Tuesday 24 April 2012

Elected mayors? I'd rather be represented by a duke

How entirely typical that our beloved political elite should mark England’s national day by publishing proposals to screw up one of the few bits of our system of government that is both decorative and decorous, functional and inexpensive.

I have got into hot water before for defending the House of Lords. Clearing out some old newspapers at the weekend, I came across an impassioned reader’s letter of October 2009. Its author positively reeled in disbelief that anyone could hold to the “absurd” notion that there was a place in the “modern British constitution” for the hereditary peer.

But frankly I would much rather be represented in Parliament by a duke than almost any of our current crop of MPs. Apart from anything else, a man who has inherited a castle or two seems rather less likely to fiddle his expenses than someone who has clawed their way up the obsessives’ greasy pole of political research and special adviserships.

The Duke of Wellington: my kind of Prime Minister

While there may be some life peers whose curricula vitae leave a little to be desired, it also seems ironic that proposals to clear out the current House of Lords should be published on the very day that the papers carried obituaries of exactly the sort of member that the old system of nomination delivered so well: that doughty campaigner for the disabled, Lord Ashley.

However, I am prepared to forgive all this for the sheer delight of hearing Nick Clegg on the BBC on Sunday dismissing the need for a referendum on Lords reform in these words: “Why is it that we should spend a great deal of money, millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, asking the British people a question which frankly most people don’t worry about very much?”

In such marked contrast to, say, the great AV referendum of 2011, on which the great British public could scarcely contain their excitement. Or the current fatuous votes on “directly elected mayors”, for which we have clearly all been crying out since we saw such brilliant examples as Ken and Boris, the man in the monkey suit in Hartlepool and that English Democrat in Doncaster.

Hangus, Mayor of Hartlepool - almost making Ken look credible

If the people of Newcastle are daft enough to vote for this, we are told that the egotist who gains the position will have (undefined) “greater powers” and could take a leadership role across the whole of the “city region”. Including, presumably, the rural backwater in Northumberland that I call home.

In which case it seems pretty unfair that I am not also being given an opportunity to cast a vote against the idea. Government isn’t “Britain’s Got Talent”. We don’t need more star personalities. We need decent, principled and disinterested people prepared to undertake a necessary but thankless job.

Like most of the current members of the House of Lords, to pick an example entirely at random.

The Government wastes not millions, but billions of pounds of our money every single day. It makes me furious every time I contemplate it. Yet suggest a referendum on something about which a significant number of us clearly do care, like our continuing membership of the European Union, and there is never any shortage of reasons why it would be unconstitutional and unnecessary.

No wonder politicians are held in such minimal respect.

There are lots of things in Britain that aren’t working well. School leavers unfit for employment because they are functionally illiterate, the continuing travails of the NHS, overstretched armed forces and a collapsing pensions system, to name but a few. Against such fundamentals, having a Home Secretary who literally does not know which day of the week it is pales into insignificance.

Theresa May (or, in her diary, June). But probably Won't.

So as some people once said on the telly, I agree with Nick. The House of Lords hardly even begins to register on the very long list of things we need to worry about, so why doesn’t our cabinet of chum(p)s just move on and leave it alone?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Two cheers for George Osborne at the bottom of his very deep hole

George Osborne has single-handedly dug a hole for himself so deep that it may yet come in handy as an artesian well to relieve the country’s worst drought since 1976.

George's bottomless pit - with thanks to The Sun

Though as I recall Harold Wilson managed to bring that to a swift conclusion by naming his Sports Minister Denis Howell the Minister for Drought, whereupon it promptly rained every day for weeks.

A rare shot of Drought Minister Howell without an umbrella

Surely the time is now ripe to give this title to Nick Clegg or Eric Pickles, ideally encouraging them to perform traditional native American rain dances on Horse Guards Parade until the clouds break.

Alternatively, the Government is very welcome to pay for the Hann family to enjoy a fortnight’s beach holiday at any stricken resort on the south coast, since I can absolutely guarantee that this will produce a 14-day downpour to replenish the rivers and aquifers. It is surely no coincidence that the parts of the country that have no shortage of water are the ones where we spend all our time.

A typical Hann holiday destination

But let us return to George in his hole, with ordure being dumped on his head from all sides. I have already added several shovels full of my own, on the vexed question of the so-called pasty tax. A measure which threatens to create a bureaucratic nightmare by making VAT chargeable if any oven-fresh product (apart from bread, because at least George knows enough history to remember Marie Antoinette) is above the ambient temperature of the shop at the time of sale.

My central point was that tax should not be complicated: it should be simple and low. However, it should also be compulsory. I wholly share the resentment caused by the widespread impression that, for the richest individuals and corporations, deciding whether to pay any tax at all is entirely up to them.

Which is why, for once, I think George has a point in his move to restrict tax relief on charitable donations. No one wants to stop people giving their own money away, though the broad definition of charities in this country leaves many of us wondering whether the benefiting causes are always good ones.

One of my own favourite charities - but not everyone's idea of a good cause

But why is it necessary for the rich to give not just their own money but yours and mine, too, in the form of the proportion they would otherwise have paid in tax?

Much lower down the giving chain, I concluded that the whole Gift Aid scam had gone crazy when I started having to endure needlessly long queues to enter stately homes, zoos and even the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace so that each visitor could be quizzed as to whether they were a UK taxpayer. And, if so, whether they would like to make an additional donation at no cost to themselves by faffing around filling in a form with their name and address so that the charity concerned could claim a tax refund on top of the cost of their admission ticket.

I make a now well-rehearsed short speech about how I am clearly not making a charitable donation but paying the market rate for entry to an attraction, which always leaves the nice person on the desk looking rather hurt. For his next Budget, maybe George might like to think about sorting out that time-wasting and bureaucracy-generating racket, too, and simply leaving us more money in our pockets to disburse as we see fit.

Even though it disadvantages me personally as the owner and occupant of a listed building, I also find it hard to argue with George’s logic in removing the zero rating for VAT of “approved alterations” to such structures, which always seemed utterly perverse when VAT had to be paid in full on simply keeping them in good repair.

So that’s two cheers from me, George, if you can hear me down at the bottom of your pit. Sadly this is almost certainly your cue to get your coat, clear your desk and start researching rain dances on the internet.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Am I the only one cheering for the iceberg during ITV's Titanic?

How different it might all have been if Sir Matthew Pinsent had been born a century earlier, so that he could have served as a lookout on the Titanic.

One of his timely cries of “there’s something in the water” might surely have made all the difference, as they did to that witless protester’s chances of survival in the Thames on Saturday afternoon.

Though the greatest risk was not that impressionable children might witness a well-deserved decapitation on live TV, but that the contest might be spoiled by one of the rowers breaking an oar in the process. As it was, that catastrophe was luckily averted, and … oh yeah.

Until this Easter weekend I had never taken the slightest interest in the boat race, even though I grew up in a household where it was religiously observed on our tiny black and white TV. It was one of those annual events that my parents considered simply unmissable, like the Grand National (the only horse race on which they ever placed a bet).

Yet the only thing I can remember from my childhood is some grainy footage of the 1951 Oxford boat sinking, endlessly recycled on compilations of great sporting disasters along with that bloke being pipped at the post of the 1948 Olympic marathon and the Queen Mother’s horse Devon Loch landing flat on its stomach at Aintree in 1956.

Cambridge 1978, not Oxford 1951, but you get the picture

Then came this Holy Saturday, when I was so desperate for a break from the sound of three small children wrecking my garden that I pulled the “I must support my old university” card from my pocket and settled down in blissful peace and quiet in front of the TV. It was certainly a memorable experience. And, what’s more, I only had to see it once.

Unlike Julian Fellowes’ take on Titanic, which is apparently stuck in an endless loop where the same characters do much the same things to each other every week. The big surprise comes right at the end, when the ship sinks. Who could have seen that coming? Surely I am not alone in spending my recent Sunday evenings shouting “Come on, you iceberg!” at the TV?

For variety, next week I think I shall treat myself to a download of the classic 1980 box office flop “Raise the Titanic”, of which Lew Grade memorably observed “It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic Ocean.”

It is strange how Titanic has retained its hold on the popular imagination, despite the subsequent and infinitely greater human tragedies of the First World War. I do not recall any similar fuss being made on, say, the centenary of the Tay Bridge disaster in 1979.

Come on Fellowes, it had first class passengers, too. Anyone for the memorial crossing?

What we can say with certainty is that no one would currently be paying almost £6,000 for a cruise to retrace Titanic’s maiden voyage if it had ended safely in New York. Just as few would remember Donald Campbell’s achievement if he had broken the world water speed record on Coniston in 1967, instead of becoming fatally airborne in Bluebird.

Similarly, how many of NASA’s 135 space shuttle launches have lodged in the memory, apart from the Challenger disaster of 1986?

Call me superstitious, but I would not wish to step aboard a Titanic memorial cruise at any price. Though a century of progress in marine engineering meant that MS Balmoral had to leave Southampton two days earlier than Titanic because it cannot match its speed. This presumably reduces the chances of adverse consequences from any unanticipated encounters with sea ice.

For added authenticity, they have ditched three quarters of the lifeboats

And if by some quirk history should repeat itself, at least the participants will never be forgotten.

Just as the sore losers in the 2012 boat race may console themselves with the thought that they have come as close as any of us ever will to immortality. Because winners soon fade from memory, but people will surely be replaying footage of their tribulations on YouTube for decades if not centuries to come.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

The ultimate humiliation: being outclassed as a PR man by George Osborne

Most commentators agree that Cameron is to Osborne as Blair was to Brown. No 10 may house the smooth front man selling the Government to the public, but the real domestic power resides in No 11.

On the face of it, Mr Cameron is well qualified to major on presentation. His only job outside politics was as a PR man at a television company, where he garnered something of a reputation for being economical with the actualité.

The nice but dim PR man in action: bloody nice bloke

So it was ironic to discover that the true PR genius in the Government is actually George Osborne. I realise that this may seem a strange claim to make after all the fallout from his “millionaire’s Budget”, but my case is a simple one.

Boy George has given Greggs more national publicity in a single week than I managed in 24 years as the official spokesman handling their financial PR.

George, ne Gideon: the man with the power

I first became involved with Greggs as a company when I worked on their stock market flotation in 1984. I owe my entire subsequent career to that fact, because after a lacklustre initial six months in PR my employer was on the point of firing me when the opportunity to pitch to Greggs came along.

It was a beauty contest we were not supposed to win, but I had an unfair advantage over their merchant bank’s pet PR firm: I had been eating Greggs’ products for years. My mum used to make special trips to Byker to buy their stottie cakes even before that glorious day when a Greggs shop opened almost on our doorstep at the Four Lane Ends.

How it was in them days

Somehow, despite my involvement, the flotation was a great success and for years I worked hard to build Greggs’ media profile. Yet not all that long ago I was still struggling to persuade some national newspapers to take an interest in what they regarded as a rather obscure regional baker.

How times have changed. Greggs’ current media stardom is well deserved on any measure. I cannot even type their name without feeling a Pavlovian desire to go out and buy myself a sausage roll and jam doughnut. But they don’t just sell great products; they are nice people doing a wide range of good things, from their exemplary staff profit sharing scheme to children’s breakfast clubs.

How it is now

The Greggs Foundation, set up by Ian Gregg in 1987, is a model of what Mr Cameron’s “Big Society” should be all about: successful business people putting something back to help the less advantaged in the community.

So frankly, George, I cannot think of any organisation less deserving of the kicking you propose to administer through your half-baked “pasty tax”. A measure that appears to be backed only by lentil-munching health fanatics and the National Federation of Fish Friers: surely the least likely alliance since the Nazi-Soviet pact.

Too late for the Titanic: too early for WW1

If Greggs’ shops featured “hot snacks” cabinets of the type that graces the counter of Roy’s Rolls in Coronation Street, they would indeed be selling hot takeaway food that would be liable to VAT. But they are not. They are baking raw products, then allowing them to cool down. Their temperature therefore varies according to the time of purchase.

Indisputably a hot food takeaway

What idiot decided it would be a “simplification” to impose VAT based on the warmth of an item at the point when money changes hands for it? It can be absolutely guaranteed to create a bureaucratic nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions.

In fact, the only obvious way around it would be to impose VAT on all savouries at all times. But why stop there, George? You could slap 20% VAT on all food and close that irritating loophole of Jaffa cakes being classed as VAT-free cakes rather than chocolate biscuits while you were about it.

What could be wrong with that? After the granny tax and Francis Maude’s triumph with those jerry cans, it must surely be the next inspired move on the Coalition’s current vote-winning trajectory.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.