Tuesday 27 March 2007

The right way to end ten years of grief

Two quotations keep running through my head. The first is from Wodehouse: “It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.” The other is by Churchill: “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. He was speaking of Russia, of course, but it also seems a perfect description of that archetypal aggrieved Scot (and alleged Stalinist) who believes that he is finally about to become our Prime Minister.

Finding myself unexpectedly under-employed at the weekend, I devoted it to reading a big, thick biography of Gordon Brown. I hoped that it would explain what drives this obsessive and unusually secretive politician. It didn’t. I also wanted to understand why so many Labour colleagues, former civil servants and media commentators are queuing up to make disobliging remarks about him, emphasising his unsuitability for the high office he has yearned to occupy for well over a decade.

Tory columnists write gloomily about the impending “Brown terror”. But what on earth could he do to us as Prime Minister that has been beyond him in the last ten years, during which he has exercised almost complete control of every aspect of domestic policy?

So what, exactly, has he done? First and foremost, kept the UK economy vaguely on track and avoided the crisis that has been the hallmark of every previous Labour government. Given the Bank of England its independence. Single-handedly created an enormous crisis in the private pensions sector through his £5 billion per annum raid on their funds, which has also adversely affected the performance of the stock market. And vastly complicated the tax and benefits system, at least until last week’s belated nod towards simplification.

He has raised huge sums in additional taxes and spent them on the public services, while doing his utmost to block their reform. In so doing, he has consistently ducked the $64,000 question: if the answer to our health problems is simply chucking ever more money at the NHS, how come Scotland (which already spends substantially more per capita, thanks to the Barnett formula) ends up with lower life expectancies than England?

Depending on which set of figures one believes, he has added between 700,000 and 900,000 people to the public sector payroll and converted an additional six million families (or, in Treasury-speak, almost 20 million people) into State dependants through his cherished tax credits system. This is classic Brown: fiendishly complicated for the applicants, hellishly expensive to administer, and horribly prone to errors and outright fraud.

If, at root, the man is an old-fashioned, redistributive socialist, why has he based his whole system on something that was anathema to the Labourites of my youth: the means test?

His one great claim to heroism is perhaps this: keeping Britain out of the euro. But did he really do it out of genuine economic concerns or Atlanticist sympathies? Or simply to spite Tony Blair, who was determined to secure his place in history by abolishing the pound?

It is hard to see such a famously shy, disorganised, irascible, indecisive and undiplomatic man as a happy or effective Prime Minister, or to understand why he has spent so many years plotting and scheming to secure the prize. After all that, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh if it were now to be snatched away from him, so far beyond the eleventh hour.

Personally, I think that he and Blair are inseparable, like conjoined twins. People write about Brown as a figure from Shakespearean tragedy, but I see him more as a character from a Conan Doyle mystery. Surely the right ending would be for the pair of them to depart the scene together, like Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls? Though in the interests of cutting carbon emissions, maybe a similarly epic tussle could be staged closer to home in the notoriously dangerous waters of the Diana Memorial Fountain?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 20 March 2007

Full of bright ideas

I’ve always been a bit slow on the uptake. So I had a real “Aha!” moment last week when I belatedly appreciated the genius of the property mogul who changed the name of Swan House to 55 Degrees North. Because it is now clear that Sir Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison are destined for that deep and dark pit of public contempt hitherto reserved for the likes of Benson & Hedges. Their incandescent light bulb, once considered a boon to humanity and the very epitome of a bright idea, is now exposed as the greatest threat to our survival since the Black Death.

The reaction, naturally enough, is to ban them. What else would you expect, in a society that increasingly resembles a care home run by demented control freaks? Never mind that the fluorescent bulbs which will replace them take more energy to produce, contain hazardous mercury, and can’t be used in historic fittings, as security lights or with dimmer switches. Overlook the fact that they present a potential safety hazard if used with machinery or in domestic locations like staircases, because of the way they flicker and the time they take to reach full brightness. What does it matter that some people find them impossible to read by? They shouldn’t be reading anyway. They might get ideas.

As it happens, I have no personal problem with low energy bulbs. I’ve been using them for over 20 years, ever since I moved into a cottage with no mains electricity, and erected a wind turbine in the garden. You can’t fault my Green credentials. The point is: that was my free choice.

We don’t need yet more things being banned “in our own interests”. Most of us aren’t infants or idiots. The great light bulb ban is a prime example of gesture politics, designed to make us feel that we’re in a major crisis and that drastic action and sacrifices are required. It was chiefly interesting for being put forward by Gordon Brown as his counter to the Tories’ apparently barmy plan for clamping down on cheap air travel, and presented as though it was his own initiative. In fact, like most lousy ideas emanating from the Government, from Home Information Packs to the destruction of our post office network, it is merely slavishly conforming with yet another EU directive.

With 80 per cent of our laws now emanating from Brussels, the British Government’s capacity to make our lives a misery off its own bat is strictly limited. (Though when it is given its head, as with deciding precisely how to distribute farm subsidies, or organising the London Olympics, its ability to screw up is undoubtedly impressive.)

Opposition parties, on the other hand, can come up with genuine “blue skies thinking”, secure in the knowledge that the EU will never allow them to put their ideas into practice if they are elected. Young George Osborne’s brilliant idea to ration us to one short-haul flight a year, although much derided, is actually inspired. Have you ever seen it specified that he means one return flight? Exactly. It’s clearly a Machiavellian scheme to export our repulsive underclass to sun, sea, sex and lager (but mainly lager) resorts abroad, from which they will never be able to afford to return. Thus Britain will be made safe once again for Old Etonian Cabinet Ministers and horsy girls in pearls. It gets my vote, I can tell you.

The depressing thing for me, as a Cavalier, is that we all seem to be Roundheads now. The new Puritanism of cutting down on eating, drinking, smoking, driving, flying and even lighting seems to be embraced by all, with politicians vying to outdo each other on the fasting and scourging front. Who will speak up for the fat boys of Old England, and launch a crusade for comfy chairs, cosy firesides, loving hearts, good jokes, cakes and ale?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 13 March 2007

A dream come true

Me, me, me, me, me. That’s all most columnists seem to write about. It may be pretty dull, but at least they don’t risk having their houses torched by pro-wind farm fanatics. (Don’t even think about it, guys. It would release lots of ghastly dioxins into the atmosphere, and red squirrels might experience breathing difficulties.)

So this week I thought I’d write about what I’ve been doing. Luckily, it’s been a step up from my usual lying on the sofa watching TV. For a start, I’ve been to a political get-together, where a rather lovely ex-policewoman tried to convince us that we were wrong to worry about the latest proposed extension of police powers to include random breath testing. This, she assured us, would never be used against “people like us”. I wonder. I feel that the days when the police were a benign presence for the white middle classes are long over. (Though, having said that, lads, please don’t come and kick my front door down as I really don’t have any illegal drugs or firearms, and my tax disc is up to date.)

Then I went to an open day at my old school, in open defiance of that wise old maxim: never go back. I have a friend who carries this to such absurd lengths that it is almost impossible to entertain him when he comes to Northumberland. Propose any of the usual stand-bys like walking from Craster to Dunstanburgh, or climbing Cheviot, and he reminds me that he did that 30 years ago and it could never have the same impact again. He’s made exceptions to the rule for his home and office, in the interests of sanity. And, come to think of it, he also has two children by the same wife.

But he would certainly never have made the mistake of walking back through the doors of the Royal Grammar School, as I did. What a shocker. Brace yourself, Headmaster, as I don’t want to have your death from a heart attack on my conscience, but I was seriously impressed. The facilities have been transformed out of all recognition, and it appears to be a considerably more civilised institution than the rather basic and brutal establishment I attended in the 1960s. There. You weren’t expecting that, were you?

I would also like to take this opportunity to apologise for the gratuitous offence I caused when the tall, pretty, short-skirted prefect delegated to show my group around asked what we would really like to see, and I replied “the girls’ changing rooms”. I knew it was the wrong answer, but I just couldn’t help myself. Further education is clearly still required.

I’ve also been to see no fewer than five operas within ten days, which might seem to be bordering dangerously on obsession. Unfortunately only two of them were really worth seeing, both by Handel and both requiring a trip to London. I’m increasingly convinced that, in the unlikely event of there turning out to be a place called Heaven, and in the even more unlikely event that I qualify for admittance, the angels will be listening to Handel.

Then I’ve been spending a fair bit of time with the delightful young lady who contacted me following the last column I wrote about myself, with special reference to my sad and lonely life. Since my cunning plans have a track record of success that makes Baldrick look like Bill Gates, I am truly astonished that this one has worked out so well. I have one word to say to my friend Howard, who took the trouble to inform me that the Valentine’s Day column in question was “pathetic, self-pitying and totally unfunny”. Unfortunately, it’s not a word that The Journal will be prepared to print.

After this triumph, I’m led to wonder whether there might be any eccentric millionaires out there with a suitcase full of cash that they would like to unload? Do feel free to drop me a line.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 7 March 2007

Spinning a windmill

Sometimes PR really sticks in my throat. Putting aside the totally obvious (anything involving the Government or Sir Richard Branson), I find that I have developed a particular aversion to spokespeople for wind farm developers. Every time they encounter a delay in the planning process, one of them pops up with a finely crafted quote, expressing disappointment that “we are unable to get on with our important humanitarian work to cut carbon emissions and help save the planet from global warming”.

When what they actually mean is “we are unable to get on with our cynical task of destroying the countryside to make lots of money by raking in the huge subsidies that the Government has bizarrely decided to chuck at us while it fudges the important question about building more nuclear power stations”.

All right, their sentence is more elegant than mine. But considerably less honest.

They also tend to trot out the line about the “silent majority” being all in favour of wind farms, while their opponents are a small bunch of voluble Nimbys. On this, I’m prepared to concede, they could just be right. Human nature being what it is, if you can’t see the useless 400-foot towers from your front window, you’re probably fairly relaxed about them. And the “spin” for wind power has been quite effective, even if the ironic problem with the turbines is that they don’t actually spin all that often, owing to the vagaries of the weather.

Tidal and wave power seem much more promising, though it can only be a matter of time before someone discovers that they cause dolphins to suffer panic attacks, and all research and development is halted by bomb threats from Flipper-loving protestors.

Solar energy might seem like another way forward, until one realises that the Sun is actually a nuclear furnace, fuelled by hydrogen and helium. And it causes skin cancer. In fact, it’s really high time it was shut down in the interests of public safety.

Of course, no amount of column-writing, protesting or even voting is going to make the slightest bit of difference. It’s a Done Deal. Much of Northumberland is going to be covered in wind farms, as surely as it’s going to get a single unitary council, whatever the public may think about it. Whitehall has decided, and Whitehall knows best. We need a pointless gesture, the contemporary equivalent of hacking down iron railings and pretending that they are going to be transformed into Spitfires.

But wouldn’t it nice if they believed we could be trusted to hear the truth?

Keith Hann is a PR consultant whose career has been seriously marred by reckless honesty. www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 6 March 2007

The end of the world is nigh, maybe

The distinguished scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock is 87. This at least guarantees that his concern for the future of the planet is a pretty selfless one. On the other hand, it may have made him fairly relaxed about any long term health risks, when he kindly offered to store all the country’s nuclear waste in his back garden.

Prof Lovelock makes an impressive scientific case for nuclear power, and an equally telling and entertaining one against wind farms, which he considers to be comprehensively useless. He likens their proponents to the Cromwellians who vandalised churches, with Green fanaticism being the latest manifestation of that ancient and deplorable desire to seek out beautiful things and smash them up.

For a man of his age, the Professor is a remarkably assiduous and articulate media performer, and has occupied a fair bit of airtime lately as he has promoted the new, paperback version of his book The Revenge of Gaia. Sales of the hardback were perhaps not helped when he told one interviewer that the subtitle “and how we can still save humanity” had been dreamt up by his publisher’s marketing department and that he actually believed we were all doomed. Although maybe a few breeding pairs of humans might survive in the Arctic.

If you’ve not been keeping up, Gaia theory sees the whole planet as a self-regulating, living organism, which has been thrown fatally off balance by human industrial activity over the last century or so. The consequence is potentially catastrophic climate change.

I heard the Professor shed an interesting new light on this in a radio interview the other day. With unusual optimism, he suggested that the UK might actually be comparatively lightly affected by global warming. The real challenge was that large parts of Continental Europe would become uninhabitable, and the displaced would need new homes. So the British Government should be preparing for a doubling or trebling of the population, just to accommodate other EU citizens who will be entitled to come here. That is before one starts to worry about the other, potentially huge, mass migrations from Africa and Asia.

In a generation or two, our descendants may find themselves in the same position as survivors in a frail lifeboat, after the wreck of an enormous ocean liner. And they will be faced with the age-old dilemma: should they try to pull as many people aboard as possible, even at the risk of swamping the craft, or start whacking them over their heads with the oars?

It might be tempting for a future government to welcome, say, a couple of million of the more intelligent, attractive and industrious Italians, while encouraging an equivalent number of the indigenous underclass to take an extended walk off a short pier. But it is hard to see how they could accomplish that without massive civil unrest.

The last time these islands were threatened by invasion, in 1940, we had both the conventional armed forces and the will to resist. Today, I suspect, we have neither. Yet the sort of influx that is postulated as a result of global warming would be much more far-reaching in its effects than any Nazi military occupation. Britain, as any of us know it, would cease to exist.

In the light of some of the other apocalyptic theories, that might well be the least of our worries, and I am studiously not offering an opinion on what our posterity should do if and when millions of would-be settlers start arriving. But you’ve got to admit that it’s a fascinating subject for debate, and one that certainly puts quite a number of current political issues in perspective. Whether it’s asylum seekers, integration, or the Chancellor’s politically convenient crusade to promote Britishness: to go back to that ocean liner analogy, they’re all just tidying up the deckchairs while the band rehearses Nearer My God to Thee.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.