Trying hard; could do better

It’s been interesting, as our parliament goes into its new short summer recess, to hear differing views on how the leaders of our coalition are doing. I’ve written before that I think this different approach to our traditional two-party system of politics could be a change for good and, in broad terms, I still hold that view. Yes, there have been glitches and, in a world where you are frequently judged on what you say rather than what you achieve, there are bound to have been catcalls from the sidelines. What intrigued me though, sniping from David Davis aside, was what would go into the end of summer term reports.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg looked good together at the outset and there is clearly a mutual respect existing that was never apparent when Blair and Brown were the incumbents. A couple of months of reality, public scrutiny and party politics have put more clear water between the Prime Minister and his deputy but for me two points of focus stand out as indicators of where we stand.

Last week Clegg stood in for Cameron at PM’s Questions when the PM was in USA. He was less at ease than in the famous televised election debates and his performance was unconfident and stumbling. He came under pressure and was mauled by Jack Straw, who as a former Foreign Secretary is a very experienced adversary. Whilst it could be argued that Clegg might have been better briefed his comment about the legality of the invasion of Iraq was misguided and politically naïve, particularly as Cameron had voted in support of the invasion at the time. Clegg was repeating a consistent and firmly-held personal view but he was speaking from the dispatch box and not from his sofa, so the views he expressed were those of the government. There were more uncertain responses before Straw went on to quote the results of a limited poll indicating a belief that the Liberal Democrats had sacrificed principle for power in joining the Conservatives to form the coalition. The government had to issue statements of clarification afterwards and the voters’ darling has been below the parapet ever since, tail firmly between his legs. I’ve read today that his personal approval rating – whatever that is it provides an indication of what the public thinks of you – has dropped from 72% ahead of the election to less than 10% now. Not good when your job is to win friends and influence people.

Following his trip to the States Cameron embarked on the tour that took him to Turkey and India. Of course, this was a heaven-sent opportunity to ‘have a go’, as we say here, and he obliged by using some unguarded language in both countries. David Miliband’s comment that Cameron was a ‘loudmouth’ struck me as being a little unimaginative and spiteful rather than incisive and pertinent; not great stuff from an aspiring leader of the Labour Party. Charles Moore, in the Daily Telegraph and more specifically, accused Cameron of being hypocritical and telling his audiences what they wanted to hear. Well, he was on a trade mission so he would, wouldn’t he? Cameron, in less than diplomatic terms, had described Gaza as a ‘prison camp’ and accused Pakistan of looking ‘both ways’ on terrorism but Moore asked why Cameron wasn’t expressing such comments at home when in England supporters of Hamas, of the killing of homosexuals, of female circumcision, of the execution of apostates, and of terrorism against all armed opponents of any Muslims anywhere’ are treated as partners by police and public authorities. Well, Gaza is just that, isn’t it? And it’s probably beyond reasonable doubt that what Cameron said about Pakistan is true also. Was offence caused because what he said was incorrect or because he had the audacity to say it in public? If Israel and Pakistan behaved better, no offence could have been caused. I don’t necessarily disagree with Moore’s concerns but I fail to see why voicing opinion abroad should preclude you from adopting a policy of dialogue at home, where you might actually achieve something.

For my part – and the need for exercising caution in international relations notwithstanding – I find it refreshing to have a politician speak his mind even if it does mean that a diplomatic slight is imparted. It seems altogether more honest than when Charles Moore, who is a respected journalist, uses criticism of Cameron’s expressing some commonly-held concerns to raise issues associated with his own right-wing views on dealing with home-based radicalism.

Despite the odd bump in the road the coalition is enthusiastic. The Guardian carried an interesting piece by Francis Maude, concluding that this government was more radical than that of Margaret Thatcher. Whether or not that’s true they are certainly trying to make progress at an alarmingly fast pace. Perhaps it is naïve to attempt so much so soon and the uncertainty in the footwork is there to see. We’ll all know soon enough but I think it’s long past time for a government to take a different view on major areas of public expenditure – health, education, defence, benefits – and at least try some new ideas instead of forcing through policies that are based on party dogma and idealism.

The strength I saw in a coalition was the basis of two parties being held comfortably together by each other’s strengths; twin stars each needing the other’s gravitational pull to remain in place and not go spinning aimlessly into space. I felt that one party’s extremes would be balanced by the other’s moderations and that the whole would be greater than the sum of the two parts. The accountability inherent in such a forced marriage would, I believed, make honesty on the part of each partner a necessity. That seems to be the case even if it is, as the examples above show, likely to cause glitches and provide fertile ground for criticism.

Defending your position is part and parcel of Cameron’s job and, quite frankly, the criticism offered thus far has been weak and unlikely to deflect him. Of more worry is the apparent inability of Clegg to impose himself and his party’s values in the manner of his pre-election performances. A poll result today suggested that his perceived ability to influence the government’s policies is diminishing and if that trend continues his weak performance will come under increasing attack and may become a liability.  

Those points made on the leaders of the coalition I’m also less than satisfied with their green credentials as this is far from being ‘the greenest government ever’, as was promised in one of Cameron’s early speeches. Yes, it does look as though energy and climate change are being addressed – and these are major political issues – but in doing so some of the more politically low-key aspects of the natural environment will fall by the wayside. The consequences of that will affect us more as individuals. This concerns me greatly but somewhere along the line one has to put trust in people and believe that they’ll do the right thing. On face value, Cameron and Clegg appear to be trying to do just that even if a lot of pain and heartache will ensue as a consequence.

I take a very sceptical view of politicians, whom I believe to be self-serving and duplicitous for the most part. So I’m not critical of the mistakes or the perception of weakness that flows from expressing honestly-held opinion.  The summer recess will give everyone some time to reflect on things; is honesty the best policy? Yes, but you need to think before you speak.

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Play up, play up and play the game

I started writing this with the World Cup well under way and England about to kick-off against Algeria in their second match. Even before agonising through the lacklustre performance, the disappointment of a worryingly inevitable goalless draw and Wayne Rooney’s sound bite bemoaning our booing fans I was feeling increasingly uncertain about it all. My dilemma is that as an Englishman I should be rooting for my country – all the flags of St George hanging from bedroom windows and adorning car roof trims implore me to – but in actuality, I don’t feel at all enthusiastic about supporting our team.

Now, to clear any misunderstanding flowing from that statement it’s not because I’m unpatriotic; I’m not and I like football. I played when I was younger and enjoy watching an exciting match. What I don’t like is the phenomenon that English football appears to have become; a circus populated by [with a few notable exceptions] inarticulate, overpaid, self-important individuals who equate money and celebrity with substance. I’m sort of wishing I was, well, Brazilian or Australian, maybe Dutch or from the States or even Mexico. I have real issues with the way the Dear Leader runs North Korea like a personal philosophy experiment but earlier in the week I found myself cheering his little guys [along with the Chinese rent-a-crowd] and was out of my seat when they scored. Point is, I desperately want to enjoy it and get swept away with it all but in England we seem to have forgotten that. No, try as I may I just can’t get worked-up over our sullen, pouting, aggressive and egotistical crew, encouraged as it is by tabloid hyperbole.

Truth be told, I’m a little shy of being in any way associated with it all. I heard one English fan interviewed on radio a few nights ago as he set off for the trip to Cape Town, the location for last evening’s event. He complained about the camping site, the food, the journey ahead of him and then advised the BBC arrogantly and with quiet venom, that if England didn’t beat Algeria he’d never go to watch them again. I can’t make sense of his motives for taking that sort of attitude or for his being there in the first place. Surely it’s supposed to be about representing England and supporting the team, isn’t it? Not all English fans were booing yesterday but our Wayne clearly didn’t feel that he had responsibility to anyone other than himself when he shared his less-than-deep thoughts with the camera and the world before finishing his rant with a trademark four-letter word.  

As far as I’m able to find out the refereeing fraternity hasn’t been given a special course on Slovenian profanities or been tutored on how to deal with abuse from Uruguayan players; those safeguards have been reserved specially for us. And I can’t recall any of the other teams being booed by their fans either. Most Nations seem to be pretty happy about their team having qualified for the finals and their travelling supporters, despite some disappointments, are doing just that – supporting. OK, Italy’s squad was booed by fans upset that the players had refused to stop and sign autographs when they arrived in South Africa but, for the most part, it’s ‘party on’ and the fans are enjoying the trip as well as the football. Why are we like we are? I just don’t get it.

Sir Henry John Newbolt, an English poet, wrote a poem in 1897 called Vitaï Lampada – the Torch of Life. Whilst it was more about playing cricket and going off to The Great War than the World Cup in South Africa it was very much about being English and the sentiments are still relevant. Our team and our fans would do well to reflect on the words I’ve repeated here before and after the game against Slovenia on Wednesday. By that time the fate of some of the other teams will be known and bags will be being packed. I suspect that a lot of people will be feeling proud of what their team achieved and will have enjoyed the contribution that they made as they think about leaving. It’s old-fashioned, I know, to be proud of your country and life in England these days often gets in the way of such sentimentality. Next Wednesday might be the last chance we get to make a contribution and I hope we do. I might feel a bit more like cheering for the Three Lions than I do today.

Vitaï Lampada

Sir Henry John Newbolt

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night —
Ten to make and the match to win —
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

The sand of the desert is sodden red, —
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind —
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

And the winner is…!

Early days for our infant coalition and, despite the wealth of promises, opinion and expert comment, we’re breaking new ground; the truth is that no one can tell just yet how it will go. Cameron and Clegg are putting in place some laudable quick wins – the fixed-term parliament, cancelling the third Heathrow runway and imposing a pay-freeze on the Cabinet – which serve to show real intent.  I think, as I wrote in an earlier post, that this will be a good thing for us although my fear is that we may need to fail at it first time around.

What our previous government failed to see [or failed to admit, which is more likely] was that the electorate is a very different animal from the masses that have supported a fairly simple two-party system up until now. It’s not long ago and certainly within my memory, that the have-nots – the workers and dispossessed – traditionally voted Labour while the haves – landed gentry, professionals and the privileged few – voted Conservative. It seemed to me when I was a youngster, looking back at it from here, that only school-teachers voted Liberal Democrat then but I accept that as being a jaundiced view. Today voters can and expect to make up their own minds and, given that politicians have little or no credibility, it’s easy to see why Clegg’s open and apparently honest approach appealed so widely. Alright, there was a lot of wavering as ticks were put in boxes on voting day but the possibility of a coalition was well publicised and if that had really scared people then the Conservatives would have won their majority. No, this is a sea-change.

I remember the first time my Dad, retired now but a Master Bricklayer at the time, changed his allegiance from Red to Blue and it was quite a decision for him to make. Mixed emotions of disloyalty and desertion were only tempered by the the local building workers’ union having disowned him and his contemporaries for breaking away from employment by a few large national contractors to work self-employed. It was many years before he could work in the local area again and needed the Thatcher government to prize the vice-like grip of the unions off the workers.

Now we have an electorate that is better educated, able to take in every subtlety and nuance through 24-hour media and free from the traditional social constraints that kept sons voting as their fathers had. Blair saw this in 1997 and his ‘Presidential’ approach to government perhaps exploited the last real opportunity for an individual to hold autocratic power. The result of this recent election has shown that life has moved on for elected officials; that they are not above the law [well, that requires some further debate]; that they have to be more equal; that they have to be more accountable and that they are not immune from the consequences of their actions.

Cameron and Clegg still have power but they appear to be setting out a process whereby they will remain responsible with it and accountable for its consequences. I can’t think of an example of where a politician holding similar power has used restraint and not exercised it for the good of society and the sake of humility. For me, the first measure of real change will be just that. That will make us all long-term winners in a process that has, thus far, only provided a long-term loser, one James Gordon Brown. I like what Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize holder, said about it – ‘Ultimately, the only power to which a man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself’.

The crisis is over – or is it?

So the airports are open again and the freedom of the skies beckons. For some time we’ve been booked to fly to Sweden tomorrow but after days of monitoring the news channels, the weather, the predictions of experts and the ranting of Sky interviewees I’ve just about had it. I’ve lost the will to travel and don’t have the stamina to spend what might be six or seven hours with easyJet’s handling agents or the hoi polloi at Stansted Airport. It’s a depressing experience at the best of times and the security staff there is about as surly as you can get without appearing on Britain’s Toughest Gangs. After several days of will we/won’t we be able to get away we’d more or less accepted that tomorrow would be the day when we saw the beginning of the end of the crisis. Then last evening the news from Iceland grew graver; Eyjafjallajökull was sending out another ash cloud and it was heading our way. That meant that our flight would certainly be cancelled, that we’d get money refunded or be rebooked and we’d get to spend a few more days here. Packing was put off, insurers spoken to. 

Now this evening it’s all change. We can fly. The ash cloud – no worse than yesterday – is suddenly safe to fly through. So our flight that wasn’t quite cancelled is operating again but we’re not quite sure when. Coaches are shipping stranded compatriots from Madrid to the Channel coast and hitherto angry middle-Englanders are being philosophical about being better safe than sorry. People are arriving back to hugs and tearful greetings with loved-ones after being trapped in Mallorca [yes, Mallorca] and the live coverage of the first flights to arrive at Heathrow for six days is being replayed on the news. The crisis is over and we move smoothly on to the post-match analysis and, of course, the recriminations.

We’re told this evening that the danger has diminished although it looks to me as if the danger was redefined. Gordon Brown was happy being filmed telling potential voters this morning that a hundred coaches were in Madrid ready to ship our people back. This evening he seemed a little more camera-shy about explaining the vacillation in Downing Street; it was left to a hapless Lord Adonis to take the heat. It seems that the danger posed by the airborne ash is its density in parts per million and only today our National Air Traffic Services [NATS] has been informed that the density is, well, not dense enough to worry about. A lot of people said as much last week, when I was out trying to photograph the ‘spectacular’ sunset that never happened. 

Nothing quite focuses us Brits as a crisis. And nothing defines a leader better than the way he [or she – remember Margaret Thatcher?] responds to it. Gordon Brown is probably not the chap you want in the big chair when invaders from Mars demand to be taken to our leader. But then again, who is? After sitting through the leaders’ debate last week and seeing the paucity of statesmanship on offer I am at a complete loss.

I’ve tried to find out if we’ve consumed more cups of tea over the past few days – you know, to get us through the crisis – but there seems to be a conspiracy to keep that information confidential. I bet that’s what kept Gordon’s mind off the ash cloud density.

Same place same time, gents…

What turns an acquaintance, I wonder, into a good friend. Is it the gradual discovery that you have something in common or that you share an interest? Perhaps it’s having a similar sense of humour or hearing political views that don’t leave you shaking your head in despair and amazement. Maybe it’s finding that you don’t disagree enough to get dyspeptic or bang your head against a wall. Whatever it is or wherever it comes from, it’s a jewel to be treasured in a world that is too-often superficial and where life-enriching values are increasingly transient.

Yesterday I spent the day in London with two guys that I’ve known since the late 1960s. And I’ve been doing that with them, more or less, every year since we met. Sometimes our group was larger – fondly-remembered interlopers have fallen by the wayside over the years – but the three of us, the core, stay in touch and spend time together year after year. It’s survived bombings, economic downturns, overseas postings, changes at home, changes at work and, of course, the passage of years. For each of us our meeting has become something of a marker for the years that have passed and, for me in particular, punctuation in a life that started as a junior in a design office through being a partner in my own practice to the wizened consultant [and blogger] of today.

Back at the time we met our coming together was precipitated by frequent lunchtime outings to a country pub called The White Lion, in Walkern, Hertfordshire.  Conversation between games of darts, lubricated by several pints of Greene King’s Abbot Ale and a certain amount of often less than charitable leg-pulling, was always fast, witty and wide-ranging. They were blokey lunches and very non-PC by today’s standards; quite different from the work ethic that I encouraged in my own offices in later years. But they were enjoyable, intellectual and, I guess with the benefit of hindsight, a little exclusive. It was clear that fate had brought together a group of people with not dissimilar backgrounds; all three of us are from London, possess a resonating sense of humour and are singularly opinionated. Moreover, whilst each was strongly individual and had his own specific interests, there was a commonality that we enjoyed and wanted to share; culture, art and a love of music. We all read and indulged ourselves in the richness and idiosyncrasies of life. Trouble was, work got in the way and there never seemed to be enough time to work through the points that increasing intoxication and decreasing articulation demanded.

A heaven-sent opportunity to address this presented itself when British Rail announced in 1972 that it would withdraw the Brighton Belle. This famous train had journeyed from Brighton to London Victoria and back as a first-class service since 1875, although it was only named Brighton Belle in 1934. Its breakfast kippers were famous and Sir Lawrence Olivier was foremost in protesting its demise. It was a perfect and very public-spirited excuse for us to travel to Brighton in solidarity with the protest at the train’s withdrawal and spend a day at the seaside. Our hitherto lunchtime session extended to a full day so that we had the time that lunch at The White Lion denied us. It was a magnificent day and we agreed on the return to London that a tradition should be born of it and so it was; we undertook the pilgrimage annually for more than two decades. The group sometimes took on a different complexion as some of us worked abroad, new colleagues were seduced by our enthusiasm or friends joined the periphery. Tales of what went on in the streets of Brighton, on the seafront, the pier, in restaurants and all those pubs [as well as other public facilities so generously provided by the burghers of Brighton] have passed into legend, to be raked over, reminisced about and enjoyed over and over.

We tend to meet now in London – yesterday it was Soho, last time Marylebone – or somewhere less central but on each occasion it’s the same; a few beers, maybe an exhibition, a good lunch and important, erudite discussion of art, music, literature, motor cars, people, politics [well, sometimes] and the rich tapestry of life. Just like it’s always been, there’s never enough time. As I sit writing this thoughts occur about something we didn’t finish, a subject that wasn’t exhausted or a point that I meant to bring up. And, despite what I said at the top, we don’t always agree with each other, we don’t always accept each other’s point of view and we exercise friendly sarcasm in a way that you only can with someone who has laughed with you and at you for all those years.

Now, with a lot more experience and a lot less hair between us, we look forward to meeting later in the year with the same enthusiasm as we did the next game of darts at Walkern all those years ago.

Night, night Barb

I always get a bit melancholy when someone I know passes on, no matter what the circumstances. It’s part of the circle of life, I know, but it serves to make the ticking of that eternal clock just a little louder. So it’s been very sad to have returned tonight from a weekend away and received news that Barb Dickson died yesterday morning in Folsom, California. She was Anna’s foster Mom when an exchange student back in the 70s and, although I only met her a couple of times, I’d grown fond of her. I’m glad that we spent time with her and Irv in California last summer and I’ll miss her.

Travel well, Barb.