THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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November 2009

I am not a number

This remake of classic series, The Prisoner looks unpromising to a fan of the original. Yet perhaps there was never a great show that more needed to be remade. Its themes are certainly as relevant as in 1967. In those far-off days, despite the horrors of Soviet Russia, Red China and Fidel's Cuba many still saw collectivism as a gentle dream.

Sir Ian McKellen, luvvie deluxe, unexpectedly gives a quote worthy of a libertarian blogger;

“The original Prisoner was very much dealing with the life of the individual as he might get caught up in Soviet Russia… Well, here we are 40 years on and we are living in a land where people accept without question being fingerprinted, having their eyes registered at airports, taking off their clothes at the airport, opening up their luggage, not being allowed to do this, not being allowed to do that, photographed in the streets by cameras that are put up by you’re never quite sure who. All this adds up to a society that perhaps isn’t quite as democratic and careful about the freedom of the individual as we would like.”

Perhaps the delicately understated final sentence is not quite so bloggerish! One cannot imagine Devil's Kitchen, for example, languidly observing that our society;

"...isn't quite as ... careful about the freedom for the individual as we would like".

I imagine McKellen had fun with the role of "Two", but I cannot picture Jim Caviezel in the McGoohan role as [Number] Six. From the trailer and advance publicity, I fear it may finally deliver on McGoohan's dishonest promise to his backers that it would be an action series. For all its failings, the original series was a thought-provoking, intelligent work. It would therefore never have made it to the small screen without McGoohan's deception. It was his project; he was co-creator, star and wrote some of it himself. We owe him for that; it's hard to imagine a remake that won't make our authoritarian leaders uncomfortable and their sycophants furious.

A genuine individualist himself, McGoohan navigated bizarre story lines carefully, somehow retaining sympathy for a character far from being loveable. Ultimately, Number Six was not even entitled to say; "I am not paranoid. They really are out to get me." The series ended in a full-on 1960s schlock episode in which Number Six is revealed also to be the mysterious, never seen but much talked-about, Number One. Symbolically, he was his own jailer and "I am out to get myself" is not quite such a good punchline. I suppose McGoohan was hinting that no man can truly be unfree without consent. It was a call to arms, perhaps, but hardly rousing.

I loved the original series, though I was a teenage collectivist when I first saw it. My strict, always-in-the-wrong, upbringing felt like life in "The Village" to me and I thought the village itself a perfect metaphor. My mental image of tyranny is a village, like the one I grew up in, where everyone knows you, there is no privacy and your every move is likely to be reported to "the authorities" (or in my case at the time, my parents). I felt cheated by the finale though. Like much 1960s culture, you needed to be on acid to appreciate the logic; which is another way to say that it had none.

The Prisoner was great television, but hugely flawed. Stylistically, it was too much of its ludicrous era. Everything good from the 60s needs to be remade, so for once the producers can do better than avoid adverse comparisons. They have something to shoot for.


The Prime Minister and the grieving mother

FT.com / UK - Brown looks at £1bn helicopter order.

I wonder if the linked story has anything to do with this? If so, Mrs Janes' shameful conduct in secretly recording and publishing a private call has at least had some good result. That still doesn't make it right.

The Sun's approach to this story, which demonises Brown (a man well worthy of it) for something irrelevant, is unprofessional. He is partially sighted and his handwriting is understandably poor. If he makes a spelling error, it is hard for him to detect. He is an over-promoted economic policy wonk, not a writer, and has had his letters typed for many years. It was very proper, indeed admirable, for him to write a personal, hand-written note to Mrs Janes. She should have received it in the spirit in which it was sent. Her reaction is emotional, unreasonable and unjust and the Sun's exploitation of it is sickening.

Labour's opponents will be tempted today, remembering the exploits of Alistair Campbell and Damien McBride, to sneer that those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword. New Labour corrupted British political journalism; combining bribes of privileged access and bullying to make poodles of those who should have held them to account for their actions. Now they are weak and near defeat, some poodles are taking a cowardly chance to nip at their ankles. It's hard not to enjoy it, but that would be to make the mistake of accepting the despicable standards of journalism Labour has set.

We should demand better of the next government. It should not spin, bully or play favourites. Its ministers should treat journalists with the respect their profession deserves (even if some individuals within it deserve none). They must be open to be interviewed by serious journalists from all political points of view. Most difficult of all, if they are to do a good job, they must focus on the merits of their policies more than whether their press coverage is good or bad.

If the New Labour spin catastrophe teaches us anything, it is that sustained press manipulation will be detected and despised. In the end, burying bad news leaves a disgusting smell. As Abe Lincoln said, you can't fool all of the people all of the time. In the long run, it's better not to try. If a Conservative government behaves properly in its dealings with journalists, it will surprise and confuse them immensely. Labour has been in power a long time. Many British political journalists have no experience of honest dealings. Some - accustomed to bullying - will attack perceived weakness. Over time however, respect that can never be stolen or extorted can be earned - and reciprocated.

Call me naive, but I hope never to learn that a Conservative Minister or aide was responsible for promoting or seeking to benefit from such a disgusting, exploitative story as this one. Just as I hope that none will ever seek to benefit from smearing the private lives of their opponents or outing their personal foibles, whether they mask their prurience with references to "trust" and "honesty" or not.

I am sorry for Mrs Janes loss. We owe her son a debt of gratitude and respect. But his death does not give her opinions one grain of extra weight. She should shut up and pay her late son the respect his memory deserves in her grief. If they are wise, anti-Labour commentators will shut up too. There is no story here.


Whatever happened to men?

Sean Linnane: STEVE McQUEEN.

Sean's affectionate piece on Steve McQueen reminded me (bear with me here) of my grandfather. He was also passionate and full of life. He drove like there was no tomorrow and was a ladies man. He was a fiercely competitive (is there any other kind?) sportsman and - in his 1940s/50s way - ineffably cool. In the military I suspect he was also inclined to fret and fool about under discipline. At least one such episode sadly left him, as we would say, "disabled" (and as he said, without a shred of self-pity "a cripple").

He spent a lot of time with me for the year or so before I started school. He had replaced his beloved cricket and table tennis with pigeon racing. It satisfied his competitive spirit and (by its cold eugenic culling) his ruthlessness. He was president of the National Flying Club and adjudicated on disputed races. Big money rides on racing pigeons in prizes and side bets, so disputes can be serious. He was only appealed against once and promptly appointed himself chairman of the appeals committee, dealing contemptuously with the man who dared question his judgement. That story almost ended in the High Court, as it fell foul of nemo iudex in suo causa (no man shall be judge in his own cause); one of the two principles of natural justice acknowledged by the Common Law.

GranddadmobileHe used to take the awed three and four year old me for training runs in his Humber Hawk, releasing birds from a basket in the boot by the lakeside at Ellesmere. The car was a tame beast by the standards of my Vittoria (whom he would have adored) but was a force of nature in his hands. He raced his pigeons home and - implausibly on twisting country roads - would sometimes beat them. Racing pigeons fly at 60 mph and (as he thought) in straight lines. What possessed him even to try? How did he accept winning as merely his due?

Years later scientists found that homing pigeons avoid the apparent strain of using their natural navigation skills by learning landmarks to follow on repeat runs - even tracking the roads beneath them. I laughed out loud when I read that; Granddad's feats were theoretically possible! I tried (on clear roads in the early light with my first sports car) to reproduce them and could not. My trip computer showed I came up short of beating a pigeon. How he would have laughed, by the way, at being commemorated in such a boyish fashion.

At five years old, he cast me off without a word when his next grandchild came along. I saw him constantly in company of course, but we never talked much again until I got to know him better in his final years. He always had a favourite. He would have been contemptuous if he thought that it bothered any of us. Life was hard and toughness was the answer. He had no time for "softness" and someone he thought "soft" would simply cease to exist for him. Nor would he miss them.

His wife - more educated and better read than him - would tell a different story. He was a bad husband in many ways and they spoke to each other in terms that made at least one young grandson doubt the wisdom of marriage itself. Yet, when he finally gentled towards the end, she needled and provoked him until he roared; observing with a smile, "the fire's not out yet."

She tried to raise her sons to be (at least by comparison) "New Men", but with mixed results. He dominated their raising with a strap of leather; wielded with right good will. As a father, I agonised about discipline. When my daughters misbehaved and blamed each other I suffered minor agonies in my attempts to do perfect justice. Granddad simply formed a rapid view based on his own judgement, acted accordingly and never spared a second for doubt. I suspect I did more wrong in allowing myself to be played upon, than he did in his ruthless practicality.

His last advice to me was;

"I regret nothing I did, but I regret lots of things I didn't do - like the trip to Japan I cancelled. Your Mum and Dad taught you to be careful - especially with money. That's fine, up to a point, but try not to let it spoil your life. I will die with money in the bank but only because I can't get there to take it out and blow it!"

I owe the joys of Vittoria to that advice, and much besides. Thanks, Granddad.

For all his dashed-by-envy business success, my grandfather was a tough member of the Northern working class. Were he fully alive today (as opposed to those fragments of him flaring erratically in my genes) I suspect he would shock most of my readers. Especially the women. I also suspect that much of what's wrong with modern society is to do with with passing of his, and Steve McQueen's, model of manhood. 


Again, Wat posts the graph that matters

Burning our money: Pathetic Autistic Castrates.

As everyone and his dog prattles on about the politics of the Conservatives and the EU, Wat Tyler (link above) keeps his head and posts this graph (click for the full misery);

Eu contributions net 2007
He observes, drily;

UK withdrawal would hurt them a lot more than it would hurt us
Given the graph he posted the other day, by what logic is Britain such a huge net contributor? Why is Poland, doing better in the crisis than most other EU countries, taking so much from the Germans, Brits and Dutch? I lived there 11 years and love the place dearly, but do they think we have some moral obligation to compensate for their years of suffering under Communism? Though they like to blame it on the Russians now, let's not forget the KGB was founded by a Pole. As for the Greeks, really guys! A few millennia is long enough for anyone to rest on their laurels, however magnificent. It might be time to roll up your sleeves and do a bit again.

200px-Felix_Dzerzhinsky_1919Britain's glory has long since faded and it's time to face the truth. We are a poor country with a lower standard of life than the other net contributors to the EU budget. Don't blather, please, about our relative GDP. It's what our money can buy us that matters for this purpose. My friends and colleagues in Stuttgart, Paris or Berlin earning less than half what my partners in London earn can live far better on it. Their direct taxes are roughly the same; they have fewer stealth taxes; their public services are actually usable and for what it will cost me to buy my daughters a studio flat in London, I could buy them five in Berlin.

Whatever the (massively undemocratic) politics of the EU may be and regardless of its murky accounting to conceal its shameful corruption, it is an enormous rip-off for the British. The crowing EU-philes* enjoying David Cameron's (well-deserved) embarrassment should instead be doing something about that. Whoever is the next Prime Minister, I suggest Margaret Thatcher sends him her biggest, heaviest handbag and he takes it to Brussels with a house brick in it.

If you want us to love this bastard child of yours, at least get its hands out of our pockets!


* I really object to them stealing the word "europhile." I am a europhile. I holiday in France in my Italian car while wearing my Swiss (or sometimes my German) watch. I drink only French wine and would prefer only ever to eat French food. I speak French and Polish and understand German and Russian. I am no Little Englander, yet I completely detest the EU. I see it as a threat to all European freedoms, not just those of Britain.

We have our answer

please-go - epetition response | Number10.gov.uk.

The Prime Minister has, finally, responded to the most popular petition ever on the Number 10 website; requesting him to resign. His response to the request of 72,234 signatories? He strung together the clichés he has been uttering for months, while Britain daily slides deeper into an economic mire of his spendthrift government's making;

The Prime Minister is completely focussed on restoring the economy, getting people back to work and improving standards in public services. As the Prime Minister has consistently said, he is determined to build a stronger, fairer, better Britain for all.

His contempt for us really is total, isn't it?


The face he deserves?

Brown to grey: Portrait of a Prime Minister feeling the strain | Mail Online.

The face he deserves

It's obvious Brown himself has lost the will to live, but what were his advisors thinking about in permitting this undead photo to be published? Surely they had approval rights before publication? Any decent undertaker could have made him look better. Did worm-tongue Mandelson tell him it looked dignified?


The brittleness of cast iron

David Cameron to shed 'cast iron' pledge on Lisbon treaty | Politics | The Guardian.

David Cameron was elected to lead the Conservative Party for his political and presentational skills, not his convictions. It remains to be seen if he has any convictions, but now we must also question his skills.

He has a tendency to give hostages to political fortune. He tried to seize the moral high ground on becoming party leader by pledging to avoid "Punch and Judy politics". He has been persistently prodded with political pitchforks by Mandelson and the lesser demons ever since, but if he responds in kind, they jeer "Punch and Judy" at him. I fear the phrase "cast-iron guarantee" is going to haunt him in a similar fashion.

People don't trust politicians and it's not entirely their fault. It is a defect in democracy itself that if you don't tell people some approximation of what they want to hear, you can't get elected. We all like to believe in the wisdom of crowds, but the truth is that the majority of modern Britons want to hear that the state will solve life's problems, without effort or cost to them. Politicians are torn between over-promising to stay in power and the fear of their lies becoming so obvious as to discredit them. Their corruption is a mirror held up to decadent, economically-ignorant, essentially amoral voters.

Politicians' careers are an assault course, during which they sustain repeated political injuries. For a while they run on bravely, but eventually the damage is too much and they fall. The most typical injuries are failures to deliver on those promises they would have preferred not to give. Gradually, inevitably, they become too discredited to continue.

Margaret Thatcher was the exception. She was principled. She promised nothing she could not deliver and she was utterly relentless in making sure she did. In pursuit of her objectives she fired one minister after another, making enemies within her party faster than outside it. In the end, the pygmies with wounded pride were numerous enough to bring down a political giant. I was at a dinner in the City with Francis Pym, prominent among the pygmies, on the night she fell. As all my hopes for the arrest of Britain's decline died - I bitterly watched him drink in gleeful celebration. There must have been dozens of others doing the same that night.

But Cameron's injuries were never going to be of Thatcher's kind. He is one of the pygmies, lacking her political courage and her moral vision. His was always going to be the routine political failure of one too many broken promises. That's why his "cast-iron" pledge of a referendum over Lisbon was so foolish. He will now suffer more injury from every future broken promise because of one broken before he even took office. A promise he need not have made.

A referendum only made sense if it would prevent the adoption of the EU's constitution-in-all-but-name. Once it had been adopted, any referendum (as the Euro-sceptics baying for it well know) would be on our continued membership. The issue of the EU dangerously divides the Conservative Party. Any Conservative leader must manage the issue constantly and cleverly. Cameron's mistake was not to break the promise. It was to make it in the first place, and to make it - again - in such memorable terms.

Margaret Thatcher will go down in history as the Iron Lady. This farce means that Cameron will be remembered, if at all, as "Cast Iron Dave".


The worst in the world

Burning our money: Worst In The World.

Posts like this are why (pace the big boys of British blogging) I always recommend Burning our Money and Wat Tyler to reactionary sorts who doubt the value of new media. Where is the press coverage of this? Why will this not lead the BBC news tonight? How could Labour's spin survive the widespread dissemination of this OECD graph? (click to enlarge, if you can bear it).Fiscal-deficits---oecd