Tuesday 25 September 2007

On the rocks

Why was there a run on Northern Rock? Because the Bank of England announced that it was providing it with emergency support. Predictably enough, this had the same calming effect as a pilot telling his passengers that the engines have failed.

Why could Governor Mervyn King not sort the problem out quietly behind the scenes? Because, he says, the European Union’s Market Abuse Directive forbad him from doing so.

What happened when Chancellor Alistair Darling first urged calm? The rush for the emergency exits turned into a stampede. Most commentators attributed this to our loss of trust in politicians, so that we are inclined to believe the opposite of anything they say.

This is a desperate state of affairs. But our leaders have brought it upon themselves by lying to us. Frankly, I don’t know how any of them can keep a straight face when they trot out that line about the EU Reform Treaty being a completely different document from the Constitution, and therefore not requiring the referendum every major party promised at the last election.

They lied about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, though that could have been a spectacular failure of intelligence rather than a deliberate attempt to deceive. What is certain is that they have been lying about Europe for more than 30 years, since Ted Heath first proclaimed that there would be “no essential loss of sovereignty” in joining the then Common Market.

In every headline issue of the last few weeks, from Northern Rock to foot and mouth disease, we find that real authority rests not with our elected Government but with Brussels. Our only contribution seems to be taking absurd rules and regulations and making them even worse.

The prime example usually cited here is the spectacular mishandling of the farm payments scheme in England, but I think an even better illustration is Home Information Packs (HIPs). These are required to comply with yet another EU Directive on Energy Performance Certificates. As usual, we have managed to make this even more complicated than the EU prescribed.

It was only in May that then Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly was forced to make the humiliating announcement to Parliament that the introduction of HIPs was not going ahead as planned. The word “fiasco” was widely used, and many pundits pronounced the scheme dead. Yet it is already in place for properties with three or more bedrooms.

That’s how anything driven by the EU works. It has no reverse gear. No matter how unpopular or unnecessary a proposal may be, it will be brought back endlessly until resistance is worn down.

Why won’t our political leaders come clean with us on why are tied up in this corrupt, anti-democratic and unaccountable Union? They talk about prosperity and jobs, which had some credibility when the British economy was on its knees in the 1970s, but won’t wash today.

Whenever I’ve argued Euro-enthusiasts into a corner, they usually admit that the economic arguments are bogus and that it’s really all about peace. They say that the EU has preserved it for 50 years. (Untrue: NATO did that.)

It seems to me to take an excessively gloomy view of the German character to believe that the only way to stop the Panzers once again rolling into Poland and France is to allow them to throw their weight around as the biggest player in a new country called Europe, which incidentally fulfils many of Hitler’s most cherished dreams.

But if that really is the reason, and if our acceptance of it is based on an assessment that Britain cannot hope to defend itself against a united Continent, then for heaven’s sake just tell us that. We are grown-ups. We can take it.

Though we might question the wisdom of spending billions on updating our nuclear deterrent, when all essential aspects of our independence have already been surrendered.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 18 September 2007

More balls

I had a pint recently with another Journal columnist, who told me that he opens the paper every Tuesday with a shaking hand, in case I have stolen his idea for the week. In the way that one can so easily steal someone else’s parking space by simply driving into it before them.

I told him to think himself lucky. I open The Journal with a shaking hand every single day. But then I am an alcoholic.

I only appreciated the true horror of his position on Saturday, when I found that our beloved Wife in the North had filled half a page with an account of the Conservatives’ Grand Ball I had attended the previous weekend, for the sole purpose of having something to write about.

Of course, I should have covered it last Tuesday, but was unable to do so owing to the massive hangover that I was nursing for 48 hours after the event.

Still, I feel I can’t simply let it go. These things may be a regular event in the O’Reilly household, but the last one I attended was a May Ball at my college in Cambridge 30 years ago. They served swan, because they can. It isn’t up to much. Say what you like about the grimness of life Up North, but we certainly have better ingredients. As well as bigger breasts.

Because Judith O’Reilly, not being a paid-up, die-hard Tory like myself, has unfortunately blown the cover on our secret weapons. We have a massive advantage in the bust department. (And we’ll have no jokes about that being where George Osborne would lead us.) The phone lines have apparently been red hot all week as Alan Beith has desperately contacted glamour modelling agencies in an attempt to shore up his campaign team. But in his heart he must know he’s doomed. Mention Jordan to him and it’s a penny to a pound he’ll think you’re wanting a serious discussion about the geopolitics of the Middle East.

The world’s largest unsupported bosom wasn’t actually at my table at the Ball. Its owner was located in the grander surroundings of the castle itself, surrounded by assessors from a well-known Book of Records. But there was a fine if slightly less ambitious display in my corner of the adjoining marquee. Maybe the organisers of the Alwinton Show might like to consider making this an additional category, between the giant leeks and the dressed sticks, to maintain public interest in the face of the livestock movement ban.

The fact that one of the blokes on my table had a shaven head confused the picture a little as the evening wore on, but apart from that it was just heavenly. I fell madly in love with a lady opposite, but I don’t think it can have been reciprocated as I definitely gave her my card and I’ve been checking my answering service and emails every ten minutes for well over a week now, with precisely no result.

Of course, she might have been put off by my accidental presence in the epicentre of the scandalous kissing incident. Where I live, you don’t often see two attractive women snogging each other, unless you caught the Theatre Royal’s recent production of Aspects of Love. In Dave’s inclusive new Tory party, we take this sort of thing in our stride. Though obviously it’s a bit discouraging for the lucky chaps who had brought the participants along as their partners. Rather like being the England football coach and having your promising new signing turn up for his first training session dressed in whites and pads, with a bat gripped under his arm.

So there you have it. We Conservatives have larger breasts, racier girls and bigger Balls. Oh, and better policies, obviously. Come on Gordon, don’t be shy. Bring that election on.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 11 September 2007

Why tasting beats wasting

Wartime food rationing in the UK finally ended on 4 July 1954, a month after I was born. It would probably have been better for me if it had continued. We know that the general health of the population improved during the war. The suicide rate also plummeted, and there was allegedly a spirit of national solidarity that we have been seeking to rebuild ever since. There is a whole generation, comprising the young adults of 1939-45, who will gladly tell you that it was the best time of their lives. Though this could just prove that young adulthood is the best time of anyone’s life, however unpromising the conditions.

Whilst people of my age were brought up in a country that had “never had it so good”, we were raised by parents whose experiences meant that they simply loathed waste. Food never ended up in the bin. If I didn’t clear every scrap from my plate, I got a lecture about starving children in Africa.

How times have changed, I reflected as I read a leaflet delivered by the council last month. Apparently in Alnwick District alone, 3,400 tonnes of food each year is consigned to landfill. In order to cut this down, the authorities make a series of staggeringly patronising suggestions: “Before you shop, try and have some idea of the meals you are going to make over the coming week; check what you already have in the house; make a list of what you need …”

Blimey, who’d ever have thought of that? It goes on: “Stick to your shopping list; don’t be tempted to buy things that you don’t need or will not be able to use (the biggest culprit is buy one, get one free offers); check the use by dates on the products and avoid buying if you will not use them within that date.”

Coming soon from your council: an illustrated guide demonstrating the right way to sit on a toilet, with handy hints to reduce paper usage.

Quite apart from my indignation at paying tax to fund the production of this litany of the unbelievably bleeding obvious, I was struck once again by the contemporary tyranny of the “use by” date. I subsisted through most of last winter on a stockpile of tinned soup that either bore use by dates between 1994 and 1996, or had been produced before anyone even thought of adding use by dates to tinned food. I regularly retrieve things from the freezer that have been there for a decade, and find them perfectly palatable. Amazingly, I am still very much alive at the time of writing.

Over the years I had defended my soup collection against numerous relationship-threatening assaults by passing girlfriends, determined to consign them to the bin. Once, when my back was turned, one actually succeeded in emptying my fridge, throwing out a superb range of jams and marmalades. This was particularly galling as the use by dates on their lids related to the original contents and not their actual ones, all of which had been lovingly handmade by my aunt. I still wake up with a start at nights sometimes, reliving the awful sense of loss.

The only thing I can find in my pantry now that is apparently not destined to become lethal after a certain date is a packet bearing the following legend: “Sugar is a natural preservative and if stored in a cool dry place will keep indefinitely”. I can’t help feeling that someone in Silver Spoon’s marketing department is missing a trick here, and that they will soon wake up to the fact that they might sell more of the stuff if people could be persuaded to chuck it away.

So I’ll end with another patronising thought: if it looks and smells edible, it probably is. Go on, use your common sense. Taste it before you waste it.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 4 September 2007

Princesses and pontificators

I’d like to begin by offering a few words of consolation to all those readers who are still mourning the demise of the people’s Princess. Unfortunately, however, I am completely unqualified to do so, because I’ve never once set foot on the Tuxedo Princess in all its 23 years tied up at Gateshead Quay.

You may think that it would be impossible for anyone to confuse a rather tired leisure venue by the Tyne Bridge with the sainted ex-wife of Prince Charles, but stranger things have happened. My lunch last Thursday was marred by accidentally sitting next to the ultimate pub bore, who was set off by a passing mention of Diana to deliver a defect-by-defect account of the Austin Princess he had owned in the 1970s, with special reference to the fundamental error in the production process that made the model particularly susceptible to rust. I was so crazed with boredom that, if a completely paralytic Frenchman had staggered in and asked if anyone fancied a high-speed run through the Tyne Tunnel in his Mercedes, pursued by a white Fiat Uno full of paparazzi, I’d have been the first to volunteer.

Diana’s end may have been tragic and untimely, but at some point it was inevitable. Indeed, people used to say that nothing in this world was certain apart from death and taxes, though admittedly that was before our beloved hedge fund managers and non-domiciled billionaire community found a way round the little local difficulty of handing over money to the Government. I believe they’re still working on death, though they may have found the answer to that, too. Let’s face it, if they have, they certainly won’t be sharing the secret with the likes of us.

Nevertheless, one still finds a lot of rather dim people pontificating about things being “inevitable”. Not so long ago, we were told that about Britain’s entry to the euro, fans of which seem to have gone strangely though delightfully quiet in recent years. I am old enough to remember when the global triumph of communism was widely considered to be inevitable. So too, in their day, were the triumphs of Hitler, Napoleon and the invincible Spanish Armada.

Last week the North East Chamber of Commerce weighed into the battle on unitary councils, calling on the district authorities not to pursue a legal challenge that could only “delay the inevitable”. The phrase “Chamber of Commerce” may conjure up for you a room full of well-fed and faintly comical local businessmen in the mould of Captain Mainwaring or Arkwright the grocer, but this body is one of the “key stakeholders” whose views apparently count for so much more with Government than those of ordinary electors.

The Chamber is no doubt right in saying that unitary councils are what the Government wants, to entrench its own party political advantage and destroy proper representation of those irritating people who live in rural backwaters and stand in the way of what the French call “grands projets”.

But that doesn’t alter the fact that it is one of the two most outrageously anti-democratic decisions of our time. The other being the denial of the promised referendum on the European Constitution on the grounds that re-branding it as a Reform Treaty makes it something completely different. This is what is technically known as a big fat lie.

If politicians persist in doing precisely the opposite of what we have voted for, how on earth do they ever expect to recover public respect or encourage greater participation in elections?

It behoves all of us to just say no, as frequently and loudly as we can, to these fundamental denials of our rights. I’m not known for my optimism but, if we make a big enough fuss, they may yet turn out to be no more inevitable than a grimly maudlin tenth anniversary memorial disco night to commemorate the Tuxedo Princess being towed down-river.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.