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Friday, 12 April 2013

Thatcher and Sid

The pub juke box was belting out Boy George for the third disk in a row; eyes were fixed on the mechanism as the arm lifted the 45 single, jerkily returned it to it's slot in the fan-array of black plastic ... and then returned back to the same place to lift it out again. There was a soft groan from the bar. The London after work pub crowd was complacent; it had been three years since the IRA's last major mainland bombing and Londoners, who recover quickly anyway, had almost forgotten the threat. This was a workers' pub, which is to say well-frequented by students and the unemployed with a leavening of actual tradesmen - mostly painters, for some reason - having an after-work pint. 

" 'Ere maigh, izzat your Standa'?" Came a voice in my ear. I nodded and passed it across. "See 'ow me shares have done today" the voice explained. It didn't need to explain further. Thatcher's Gas privatisation in December 1986 had made shareholders for the first time of hundreds of thousands of small investors. Though some had taken to buying the FT on the basis of a £250 shareholding, thereby wiping out their dividend, most relied, in London at least, on discarded Standards to keep track of the share price. 

Many preferential small shareholders cashed in immediately, walking away with a fat profit, but no matter; share ownership, once something arcane and foreign to most people, had become commonplace, something of which your neighbour had experience. Those who recall the impact that it had didn't find at all extraordinary Vince Cable's suggestion that the government's bank shares be sold off preferentially to small investors; most folk can find £500, particularly if this represents a real discount on the share market price. Unlike the feeble-minded Osborne, Thatcher could see the scale of social impact such a move would make.    

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Thatcher and municipal anarchy

On the roof of County Hall, the GLC's offices across the river from Parliament, a massive banner proclaimed the daily count of London's jobless. Red Ken's direct challenge to the government didn't end with annoying MPs using the terraces; a series of refusals, obstructions and challenges led the government in a fit of pique to abolish it - and didn't they wish they could have abolished every large metropolitan council in the country. This was the era when a new rainbow alliance of lesbians, greens, socialist workers, radical feminists and academic Marxists had displaced old Labour from the town halls; the archetypal Labour councillors - male, middle aged, white, ex-manual workers, proud to wear a suit, and who called the cleaners 'love' and 'petal' without thought - had been ousted.

In place of men who had done their national service we had Greenham Wimmin who promptly declared their municipalities nuclear-free zones, a Chief Executive who used 'sexist body language' was dismissed, and flying tribunals to root out sexism and racism swept the country. In the People's Republic of South Yorkshire attempts to eradicate 'love' 'flower' and 'pet' from the language met an unexpected reactionary pushback - from the Yorkshire miners, who could no more stop using these terms to their canteen ladies than they could understand their own inevitable demise. 

In the face of this municipal anarchy, Thatcher centralised with single-minded ruthlessness. She took from local councils whole rafts of powers and competencies they had enjoyed for generations and instituted Direct Rule from Whitehall. It may be that she had little choice. But the effect was to mortally wound her own party; over a million members of the Conservative party walked away between 1979 and 1997, many because they had, at local level, been disempowered. Local government, in the form in which had previously existed, ceased to be. Councils became what they are now - branch offices of Whitehall departments, taking instructions predominantly from Brussels and Westminster rather than from their own aldermen, portmen and burgesses in Council assembled. 

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Homeopathy on the NHS

Justifying the £4m - £12m spent annually by the NHS on Homeopathy, Dr Sarah Eames claimed it worth it on the basis of 'positive patient outcomes'. Now given that Homeopathic remedies can have no physical effect whatsoever, any statistically significant patient outcomes must be down to the power of mind over body, or the benefits of positive thinking. And if Homeopathy, then why not Crystal Healing, Shamanism, and the people who tinkle little bells over the unwell? In fact, why not do away with conventional medicine altogether and administer cheap chalk placebos to the ill?

The earliest Christian doctors - monks and friars - fortified by arab scholarship soon learned that faith and waiting for God were not enough, and that the scalpel and Henbane could achieve so much more. By all means let cranks of all varieties do their good for the sick, let's have Nigerian tribal fetishes set up on the nursing stations and Dayak hermaphrodites doing the frog-spirit dance in the aisles, let's have joss sticks, tinkling bells and glittery crystals hanging from the light fittings, but for goodness sake let's not waste money on it. The perpetrators should do their thing for free - and be grateful they're given access to ward-fulls of sick people to play with.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Lady Thatcher

The greatest post-war Prime Minister, and thank God she was in office when Argentina invaded the Falklands. There are negatives, but they're for other times. My favourite scurrilous and apocryphal Spitting Image anecdote? The Prime Minister took her Cabinet out to dine at a conference restaurant. The Maitre d' approached her to order.

"I'll have the British steak"

"And the vegetables?" the Maitre asked

"They'll have the same."

Welfare slavery reprise

It seems some on the left are actually catching-on. Back in September 2012 I wrote

By reserving to itself the duty of care of our less fortunate fellows, the State also creates a barrier to the fulfilment of our own obligations to our neighbour and community; Welfare measures intended with best intention to end the human indignity of the Poor Law and the stigma of poverty have themselves at the start of the 21st century created a Welfare slavery that condemns entire generations of families to a culture of idleness and ill health, deprived of the dignity of work and belonging, alienated from the mutual rewards of citizenship, barred from fulfilment and deprived of that human solidarity "of the poor among themselves, between rich and poor, of workers among themselves, between employers and employees in a business, solidarity among nations and peoples ". Surely to God it's time to end their captivity.
Now Simon Danczuk writing in the Telegraph today;
Anyone who has lived with or spent time with people capable of working that have been parked on benefits for a decade or more will know the tragedy I’m talking about. We should all experience the feeling of satisfaction after a hard day’s work, the pride at getting a promotion, the sense of achievement from making a difference in the workplace. But for those trapped in welfare dependency these experiences will never happen. This is a criminal loss of human potential and something everyone interested in progressive politics should rail against.
IDS reforms are not the answer - but they're a start. 

Army manoeuvres 1913

1913 was, weatherwise, generally a rather dull and cool year in which both sunshine and rainfall were limited. Perfect, in fact, for the second of the large scale army manoeuvres carried out before 1914. The first, in 1912, had exposed Haig as dangerously incompetent. Haig commanded a crack Aldershot 'Red' force with an established command structure, against Grierson's rag-bag 'Blue' force made up of scratch units including Yeomanry and cyclists (classed as cavalry). Despite having all the advantages, including being the attacking side, Haig screwed up monumentally and Grierson walked all over him. 

The 1913 manoeuvres again had a crack 'Brown' force under French of two Infantry corps and a cavalry division against a scratch 'White' force under Monro of Territorials and Yeomanry. This time there was no mistake and Brown duly won. White, however, did remarkably well - making excellent use of aircraft as spotters, motor transport and cyclists, by now correctly classed as mounted infantry. French had not done well, however. The problems in co-ordinating the movement of 50,000 men and 25,000 horses in the field had not been overcome and the generals were then practising very much a war of rapid movement. The stars were the aircraft, and they were to prove their worth in 1914 at the Aisne and the Marne.

Yet the following year it was French and Haig that led the BEF of 75,000 men in Belgium. Grierson died of a heart attack shortly after landing.  

Between now and next year there will be a great deal of guff that portrays farmhands and factory workers flocking to the colours in August 1914 and 'in the trenches' a month later. This will all be bollocks and can be disregarded. The trenches didn't come until later, and the only men sent to France and Belgium were the BEF and slightly later those trained men in the reserve. That first phase of the war, very much a war of movement, was fought by the professionals and no doubt lessons had been learned at Brigade level and below from the 1912 / 1913 exercises that served them well.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Dead sheep

Hill sheep are not entirely stupid. In a driving blizzard, they will huddle together in the lee of a stone wall. Normally it works. But when the snow just goes on and on and the drifts cover them they die where they shelter, only to be found by the hill shepherd's dog, or when the snow thaws. 

Radio 4's 'On Your Farm' broadcast this morning is shocking and powerful, all the more so as it features only the voices of a single reporter, Sybil Ruscoe, and those of hill farmers now burying their dead stock. Hill farmers are as tough as their stock, and their voices were steady, but beneath the laconic accounting of stock losses the tension they were feeling was audible, a quiver in the voice that they could not disguise or repress. The loss is not so much the lambs but the breeding ewes - and to lose 250 from a flock of 500 may be a terminal event. 

There will be no government aid, and this is ideologically right, though it means a further diminution in those working lives we used as a nation to hold iconic of our island breed - the hill farmer, the trawlerman, the forester - and no doubt the survivors will be the toughest and most resilient of their kind. 

But please, no whining or pleading today for the indolent urban welfare underclass and their 42" plasma TVs. I'm really not in the mood.