Wednesday 26 February 2014

Could Kiev turn out to be 2014's Sarajevo?

The famously impartial BBC, along with most of our national press, seems to have decided that the revolution in Ukraine is A Good Thing.

Just as they hailed the falls of Ceausescu, Saddam, Gaddafi and Mubarak, and are all rooting in unison for the overthrow of President Assad in Syria.

In the case of Ukraine, the now victorious opposition want to steer the country into the European Union, which is obviously progressive and marvellous. Added to which the ousted President Yanukovych used his security forces to shoot demonstrators, and had execrable taste in interior décor. Both of which are self-evidently unforgivable.

Fair enough: hanging IS too good for him

When I was at school we were taught that the Whig interpretation of history, which viewed the past as one long progression to the broad sunlit uplands of enlightenment and liberal democracy, had been completely discredited.

But it still seems to be very much alive and well in Broadcasting House and elsewhere.

This is perhaps borne out by the oddly selective media interest in overseas uprisings and oppression. For example, there is considerable civil unrest in Venezuala at present, but we hear little about it (particularly on the BBC) because the country is well known to be a socialist paradise.

Venezuala? Nope, nothing to report here.

North Korea and Zimbabwe must both be high on anyone’s lists of regimes that are simply evil, but both are very effective at suppressing news-gathering and firmly in the “too hard” pile when it comes to doing anything about them.

Now, I do not suggest that fans of the Ukrainian revolution have necessarily got it wrong. I merely note that many leading opposition voices there appear to be, for want of a better word, fascists.

Similarly, while no one disputes that Saddam was a monster, to what extent has life improved for the average Iraqi since he was overthrown? Look closely at the Al-Qaeda-affiliated opponents of Assad, and one cannot help but wonder whether that is a simple conflict between right and wrong.

One may also pause to wonder just how long the enthusiasm of much of the British press would last if Ukraine did join the EU and immigration from there replaced the inflow of Romanians and Bulgarians on their list of things to fulminate about.

I freely confess that I know almost nothing about Ukraine. My views are probably skewed by the fact that I learned political geography from my brother’s 1938 Chad Valley tinplate globe. This not only gave me a wholly inflated idea of the extent of British power, but also taught me that Lvov (now the Ukrainian Lviv) was one of the major cities of Poland.

Given the massive shifts of boundaries and populations at the end of the Second World War, it should come as little surprise that not all Ukrainians share a common view of their place in the world, or their destiny.

History has given Neville Chamberlain an absolutely terrible press for describing the dispute over the Czech Sudetenland in 1938 as ‘a quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing’, but I cannot help thinking that it would serve as quite an apt description of many of the lead stories in the news today.

Similar words might easily have been used about the assassination of an Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo in 1914, and we all now know where that led – though few had any inkling of it at the time.

Perhaps in a hundred years people will turn the yellowing pages of 2014’s newspapers, as we do those of a century ago, and shake their heads in wonderment at the innocence of those poor people who failed to see the spark of their coming destruction.

All one can do is devoutly hope not.

One of the best things about living on an island is that we in Britain have a ready-made excuse for being insular. We cannot isolate ourselves from events elsewhere in the world, and we should always try to support good versus evil.

I merely observe that the distinction is not always clear-cut, and there is absolutely no need for any of us to wade into conflicts we do not fully understand, and in which no vital British interests are at stake.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

The referendum question

As every serious Westminster politician, European panjandrum and British business leader lines up to tell the Scots they would be mad to vote for independence, certain parallels spring to mind.

Suppose the UK (or what is left of it by then) were finally offered a referendum on its continued membership of the European Union in 2017.

Further suppose that Nigel Farage were our Prime Minister and enthusiastically leading the pro-independence campaign. (An unlikely scenario, I will admit. But then Labour engineered the devolution settlement in Scotland precisely to ensure that they retained power for good and the SNP stood no chance of ever forming a majority administration.)

Surely what we are witnessing now is a most instructive rehearsal of what would happen then. Multinational companies would howl that leaving the EU would be a terrible idea, and that it would cause them to reconsider their investments in the UK.

We would be warned that thousands of jobs would be lost, and we would all be far worse off.

Useful idiots would reel off lists of the marvellous investment projects funded by the EU, failing to mention that Brussels was merely returning to us a proportion of the money we had paid them in the first place.

Dire warnings of the impossibility of continuing to trade with Europe would be trailed out. And we’d be warned that we would have to obey all the pettifogging European rules and regulations anyway, so why not stay a member of the club and pretend that we have some influence over how they are framed?
All of which sounds to me suspiciously similar to the sort of pressure currently being applied to Scotland over the pound, EU membership and its future prosperity in general.

Of course, if Mr Salmond really wants to share another country’s head of state and currency, and stay in the EU, it is quite hard to fathom what his so-called “independence” is actually about.

At root, surely, it is an emotional rather than a rational response to the facts. In reality Scotland is too small to stand alone in any meaningful sense, and would surely be better off leaning on its nearest neighbour, with which it shares a language and so much history, than trying to cosy up to anyone else.

But then by the same logic Scots should always support England when they are not taking part in an international sporting contest themselves, and when has that ever happened?

I love Scotland. I spent all my childhood holidays in beautiful St Abbs. Their whisky is superb, and you can’t complain about the shortbread.

On the other hand, I hate Scotland. I have never been made to feel so unwelcome anywhere on the planet as I was the last time I made the mistake of taking a break there 20 years ago.

More importantly, I am sick to the back teeth of the two caber-sized chips so many of them seem to carry about on each of their shoulders, and their totally misplaced conviction that they have been getting a raw deal out of the United Kingdom for the last 306 years.

In fact, the Union was devised to save Scotland from the results of its own financial imprudence and it came in pretty handy again for them in 2008, when the British taxpayer picked up the bill for failing Scottish banks.

Plus there have been years of Scottish over-representation in British politics and the media … and don’t even get me started on Gordon Brown.

So if I had a say in this year’s referendum I might be strongly tempted to vote “yes” to get rid of the whingeing bunch of them, and look forward to enjoying some quiet amusement as they got their economic come-uppance for putting Braveheart emotion before common sense.

At the end of the day, though, although I am English I love Britain.

Which is why I’d like the Scots to stay in the UK and the UK to develop a much looser relationship with the EU.

We only have to observe the Scots, though, to see that great strength of character and steadiness of purpose will be required to achieve the latter outcome.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Events, dear boy, events

Recent events confirm three lasting truths: the British are obsessed with the weather, politicians cannot be trusted, and you should think long and hard before giving an animal a name.

The disappearance of much of southern England beneath floodwater has generated a media frenzy calculated to move even the most stonehearted. What could possibly make the misery of those affected even worse?

Well, having ministers and quangocrats fighting like ferrets in a sack over just whose fault it is probably does not help much. And if my own home were underwater a personal visit from Dave “Doing Everything We Can” Cameron would be pretty much the last straw.

At this point I was going to insert a hackneyed but hopefully witty reference to politicians’ hopes forever being dashed by “Events, dear boy, events”. But I am deeply disappointed to report that my usual in-depth research has uncovered no evidence that Harold Macmillan ever actually said it.

Another much-loved anecdote spiked, then. Though when I was writing my opera book last year I read time and again that the story of Tosca leaping from the battlements of the Castel Sant’Angelo and immediately bouncing back into view was completely apocryphal.

Until I happened to listen to a podcast of Desert Island Discs in which the legendary British soprano Dame Eva Turner described exactly that happening to her. So perhaps dear old Uncle Harold did say it after all.

Should more money have been spent on sea defences and dredging rivers in the Somerset levels? Common sense says “yes”, but EU directives and budgetary constraints apparently combined to dictate the opposite. While the rights of birds and water voles naturally trumped those of mere human beings.

The resulting disaster provides ammunition for campaigners for the unlikeliest causes, such as reintroducing beavers to the UK. Hang on: don’t beavers block rivers and cause floods?

Yes, but the right sort of floods because they could slow down water that might otherwise gush downstream and inundate all those lovely houses for which some idiot council granted planning permission even though they are standing on a flood plain.

Is the wettest winter since Noah was in the shipbuilding business the result of climate change? Almost certainly.

Is said climate change caused by human activity? Quite possibly.

Will we solve it by covering the countryside with wind turbines? I very much doubt it, though maybe some of the schemes for tidal barrages that so upset campaigners for our feathered friends might serve a useful dual purpose in generating reliable power and keeping the sea at bay.

And maybe the billions we can apparently find to invest in turbine subsidies and high speed rail links, calculated to strengthen London’s grip on the nation’s economic windpipe, might be usefully redeployed to keep the electorate’s feet dry in their own homes.

Meanwhile over the weekend the Twitter-literate were temporarily distracted from the floods to bemoan the terrible fate of Marius the giraffe, shot and fed to the lions in Copenhagen zoo because he made too feeble a contribution to the gene pool.

Surely this line of thinking must have sent a particularly powerful shiver down the spines of those in charge of environmental policy and flood control?

When I was a boy some bright spark decreed that barred cages were out of date and built an elephant enclosure at London Zoo surrounded by a moat instead. One of the beasts promptly toppled into it while reaching for a bun.

The resulting tabloid headline “Death of a children’s friend” reduced me to tears until my Dad put me straight: “It’s only a ****** elephant, son.”

Yes, and it’s only a giraffe, too. But it had a name, like a dog or a horse, and this is always a massive obstacle if you are planning to turn something into food.

I would cheerfully eat the deliciously anonymous chickens raised by my late neighbours but could never bring myself to accept chops from the pigs to which I had been introduced by name.

So pro-beaver campaigners please note. If you want to keep them out of the Chris Smith blame slot when the next floods arise, ensure that they’ve all got cute names, ideally beginning with “B”.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 5 February 2014

The fat of the land

I recently watched a TV interview with a hungry man, ground down by the Tory benefits squeeze, who claimed he had to rely on food banks to keep body and soul together.

The odd thing about this supposedly starving individual was that he appeared to be, to put it kindly, rather stout.

I was tempted to make a supposedly witty post to that effect on Twitter, but then reflected that it would no doubt stir up a storm of abuse for being offensive about those less fortunate than myself. Added to which I am conscious of being on shaky ground in taking the mickey out of fatness. I am a statistical anomaly in being very well educated and reasonably well off, yet indisputably overweight.

In our topsy-turvy society, it seems that the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be obese.

None of the arguments advanced by the left to blame this on food manufacturers and retailers for peddling high fat, high sugar junk to the masses strikes me as particularly convincing.

It is always possible to eat more cheaply by cooking for yourself than by slamming a ready meal in the microwave. All that is required is the common sense to appreciate that, and perhaps a little elementary education in shopping and cooking skills.

Since the lunatics in charge of the UK educational asylum are now punting the idea that children should be in school for ten hours a day, 45 weeks a year, perhaps they might just about find time for that.

They could also provide some useful guidance on the avoidance of waste. My own perspective is strongly influenced by having been born a month before food rationing finally ended in the UK in 1954, to parents who had lived through both World Wars and never had much money to spare. The Hanns, in consequence, do not chuck things away lightly.

Occasionally I try to persuade myself that it would be better for my health to scrape some food off my plate into the bin instead of shovelling it down my throat. Though better still, of course, to exercise tighter portion control in the first place.

But what of the bigger issue of food waste by the evil supermarkets, and those who would like to feed themselves from their bins?

I can tell you from direct experience that retailers loathe waste as much as I do. It is money down the drain.

However, a certain amount of it is inevitable. Picture yourself running a small bakery. You make everything fresh each day and you cannot sell it tomorrow because it will have gone stale.

The only way you can minimise waste is to start running down your stocks by the middle of the day. So in the afternoon you will have little in your window to tempt customers, and a diminishing range to offer those who do come into your shop.

As a result, you will lose sales. Keep stocks up and you will sell more, but will also have to throw more away each evening. It is a balancing act. You are in business to make a living, so you will adopt whichever course experience shows to be more profitable.

You’ll hate throwing your products away, and may arrange for them to be given to charity rather than dumped on a tip. But you are unlikely simply to give them away yourself just before the shop closes because you’d swiftly find that no one bought anything much during the afternoon, and a long queue began to build up as closing time approached.

Capitalism, like democracy, is a grossly imperfect system that has only one big thing going for it: it works better than anything else yet devised. Which is why I believe that market forces are much more likely to sort this out than any attempt at legislation, including the market force of consumers voting with their feet against shops that are needlessly profligate.

Then all we will need is for those in authority to apply a healthy dose of common sense in considering whether helping yourself to something that has been deliberately thrown away really constitutes a crime worth pursuing through the courts.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.