Monthly Archives: October 2016

Who Are You Calling a Hypocrite?

We don’t like it when someone calls us a hypocrite.

Shami Chakrabarti
Shami Chakrabarti

This week, Shami Chakrabarti, Shadow Attorney General, has been accused of just such that. The accusation stems from the revelation that she sends her son to a fee-paying school. (Incidentally, it’s the same one that “man of the ordinary people” Nigel Farage attended.) As a member of the Shadow Cabinet, many would expect her principles to dissuade her from buying (at £18,000 per year) apparent advantage for her own child. This was just after she’d been interviewed by Robert Peston stating she disapproved of grammar schools. There’s a prima facie case of double standards.

The Progressive Parent’s Dilemma

I have some sympathy with Shami’s plight. In the 1990s, my wife and I went through agonies deciding where to send our son to secondary school. We felt that he was probably, temperamentally and socially, slightly more suited to a more traditional academic approach offered by one of the fee-paying schools in the area. Fortunately for us, my son’s strong preference for going to a co-educational school tipped the balance towards the local comprehensive. (All the private schools were single-sex at the time.) So our dilemma was resolved in favour of a state education.

But there’s more. My second son went through a period when he was struggling with maths. We paid for him to have private one-to-one tuition for a few months to catch up. The story ends happily with both getting good university degrees which set them on the path to a successful future. But the sterner moralists will accuse us of cheating by paying for an educational leg-up not available to the poorest of us. I confess!

Making the choice between our finer principles as members of society and the best interests of our children is never easy. I just think we need to acknowledge our frailties and ask people to be a bit more forgiving.

The Upper House Dilemma

The Chakrabarti story contains another accusation of hypocrisy, this time against Jeremy Corbyn. It was he who nominated Shami for membership of the House of Lords after forty-plus years of demanding its reform. Corbyn has also rightly criticised the Tories for parachuting friends and allies into the Lords and then into the Cabinet. One that worked out really badly was David (Lord) Young, whom Thatcher appointed to Trade and Industry Secretary in her Cabinet. Young never understood the difference in approach needed between the business world and politics and he’s generally seen as having been a disaster in the job. In this case, I believe the accusation of hypocrisy is more justified.

Tony Benn
Tony Benn

But it’s interesting also to reflect on the case of Tony Benn (Westminster School and Oxford). He inherited the title of Viscount Stansgate in 1960, disqualifying him from continuing in the Commons. (An interesting backstory is how he came to inherit the title. Firstly, his father was made a peer by no other than Winston Churchill. Secondly, and sadly, his elder brother was subsequently killed in the second World War.) Benn campaigned successfully for legislation (The Peerage Act 1963) which enabled him to renounce his peerage and stand once more for election as an MP. Benn was strongly of the view that, only by being elected by his constituents could he have legitimate moral authority for Parliamentary office. (There are further amusing and ironic twists to the tale. The Wikipedia entry for Benn, paragraph headed “Peerage Reform”, is well worth a read!)

My final point concerns the views of many of Benn’s political opponents. Much of the hatred and vitriol poured on him by many Tories flows, I believe, from one thing. Benn was “one of them” (i.e. aristocracy) and his principles led him to reject the whole House of Lords setup. To them, being a class traitor was a far greater sin than being a hypocrite.

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Shove It in Your Cakehole

Leading UK politicians, including the deluded triumvirate leading Britain’s exit negotiations with the EU, keep asserting we can have a special deal: to have our cake and eat it. Donald Tusk, European Council leader, yesterday spoke about cake. Mark the words, and the tone:

“To all those who believe in it, I propose a simple experiment. Buy a cake, eat it, and see if it is still there on the plate. The brutal truth is that Brexit will be a loss for all of us. There will be no cakes on the table. For anyone. There will be only salt and vinegar”.

Cake and empty plate
Cake…                                                             Gone!

The frustration is all too clear. The EU has some serious issues to contend with, which affect us all. Low economic growth, the euro’s “wobbles”, unprecedented flows of asylum seekers, terrorism and, last but by no means least, climate change. All require hard, collaborative work. The UK’s pleas for opt-outs and special deals have been an unwelcome distraction for many years. And now, another two years’ plus of negotiations to unravel 43 years’ worth of laws and regulations. Even the most saintly person’s patience would be wearing thin. And the deal has to be unanimously agreed with 27 other nations.

Post-Imperial Delusion

lord palmerston
Lord Palmerston

To digress: I went to school in the 1950s and 60s. I was born on the cusp of two generations. Those older than me were fed a diet of pure propaganda about the British Empire as unquestionably a good thing: the greatest empire the world has seen. Those younger were taught a more reflective, nuanced approach – but only a little. I can still remember the kids in my class cheering when the history teacher told us about Lord Palmerston sending in a gunboat to sort out Johnny Foreigner.

It’s a tragedy that a weak prime minister took the disastrously misjudged decision to hold an in-out EU referendum at this time, in the foolhardy hope of containing the schism in his party. For we had a situation where those spoon-fed the propaganda are more likely to vote than those who had a more balanced education about our imperial past. The leading Brexiteers are all steeped in post-imperial delusion. I’m sure that many of those voting leave did so just because of this. Another ten years and the balance of the electorate’s instincts would be different. Ah well, back to reality.

Cakes and Crisps

So, back to having your cake and eating it. I have a simple message for the cheerleaders for the so-called “hard Brexit”. I’m sick and tired of all the lies, the delusions. Treat us as adults, for goodness sake.  Tusk didn’t mince his words. Eat yours. And shove them up your cakehole.

Salt and vinegar crisps, anyone?

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Theresa: Who May She Be?

The end of the Tory Party conference has prompted me to ponder what kind of PM Theresa May will be, and hence what kind of government we now have.

Tory Women

It seems to me the Tories have always had some unease working out what to think of their women with power. (I suspect it’s because so many of them went to single-sex or boarding schools. Certainly the Cameroons seemed quite uncomfortable around women.) The traditional role of the loyal Tory wife (tea and sandwiches) won’t do. Instead, there’s the school matron dominatrix type (à la Thatcher) and the totally vacuous (Leadsom and Dorries are the obvious names that spring to mind). But now there also seems to be the mother hen, offering soothing comfort and a sense of stability.

Therea and Phillip May
Ed Balls would wipe the floor with this pair on Strictly!

On her recent performance, May seems to be pitching herself as a hybrid of the mother hen and the dominatrix: a weird mix! The slogan “A country that works for everyone” was plastered everywhere. It’s a soothing, comfort blanket of a phrase, utterly devoid of meaning: so a bit of vacuous with the mother hen, then. May had channelled her inner Thatcher before the conference: “Remind you of everyone?” at her maiden PMQ. This time, she accused Labour of being “the Nasty Party”. Good for a quick laugh from the faithful, but bad strategically. The delivery is laboured (no pun intended), clunky and it sounds bullying: nasty, in fact.

So it all means that she hasn’t yet settled on a tone for her premiership. The submarine remains partially submerged from view.

Mayism?

Yes, I know: a new, crap “ism” word. So, what can we deduce from the clearly signalled change of direction for the government? It’s a change for which, of course, she has no electoral mandate. We merely (MERELY??) had a yes/no referendum which asked one question (membership of EU) and which has been selectively spun to mean another (control immigration).

Let’s start with the good news. The single most welcome comment in May’s speech was the recognition of “the good that government can do”. This is a clear break from the small state Conservatism since Thatcher. Workers’ representation on company boards (the law for decades in Germany) and attacks on boardroom excessive pay and company tax avoidance are a straight steal from the Miliband songbook. These are to be welcomed – if she means it. The proof will be in what her government actually does on these matters. I’m highly sceptical.

But there’s plenty of bad news, some of it downright sinister. As Home Secretary, May always showed a very illiberal streak. Her “snoopers’ charter” and dislike of the whole human rights agenda is deeply troubling. Those in her sights include the “household name that refuses to work with the authorities even to fight terrorism”. The tone and message of that section of her speech sounded more like that of a Mussolini, Erdogan or Assad than that of the leader of a free country.

The other dangerous area of policy is in how she framed the break from the post-Thatcher orthodoxy of excessive individualism and self-interest. Her criticism of the “elite” deliberately conflates two very distinct groups. The first is designed to appeal to Labour and left-leaning voters: the greedy, selfish extremely rich 1% who have seen their wealth double since the 2008 crash. The second group is millions of socially progressive middle class people who are both socially liberal and who welcome the openness and multiculturalism of modern Britain. By this fudge, I fear she aims to pander to the intolerance and xenophobia of so-called “middle England”.

Small Island

I call this approach small-mindedness and an appeal to humans’ tribalism. I concede there is something socially useful in the idea of a community at a very local level: neighbours working together and collaborating for the common good. But May’s version is, deliberately, broader and vaguer than this. Expect the “tribe” to be defined by May in a multiplicity of ways: the street, the football team, the village, the small town, the country – but certainly never wider than the country. The left’s traditional internationalism is anathema to this world view. When it gets really sinister is when the “small-mindedness” world view gets applied to race or religion. We’ve seen more than enough of a rise in hate crime, xenophobia and bigotry since 23rd June. Under May’s leadership, expect more.

 

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New Fiver: 0 Out of 5

Have you held a new five pound note in your hand yet and taken a good look at it? I have: in a word, YUK! I have no problem with the fact it’s a polymer note. The Australians have had plastic money for over twenty years and other nations more recently also. My quibble is the design.

new five pound note
New Fiver

The images above, as seen on my computer screen, are flattering: in real life, the contrast is reduced and the overall impression is of a blue-grey sludge, particularly on the font. Think of some mould that’s grown over something in the fridge you should have thrown out weeks ago. Or think of some image or sign left out in the sun and the picture and colours have faded.

And just look at the typography and calligraphy. The bold “5” has disappeared, as it did when the £20 note was last changed. That, the fussy typeface and the low contrast all make life more difficult for thousands of visually impaired people. All those squiggles look like the work of a very bored six year old in a school writing lesson.

Apart, of course, from the faces of the two individuals portrayed, the note looks like it could have been designed at any time between the fifteenth century and the 1940s. In fact it’s worse than that, as early 20th century movements such as art deco had a lasting and wide impact on modern design principles.

Good Design

The UK is a world leader in good design. In diverse fields such as the arts, architecture and everyday household objects, we’re world class. For example, the London Tube Map, first published in the 1930s, is a design classic. The Design Council has been doing an excellent job for 70 years encouraging good design and new designers. It estimates that’s worth £71 billion a year, or 7% of the UK’s income (Gross Value Added to be technical). That’s nearly as much as the much valued (by politicians) financial services sector.

Original Tube Map
A Design Classic

Despite some internet research, I’ve not yet found any information telling me who was responsible for the design: certainly, the Design Council’s website search facility draws a blank. Whoever they were, they seem to be trapped in a time-warp bubble which significantly pre-dates the 21st century. The Bank of England does have a “Banknote Character Advisory Committee” (yes, really!) who are responsible for advising on which people’s faces appear on new banknotes. This Committee is reasonably diverse in its membership, which offers some hope. But for the actual design, does anyone know?

Oh, and one last thing: it should have been a coin.

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