Wednesday 30 July 2014

We don't want to lose you, but ...

As next week’s World War I centenary approaches, a popular song of 1914 keeps playing in my head: “We don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go.”

It played particularly insistently during last week’s cringeworthy Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, as all around the world tiny island nations observed the best that Scotland could offer, and surely concluded that it wasn’t quite ready for independence yet.

I had to avert my eyes at times, but am assured that the dancing giant Tunnock’s teacakes were not a ghastly hallucination. So presumably monstrous, gyrating deep-fried Mars bars and bottles of Buckfast tonic wine must have featured, too.

The only parts I saw that were not a national humiliation featured the Red Arrows, what is left of the historic Scottish regiments of the British Army, and Her Majesty The Queen.

In this, it all seemed oddly reminiscent of those independence ceremonies that used to pop up in the cinema newsreels nearly every week when I was a boy. These always featured Princess Margaret or some royal duke standing glumly to attention next to a beplumed outgoing governor, as a military band played and the Union Flag was hauled down for the last time.

Princess Margaret arrives to grant Jamaica its independence, 1962

The film then usually cut to jubilant native dancing (though I don’t remember it ever including the local equivalent of a teacake) as the colourful flag of some new nation was raised for the first time.

Cynics pointed out at the time that the incoming government might just prove to be slightly less efficient and more corrupt than the colonial administration it replaced. But self-government was held to trump good government every time.

Does it for Scotland now?

I must admit that, if I were a Scot, and faced with Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband all advising me to vote to stay in the Union, I might be sorely tempted to do the opposite.

A feeling I shall no doubt share when faced with a similarly united front on any “in or out” referendum on the EU.

For the rest of us, sharing an island with the Scots is a bit like sharing a house with a particularly graceless teenager. We try to do our best for them, but all we hear in return is moans of “It’s not fair” and “You’ve ruined my life”.

The temptation to show them the door is almost irresistible, and yet … would it really be sane to reintroduce national boundaries and currency exchanges just beyond Carlisle and Berwick?

Are the differences between the English and the Scots not overwhelmed by the things we have in common, in our shared history and culture?

It’s not as if we speak different languages, however difficult some accents may be to penetrate, and however hard they may try to pretend otherwise by whacking up Gaelic signage that almost no one understands.

The oil will run out, the naval shipbuilding will move south, and while they seem unlikely to bankrupt themselves with another mad colonial enterprise (as they did in Panama to occasion the Union of 1707), another gigantic bank crash seems pretty much as sure as day following night.

How will that play out without the English Exchequer to bale them out? Or will they come running back to the Bank of Mum and Dad like many a teenager who has left home for good, then found the reality a bit too hard?

Let them make their choice, but on the understanding that there is no easy way back - and no more bribes for deciding to stay, either. The privileges heaped on the Scots, compared with the voters of the North East, are already wholly excessive.

If our neighbours want to be governed by a school of fish (Salmond, Sturgeon) with gigantic chips on their shoulders, I suppose we must let them, but on the whole I hope they decide otherwise. They are family after all.

Even if, like most families, we spend all year dreading those times we cannot avoid spending together.

I just need to amend the words of the song playing in my head to “We’d quite like to lose you, but we think you ought to stay.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Oh, the humanity!

The tragedy of flight MH17 seems to have done wonders in bringing Newcastle and Sunderland fans together, but precious little to knock any sense into the warring parties in Ukraine.

One might have thought that having nearly 300 entirely innocent passers-by rain down on your heads would be a light bulb moment, calculated to make any sane person pause and reflect on exactly what they were hoping to achieve.

Instead it seems to be the occasion for obfuscation, procrastination, prevarication and downright lies about who did what when.

Compared to another recent air disaster, the one initial comfort to relatives of the victims seemed to be that at least they knew what had become of their loved ones, and would get their bodies back reasonably quickly.

So much for positive thinking.

Similarly in Gaza, attempts to arrange temporary ceasefires, let alone a permanent peace, founder on deeply rooted communal hatred.

Technology moves on relentlessly, giving half-trained muppets the capacity to blast airliners out of the sky. Yet human nature seems to be stuck forever in the Stone Age.

Only the other week we learned of new airport security restrictions inspired by intelligence reports of the development of ever more fiendish explosive devices, designed to evade existing surveillance equipment.

Such 21st century inventiveness seems wholly at odds with the mediaeval practices that the jihadists want to impose on their own communities and the rest of us, from stonings and amputations to the repudiation of sexual equality.

My mother was wont to shake her head as she watched the news on her tiny black and white TV, asking why people couldn’t just get on together?

It remains the single most important question facing us today.

Though it seems only fair to add that my parents, like most of their generation, were also the repository of a huge range of racial, national, religious, political and class prejudices, most of which they duly succeeded in passing on to me.

Some I rebelled against, as children should, and decades of political correctness have deterred me from expressing the remainder in public. But I fear the germs still lurk, like those dormant seeds that can set a desert ablaze with colour if it ever receives a drop of rain.

Traditionally religion was the best tool for smoothing off our rough edges and helping us to rub along together. But today religion asserts itself in perverted forms that glorify violence and death, even for what most of us regard as co-religionists.

For the proverbial man from Mars, the conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite in the Middle East must surely be as utterly incomprehensible as that between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

My wife, whose ancestry is Persian, has grown tired of rolling her eyes every time the TV report of some atrocity or other leads me to refer to “your lot” causing mayhem again.

She counters, entirely correctly, that nearly every active trouble spot on the planet, from Palestine to Kashmir by way of Iraq, is the creation of British imperial policy, either trying to do the right thing and please everyone (always a difficult trick to pull off) or pursuing the traditional path of divide and rule.

In Ukraine, at least, neither Britain nor Islam bears any obvious blame.

Like many I have been reading daily snippets of 100 year old news as today’s papers commemorate the countdown to the outbreak of World War I. It is impossible not to be struck by the normality of life in July 1914, in a world about to be blown to pieces. How did civilised and sophisticated countries with closely related ruling families come to this?

The same way that children looking forward to their holidays end up as battered corpses scattered across the cornfields of Ukraine: through the fatal loss of any sense of proportion.

The Hindenburg airship catastrophe of 1937 was distinguished by being captured on film and the subject of a radio commentary. No one who has watched it will ever forget the commentator’s plaintive cry of “Oh, the humanity!”

If the same thought has not occurred to those in Ukraine surveying their handiwork, the outlook for 2114 looks bleak indeed.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

A question of priorities

Nearly two months ago I bought a house and advised the local authority and utilities accordingly.

My electricity supplier continues to insist that my property does not exist because their infallible and therefore immutable database has it listed under a different postcode.

Sarcastic enquiries as to whether the Land Registry, council, Royal Mail and everyone else can all be wrong and they alone right have so far produced the unexpected answer “Yes, they can”.

Meanwhile, feeling that the local authority was dragging its feet in the matter of a council tax bill, I put in a call to be greeted by a recorded message telling me that they currently have a 10 week backlog of enquiries to clear, and are unable to help with anything put to them since early April. 

You might say “fair enough” and blame the evil Tory cuts, but for the fact that this same (Conservative) local authority has found the resources to write to me and every other resident in my area four times so far this year, on the vital issue of whether there should be a change in the parish boundaries.

They have also paid several visits to the house we currently rent to put new and improved signs on the public right of way that runs through our garden. A public footpath that no member of the public has shown any interest in using for the last five years.

An odd sense of priorities also seems to afflict those at the political centre. These are the people who apparently cannot be trusted to keep hold of potentially explosive dossiers on historic child abuse by those in high places, or on British complicity in America’s programme of “extraordinary rendition”.

Yet at exactly the same time, and apparently without any sense of irony, they rush through emergency legislation because of the vital importance of keeping a full record of every mundane phone call we make, text and email we send, and website we visit.

No political party is prepared to take a stand against this wholly illiberal legislation. Not even the ones who proclaim their liberalism in their name.

Our politicians are apparently so busy that they cannot even undertake the rudimentary checks that would have revealed that their first choice to lead the child abuse enquiry was wildly inappropriate because her late brother was Attorney-General in the 1980s.

Yet all three major party leaders have find time to endorse a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women, which has found that Westminster’s art collection is “off putting” for women because it is too dominated by white males.

Not altogether surprising, you might think, in a centuries-old institution to which no woman could gain admission, unless she happened to be the queen, until less than a century ago.

But why let the inconvenient facts get in the way of a no doubt well-intentioned attempt to rewrite history, whether to redress ancient wrongs to the sisterhood or to pretend that recognisable ethnic minorities have featured prominently in our island’s story for centuries, and that Britain has really been gloriously multi-cultural since the time of the Romans?

Personally, I’d prefer my council to stop faffing around with meaningless boundaries and fill the potholes in the roads.

I’d like our MPs to be defending our national independence and protecting our freedom for unnecessary surveillance, rather than fretting about paintings and meekly rubber-stamping the executive’s every whim.

Photoshopped, obviously, but not so far from the truth

“If you’ve nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” is the lousiest and most totalitarian of arguments, but it seems that precious few are prepared to defend our freedom and privacy when doing so can be presented as being soft on terrorists, paedophiles and other criminals.

There are always going to be those who wish us dead. Doubtless the maniacal fans of the caliphate are more driven and less likely to bother with such niceties as warnings than previous terrorist enemies of the British state.

Nonetheless, we would do well to remember exactly what it is we are supposedly trying to defend, and reflect on the wise words of Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

The high price of getting bored too easily

These days I am officially a pensioner, thanks to the extraordinary diligence of an Australian bank.

They went to the trouble of employing a detective agency to track me down in rural Northumberland and ask whether I was the same Keith Hann who, in 1978, started work for a London stockbroking partnership they had since acquired.

My first place of work in the City, happily long since demolished

It seemed needlessly cruel to point out that they could have answered this question much more cheaply by just clicking on my LinkedIn profile.

They kindly sent me a useful lump sum to help celebrate my 60th birthday last month, and started making monthly payments into my bank account; which, though very modest, do at least exceed my income from journalism.

It led me to wonder how much better off I would have been if I had stuck with the broking game and been entitled to retire on a full pension, instead of the small stipend accrued through five years of not particularly well-paid work.

I gave it up in 1983 because it bored me. I thought a change of scene from London to Edinburgh might cure this, which just goes to show how phenomenally stupid I am. I lasted a day and a quarter at my wee desk in the New Town.

Then I somehow got a job at a London financial PR agency that was, with the benefit of hindsight, an earthly paradise.

My second place of work in the City: built nearly 300 years before the first one, but happily still there

You could smoke at your desk, and almost every room contained a cupboard stocked with life-threatening quantities of alcohol.

Lunch started each day at 12.30 sharp and concluded around nightfall. To cap it all, many of my colleagues were beautiful women and, for the first and last time in my life, not all of them wept with laughter when I subtly enquired whether there might be some chance of sleeping with them.

I got bored with that, too, which clearly demonstrates a fatal lack of judgement.

Stockbroking had been an odd choice of career for someone who was practically innumerate until Clive Sinclair invented the pocket calculator in 1972. To be honest, my main reason for choosing it was the Gamages Christmas adverts in the old Meccano magazine.

Each year they used to advertise a range of Hornby Dublo trains and Meccano sets, with the most expensive preceded (in lieu of a drum roll) by the words “And, if Daddy is a stockbroker …”

I always wanted a top of the range Meccano set, so it seemed a logical move. Added to which, I came onto the job market as a terminally bored PhD student just at the time when City firms were beginning to think they should recruit more people who were, on paper, academically bright. A marked contrast with their traditional intake of the dimmest sons of the existing partners, supplemented by retired Army officers from decent regiments.

I had remained at Cambridge to pursue a doctorate because I was too lazy and disorganised to find a proper job when I graduated. Not for me the quiet tap on the shoulder that came the way of one good friend who had tried and failed in the examination for entry to the Foreign Office.

Our tutor invited him for a sherry, commiserated on his disappointment and asked whether he might be “interested in serving his country in another way?”

Not being the sharpest knife in the box, my pal asked what exactly this meant. Half an hour later he was in the college bar buying drinks all round. “Great news, lads! I’m going to be a spy!”

No eyebrows were visibly raised but he heard no more, and very slowly it dawned on him that he might have failed some sort of test.

Reading the Russian archive reports this week on the low opinion they held of their famous Cambridge spies, as an incompetent bunch of hopeless drunks, I can’t help wondering why both the British and Soviet secret services ignored me all those years ago.

I was a mentally unstable borderline alcoholic with zero judgement, at the right university. Why on earth did they not fight to snap me up?

And what sort of pension might I be collecting now if only they had?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 2 July 2014

What if we were capable of running our own country?

The “what if?” game is a favourite among those of us who have spent some time studying history.

The end product of six years studying history, and a reminder of how I looked before old age and dissolute living took their toll

What if someone had said in late June 1914: “You know, Franz Ferdinand, I think it might be better if you didn’t visit Sarajevo today”?

Or what if Britain had decided to let France, Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary get on with it in August 1914, and sat aside whistling nonchalantly?

The rationale for intervention has always been that Britain cannot allow the Continent to be dominated by a single power that might act against our vital interests.

In which case our finest minds have done an absolutely cracking job, through 50 years of international politics and diplomacy, in creating a power bloc on our doorstep that seems to be almost uniformly hostile to our notion of who should run the European Union, and how it should develop.

This should not be altogether surprising. The Continental countries’ experience of revolutions, dictatorships and military occupations during the last century is vastly different from our own.

If they wish to forge an ever-closer union with a common currency and uniform laws largely handed down from Brussels, bully for them. But I sense that a natural majority of the British people shares my reluctance to join them.

Hence at some point we need to stop lying to each other, admit that we want different things, disengage and move on.

There are many respected economists willing to vouch that the net economic cost to Britain of withdrawing from the EU would be marginal at worst, and that the oft-bleated refrain of “three million jobs at risk” is a number simply plucked from the air.

Only one thing gives me pause about embarking on an unreservedly enthusiastic campaign for our early withdrawal from the EU, and it is not the potential impact on business. It is doubts about the calibre of those who would have to shoulder the burden of running a properly independent country.

Surely those with the privilege of voting in the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum must similarly consider the leadership of the SNP and think: “Really? All on their own?”

Wheezes pour forth from all sides in the year-long campaign for the 2015 general election. The Conservatives offer us HS3 to cap the monstrous folly of HS2, plus the alluring promise of elected mayors, even though the idea keeps being rejected whenever people are offered a say on the issue. The evident moral here must be: don’t ask the people.

Any sane person’s heart must surely sink when George Osborne proposes to merge the tax and National Insurance systems, given that the three words even more likely to induce despair than “England football team” are “Government IT project”: a guaranteed recipe for waste and chaos on a truly Brobdingnagian scale.

Meanwhile Labour’s own policy chief Jon Cruddas denounces the “dead hand” at the party’s centre that prevents it from proposing anything similarly radical, and Nick Clegg …

Well, there’s probably no point wasting ink on anything the LibDems have to say, given their electoral prospects next year.

Are any of our prospective national leaders really up to the job of leading a nation of 64 million people alone on the international stage?

Our Queen certainly is, but she is 88 and on a job share as head of state of 15 other countries at the same time.

Ed Miliband? Don’t make me laugh.

Nigel Farage? I refer you to my previous answer.

David Cameron is undoubtedly a bit of a lightweight. A former PR man, for heaven’s sake, and I can tell you from decades of direct experience just how useless they are.

But our “friends” in Europe have surely done him a massive favour in appointing as their supremo a man who apparently likes a drop and whose crowning achievement to date has been leading a country with a population around two thirds that of Tyneside.

Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, congratulations. You are officially the man who makes even David Cameron look like a proper statesman.

Now, what if Dave actually calls that EU referendum I am sure he would really rather avoid, and cannot wriggle around to recommending that we all vote to stay?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.