Wednesday 30 April 2014

Is 'I hate politicians' the right way to vote?

People really hate politicians, don’t they? Not just the Tories, always major hate figures in my neck of the woods, but politicians in general.

The Conservatives for heartlessness, Labour for past economic incompetence, the LibDems for broken promises and all for hypocrisy and bloated expenses.

Yet amidst all this Nigel Farage somehow manages to shrug off a veritable tsumani of gaffes and extremist outbursts from his candidates that would have done for any mainstream party leader long ago.

Because people don’t see him as a serious politician, but an affable bloke with whom they would enjoy a chinwag in the pub. And, if they are at all right wing in their inclinations, agree that he talks an awful lot of common sense.

Particularly about those issues that every other party deems too politically incorrect to discuss; notably immigration, on which many traditional Labour voters harbour convictions every bit as “right wing” as their Tory counterparts.

I have considerable sympathy with Mr Farage’s view of the EU and I’d certainly rather spend an hour or two in a boozer with him than with Messrs Cameron, Miliband or Clegg.

But how many other UKIP MEPs or candidates have you ever heard of? Probably just that bloke who jumped before he was pushed for jokingly calling party activists “sluts”, though I’ll wager you can’t remember his name.

The other one's called Godfrey Bloom, in case you are wondering

How many UKIP policies can you list, for that matter? I’ve just taken a look at their website, and am not massively wiser.

I was surprised when a fellow lifelong Tory told me the other day that he will be voting UKIP in the European elections specifically as a protest against the Conservatives’ espousal of gay marriage.

No doubt there will be a similar range of motivations behind those who will grant UKIP a historic victory on 22 May, if the current polls are to be believed. But underlying it all will surely be simple loathing of professional politicians, allied with the certain knowledge that Mr Farage will not be moving into Downing Street as Prime Minister.

Meanwhile the smooth and quintessential professional currently occupying that role faces his own potential day of reckoning in September, when Scotland goes to the polls in the referendum that he granted on the assumption that the result would be a resounding “no”.

Survival of the Union still looks the way to bet, but only just. Because such is the hatred of mainstream British politicians that their every intervention pointing out the folly of voting for independence just seems to push a few more waverers into the “yes” camp.

In this respect, Alex Salmond may be characterised as McFarage Lite (or, more accurately, Heavy).

There must be considerable doubt as to whether Mr Cameron could survive as Prime Minister if the United Kingdom broke up on his watch.

And then what? There is only one potential Tory leader who can match the Teflon qualities of Nigel Farage. Another man equally at home on a TV game show and apparently able to shrug off all manner of revelations about his personal life. People don’t even seem to hold the fact that Boris Johnson went to Eton against him, because he is a laugh.

Boris: cleaning up?

Even if you rate Labour’s chances of victory in the General Election scheduled for May 2015, their prospects of staying in government cannot look good if their 40-odd Scottish MPs are booted out of Westminster. Particularly if, by then, the Tories are led by charismatic career politician successfully masquerading as a buffoon.

I keep reading that this is the age of tactical voting. Tactical voting for UKIP on 22 May will tell the major parties that we hate them all, but won’t get us one inch closer to exiting the EU. Scots voting for independence in September may do for Mr Cameron in the short term, but will ultimately be far more of a disaster for Labour.

These are certainly very exciting times for anyone with an interest in British politics. The sad thing is that many of us only seem interested in giving all the main parties a kicking. Perhaps we should all pause to reflect on the likely consequences before we do so?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 23 April 2014

A Christian country?

Before the Easter holidays of 1965, my headmaster delivered a stern talk on the meaning of Good Friday to his class of ten-year-olds.

From this we learned that there were only two proper ways to spend the hours between 12 and 3 that sacred afternoon: in church or indoors at home engaged in quiet reflection on the sufferings of Christ.

We must on no account play noisily in our gardens or elsewhere, in ways that might impinge on the tranquillity of other believers.

I’d already felt obliged to lie when our teacher demanded an essay on “What I did at the weekend” and say that I went to church on Sunday, because every other child in my class claimed to do so. And it wasn’t even a Church school.

That lost England was unmistakably a Christian country and Good Friday was, appropriately enough, the deadest day of the year. No shops opened, no newspapers were published. No fun was to be had beyond the ritual consumption of hot cross buns, which were eaten that day and no other.

But what of the hornets’ nest stirred up by David Cameron’s insistence that Britain in 2014 is still “a Christian country”?

One might be inclined to take him more seriously if he didn’t issue similar messages about the importance he attaches to Judaism, Hinduism and Islam at Passover, Diwali and Eid, suggestive of a desperate sucking up to every faith community.

But, to be fair to the man, he has said similar things about Christianity before and, however harshly the unholy alliance of scientists, authors and comedians may rebuke him on the letters page of the Daily Telegraph, he is certainly correct in law.

The Christian faith of our head of state is proclaimed on every circulating coin and we have established State churches in both England and Scotland.

I go to church no more frequently than my parents did but, like them, I would unfailingly tick the “Christian” box on any form that was impertinent enough to enquire about my religious affiliation.

I was married in church using the 1662 Prayer Book (though five years on I am still waiting for my wife to obey me) and had my two sons baptised in the same style.

The late Sir John Mortimer encapsulated the position of many people like me very well when he described himself as “an atheist for Christ”.

I asked for a picture of John Mortimer in church and this came up; he must be thanking God

We love ancient churches and ritual. Few things delight us more than traditional Evensong sung by a cathedral choir.

Sadly our enthusiasm is rarely shared these days by the people who actually go to church, who seem more intent on ripping out the pews to installing comfy chairs, AV systems and coffee lounges.

When I enter a church I hope to hear comforting old words and sing familiar hymns, not to wave my arms in the air as some shining-eyed loon twangs a guitar.

So we have a small number of actual believers and a large number who consider themselves vaguely Christian and would like the church to continue to be there, doing what it always did and willing to receive us for life’s great rites of passage.

This view of the church is, in fact, curiously like my relationship with the Conservative party. I have been an inactive member all my adult life, attracted more by what the party stood for in the past than by anything it does today.

In that respect, I suppose, it is also akin to being a lifelong supporter of Newcastle United.

As it happens my membership is due for renewal and I was so disgusted with the whole Maria Miller expenses business that I felt seriously minded to pack it in.

Hence last week’s column, erroneously billed by one of my Journal colleagues as a bilious attack on the Labour party, when it was in fact a bilious attack on politicians in general.

Yet seeing the sort of people who oppose David Cameron’s latest pronouncement makes me waver. If only to ensure that I remain on his mailing list to see how he squares his support for traditional Christian values with his enthusiasm for gay marriage.

I wish you a very happy St George’s Day.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Labour: my old man's party

If we know anything at all about Labour, it is surely that it is the party of the common people, and the staunch opponent of hereditary privilege.

How strange, then, to find Tony Blair’s eldest son Euan apparently being lined up for the ultra-safe Labour seat of Bootle, on the home turf of his mother Cherie.

This follows hard on the heels of Neil Kinnock’s son Stephen being chosen to defend the 11,000 Labour majority in Aberavon, south Wales.

Meanwhile Jack Straw’s son Will has been selected to contest the marginal seat of Rossendale and Darwen, next door to his father’s Blackburn constituency. Dad is retiring at the next election but his successor was inconveniently chosen from an all-women shortlist.

The only real disappointment among the ranks of the Labour elite has been suffered by John Prescott’s son David, who has so far sought two Labour nominations unsuccessfully.

Should any of this surprise us in a party led by a millionaire whose millionaire Marxist father was not a Labour MP himself, but was most certainly a grand panjandrum of the Left; and who secured the leadership in a pitched battle with another millionaire who also happened to be his own brother?

Lest we forget, this is the same party whose shadow cabinet contains twin sisters and whose shadow Chancellor and Home Secretary are married to each other.

All perhaps suggestive of recruitment from a rather narrower gene pool than the old House of Lords, reform of which was surely one of Tony Blair’s few undisputed triumphs, in that at least no one died in the process.

I happen to be acquainted with one of Labour’s few hereditary peers under the old dispensation. He voted enthusiastically for his own abolition. Yet within a year he was back in the House of Lords, having been granted a life peerage because they missed him so much on the Labour benches.

So a really valuable step forward in creating a more equal society there, then.

The pattern of hereditary privilege and connections trumping talent and hard work is by no means confined to politics. Take a look at any of the traditionally left-leaning occupations like broadcasting, journalism and acting, and you will find them teeming with the offspring of parents distinguished in those fields.

It is the most natural thing in the world to want one’s children to follow in one’s footsteps, particularly if one has found a comfortable niche in life. And even, it would seem, if one has not.

Every week brings letters to this paper filled with bile against “Thatcher” because she denied a generation the hereditary privilege of following their fathers into the famously dirty and dangerous job of coal mining.

I do not write this column to make a party political point. The only person I knew quite well at university who has scaled the heights of the Conservative party was himself the son of an MP (and later a life peer).

But then that is what one would expect of the Tories, isn’t it? The hidebound reactionaries who elected a woman their leader in 1975 and made Benjamin Disraeli Prime Minister in 1868, 146 years before Ed Miliband expressed the hope of becoming “Britain’s first Jewish PM.”

(To be fair, Disraeli was only a Jew by birth, not by religious practice; but then up to now Mr Miliband has always presented himself as an atheist.)

Few things in politics turn out as you might expect. Mrs Thatcher shamefully closed or merged more grammar schools than any Labour education secretary; Harold Wilson’s governments closed more coal mines than Mrs Thatcher’s.

All one can say with confidence, on surveying the contemporary political scene, is how true today’s Labour party is to the observations of that great socialist George Orwell in Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

And as we look at the choice before us in this year’s European elections and in the General Election of 2015, we may well feel like this: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Turning into Victor Meldrew

I don’t recall exactly when I turned into Victor Meldrew, but there is no doubt that we are now completely indistinguishable.

Keith Hann
Victor Meldrew

Having fallen about laughing at the line “Don’t tell him, Pike!” at a recent awards dinner, and found that no one else on the table recognised it (or had even heard of Dad’s Army), I should perhaps explain that Meldrew was an irascible, elderly sitcom character.

I thought of him as, before I sat down to write this column, I emailed Inchcape to tell them that they were mistaken in their belief that my Land Rover was due for a service, only to have my message instantly bounced back because the email address they had provided did not exist.

I then rang Npower to ask why on earth they had written to me suggesting that I could save money by switching from my Economy 7 tariff on the grounds that I am not using enough electricity at night. Which seemed odd, given that I use ten times more power then than during the day, owing to my reliance on storage heaters.

Their representative cheerily admitted that it was a “generic” letter they had sent to all their Economy 7 customers. So no chance of some confused or vulnerable people being worried or persuaded to pay more than they need to, then.

So much for this week’s sterling efforts at customer service by the private sector. I hesitate to move on to the public sector, because I have found from bitter experience that it is never a good idea to question other people’s religions or quasi-religions, and the NHS definitely falls into the latter category.

Nevertheless, I cannot think of any other organisation that would expect me to wait patiently for two hours, as I did on Friday in the company of my two-year-old son to see his consultant, only to be told: “He’s not here today.”

To be fair, I exaggerate. I only spent 90 minutes in the waiting room. The first half hour was spent alone in the car waiting for a parking space to become available, following the hospital’s decision to fence off at least three quarters of its car park and designate it “staff only”.

Leaving a totally inadequate provision for “visitors” or, as in our case, “patients”. I don’t know what happened after that as I got the red mist and walked out, remarking that their communications were a joke.

My wife, who was also there, said she found the subsequent consultation useful and our son did not bite anyone, so I suppose it may be counted a qualified success.

I have never known anything of the sort occur in private medicine. There you always seem to be able to see the consultant you expected, at pretty much the time you agreed. The surroundings are usually nicer, too.

The downside in my experience is that they are always eager to recommend a barrage of tests in the hope of identifying some expensive treatment to charge to your insurer.

When I went privately to a cardiologist a few years ago I was told that I urgently needed an invasive procedure on my heart.

I sought a second opinion and was referred to the NHS because the even more sophisticated test my new consultant recommended was not available anywhere else, even for ready money. It concluded that I would be just fine and there must be something in it, as I have not had the originally predicted massive heart attack at the time of writing.

Today I shall have the delight of speaking to my private health insurers to ask how they can justify their latest 14% increase in my premium to more than £4,000 per annum, given that I have not made a claim for several years.

“Old age and rising costs” will no doubt come the answer. The same reason that NHS spending continues to spiral in a way that makes it, I suspect, completely unsustainable.

But I shall steer clear of that and conclude with a topic on which we can all agree: the non-contrition and non-resignation of Maria Miller. Here Victor and I are in absolutely perfect harmony. Altogether now: “I don’t believe it!”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

It is always a good time to put the clocks back

In the week when we endured the annual faff of putting the clocks forward, it was encouraging to observe some sterling efforts to put them back by decades and even centuries.

First there was the happy news that Australia’s Prime Minister had taken a moment off from superintending his country’s search for a very small aeronautical needle in a whole prairie of haystacks to announce that he was reintroducing the titles of knight and dame, after a lapse of nearly 30 years.

It would be a duller world that had to forego the possibility of another Dame Joan Sutherland or Edna Everage, so I was delighted to see Australia’s outgoing Governor-General become Dame Quentin Bryce.

Dame Quentin Bryce

This announcement proved of no interest at all to the British media apart from The Guardian, which was predictably outraged. In my experience this is always a reliable indicator of a positive development.

However, my pleasure in this Antipodean defiance of progressive nostrums was blasted into total insignificance by sheer awe at the monumental nerve of the theatre designer whose work I experienced on Saturday evening.

Because somehow, in a world tied in knots by the demands of Elfin Safety, a genius has managed to construct a near perfect replica of a 17th century playhouse. Which is to say a building made almost entirely of wood, and lit throughout by candles, in which people in floaty period dresses waft around in thrilling proximity to the naked flames.

This certainly created a frisson for those of us who remembered how a single candle set the dress of tragic soprano Susan Chilcott ablaze at Covent Garden in 2002: an event which, according to legend, allowed one newspaper to run the cruel and inaccurate headline “The show ain’t over till the fat lady singes.”

This miraculous place is called the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and is a sort of footnote or addendum to Shakespeare’s Globe on London’s South Bank. The performance was of Francesco Cavalli’s Venetian opera of 1644, L’Ormindo.

As readers of The Bluffer’s Guide to Opera will already know, the first true opera was performed in Venice on March 6, 1637, so this definitely qualifies as an early work. It was all the more remarkable, then, for its maturity and contemporary relevance.

Combining comedy and tragedy with those old theatrical favourites of disguise and mistaken identity, it struck a particular chord with me because at its centre is a feeble old monarch married to a beautiful young woman, Queen Erisbe.

So very like my own domestic arrangements.

Quite unlike the happily loyal Mrs Hann, Erisbe dallies with two fit young princes before deciding to elope with Ormindo. But she is foiled by Fate, which blows their ship back to Casablanca and her irate husband.

Who duly sentences the pair to death by drinking poison, for which someone kindly substitutes a sleeping draught.

Which is handy, as the two lovers awake shortly after the king has discovered that Ormindo is, in fact, his son. Implausibly, all are reconciled and live happily ever after.

It’s a bit like Romeo and Juliet or Tristan und Isolde, but with a happy ending.

Seating just 340 people on authentically uncomfortable wooden benches, the new-yet-400-years-old theatre provides a wonderfully intimate and memorable experience, with excellent acoustics if occasionally dodgy sightlines, and I recommend it unreservedly to anyone who finds themselves at a loose end in London and can grab a ticket.

Unfortunately at the time of booking almost a year ago I had overlooked the fact that our night out was on the eve of Mothering Sunday, requiring an early morning dash back to be reunited with our children.

Two-year-old Jamie has been delighting us for many months now by clasping both his hands to his head, waiting for all around to copy him, then beamingly leading a round of applause.

When we got back I duly raised my hands to my head and nodded to him. In response, I received only the Hann Death Stare to which I treat people who ask how my diet is going.

I know his growing up is inevitable and indeed desirable, but it did make me pine to put the clock back just another touch.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.