Tuesday 25 May 2010

Scarborough versus the Med: no contest

Whatever you think about the ConDem coalition, you must admit that the weather has perked up a treat since they took office. The only snag being that the letters pages will soon be full of global warming true believers bleating “I told you so.”

As the weekend sun beat down, the two sides in the British Airways dispute came close to beating each other up, the Icelandic volcano probably just paused for breath and many of us reflected that our jobs are hanging by a gossamer thread that George Osborne and David Laws are about to slash. So why on earth risk booking a foreign summer holiday when there are seaside guesthouses the length and breadth of Britain desperate for our custom?

You will discover the answer to this in August when you are sitting inside a grim, graffiti-covered Victorian shelter with sodden chip wrappers blowing around your ankles, watching the rain stream down the cracked and filthy windows while several OAPs shout at each other about how they have known worse, albeit only that time the Alton Towers log flume malfunctioned so spectacularly during their annual coach trip.

“Real Blackwaterfoot weather” we called it in my family, after a less than successful childhood holiday on the Isle of Arran. Every drenched afternoon the cheery (by Scottish standards) lady hotelier would raise our spirits by promising that, on the morrow, we would experience “real Blackwaterfoot weather.” And so we did. Several inches of it, often coming at us horizontally.

Still, at least there will be plenty of time to read the newspapers. They will be full of true believers’ valuable insights into the freak downpours, often including the words “I told you so.”

Yet I would not have it any other way. I hate going abroad, me. Not because of xenophobic prejudice. I simply hate going anywhere.

If I absolutely have to take baby Charlie on his first summer holiday, as I am told I must, I fancy St Abbs in Berwickshire. It did for me when I was his age, and look how I turned out. Yes, all right, not the strongest of arguments, I know.

Mrs Hann counterbid with Majorca, Minorca and Corfu (cunningly weaving in two former British colonies, I noted, in the hope of sparking my interest as a historian). So naturally I trumped her with the ultimate holiday destination anywhere on the planet: Scarborough, the Queen of the Yorkshire Riviera. I think I’ve just about forgiven the council for tarmacing over my favourite crazy golf course to create a car park. There are others. Along with a castle, beaches, gardens, cliff tramways, theatres, pubs, a Sea Life Centre, a miniature railway and the grave of Anne Brontë (who was to the Haworth sisterhood what Zeppo was to the Marx Brothers). They took her to Scarborough for her health. What an advertisement.

Seriously, I know you will think I am taking the mickey, but I love the place. What could be better than watching a load of grown men steering miniature warships around the lake in Peasholm Park to recreate one of the great naval battles of the Second World War? It seemed bizarrely old-fashioned when my dad first took me in the early 1960s. How wonderful that it is still going on to enthral (or baffle) my son half a century later.

My wife argues that Charlie needs to get used to aeroplanes, and would prefer a beach with reliable sunshine. I say the days of mass air travel are over. Dani (as I call our new ConDem conjoined PM) has already scrapped the third runway at Heathrow. We are all going to have to get used to holidays at home and the memorable disappointments of real Blackwaterfoot weather. You will laugh about it eventually. Do remember that I told you so.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Are they really all the same?

Once again I am proud to bring you a column that is spectacularly out of touch with the mood of the region, the nation and quite possibly the entire human race.

I fear this must be so because I spent last Tuesday evening doing a badly co-ordinated jig of glee in front of the television while the helicopters hovered over Downing Street. Between swigs from my celebratory glass, I loudly enquired why the departure of the Browns could not be more like that of the Ceausescus, while my wife murmured soothingly “He’s gone now, love. Just let it go.”

Then David Cameron arrived outside the famous front door and blow me down if almost his first words were not a glowing tribute to his predecessor: “Compared to a decade ago, this country is more open at home and more compassionate abroad and that is something we should all be grateful for.”

Really? More open to all those immigrants who hoovered up most of the new jobs created in the New Labour years, certainly, but how else? And what exactly do our major foreign policy initiatives in Iraq and Afghanistan have to do with compassion?

My mystification only deepened when I turned, for light relief, to a social networking site, and found a friend reporting that she had wept over Gordon Brown’s departure, even though she is not a Labour voter. It must have been those well-scrubbed children that brought a lump to the throat, I guess. At least Lord Mandelson and Alastair Campbell have not lost their touch.

A myth is being constructed in which Gordon Brown was all along simply a dedicated public servant who strove to do his best for his country, was unluckily wrong-footed by a global financial crisis that blew up on his watch, and finally departed with dignity. This is untrue in every particular.

Right from the start, with the cut-price sale of our gold reserves, the destruction of our private pension system and the introduction of divided, “light touch” financial regulation, Mr Brown’s 13 years in Downing Street were a disaster. Only one great service to the nation stands out to underpin his claim to a place in Westminster Abbey, and that is his success in keeping Britain out of the euro, without which our financial predicament would be even closer to that of Greece.

While giving due credit for this, it should perhaps be qualified by the suspicion that it owed less to sound economic principles than to a determination to deny Tony Blair his bizarre but sincere wish to go down in history as the man who abolished the pound.

Now, it can be argued that I should indeed let all this go. When the Titanic was sinking, it doubtless made more sense to focus on saving as many lives as possible, rather than sitting down in the crazily tilting first class saloon for an in-depth discussion of who was responsible for the ship’s defective design.

Given the depth of the financial hole in which we find ourselves, it is perhaps right for our politicians to put aside their differences and pull together, as Messrs Cameron and Clegg have already done. Were Dave’s emollient words uttered with a view to the possible need to draw Labour into a new National Government if the crisis should deepen, as it well might?

The downside of this, along with the clustering of every party around the “centre ground”, taking their core supporters for granted so as to focus on luring in the wet and naïve floating voter, is that it fuels the suspicion graphically put to me by one elderly neighbour: “They’re all the same. They’re all in it for what they can get.”

Because if no major issues of principle divide our mainstream political parties, what other explanation can there be?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Sunderland has a lot to answer for

Well done, us! It takes real skill and judgement to manipulate a simple first-past-the-post electoral system to achieve a result that absolutely none of the political parties wanted. That will serve them right for fiddling their expenses.

The only snag is that, being British, we are still not satisfied. The weekend newspapers were full of vox pop moans about that weird Scotsman still hanging around in Downing Street, and asking what on earth nice Dave Clegg thought he was up to, talking to nasty Nick Cameron.

And, with another election probably looming fairly soon, no one in any party dared answer “Because you willed it, dimwits.”

My own election day went very satisfactorily until about 11pm. I dropped my postal vote off at my nearest polling station, impeded only by two nonagenarians attempting to dodder through the door simultaneously, and enjoyed a fine lunch with two fellow scribblers, both lifelong Labour supporters.

Funnily enough they had both suddenly discovered an urgent need to support the Lib Dems, cheerily noting that the party stood to the left of Labour on most issues. Vote Clegg, get Miliband seemed to be the calculation. How could Nick possibly do a deal with “oily Dave” the PR man?

Of course, they may yet prove to be right, but at least I have enjoyed a few days sporting a wry smile.

Having viewed the BBC exit poll, I should have headed straight for bed, but the wait for those promised Sunderland results seemed tantalisingly short. And then the massive Wearside swings of 8.4% and even 11.6% to the Tories made me think that a night of genuine excitement lay ahead.

After all, if Sunderland was prepared to swing so strongly towards “Dave” after his candid predictions about how the North East could look forward to many fewer comfortable public sector jobs not answering the phones in call centres, or casually losing computer discs full of sensitive information, just imagine how well he might do in regions to which he was not actually proposing to lay waste.

Which is how I came to be still up at 4.30am, completely knackered, my bottle of Champagne still unopened, before I finally grasped that the ultimate result was going to be bang in line with the exit poll I had seen six and a half hours earlier.

Now one of the few areas in which I am in complete agreement with our (probably soon) ex-Prime Minister is the operation of a strict blame culture. With him everything was Tony Blair’s fault for about 13 years, then poor old Sue stepped forward to take his place. Luckily for me I acquired a wife not too long after I stopped being able to afford a PA, and fortunately for her baby Charlie came along quite soon afterwards to share responsibility for everything that goes wrong in the Hann household.

Sadly we spent election night 200-odd miles apart, but even if we had been together it is quite clear that this particular debacle was all down to the Makems. Either they weren’t paying attention to “Dave”, or they were too dim to understand what he said, or in the rush to win the race for first declaration (which isn’t too much of a challenge, really, considering that they are the only entrant) …

No, they could not have miscounted, could they? The British electoral system is beyond reproach.

My only compensation for a needlessly sleepless night was going live to Montgomeryshire to see the look on the face of chief asteroid worrier and Cheeky Girl fancier Lembit Opik as he was turfed out on a scarcely believable swing. But it was not enough, really. Next time I’m off to bed at 10.05 sharp. And the right advice for Sunderland is surely this: start training for a marathon, not a sprint.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne

Tuesday 4 May 2010

The election nobody should want to win

The first election coverage I sat up for was in 1970, when the polls foresaw Harold Wilson cruising to a comfortable Labour victory. My abiding memory is of a man with a pot of paint extending the BBC’s swingometer to reflect the far better than expected Conservative performance.

I also fondly recall that night’s ejection of legendary (for the wrong reasons) former foreign secretary George Brown from the Belper seat he had held since 1945. An event matched among “Portillo moments” for Tories perhaps only by the defeat of Tony Benn in 1983.

Apart from 1970, the only election I remember as a pleasant surprise was that of 1992. It then took me ages to unwind the complex financial arrangements I had made to keep my pathetic savings out of the hands of John Smith. By the time I had done so, the Conservatives’ reputation for financial competence had been utterly destroyed by the events of Black Wednesday.

Herein lies my essential problem with this week’s contest. Although I shall sit up all night, as tradition demands, with a bottle of champagne on ice, what on earth will there be for any of us to celebrate, however things turn out?

My tribal instincts lead me to hope for a Conservative victory, but even if I did not have my doubts about “Dave”, why would I want my own party to end up holding the not just poisoned but positively explosive chalice that is the legacy of 13 years of “prudence” by Gordon Brown?

Because the one prediction I think we can make with confidence is that a huge amount of almost indescribable nastiness is poised to strike the air conditioning, and it will make Black Wednesday look like the proverbial vicarage tea party. Looking forward to building an aircraft carrier, having your local A-road dualled, keeping your cushy paper-shuffling job in the civil service until you collect your gold-plated pension, or taking that new wonder drug for cancer?

Terribly sorry, but you’re going to be out of a job and stuck in a potholed rut at best, dead at worst. Oh, and you’re going to be paying painfully higher taxes into the bargain. That is the essential reality of our looming financial crisis that none of the contenders to be Prime Minister – not even the boy wonder Clegg – considers us grown-up enough to hear.

Because, their pollsters and focus groups no doubt assure them, anyone who told the truth would be toast come polling day.

That we have descended into this morass is not simply the politicians’ fault. Yes, they all went along with the ludicrous idea that we could keep getting richer through bankers doing the equivalent of playing the slot machines in Las Vegas. But they did it because we all longed to believe it, too.

During my lifetime we have seen a general infantilisation of the whole population, so that no-one expects to endure real pain or hardship, or to be faced with genuinely tough choices. Who now is prepared to say “No” to the bleatings of pressure groups, or administer the occasional short, sharp smack?

Well, what is coming after Thursday will be far worse than a reluctantly Court-approved “reasonable chastisement”. It is going to hurt, and the party and person who administer the punishment will soon be so fantastically unpopular that the Tories’ 13 years out of serious contention since 1997 will look like a mere bagatelle.

So I shall probably manage a ragged cheer as the Labour seats start to fall on Thursday night, but my heart will not really be in it if “Dave” looks like landing an overall majority. Though the alternative of some sort of coalition risks making nearly every serious politician in the country loathed with a truly unprecedented passion. And where exactly do we go from there?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.