Summer’s lease – what a state we’re in

Red kite inspecting us
Red kite inspecting us
Golden eagles over the garden
Golden eagles over the garden

I felt the first icy grip of winter this week as I was wandering along the River Blackwater. Although it was bright and clear the temperature resolutely refused to move into double figures and I found myself reflecting on the warm, sunny days that 2013’s record-breaking summer eventually brought us. I’ve been walking the coastal marshes since I was a boy and, for me, they evoke the very essence of winter. The skies, big over the maze of winding channels and muted colours, were filled with hundreds of Brent Geese and golden plover; ducks and godwits; avocets; egrets and huge flocks of waders, panicked into a cacophony of whirring wings and alarm calls by a peregrine falcon. As background, robins and Cetti’s warblers sang in the shrubs behind the sea wall. Put simply, it was a spectacular experience.

The Essex coast doesn’t feel very different from when I first experienced it – a little more developed, a few more people, less wild perhaps – but essentially much the same. Change, though, is inexorable and often only noticed when we pause and take stock. Experiencing the sight and sound of those thousands of wintering birds was exhilarating but were there as many golden plover or redshank that held me in awe on my first visit there? Were the dunlin or geese as numerous?

In Sweden we’re privileged in living above a valley where golden eagles nest so it’s not unusual to see them – frequently with red kites – wheeling in languorous circles high over the garden. Last year a decision was taken to reduce disturbance in the valley and a project to reinvigorate the disused railway was abandoned, allowing the start of improvements to the landscape that reversed unsympathetic drainage in the grazing meadows. It was a bonus for an area that already has a rich ecology. The environment gets a very fair shout in Sweden, perhaps because it has the fourth lowest density of population in Europe or perhaps because there is less pressure on the land than in England. Whatever the reason, we’re used to big birds of prey in the sky and the thought that they might not be there one day doesn’t register as a possibility.     

Not so in the UK, where my summer was disrupted in late May by the publication of a report called The State of Nature. It’s a sobering document and requires a philosophical frame of mind – or a large Scotch – to read. It comprises collected overviews of twenty-five British conservation bodies that together provide an outline of the changing status of habitat and species in the United Kingdom and its Overseas Territories. It reports on the dire status of some species and highlights some of the successes that conservation can achieve. The headline conclusion, though, is that the UK’s wildlife has suffered a serious decline and is continuing to do so at a very alarming rate.

Egrets on the Blackwater
Egrets on the Blackwater
Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater
Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater

Reading the report raises conflicting emotions; on one hand the loss of habitat and once-familiar animals and birds is depressing whereas on the other, the gains are uplifting. Targeted conservation meant that a wintering flock of around fifty avocets graced the Blackwater margins, a bird that was once extinct as a UK breeding species. In sharp contrast, the losses of recent years are widespread and extensive – butterflies down by 72%, 40 million birds lost and 80% of lowland heath gone or degraded. The statistics paint a very disheartening picture. I rarely see House Sparrows these days yet they were ubiquitous when I was younger; recently, hedgehogs have declined by nearly 50% and could become extinct in some areas of the UK. The story is similar across a broad spectrum and one fears for less iconic species of plant or insect that lack popular appeal.

The State of Nature is upbeat and provides scope for optimism but it left me with a feeling of how little individuals can do in the face of such massive and apparently continuous loss. Anything, of course, is always better than nothing even if an individual contribution appears as insignificant as signing a petition or joining a conservation organisation.

Only this month and after fifteen years’ management of a site that contributed toward maintaining a viable population of Cirl Buntings in southern England the area has been deliberately degraded at the behest of the local NHS Trust so as to facilitate a housing development. I’m aghast that it can happen – you can read about it here – and yet not entirely surprised when considering the attitude adopted by a weak and unprincipled government that acts in a manner suggesting it is both in hock to business and detached from the long-term implications of its own ineptitude. A report from Wildlife and Countryside Link – *Nature Check 2013 – has looked at how the government is matching up to its promise to be the ‘greenest government ever’, as set out in the Prime Minister’s speech in May 2010. If you’ve caught my drift thus far you’ll know what conclusions are drawn.Red Kite, Golden Eagle, 

Next summer – when I hope it’ll be just as sunny – I’ll be checking the sky in Sweden to see how many young eagles fledge in our valley; in England I anticipate that I’ll be writing another rant as yet another misguided example of the government’s expediency comes to light. 

*Read a synopsis of the report in the Huffington Post here or read the full report here.

Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013's record breaking summer
Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013’s record breaking summer
Brown hare enjoys the sunshine
Brown hare enjoys the sunshine



The grave risk of using common sense

If I had been asked to come down on one side or the other about the recent protest by public sector workers I would have said I was against it. It’s not that I believe our working class shouldn’t have a decent pension or that it’s alright for them to be exploited or that they shouldn’t have the right to strike. It’s just that I’m uncomfortable with people withdrawing labour as a means to getting what they want – especially when the adverse affects usually land in the lap of uninvolved innocents such as schoolkids, the less able or the put-upon travelling public. Now, I should be clear that I have great respect for a host of low-paid workers in health-care, the police and fire and rescue whose dedication is beyond question and I’m pleased that this is being recognised by the Government; I’m referring here to the vast majority who choose a life in the public sector because it provides cover from the cold winter winds and the pain of the real world. Working in the public sector lets a huge number of people cruise along without really having to own responsibility and, the crux of the matter, it provides them with a pretty good pension just for staying the course. And if you’re unaccountable you can’t be responsible, can you? But it’s that reward at the end – or the thought that it might be in danger after a career spent discussing initiatives or attending committee meetings – that was the sensitive nerve tweaked by union leaders to encourage the workers to rise up and reclaim the streets.

I can appreciate that the shock of being woken from your bureaucratic slumber to be told you have to increase your pension contribution and can’t retire as early as you’d planned is pretty unpalatable but although we saw lots of placards criticising the Government I didn’t see one that said ‘…and bring the 20% of salary you contribute to our pensions into line with 5% the private sector gets!’ No; for the most part people were on the streets because they wanted their benefits, not more personal responsibility for funding their golden years.

I’ve spent my working life in the private sector but that has often involved working for clients in the public sector. In doing so I’ve rubbed shoulders, so to speak, with a great many of our now-troubled public servants and understanding the mindset that I frequently encountered continues to elude me. Perhaps that’s because I’ve always found the culture of playing the long game whilst avoiding responsibility something of a contradiction. What it has done is left me with an impression that our public sector can be a closeted world where conclusions are drawn and decisions made in a manner that is at once self-justifying and mystifying. If the Government’s austerity measures have sent shock waves through this hitherto unaccountable and cosy world then I, for one, am pleased to see the process start.

I live in a pleasant and attractive part of England but just up the road we are experiencing the consequences of an eye-watering example of the kind of nonsensical thinking that seems to emerge from the collective mind of the public sector far too often. It involves Health and Safety but, regrettably, not much Common Sense. We’ve had an incident in the graveyard. Apparently, a lady who was attending a grave used a headstone to support herself as she stood up and it tipped over, hurting her leg. Not seriously or even badly, just enough for her to suffer some distress. Alarm bells rang at the Town Council offices and, I suspect, an emergency committee meeting will have been convened to decide on the appropriate response. The committee meeting, especially in its unscheduled, ad hoc emergency form, is the lifeblood of public service, where planned committee meetings fill your schedule and your life. Successful officers list the committees they’ve served on or chaired as proof that their career amounted to more than merely showing up every day. If you’ve ever attended one of these gatherings you’ll know that it would have started with a safety assessment covering the use of the chairs and tables or the flip-chart, perhaps even the window blinds if it was particularly sunny that day, together with a briefing that located fire escapes. Several people would have arrived late, clutching variously files, papers, plastic cups of tea or water bottles. [I’ve experienced meetings in a local authority where attendees arrived carrying cups of soup!] There would be many utterances of self-importance that said ‘I’m really too busy to attend this but I’m too important to not be here’. The chairman – this being the officer who is probably the only one in the room with the authority to actually make an executive decision and therefore ensure that any agreed action is actually implemented –  apologies for the limited time that he or she can give the meeting because there is a ‘ways and means’ committee to attend or, given the time of year, a ‘Christmas Lights’ meeting. So the discussion will probably have concluded leaderless after lengthy, unstructured deliberation.

Cynical, I know, but I’m certain that such a meeting took place and equally certain that it ran its erratic course because a decision was reached and it was acted upon. They didn’t close the graveyard; they didn’t post warning notices or fence off dangerous areas; they didn’t try to stop people leaning on headstones. Nope, the combined cerebral power of the gathering came up with this; push over the headstones before any fall on someone else. And here’s why I know there wasn’t a chairman in attendance at that point because that wasn’t all they decided. There was clearly a discussion about whether or not all the headstones were in danger of toppling over [there are more than a thousand in the churchyard] so a test was devised – a ‘topple test’ – to find out where the danger lay. It was decided that each headstone would be subjected to a 16Kg weight being pushed against it and those showing signs of tipping over would be helped on their way. A team was dispatched and, as I write this, over two hundred headstones have been pushed over. The Town Clerk, who may have been reclaiming the streets during the protests, found time to be quoted as saying, We had arranged to do this over the coming months but because of an incident that happened and the bad weather, we’re addressing it as a matter of urgency. It’s now a matter of priority for us to make sure that it is accident-free. We understand this is an extremely sensitive issue and may cause some distress to families. However, to ensure we comply with complex health and safety regulations, it is essential this action is taken’. Remember my mentioning responsibility above? It appears that no one can be identified who actually devised the ‘test’ so we don’t know why 16Kg [and not, say, 25Kg or maybe 5Kg] was selected and no one knows why so many headstones are suddenly in danger of being pushed over when flowers are laid against them. In another gem of local authority insight, however, the Town Clerk said that the headstones failing the test are not set as deeply in the ground as the ones that pass the test. He gave that a lot of thought, didn’t he?

I’m past the point where I think too deeply about how these imbeciles spend our council tax as it keeps me awake at night but the local press have asked how much this nonsense will cost. Ah, the Council doesn’t know but we, the taxpayers they serve, shouldn’t worry – the cost of rectifying headstones that have been pushed over but which might not have fallen of their own accord for the next fifty years will be passed on to the bereaved families. And if they don’t pay up the headstones will stay on the ground. Cue further stories about elderly, impecunious widows and graves with no surviving family members.

Just as an aside, our local authority used part of an increase in the council tax a few years back to fill a gap in their pension fund. Now, let’s reclaim the streets!

Bye-bye AV; back to business as usual

I had hoped to see a little more support for a ‘yes’ in the referendum on AV and with it, by implication, a glimmer of hope that election of our representatives would more accurately reflect opinion across a constituency. The expected result disappointed me but, truth be told, I wasn’t in the least surprised by the overwhelming kick in the nuts that our increasingly apathetic and bamboozled electorate delivered. The AV proposal on offer certainly wasn’t the best solution but it would, if nothing else, have unsettled the many politicians who see a seat at Westminster as a personal opportunity and not an obligation. It wasn’t to be and the possibilities of electoral reform being raised again in meaningful debate are too far into the future to contemplate.

Of all the constituencies in UK only ten out of about 500 delivered ‘yes’ votes [and of those only Cambridge is held by the Liberal Democrats] yet everyone I spoke to about AV seemed to have no idea how it would work, why it was being proposed and what the consequences of its being adopted would be. So what were people voting for or against? Of course, a clear, sophisticated and political ‘no’ campaign, supported by an increasingly well-liked Prime Minister, provided gentle guidance even if it was a little disingenuous. But then, you’d expect that, wouldn’t you? Well, if you were advocating AV it would seem not; the ‘yes’ campaign, bespattered as it was with celebrities, seemed naïve, unclear and, eventually, whining. I heard more about how unfair the Conservatives were than about how AV was the important first step on the road to proportional representation. That old duffer Vince Cable has now described the Conservatives as ‘ruthless, calculating and thoroughly tribal’. Er, yes – perhaps realising that some while ago would have given your campaign more impetus, dummy. He has gone on to say that ‘you have to be businesslike and professional and you have to work with people who aren’t your natural bedfellows and that is being grown-up in politics’. Quite – so how dumb was Nick Clegg to describe the proposal as a ‘miserable little compromise’ at the start of the campaign? Badly wounded, he now appears less than capable as a senior politician and out of his depth, so one wonders, with this significant concession of the coalition behind him, whether his firmly held pre-election ideals can be transformed into political influence.

As for me, knowing that my MP’s safe seat is even safer, I’ll be checking to see if he’s using his secretarial allowance to resurface his driveway during this parliament.

This just in; Princess kisses frog

The Swedish King’s daughter married Daniel Westling in Stockholm yesterday. Daniel’s a pretty normal sort of bloke and has a pretty normal sort of background; you’d describe him as a ‘commoner’ in this context. Crown Princess Victoria’s wedding was an eagerly-awaited occasion after an eight-year courtship that was formalised with the announcement of a wedding in February last year. Sveriges Television [SVT], the Swedish version of the BBC, provided an excellent live webcast so Mission Control was able to indulge herself in the events of the day, which started with interviews of middle-aged ladies on deckchairs in a sunny Nybroplan and finished with a fairytale waltz in the Drottningholm Palace. By that time, yours truly was fairytaled-out and seeking solace in a glass of J&B but I saw enough to have been pretty impressed with both the sensitivity and restraint that had been shown in what might be one of the last big royal weddings we see in the civilised world.

The wedding took place after an opinion poll in April when Swedes were asked if they saw merit in maintaining a constitutional monarchy. Well, the outcome was something of a goalless draw with about half wanting to keep it and half wanting a republic. Around 28% wanted it abolished altogether, which is of increasing significance in the long-term – if they can come up with a palatable alternative. Mind you, knowing Sweden as I do I’d need a clearer definition of what the Swedes perceive as a republic in a country where there is still a statute obliging you to report a neighbour to the authorities if you think he is living beyond his means. At the moment it’s a bit like Communism with Tesco. But the public interest and widespread enthusiasm made it clear that the Royals in Sweden still engender a fair amount of respect and a lot of affection; a reported throng of half-a-million turned up to cheer and wave the blue and yellow flags yesterday.

There was less respect shown by the Sunday Times this morning. Gracious enough to report the event they headlined the front-page picture with a caption describing the groom as a gym coach. This was supercilious and dismissive in the worst of English tradition as the guy has built personal training into a successful business and holds several board positions. King Carl XVI Gustaf, showing a great deal more perception and magnanimity than the sneering ST, made it clear in his wedding speech that his daughters’ happiness – Victoria’s sister is Madeleine – was paramount and that they should remain free to choose their life-partners without being burdened by the shackles of tradition and protocol. After all, look what that did for Prince Charles.

Sweden changed with the Constitution Act 1974 when it reduced the Monarch’s power to ‘rule the country alone’ and provided that ‘All public power in Sweden derives from the People’. The Swedish Republican Association wants rid of the monarchy altogether even though its diminishing power has been further eroded by virtue of having a popular and egalitarian female heir to the throne who is ‘normal’ and now married to a lowly gym coach. She’s much liked and respected for it and, through being less aloof and separate from the proletariat, moves Sweden further away from the governing structure that the Republicans find so distasteful.

As is so often the case, the interesting aspect is that a Princess has demonstrated that she has more vision and perspicacity than the Republicans who want to remove her. As they say on their forum ‘All state functions answers to democratic legislations’[sic], which sounds like good news for Sweden, the state-control of alcohol, maternity leave for men and, er, Tesco.

As for me, they seem a blissfully happy couple; I wish them a long, happy and healthy life with not too much trouble from the comrades.

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’.

La Serenissima beckons

So what do you do when it all gets too much? I’m going to clear off to Venice for a few days – a place that never disappoints and where ancient brickwork has proved more enduring than the grand promises of quite a few governments.

I spent last evening reliving the excitement of my youth and made it through to 3.30am before fatigue and an overdose of expert analysis got the better of me. The single malt was of course still as good and I enjoyed the feeling of immediacy that the live updates brought but the excitement waned quickly. I was disappointed for the Lib Dems, but in truth, not surprised that the fair words of Nick Clegg didn’t magic up seats at Westminster. In the end we didn’t get the change that each of the leaders confidently told us we wanted and that they would bring; we just got dull anticlimax after the possibilities raised by the sudden elevation of a Third Force. My incumbent – he of the taxpayer-funded manicured lawns and pristine driveway – was returned with an increased majority so clearly the general populace doesn’t feel as strongly as I do about how the next government will appropriate an increase in VAT.

As the talking heads were wheeled on during the interminable gaps between the declarations of the early results I felt the need for the statesmen, personalities and characters that made previous elections so compelling. I felt a little short-changed and never more so than when Sky’s pretty correspondent opened the continuity from Luton with the memorable line ‘Luton; famous for its airport.’ If nothing else that put the election into context.

I’m old enough to remember 1974 when Edward Heath failed to win an overall majority and went on to resign after negotiations with Jeremy Thorpe, who was then leader of the Lib Dems, came to nothing. It was the end of the world, politically speaking, for Heath and Gordon Brown had that look about him today when he addressed the media in Downing Street. I hope that he is philosophical in defeat – after all, he is an unelected leader and in all fairness has been on borrowed time for a while. Now we have to wait while the desperate struggle for power – poorly disguised as conscientious and serious-minded men doing ‘what’s right for the Country’ – is slugged out behind closed doors. The last time this happened, in 1974 when Harold Wilson formed a minority government after Heath resigned, we were back at the polls in eight months. Spare me, please.

So Italy, the cuisine of the Veneto and the ever-romantic Venice beckon.

Ciao bella!

Vote for me at your peril – finally

Well, it’s make your mind up time; we vote today and I can’t say that I’ve reached any sort of conclusion. We’re about past the novelty of having the Liberal Democrats soaring above the moral high ground and the polls have settled. The euphoria of ‘yes, these guys really are saying something new’ has gone and, typically, we are at the ‘hmm, do I really want to change things that much?’ stage. The Lib Dems are mostly shown in third place now, albeit with a greatly increased share of the popular vote, but very close on the heels of Labour. So now we’re faced with an unpalatable situation where their soaring popularity appears to have taken a significant amount of the ‘where do I place my vote’ electorate – the floaters – and spread them like cheap marmalade across the political front. This has left the analysts warning us that a hung parliament is almost a certainty. Well, one thing about politics is that nothing is certain but, based on the number of seats each party will win according to the latest polls, neither Conservatives nor Labour will have an overall majority. Both will need the Lib Dems or the other minor parties to turn any policy into legislation.

That eventuality will leave us with the possible nightmare scenario of Labour being patched up with a motley crew of minority groups and Gordon Brown being Prime Minister again tomorrow. Perish the thought of that fake smile on the front of The Times. A coalition will, of course, represent the change that everyone has talked about but will it be a change for the better? Our last coalition government was formed in 1931 and steered us through the effects of the Depression and the Second World War. People didn’t want change then, they wanted leadership and as soon as the war was over politics went back to normal. This time around we want change, but we want it because we’re all fed-up to the back teeth with the untalented and dishonourable shower that represent us today. Things aren’t quite as bad as they were in 1931 although some bankers may not agree with me when they receive their bonus cheques.

I remember when, as a young lad with an awakening interest in politics, I sat up all night eagerly watching the declaration of results in obscure constituencies during a general election. Loose-tied and bug-eyed candidates making ‘thank-you’ speeches in front of a few dishevelled party faithful at 4.40am was fascinating then. It was a long haul that gradually lost its interest over the years but that was a lot to do with my growing cynicism with politicians. As I became older Election night became more bearable for me with support from an excellent single malt and, in the Middle East, an election breakfast next morning with champagne, eggs, bacon, tomatoes and baked beans. Tonight the events will be broadcast live in High Definition for the first time but, if I were a gambling man, I wouldn’t bet on it being very different. Older and wiser now, I won’t lose a lot of sleep over it. I would, however, like to be a fly on the wall when David Cameron or Gordon Brown call Nick Clegg and start the process of thrashing out how they can keep the gravy train moving with the extra weight of the Lib Dem contingent in the rear carriage.