Tuesday, 29 May 2007

The Queen goes green

So the Queen has allegedly been left “exasperated and frustrated” by ten years of Tony Blair. Never let it be said that our 81-year-old monarch is out of touch with her subjects. There must be around 50 million of us who feel precisely the same. Some, like me, because we resent his ignorant and destructive constitutional tinkering, penchant for waging illegal and counterproductive wars, inflated and ill-thought-through public spending, assaults on personal freedom and evident distaste for the countryside. Others, no doubt, because they regret his failure to use three successive, overwhelming Parliamentary majorities to move the country decisively in an egalitarian direction, perhaps even consigning the House of Windsor to the dustbin of history.

On the monarchy, as with most things, Mr Blair has stood ineptly in the middle ground: professing support for the institution in public, while apparently treating the venerable wearer of the Crown with a casual lack of respect.

Luckily Her Majesty has one great advantage over the rest of us: she can sack him, and I would humbly urge her to do so without delay. In this country, the Prime Minister is appointed by the Queen. Central to the job specification is the ability to command a majority in the House of Commons, and in Gordon Brown she has a candidate with the almost unprecedented advantage of virtually unanimous, public support by MPs of the largest party. He should be installed in 10 Downing Street today, not left to kick his heels until 27 June while Mr Blair undertakes his ludicrous and unnecessary farewell tour. Her Majesty is said to be modishly keen to “go green”. There could be no better way than kicking Tony off his carbon-emitting jet and setting him on his bike.

She should also elevate Mr Blair to the real, hereditary peerage as Viscount Sedgefield. Don’t take no for an answer, Ma’am. Awarding this rank would be a delightfully subtle snub, since attaining the Prime Ministership has traditionally merited an earldom. It would go nicely with the rumoured plan to offer him a knighthood of the Thistle, rather than the more prestigious Garter.

I would personally welcome it if the Queen also took it into her head to dissolve Parliament, giving us a chance to vote on whether we actually want up to three years of Grimly Grinning Gordon in charge, rather than Snooty Dave or Ming the Mekon.

True, doing so would move her onto altogether shakier constitutional ground. But if the Queen never exercises her remaining powers, what useful purpose does the Crown actually serve?

We do not have a monarchy in order to provide us with a tawdry daily soap opera, or to help sell newspapers for republican press barons. The central defence of the institution is that it stops some dictatorial megalomaniac taking over, because of the reserve powers that are vested in the Queen. The Armed Forces, crucially, owe their loyalty to her, not to the Prime Minister of the day. As a child, I was proudly told that a home-grown Hitler could never have seized power here, because we had a King. I wonder. Italy and Greece had monarchs when Mussolini and the Colonels took control, and they didn’t seem to prove a lot of use.

Nor did those crowns long survive the downfall of the dictators concerned. At least there is no danger of Mr Blair dragging the Queen down with him, as we all know it’s not her fault. I’m just sorry that I shan’t live to read the State papers showing what advice she actually gave her Prime Minister on issues such as Iraq, devolution, the House of Lords and foxhunting. I can only hope that they will feature frequent use of the phrases, “I really wouldn’t do that if I were you” and “I told you so.” They will make splendid quotations in future student essays on “Was Tony Blair a dictatorial megalomaniac? Discuss.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

The ideal way to start the day

I flicked on Radio 4 just before ten to nine on Sunday morning, hoping to hear some left-wing commentator setting the world to rights. I find that shouting at the wireless is an excellent form of mental stimulation, while clearing up after one has hurled the set through a closed window provides much-needed exercise.

But I had made a horrible miscalculation, for instead of some strident feminist voice there came the strains of a jolly group carousing to a honky-tonk piano. I thought it might be the annual convention of the Chas ‘N’ Dave Appreciation Society; it turned out to be the last hymn of the Sunday morning service.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, I had spent the previous Saturday morning attending my young godson’s first communion service in a great cathedral, renowned throughout Britain and beyond for the quality of its choral music. There had been precisely one uplifting moment: right at the end when the organ struck up to convey the message that we should clear off home.

Prior to that, the “music” had been provided by two shaven-headed refugees from Crimewatch twanging guitars, while a self-consciously multi-racial kiddies’ chorus lisped its way through a series of feeble tunes that would have been rejected as potential Eurovision entries even by the United Kingdom.

The previous time I went to a service of that nature, I’d found myself in a church full of soberly-dressed white people, clapping and swaying as though they were attending a revivalist meeting on one of the more liberally minded Caribbean islands. The tambourine-bashing maniac who was leading the frenzy turned out to be the head teacher at the local primary school.

How very different from my own formative religious experience, singing classic English hymns at school assembly each morning. What delights were there. “Oh God our help in ages past”, “We plough the fields and scatter”, “Dear Lord and father of mankind”, or maybe that one which went to the tune of “Deutschland über alles”. Followed by a comically incompetent reading from the Authorised Version and a portentous announcement from the headmaster, perhaps concerned with the continuing defacement of his official notice board.

This was the time of Roy Jenkins’ regrettable liberalisation of British society, and it was our good fortune to have a headmaster whose first name was William. You can imagine what a gift strategically placed clippings of headlines like “Homosexual Bill hits trouble again” were to the budding schoolboy humorist. A good sing-song followed by some poorly suppressed laughs: could there be a better way to start the day?

Little did I know that the process of dismantling traditional values would soon do away not only with Christian assemblies in schools, but also with recognisable services in almost every church. I am left with a substantial, memorised repertoire of uplifting hymns which I never get a chance to sing. One or two still manage to creep into Christmas services and the occasional funeral. Though when my brother and I tried to have a recording of one of our mother’s favourite hymns played at her cremation, we ended up with a throaty country ‘n’ western song of the same name. I imagine that this is not an untypical experience.

I started suffering from depression almost the minute I left school. I imagined for years that it was the result of becoming a habitual drunk and failing to impress the right women, but lately I’ve begun to suspect that it was due to the withdrawal of my daily fix of hymn-singing. A good burst of song now would cheer me up no end. I’m wondering whether science hasn’t concerned itself with transplanting completely the wrong sort of organs. Follow my advice, Patricia Hewitt, and focus on the ones that accompany old-fashioned hymns. Singing them may soon rank alongside country walks as an effective and low-cost alternative to all those anti-depressant drugs that cost so much and achieve so little.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Ignorance is bliss

I never cease to be amazed by the apparently invincible ignorance of the great British public. Despite blanket, well-spun media coverage, there is never any shortage of people willing to respond to surveys by saying “What smoking ban?” or “Oh, has Tony Blair resigned?”. Even, perhaps, “Who’s Tony Blair?”

I try to console myself with the thought that it’s all a tease, a fine example of our legendary sense of humour, leading many of us to affect to be village idiots whenever we are confronted by someone with a clipboard or a camera.

Alternatively, could it be that people are deliberately cutting themselves off from news and current affairs because their content is so relentlessly depressing? To explore this theory, I conducted a little survey of all the health scares that made the national press during April 2007 (excluding the first of the month, for obvious reasons). They averaged a convenient one per day.

It was a particularly bad month for women, who were warned at the start that they were raising their risk of breast cancer if they ate as little as 2oz of red meat per day; and at the end that they might well die of womb cancer if they used an electric blanket. In between those, they were advised that hormone replacement therapy increased their risk of contracting ovarian cancer; a research finding published just ten days after a new study demonstrated that the previous warnings linking HRT with heart attacks and strokes were completely wrong.

Most of the usual consolations were ruled out, with yet another study demonstrating that women’s brains were more severely affected than men’s by drinking alcohol. Even a nice bacon sandwich looked to be off limits, with American researchers claiming that cured meats cause lung damage.

You certainly wouldn’t want to end up in hospital, where the superbug Clostridium difficile is now killing as many people as die on the roads. Patricia Hewitt ruled that it was right to deny NHS treatment to smokers and the obese, perhaps influenced by a shock study revealing an epidemic of back problems among nurses, caused by trying to lift poorly fatties. There was no point in going on a diet, though, as this was proved just to make you fatter in the long run. Elsewhere in our “envy of the world” health service, it was revealed that an NHS dentist had been driven to suicide by sheer pressure of work.

There was no respite for those with children, with one authority pronouncing that toddlers under three should not be allowed to watch TV at all, while older age groups should be rationed to an hour per day. Nursery care was proved to be turning youngsters into yobs, and new evidence was produced to support the link between power lines and childhood leukaemia.

There were a few brighter spots. Scientists claimed to have identified genetic causes for obesity (not pies after all, apparently) and breast tumours; found that the wonder drug aspirin may help to prevent cancer; and discovered that flu jabs could also cut the incidence of heart attacks.

Clearly the only way forward is to adopt a restricted calorie, vegetarian diet, become teetotal, smash the TV and give up work to devote yourself to childcare. Though, of course, that would only work until another shock survey demonstrated the dire consequences of this approach, too.

Amidst all the gloom, one fact stands out. The human death rate remains exactly where it has been since the first ape developed ideas above its station, at 100 per cent. If you give up smoking, drinking, meat-eating and electricity, you may live a little longer. More likely, it will just seem longer. What I can guarantee is that you will die of something, probably every bit as unpleasant as the fate you have struggled to avoid. And, I venture to suggest to Ms Hewitt, ultimately just as expensive to the NHS.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Hann immortal, planet regrettably toast

The time has come to stake my claim to immortality with an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary as the inventor of the word that truly captures the spirit of our times. My first stab was “Frazerism”, after the wonderfully gloomy Private James Frazer from Dad’s Army, who was always announcing “We’re doomed”.

Unfortunately I Googled it and “Frazerism” turns out to exist already; apparently it’s a thoroughly abstruse error in the interpretation of Greek mythology. Having accidentally reached the ancient world, I next thought of “soothsayerism”, after that mad old biddy who used to interrupt Frankie Howerd in Up Pompeii by shouting “Woe, woe and thrice woe”. No good: it too has already been done.

My thoughts then turned to Dr Heinz Kiosk, a creation of that great satirist Michael Wharton. Kiosk was a distinguished social psychologist who was forever clearing rooms by bellowing “We are all guilty!” Would you believe that kioskism also exists, at any rate in translation from Japanese? I do hope it doesn’t mean anything obscene.

So I’m going to stake everything on a new coinage: Frazeoskism, meaning that we’re all doomed and we only have ourselves to blame. Which sums up our current belief system just about perfectly.

The Kent earthquake the other weekend was refreshing as one of the few instances these days of a piece of news that wasn’t trailed for at least 24 hours before it actually happened; but also because it was a natural disaster that wasn’t blamed on human action. (“If only the foolish people of Folkestone had got rid of their 4x4s, stopped flying, gone veggie, recycled more of their rubbish and installed weaker light bulbs, all this misery might have been avoided.”)

Nowadays you can’t have a flood, drought, heatwave or hurricane without some pundit popping up to announce that such extreme weather is the direct result of global warming, which is all our fault. Never mind that there have been similar disasters throughout recorded history. Now they provide a splendid excuse to crack down on the pleasures and freedoms of humanity as a whole.

We must accept that the Earth has been getting seriously warmer for about 30 years. The problem for us older sceptics is that, for about 30 years before then, it was actually getting cooler; so much so that in the early 1970s we were bombarded by scientific warnings of a new Ice Age. Funnily enough, none of those experts thought to suggest that we could counter the problem by lighting coal fires in every room, or driving our cars aimlessly around the block at every opportunity.

Frazeoskism today has all the characteristics of a religion. We are condemned to eternal flames if we do not convert to it. Heretics, like those scientists who participated in Channel 4’s The Great Global Warming Swindle, are threatened with death. There is even a racket, called “carbon offsetting”, which bears a striking resemblance to the sale of those worthless indulgences which did so much to discredit the mediaeval Papacy and kick-start the Protestant reformation.

Unlike the practical environmentalism that brought salmon back to the Tyne, Frazeoskism is constraining and destructive. Its well-funded scientific high priests jet around the world from one enormous junket, sorry conference, to another, working out how they can interfere with our lives; and, much more cruelly, with those of the Asians and Africans whose leaders were finally hoping to drag them out of millennia of poverty through industrialisation.

When irritatingly useless, gigantic industrial structures ruin the views you cherish, remember that they’re not just wind farms; they are the cathedrals of Frazeoskism, and they’re promising you salvation. Even better, it’s coming in this world, not the next. Resist if you like, but sadly you’ll be battling against the spirit of the age as surely as those short-lived Saxons who pointed out to the sword-wielding Norman invaders that they already had some perfectly good churches.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Faites vos jeux

I’m going to make a shocking confession: I’ve been a member of the Conservative Party for 35 years. In the early 1970s, I went tramping around council estates in Benton shoving Tory leaflets through letterboxes. I felt like an antelope delivering Vegetarian Society propaganda to a pride of lions. Though in reality, Ted Heath was a dangerous leftie by the standards of Tony Blair.

I agreed with most of what Margaret Thatcher did in the 1980s: privatisation, selling council houses and generally rolling back the frontiers of the State. After her, everything seemed to get mired in mismanagement and sleaze, though I don’t remember John Major’s closest advisers actually having their collars felt by the police.

Even to me, it seemed reasonable to let the other lot have a go ten years ago today. But what was it all for? Look at the new Sunday Times Rich List, and you find that the ultra-wealthy have a far bigger slice of the cake than they did in 1997, while the poor are still poor. The mass of us in the middle are supposed to be more than twice as well off, but it’s all about house prices: wealth we can never realise unless we fancy living in a tent.

I can’t help feeling that immigration might have some slight bearing on all this. At the top, most of Britain’s billionaires are foreigners who like living here because we don’t make them pay tax. That’s “good for the economy” because they spend lots of money, inflating our asset values. While at the bottom, people who are willing to work hard for next to nothing are “good for the economy”, too. But aren’t they driving down wages? And isn’t that a strange argument to be hearing from the Labour Party? (Though no stranger, it’s true, than their advocacy of 24-hour drinking and the proliferation of casinos.)

My leader won’t talk about anything that’s deemed to be “racist”, so it’s all “Vote Blue, Go Green”. But Green to me means self-righteous, puritanical and totalitarian. It’s where communists have found refuge since their party got a bit of a bad name from Russia’s 70 years of poverty, corruption, incompetence and mass murder.

The French will turn out in force for their Presidential election on Sunday because they believe they have a real and important choice to make. Here, both major parties ignore their traditional supporters in pursuit of “floating voters” in the same Green, capitalist, pro-European middle ground. How can our democracy survive if the majority continues to respond by not bothering to vote at all?

Keith Hann is a sometime PR consultant: www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007


I’ve just been re-reading George Orwell’s 1984. I first read it when I was a teenager; then, never being one to avoid a cliché, I did so again in 1984. I remember putting it back on my shelves, thinking smugly “He got that wrong.” Now it seems that he was merely around 25 years out in his timing. Who would have dreamt that a book by a socialist writer, intended as an awful warning, could have been mistaken for a blueprint by a nominally Labour Government?

It’s nearly all in place now. The monitoring cameras are already ubiquitous in public spaces, and the microphones and loudspeakers are on their way. True, they have not yet cracked the installation of intrusive telescreens in our homes, but you don’t have to be paranoid to assume that they will follow soon enough. How else will it be possible to ensure that we don’t harm ourselves by smoking, feeding our kiddies lard, or indulging in thoughtcrimes like racism or the denial of man-made global warming?

The Lottery has become a reality, and only awaits the Orwellian refinement of awarding its top prizes to people who do not actually exist. Pornography to distract the proles is available everywhere. Newspeak has also become universal. This is partly due to the invention of text messaging, but one local authority recently announced a crackdown on “major envirocrimes”, by which it meant the fly tipping of rubbish. Orwell himself could not have put it more chillingly.

We have already made brilliant progress towards the extinction of the traditional family, and surely no-one will be surprised when the equivalent of Orwell’s Junior Anti-Sex League starts arguing that it would be much better for society if all children were born by artificial insemination and brought up in public institutions.

Orwell was remarkably astute, too, in his assessment of the “new aristocracy” that would control the world: “bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organisers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists and professional politicians”. When he wrote that in 1948, the notion that a juvenile Mr Bean lookalike with no experience outside politics could be strongly touted as a candidate for the Labour leadership would have caused nothing but mirth; not so in 2007.

The re-writing of history to conform with currently approved beliefs and values is well advanced, and will take a huge step forward if the plan for common EU-wide textbooks comes to fruition. One of the few things Orwell got wrong was assuming that Britain would form part of Oceania (also comprising the US and what used to be called the White Commonwealth) rather than Europe.

His other major error, understandable enough in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, was to believe that everyday life for all but the Inner Party would be characterised by acute material deprivation. The horrible reality of obese proles waddling from the fast food outlet to the 24-hour supermarket mercifully never occurred to him.

He was right, though, about the background of a permanent and unwinnable war. This is currently being waged on two fronts: against “Islamic militants” and “global warming”. Both are being used by our “new aristocracy” to justify vast increases in surveillance and social control.

The Islamists are at least real. It is true that they were called into being by the actions of Western governments, notably in encouraging resistance to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, but even I baulk at the idea that the attack on the Twin Towers was actually orchestrated by the CIA.

Climate change is also taking place, though whether it is the result of human action is altogether more questionable. Unfortunately any deviation from the new quasi-religious orthodoxy on this subject produces reactions uncannily like Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate.

We have indeed moved into a 1984 world of doublethink, where “anything old, and for that matter anything beautiful, [is] always vaguely suspect”. As Winston Smith knew from the start, resistance is useless. Room 101, here I come.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.