Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Referendums add to the gaiety of a nation

Anyone who doubts that history repeats itself would do well to take a look at Harold Wilson and the great European referendum of 1975.

Wilson led a government that had been returned with a slim majority, and a party that was divided on Europe. His way out was to argue not that membership of the European Economic Community was wrong per se, but that the Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath had secured entry on totally unacceptable terms.

So Labour “renegotiated” those terms, secured a few footling concessions, declared a famous victory and put the result to the great British public in a referendum with, inevitably, the more positive and appealing “yes” option being for continued membership of what was then generally called the Common Market.

Nearly every apparently sane mainstream political leader campaigned for a “yes” vote. The “no” camp was dominated by the barmy Labour left, though it also contained a few obvious nutjobs from the Tory right, the by then Ulster Unionist Enoch Powell, and – intriguingly – Plaid Cymru and the SNP.

Small wonder that I was conned into voting “yes”, along with 67.2% of my fellow electors.

We were reassured by entirely dishonest claims that continued membership involved “no essential loss of British sovereignty” and also strongly influenced by what appeared to be the economic reality of the time: that Britain was stuck in perennial doldrums while the Continent powered ahead. Can we blamed for fancying a share of that prosperity?

I can’t say that I have regretted my decision ever since, though I have certainly done so since the political nature of the European Union project became impossible to ignore from the late 1980s. 

Today the UK political background is eerily similar to what it was 40 years ago, and the master plan in Downing Street is clearly exactly the same: claim success in the “negotiations” and campaign for a “yes”.

The difference today is that it is the UK which is doing pretty well economically and the rest of the EU that is in the doldrums, mired in the entirely predictable consequences of its economically illiterate, politically driven euro project.

Whether this will have any impact on the outcome I rather doubt, given that every business voice that can be wheeled out in support of the EU is already burbling on about the vital importance of our continued membership.

Just remember, won’t you, that most of those making this case also told you that the UK would be finished if it didn’t join the euro when it was launched in 1999? An issue on which they have since fallen curiously silent.

I for one will take some convincing before I repeat my mistake of 1975, though I am at least open to reason.

I also find that I am warming to the idea of referendums in general. They may be expensive and introduce the risk of dumb people making the wrong choice, rather than the one preferred by the man in Whitehall who knows best.

But they do help to encourage real public engagement in political issues: witness the high turnout in Scotland last year. And, as Ireland proved so convincingly last week, they can add greatly to the gaiety of a nation.

Back in the 1970s we endured real agonies debating whether a referendum had any place in the unwritten British constitution. It was condemned as an assault on Parliamentary sovereignty, and the sacred principle that thick people elect slightly less thick people to take all the important decisions for them.

Today the agonising has been narrowed down to whether EU citizens resident in the UK should be allowed to participate, which is a bit like debating the franchise on a turkey farm just in advance of Christmas.

And, bizarrely, whether 16 and 17 year olds should be allowed to vote. In the same news bulletins where we hear appeals to trace 16 year old girls who have run off with older men or headed for Syria to be jihadi brides.

Because in those instances they are still children who cannot be held responsible for their actions. 

Exactly. You can’t have it both ways. So I say yes to referendums, and no to votes for children.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

What are laurels for, if not resting on?

I don’t know about you but I for one am completely fed up with politics.

Not particularly the Westminster variety, which has a certain grim fascination as all those insiders who knew all along that Ed Miliband was completely useless break cover to rain blows on his still twitching corpse.

No, I am thinking more of the everyday sort of political manoeuvring and conniving which seem to feature so strongly in the way many of us choose to conduct our lives.

Getting the edge over a colleague for that promotion or pay rise, taking credit for something you didn’t actually do, sneaking the children into a better state school, trying to catch the attention of those who dish out gongs at Buckingham Palace …

So many of the aspiring middle class seem to devote their entire lives to these games, and I find it really hard to understand. Both because it is not my own way and because it is ultimately pointless.

I have never raised my own sights particularly high. School friends will vouch that my only sporting ambition was not to be picked for the team. True, I was notably good at passing some types of exam many decades ago, but only in subjects that required no real effort.

Any work ethic I ever developed was firmly based on fear of pedagogic sarcasm or mild violence, rather than a personal desire to do well.

We called him "Beater" Bertram for a reason

I have drifted through my non-career motivated only by a desire to attain a certain standard of comfort and to die peacefully in my own bed. So far one out of two doesn’t look bad. And if it means so much to others to gain kudos for the few things I have got right along the way, good luck to them. They are welcome to it.

Only they do need to realise that ambition is a drug and the appetite for success can never be satiated.

I have one friend who started in life with literally nothing and, through decades of hard work driven by burning ambition, is now a billionaire. He confirms that the drive for betterment is an absolute and hardy perennial.

If you have that mindset it doesn’t matter whether your current obsession is getting your family out of your parents’ front room and into a modest house of your own, or looking with envy at the next plutocrat’s bigger yacht. There will always be something that gets in the way of sitting back contentedly and enjoying what you have already got.

A man who would surely have loved to see Ed as "Britain's first Jewish Prime Minister"

So if you are a go-getter intent on shinning up the greasy pole remember that you’re never going to be satisfied and there are many things more important than career success, like spending time with your family or visiting those places and doing those things you always really fancied trying one day. 

There’s no point waiting until you get the terminal diagnosis to start drawing up your bucket list, and you are a very long time dead.

Whenever I make the mistake of thinking I am at risk of screwing up something important, I remember a valuable saying of my mother’s: “It will all be the same in a hundred years’ time.”

100 years ago: Alnwick 1915, with my grandfather's garage in the left background

I offer that to Ed, Ed, Vince, Douglas, Danny and all the other political losers by way of consolation. Perhaps they might like to have it engraved on a monolith in their gardens as a handy reminder.

Of course, if I’m honest, I did once have a small list of personal ambitions. To get married and have children: tick, belatedly. To publish a best-selling comic novel: no chance. To win the lottery: ditto. 

Oh, and to have a column in the best regional daily paper in the country. I was immensely privileged to be given that honour many years ago now, but it was still great to have The Journal’s outstanding qualities recognised at last week’s Regional Press Awards.

Well done, all. Take a break, enjoy your success, and don’t obsess about where the next award is coming from.

In fact, do the precise opposite of what my teachers at the RGS were always warning me not to do, and have a really good rest on your well-deserved laurels.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Who is really the nasty party?

Laws have been passed to protect people from abuse on account of their race, religion or sexual orientation, but Tories are still fair game.

Hence it should be no surprise that so many voters clearly lie through their teeth about their intentions when opinion pollsters come calling.

To many on the always self-righteous left, anyone who does not share their views is inhumane to the point of being downright inhuman.

I particularly remember the venom of the privately educated rich kids with whom I watched the results of the two 1974 elections on a flickering black and white TV in Cambridge, as each contest failed to deliver the Labour landslide they were confidently expecting.

The howls when Cambridge stayed Conservative were partly offset by one particular Labour gain. “At least they have civilised people in Oxford,” huffed Georgina.

I imagine Georgina’s trust-funded children in the front line of that mob baying obscenities and scrawling graffiti on war memorials in their attempted anti-Tory putsch at the weekend.

Because the election was clearly rigged, right? And if it wasn’t, then the stupid electorate was misled by the Murdoch and Rothermere press with their lies and scare tactics. Because every decent, caring human being is a socialist at heart, aren’t they?

Well, no they’re not. And no matter how many times the history lesson gets repeated, the left never seems to learn that England is fundamentally a conservative country.

Heaven knows there are enough clues scattered around, like the enduring hereditary monarchy, our collective love for unspoilt countryside, and the fact that Labour’s only landslide successes in my lifetime have been under a leader who made the party’s pitch significantly more conservative.

Yet still the cry will go up in some quarters that they lost because they weren’t left wing enough. Yes, that will be exactly why UKIP managed to hoover up so many of their traditional supporters on Thursday. Good luck with repositioning to offer even more red-blooded socialism. Oh, and next time maybe try choosing a leader who looks like a potential Prime Minister rather than the head teacher of failing comprehensive.

I have never understood what possessed Theresa May to acknowledge that characterisation of the Conservatives as “the nasty party”. True nastiness is found on the extremes of both left and right, not in mainstream Conservatism.

If the Tories really wanted to destroy the NHS don’t you think they might have done it by now, given that they have been in power for 40 out of the 67 years it has been in existence?

Left wing idealism rarely proves compatible with competent administration, as we have seen in a succession of Labour-run authorities over the years and most recently and strikingly in the now ejected Green council in Brighton.

The most interesting post-election Tweets I saw contained two maps. One compared Labour constituencies in England and Wales with the former coalfields, and the overlap was almost perfect, with the sole exceptions of London and Kent.

The other compared the political map of Scotland in 2015 with that of Ireland in 1918, when a Sinn Fein landslide swept the country outside Ulster.

Was last year’s failed independence referendum Scotland’s equivalent of the Easter rising of 1916?

Of course the parallels are not exact. Scotland already has its own parliament and the SNP’s MPs intend to take their Westminster seats, as Sinn Fein refused to do

I also think there is unlikely to be any popular demand to partition Dumfriesshire, Cydesdale and Tweeddale so that it can remain within the UK (though I am altogether less sure about Orkney and Shetland).

Even so, statesmanship of a high order will be required to prevent Scotland following Ireland through the exit door from the United Kingdom.

Do I see David Cameron as the great statesman who can pull this off? No, but I reckon he has far more chance than Ed Miliband ever would have done.

And who, a week ago, confidently saw Mr Cameron as an outright election winner?

Except in the Blair years, my lifetime experience of election nights has been of Tories exceeding expectations. Yet even I did not have the confidence to bet on it.

So have this one on me: “Typical stupid Tory”.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

A date that will go down in history?

If the opinion polls are right, and I hope they aren’t, the 70th anniversary of VE Day on Friday will also be Deadlock in Britain Day.

All round the country bleary-eyed candidates and would-be Prime Ministers will be surveying the wreckage of their hopes.

Just as Churchill did a mere two months after he was ecstatically cheered on the Buckingham Palace balcony on May 8th, 1945.

Spectacularly losing an election you entered with a personal approval rating of 83% is an achievement few can ever hope to emulate.

When Churchill’s wife Clementine tried to console him that his defeat might be a blessing in disguise, he retorted: “At the moment it’s certainly very well disguised.”

So where did he go so wrong? In popular memory Labour’s pledges of social reform overwhelmingly carried the day. Yet the Conservative manifesto of 1945 also promised “a nation-wide and compulsory scheme of National Insurance” and the creation of “a comprehensive health service covering the whole range of medical treatment from the general practitioner to the specialist”. This should not be altogether surprising.

The Beveridge Report of 1942, to which the post-war settlement owed so much, had been commissioned by the all-party wartime coalition Churchill led.

Personally, I put the Tory crash down to lousy PR. If only Max Beaverbrook or Brendan Bracken had said, “Winston, the thing to do is to carve your National Insurance and health service pledges on an 8 foot limestone obelisk and cart it around the country with you”, how very different the result might have been.

It is altogether more plausible that a post-war Tory government would have set up a National Health Service than that Labour would have instituted a “right to buy” for council tenants in 1959 – another counter-intuitive notion that has recently received an airing on the letters pages.

The unsuccessful Labour manifesto of that year does indeed contain a promise that “Every tenant … will have a chance first to buy from the Council the house he lives in”, but it was referring to privately rented homes that it proposed councils should take over.

Incidentally, imagine the furore that would ensue today if any party put out literature implying that all tenants were necessarily male. Well, maybe not in the case of UKIP.

The greatest counter-intuitive idea of all is that Margaret Thatcher was a Green pioneer because she closed so many coal mines (albeit not as many as Labour’s Harold Wilson) thereby anticipating the current left wing fetish for leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

If you rake through old manifestos you find Labour, now the staunchest opponent of giving the people a say on membership of the European Union, standing on a platform of withdrawal from the EEC in 1983.

Ideas pass back and forth between parties, and memories of past promises, successes and failures are selective. It is worth recalling that the revered socialist government of 1945 continued to award hereditary peerages, and pressed ahead with the creation of a British atomic bomb.

And, while independence was swiftly granted to India, there were ambitious plans for the continuing empire in Africa, including the once infamous scheme to improve British diets through the extensive cultivation of groundnuts in Tanganyika. It failed disastrously because the climate and soil were both completely unsuitable for growing peanuts.

A lesser known disaster of the time was a parallel scheme to boost chicken and egg production in The Gambia, West Africa … with the aim not just of feeding Britain but of reducing the colony’s dependence on the successful cultivation of groundnuts.

No doubt we can anticipate more expensive cock-ups of this sort, whoever finally comes to the surface clutching a lifebelt after tomorrow’s election.

I shan’t attempt a prediction, even though my family are still reeling from the fact that I accurately foresaw the Duchess of Cambridge giving birth to a daughter called Charlotte Elizabeth Diana – and then failed to place a bet on it.

Sadly for us David Cameron is no Churchill, Ed Miliband no Attlee. In a world of politicians no one much likes or respects, deadlock may be inevitable. But it is not to be desired, as anyone who remembers the 1970s will vouch.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.