28 February, 2016

"Standing Outside the Tent......."

LBJ -You might not have liked his policies, he
didn't succeed with everything, he made enemies -
but you took notice of him!
American President Lyndon Johnson was never a politician to mince his words. He had spent a life time in the rough and tumble politics of his country and this experience, together with his southern states credentials, encouraged John Kennedy in 1960 to select him as his running mate and Vice-President when Kennedy ran for the Presidency. Kennedy had the ideas, the vision and the words but Johnson had the muscle and was not afraid to use it. Kennedy knew that there were many challenges to face:  issues of human rights and segregation in the southern states, a worsening situation in south-east Asia sucking American into a Vietnam war, the developing cold war with the Soviet Union and the advent of the sixties creating a new dynamic in the world order. America was at a crossroads and JFK needed someone with know-how and political muscle who would ensure that his message got through. No one suspected that this otherwise little known (at least outside the USA) politician would become President but the Kennedy assassination changed all that. Suddenly in late 1963 Johnson found himself in charge – at critical time in American history and with a Presidential election looming. LBJ, as he was known, found himself not only in the White House but having to try to fulfil Kennedy’s legacy. Johnson’s Presidency still splits historians; he certainly had his problems and failures - most notably the escalation of the Vietnam War - but as one looks back he increasingly looks like a man who met his problems face to face and used his vast political skill and muscle to get what he wanted; and as I say, he wasn’t one to mince his words. One might not have always agreed with him but the simplicity and force of his argument when added to his sheer bloody-mindedness, unwillingness to suffer fools or opposition and his willingness to do whatever was necessary to ensure that other politicians got the message and voted as he wanted them to cannot be denied.

Meanwhile in the UK this is how we make great
national decisions 
I have been  reminded of Johnson while reading and watching the debate that has taken over  the UK in relation to our membership of the European Union and which will lead to a referendum in June. Prime Minister David Cameron has, he tells us, negotiated a better deal for the UK which will recognise that we are a special case and ensure that we retain more of our democratic “rights” rather than having these usurped by “faceless bureaucrats” in Brussels. Cameron feels that this new deal is a good reason for us, as a nation, to stay in the EU. However, others feel differently and senior members of his government are advocating that we reject the proposals and vote in the referendum to leave the EU. Last Sunday, the media worked itself up into a frenzy awaiting the announcement by Tory MP and London Mayor Boris Johnson as to his views on the matter. It was no surprise when he sided with the “outers” and opposed Cameron. So, like the nation as a whole, the government is split. As I listened and read of this I was reminded of that other Johnson – LBJ, the American president; I suspect he would have had little truck with Boris, the buffoonish Mayor of London and wannabe Prime Minster. Lyndon Johnson, in his characteristically straightforward style said of his nemesis J Edgar Hoover:  “It's  better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than standing outside the tent pissing in.”  LBJ, like mafia leader Don Corleone in the film “The Godfather”, made Hoover an “offer he could not refuse” to ensure his obedience and so that he was kept “inside the tent” and he would certainly  do the same with Boris Johnson if he was faced with the situation that Cameron faces today. Like Hoover, the Mayor of London is an unpleasant character but he is not in the same league as was Hoover and  I have this delightful  mental picture of LBJ looming over Boris and quietly saying “Do yourself a favour  punk and get back on the team ”........and Boris the Buffoon would scurry from the room gibbering, promising obedience! Like LBJ’s 1963 America we, as a nation, are at a crossroads in relation to the EU and just as LBJ could not risk failure so too must Cameron. It is in the UK’s interests that Cameron ruthlessly takes hold of his unruly mob of Tory ministers and MPs as LBJ would do. Instead, however, he has openly given them permission to campaign as individuals rather than present a united front advocating agreed government policy. Thus, we have senior members of the government taking a different stance to that the PM – not only a nonsense on such an important matter but also an unedifying spectacle for observers both within and without the UK. No wonder the electorate is confused and hold politicians in such low esteem when they cannot even agree amongst themselves on matters of national importance. No wonder European countries look at us and shake their heads in amazement when they see half of Cameron’s senior ministers and MPs “standing outside the tent pissing in”.
Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Ian Duncan Smith - three of the
dissenters - or to use ther Garden of Eden analagy the snakes in the grass.

In the UK we don’t wield political muscle in the same way as our American cousins. In Parliament MPs address each other as “the Honourable Member” and strict rules of protocol, based upon history are observed. I’m not against that – indeed, I think it is vital otherwise the whole thing becomes a shouting match (it still does at Question Time! – see blog for 26th Feb 2016). But on this issue, which is critical to the future life of the nation, it is important that a spade is called a spade and that both the government and opposition act in the national good.  To have wild cards in the form of political glory hunters like Boris Johnson muddying the picture is not good.  

Now, at this point I have to declare an interest. Unlike many I am a committed Europhile so will vote with Cameron in the referendum. Having said that I am totally against the deal that Cameron has negotiated. We are a small nation that can no longer rely upon a great empire to support us; we have a common history and heritage with Europe and today’s world is a land of the big battalions – the USA, Russia, China, the Pacific rim – and our future lies in joint interests and joint action. I do not want the UK to be a European “special case” as Cameron has negotiated. I want us to be an equal and totally committed member of Europe, linked more closely, part of a United States of Europe, involved as a Euro using member not retaining the pound as our currency. What I don’t want is what we have had for the past three or so decades – certainly since the time of Thatcher, of being on the sidelines of Europe moaning and complaining rather than being committed and making our point positively and as part of the European “club”. So often I have reflected that the Germans and the French and others in mainland Europe must be heartily sick of us Brits – always negative and on the defensive, always wanting special treatment or complaining that it is “not fair”. It has made me embarrassed to be British when I have visited France or Germany or anywhere else in the EU. I know that I am out of step with the majority here – many of my desires are a complete anathema to the vast majority of the populace - so although I don’t like his watered down European deal of Cameron’s as there is no other option on the table I will take it. The alternative of leaving Europe does not bear scrutiny so far as I am concerned.

Even the  high Tory joirnal The Spectator is on the
Tory civil war bandwagon
But, as I say, not everyone is committed to the European ideal as I am. Early indications are that the electorate is divided – their views encouraged by the right wing press and by great swathes of the Tory party. So, following Cameron’s negotiations in Brussels and his “new deal” for our membership the EU the Tory Party is in turmoil and split – as it has been split so often before on Europe. Meanwhile the rest of us have to watch in exasperation and then pick up the pieces, live with the consequences of their in-house and now out-house squabbles. Cameron’s European “deal” is not, in the end, about making the EU better and our place in it more positive but rather, it is about responding to the internecine fighting and sniping within his own party and satisfying and placating his own Tory Eurosceptics. Like all such weak efforts it is likely to fail for the dissenters already smell blood; they perceive weakness in Cameron's casue giving them hope that they can win.

This is the sort of situation where President Lyndon Johnson would have cracked the whip, banged political heads together, made  offers that could not be refused, taken politicians into dark corners to ensure their obedience but not Cameron. Such are the strong opinions, prejudices and delicate balances within the Tory party and such is his own relative weakness on this issue that the best Cameron could muster in response to the Mayor of London’s  disloyal announcement last week was: “My good chum is wrong on this......” . Well, there we go then, I bet that really spooked the Boris the Buffoon and forced him to think again! This is the old boys club at work; both Cameron and Johnson were pupils together at Eton and members of the infamous Bullingdon Club for rich young men while at Oxford University and when I hear this sort of thing I wonder are we well served as a nation by having this little chummy elite group in charge of our future. Cameron, Johnson and all the rest in the Tory hierarchy all have form – they went to school together, socialise together, are members of the same London gentlemen's clubs, are often distantly related and move in the same elite business and social circles; they are all in each other’s pockets – how can you easily wield the political knife to the friend that you are having dinner with tomorrow night? How can you say what has to be said in the media and in  so doing potentially end the political career of someone who you were at school with and who you holiday with? It all makes for weak politics and that can’t be good.

So, since Cameron was unwilling or unable to wield the political knife or to beat Boris Johnson  into submission, as LBJ would have done, it was no surprise whatsoever that other dissenters have crawled out of the political woodwork to voice their disloyalty and come out directly against the government. Like hounds chasing the fox they smell blood; Cameron is on the back foot.  Cameron’s Justice Minister Michael Gove has announced that the deal done in Brussels might not even be legally binding. Then another senior figure Ian Duncan Smith announced that Cameron’s claims that his EU deal would secure our borders from potential terrorists was untrue and that it would, in fact, make it easier for extreme groups to infiltrate the country. Former Tory leader Michael Howard then weighed in to voice his disapproval of the deal and his opposition to it...........and so the list goes on.
If the dissenters have their way we will be
airbrushed out of history - a small island
adrift in a very choppy sea

It is a nonsense – so much so that the tabloid papers have said it all in their  headlines “All out civil war in the Tory party”.  So on this matter of national importance, the rest of us have to watch and wait while the oddballs, the many Colonel Blimps in the Tory party, the mindless right and the purely nutty and all the have their moment of glory, their fifteen minutes of fame. One only needs to look at the list of “outers” and it is frightening – there is a clear shortage of brain cells amongst them. Being charitable some, like Boris Johnson  are “chancers”, out for their own aggrandisement (Johnson hopes to one day be PM and sees himself in this role if the referendum votes for leaving the EU). Others, like Peter Bone or Michael Gove are people who are still living in a time warp when England ruled the waves and we still had our jolly old Empire to shore us up. And yet others, for example, Ian Duncan Smith or Michael Howard are simply one sandwich short of a picnic, intellectually challenged, dim -  poor rich boys who have got to their position in the Tory hierarchy purely and simply via the old boy network; people who would have huge difficulties in holding any sort of real job down. And, these are only the big names – beneath them there are scores of ordinary MPs and the like who have registered their dissent.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that my commitment to Europe is at the far end of the spectrum. I am well aware that many in the electorate very reasonably hold very different views to my own – and their votes may well carry the day for them in the June referendum. I won’t like that but that is the nature of democracy. But, it cannot be right that when a government decides upon a policy which, they believe, is in the national interest and they put that policy to the nation for approval via a referendum that senior members of that very government act disloyally and actively set out to confuse the electorate and scupper the government’s own plans. For the UK it is far too important a decision to be messed up; indeed Cameron himself says this – calling it “the most important decision of our generation and perhaps for the future generation”. If this is true – and I believe that it is – then it is critical that the case is presented by the government clearly and  unambiguously; not muddied by this sideshow of senior members of the government singing a different song. Other political parties (for example, UKIP  who have a perfectly legitimate anti-European standpoint) are quite free and correct in presenting the opposite view to Cameron’s and to my own. This is democracy – but to have people within the same party actively contradicting and weakening the government  on such an important issue is a nonsense – it is unacceptable.
Listen to my forked tongue.........you know it makes sense

In President Johnson’s country, the USA, I think that the indigenous Indian peoples had a very apposite description for those who act like the Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and the other Tory dissenters – people who act deceitfully, taking one position (i.e. are  government members ) but say something else (dissent from government policy).  The  Indians say that that “they speak with a forked tongue”..... they are snake-like. And, like the snake in the story of Adam and Eve, they are not to be trusted, they are devious, unreliable, dishonest, treacherous. Indeed, I’m sure that David Cameron feels that they have been treacherous – even though he might not say it. Just as the Garden of Eden’s serpent whispered things in the ear of Eve and her husband so these Tory rebels are doing the same to the electorate.  Of course, we know that it all went very badly wrong for poor Adam and Eve – and we, the nation’s voters together with David Cameron, might find that this European issue all ends in tears, too, if this Tory fiasco continues. And if it does go badly wrong David Cameron, through his lack of strong action, will bear a huge responsibility – and we as a nation, like Adam and Eve will find ourselves cast out – out of the EU; little people adrift in a sea of very large sharks.  Oh, for an LBJ to sort these dissenters out: cut them off at the knees, make them an offer they can’t refuse, take them into a dark corner and convince them of the error of their ways. If LBJ were around today I suspect he might shake his head in disbelief at the in-fighting within the Tory party. He would, I am sure, have some pithy comments about those in power at Westminster.  Maybe he would have amended another of his famous quotes to include the Tory party: “The Organization of American States Tory Party couldn't pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel”!  Absolutely – couldn’t have said it better myself.

26 February, 2016

"Manners Maketh the Man".......Unless you are a Tory

I can still remember writing lines as a punishment when I was at school as a thirteen or fourteen year old almost sixty years ago. I can also remember what it was that I had to write. In those far off days we had a young music teacher – I don’t remember his name – who, although a lovely man, had great difficulty in controlling us rowdy teenagers. We would change the words of songs that we learned so that they became rude or annoying and when listening to some piece of music that he played we were certainly less than attentive. He must have done a pretty good job, however, since I can still remember those far off songs (the correct words as well as our versions!) and whenever I hear one of the pieces of music that he played to us I am back in that classroom listening as I did then. The other morning as we lay in bed drinking our early morning cup of tea the Classic FM DJ played part of  Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite and I was immediately back in that classroom as the teacher told us the story of Peer Gynt and used the music to illustrate it. But, as I say, we played the teacher up quite mercilessly and so it was no surprise that we were punished and lost our playtimes, being made to copy out lines. The favoured line that we would have to write out a hundred or more times was: “Manners maketh the man”  and I suppose that was fair and reasonable given that so far as the teacher was concerned we clearly did  not show him any respect, courtesy or manners.

Cameron and  on the right Corbyn in his "improper suit" during
Prime Minister's Question Time
These lines of punishment came to my mind earlier this week when, like many others in the country, I was both dismayed and angry, on watching and listening to our Prime Minister, David Cameron, make an unacceptable personal attack on Jeremy Corbyn the Labour leader. It is undoubtedly a measure of the two men that Corbyn did not respond to Cameron’s verbal abuse – he acted instead with grace, courtesy and good manners by simply politely carrying on with his line of questioning despite Cameron’s mocking and derisory outburst.

Cameron is an upper class bully. He, like many of his Tory friends possess a huge sense of entitlement and like others of their kind expect to get their own way and  during the weekly Prime Minister’s Question Time Cameron, in response to a perfectly legitimate question embarked upon this unpleasant and unnecessary personal attack. Mocking Corbyn’s low key dress sense the PM sneeringly and sarcastically told the Labour leader to 'Put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem'.  (Yes, to any blog readers in far off places of the globe and who still might revere the workings of “the mother of Parliaments” – this is what we are reduced to in the land of Magna Carta and the home of parliamentary democracy!).
Cameron with his bullying alter ego the
thoroughly despicable Flashman from the novel
"Tom Brown's Schooldays"

Prime Minister’s Question Time is a rowdy uncouth affair. When Corbyn came to the Labour leadership a few months ago he asked that it be made more courteous and positive where polite and sensible questions  by MPs received courteous and sensible answers from the PM. His plea has largely fallen on deaf ears and although he maintains his dignity the Tory party and Cameron do not. It is a issue that many in the UK frequently complain about; making the point that it would not be allowed to happen in a school or workplace. But it seems in Parliament and especially within the Tory party the normal rules of conversation and debate do not apply; sneering remarks of the Cameron type are common, braying laughter by Tory MPs is part of the normal backdrop and women especially are at a disadvantage – sexist comment and innuendo being common. Tory grandee Nicholas Soames (a grandson of Winston Churchill) is well known in the Commons for his  sexist gestures and remarks;  several female MPs stating that he makes vulgar comments to them. Soames has frequently been observed making repeated cupping gestures with his hands, suggestive of female breasts, when women MPs are trying to speak in Parliament, in order to distract them. This is Prime Minister’s Question Time – which is meant to be an opportunity for MPs of all persuasions to ask the PM courteous and sensible questions about government policy and to receive respectful and thoughtful answers. Instead it is a braying mob who, with the exception of Corbyn and other Labour MPs, largely show no respect for each other or the office which they hold. It becomes a verbal bullying match akin to that which one might well see on the playground – and Prime Minister Cameron is one of its cheer leaders. Indeed, he is a past master and lives up well to his nickname “Flashman” – recalling the unpleasant school bully of Rugby School in the novel ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ .
Nicholas Soames - a delightful man if you
like that sort of thing. Don't think I would
 like to be stuck in a lift with him, however -
 and especially so if I were a woman.

But, the mocking of Corbyn’s dress sense  was Cameron unscripted and showed perfectly the bully that, deep down, he is. It was also the Cameron that he would rather you didn’t see. This was  the Cameron of Eton and entitlement. All that hard work that he has done over the past 10 years of hugging hoodies and pretending to care about the little people was tossed aside when, as in the past the red mist descended, and he lost the carefully scripted and vetted plot This was the real Cameron; the Cameron  who actually does believe that people who don’t dress as smartly as him and don’t sing the national anthem are lesser beings who are letting themselves and their country down.

This was the Cameron  he had always tried to keep under wraps as he hypocritically talked of his beloved “hard working families” and his beloved “nation’s strivers”. This is what he really thinks of them.  Cameron, in reality, pines for a world where people brush their hair, polish their shoes and speak when they are spoken to by people like him – a world where people know their place. Without mentioning it Cameron spelled out loud and clear that his favourite hymn is “All things Bright and Beautiful” – especially the bit that says “The Rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate......” –  he will sing that with special gusto each Sunday morning. It was Cameron the toff who, deep in his psyche, believes that the ordinary men, women and children in the street - who are, unlike him and his Eton pals not quite “top drawer” - should be seen and not heard. They are simply there to be harangued, hectored  and bullied by people like him

Now they are real doctors not the scruffy individuals that staff
our hospitals today. You know where you stand with a
consultant like James Robertson Justice (left) in the Carry
On Doctor comedy.
Cameron and the Colonel Blimps of the Tory hierarchy long for a world of Empire and respect for the elite officer class. A world where hospital consultants wear bow-ties like  James Robertson Justice did in the early ‘Carry On Doctor’ films: Cameron and his cronies dream of and live in a time where  the ragamuffin doctors of the NHS or the scruffy teachers in the school staffrooms are not tolerated. In Cameron’s elitist world James Robertson Justice who played the part of the hospital consultant in the films would have sorted out those moaning junior doctors in next to no time. But in the real world which to his regret Cameron is forced to inhabit he has to spend  each working day with the dregs of society like Jeremy Corbyn or you and me. Cameron's world on the other hand is a world of Harrods or Fortnum & Mason, of tiffin, of polite society chat, of dinner parties, of games of croquet on the lawn, of Notting Hill and Cotswold society and of ‘people like us’ – but definitely not people like you and me.

I'm all for people looking smart and think that standards have slipped in the modern world but Cameron's uncalled for outburst says more about him than it does about Corbyn. And I wonder what Cameron thinks about me - I don't possess a suit of any kind let alone a 'proper suit' - whatever that is - and haven't done so for many years. Maybe our esteemed PM should explain to we, the sartorially challenged scruffy rabble, exactly what a 'proper suit' is - although I suspect that he might fall foul of the fashion industry when he tries. And what about the doctor who I saw at the hospital and who gave me a spinal injection last week - he wasn’t wearing a suit so was he remiss, inferior, not a real doctor?  I don’t think so since he kindly, professionally and almost magically relieved me of my pain. I frequently see many serious news reporters and commentators on TV without a tie – are all these recognised expert national figures somehow less reliable or incompetent because of their lack of neckwear? – I don’t think so. And when I go to listen to a concert, opera or see a ballet it is rare indeed now to see a man in a suit and tie. As it happens I always wear a tie to one of these events but feel distinctly overdressed. Am I somehow superior to these others – should I refuse to sit near these uncouth ragamuffins?

So far as singing the National Anthem is concerned why should I (or Corbyn) sing a song which is not in any way a mark of respect or praise for the virtues, beauty and goodness of our country and its people. Instead it can only be described as  a very silly song which bizarrely asks an entity that probably doesn't exist (God) to somehow preserve an another entity (an unelected monarch, who is there only by accident of birth) that certainly shouldn't exist?  Why, I wonder, is Cameron so keen for me and Corbyn to ask God to "save the Queen"? - is there a shortage of Queens at the moment? Might we or God run out of them, or is God, perhaps, playing a celestial game of cards with the Archangel Gabriel and St Peter and needs a few Kings & Queens to win the game?
The Bullingdon Club in all its glory. Cameron second left on
back row and his Tory crony Boris Johnson (now Mayor of
London and with aspirations to be the next PM when Cameron
goes)  sitting on the right.  They clearly know what a
well dressed chap wears - suits cost about £3500 each.
How did these Oxford students afford that sort of money! 

When this is the best that Cameron can do I question why we should take him seriously on important matters - the EU, the health service, education, the economy, Trident and the rest. If one needed any further evidence of how out of touch with the real world of ordinary people the Tory party and the government's "Eton old boys club" are, then look no further than Cameron's comment, it illustrates well what a thoroughly unpleasant and nasty person Cameron - and, by association - his cronies really are. It would have gone down well in Cameron and Boris Johnson’s Oxford days, when, as members of the infamous Bullingdon Club they undertook various initiation ceremonies and “larks” which in any other walk of life would be regarded as quite unacceptable. "Larks" such as approaching a homeless person with a £50 note in hand as if they are going to give it to him or her......but then they burn it in front of his or her eyes. (Yes, really, it is one of the Bullingdon Club’s initiation ceremonies!!!!!) Another well documented Bullingdon prank includes trashing pubs and restaurants (doing thousands of pounds worth of damage) and then paying for the damage in cash – which, like the burning of the £50 note, is a carefully calculated action with one clear motive:  to show the superiority, entitlement and power that these people believe that they have over the rest of us ordinary mortals. Or,  what about the  Bullingdon ceremony that caused Cameron some embarrassment a year or two ago – putting his penis into the mouth of a dead pig. Who in their right mind would want to do that I might ask? Its point and pleasures sadly escape a simple member of the human race like myself. But clearly Cameron got a kick out of it - if that is the right term to use - and now this man is in charge of our country. Maybe he did it while singing the National Anthem! Of course if young, well paid soccer stars did these things they would be vilified by people like Cameron. If a teenage girl texted to another teenage girl the sort of things that Cameron said to Corbyn about dress  then  Cameron would be the first to accuse her of cyber bullying. But no, it’s fine for him and his Tory friends – it is their right and entitlement.

The whole thing is an unacceptable nonsense – and Cameron knows it. The issue exposed the Tory party for what it is and the words of Cameron’s Education Minister Nicky Morgan later took it to a new level of awfulness – but she was so stupid she couldn’t see it. In a BBC interview after Cameron’s comments she defended the PM by saying: "What was really noticeable was that Jeremy Corbyn's top button was not done up, his tie wasn't straight". Well really! –is this the end of civilization as we know it, how underwhelming is that? I’m absolutely speechless!  So, one of our most senior politicians, the Education Secretary at a time of national importance, in the mother of Parliaments, and when a momentous piece of government policy  must be argued about and its detail dissected  can only think about whether someone’s tie is not straight! When I hear that a senior minister sits in the debating chamber and idly day dreams about the dress sense of other members I am more than a little worried. Mrs Morgan, however seems to have no qualms about displaying her shortcomings – or, maybe as I suggest, she is just too stupid to realise what she is saying.

I remember children that I have taught over the years sitting on the back row day dreaming and missing the whole point of my lesson. Well, that’s fine and part of the day to day life of the classroom; young, immature children have a short attention span and I may not have been the most inspiring teacher. And, indeed, that, in a way, was the reason why all those years ago I was rightly made to write out several hundred times “Manners maketh the man”  - I was not giving the lesson or the teacher the respect, courtesy and diligence that I should have done and that he deserved. But it’s a bit worrying when the person in charge of the nation’s classrooms behaves in the same way; and it’s even more concerning when our Prime Minister and his Tory followers display the sort of bullying and unacceptable behaviour that my old music teacher all those years ago would not tolerate and which we would today find totally unacceptable from any group of teenagers, soccer players, immigrants or any other group that you care to mention. He and his followers should be ashamed and apologise not only to Corbyn but to the rest of us; it is no small wonder that politicians are viewed so negatively and that increasingly the population is less engaged with politics and democracy.

18 February, 2016

Trust me.......I'm a doctor!

For the past several months in England there has been a long-running and increasingly bitter dispute between the government and doctors concerning a new contract that the government wish to bring into force. The doctors through their professional association – the BMA (British Medical Association) have fought the new provisions on two fronts; firstly that they will lose out financially if the contract is brought into being and secondly that if it is established its effect will be, as they see it, to threaten patient care and provision. The government for its part argue that the contract is necessary if we are to have a better, more efficient health service. Negotiations have gone on for months, the government arguing that they have made a number of amendments to their original offer in order that the doctor’s concerns are met whilst the doctors argue that should the contract come into being in its present form many will leave the profession or go abroad to work.

Where right and wrong lies in this dispute clearly depends upon which side of the political divide one sits but what cannot be disputed is that positions have become entrenched and neither side seems likely to move. The government, in the shape of Jeremy Hunt the Health Secretary, has announced that discussions are at an end and he will simply impose the contract.  Doctors, for their part, have become increasingly vociferous and embittered. Earlier this week the Guardian published a letter from a doctor who also happens to be the daughter of an ex-Conservative minister and colleague of Jeremy Hunt, Andrew Mitchell. Dr Mitchell was scathing in her criticism of the government and of Jeremy Hunt in particular:

I read with deep regret the news that Jeremy Hunt has decided to impose the new junior doctors contract. What Jeremy Hunt has managed to achieve is nothing short of spectacular. Health secretaries have come and gone, imposing new measures of varying unpopularity on the NHS but not one has managed to so completely unite doctors in their dislike and alienate healthcare workers across the board in the way he has. He says we lack vocation, he paints us as the problem. The morale of the workforce is at breaking point. With imposition, the goodwill of doctors who work hours beyond those they are rota-ed and paid to do will dry up.

The health secretary is not even clear on what he means by a seven-day-week NHS. He continues to misuse research to support his arguments. He has been told the statistics he uses are not correct, meaning he is either dishonest or stupid. I don’t know which is worse. He demonises the BMA, and lies about their actions. They are not a militant union; they are the very moderate voice representing junior doctors in the UK.

I am one of the many junior doctors who have left the UK. If he goes ahead with imposition of contract, I am certainly unlikely to return to the UK to continue clinical practice. The health secretary has alienated an entire generation of junior doctors. We have no confidence in him. He must be sacked.

Dr Hannah Mitchell
Gaborone, Botswana

The National Health Service in the UK has an almost mythical standing – it is a brave or very foolish politician who seeks to manipulate or change it. No one would argue that it is perfect but it has become such a treasured and integral part of British life that whichever party is in power must, if they are to retain public support, ensure that the NHS is safeguarded. In short it is a “sacred cow”.  The issues implicit in the current dispute go to the very core of the service: how can the staff and resources be managed and improved to ensure better provision, how can  the massive funding be better managed and thirdly, what is the most effective use of an already overstretched staff. And, crucially, there is the undeniable fact that no matter how well the NHS does or how much money is invested, it can never really meet the expectations of the populace; we always want more!

I certainly have no answers. I have absolutely no doubts that the wonderful service devised by Nye Bevan in the aftermath of the Second World War is, to a degree, no longer fit for purpose. We are living in a different age – we cannot simply keep pouring more and more money in to preserve things as they were. For example, when the service was introduced all prescriptions were largely free – this to ensure, at a time of great poverty, that ordinary folk could access basic medication and help; times in those days were hard, far harder than they are today. Each month when I stand in my local chemist to pick up my month’s supply of cardiac medications I am embarrassed; although prescriptions are not now free they are still free to older people like myself or at a heavily subsidised cost to everyone else. I stand there and in my heart of hearts know that I should be making some contribution to the huge cost of what is given to me each month. Similarly, an appointment to see my GP is free. On Thursday I visited my local hospital for a spinal injection to ease my slipped disc problems. Last year I had this done in a private hospital – cost about £500. The cost of this latest (and exactly the same) procedure done at my local NHS hospital  was nil ..... and I also got a cup of tea, a cheese sandwich and a packet of biscuits thrown in! Of course, many would argue that I as have paid my taxes all my life so am entitled to this. Well, maybe so – but I am not poor and could afford to make a contribution in order that others less fortunate than me might enjoy the same facilities for nothing. That seems to me to be some kind of moral imperative but, for sure, it is at least an important and basic bit of humanity.

Would I buy a used car from this man? Do I think that he
is totally honest? Do I think that he can be trusted.
No on all counts. Jeremy Hunt is a political whizz kid -
his only allegiance is to Jeremy Hunt.
When Bevan and his colleagues set up our welfare state and NHS in the late 1940s there were certain clear principles – available to all, no matter their circumstances and free at the point of delivery being two. But there were other, perhaps less clear principles or assumptions which are often forgotten. The welfare state was never intended to keep people in some kind of luxury and the NHS was intended to alleviate people from the fear and pain of illness. I suspect that if Bevan or Attlee were to return today they might hold their hands up in surprise at what they saw; people like me of reasonable wealth accessing hugely expensive medications and services for free or people accessing NHS resources for conditions such as cosmetic surgery that may be desirable but certainly not life threatening/changing situations where medical intervention is absolutely necessary. They would find what we spend money on via the health and welfare budgets not what they anticipated or intended all those years ago when they introduced the system to save people from the very real ravages of widespread health issues and poverty. We live in different times and it is right and proper that we look very carefully at how the service can be made relevant to the age in which we now live and reflect our changed circumstances be they financial or social.

The costs of health and social provision in the modern age is eye wateringly expensive. Although we might blithely say that as a rich nation we can afford it, the reality is that it is inappropriate to keep pumping more and more money into services that can never, in the modern day and age, satisfy everyone’s wants and desires. As medical advances find new technologies and procedures to offer or as society’s needs become greater in terms of expectation any government has to address the question of what is ‘reasonable’ given the situation. Increased funding, new ways of working, the use of the private sector, various forms of ‘rationing’ of resources or rationalisation of working practices might all come into the equation somewhere. Our aging population and pro rata a smaller workforce paying taxes to fund provision increasingly puts greater strains upon welfare and health resources and budgets – that fact alone is sufficient to require any government to responsibly review how it funds and manages provision. Not to do so would simply be an abdication of their responsibilities.

This might seem that I am taking the government’s line here – well maybe so, but not quite. There are I think wider issues which maybe lie at the heart of the present dispute. My suspicions and beliefs on this matter seemed to me to be confirmed by a statement by Jeremy Hunt a couple of days ago. Talking of the bitter dispute and the sort of condemnation and vilification that he has received from doctors Hunt was unapologetic saying that: “I was talking to Ken Clarke [a previous health secretary] yesterday and he was saying how he was pursued by nurses to the airport when he was going on holiday with his family – the BMA put up posters of him all over the country. I had a similar conversation with Norman Fowler and someone was telling me yesterday how Patricia Hewitt had the mums of junior doctors pursuing her everywhere she went,” . Hunt added that there had been “one or two incidents, [of him being pursued by angry doctors] but it goes with the territory.”

For me that is a telling indictment and confirms the comments made by Dr Mitchell in her letter – that there is clearly a lack of basic trust between those working in the health service and the politicians in charge. For me there is something uncomfortable when a government minister  can treat so  dismissively the very real concerns and, perhaps,  anger of highly thought of professionals. I would suggest that it is a matter of profound regret and concern that successive health secretaries appear unable to build up a relationship of trust with those charged with perhaps the most important part of a government’s responsibility – the health and welfare of its citizens. This breaking of trust has just been brought into even sharper focus; a young doctor has been missing for several days in Devon  and as police search for her suicide is high on the list of likely outcomes. The doctor concerned apparently left a note where she named Jeremy Hunt’s decisions and actions as possibly a factor in her anxieties. If this proves to be the case then clearly politicians like Hunt cannot simply accept and dismiss the ire of those they represent and are responsible for as just a sort of "bad day at the office" issue.

Trust is the issue here – an understanding, recognition and trust of the values, beliefs, motives and expertise of the very professionals charged with the delivering of the welfare and health of the nation. It seems to me that traditionally (and maybe it's even more true today as the media, politicians or pressure groups seek to influence opinions as never before) doctors have been one of the small group of professionals in society who people expect to “tell the truth” and be untainted by other factors. We call upon the services of doctors when we as individuals or society as a whole are faced with profound problems - our health or the health of our loved ones and the health and welfare of wider society. And when we call upon their services then we expect an entirely truthful and unbiased action; indeed doctors take an oath to this effect upon qualifying. The same might be said of judges (but not necessarily lawyers since they might be representing another interest) – we expect our judges to act and comment entirely truthfully and their views be regarded as totally honourable and beyond criticism. If this is not the case then the very basis of our laws and justice are in danger. Another group that carries this mantle would, of course, be those involved in the church – the vicar, the cardinal, the rabbi or the imam.  We might not agree with their particular faith but we would respect their views and advice because somehow we accept that they will be truthful.  As an ex-teacher I might say that teachers once fell into this category – but sadly not any longer as successive governments have taken away their professional standing and brought the morals of the marketplace into a school administration and the classroom. As I write this I am reminded of my son who is an accountant; he often jokingly says “Trust me, I’m an  accountant”............and he then adds with a smile “I can make any number mean what you want it to mean!”.Quite – accountants, like bank managers, once fell into this truthfulness category but in the past decade and especially  since the debacle of the financial crash they are now regarded as distinctly untruthful by many. Of course, I’m sure that my son like most accountants and bank managers are every bit as truthful as every priest or doctor or judge – but as a profession they have largely lost that perceived characteristic and moral high ground

I am not suggesting that every doctor, priest or judge is a paragon of virtue - far from it.  But as a society we have to believe  and trust that these people will act in our best interests. If we cannot trust them then who can we trust?  By the very nature of their professions, they operate at the very heart of what it is to be human and a member of a society - they deal with matters of life and death and of ultimate right and wrong - and if they cannot be trusted then I have no doubts that society is not only at a very low ebb but is in danger – for it is these people throughout history who have frequently stood up for basic values and rights. They are the people to whom we instinctively turn to for advice, support or assistance when times are at their darkest. When people face great sorrow or loss it is often the priest to whom we turn for solace  or advice; when we feel wronged we turn to the judge through our justice system; when we are at death’s door it is into the doctor’s hands that we place ourselves........and in each and many other cases we have to expect and perhaps subconsciously know, that, at the end of the day, these people will act honestly and truthfully and in our best interests. They are trustworthy.

Politicians like Jeremy Hunt, however, are today amongst the most despised and mistrusted groups in society. This of course is unfounded; I’m sure that many politicians are honourable trustworthy people – but that is not how they are perceived and certainly not what their record shows. And quite frankly, if I listen to the arguments about the problems in the health service, whilst I might recognise the problems faced by Jeremy Hunt and others as they strive to manage this expensive but benevolent leviathan it is the doctors (and nurses etc) views that I will relate to and believe rather than the politicians. Partly, I will believe them because they are actually working, they have a stake in the service so know its problems and opportunities first hand. But mostly I will believe them because not to do so questions the very basis upon which our society and democracy ultimately rests. Sadly, like many others, I cannot say the same of politicians -  I will always suspect that they are being economical with the truth and/or pursuing a hidden agenda. This is  a worrying indictment on our modern society.

There are many, like myself who believe that Hunt’s (and the government’s) plans have a more sinister and cynical basis than  simply making a few economies in the NHS. A report out today by the independent think tank The King’s Fund suggests that “the NHS [is] nearing “make or break” , with “widespread pessimism” within the service.”  Patients are getting “poorer care from the NHS in England as its funding crisis deepens, with trusts forecasting a £2.3bn deficit by the time the financial year ends....... [there has been] a return to central control of budgets from Westminster with funding decisions increasingly tied to tough cost reduction targets. More than half the trust finance directors believe care provided in their area is deteriorating, the first time such a figure has been reached since the surveys began in 2011”. Well, one might say that merely proves Hunt’s point: something has to be done. But I would retort, we’ve been here before with, for example, our rail network  and indeed our schools or prison service. It is, as Noam Chomsky famously argued “classic capitalist strategy”......defund the service  so that increased problems occur; people get angry and complain; the government blames the problems the inefficient system and sell the business to  private capital at knock down prices and say everything will improve”. Things, of course, don’t necessarily improve but the government has profited by a few billion pounds, got rid of its responsibility and can no longer be blamed for any problems that arise. I can very easily see that this is Hunt’s and the government’s real agenda – blame the doctors and others for the system's increasing problems until the point is reached whereby privatisation appears the only option.

The public’s cynicism and lack of trust in our elected representatives inherent in the above scenario has to be frightening. We are on a slippery slope downwards   Maybe I’m just old-fashioned – but quite simply I would not like to live in a society where I thought the priests or the judges or the doctors were not ultimately truthful – it brings to mind recollections of dystopian societies of the most extreme kind:  Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China and it questions the very foundations of democracy. It is George Orwell's 1984 made real. 

They can see the writing on the wall! Chomsky's prophecy
is being made real in  our NHS - "defund, demoralise
and then sell off." Watch what happens in the next few years.
And a final point. Small and pedantic in itself but perhaps a small measure of how out of touch Jeremy Hunt is. It was brought to my attention in the Guardian letter page a few days ago. As the dispute between the doctors and government reached crisis point Jeremy Hunt announced that further discussion was useless and that he was going to “impose the doctors'  contract”. As a Guardian reader pointed out, the legal and the literal definition of a contract is that it is an agreement, voluntarily and freely entered into between two or more parties. The very nature of a contract is such that it cannot be imposed if one party does not agree to it or has not freely entered into it. If it is "imposed" as Hunt suggests then by definition it ceases to be a contract. The whole notion of a contract has implications of truth and mutual respect – that both parties will act in good faith, recognise the rights and expectations of the other and honour the agreement that they have made.  It is exactly the same as a wedding contract where the happy couple freely and voluntarily make certain promises to each other. Neither party can be coerced into agreeing the contract. No one would argue that a wedding “contract” can be arbitrarily imposed on one partner by the other – but Mr Hunt and his colleagues seem to believe that this is their prerogative so far as the doctors are concerned. Whether by ineptitude,  crass stupidity or blatant dishonesty Jeremy Hunt has broken the basic trust that must underpin our basic human negotiations and  relationships. As Dr Mitchell commented “....he is either dishonest or stupid. I don’t know which is worse”. For me he is, like many of his colleagues, a thoroughly untrustworthy and unpleasant man ...........and the frightening thing is, that he sits in government over us.

13 February, 2016

They sell ice cold beer in paradise!

Last week Pat and I had what has become our annual week away in the sun to escape from the UK’s dark and often chilly post-Christmas January and February days. For the past several years we have taken a trip to the beautiful volcanic island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands – just off the north west coast of Africa. It’s about a 4 hour flight from our local East Midlands Airport. There used to be a time that whenever we took a holiday we would intentionally look for pastures new – we argued that there was so much of the world to see, so why return to the same place?  But as we have got older (or maybe I should clarify that by saying I have got older) we have become more creatures of habit. So, whenever we go to Lanzarote it is to the same resort and the same hotel; we feel comfortable there, we know the routine, we can just slot in with the minimum of fuss. It is however, quite gratifying that we see other guests there who are, like us, regular visitors; happy in the familiarity of the place.

We were particularly lucky this time because the weather was outstanding. Every day we enjoyed a clear warm – but not too hot - sunshine which meant that we spent most of the time lazing by the pool or wandering along the little promenade for a cup of coffee or for lunch. Other years we have hired a car and toured the island but this time we were happy to stay put and just enjoy the break. I’m not a sun worshipper so always ensured that I found a bit of shade but the weather was just right for Pat to enjoy the sun’s rays without suffering any ill effects.

The hotel was, as always, busy and the guests were overwhelmingly retired people - British and Germans mostly -  and since it is an adults only hotel children were not in evidence!  In short it was all very civilized; quiet, relaxed and calm. I'm sure that the islanders give thanks for the British and German pension funds that ensure that people like us can help to provide employment by pouring our money into  their local economy during these out of season months!The only real exception to us, the older generation, was a large group of German & Swiss hand-cyclists taking part in various cycling events on the island.

The same group, most of them in wheel chairs, are there every year and many carry on their cycles or shirts the national badge and logo of the German or Swiss paralympic teams. Every morning we saw them going off on their cycles, flags waving from the long aerials on their machines as they cycled the island either to train or on some days take part in some event or other.  I found the thought of lying on one of those machines terrifying; knowing that I was potentially so very vulnerable because of my proximity to the ground. It would be easy in the event of an accident for these machines to simply disappear under a bus or lorry – and since these men were also, by definition, seriously handicapped they would be especially vulnerable because of their handicaps. Out of the cycle or wheel chair they were to all intents and purposes immobile. These facts did not, however, seem to cause them any concerns.  At meals times that sat and laughed, joked and discussed their cycle plans or in the evenings they sat in their wheelchairs tending to their machines,  looking at their laptops, planning out the next route or set of tactics. And, despite their obvious mobility problems, every one looked the supremely fit athletes that they were.

Where the teams stored their cycles in the hotel was a large notice advertising the various events on the island that day and it carried the legend “Handcycling in Paradise”. It was not wrong. Lanzarote, although in many ways a bleak volcanic island where the many mountains and lava fields stretch black, craggy and ashen into the distance is indeed an island paradise. The islanders have turned their little volcanic outcrop in the Atlantic into a pleasant, beautifully maintained home with neat white houses contrasting against the black lava. Use of cactus and brightly coloured plants where possible also soften and give a simple, fresh beauty to the whole place. It is quiet, everything in a human scale – no place of high rise hotels or sprawling resorts – and the pace of life reflects the warm climate; laid back, amiable and welcoming.

As Pat or I looked out from our balcony each morning or evening; or as we ambled along the promenade for a coffee or as we lazily looked up from our sun lounger to watch others stretch their legs along the sea front it was indeed very difficult to believe that we were not in the paradise mentioned on the cycling advert. Lanzarote is a wonderful place to watch the sun rise or set – a fact that we discovered long ago on one of our earlier visits.

In the mornings our balcony was bathed in a soft gold  and clear, warm light – the surrounding buildings almost startling in their brilliant whiteness. And as the sun disappeared over the horizon at the other end of the day – probably at the same bringing dawn or the first light of morning to far off Florida or South America – it bathed the whole of the frontage of the hotel in a gold and blue light. To sit and sip a cold beer and watch the sun disappear at that time of day was indeed magical and awe inspiring - it made the troubles of the world and the cares of our everyday lives seem a very long way away. Paradise indeed.