Thursday, 31 December 2009

2009: not all bad

It may not have been much of a year for MPs, Newcastle United, National Express, Kerry Katona, Threshers, Corus or freedom and democracy, whether in Britain or Afghanistan. But at least it turned out reasonably well for South Shields singing sensation Joe McElderry and his many fans in the region; for Lord Mandelson, as he continued to accumulate titles and offices; and less importantly for the North East’s would-be representative in the surprisingly still-to-be-commissioned WhyohWhy Factor, as I belatedly acquired a wife and son. So it could have been even worse.

Even if you were among the vast majority for whom it was a thoroughly rotten year, there was at least the consolation of finally having some official objects for your Orwellian Two Minutes Hate: bankers. How we loathe them and their undeserved bonuses, while secretly wondering how we could grab a slice of the action for ourselves.

They now make even ginger people feel loved. And what do they do to try to claw back a toehold in the people’s affections? Announce that they are going to deprive us of our cheque books to increase their profits still further. These people don’t need to think again; they just need to start.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Peering into our mediaeval future

Analysing the past is a lot simpler than predicting the future. That is why historians are, on the whole, more reliable authorities than clairvoyants.

While history was always my favourite subject at school, I was also an avid viewer of Tomorrow’s World and am pretty sure that we were all supposed to be travelling in flying cars by now, wearing silver foil instead of tweed or denim, and subsisting on vitamin pills.

I do not recall anyone warning me, when I began assembling a vinyl record collection in the late 1960s, that I might as well hang on as the technology would soon be overtaken by cassette tapes, then CDs and now internet downloads. In fact, I do not remember anyone forecasting the life-changing phenomenon that is the World Wide Web.

Or, for that matter, the rise of celebrity culture, Islamist terrorism and manmade global warming (though I do vividly recall the dire warnings that a new Ice Age was just around the corner).

Despite this depressing track record of failure to see into the future, the media have become obsessed with trying to predict it. We cannot even wait until 3p.m. on Christmas Day to find out what the Queen might wish to convey in her annual message; we must hear an uncannily accurate resumĂ© of what she is “expected to say” the day before. Today almost the only “news” that is straight reportage rather than short range forecasting involves deaths, whether of elderly celebrities in their beds or of ordinary folk in accidents, natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

Or, with luck, the avoidance of deaths because said terrorists have again failed to strike their target. At least the weirdly perverted religion that drives the desire to blow us out of the skies seems to be associated with an encouragingly high degree of technical incompetence. Having said that, it would clearly be wrong to pin our hopes on the fanatics’ continued failure.

While history shows that those who keep up sustained campaigns of violence often get their way in the end, they normally have some vaguely rational underlying political agenda. That is lacking in the current generation of would-be mass murderers.

What we can surely safely predict is that the progression from shoe bomber to underpants bomber will be followed up by the development of some even more fiendish and presumably ingested explosive device, and that ever-more intrusive attempts to detect these will make boarding an aircraft even more of a living hell than it is now.

At least if this results in a catastrophic collapse of the global airline industry, it will please the adherents of that other growing world religion, the true believers in manmade climate change.

Look on the editorial and letters pages of any newspaper, and you cannot fail to notice that the sceptics about the benefits of European integration and the causes of global warming are precisely the same people. This seems logical enough, since both are founded on a healthy cynicism about movements tending to diminish individual freedom.

In the case of Europe, one can study history and know that the anti-democratic federalist agenda was based on a noble ideal (the prevention of war) but has been pursued with a reliance on the Big Lie that would make even Hitler or Saddam Hussein blush. On climate change, we are into the realms of futurology and it seems reasonable to apply precautionary principles just in case the science turns out to be right for once.

But it is surely a complete coincidence that those prepared to blow themselves up in the name of religion and the environmental opponents of air travel should turn out to be batting for the same side, too. Or is it? After all, the desired caliphate and wind power are both, in their different ways, profoundly mediaeval concepts.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The case for an independent Berwick

Before it collapsed in acrimonious failure, the Copenhagen summit at least provided fifteen minutes of fame for Tuvalu. It was wonderfully appropriate to see this small nation making waves in the early days of the conference; because, if the doomsters are correct, waves are what its nine islands will soon be vanishing under.

I know a tiny bit about Tuvalu for two reasons. First because I once wasted some time pretending to write a doctoral thesis on British imperial history, and encountered it in its colonial guise as part of the Gilbert and Ellice (not Sullivan) Islands.

Secondly, as a monarchist anorak, I recognise it as one of the 16 independent realms of which Her Majesty the Queen is head of state. These range in size from serious countries like Canada and Australia to, well, Tuvalu.

Because perhaps the most striking thing about Tuvalu is that, at the last count, its population amounted to 11,636. No, I have not missed some noughts off that. Most of them scrape a living from subsistence agriculture. Its big overseas earners are the sale of stamps and coins, and the licensing to the global television industry of its memorable internet domain name, .tv.

So here is a country containing around a third of the number of people living under the former Alnwick District Council, which had to be abolished because there just weren’t enough of us to make it viable. Yet somehow Tuvalu supports the full panoply of Governor-General, Prime Minister, Parliament and seat at the United Nations.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the presence of Tuvalu at Copenhagen with the recent insistence of Javier Solana, the outgoing EU foreign policy supremo, that it is futile for any of the member states to imagine they can still act unilaterally. “I hope very much that people are sensible, and realise that it is a fantasy to think any EU country can do anything alone,” he said.

So no independent voice for the UK, France or Germany, then, but we will at least pause to listen to Tuvalu before we vote to drown it.

All this made me think again how eminently reasonable are the claims of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, of which I wrote recently. It also reminded me of the many obituaries published last month of His Tremendousness Prince Georgio I of Seborga, a chain-smoking former mimosa grower who somehow persuaded the other inhabitants of his small Ligurian village to elect him as their head of state.

His claim for independence was founded on an alleged clerical error, as a result of which Italy had failed to register its title to the place on the break-up of the Holy Roman Empire. Although less successful than Tuvalu in securing formal diplomatic recognition, Seborga (population 364) certainly punches above its weight in terms of worldwide publicity.

I fear that some climate change fanatics may seize on the fiasco at Copenhagen to press for some sort of global dictatorship to save the planet, but my own thoughts are running in precisely the opposite direction. Why not bring on a new age of the responsible, vocal but peaceable micro-state?

The idea of Alnwick making a bid for independence is quite appealing, particularly as it has a ready-made head of state already in residence in its castle.

But Berwick-upon-Tweed, with its claim still to be at war with Russia over Crimea, is surely even better placed to follow the Seborgan route. All it needs is a plausible prince or president. Or maybe, if Tuvalu gurgles beneath the briny, Her Majesty would be prepared to take on Berwick as a replacement realm and it could assume a satisfying new role as head of the international awkward squad. Who knows, it might even have the clout finally to get its very own dual carriageway. Happy Christmas, everyone.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Friday, 18 December 2009

My big new business drive

Public relations: it’s not rocket science. Nor brain surgery, nuclear physics or Chinese algebra. Between you and me it’s more like, well, common sense.

For a start, try being polite to people and answering their questions, ideally without telling them a pack of lies. It’s not that hard, is it? Unless, of course, you are one of those individuals who “does not suffer fools gladly” as they always write in obituaries (in the past tense) as code for “he was a complete and utter bastard”.

Some years ago I had a client who was, without question, the rudest man in the world. We used to try and excuse him by saying “He’s really just shy”. The more perceptive analysts and journalists would throw this claim back at us with some more colourful descriptions of what he really was, none of which is suitable for printing here.

The funny thing is that I’ve been using the same excuse about myself for decades. I don’t like talking on the telephone full stop (always a bit of a handicap for a PR man) and I’d rather stick needles in my eyes than cold call a potential client. The resulting comparative lack of business success I have always attributed to shyness rather than the real cause, which I now recognise to be simply laziness of absolutely colossal proportions.

This did not matter when I was quietly winding down to a retirement of steadily increasing poverty, made bearable by the prospect of premature death. Now, thanks to a column published in this very slot, I find myself required to keep earning until I am at least 80 to support my frighteningly young family.

“So you want some more work?” people ask encouragingly. The only snag is that my commitment to being Britain’s most honest PR man compels me to reply “No, I want more people to pay me for not doing anything.”

As a new business pitch, it’s not working too well up to now, even when I point out how much better off we would all be if we had paid our bankers for doing nothing rather than letting them pretend to be rocket scientists.

I wonder whether modern medicine and psychology can offer a gentler cure for idleness than the traditional boot up the backside?

Keith Hann is a financial PR consultant with time on his hands.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Eating pork scratchings to save the planet

Even after the great medical advances of the twentieth century, human life still seems pathetically short – particularly when you get to my age. So speaking up for death is not an easy way to court popularity.

It helps that I have never much cared for people (and, yes, I do know that the feeling is mutual). Even so, the hardest question in my postbag this year came after a column in which I was wittering nostalgically about the world into which I was born, when the UK’s population was about 45 million. How exactly, enquired my correspondent, did I propose to select and despatch the 15 million or so who have joined us since 1954? I had no answer.

However, that would be a modest proposal compared with the aspirations of the Optimum Population Trust, the “green think tank” which calculates the sustainable population of the UK as between 17 and 27 million, depending on how successful we are in meeting our individual carbon reduction targets. While the sustainable population of the planet as a whole is estimated at 5.1 billion “assuming that one could live with the fact that around half the world's people were malnourished and about 800 million were hungry”; or, ideally, something less than half of that, compared with getting on for seven billion today.

If the Optimum Population Trust sounds vaguely familiar, it is probably because it grabbed a few headlines in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit by asserting that contraception was a better investment than wind turbines, solar power or hybrid cars. Their solution is a scheme that allows individuals and organisations in rich countries to “offset their carbon footprint” (a flawed concept, if ever there was one) by funding family planning programmes in, you guessed it, the Third World. Even a notorious right-winger like the present writer thinks that sounds ever so slightly inequitable.

Population control presents other problems. If it works, it will take generations (or lack of them) to have an impact, whereas we are warned that the dangers of climate change are immediate. Furthermore, it almost certainly won’t work. The biggest experiment to date, China’s single child programme, has been running since 1979 and has apparently prevented over 300 million births; but the population of China has still grown, helped by a wide range of exemptions (no doubt including the commissars who dreamt up the policy in the first place).

I never particularly wanted children, and used to boast that not having a family was my greenest achievement. But now that I have one, I would not have missed it for the world. It is hard to see much of humanity being persuaded to forego reproduction, even by offers of shiny baubles or MP3 players.

Added to which, if the population ever did go into sharp decline, the economic and social consequences of imposing huge numbers of elderly dependents on a shrinking workforce might well make us feel that there was something to be said for Nature’s way with floods, famine and pestilence.

So, as a small step in the right direction, how about simply reversing the universal policy of encouraging everyone to cling onto life for as long as possible? I am not talking euthanasia here (though I predict that it will come to that, if current population and longevity trends continue). But maybe we could each do our bit by having that extra packet of pork scratchings, eating another slice of pie, downing a few more pints and perhaps cracking open a packet of fags to round off our meals. At least, that is what I intend to do.

And, if anyone asks what I think I am doing hanging around in the smoking shelter with telltale crumbs all down my pullover, I shall reply with a straight face “I’m saving the planet”.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Hellfire and hypocrisy: it was ever thus

For the religious zealot, nothing really matters apart from their faith. And why should it, if this life is just a fleeting trial before an eternity of bliss?

The problem is that no-one has ever come back from the other side to give a decisive thumbs-up to that theory, so the rest of us tend to have quite a low boredom threshold when the preaching starts.

So it is with the new, officially recognised religion of man-made climate change. It may hold out no promise of heaven, but it certainly threatens us with hell on earth if we do not quickly repent of our environmental sins.

The snag is the same as with longer established belief systems. Where is the evidence? Anyone with the slightest knowledge of history knows that there have been disastrous storms and floods since the beginning of recorded time, and that parts of the planet (including England) have been both warmer and colder than they are today.

The earnestness of the tree-huggers and eating-ruminants-haters is also enough to turn anyone against their case, however sound it might be. The weekend’s anti-climate chaos demonstrators (ironically all warmly wrapped up against the cold) inevitably called back memories of those face-painted harridans who used to ululate outside the Greenham Common air base, and the unwashed fanatics who tried to prevent the construction of assorted by-passes. Even though naturally sympathetic to the latter cause, I soon found myself siding with the bulldozer operators.

Then there is the sheer, monumental hypocrisy and inconsistency of the world’s politicians. Just as the more sophisticated mediaeval peasants must occasionally have wondered why the leaders of a religion that preached the virtues of poverty needed to live in palaces brimming with fine art and jewels, so the mind boggles that arresting climate change requires thousands of delegates from 192 countries to board jet aircraft to Copenhagen and be chauffeured around it in gas-guzzling limousines.

And no sooner has the Prime Minister administered a tongue-lashing to the “behind-the-times, anti-science, flat-earth climate sceptics” than up pops a committee of MPs to confirm that building a third runway at Heathrow is a cracking idea. Yes, aircraft emissions may be destroying the planet, but we have got to put the UK economy first.

As I understand it, the world is currently getting cooler rather than warmer, and is likely to continue to jog along in a reasonably bearable condition until about 2030 when, unless we completely transform our casual attitude to carbon dioxide emissions, all hell will suddenly break loose.

Compared with some of the things we are currently asked to swallow, this does not sound entirely barking. Residents of Morpeth or Cockermouth will need no reminding of how quickly benign rivers can turn into destructive torrents, and researchers assure us that the last Ice Age ended so suddenly, in a single year, that it was like a cosmic button being pressed.

Then those of us who fought against modifying our lifestyles may look pretty silly, just as we secretly dread graduates of the Alpha course mouthing “I told you so” as the archangels’ trumpets sound and the Lord returns to judge us.

I have long believed that the only sane approach to any religion is to apply the common sense test: does it do more good than harm? If it preaches consideration to others and living frugally and responsibly, it passes. If it advocates flying planes into buildings, it fails.

I am quite prepared to believe that the near seven billion people on this planet cannot all live in the style of rich Americans without putting unbearable strain on its finite resources. So, if the religion of man-made climate change helps to promote some self-restraint it may not be a wholly bad thing, whether the hellfire it preaches turns out to be real or not.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The world turned upside down

An old man recently asked whether I thought we would still be driving on the left when I reached his age. “Because,” he added, “it’s just about the only thing they haven’t changed in this country in my lifetime.”

He had been born into a white, Christian, English-speaking nation in which fathers exercised authority, divorce was exceptional, the monarchy and Parliament were respected, and it was naturally assumed that British was best.

Somehow, without anyone ever consulting him, he had seen it transformed into a multi-racial, multi-cultural society in which every religion (apart from Christianity) has to be carefully respected “to avoid giving offence”; women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities are sometimes given preference over heterosexual white males to improve representation, balance or simply compensate for centuries of alleged wrongs; children can no longer be disciplined; traditional institutions and values are relentlessly mocked; our armed forces have been run down and the essential attributes of national sovereignty quietly transferred to the European Union; and we have had to adjust ourselves to foreign weights, measures and even place names.

Education, for example, has been turned upside down. When I went to university I could have said, like Neil Kinnock, that I was the first member of my family in a thousand generations to do so; though unlike him I am well-educated enough to know that this is mainly because universities did not exist for around the first 975 generations in question.

In my day, if seeking admission to an Oxbridge college, it was a distinct advantage to have had a parent there before you; today it is a positive handicap. Both positions are equally unfair. Access to education at all levels should be based simply on ability, not manipulated to give a leg-up to the badly taught or thick.

My wife recently obtained a new British passport in which I noticed that some of the key information was translated into two sorts of gibberish. Not foreign languages that might actually be useful overseas, like French, Spanish, Russian or Mandarin, but what I finally worked out were Welsh and Gaelic. This is surely madness, because anyone so hopelessly monoglot in Gaelic that they cannot understand the English word “passport” is completely unequipped to leave their croft, let alone the country.

How long will it be before passports become 100 pages thick with translations into Cornish, Kurdish, Urdu, Vietnamese, Lallans, Swahili, Tagalog and every other conceivable minority language that might be spoken somewhere in this country?

Yet the clamour for change remains relentless. Open any national newspaper and you will read the whinges of self-appointed pressure groups complaining that our society is insufficiently adapted to their needs, say because BBC Radio 4 is still fronted by too many people who sound potentially white and middle class.

There are conspiracy theorists who argue that what has happened to Britain since the Second World War is the result of a carefully co-ordinated campaign by the Left. Having failed to achieve the glorious new dawn of communism, they turned to destroying society by systematically undermining and reversing all the assumptions on which it was based.

A revolution has undoubtedly been achieved, but it seems far too organised and brilliant for the Left as we know it ever to have effected it. The old Britain was simply asking to be toppled because it was a fundamentally decent place in which those in charge always thought it reasonable to listen to the other person’s point of view.

Now fears of being accused of racism or bigotry have silenced opposition so effectively that even the leadership of the Conservative Party is quick to condemn proponents of traditional values as “dinosaurs”. And so, oddly enough, our bright new “rainbow” society looks certain to be altogether less tolerant of dissent than the monochrome, patriarchal, deferential one we have lost. Is anyone surprised?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.