Category Archives: society
On Catching Up
I don’t tend to follow the news much on holiday. Anyway, while I was away and since I got back to the UK, various things have happened.
To take a few. The Bank of England has cut base rates from almost nothing to a bit
less. This means our pensions, which were unaffordable, are now
slightly more unaffordable.
The Government has this summer decided, as a consequence of a vote the
result of which the majority of the country now regrets, that any
attempt to bring the country’s finances into balance is no longer
worth attempting. See the above, re pensions.
A hospital in Grantham is no longer offering a 24 hour A&E service. Not, not enough money, but not enough doctors, however much we are prepared to pay them.
Spending on the NHS is rising by 1 per cent a year. The amount that
needs to be spent, because of our ageing population and our refusal to
stop eating ourselves to death, is rising by 3 per cent plus. This is
going to end how?
A review of the banking system which has run for several years has
come to the conclusion that there is nothing much wrong with the banking
system. The man responsible was on R4 Today defending this conclusion.
Not terribly well.
Nothing that has happened over the past decade would lead one to the
conclusion that there is anything wrong with the banking system,
The Government has decided to delay the decision to build new
electricity capacity that will be desperately needed in half a decade because it
is always easier to delay a decision than to take one. As it happens,
I think that new Hinkley Point plant is the wrong solution to that
problem. But to solve it, we have to decide to do something. Not
This means the lights will start to go out about when the country runs
out of money and the pensions of people now nearing retirement prove to be inadequate. That will make for an interesting couple of months, won’t it?
Oh, and staff on Eurostar are going on strike over the Bank Holiday, thereby
screwing up any number of people’s summer holidays. Their reason? With no sense of discernible irony, they are unhappy about their work/life balance.
Abroad Thoughts From Home
Whenever I visit another capital city, be it Paris, Rome, wherever,
there is always a few hours when I get the feeling that something is
different. Something is strange.
Then you realise what it is. It is a normal working day, people are
going about their business. And there are not four or five people
within 18 inches of your face.
It is not normal, you know, this insane overcrowding we put up with in
London. Every single square foot of land built on, and costing an
obscene amount to buy or rent.
Every single piece of public transport full to capacity, and then
some. People queuing to queue to get on. Whole stations shut down
because the crowds are a threat to your safety.
Almost everyone goes around plugged into some device or other, to wall
off the sheer awfulness of what is going on around them.
No one else lives like this, in Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin or Rome, from
where we have just returned. You see very few people plugged into
their private space, because their surroundings are quite bearable.
This is the second thing you notice.
This is not normal, the way we live, but we have lived this way for so
long that we no longer realise this. Distance brings perspective.
On The NHS
At the start of this week we had a serious medical crisis within the family. A family member was badly ill, and having soldiered through the weekend was plainly in desperate need of a doctor.
We rang the surgery on Monday morning. We were told that someone would call us back in a couple of hours to let us know if we could have an appointment that day. Note if, not when. I know from earlier experience with the surgery, a fairly new and large one, that there was every chance that no appointment would be forthcoming. That was my experience in an earlier medical emergency.
We had three choices. One, wait for that appointment, and accept it might not be available, in which case we would be in serious trouble because the need was urgent.
Two, go to our local A&E. This is something you are constantly being told not to do, because you are tying up essential services for a matter that can be dealt with by your GP. Except that there was every chance that in this case it couldn’t.
Three, pay for a private doctor. This was what happened to me last time – I had to wait for a day, pay for an optician’s appointment and be told to go straight to Moorfields A&E. Something which my GP should have diagnosed free of charge.
We paid for a private appointment, and were issued with the penicillin that was plainly badly needed. We can afford it – others cannot. They have to wait, in great suffering, in some cases, until the doctor is able to see them. And in some cases at a risk to their lives.
Yes, I appreciate that “resources” within the NHS are limited. But this is not even in mid-winter, when flu, etc, is rife. The next time someone comes on the Radio 4 Today programme to warn about the “creeping privatisation” of the NHS, bear in mind that it is already happening.
Free at the point of delivery?
On The Purpose Of Money
“The man who dies rich, dies disgraced.” Andrew Carnegie, US robber baron and philanthropist.
“Oh my friend, why do you… care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honour and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this?” Socrates, ancient Greek philosopher.
Let us suppose, as a pure thought experiment, that you have £3,000 in your bank account. The mortgage is paid, the grocery bills are met. You have no real pressing need of the money, and plenty more is coming in. You have the option of paying £500 to a good cause, which would be a moral and decent act benefiting those much worse off than you.
If you do not, you stand to be reviled and hated by all. What else is money for but to ease your way through life and make your relationships with those around you better? No pockets in shrouds.
I know Philip Green, whose finances are pretty much as above, if you multiply them by a million. I have had the chilling experience of taking a call at about 9.30 in the morning, when a female voice says: “I have Sir Philip Green on the line.” He does not often ring you to compliment you on something you have just written.
I know that the one thing that would distress him above all else, aside from the loss of that £3 billion that is his net worth which isn’t going to happen, or the loss of one of his three yachts, ditto, is the stripping from him of his knighthood, which he believes he has earned for services to the high street. I know nothing of his faith, if he has one, or his personal morality. He gives a lot to charity. He is not keen on paying tax.
I knew him in the early 1990s, when he ran Amber Day, a quoted company, and was perforce required to interact with journalists like me. It was not a mutually agreeable relationship.
I just think that if it were me then I would part with £500 million of my £3 billion personal fortune to pay off the BHS pension deficit and see those pensioners all right, and regard it as a price worth paying for my rehabilitation into society. It is too late to do anything for those 11,000 employees who have lost their jobs, and frankly, that was not of Green’s doing. As I say, what else is money for, if not to make your life better? Perhaps it will happen.
I started this blog almost three years ago, at a time of some personal conflict, in an attempt to make sense of the manners and morality of the business world on which I write elsewhere. The blog may have wandered off into other, more arcane areas, but that central question remains. When is enough finally enough? What is money for?
On Demographics, And Brexit
Here is an interesting fact to throw into the whole Brexit debate. Last year, for the first time ever, more people died in the EU than were born. The population of the EU, about 740 million, shrunk by 135,000, if you take out the effects of migration.
Of the biggest countries, only France and the UK saw a natural increase. Germany shrunk at a faster rate than any other country. To cut the figures another way, if the UK, and its natural increase in numbers, was excluded, that total fall of 135,000 would have more than doubled. The EU is running out of people, as are other advanced economies such as Japan. We in the UK are merely better off than most.
Obviously, migration makes up the difference, and then some. But a shrinking population, which is by definition an ageing one, is bad news for all of us. Which is why we are having to import so many economically active younger people.
Those Brexiteers who want that inwards migration to cease will have to face up to an inconvenient truth. If you are not prepared to allow people into the country to do the needed work, you are going to have to do it yourself. Which means a later retirement date.
Given that those voting for Out were, proportionately, older than those voting In, I wonder if they appreciated just what they were voting for, a longer working life. I rather think not. The Law of Unintended Consequences again, then.
On Southern Trains, And Brexit
Odd how unconnected ideas sometimes come together. We were travelling on Southern rail over the weekend. This is officially the worst rail franchise in the country, the operator having been given permission to scrap hundreds of services a day because there are not enough staff to man them – or because the staff are constantly pulling sickies as a form of industrial action. Depending on who you believe.
There is a long-running dispute with the union over removing the guards from the trains. You can wave to the new rolling stock all ready and standing at Three Bridges as you go past, assuming you can get onto the train in the first place.
Our train out was, needless to say, cancelled. We were told to change at Brighton – except that we were not allowed to use the next train there. Against the rules. Wait for the next one. More delay. It is fair to describe the attitude of Southern staff as unhelpful. This has been a long running scandal, with passengers stranded for hours day after day.
Go to the information desk to ask what you do now, and there are two policeman standing there ostentatiously. They are there to prevent trouble – there have been ugly scenes, demos, one man was recently escorted from Victoria Station, itself a warren of temporary barriers put up to combat the persistent overcrowding.
People are understandably angry. Lives are disrupted, for months on end now. The fares are enormous, and the recent change to the timetable is designed to prevent them from claiming refunds. We have the forces of law and order standing by to prevent protests getting out of hand, because those customers have no levers they can pull, no power to compel those who run the service to do so properly.
It is that sense of powerlessness, the sense that there is nothing people can do to change a system which is weighted in favour of those who sit in offices somewhere out of their reach and control their lives, which led to the recent regrettable referendum vote. People who feel they have no power will do anything.
Abusing disgruntled Southern staff is not the solution, but it is all they can do. Most of us have felt like that at some time or another. Equally pointless is a vote to leave an economic union they may barely understand, whose consequences are unknowable and probably self-destructive.
On Brexit, And Inchoate Rage
I was in Cambridge over the weekend, to see Daughter graduate. (A high 2.1, since you ask.) As the vice chancellor of her college said to her and her fellow graduates, you are clever and self-confident young women. Now go out and take your places in the world.
What world? Cambridge is like London writ small. Prosperous, with plenty of job opportunities for the young, in vibrant local industries in IT and biotech, at the thousands of small and growing businesses that have sprung up out of academe over the past four decades. With high house prices and choked infrastructure as a consequence.
Those leaflets still in the window said Remain. Cambridge, along with Oxford, Bristol, London and other areas that are doing well out of globalisation, all voted In. Those who voted Out mainly live in the other Britain, the one we don’t visit, the one we only talk about with hand-wringing desperation.
The faded seaside towns, the ports where the fishing fleet has long given up the ghost. The post-industrial wastelands, the agricultural areas where the locals are priced out of the only jobs around by immigrants prepared to work in conditions and for wages they would not tolerate. It’s all very well telling people to take whatever work is available, but there is a point where the dole is more attractive than trying to compete with the truly desperate.
These are the ones who voted for Brexit and will bear the brunt of whatever fall-out results from it – even if at a City lunch I was at today many believed, as I do, that for purely practical reasons we will never actually quit the EU. If I had one concern over voting Remain, it was the effects of uncontrolled immigration on those at the bottom of the heap.
They voted out of an inchoate fury that had little to do with the facts of EU membership – not that they heard much of these from either side of the argument. That fury was forged from seeing chief executives earning the equivalent of a lottery win each year telling them how to vote – those same chief executives, in many cases, who were enriching themselves from cheap immigrant labour. From an understandable fury at where they are and the non-place they are going, and an elite that might as well be living in another country.
That anger is not going away. We are now, just as surely as America with its fly-over states that the haves do not visit, two Britains, the Britain of Cambridge and London and the Britain of that inchoate fury and hopelessness. You and I live in another country now.
There is a perfectly simple way out of this morass, as suggested by the Labour MP David Lammy and others. Parliament merely refuses to vote through the measures needed for the UK to leave the EU.
The way our constitution works, and I channel here Edmund Burke et al, is that Parliament is paramount. Any piece of legislation passed today can be annulled tomorrow. Parliament cannot bind its successors, as I was repeatedly told when I studied the subject.
The referendum was a glorified, and very expensive, opinion poll. It has no legal status. The majority of MPs want to stay in the EU, and are entitled to vote thus. It is called a representative democracy.
If we had a democracy where MPs were required to back every single strand of public opinion, as expressed as a majority in opinion polls, we would still have hanging. To be strictly analytical, we would have hanging on the day after a particularly horrible murder of a child or a policeman or policewoman, and then not the next day. No way to run a country.
If MPs refuse to vote through Brexit, they have to go to their constituents, in those cases where there is a majority for Out, at the next election and face the consequences. It is called voting according to your conscience. Let us hope they are up to the challenge.
(Worth it to see the expression on Nigel Farage’s face, at the least.)
It is time for US to take back OUR country.
On The IRA, And Jihadis
As someone who remembers the Troubles in Northern Ireland that started in the late 1960s, I am beginning to see some horrible parallels with the jihadist attacks in Paris, Brussels and elsewhere.
A history lesson. During the Troubles cities like Londonderry and Belfast had substantial areas where the majority of the population were disaffected Catholics, with some genuine reason to hold grievances. These were pretty much no-go areas for police and security forces except if entered in force.
A minority of that Catholic population were active supporters of the IRA and other terrorist organisations. The majority were sufficiently alienated that they were not much inclined to help the security forces.
This meant the IRA et al were able to operate there, collecting funds, using safe houses and storing weapons.
This is exactly the situation in Molenbeek in Brussels, in some banlieues in Paris and, to a much lesser degree, in parts of the UK that have produced their own home grown jihadis. That Paris bomber who was shot in the leg and captured the other day, Salah Abdeslam, was almost certainly caught after a rare tip-off to police. He had been living, unhindered, in Molenbeek for several months.
You have a large, disaffected religious minority. You have a minority within them, and the opinion polls bear this out, who support the extremists. You have virtual no-go areas. You have terrorists able to hide among that community. The parallels are obvious.
There are three differences, all of them negatives, in my view. One, the IRA did not set out to kill indiscriminately. Two, some of those genuine grievances could be addressed.
This meant that, after the IRA was worn down by decades of attritional military action, a settlement could be reached with the Catholics to give them a greater say in civil society. The Good Friday Agreement 18 years ago.
There is still the odd idiot out there that thinks we can reach agreement with the jihadis/Isis, but I imagine their number is shrinking with each atrocity. As to wearing the jihadis down, I don’t see how, given their nihilistic mindset.
Three, and this is a long way off but the clock is ticking, the jihadis/Isis have potential access to weapons of mass destruction, and will use them.
All this suggests we face decades of terrorist action, along the lines of the IRA struggle but much, much worse. Rather than a bomb here and a murder there, we face decades of events like those in Brussels and Paris, and 7/7. On a regular basis. It is too easy to achieve, given all the above and the seemingly endless supply of jihadis.
What can be done? The jihadis cannot be beaten in a military/security context without an abandonment of their (and our) civil rights – imprisonment without trial for all sympathisers, mass deportations, worse – that is unacceptable today to the majority of the population.
How many civilian deaths will there have to be before this becomes acceptable? And do we even want this to happen?
Have a nice day.