leading to its extinction."

Thursday, 9 March 2017

A Dog's Breakfast

What do you call a boomerang that doesn't come back? Answer: A stick. What is a party Manifesto pledge? Answer: Balls. What do you call a tax on pay that isn't officially a tax? Answer: An increase in National Insurance.

What is National Insurance for? Answer: State pensions, welfare benefits for sickness and unemployment and allowances. It's all part of the comprehensive safety net envisaged by William Beveridge seventy years ago to combat the the Five Giants of squalor, want, ignorance, disease and idleness. It wasn't intended to be a way of boosting central government reserves to pay the European Union up to £60 billion for leaving the European Empire.

Which brings me to an associated part of Philip Hammond's Spring budget announcement in the House of Commons: the £2 billion for extra social care provision over the next three years that the National Insurance hike for the self-employed is supposed to pay for.

Former Conservative Party chairman Norman Tebbitt has said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer's explanation - to equalise the contributions of the self-employed who pay a lower rate of tax with the tax contributions by the employed - is reasonable. Nevertheless, he described the budget as a "dog's breakfast".

What is a dog's breakfast exactly? Something that cats and human beings would find undigestible? The real question is this: Local authoritities already have the power to raise extra money from Council Tax to pay for Social Care. In view of the £2 billion tax grab from the self-employed for the same thing, will this power be removed from local authorities for the next financial year?

To this bear of astonishingly little brain, the uncertainty (a subject already covered in a previous blog) over Brexit is being used as an excuse to rack up price increases all round. The power company cartel, for example, is getting away with rises of up to 15 per cent. They blame mandatory carbon capture and lower emissions costs imposed by the European Union and signed up for by Ed Miliband when he was Gordon Brown's Secretary of State for the Environment.

The BBC, though, doesn't appear to be interested in the connection between higher energy prices and the cost of European Union legislation to the tax-payers of old Britannia.

The Corporation's bevvy of political and economics editors, though, have yet to find a way of blaming Donald Trump for the Chancellor's dog's breakfast. Give them time.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Trump, Trump, Trump...

Brexiteers continue the civil war that's been going on ever since former Prime Minister David Cameron announced the unbelievable news that UK voters would actually have a referendum on membership of the European Union.

Mr Cameron's successor, Theresa May, set the warring factions against each other again this week - intentionally or otherwise - by making a speech at London's Lancaster House in which she declared that Britain would be leaving the EU single market, at some time, in some way. Lancaster House was the place where Margaret Thatcher declared emphatically that membership of the single market was a really good thing. She may even have believed that, for a while.

While some Brexiteers like Nigel Farage cheer on Mrs May and, with Donald Trump as President of the United States, look forward to another Thatcher-Reagan era, others, some of whom publicly welcomed her as the best possible successor to David Cameron, are now prophecing catastrophe. Is it a car crash? No. Is it a train wreck? No. Is it a Jumbo Jet explosion? Almost certainly. What, then, does that make President Trump? Why, a nuclear holocaust of course. According to Polly Toynbee at least.

So, Brexit doesn't mean Brexit after all: it means Exit. The main thing that struck me about Mrs May's speech, though, was the outfit in which she chose to make it. The blue-green tartan bum-freezer jacket and matching trousers, hitched high round her middle, instantly reminded me of the Bay City Rollers, the 'tartan teen sensations' from Edinburgh whose biggest hit in the 1970s was Bye Bye Baby. The main difference between Mrs May and Les McKeown and the boys was that she wore flat shoes rather than boots with big heels.

Forty-odd years ago, while young Fionas, Daphnes and Theresas were leaping up and down with tartan scarves tied to their wrists, the man with a nose like a ship's rudder, Edward Heath, was tying Britain up to the European Economic Community, as it was then designated, assuring the nation that 'twas but a trading agreement, a market of six sovereign states. Thirty years later Uncle Ted superciliously admitted to BBC television reporter Michael Cockerall that it was in fact a political union.

No it wasn't. The 1972 European Communities Act was a web and sitting in the middle of it was the European Commission, spinning out ever more sticky strands to bind more and more member states together. The six became 28 or 27 plus 1. More nations need even more sticky rules, regulations, directives, thousands and thousands of them, many of them from international conglomerates a long way from Brussels. A great sticky ball of rules and regs larger than the Gordian Knot that Alexander the Great is said to have loosened with a single blow of his sword.

Is that what Theresa May has at the back of her mind, a single low to slice through thousands of strands of sticky red tape? Is that what President Trump has in mind as outlined in his inaugural speech attack on Washington's governing elite? - the talkers who do nothing but prosper while swathes of America turn into rusting tombstones. An unlikely image if you think about it, but President Trump is more a man of phrases than images. "The American carnage," was the phrase he used to describe the white collar crimes against America's blue collar industries.

Because I am easily distracted by trivialities, phrases from a popular song from the 1950s pinged into my mind before President Trump's big show in Washington. It goes:-

Nellie the Elephant packed her trunk

And said goodbye to the circus
Off she went with a trumpety-trump
Trump, trump, trump
Nellie the Elephant packed her trunk
And trundled back to the jungle
Off she went with a trumpety-trump
Trump, trump, trump

Nellie ended up on the road to Mandalay. Donald Trump unpacked his trunk in Washington, specifically at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I imagine him, the fuss of the great day over, taking off his trousers in the master bedroom, a day after ex-President Obama had put his on in the same room, perhaps, and turning to the First Lady, saying: "Melania honey, did you ever hear of the Bay City Rollers?" Chances are, of course, that Trump's pants could be tartan in honour of his mother's Scottish connection.

In response to all the Apocalypso Now doom-mongers, the time has come to echo that world-weary voice responding to the hapless J Alfred Prufrock in T S Eliot's poem and repeat:-

That is not it at all/ That is not what I meant, at all.

While it may be a mistake to impose the pattern of the past on the future, seeing in May-Trump another Thatcher-Reagan, I well recall that 1980 to about 1987 was a time of trouble, turbulence and fear, from Northern Ireland to Afghanistan. America was in retreat while the clunky Soviet Union was on the advance. Few foresaw in the mid-1980s the way things would work out by November 9, 1989 - the day when the German Democratic Republic accidentally abolished the Berlin Wall.

Perhaps it's not the great set-piece policy statements in London and Washington that make the real difference, except to the money changers, so much as unforeseen events along the way.   

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The Bow Wow Factor

Some people are apt to get really boring about the misuse of words and phrases on radio, television and in the press. I'm one myself. I can't watch or listen passively. The frequent misuse of 'iconic', 'awesome', 'fantastic' and lately 'wow' is yet another indicator, to me at least, of the way the public is being treated like a regressive infant.

Only the testy old Jeremy Paxman on University Challenge appears to have any expectation of audience intelligence or at least a ready willingness to understand. But I don't suppose many would think of judging the nation by the standards applied to University Challenge, more like Gogglebox.

The willingess to use ready-made words and phrases as unthinking expressions of surprise, shock, incredulity or amazement exists against a soundtrack of Munchkin muzak in supermarkets, gyms, cafes and other public places. So no surprise that at a time of emotional cliches in popular music, invariably about love, the tendency to talk in cliches, like, is bound to be more noticeable. That doesn't make it any more tolerable, though.

I've just watched a programme on BBC2 about home make-overs in which amateur designers are given £1,000 and a bit of help to change a room in a house in the space of 48 hours. In every instance, two of the three judges inspecting the make-overs uttered 'Wow' as they walked into the room. Not a short, to the point, 'wow' but a lingering 'wo-o-ow', as though Greg Wallace had fed the entire prodution team of Master Chef with five loaves and two fishes. When God surveyed the created universe you may be sure he did not say 'wow, 'awesome', 'fantastic' lor even, 'wow, thar's iconic.'

I have a family relative who, last time I saw her, had a really annoying way of using the expression 'okay'. In response to virtually any new piece of information she replied, 'okaaaay?' interogatively, as though what you had told her was subject to some kind of commission of inquiry for validation. This is the same as saying 'right?' That little qualifier so common in conversation nowadays which indicates that the person using it is checking constantly that you are following his or her drift. Usually the subject is not at all difficult to follow, just bloody tedious, right?

Listen dog, next time you talk to me leave your wows in the kennel where they belong. Likewise awesome, fantastic and iconic. Either find a way of expressing what you think or feel or, if you feel and think nothing worth saying, then keep your mouth shut. Nod instead or shake your head.