Sunday, 19 February 2012

Peter Hain and Labour Could Not Be More Wrong

Apparently the former Welsh Secretary Peter Hain will attack independent councillors at today's Welsh Labour conference in Cardiff, saying they have "no manifesto, no plan and no clue - many of them (are) closet Tories".

Well, we can safely titter about the "closet Tories" reference from a spokesman for a party that introduced tuition fees, wanted to privatise the Royal Mail and recently all but backed the current government's austerity programme, but it is the "no clue" suggestion that intrigues me. It is, of course, a classic expression of the more or less universally held view amongst Labour Party apologists that politicians in general and Labour politicians in particular are "experts" in a field of activity that is too complex for "ordinary" people to grasp.

Let us consider one local example of how the "clueless" independents measure up to the Labour elite. The proposed closure of the St. John's Community Centre.

Now I'm not going to take a personal swipe at the Lead Member, who is also a ward member for Syon in which the Centre is situated, because I believe he genuinely worked hard on behalf of local people to achieve what would appear, at least for now, to be a more or less satisfactory outcome for the Centre and for the community that uses it. But maybe we should take a closer look at quite how this successful outcome was delivered.

First the impending closure is announced "subject to consultation". An economic case for closure, of sorts, is mooted. It is, apparently, losing money and the building is in need of repair. Fellow Labour councillors protest that the closure is necessary "to protect frontline services" (which in the view of the community the Centre is). Residents, organised by former independent councillors, march in protest. The Lead Member attends the march to find out what is going on and to meet and take questions from members of the public. The Lead Member then promises to go back to his officers and find out more information (during the course of all this activity it was brought to the Lead Member's attention by the community itself that former independent councillors had managed to set aside £250,000 precisely to fund the required repairs, a fact that not only officers but apparently also his own party colleagues had not bothered to share with him). Unable to get a response from his own officers, he is compelled to make a Freedom of Information Request to get an answer out of them. He gets an answer. There is, after all, no economic case for closure. The Centre will not be closed after all.

Compare this with the actions of independent ICG councillors during the previous administration.

Officers proposed the closure and sale of the property to the Conservative Lead Member, who presented it to his ICG colleagues for consideration. The ICG said no. Discussion over, proposal shelved.

The point of this post is not to suggest that the Labour Lead Member is in any way less talented, nor indeed less committed, than the ICG councillors who proceeded him. It is to demonstrate that councillors whose first allegiance is to a political party cannot, with the best will in the world, compete with decent independent councillors, because their hands are completely tied by the very system of which they, by their own choice, are locked into.

Peter Hain, in other words, is talking complete and utter tosh. But then what does he care? His concern begins and ends with achieving political power for his organisation. For him, as with them, that is the end as well as the means.

The people of Wales suffer as a consequence. But then what does it matter? They don't have a clue, after all.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Facing My Fear of Farewells

One thing that really saddens me more than anything else, and a thing I handle particularly badly, is farewells. Not only from people, but from places too. Some places just don’t do it for me but there are others where I seriously believe I pick up a spirit, and I feel a strange, almost “goosebumpy” sensation when I am there and that spirit is around me.

There is no rhyme or reason where some of these places are concerned. Abingdon in Oxfordshire is a pretty town in places, but there are prettier ones all along the Thames. Ham in Surrey is fairly nondescript. Cliftonville near Margate in Kent, once a cheerful seaside town, is but an empty shell. And yet for me they all have an inexplicable gravitational pull. Some people believe in ghosts in the form of human spirits, but for me there seems to be an energy generated by some past event or period of time that seems to linger, and which I reconnect with when I set foot in these places.

There is more logic to the affection I have for my little bolthole in Portugal. It is a very pleasant place, both aesthetically and in terms of the life I enjoy when I am here. I visit Portugal for a week every year. In fact this time around I was fortunate enough to have been able to enjoy two weeks in very quick succession, but that was sadly a one-off. I can’t afford two weeks every year, and timeshares are frankly a rip-off anyway.

For my last five visits my wife Caroline and my son Joe have not come over with me, for various good reasons, although my daughter Rosie has been with me for the last two. Of course I think the world of them both, but they can look after themselves and being away from them for a week doesn’t tug at the heartstrings all that much.

Being away from here for 51 weeks is a different matter. All sorts of irrational fears invariably report present. Will I be healthy enough to travel, or for that matter alive, this time next year? Will they have knocked the place to the ground? Will all the friends I like to think I have made here have found better jobs and moved on?

Because, obviously, it is about people too. On most holidays we meet people casually and sometimes we become friends with them. Then we all go home and usually we never see nor hear from them again.

The worst example of this I can think of was a coach trip that Caroline and I took to Austria back in 1996. For ten long days the same coach party is together, long journeys from place to place, meals together at restaurants along the way, all in the same bar at the hotel in the evening, quiz nights and talent contests. Then the long, long journey home, a last evening as a group at a hotel in France, a few drinks on the ferry and then, at Medway service station, suddenly the realisation strikes that you will never have anything to do with any of these people again. For a soppy old romantic like me it can actually be quite a devastating experience.

This being a timeshare we do sometimes see the same faces from one year to the next year, and I take comfort from this. This year though the clientele was a little different, the week having a Country and Western theme and the usual karaoke folk and talent showers presumably having swapped their bookings for a different week or jetted off elsewhere. I hope they will be back next time.

I am reassured by the work that is going on around the pool, noisy though it is. They wouldn’t be doing all this, I guess, if they had plans to turn the site into a multi-storey car park or an international airport.

So for me it’s back to the grind tomorrow, hoping that I can raise the price of an “in-betweeny” for September or October, and hopefully also we can be here then as a family.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Even I Understand that the Euro Crisis is Cause for Concern

I’ve never had much of a grasp of economics. At school I passed my A-level but with a mediocre grade in spite of having been tutored by an excellent (and very patient) Economics teacher. The shambles that has always been my own financial affairs is ample testimony to my general confusion on the subject.

But having seen and studied the various news bulletins I do have a bit of a handle on the Eurozone crisis, and on the dilemmas that appear to be unfolding before us. If Greece were an individual with a personal account at Barclays or HSBC it would probably be refused a loan. It is, after all, a pretty routine consideration when deciding whether or not to lend somebody money that they should have some prospect of one day being able to pay it back. Lenders have sought assurances not only from the Greek government but also from every political party with a chance of being involved in running the country after April’s elections that they will squeeze the Greek people until the pips squeak for as long as it takes them to repay the debts which, like the British people, they played no part in incurring.

If the lenders appear to have the whip hand though, consider this. The refusal of a loan would probably result in Greece either leaving or being thrown out of the Eurozone. Devaluation of the national currency would result in hardship for millions, with those who are able to either leaving the country (as a member of the EU they have free movement after all) or at least ensuring that their savings do.

Here in Portugal, which is probably the EU member closest to Boot Hill after Greece itself, there would be a feeling amongst anybody with anything that they are next. Probably many would not wait for the eleventh hour to arrive. There would be a crisis of confidence following which collapse would probably become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Then Spain, then Italy, then Ireland…

I don’t know many people in Greece, but I do know a great many in Portugal. They are pleasant, hard-working, poorly paid but still cheerful people. They don’t deserve the misery that the bankers are in the process of visiting upon them.

I don’t know how this is all going to end but an awful lot of anger is being felt by usually level-headed, liberal and moderate people all over Europe towards the politicians and bankers who are asking them to suffer the consequences of their own failure whilst they generally exempt themselves from the misery they tell us we must all share in.

Bankers have historically taken risks whenever they have felt they might get away with it, because they are fundamentally greedy. Lending to Greece would probably be a bigger risk than most, but not lending to Greece would be infinitely more risky still.

Even I understand that.

Have I Got This Correct?

With all the publicity surrounding the Terry/Ferdinand and Suarez/Evra incidents in English football’s Premier League, exacerbated a tad further by soccer pundit Alan Hansen’s reference to black players as “coloured”, the racism issue has been well and truly in the news during recent weeks.

On top of the various happenings in the world of football we have also recently witnessed the conviction and imprisonment of two of Stephen Lawrence’s killers and a viral YouTube video apparently showing a white woman from South London, Emma West, gratuitously abusing black and minority ethnic passengers on a tram.

Odd as it may sound to some coming from a former officer of a racist political party I have never believed that society should tolerate racially motivated abuse. A person is what a person is and there are absolutely no circumstances in which it can be considered acceptable to insult another human being for something they are as opposed to something they have done.

Equally though I am instinctively averse to the absurdity that has become known to us all as “political correctness”. But what precisely is this absurdity which it is my default to reject, and is it not something of a contradiction to be repulsed both by racism and by the dogma that claims for itself the authority to identify and to condemn it?

A clue to this apparent dilemma may be found amid the various controversies that have dominated the sports columns. Let us look first of all at the incident involving Chelsea defender John Terry and Anton Ferdinand of Premier League newcomers Queen’s Park Rangers. It is not for me to prejudge the question of Terry’s guilt or innocence. That will be done by a court of law in the fullness of time. However the allegation is that Terry subjected Ferdinand to a torrent of what would clearly be considered racist abuse. If Terry is guilty it would be difficult to make any kind of case in defence of his actions or even in mitigation. It is surely not “political correctness” to insist that any such abuse be dealt with with the full force of the law.

The Luis Suarez case could be said to be a little different. He freely admits to having referred to Manchester United defender Patrice Evra as “negrita”, meaning “negro”, not once but several times, but insists that in his native Uruguay the use of the word is meant as a term of endearment and that there was no intention to insult.

Alan Hansen’s use of the word “coloured” was clearly wrong, as indeed he accepts. He has publicly apologised for doing so. Once again it was argued, and the consensus seems to be to accept, that no insult was intended. He could have pointed out in his defence that in the United States the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is widely supported by members of the African-American community who clearly do not consider the term to be derogatory. Hansen’s mistake was in not having moved with the times.

The need to respect our fellow human beings and not to abuse or insult them for what they are does of course extend beyond ethnicity. Words such as “spastic” are considered inappropriate and offensive when used in reference to somebody who is disabled. There was a time, certainly still in my lifetime, when it was used by sufferers of a condition to describe themselves.

So it is on the question of culture and ethnicity. Most people of my generation will remember a sitcom called Love Thy Neighbour, serialised on mainstream television, which was littered from start to finish with the most appalling racist abuse, not just as an occasional aside but as the central theme of the programme. Even the famously liberal writer and comedian John Cleese felt it acceptable to include the words “n****r” and “w*g”, referring respectively to West Indians and Indians, in his hilarious Fawlty Towers classic “The Germans”. I recall one of our history teachers at school, a progressive Labour-supporting type, playing a tape recording of the whole episode to us (Asian pupils included) during a break in one lesson as an example of what he considered to be fine comedy.

Today most of us would wince at this terminology. I still feel uncomfortable and self-conscious when watching this scene, and I doubt whether I could even watch Love Thy Neighbour, far less find it funny. So does this mean the “politically correct” have got it right?

The answer is probably yes, in terms of the need to engender respect and eradicate abuse. The problem with “political correctness” is that its adherents have elevated it to a cult and in so doing would appear to have entirely overlooked the essential truth that underpins it, viz. that it is not the words one uses that renders a comment inappropriate so much as the spirit in which they are used. A word is, after all, no more than a sequence of letters. It is not at all unreasonable for one to argue that the same word that causes so much offence today may have been less insulting a generation ago, or that a word that is used by a group of people to describe themselves in one society might be considered offensive in another.

The “politically correct”, in my view, have never been properly able to grasp this. As they preen themselves with their own self-bestowed moral superiority and presume the right to lecture lesser beings as to what is the precise, correct term to use in reference to which category of people they generally speaking miss the point. That point being that the need to treat others with respect as human beings is already obvious to all but the most bigoted, and that we do not require a self-appointed political elite to make that point to us, or to provide us with a list of which words we may or may not use in order to make ourselves acceptable to them (which they quite strangely assume to be our aspiration).

Our society needs to take a no-nonsense, zero tolerance approach to racism and to all other forms of discrimination, but to do this successfully it needs to do it whilst retaining a sense of humour, a sense of proportion, grace and a touch of humility.

Just possibly the “politically correct” could learn to take bigotry more seriously if they were take themselves a little less seriously.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

I am quite pleased that the Russians and Chinese have vetoed the West's resolution at the United Nations condemning the actions of the Syrian government in its clampdown against protesters seeking to overthrow the Assad regime.

It's not that I have any sympathy for President Assad in the way that he is handling the protests. It is just that I feel the West needs to reminded again and again of the consequences of gaining a reputation as a dishonest broker.

Russia and China saw the resolution as a first step towards Western military intervention in Syria. Western governments say it was no such thing, of course, but they also claimed their military action against Libya was about protecting civilians and nothing to do with regime change. Six months later French aircraft, under NATO jurisdiction, set up a legitimate head of state for a grotesque summary execution by a mob of Western-backed insurgents - all in the name of "democracy".

The UN resolution on Libya imposed the condition that there would be no NATO "boots on the ground". Last month British authorities admitted that the SAS were involved in the thick of the insurgency. In all likelihood they were there before the UN resolution as agents provocateurs, stirring up the protests that provoked the conflict in the first place.

Western politicians seem uniquely incapable of comprehending the very simple truism that those who lie the first time are very much less likely to be believed the second time. I have found this in local politics every bit as much as it is evident on the national and international stage. They seem to expect to be trusted even when they have demonstrated in the past that they clearly cannot be, and assume a veneer of injured innocence when they are not. The moral of the fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf seems completely lost on the entire political class in the UK, as well as in other Western "democracies".

In Syria, as in Iran, the rest of the world distrusts the motives of the Western powers whether or not they happen to have honourable intentions this time around. We are told Iran is developing a nuclear military capability, but the same people told us Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction that could be unleashed upon our forces within forty minutes. It turn out to be a lie, but the war ostensibly fought to relieve Iraq of the weapons it didn't have continued as though nothing had happened, with barely a murmur from the British media or from the then government's so-called "opposition".

Even if Iran is developing a nuclear bomb it can hardly be blamed for so doing. North Korea has an atomic capability and has been left well alone. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya didn't have and look what became of them.

The Iranian authorities will have figured, not without good reason, that the West has imperialistic intentions in the region and that having a nuclear arsenal will deter it from attacking them. Protestations that the West has no intention of attacking Iran will be meaningless, because the Western "democracies" have already demonstrated quite clearly that they lie with absolute impunity and cannot therefore be trusted.

All the apprehension and uncertainty over Iran's nuclear intentions is entirely the fault of Western leaders and their OCD-like compulsion to speak in forked tongues every time they open their mouths.

The Great Diabetes Mellitus Swindle?

As I mentioned in a previous post I was diagnosed back in August 2011 with diabetes, or diabetes mellitus to give it its full medical name.

The typical profile of a Type 2 diabetic is of a middle-aged person, obese, a heavy drinker and smoker with an unhealthy diet and an aversion to physical exercise.

There was a time when I would have ticked most of these boxes, but over the last couple of years I have reduced my alcohol intake by around 90%, lost weight to the point where my Body Mass Index (BMI) records me as being only marginally overweight, and adopted a low-fat and low-sugar vegetarian diet. I have never smoked. I have always been physically active, frequently walking ten miles or more at a time and thinking nothing of working on my feet for 15 or 16 hours in a day, sometimes without a break. Without wishing to be boastful delivering a thousand leaflets in one session is a task by which I am still undaunted as I enter my second half-century.

And yet, in spite of all these "improvements" to my lifestyle, my blood sugar has increased rapidly. As Forrest Gump might have put it, sh*t happens.

Fellow diabetics, of which I seem to know a surprising number, advise me that my doctor should have placed me on Metformin as soon as I was diagnosed. Instead, he decided to try to reduce my blood sugar level naturally, through diet, before committing me to medication. Only at my second check-up, some four months down the line, did the relief doctor prescribe me the required drugs, advising me as he did that by allowing me to suffer for four months (three between official check-ups followed by another month to fix an appointment through the almost pathologically unhelpful receptionist) before placing me on the necessary medication my own doctor had been "following government guidelines".

One needs to ponder the logic of this in order to fully understand what is going on here. The diet through which it was intended I would reduce my blood sugar level "naturally" was essentially the same one I had been following as I became diabetic. What possible reason could my doctor have had for thinking that by continuing with the same diet the increase in my blood sugar level would suddenly reverse?

There are currently around 2.8 million diagnosed diabetics in the UK, with anything up to 1 million others still unaware that they have the condition. Multiply that number by four months and the saving that the government is making by delaying treatment becomes very substantial indeed. Yes, I understand the argument that strokes, heart attacks, eye surgery and amputations would cost the health service considerably more than a few boxes of tablets, but bearing in mind the fact that diabetes is a long-term, degenerative disease there is every reason to believe the government sees its policy as a way of making a substantial saving.

People who are diagnosed with diabetes yet whose existing lifestyles are reasonably healthy should insist upon immediate treatment.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Moving On

I discovered today, after 50 years, that I have gypsy blood.

Not a lot, but one or two of my ancestors were apparently "travelling folk". My mother kind of mentioned it in passing.

Which led me to reflect upon the fact that, had I come to power in the late seventies or early eighties, when it would have been reasonable to have described my political outlook as something not far removed from undiluted Nazism, I may have finished up having to gas myself.

A chilling thought for a chilly night and perhaps a time to be thankful that, in true gypsy style, I made the decision to move on.