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Showing posts from 2011

London deserves better than this

The balance of power around the globe may well be shifting dramatically from the old capitals of the west towards the economic powerhouses of China and India, but it would be a churlish person who denied London’s continuing status as one of the world’s great cities. It seems astonishing, therefore, that the choice facing voters in the 2012 mayoral election is between an eccentric toff, an uncharismatic former police commander and a leftist relic.

The relic in question, one Kenneth Robert Livingstone, was quoted today in the London Evening Standard as encouraging members of the public to bring a ‘private prosecution’ against former premier Tony Blair for ‘war crimes’. I don’t want to get into a full-scale debate of the rights and wrongs of the war in Iraq, as they’ve been rehearsed too many times before. What interests me about Livingstone’s outburst is that there is surely no one else of prominence in the Labour Party – even those who disagreed vehemently with Blair – who would endorse…

Isn't it time the Lib Dems saw a shrink?

Chutzpah is a great Yiddish word. It describes the kind of bare-faced cheek that takes your breath away and leaves you scratching your head in amused bewilderment. It’s always good to have a word like this at your disposal when the Liberal Democrats are in your neighbourhood delivering their propaganda sheets.

The latest edition of “Twickenham & Richmond News” (sic) arrived on my doormat in the past few days, thankfully proclaiming that it is ‘paid for by individual donations at NO cost to local taxpayers’. It shows the Liberal Democrats to be stalwart campaigners for local services, sworn enemies of the Conservatives and valiant crusaders against government cuts.

Let’s just take a pause at this point while we slap ourselves vigorously, stick our heads in a bucket of ice-cold water and check that we’re actually awake.

CUTS TOO FAR screams the splash on the front page of the tawdry tabloid, which is packed with endless snaps of Munira Wilson, a Lib Dem candidate in next year’s G…

If the Euro goes down, democracy may fall with it.

It’s impossible to tell exactly how the Eurozone crisis will play out, but there’s a danger the political dimension to the ongoing drama is often overlooked amid the economic tumult. When we talk of worst-case scenarios, involving Greek default, countries withdrawing from the single currency or maybe even the collapse of the Euro itself, the financial consequences are almost too big to contemplate. Bank exposures to sovereign debt may lead to a complete unravelling of global markets and a worldwide depression. But what of the politics? Can we be positive that the democratic certainties of modern Europe aren’t in danger of collapsing into the Mediterranean?

One thing that’s easy to forget for those of us born from the late 1960s onwards is that there is not a strong history of democracy in southern Europe. Up until 1975, General Franco ruled the roost in Spain – a fact which didn’t deter the growth of package tourism, as Brits and many other northern Europeans are notorious for putting…

Is there a doctor on the ward?

The findings of the Care Quality Commission in relation to the appalling treatment of old people in many NHS hospitals will come as no surprise to many families. If you’ve visited anyone on a geriatric ward recently – as I have – the sorry story of neglect and disinterest will ring an awful lot of bells. Unfortunately, you can ring those bells for 45 minutes and nobody takes the slightest notice.

There are a number of fundamental problems at the heart of the UK’s National Health Service and they have nothing to do with the total amount of money in the system. Lack of cash can exacerbate the problems, to be sure, but the problems actually revolve around culture and organisation.

The first thing I’d observe is that many hospitals have the right procedures and approaches in place. They can show you paper policies which sound entirely reasonable and forward-thinking, but they struggle to put any of them into practice on the wards.

A few months ago, I conducted a survey of London NHS Tru…

We should put our foot down

You can always spot a Tory, can’t you? Transport Secretary Philip Hammond wants to increase the speed limit on Britain’s motorways to 80 mph because it will be good for business, even though it’s acknowledged by experts that the change of policy will lead to a greater number of accidents and pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. To a Conservative ideologue, the economic advantage always outweighs any potential social or environmental cost. In this respect, Hammond follows directly in the footsteps of one of his barmy predecessors – the chain-smoking old Etonian, Nicholas Ridley. As Secretary of State for Transport between 1983 and 1986 in the Thatcher government, Ridley – whose head was packed full of Hayek and Friedman – was known for his eccentric obsessions. If I remember correctly, Ken Livingstone, who led the socialist Greater London Council at the time, discovered that Maggie’s ministerial pal favoured getting rid of traffic lights because they disrupted the flow of v…

The middle class of London has had its bluff called

Many years have passed since I last sat in a university sociology seminar, but there’s one thing I can tell you categorically: if people don’t want to be governed, they won’t be. Prisons, for instance, are balanced on a precarious knife edge between order and anarchy. To a large extent, the warders rely on the inmates accepting their authority and taking on the role of the prisoner. In return, the prisoners come to expect certain kinds of behaviour from the guards. It’s an uneasy and difficult relationship, but 99% of the time, it gets played out satisfactorily. When the delicate balancing act collapses, we get to hear about it, because it usually results in violence and disorder.

A feature of any riot is that the accepted norms have broken down. Historically, people have often protested at brutality and oppression and the outbreak of violence and lawlessness symbolises to the authorities that they will no longer accept the status quo. If we take the Brixton riots of 1981, for example…

The tough questions over press regulation

We hope for catharsis in the News International crisis and some kind of moral cleansing of the nation. I’d be the first to agree that heads need to roll, but is it really the tactics of journalists at the News of the World that are the problem? Or could it actually be their outrageous choice of targets? Let me put it another way. We didn’t really care too much about the illegal hacking of phones when we thought the victims were celebrities and politicians. The explosion of rage has been prompted by our discovery that hired investigators were deleting the voicemail of a murdered schoolgirl and listening to the conversations of people who’d lost relatives through war or terrorism.

Much investigative journalism depends on deception. This may be a difficult idea to accept, but it’s undoubtedly true. After all, when people are involved in wrongdoing, they rarely declare it publicly. Remember the recent Panorama exposĂ© of the abuse going on in a home for people with learning disabilities? I…

Night time is the right time for volunteering in the Big Society

Sheena Easton summed it up perfectly in her 1980 classic ‘9 to 5’ (or ‘Morning Train’ in the US to avoid confusion with the popular Dolly Parton number). In a stirring paean to work-life balance at the beginning of the Thatcher era, the songstress tells us that her beau ‘works all day to earn his pay, so we can play all night...’

One of the biggest problems with David Cameron’s so-called ‘Big Society’ is that it requires people to work all day to earn their pay and then work all night for nothing. An added complication is that Sheena’s lover would now be labouring from 9 to 8, rather than 9 to 5. He’d probably also have to catch up on a few emails of a weekend. What a way to make a living, as Dolly would no doubt observe from her Tennessee mountain home.

We can see that the ‘Big Society’ is an idea that might have taken root in a bygone age when people had steady, predictable jobs and could give up a few hours of their spare time to a good cause in the local community. At a point in his…