Tuesday, 31 July 2007

An outrageous decision

Apparently it’s rained a bit in the south of England. You’d never know it from the media, would you? Actually, I found the saturation (no, stop it) coverage quite encouraging. Despite the relentless efforts of various welly-booted presenters to work their interviewees into a tearful frenzy, most seemed to be reacting to their predicaments with those traditional British qualities of calmness, understatement and good humour.

After that road crash in Paris ten years ago, I was surprised to find myself suddenly living in a country full of flower-strewing hysterics. But clearly some old-fashioned values still prevail, even after the long and emotional “modernising” premiership of Mr Blair.

When he was finally carted off the stage, we were promised two things by supporters of his successor. First, that he wasn’t really the dour, Puritanical Scot of popular myth; and, secondly, that he was going to listen to the people. And so, up to a point, he has. Witness the popular U-turns on the Manchester super-casino and (potentially) the classification of cannabis and 24-hour drinking. All of which are, oddly enough, just the sort of initiatives that might be expected to appeal to a dour, Puritanical Scot. If he were one, which he isn’t.

Perhaps we had better leave the jury out on that, and keep a look-out for tell-tale signs like the smoking ban being extended to prohibit candles on birthday cakes, or the consumption of confectionery in public places.

What is certain is that Mr Brown is only prepared to listen to the people if they tell him what he wants to hear. This isn’t a partisan criticism: the same goes for all our party leaders in certain “no go” areas like capital punishment, immigration and European integration. To which we must now add the structure of local government. Even though I correctly predicted some months ago that the public consultation on unitary authorities was a total sham, and that the outcome was a foregone conclusion, few things have outraged me more than last Wednesday’s announcement from the perennially chirpy Hazel Blears.

Where is this alleged “consensus” on the need for change? Being middle class and childless (as my personal contribution to the fight against global warming), I have no exposure to the really big local authority budgets for education and social services. I can rely only on my experience of refuse collection, which my district council conducts with exemplary efficiency; and of road repairs, in which the county council’s performance can be described as shambolic at best. So how come it is the district council which gets abolished?

On all fronts, decision-making is becoming ever more remote from the ordinary voter. The imposition of elected mayors or cabinets has already reduced most councillors to the level of lobby fodder; now they are to be ruthlessly culled. As if that were not enough, even the urban-dominated unitary authorities will be stripped of their planning responsibilities for major projects like airports, power stations and roads, to ensure that they are fast-tracked in the “national interest”.

Whose interest, exactly? We seem to be falling into the error of believing that anything which makes money for anyone is good. It cannot be stated too often that it does not buy happiness, even if it allows some to be miserable in spectacular comfort. Are we really content to lose all control over our lives so long as we have an ever-growing supply of convenience food, new trainers and flat-screen, high-definition TVs?

The problem is that, as the reaction to the floods demonstrated, the English (when sober) tend to be rather passive. We’ve tried politely telling the Government that we don’t want a single unitary authority for Northumberland, or further transfers of our sovereignty to Brussels, and have been treated with total contempt. It may go against our natures, but surely the time to start shouting loudly is right now, before our local and national democracy is gone forever.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Imperial dreams and nightmares

I’m probably the last person in Britain to observe Empire Day, which falls on May 24, Queen Victoria’s birthday. So I’ve naturally been heartened by the revival of media interest in imperial history this year. We’ve had Victoria Wood’s global travels in search of the legacy of her namesake; various retrospectives on the Falklands War and the handover of Hong Kong; and a current Channel 4 series, Empire’s Children, in which assorted worthies relive their colonial childhoods.

Of course, no self-respecting TV producer would lose an opportunity to point out the strangeness of a small, wet island off north-west Europe dominating so much of the planet. (“Barmy” was Miss Wood’s searing insight.) Or to point out how appallingly we treated the people we once called “natives”, who were clearly morally superior to ourselves.

Yes, greed and cruelty were involved in the creation of the British Empire. But for most of its history, those who ran it truly believed that they were doing good; and it is widely acknowledged that our history as colonisers compares favourably with those of the other European imperial powers, or indeed with the United States in its treatment of native Americans. Writing of the archetypal, well-intentioned Englishman in 1922, the philosopher George Santayana concluded “Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master.”

He could so easily have been describing Tony Blair. It was exactly that old, imperial spirit of Christian do-goodery which inspired his many overseas interventions, from Kosovo to Iraq. One of the more successful, in Sierra Leone, even took us back into a West African colony which had fallen into chaos since our departure.

It seems hugely ironic that, just a decade after abandoning our last great imperial possession in the Far East, we find ourselves part of another empire. At least according to European Commission president José Manuel Barosso, who sees the European Union as just that. The parallels are certainly striking. Fans of the EU are always telling us how tiny the Brussels bureaucracy really is. Where have I heard that before? Oh yes, when just 1,500 British civil servants ruled over 300 million Indians.

Even more chillingly, there is the same patronising sense of superiority that did so much to get up the noses of our former subjects. Every European leader except ours is bragging about how they have managed to smuggle through every essential feature of the rejected EU Constitution in their new treaty. Luxembourg’s PM helpfully advised Gordon Brown to avoid a public debate here, as it would draw attention to the transfers of sovereignty involved. A former Italian PM has spoken of how the treaty has deliberately been made unreadable so that it will be harder to conduct popular referenda.

Empires can survive only through collaboration and consent, or the application of terror. The new imperialists of Brussels are fortunate to have secured the collaboration of virtually the whole British political class, who have cast themselves in much the same role as the former maharajahs of India: keeping their status and perks, while real power resides elsewhere.

As for the terror option, Britain is consistently the most sceptical country in the EU about political integration. It is also the one that has gone furthest in creating the Big Brother apparatus of CCTV surveillance, DNA testing and databases. Is that coincidence or forward planning?

Let us freely admit that many supporters of the European Empire are genuine idealists. But their vision is old-fashioned, inward-looking and obsessed with pettifogging regulation. Precisely because Britain once ruled so much of the world, we are uniquely well placed to be open to all of it. It looks certain that Mr Brown won’t give us the referendum we were promised. Where should we look for a Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela with the vision and determination to lead England on its own long walk to freedom?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Misers rule OK

Last week’s Radio Times contained a special supplement: “70 Easy Ways You Can Save The Planet”. This was a misnomer. The planet can take care of itself, and will doubtless continue
spinning merrily away until it is consumed by our dying sun in about eight billion years’ time.

No, what the New Puritans are concerned about is not the Earth itself, but Life. Particularly human life, and the more photogenic animals (though not cattle and sheep, which are methane-generating baddies.)

At a conference not so long ago, I gently mocked a distinguished client for making some remarks which struck me as being only a short step away from hugging trees. In return, he pointed out that I was perhaps a wee bit unusual in not caring whether the human race survived beyond the end of next week.

He attributed his more conventional view to having grandchildren, which I certainly envy. The only snag is that you can’t get them without having children first, and I never had the stomach for that. Or, rather, I did have the stomach and it proved an insuperable barrier to procreation.

Anyway, what did these 70 ways to save our species amount to? A miser’s charter, that’s what. Turn down the thermostat, have showers not baths (but not for more than three minutes, please!), get rid of your car and tumble dryer, don’t waste food, eat less meat, only wash your towels once a fortnight. That’s only 10% of the gems, but you get the gist.

I look forward to the NHS seizing on the many bright ideas to reduce the frequency of cleaning and the temperatures at which it should be done. And to the entirely predictable consequences.

My somewhat cynical and contrarian point of view rests on the following simple observation: whenever the great mass of experts (whether scientists, medics or economists) line up on one side of a question, it is usually a pretty good idea to take a very close look at the opposite viewpoint, however unfashionable it may be.

The odd thing is that, in my daily life, I tick most of the boxes to qualify as a dedicated Green. I don’t fly, I drive as little as possible, I buy locally-produced food whenever I can, and I totally abhor waste. If it weren’t for the minor issue of smell, Alnwick District Council could probably get away with emptying my non-recycling bin about once a quarter.

I believe that this is largely a generational thing. I have inherited the prejudices of my parents, who were born in the Edwardian era, were young adults during the depression of the 1930s, and then survived the Second World War. Hence they were accustomed to scarcity, and threw virtually nothing away. To them I seemed unbelievably spoilt (and no doubt I was) with my wind-up Hornby train and dozen Dinky cars. Their childhoods were the stuff of Monty Python sketches. How they would have gaped if they had lived to see the rooms full of plastic tat and electronic gizmos that my younger godchildren play with (and the older ones, too, if they think that no-one’s looking).

The Government’s latest bright idea is to abolish the conventional geography syllabus, to focus on teaching children how to “Save The Planet”. My old teacher Dusty Rhodes would be turning in his grave, if only he were dead. This is not geography, but Religious Education.

Every human faith enjoins its followers to live frugally and responsibly: it’s the right thing to do. I just wish that the eager zealots for the new religion of “Saving The Planet” would recognise that they are going back to some extremely old ideas, rather than discovering exciting new ones. Once they have grasped that, perhaps they could take the welcome step of preaching to the rest of us with just a little less bright-eyed zeal and self-righteousness.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Was it all some ghastly dream?

Perhaps the most striking thing in last week’s gruesome BBC documentary about Mrs Blair was her account of how the former Prime Minister proposed. Traditionally, it’s the man who gets down on one knee. In the Blairs’ case, Cherie was already on both of hers as she cleaned the lavatory of a villa in Tuscany at the end of their summer holiday. It wasn’t that unappealing vision which really got to me, though, but her weary revelation that they had had to “drive all the way there” because Tony in those days was “terrified of flying”.

This raised the interesting question of when he developed this phobia. Clearly it must have been after the teenage Blair claims to have tried to stow away on an admittedly non-existent flight from Newcastle to the Bahamas. About the time that he used to stand on the Kop at Newcastle Wanderers’ famous St John’s Park, and watch the long-retired Jackie Milburn score enthralling goals.

Another documentary on The Last Days of Tony Blair revealed a man who first got interested in politics around the age of 20, when he also became a committed Christian. Surely faith should eliminate any fear of flying? If God cares, he’ll look after you. And, if not, you’ll have the joy of meeting him all the sooner. The programme also showed us someone who was rarely out of the air, whether on international jaunts, quick trips to Sedgefield, or dropping in on lucky schools by helicopter.

Just imagine how different things might have been if he hadn’t got over his alleged phobia. No regular tête-a-têtes with George W. Bush, unless they had met on a battleship in mid-Atlantic, like Churchill and Roosevelt. No surprise visits to depress the troops on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. No shuttle diplomacy. Many fewer EU summits, and those reached by trains that would have brought him into some sort of contact with everyday reality.

Can it be a pure coincidence that, when Britain was at the apogee of its power, our leaders rarely left the country? It has been downhill all the way since they got into the habit of flying. The most infamous such journey was surely that made by Neville Chamberlain in 1938, when he bravely boarded his first-ever flight to meet Herr Hitler and secure “peace in our time”. Many think of Chamberlain as simply a gullible old fool, but Mr Blair described him last week as “someone who tried desperately to do the right thing by the country”. Suggesting that he knows very well which wartime PM history is likely to compare him with, and it won’t be Churchill.

Chamberlain’s legacy was the belief that it is never a good idea to appease dictators. This led Anthony Eden into the disastrous Suez invasion of 1956, and Anthony Blair into the even more catastrophic operation to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Mr Blair fondly believes that his own legacy is “a different approach to politics which gets beyond the old divisions between Left and Right.” Or, to put it another way, ending up equally loathed by both sides.

It’s never easy to tell which, if any, parts of Mr Blair’s strange story are not pure fantasy. Did he ever really fear flying? If so, he should have stuck with it in the interests of world peace and his own self-preservation. He’d have been able to present himself as so cloyingly Green that neither Gordon nor Dave would ever have got a look-in at 10 Downing Street.

If he did have a phobia, how was he cured? Could it have been through hypnotism? Meaning that, at any moment, someone like Paul McKenna could snap his fingers and we’d discover that nothing in the last decade was Tony’s fault after all, as he’d been “under” all the time. Even better, maybe we’d all snap out if it, and discover that it was just a ghastly dream.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

A critical letter

It is amazing how much difference one small letter can make. Just ask anyone who was awarded an MBE in last month’s Birthday Honours, when they felt that they really deserved an OBE, CBE, KBE or DBE.

I had a similar, letter-based disappointment a few weeks ago, when I attended a fund-raising bash for North East Conservatives. (I always do my utmost to avoid crowds.) Although the guest of honour was Theresa May, the organisers had somehow missed the opportunity to bill it as “The Nasty Party”, which would have raised a cheap laugh, albeit probably only from me. Nevertheless, I was soon having a lovely time, basking in the warm glow that comes when someone says that my Journal columns are “all most amusing”. Unfortunately this was followed by a clarification: my apparent admirer had actually said “almost amusing”. It ruined my evening, I can tell you. Almost as much as ending up wearing a plateful of canapés spoilt his. I do hope the stains came out of the carpet.

Sometimes misunderstandings can arise from a simple difference of punctuation. A prime example of this occurred during a recent country walk, when my attractive young companion said something that I interpreted as a question (“Fancy a shag in the bushes?”) but was in fact an ornithological observation (“Fancy! A shag in the bushes!”) inspired by the unusual sight of a distinctive, black seabird so far inland. Fortunately she seemed to accept my story that a wasp had crawled up my leg, when I was invited to explain my bizarre trouser-related behaviour.

In the light of the RSPB’s recent installation of software that automatically excises the word “cock” from any postings on their website, to avoid causing offence, I should perhaps take this opportunity to point out that the shag has now been officially renamed “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Cormorant”. Urgent action on tits is in hand.

All businesses should be aware that those PC email filters may indeed reduce the amount of time their employees spend gawping at pornography, but they can also pose a real threat to the efficiency of their operations. An unusually important and urgent email from me to a client was once delayed for 48 hours because I had inadvertently misspelt “doing” as “dong”. Which takes me back, rather neatly if I say so myself, to the very point I made at the outset.

Keith Hann MA is almost certainly an anagram of something rather offensive. www.keithhann.com

Originally written for The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne, but deemed unsuitable for publication.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

From red lines to red dots

It’s been unusually exciting in my corner of Northumberland. In addition to the controversial arrival of my new lawnmower, we’ve had a daring raid by evil horse rustlers (or an animal that wandered into the next field, depending on who you talk to). Like everyone else, we have endured Biblical quantities of rain, while last week it was revealed in court that one of my neighbours really was that potent figure of rural myth: an enraged man wielding an axe.

It would be no good hoping to ring the emergency services about any of the above, as thieves have helped themselves to most of the local telephone wires for scrap. We’ve been reduced to gossiping face to face, like they do in The Archers, remembering to start each conversation with “Hello, what are you doing here?”

Unfortunately around here, unlike in Ambridge, this invariably provokes the response “What does it look like?” leading swiftly to the witty riposte “What don’t you blank off, you cheeky blank?” It’s hard to see how we are ever going to spin this out into a full 12.5 minute episode, particularly as we lack a really major scandal to talk about, such as a well-heeled farmer foisting his deceased mistress’s small son onto his long-suffering wife.

(Incidentally, is it just me, or is little Ruairi in The Archers unbelievably thick? He keeps asking “Where’s mommy?” when he’s just watched her being nailed into a wooden box and buried under about half a ton of the ould sod. Who does he think she is: David Blaine?)

Instead we’ve had to amuse ourselves with a riddle: which European leader abolished hunting and tried to ban smoking in public places, but will always be best remembered for his illegal invasions of other countries? Yes, top marks: Adolf Hitler. It can’t be Tony Blair because he was a follower, not a leader. I don’t think Hitler ever set much store by focus groups. I can’t imagine that he would have been taken in by George W. Bush, either, though Guantanamo Bay and “extraordinary rendition” would undoubtedly have struck resonant chords.

Hitler’s career ended with a gunshot in a besieged bunker, and Blair’s with an unprecedented standing ovation on both sides of the Parliament he always appeared to hold in such contempt. Still, give it time.

Our new führer has one overwhelming advantage over the old one. He hasn’t got some brooding Scots obsessive with a grudge living in the house next door and devoting every waking hour to plotting his takeover, like a playground bully determined to wrest the latest must-have toy from some posh softie.

Gordon Brown says that one of his top priorities is to rebuild the public’s trust in politicians. Well, here’s an idea. Why not hold a couple of quick referendums? Every major party stated in its 2005 manifesto that it would give us a vote on the European Constitution, and all the EU’s other leaders are currently boasting that it has just been enacted under another name. Only we are expected to believe that it is a perfectly innocuous amending treaty that we need not bother our little heads about, as Britain’s “red lines” have not been crossed. They must think we are all even dimmer than young Ruairi Hathaway. For pity’s sake give us a vote and let us lance this 35-year-old boil once and for all.

Once that’s out of the way, let’s have a vote on English independence. England is one of the most ancient, prosperous and responsible nations in the world. We are eminently qualified to govern ourselves. Of course it’s sad (for them) that the Scots have been deprived of their traditional roles as Empire-builders and administrators, but luckily Her Majesty still has a dozen or so red dots on the map that could benefit from Gordon’s jaw-dropping skills. I bet they are simply crying out for some constitutional change on Pitcairn.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.