Tuesday, 22 August 2017
To me the most significant sentence from President Trump's "Afghanistan" speech yesterday is this:
"...we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image."
British imperialist (and there are still many around) please note. And they're not all Tories: I think Tony Blair called it "Liberal Interventionism."
The mistake has been to think you can dump yourself on another country, institute "free elections" and walk away thinking you have created a democracy.
Any text-book will tell you that there are many ingredients which together form a democracy. These include: freedom of speech and assembly (including the rights of organised labour); respect for human rights; a free press; a measure of equality; an independent judiciary; the rule of law, to which the government is subject; separation of powers; several tiers of government with defined responsibilities; and yes, a peaceful means of changing the government, normally by regular elections with a universal franchise.
Which of these ingredients comes first will vary from country to country. In the UK the universal franchise came quite late in the day, and, given that it still excludes sixteen and seventeen year olds some (though not me) would argue that it is still not quite universal enough. Even in relatively mature democracies such as the UK and the US, there is still much room for improvement. In the US, for example, Mrs Clinton received three million more votes than Mr Trump, and some states still execute people. In the UK the duties and independence of local government are not entrenched but subject to the whims of Westminster.
And regular readers will not be surprised to know that I believe the type of electoral system is crucial. First-past-the-post (FPTP) is a recipe for disaster in those countries where there are several ethnic groups and one is dominant (as several African countries have discovered.) Even where the population is relatively homogeneous, as in the UK, FPTP leads to woefully inefficient government.
So the conclusion must be that neither the US system, nor the Westminster system which the UK has proudly imposed on umpteen former colonies, fits the bill for each and every situation. Some countries may welcome a little help from their friends, but each must find their own ways.
Sunday, 20 August 2017
Yesterday the editor of the Guardian's "letters page" published an article explaining the characteristics of those readers' letters most likely to be published. Since it seems to me that I follow most of the rules (be short and to the point, relevant, accurate, avoiding abuse, and referring to the Guardian article to which you are responding) I can't think why more of mine aren't printed, but there you are.
To illustrate what constitutes a "good " letter the editor reprints one from a Dr Simon Sweeney of York University in 2013. Here it is, using the Monty Python lead-in (see title)
Not much, apart from: providing 57% of our trade; structural funding to areas hit by industrial decline; clean beaches and rivers; cleaner air; lead-free petrol; restrictions on landfill dumping; a recycling culture; cheaper mobile charges; cheaper air travel; improved consumer protection and food labelling; a ban on growth hormones and other harmful food additives; better product safety; single market competition bringing quality improvements and better industrial performance. . ."etc.
I'm not sure whether the "etc" was part of the original letter or whether there was actually more.
Be that as it may, we Europhiles could well print the letter off (perhaps as bullet points) and learn to recite it to the doubters - surely a dwindling species..
Thursday, 10 August 2017
"Past time for sensible MPs in all parties to admit Brexit is a catastrophe, come together in a new party if need be, and reverse it."
"Let's be honest, if we had an effective electoral law leading Brexiteers would now be in jail."
"[The main parities are] paralysed and they are terrified of being called saboteurs, wreckers and people defying the will of the people."
(As reported here.)
These very apt comments on our present political scene come not from an enthusiastic and bewildered Europhile such as myself, but from the very heart of the Brexit team. Their author, a James Chapman, is a former political editor of the Daily Mail, (gasp); special advisor to George Osborne, (gasp gasp); and has spent a whole year as chief of staff for the Brexit Secretary David Davis in the clumsily-named Department for Exiting the European Union (it beggars belief).
It would be kind to suppose that Mr Chapman has now seen the light, but rather, I suspect, he has decided to "come clean." This is clear evidence that the Brexiteers know all along that Brexit will not be the raging economic success they proclaim, and that they achieved their narrow lead in the referendum by peddling a catalogue of gross exaggerations if not downright lies (of which the extra £350m a week for the NHS was the most blatant and influential). Their real motive remains open to speculation.
The question is, when will "sensible MPs" (and I like to think most are sensible) recognise that in their supine pretence that they are implementing the "will of the people" they are doing a grave disservice to the people they are supposed to represent, put their judgement before their job-security, and put a stop to this folly before any more time is wasted?
Then they can concentrate on our real problems: housing, health service, social care, climate change, a prison service which shames a country which claims to be civilised, the north-south divide. . . All of these, and more, are being put on the back burner as the present self-harming nonsense fills the agenda..
Monday, 7 August 2017
Yesterday I went to our multi-plex cinema to see this well-reviewed film.
Although I've been several times before I still haven't quite got the hang of modern cinema going - quite different from the good old days of "going to the pictures." The booking counter has now started designating seats and I spent quite a lot of time in the semi-darkness looking for 12A. Failing to find it I sat where I could, and eventually realised that 12A was not the number of my seat but the classification of the film.
Happily no-one claimed the seat I was in but this is another case of dispensing with useful employees - usherettes with shaded torches - in order to cut costs and boost profits whilst making life harder for the customers.
In a further complication the cinema now has reclining seats with a leg-rest attachment which enables you to stretch out. A tried every possible location for the lever to work it with. A girl in a neighbouring set kindly pointed out the operating button.
Most of the soundtrack was much too loud - we are approaching the "feelies" depicted in Huxley's "Brave New World" - but even so much of the dialogue was hard to catch.
The film is, I take it, an accurate description of the horrors of war. Deaths are not sanitised, and not every "warrior" is a selfless hero.
I cannot imagine anyone seeing this film wanting to leave the European Union.
Sadly, I suspect the more buccaneering Brexiteers will draw the opposite conclusion.
Wednesday, 2 August 2017
The observances for the centenary of the start of the Battle of Passchendaele have brought some of the Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries on to our television screens.
The first one I visited was in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s, and in the last few years, especially while helping to write accounts of the Old Boys of the school I attended who were killed in the First World War, have visited several in Northern France and Belgium.
I count these visits as among the most moving and humbling experiences of my life: the astonishing numbers, the youth of so many who died, the immaculate care and attention given to each cemetery and each grave. And in addition to these the hundreds, maybe thousands, of square meters of walls with the names of the missing whose bodies were never found.
I have no idea how the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is organised, and the websites aren't very informative on this aspect. But I suspect its directors, if it has any, are not on massive salaries, with out-of this-world bonuses just for doing what's expected of them, it is not encumbered with fancily-phrased mission statements, targets, OFSTED-style inspections or any other of the management-speak paraphernalia which today is deemed necessary to motivate even the humblest of organisations.
And yet it does a near-prefect job. No one would dare suggest privatising it: or would they?
Friday, 28 July 2017
I've just returned from a fascinating week doing "touristy" things based on Galway in the West of Ireland. I do not claim on the basis of a one week visit to have cracked the Irish perspective on everything, but here are four interesting pointers.
1. Brexit I. A leader in the Irish Times (does Murdoch own that one too?), on, I think, Friday 21st July, said something like
"We are sorry to lose our friend and close ally [from the EU], but that will not preclude us from picking at the carcass" (or maybe it was 'cadaver').
This struck me as being surprisingly friendly, in view of the bitter history between our two nations, but, in seeking to attract those financial services, and perhaps other industries fleeing from a UK no longer in the EU, essentially practical.
And good luck to them. Ireland shares one of the great "pull factors" which attract foreign firms to settle in the UK: the English language. And they speak it in a way I find absolutely charming.
2. Brexit II. Here's a letter published in the Irish Times on Thursday 27th July:
With the prospect of a UK-US trade deal likely to result in the flooding of the UK with US-produced GM food products, chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-laden beef, surely any "Ireland-UK friendly" Brexit deal will mean that we are also vulnerable to exposure to these products? I can think of a multitude of UK-based food outlets in Ireland where such exposure is not only a risk but a likelihood and wonder what the Government is doing to safeguard such a prospect.?
Yours etc, Kevin Nolan.
Mr Nolan may genuinely wonder what his government will do. I don't wonder at all about ours. . It will almost certainly be "Nothing " - a complete cave in to any demands that the US is likely to make in order to secure any sort of trade deal.
3.The Famine. By far and away the most moving experience was to see the National Famine Monument, a Coffin Ship at the base of Croagh Patrick in Murrusk, County Mayo. This depicts skeletons intertwined with the rigging of one of the ships which took the desperately starving migrants to a better world across the Atlantic - if they survived. For details see here.
In 1997, the 150th anniversary of the end of the Famine, Tony Blair "apologised" for it as follows:
"That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today. Those who governed in London at the time failed their people"
Sadly the collective leadership of Europe, with the UK as one of the most culpable, will need to make a similar apology at some time in the future for our indifference to the sufferings of migrants and asylum seekers desperately, and across the Mediterranean dangerously, fleeing similar poverty today.
4. Equality. Opposite the splendidly modern but imposting cathedral in Galway is a sculpture by John Behan depicting Emerging Equality. In the inscription below is the definition:
Equality is but difference - respected and celebrated.
I'll try to remember that next time someone taunts those of us who believe in equality that we want everybody to be the same. Not at all: different, yes please, but still equal.
Tuesday, 18 July 2017
I have not actually seen the film "The Sense of an Ending" but was sufficiently intrigued by the adverts to buy Julian Barnes's book. There I was delighted to read, put in the mouth of the first person narrator, Tony Webster, sentiments that coincide exactly with my own:
Do you know something I dread? Being an old person in hospital and having nurses I've never met calling me Anthony, or worse, Tony. Let me just pop this in your arm Tony. Have some more of this gruel, Tony. Have you done a motion, Tony?* Of course, by the time this happens, over-familiarity from the nursing staff may be well down my list of anxieties, but even so. (Page 69)
Change "Peter" and "Pete" and that's exactly how I feel, not just in the context of old age and physical incapability, but in all contexts when discussing matters with people I neither know nor am likely to know. (eg buying insurance over the telephone, receiving letters from my Party's leader).
However, Barnes is right (presuming he is airing his own views.) that the situation is most acute in the medical context, when we feel at the most vulnerable. In that situation the last thing we need is to addressed by authority figures in a manner which takes us back to our days in the mixed infants.
So the free improvement for the NHS is that all staff should address people by their honorific (Mr. Mrs, M/s or something posher) and family name and that should be the default position. If patients then prefer their first name, nickname or something more familiar that's fine, but the initiative should come from the patient, not the practitioner.
I am not and never have member of BUPA or any other private medical scheme, but I'm pretty sure that in those places patients are" Mistered" and "Missised" routinely.
More generally, the English language, which is so prolific is most other areas (we have half a million words and counting, compared with a mere 100 000 in French) we have no equivalent of the French Monsieur,
Madame or |Mademoiselle, which can be used indiscriminately without any sense of status difference or servility. The French also get around the difficulty of distinguishing between Missises and Misses by addressing every woman who appears to be over 30 as Madame. (though that may be an unwelcome rite of passage)
In English, outside school, the army, police and high-end department stores , "Sir" and "Madame" sound deferential, and outside Buckingham Palace and detective stories featuring senior female officers I suspect no-one uses the abbreviation "Ma'am" (to rhyme with "jam," not "psalm").
I have no suggested alternatives to make but should be pleased if someone could come up with one to replace "Pall", "Mate" "Squire " (ugh) or nothing at all.
Of course, here in Yorkshire the unisex "Luv" covers all cases
*Barnes himself has dispensed with quotation marks