Wednesday 24 September 2014

One day the conspiracy theorists will be right

So Scotland the not so brave bottled it. Or, rather, they were robbed.

Social media are awash with filmed evidence of officials marking ballot papers and stuffing “yes” votes into “no” piles to achieve the result the British establishment had predetermined.

I was resigned to living just over the border from a latter-day Zimbabwe if the vote had gone the other way, but was surprised to find that I already was.

But then this sort of conspiracy theory mainly appeals to those who also believe that alien abductions are commonplace, the Moon landings never happened, and Diana was murdered by British intelligence on the orders of the Duke of Edinburgh.

There are echoes of the somewhat unhinged mourning for Diana in the groans and whines audible across the border. Rather pleasingly for those of us who associate “The 45” with the doomed, romantic Jacobite rebellion of 1745 that came to a bloody end at Culloden, this is the name adopted by those whose dream of independence simply refuses to die.

Presumably because it trips off the tongue rather more easily than: “The 44.7% who lost by a whopping 10% margin even though their leader got to choose the date, the question and the people who were allowed to vote.”

Just some of the organisations The 45 intend to boycott. Good luck with that.

Today’s question is: what now? And the answer looks like shaping up to be: let’s give the Scots pretty much everything they wanted in terms of control over their own affairs, while preserving their unfair advantage in public spending and allowing their MPs to continue to sit in Westminster and vote on purely English and Welsh matters. You don’t have to be a Tory or UKIP partisan to spot that this is grossly unfair.

But how to resolve it? I know, let’s balkanise England into EU-approved regions and elected mayoralties, even though the people reject these ideas out of hand when they are put to them. Then we can say we are on a level playing field, with devolution for all.

Or if you don’t fancy that, why not create a new English parliament somewhere like Sheffield, so we can say we are addressing the north-south divide as well as restoring the balance between England and Scotland?

I’ll tell you why not. Because the last thing almost any of us want is yet more politicians operating more layers of government.

I live in conservative rural Northumberland and Conservative rural Cheshire. Both communities have far more in common with each other – and arguably with similarly rural Dorset, Angus, Montgomeryshire or Antrim – than north Northumberland has in common with post-industrial Gateshead or Teesside.

Which is why the demand for more regional devolution will never command universal support. Added to which, I strongly suspect that those who argue for more local decision taking will also be at the forefront of those utterly outraged by the inevitable result of more “postcode lotteries” in the quality of public services in each locality.

England is not so big a country that it needs to be split into bite-sized chunks, nor does it need a new Parliament. Those with a vested interest in protecting the sway of the Celtic fringe over the English just need to accept that it isn’t fair, and let it go.

Meanwhile the Scotch [sic] referendum has been an object lesson to all of us who have hankered for a vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

It so happens that most of the “scare stories” derided by Alex Salmond were true. Why would any company doing 90% of its business outside Scotland run the risk of keeping its base there when it could find itself in a different currency zone and subject to different rules, regulations and tax rates? Most of the scare stories about the risks of leaving the EU – particularly the “three million jobs at stake” – won’t be true, but I have little doubt that they will prove at least as effective.

So if that promised referendum ever takes place, which I doubt, we will almost certainly be cajoled by the combined forces of the political establishment into voting to stay. The conspiracy theorists will say we were robbed. Next time, for once, they might even be right.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Scots wha hae

Tomorrow our nearest neighbours may decide to press the non-nuclear button and vote to become an independent country.

In which event, I suppose it behoves me to find a polite way of saying “good riddance”. But sadly I can’t.

I think that anyone minded to take this great leap in the dark under the leadership of a manipulative banker – and a Scots banker at that – needs their heads examining.

But then the Scots imagine that they are hard done by; adore the sound of the bagpipes; believe that haggis, deep-fried Mars Bars and Buckfast tonic wine constitute haute cuisine; and fail to grasp that both kilts and tartan trews look utterly ridiculous. So there is ample evidence that they needed their heads examining anyway.

I have lived a double life for the last five years, but with one factor in common: both the places in which I base myself are close to the English border.

In Northumberland I can actually see the border from my windows but rarely venture across it, because I have been made to feel so unwelcome whenever I have done so of late. I don’t think it’s anything personal, but a country that makes much its undisputed natural beauty as a tourist attraction might perhaps try a little harder not to make English visitors feel so spectacularly unwanted.

From Cheshire I cross into Wales on a daily basis, for the simple reason that my principal client is based there.

One notices the difference immediately, as the worn-out, potholed English road gives way to the immaculately tarmacked Welsh one.

Like the Scots, those who live in Wales have a variety of other expensive privileges showered upon them, from free prescriptions to cut-price university education. Yet oddly house prices are materially higher on the English side of the Welsh border.

This may be because the NHS in England is marginally less likely to kill you, or because the supermarket signage is not incomprehensible, or because many people don’t want their kids educated in a dead language that sounds uncannily like someone with bad catarrh clearing his throat.

In both the Welsh and Scotch (as we may now surely say once more, not having to bow to their absurd preference for “Scottish”) cases, there is abundant evidence of our Celtic fringe being heavily subsidised by the English taxpayer in the vain hope of keeping them on side and perhaps even a little bit grateful.

There is no sign of this strategy proving even a teensy bit successful, and I for one have had enough of it. I am absolutely outraged by the all-party offer to shower yet more benefits on the Scots if they vote “no”, without even consulting the rest of us.

I’d much prefer them to vote “yes” if the alternative is an even more biased constitutional and financial settlement at England’s expense.

I have never recorded my nationality in a hotel register as anything but “UK” (because it expends fewer calories than writing “British”) but I am sure I will easily adapt to identifying myself as English.

It will, of course, be a blow never again to have a Prime Minister of the calibre of Gordon Brown, or to see a Labour government more than once in a blue moon.

Don't panic! On second thoughts, do. And make that "Two Nations".

I won’t actually pour my large collection of Scotch single malts down the drain but I shall never buy another drop of the stuff. I fancy this may be very good news for shares in Northern Irish distillers.

When the hungry refugees start trying to trickle across the border in a few years’ time, I shall enjoy a chuckle at their expense as they are turned back by well-trained Northumbrian pikemen.

It might actually have been cheaper to keep Trident.

All this is assuming, of course, that we actually take any notice of the referendum result. Rather than pronouncing, in EU style, that the voters clearly haven’t understood the question and making them do it again until they produce the right answer.

Alternatively we could send in the military, arrest the ringleaders and charge them with treason. There is something about Alex Salmond’s perpetually smug expression that always makes me wonder how his head would look on a spike on the battlements of Edinburgh Castle.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

The sheer hell of moving house

I am reliably informed by the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale that moving house is only the 32nd most stressful experience any of us is likely to undergo.

While it would be hard to quibble with the two distinguished psychiatrists when they award top billing to the death of one’s spouse, I simply cannot accept that relocating is 60% less stressful than marriage and less than half as unsettling as the birth of a child.

Because I have experienced both those life events in the last few years, and I can assure you that they don’t even hold a candle to the sheer hell of packing up one’s belongings and then trying to find and rearrange them in a new home.

Old house: an ogre lived in that tree, my son informs me.

I have done nothing else for the last two weeks, and have no hesitation in rating them the worst fortnight of my life to date. The pain was further inflamed when I finally returned to work on Monday to be asked whether I had had a nice holiday.

Admittedly we had been thoroughly spoilt by living for five unplanned years in a rambling rented house that came with a huge garden, vast conservatory, commodious cellar and triple garage. The last of which was completely useless for housing any car designed since the Austin Seven because its doors were too narrow, but proved absolutely ideal for accumulating junk.

Why waste time and energy making a journey to the tip when you can just lob stuff in the garage?

I have made up for lost time to such an extent that I am now on first name terms with every employee at my local household waste recycling centre.

Despite this, we still have rooms in our new home piled floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes, and no obvious place to disgorge the contents.

New house: no ogres detected SO FAR

The worst is the children’s playroom, crammed with plastic toys that are not only physically indestructible but also completely indispensable, at least in the opinion of our sons.

Even though the two year old announced the other day that “My not a little boy any more, my a big boy”, neither can apparently live without playthings they were given as mere babes in arms.

I suppose it is hereditary. I freely admit to being a terrible hoarder, but I am at least pretty good at identifying and ruthlessly disposing of other people’s useless junk. Only my wife and children won’t let me.

Adding to the stress is the knowledge that we have acquired a house converted from a chapel around 25 year ago by possibly the world’s least talented DIYer. He seems to have made it his mission not just to bodge every single piece of work, but also ensure that it is fiendishly difficult for anyone else to put right.

The impenetrable plywood floors of the upper storey he inserted are a prime example of his genius. 

Then there is the sense that I have spent far more than I can afford on a house that is a bit of a disappointment. My parents-in-law pitched up the other day to be greeted by the five-year-old with “Come and look at our playroom, Grandma. It’s absolutely tiny. Would you like to see the garden? It’s very small.”

I was tempted to point out that, at his age, I had no playroom and could fit my entire toy collection into a single box, but feared I’d sound like the elderly Yorkshiremen in the famous Monty Python sketch that isn’t actually by Monty Python at all.

The worst of it is that a combination of unexpected developments, in the form of marriage and work commitments, has resulted in my spending the last five years shuttling between homes in the North East and North West.

So even when the dust has finally settled and we have slimmed down our shared possessions to manageable proportions, I will still be the owner of another house that is chock-full with the products of well over half a century of obsessive book collecting, memorabilia hoarding and general over-retentiveness.

The next step will be getting rid of that lot. Will it prove stressful? To be honest, I suspect it will be simply off the scale.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.