19 May 2007

English Middle Class

Such an interesting and evolving group of people.
The English middle class have become angst-ridden with their affluence. Restless with insecurity, consumption is the most satisfying form of redemption. Consumption is all about points scoring. It is an obsession with status and one-gunmanship, in thrall to fads and crazes because the media tells us so. We mistakenly live our own lives through those of celebrities because we have manufactured false attachments to them.
More and more the English middle class put all different sorts of armour around themselves. The armour is made up from the lifestyle statements we attempt to make.
Houses have become isolated cocoons where we can segregate ourselves from people we don’t want to speak to, like our neighbours. More and more people feel the need to erect gates, high walls and fences to ‘protect’ themselves from possible intrusion or unwanted invasion of privacy.
On the inside, our houses are brimming with aspirational excesses. And outside the front doors, we are obsessed by ‘For Sale’ signs. Never ending house price rises make us feel better about ourselves when we know something we have bought has gone up in value by thousands of pounds. it’s the same ‘bargain’ mentality that we apply to when we shop.
And do the English middle class like to shop. From fancy, sterile shopping centres to Sunday car boot sales, we cannot get enough of shopping.
Our cars always have be the latest up to date model - the craze for 4x4’s demonstrates this. Cars have to be status symbols of who we are (or who we want people to think we are).
Unwittingly or not, our children are also part of the consumption treadmill and aspiration status obsession. How they are dressed, what toys or mobile phones they have etc…they are being groomed to become like their parents.
Our food has to be organically pure, fair trade or hand-reared by Prince Charles. Mistakenly, we somehow imagine that drinking bottled mineral water also makes a difference.
Holidays have to be taken in more exotic and far flung places. And if not far flung and exotic, then nearby, but somewhere obscure and overlooked or incorporating something physically demanding. We like to say we have done something, been somewhere, ticked it off.
Yet, at the same time, we also like to feel we have done ‘our bit’ to save the planet by staying at an eco-resort (conveniently ignoring the thousands of miles to fly there) or doing some charity work (which helps local people in a poor country, but also makes us feel better about ourselves)
Cosmetically, never before have so many people become so obsessed by their appearance. Never before have so many people wanted to have plastic surgery, slap on so much fake tan, go crazy for designer clothes and brands in their quest to ape celebrities, who they themselves have helped to erect like tall poppies on flimsy pedestals.
Take global warming and ‘going green’. We do a few virtuous actions to assuage our consciences and feel better about ourselves. Nothing typifies this better than David Cameron (the Great Green Hope) riding his bike to work with a chauffeur driven limo cruising behind him carrying his suit and shoes. But it is an empty piety.
The English middle class may be angst ridden with their affluence and weighed down by a perpetual sense of guilt. Underneath it all though, we don’t really want to give up our privileges, like cheap flights and convenient car journeys. For many of us though, almost all of our lifestyle statements, however aspirational or expensive, are little more than an indulgence in an expensive form of tokenism.
Fundamentally, there is a thread of hypocrisy running through the English middle class.
Less and less can people think independently for themselves. We build up all this armour around ourselves because of insecurity. But however much we do it, we never quite manage to feel fully ‘safe’ or contentedly ‘secure’ where it really matters…deep inside our stressed out minds.

Blogging is Rubbish

Blogging is a load of rubbish. Not something you’d perhaps expect to read on someone’s blog. But, boy, with a few honourable exceptions, is there an awful lot of rubbish out there filling up blogs all over the world. People have decided to share their thoughts and opinions on all manner of inanely dull and trivial subjects. If you ever find me falling into the same trap - maybe you think I have done already! - do please let me know. Or maybe you have already come across the most useless and least life-enhancing blog out there. Maybe we could have a competition.
I suppose this is the inevitable consequences of freedom and choice - on balance extremely positive, life-altering benefits. But not without their downsides too. Its probably a bit like going into a vast supermarket to buy something like toothpaste and be totally overwhelmed by the hundreds of choices on offer. I suppose it raises the question is too much choice ever a negative thing?
We now live in a society where, like never before and because it has never been easier for them to do so, people feel the urge to share their inner most thoughts and opinions with complete strangers. it’s a bit like the Big Brother / Radio Phone-in self-indulgent effect - everyone has to have their say and inflict their views on others. Its part of the ‘ME-ME, I HAVE MY RIGHTS!’ culture.
Attributes like discretion, integrity, quiet decency, dignity and most importantly of all, common sense, have been made redundant. Bottom up value predominate in our modern day, trash-TV culture where everything has to be instant, immediate and dumbed down enough for our unquestioning minds to digest.

16 May 2007

Beckham and Blair

How apt that my country’s two most famous people from this decade should have near identical career paths. Think about the similarities.
Two fresh-faced, good looking men, high hopes, great expectation, obsession with images, lots of great talking about what would happen, brilliant branding and self-marketing.
But the actions never quite matched the talk or the promises. The substance to follow the promises and the hype was missing, be it meaningful political delivery or simply delivery of match winning corner or free-kick to lead England to World Cup success.
And now both these global celebrities coincidentally will find themselves taking the American mega bucks as they head into semi-retirement like two Disney make-believe characters that ordinary people stopped believing in a long time ago.

15 May 2007


I put my hand up. Tacitly (probably like a silent majority of people) I thought it was no bad thing at the time to try and rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein. He was a nasty, murderous dictator and around the time it happened I was seeing intimately close up how a nasty, murderous dictator can destroy people’s lives and totally crush their hopes.
That was in Zimbabwe where some desperate locals pleaded with me for their country to be invaded and for their dictator to be overthrown. I had a lot of sympathy for their suggestions and told them if only they had some WMD’s or oil, it might just be possible.

Like most people at the time, I gave my government the benefit of the doubt when it made a case to go to war. Although there was definitely a certain amount of scepticism at the time about the detail of their reasons (WMD’s, 45 minutes etc.). Instead of inventing technicalities, fabricating reasons and imposing arbitrary deadlines, I thought, Why couldn’t they just come out and say, ‘We want to get rid of this nasty dictator because we don’t like him and wish we had finished him off back in 1991.’

The failure of George Bush Sr in 1991 to have to nerve to chase Saddam all the way back to Baghdad was to have unimaginably catastrophic consequences. His son had to finish the job for him…once he had come up with a barely plausible reason to do so: The War on Terror of course.
Sure, I realised people would die during the invasion, but I figured on balance it was necessary. All those people who were anti-war throughout do themselves and the Iraqi people a major disservice to portray the situation pre-2003 as rosy. Sure there was stability, but at a heavy and bloody price for those who had to live under Saddam’s repressive regime. It was stable in the same way as Mugabe’s Zimbabwe was stable…miserably and depressingly stable.

Critically, where I really began to take issue with the invasion of the Iraq was what happened afterwards. The insensitive occupation. The arrogant and casual nature of planning for reconstruction. The unnecessary abuses of power. The wicked failures to do anything basic to improve the day to day lives of ordinary Iraqis even by doing simple things like supplying reliable electricity and clean water. Never mind guaranteeing their security, building roads and other important mundane things.

Then there were the things the Americans didn’t do. Secure the country’s borders. Include or give opportunities and jobs to all the lower level army recruits and Ba’ath party members who have now become insurgents. And fundamentally, why did the Americans simply not understand and foresee any of the disasters that happened? Was it arrogance? Probably. But it was also a major lack of intelligence…in both senses of the word. Complacently relying on fancy technology, satellite imagery and the like can never be a substitute for human insight on the ground. Its not the invasion that mattered, it was the occupation.

But what of the future? What has happened in Iraq has had so many far reaching consequences, in terms of time and geography.

  1. Who really won the Iraq war? Iran, of course, whose position in Iraq and the region as a whole has bee strengthened beyond belief. What a clever move that was by the Americans. They must be really pleased with that.
  2. Hardly anyone in the Middle East will now believe anything that the US or the UK governments say. Their own people no longer trust or give the benefit of the doubt to the US and UK governments. What happens if a really, desperately serious situation arises when military intervention somewhere becomes essential? When they come to make the case for any actions anywhere, however valid, most people will just sceptically shrug their shoulders and refuse to give our politicians the benefit of the doubt.
  3. All the sensible, moderate people across the Middle East - I’ve met plenty of them, people who instinctively trusted the West, they make up the overwhelming silent majority in countries like Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, exactly the sort of people we should be encouraging and giving prominence too - feel totally let down at best and repelled at worst by the mishandling of Iraq’s occupation. They now see American soldiers walking the streets like military robots
  4. Extremists of all denominations must be rubbing their guns and bombs with glee for the void which opened up for them. It never took too long for Iraq to become a honey magnet for terrorists. And what did the occupiers do to deal with this? Nothing.
  5. Because of Iraq’s lawlessness and the staggering lack of planning post-invasion the manner in which American (and British) soldiers conducted themselves was also affected. Scandals like Abu Ghraib jail torure and humiliation occurred because they were allowed to occur by the arrogant Rumsfeld and the misfiring Cheney
  6. The Iraq war has been extremely expensive and very bad value for (US and UK)taxpayers money. Economically, the mess in Iraq also has major consequences. High oil prices. Thousands of talented, clever Iraqis - exactly the sort the country needs to build its future - are leaving the country.
  7. Home-grown terrorism. Quite blatantly, every time there is television footage of more people losing their lives in Iraq, it hardens the resolve of home-grown extremists and has certainly increased the probability of these people causing death and destruction in our own cities.
  8. Democracy - the much vaunted (and transparently patronising) substitute reason given for invading Iraq has now become more unlikely across the region. A successfully run and stable post-invasion Iraq could well have put pressure on some of the other repressive regimes in the region, like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt. But now the dictators in those countries have been strengthened by the weakness in Iraq and the long suffering peoples of those countries are also paying the price of American failures.
  9. We've managed to strengthen the influence of Russia and China in the region as well as Iran. And the world has had its eyes diverted from other, arguably equally catastrophic abuses in places like Zimbabwe and Sudan. How some of the millions suffering in some of those countries must rue the gaze of the world's media being transfixed elsewhere for the last few years.
  10. Finally, the mess in Iraq has simply reinforced the way the British and Americans have always been viewed by history in the region; duplicitous, interfering for our own financial and strategic ends ahead of those of the local population. It could take a generation at least to melt away or dismantle the angry perceptions, if at all.

Just a grain of humility from Bush / Cheney/ Rumsfeld / Blair that they made mistakes which had disastrous consequences would be refreshing, but also about as realistically likely as any of them ever taking to the streets of Baghdad on foot.

14 May 2007

Lib Dems and Politics

The Lib Dems love to have it both ways. If you are anti or against something other, the chances are you’ll vote Lib Dem. They are a cosy home for protest voters. Anyone who is against the Tories or Labour (which lets face it is a lot of us) will be welcomed with open arms on the doorsteps of the Lib Dem front door. And when you’ve had your protest vote, be it on Iraq or some local issue, something green perhaps, you the voter can march straight out through the open back door of the Lib Dem house back onto the next street, feeling better about yourself.

They have an easy time of it because the media never quite takes them seriously enough to scrutinise what they say and do because they will never win an election outright. Instead they loftily position themselves like a prostitute on a street corner waiting for the first major party in the next hung parliament to go into coalition with them. Do not be in any doubt whatsoever that Menzies Campbell has his eye on being foreign secretary under the government of his long time friend Gordon Brown.
Principled? The Lib Dems? Hmmm. What about their environment spokesman Chris Huhne, who made such a big thing (and indeed his name) by lecturing us all about the environment? Well, it turns out he drives a gas-guzzling car all over the place (on taxpayers expense of course) and hardly bothers to use public transport. Another example of why the public deserves to be cynical of politicians.
Because they are never going to lead a government, the Lib Dems can righteously claim to be ‘different’ from the main two parties. They like to tell you they are ‘principled’ and ‘ethical‘ even, but remember they are all professional politicians. They vote themselves 30% pay increases that you or I never could do - basic salary £60,000 and average expenses £130,000. And of course, don’t forget the gold-plated pensions while they lecture the rest of us about restraint and being responsible with our money. Wouldn’t it be better if they were more responsible with our money?
They run up unimaginably high expenses doing their jobs and happily vote to take more taxpayers money to promote themselves. And they then have the temerity to cover it all up and hide where our money goes by voting themselves exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Then they wonder why ordinary people think they MP’s have become out of touch. Do you think it is wise for the tax you pay to subsidise the likes of John Prescott? No, me neither
And is astonishing, but not altogether surprising, that because the main political parties have come come close to bankcrupting themselves (whose fault is that?), they expect the taxpayer to bail them out. Well, why should we fund compacent, out of touch politicians who don't want to be accountable with our money? If they want to be properly funded, maybe they should come up with policies that are genuinely representative or what people want rather than just guzzling up state handouts so they can impose on us what they think we want. It is the wrong way round.

13 May 2007

Gordon Brown

He couldn’t really have scripted it any better or worse could he? On the first day when we are told he will finally come out from the murky shadows in a spirit of openness and reveal himself, there he is hiding behind a misplaced white autocue! A premonition of what is to come perhaps?

And we are told he will be dispensing with spin. What tosh. To tell people you are now anti-spin is of course a form of spin in itself. Like much of what Gordon Brown does, it is trying to be too clever by half. You only have to go back to the mirage of his last budget to see the real ‘substance’ (a term he likes to use himself) of how he really operates.
At least Tony Blair was good at spin and could pull it off. Although Blair feeling the need to remind us again one last time that he really was a ‘pretty straight kinda guy’ who always did ‘what he thought was right’, probably was a little too excessive and nauseating even by his schmaltzy thespian standards.
Somehow you fear that Brown, with his adhesive smile and stiff social awkwardness, just won’t quite manage to be so convincing, or as convincing as he needs to be.

Again and again we are told what a formidable intellect Gordon Brown has. Since when did being a ‘formidable intellect’ give anyone a god-given right to tell everyone else how to run things? Then again, he has spent most of the last ten years attempting to tell people how to run things down to the last details of his command and control, stiflingly interventionist economic policy.
Gordon Brown tells us he will ‘listen and learn’. Well those aren’t exactly things he has done much of so far. Its probably like Brian Clough once said: If we have a disagreement, we sit down, have a discussion about it, then we agree that I was right. Except with Brown, you somehow suspect the ‘discussion’ bit can be made redundant.
He is a control freak politician with a very damagin legacy; all the targets and bureaucracy that stifles much of the public sector - in schools, hospitals, the police etc. - has derived from his personal obsession with wanting to control as many things as possible. He's never worked in business so he doesn't properly grasp that individuals are perfectly capable of making their own sound decisions. Instead, he has sought to impose his decisions directly onto how they impact the jobs of nurses, policemen and teachers. Thats why they find it so hard to get on with doing their jobs effectively - because he cannot stop himself and his army of lapdogs over-interfering in ordinary people's jobs and lives.

When he steamrollers out reams of statistics on how much money has been spent, it is all rather reminiscent of when the Soviet dictators used to list how many tractors their factories were producing and how wonderful their economy was. Of course, politicians like to use the term ‘invest’ rather than ‘spend’. 'Waste' might be the best term. But its not often that they like to remind themselves it is actually the taxpayers’ money there are spending (and often wasting). Quite frankly my attitude would be; ‘So what if you’ve spent all these tens of billions of our money. Shouldn’t things be a heck of lot better than they actually are?’
Remember that 1997 song…‘Things can only get better…’

Sport and Money

For once, I’m going to pay tribute to Australia. Yes you did read that right.
Their government is opting not to send their cricket team to the brutal dictatorship that is Zimbabwe. If they back up their words with action they will be doing far more than the UK government did - which was no more than utter sound bites about how inappropriate it would be for England to go there, then not back it up with money to pay the fines imposed by the ICC.
The spineless men who run international cricket (and it is all out of touch, time-serving men ) should be deeply ashamed of themselves. They see nothing wrong or abnormal about Zimbabwe. Maybe they should make an effort to go there and see what its like for ordinary people struggling to feed their families or being beaten by police because they want to speak freely.

Maybe they, and others in cricket, could take an example from the upstanding of Stuart MacGill who expressed a individual conscience about how wrong it would be go to Zimbabwe and pretend that everything was normal there. Wouldn’t it be tremendous if more people in all sorts of positions of power and influence really stood up and told us what they really thought rather than trotting out media-trained, non-committal cliches and banal platitudes?

The ICC men are in danger of damaging cricket with their enthralment for making as much money as possible out of the game, plenty of which trickles down into their own pockets to fuel their own more-than-comfortable lifestyles. The ICC has come to be obsessed with advertising and television money. This is almost entirely down to the power of the television market in India, the greedy contracts drawn up there which means players have to play as many games as possible to fit into the television schedules, and countries have to reciprocate games with each other.

Just what is it about the self-serving bureaucrats who run all the major sports that makes them so out of touch and repulsive. Think of Sepp Blatter at FIFA. This odious Swiss cannot gourge himself enough on the publicity of being in the position he is in, handing out favours to even more odius, corrupt officials from other countries.

Think of the FA in England and Brian Barwick swimming in all the millions of TV money. Think of his horrendous cock-up in deciding to hand Sven a brand new lucrative contract just months before we all received final confirmation of how inept and incapable a manager he really was. What does Barwick do next? He decides to give the job to Steve McClaren, a man who even managed to make Sven look like he had the Midas touch. If the England fans want someone to target abuse at, it would be better aimed at the man who appoints the failed managers. It’s a bit like Freddy Shepherd at Newcastle, am an who’s frittered away millions on failed managers…all appointed by him. But the Newcastle fans don’t seem to mind. If only the rumour about Sven wanting the Newcastle job could have come to fruition..things might have come full circle.

Think of the idiots who run rugby at the top level. Francis Baron runs the English RFU. It took him a year or so longer than the rest of the country’s rugby supporters to realise that the head coach he had appointed - Andy Robinson - was nowhere near up to doing the job. He is another man in thrall to the mantra of playing as many games as possible so they generate as much money as possible from television and gate receipts.

Its why there are so many corporate boxes in Twickenham and other stadiums, and why ticket prices have become so over-priced. To my mind, how can someone who sits in a corporate box not really following the sporting action with the same enthusiasm as the rest of the ground call themselves a genuine fan? They are not. Can they really claim to share the passion, the disappointment, the ecstasy? Somehow I doubt it. But they do keep the self-serving sports bureaucrats content though.

12 May 2007

Zimbabwe, Africa & Us

Zimbabwe has been elected to head the UN’s Commission on Sustainable Development…which tells you everything you need to know about why the UN has been and always will be so uselessly ineffectual in world affairs.

Sure, the UN does lots of good all around the world, much of it unheralded work in unpopular places. But for all those who naively imagine we can live in a UN led utopian paradise where nasty regimes can be talked out of not going to war and be gently persuaded not to abuse their own citizens, then instances like this provide another firm slap in the face. The UN is a giant, expensive, ineffectual, powerless talking shop. And now the leaders of Africa have seen something they can copy and aspire to…hence the African Union.

What exactly is the point of the African Union when all it does it slap Robert Mugabe on the back for wrecking and ravaging his own country? What is the point of the African Union when the government in Sudan encourages ethnic cleansing within its own country and it also does not get held to account or even condemned?

In the West (as we like to strangely call ourselves) we look down on much of the misery and destruction in Africa, build up a guilt complex which then overflows and translates itself into the ‘something must be done’ mentality. So we try to make ourselves feel better about our guilt complex of having so much wealth by giving money to poor people in Africa thanks to Bono and Bob Geldof

Unpopular and unpalatable as it is for me to say this, but throwing millions, even billions of dollars in aid at Africa is all a giant fallacy. Think hard about where all that money actually goes to. It wont reach the poor, desperate people who really need it. That money will just swell the Swiss bank accounts of rulers like Mugabe. It will pay for expensive cars and private jets. It will pay for their wives to go on expensive shopping sprees.
But most depressing of it all, that money will go into reinforcing nasty unaccountable regimes and it will contribute to giving them more tools to repress the poor, long-suffering people that we in the West so wanted to help.

The critical problem for Africa is the woeful failing of its political leadership. Until this is meaningfully addressed, depressing thought as it is, then the continent and the people will continue to wallow in misery like those in Zimbabwe.

I’ll tell you straight the one single thing that would do more than anything else, more than any bloated UN conferences or extravagant pop concerts, to change the lives of ordinary Africans for the better. Open up the trade system. Let us buy what they produce. Particularly in Europe lets dismantle the protectionism of our economies which stops us buying things that poor Africans make and grow. Its not just Europe though. Japan is too protectionist, but America is also particularly bad especially when it comes to subsidising cotton farming.

Just handing out money to unpleasant African dictators has failed, made things worse even, because of the corruption and dependency. Give a man a fish and he eats today. Give him the opportunity and means to fish himself and he can feed himself for life. It’s the only way.
And the great irony or liberating our trade systems is that we would all be better as well because we would pay lower prices and save billions in wasteful subsidies that we pay to our own farmers to produce mountains and lakes of food and drink that no will ever eat or drink.

The main obstacle to European trade opening up is of course the French. The Common Agricultural Policy, whereby 50% of the EU’s budget is splurged on just 5% of its people, largely dominated by French farmers. Those numbers sound ridiculous, I hear you say. How could so few people receive so much money for doing so little with such far-reaching consequences? Well I would put a lot of the blame on Jacques Chirac, the former French president whose rural roots were so critical to him staying in power.

In a trade off with Germany to ensure there would never again be another war in Europe - the whole founding point of European integration - France got to assume much of the political power in Europe. Only now is it being forced to gradually and begrudgingly relinquish some of it. France obviously dominated the EU before it enlarged and looked after it farmers….at an obscene cost both to European taxpayers, European consumers, but also for the lives of Africans.
So if you really want to make a difference to the lives of ordinary Africans, then campaigning for us all to open up our trade is the best way to start.

10 May 2007

Blair's last day, My First Blog

On the day Tony Blair finally resigned I decided to create a blog. It's time for some plain speaking and clear candid opinions on lots of things.
Who knows where all this might lead? But mostly its very likely to revolve around the three aspects of life which engage and fascinate me above all others: travel, politics and of course, sport.
Occasionally, in fact very probably, I shall stumble off at tangents, but then that's half the fun I suppose. As is being controversial

What will be Blair's real legacy be? I will come back to that in due course. But probably not the one he and his crony chums (exhibit 1 - Peter Mandelson) with their vested interests in his years in power being viewed kindly are so keen to have us believe.

So the much underhyped 'long goodbye' farewell tour can get underway. It might end up making the drawn out cricket world cup feel like it was condensed into just a couple of hours. Lots more synthetic toothy grins. Lots of fake sincerity. The only consolation is that we now know we won't have to endure too much more of it all. Instead we get cuddly, cheerful Gordon - there's soething very Soviet Politburo about that man, but we can come back to that later as well, I'm sure.

Cherie can have one last self-indulgent shopping binge. Maybe time for one or two more speeches to promote and flog herself as 'First Lady' (don't call her that at work of course - not that being a human rights lawyer under a meddling Labour government would bring home enough to pay the bills...well enough to pay off the bill on an extravagant new central London mansion anyway)

But for me, the highlight of it all is knowing that the grotesque, power-abusing, useless outdated political beast that is John Prescott will finally be moving on to pastures new as well. Can't someone arrange for him to be sent on a permanent junket somewhere where his contempt for the electorate and appetite for abusing for power would fit right in. Somewhere like Zimbabwe perhaps. Somewhere where the situation is so desperate and depressing that even he wont be able to find a way of making it any worse. Preferably send him by horse with his expensive cowboy boots and hat on, wielding a croquet mallett. And let him try implementing an integrated transport policy in a country where drivers have to queue 4 days to fill their cars with petrol. At least he could teach them to play croquet

The end of Blair also means no more Fatty Falconer spouting forth on the importance of the latest promotion his old flat-mate (Tony Blair) had just given him, or attempting to dig his boss out of a hole with excessive and preplexing legal speak. Is it just me, or do you get the feeling that lawyers have accumulated too much power in our country. So many people are afraid of them nowadays, afraid of saying things which might result in being sued or causing offence to someone. Along with the burgeoning armies of accountants, it is the lawyers who have come to run much of our country.

Who else can we take great pleasure in seeing dissappearing into the political wilderness. Well there's Margaret Beckett for a start. And Patricia Hewett of course. What tremendous losses of leadership and competence that would represent to our country.

John Reid has also decided to do a dissappearing act. Great timing there just after he'd made such a hoo-ha about splitting the Home Office in two and him being the only man who could make it fit for purpose again. He kind of sums up so much of what the Blair Labour government stood for - nine jobs in ten years (none of them done competently), lots of forceful media appearances to explain lots of incompetence and when the spotlight becomes too unfavourable or intense, why not just draw a line and move on?