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Saturday, 19 January 2013

The 'S' word

Poor Christopher Chope. Describing the House of Commons restaurant, what he should have said was "The service was absolutely fantastic because there was three-to-one service – three servers for each person sitting down.". No-one would have noticed, and his comment would have disappeared in the detritus of a day's verbiage in the chamber. Instead, the silly chump used the 'S' word and so has drawn the wrath of the nation about his head; instead of servers he said servants. He was, of course, grammatically correct, and not to say clear that his meal was served by real people and not storage computers.

Company law used to refer to a firm's 'officers and servants' - officers being those who held office in the company, such as the secretary and directors, and servants being those who were merely employed, at however senior a level. But there's a delicacy about the word 'servant'. Instead of simply meaning one who serves, a quite noble and commendable role, it's come to carry connotations of inferiority. That the Pope himself is described as 'the servant of the servants of God' without the slightest hint of inferiority, and that some of those grown to amongst the wealthiest in the realm at the public tit don't object to being called 'civil servants' means not a jot - to use the word servant in 2013 is akin to talking of 'niggers'. Ancestry trackers will refer delicately to a relative having been 'in service' rather than use the 'S' word, and I'll bet Julian Fellowes uses the term 'staff' throughout in Downton rather than the plural of the banned word. 

Indeed, even those 'in service' could not be warranted to be docile, submissive and obedient. The 1870 edition of Baedeker's offers German, French and Italian translations of the phrase 'Are the postilions insolent?', the hazards of an insolent postilion clearly being significant amongst travel risks for the nineteenth century explorer. Or perhaps it was just postilions - there are apocryphal versions of Baedeker translations for 'My postilion has been thrown / eaten by wolves / struck by lightning' so perhaps a certain insolence did deservedly accompany a job that carried such risks. 

It was good to see Dambusters back on the screens over Christmas in the original, un-bowdlerised version. And all without a peep from Mancunian 'Community media worker' Ally Fogg, who makes such a jejune fuss in the article linked above over Chope's words. Let's hope that we can reclaim 'servant' too at some stage.   

Friday, 18 January 2013

Being Britain

Cameron's dire warning on the fate of the British hostages in Algeria hints at intelligence of gruesome acts. Before long, fuzzy footage of a middle-aged refrigeration technician from Bromley having his head sawn-off with a bread knife will appear on Youtube. Already the papers are linking such acts to our loan of C17 aircraft to the French. Do they seriously imagine that had we not done so, our expats would have been immune from violence? No. Part of Being Britain is that our citizens abroad are at constant risk from every anti-colonialist nutter, hash-fuelled arab or Marxist indoctrinated African looking for a target for their violence. And every time some porridge-brained bishop, vote-hustling politician, intellectually vacant minister or mendacious academic gets on their hind legs to 'apologise' for Britain's past role in the world they add another tiny bit of 'justification' for targeting Brits and make life just a fraction more dangerous for all our expats. 

The Algerians have their own 300-strong special forces, the Groupe d'Intervention Spécial, GIS, that since 1987 have spearheaded the fight against Islamic terrorism. Their training apparently takes much from the Russian Spetsnaz. If so, the tactics will have been a massive immediate concerted assault with any hostages surviving the action a bonus - exactly as the Russians have dealt with many Chechen terrorist hostage situations. It's not an inferior approach to that of our own special forces, just based on a different premise. Their approach says "the lives of hostages mean little to us. Destroying you is more important". It's calculated in the long term to make hostage-taking a less rewarding option. 

So Brits living and working in nations such as Algeria are running a double jeopardy; not only won't the hostage takers value them highly, but neither will the government. Just part of Being British.  

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Democracy always - right or wrong

Dan Hannan writes in the Mail, imagining an alternative Cameron speech to the Dutch:
Sadly, but predictably, the EU swatted aside your referendum result and imposed the treaty anyway. Which, in microcosm, is Europe’s tragedy. Closer integration is thought to matter more than either what the rules say or what the voters ask for. That attitude has turned a majority of British people against the EU. While we want trade and co-operation with our neighbours, we don’t want to be part of a European state that keeps extending its powers.
It has long been known that groups make better decisions than individuals - who hasn't at some time prioritised a list of survival aids, at first individually and then in a group?* - and the average of all the guesses at a pig's weight will be closer to the reality than any individual guess. This has never prevented zealous politicians from bucking public opinion. Generally when either (a) they think they can get away with it or (b) their estimated personal gain outweighs their personal loss. For Blair, being regarded as a statesman with cojones by George Bush was more important than the ridicule, disbelief and opprobrium of those of us who marched ten years ago, on 15th February 2003. 

And so with the Euphiles. And I mean Euphiles. I myself am a Europhile - I love Europe. I love its peoples, its culture, its food, its architecture, its common heritage, its cultural diversity, its trains, its art, music and drama, its literature and poetry, its history and the richness of its land. It's just the EU I loathe. And I loathe it for just the reason Hannan has outlined - that Euphile zealots are not only deaf to democracy, they fear and abhor it. But there is an additional dimension here, for not only do they imagine like Blair that a fully federal Europe will benefit them personally, they believe with all the strength of an asylum of Scientologists that everyone will benefit - if they just surrender these notions of democracy. 

Slavoj Žižek is amongst a growing number of London-based Euro academics given column space in the Guardian to warn against Euphilia. Yesterday he warned of the existential threat to European democracy posed by the federasts. Not only are they dangerously mistaken as to the course to follow for European prosperity, their actions are making things far worse. 

And indeed there are many unknowns as to the various outcomes of tighter or looser integration, of a two-tier Europe, of a British exit, of a new Mitteleuropa. It may prove that democratic decisions don't always get it right on narrow measures - but they will get it a lot more right overall than the alternative. Whether right or wrong, democracy is always right.  

* sadly, the results of this game much favoured by management consultants are often buggered when the group contains one or more who have either done their sea survival course or have served in HM armed forces

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Meat, fruit and veg

CityUnslicker over at C@W ponders the HMV closedown and the future of the High Street; Simon Heffer in the Mail fails to buy a single thing from John Lewis, and even the Guardian punts for a High Street of 'socially responsible niche service providers such as child care and coffee shops'. The political spectrum is united, it seems, in a desire to preserve the vitality and feasibility of our High Streets. We've lost Woolworths, Jessops, HMV, Comet, Clinton Cards and Borders and surely, one ponders, WH Smiths and Boots can't be far behind. Meanwhile, Tesco has become an unwitting Boucherie Chevaline and punters will mourn the withdrawal of the tastiest of its range of burgers (29% Cheval). Never mind; nearly all proper continental salamis and sausages contain horse. That's why they taste better than Mattessons' products. 

As an early-adopter, the first thing I found about online-ordered groceries was never to order fresh fish, meat, fruit or veg. The packer will always pick the oldest or most unattractive stock. So I came to use the online order for beer and mineral water, tins, packets, jars and utterly homogenous packed products. For everything else, I make the choice personally. It works very well. I suspect many others do the same, and so here is an area of retail that has half a chance on the High Street.

The other massive deficiency is deliveries. Many folk who order on the web work during the day. So when are their systems geared to make deliveries? During the day, of course. So on every Saturday morning tens of thousands of customers head to parcel depots on obscure industrial estates to retrieve their goods. It's really not an efficient system. If they could find a way to deliver goods to within the last 250m they'd be onto a winner; a High Street shop as a parcel collection point, open to 10pm, would fill another void.  

As others have pointed out, the retail chains now in such trouble were largely just mechanisms for passing shoppers' cash to property investors. Rents and rates for retail premises must fall, as will the value of High Street portfolios. Tough.  

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

1913: The Road to War

The government's official planned commemoration of the Great War has been criticised on a number of levels, not least of which is the extent to which the official interpretation avoids any negative mention of Germany's role in igniting the conflict. Robert Hardman in the Mail, a jingoist in full Horatio Bottomley mode, suggests we should upset the Germans by reminding them of their war crimes. This, I think, completely misses the point. No nation has clean hands in war, but only the losers get tried. The truth is rather more complex. Franz Ferdinand's assassination did not cause the Great War, but was 'the gift from Mars' that provided the pretext. 

In January 1914 Germany wanted a European war and was militarily ready for one. Russian military expansion in the first decade of the twentieth century had been spectacular and was estimated to reach parity with Germany by 1917; Germany was terrified of trade barriers and tariffs that would restrict her own expansion, particularly if imposed by Britain, France and Russia. Just prior to the war the first version of the EU was proposed, a vast tariff-free area uniting the Hapsburg empire, the Balkans, Germany, Italy and Belgium - and indeed this Mitteleuropa was to feature explicitly in German war aims. Supported by German business, and in particular by Germany's cleverest businessman, Walter Rathenau, Bethmann Hollweg maintained that this would be the outcome of a short, sharp 'preventative' war lasting perhaps only weeks. 

The major barrier to war throughout Europe had been seen as the opposition to it by the proletariat and the social democratic parties across the continent. No nation wanted to commit to a war that would cause a domestic revolution. By 1914 this had all changed. Across Europe the working classes clamoured for war; in Britain, far from opposing conscription, the entire working class volunteered for war - and nowhere was more jingoistic than the Rhondda. In every European nation it was the same, with volunteers overwhelming the resources available to clothe, feed and equip them. 

These pressures alone - of intense nationalism, of trade war, of colonial supremacy, of the arms race, of fear of falling behind - were dangerous enough, making Europe a powder keg. One nation was pivotal in being in a position to prevent global war - Prussian Germany. I'll save for a subsequent post how she not only failed to do so, but covertly encouraged all the measures to ensure it happened. Including the extraordinary sensitivity inside Germany to this fact, with Norman Stone's account of the subsequent cover-ups.

Monday, 14 January 2013

No, Prime Minister

The welcome re-run on Dave of the original TV series Yes Prime Minister featuring Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne still retains a degree of essential truth; update the manners and the sets with The Thick of It and I think you have a fair simulacrum of the relationship between mandarins and ministers. 

Back in 2010 the incoming government's potential difficulties with the top ranks of the civil service were highlighted; mandarins, new ministers were told, spent a third of their time and departmental resources working for Europe, a third pursuing their own agenda and only a third on the government's manifesto. It should be added that nowadays many of them are also interested in more than the eventual (mostly undeserved) KCMG, KCB or KBE that comes with the rations, a modest pension and a quiet retirement; either, like Hayden Phillips or Christopher Kelly, they want to play at politics themselves, or they're after a well rewarded seat on the board of a private sector firm where they can sell the privileged experience bought at public expense. 

Northcote-Trevelyan defined the duty of the mandarins thus:
It may safely be asserted that, as matters now stand, the Government of the country could not be carried on without the aid of an efficient body of permanent officers, occupying a position duly subordinate to that of the Ministers who are directly responsible to the Crown and to Parliament, yet possessing sufficient independence, character, ability and experience to be able to advise, assist and, to some extent, influence those who are from time to time set over them.
And so Northcote-Trevelyan put in place a system to recruit Britain's best and brightest, a pure meritocracy, to mandarin-grade posts. The minister with a 2:2 in media studies from Hull would thereby have on hand a Sir Humphrey with an Oxford double first and the business of government would thereby be enhanced. Or it would be if the mandarin-grade staff remained truly impartial. And if they once were, they've ceased to be so. A recruitment system geared at employing 'people like us' together with a forced social-democratic system of equalities of outcome, and the operation of sinister 'clubs' such as Common Purpose, have produced a mandarinate with a homogeneity of outlook, convinced in their righteousness, who feel quite justified in openly challenging the wishes of ministers. 

Committed to a big, central State and to Whitehall's control over all the levers of governance, they have robbed local government of independence, stifled democracy, fatally wounded the parties and would seek (Phillips and Kelly) to establish permanent publically funded 'parties of State'  to provide the illusion of democracy whilst they govern. 

The Times (£) is openly reporting the frustration of ministers in named departments. The solution being mooted is replacing the permanent mandarins with temporary political appointees. 

I beg to differ. The real solution is to abolish entire Whitehall departments and to devolve their functions back where they belong; a Whitehall with just a Treasury, a Foreign Office, a Defence Ministry and a Maritime and Air Transport Department would probably suit. The problem isn't the mandarins as such; it's the sort of State they believe in that's at the root of all our problems.