THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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June 2011

Hammond Meets Moss

BBC - BBC Four Programmes - Hammond Meets Moss.
Hammond_crash Sw71cp
Having complained recently about the poor quality of most modern British broadcasting, let me mention an intelligent show I watched last night. I am a Top Gear fan but have always thought the Hamster (how to put this kindly...?) more charming than thoughtful. Most of his programmes apart from Top Gear have supported this theory. In this case however he surprised me.

Exchanging reminiscences with Sir Stirling Moss about their respective brain-damaging high-speed crashes, 44 years apart, he managed to shed (with the aid of a number of neurologists) a fair amount of light on the workings of the brain. It's on the iPlayer for a while and I commend it to you. I rather suspect that so personal was the subject that the production staff couldn't persuade Hammond to condescend to the viewer in Auntie's usual infuriating, Blue Petery way. Indeed, Mrs P. noticed that he didn't even have his usual laddish accent. To be precise she said, puzzled, "he sounds posh." She is more of a Hamster fan than I am, so she would know.

Ironically, since this really was - in a sense - "car crash television", I found it compelling. Listening to two interesting men intelligently discussing life-changing personal experiences in a scientific context was my idea of a good programme. What's yours?

Vandalism, art or satire?

Painting the Soviet army monument is vandalism: Bulgarian Minister of Culture - Bulgaria - The Sofia Echo.

Soviet2 Of course, the Bulgarian Minister of Culture is right about the criminality of the act. Banksy's a criminal too. He's wrong about this though;

We (Bulgarians) are the only ones led by some kind of destructive force when it comes to monuments of socialism.

With due respect, Mr Minister, that's deplorable Bulgarian exceptionalism. Personally, I can never see one outside a museum without wanting to deface it - and neither can anyone with a proper sense of history. In case anyone's interested, this is what the whole thing looks like - the whimsical decorations above are to the bas reliefs on the base.

Soviet3I lived in Warsaw for 11 years. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Poles took down the Socialist monuments and changed the revolutionary names on the streets. They did so (as is the Polish wont) with a wicked sense of humour. Dzerzhinski Square (named for the Polish founder of the KGB) became "Bank Square". The former offices of the Communist Party became, for a while, the home of the Warsaw Stock Exchange and various other capitalist running dogs (including me).

I lived in Moscow for 6 years. The Russians (unable, like the Poles, unfairly to blame "the Russians" for everything bad in their recent history) retained the monuments and street names. They took the Bulgarian Culture Minister's view; i.e. that Socialism was a part of their history that should not be denied.

Personally, I think the Poles were right. Keeping the monuments of the vilest totalitarian empire in history in place makes no sense to me. What would it have told us if the Germans had retained their Hitler-era monuments on the basis that National Socialism had been (as it undoubtedly was) an important part of German history? Why is this any different?

Not that I am advocating a smash-the-Buddhas approach. The subject matter may have been evil, but some of these monuments were worthy pieces of art. That they were made in service of a false religion is no reason to destroy them. For myself, I still regret not managing to acquire one of the Socialist Realist reliefs that decorated the now-demolished Kino Moskwa* in Warsaw, for example. Even some of the artistically unworthy pieces were interesting historically. Perhaps the best approach is that represented this park in Budapest? Keep them by all means, but consign them to history where they belong.

*Partly because I have fond memories of a profoundly uncommercial cinema that had more than enough legroom for my two-metre-tall frame and partly because a bravely subversive Polish artist had humorously made the cow being led by noble, muscular Polish peasants just as noble and muscular itself. I wish I could find a picture to show you. It made me laugh every time we went to see a movie.

Midday train to Georgia

I am on The Freedom Association's Facebook list and the invitation to today's Freedom in the City meeting caught my eye. It was addressed by the Georgian Ambassador to London, Mr Giorgi Badridze. His Excellency has been rather forthright in the past about his country's relations with Russia. I knew the other side of that story and wanted to hear his.

I was living in Moscow in 2006 when Russia embargoed Georgian goods. The police came to Moscow schools looking for children with Georgian names, so that the whole family could be deported. Georgian wine (80% of which had previously been bought by Russians) suddenly disappeared from supermarket shelves and the Georgian-themed hotel in the same street as my office was speedily renamed.

I was also there for the 2008 war during which Russia siezed some Georgian territory. It is still occupied by Russian troops, both FSB and regular army. Understandably therefore, and with diplomatic relations broken, the ambassador pulled few punches. Georgia, he said, had shown that a country with a history of totalitarianism and corruption could move forward to a better life. He hoped Russia would soon also "join the civilised world".

I wince slightly to think of the reaction of my charming Russian friends to his words. I suggested to him that the real problem is Russia's continued (and unecessarily) negative view of "The West" (whatever that may be). Even the educated, intelligent Russian people I worked with could not understand why Georgia should want to join the West in general and NATO in particular. The Chekists in the Russian elite are using Georgia as a proxy to sustain a unifying, but rather nasty, anti-Western nationalism among the wider population. I suggested Georgia might have a role to play (given that - unlike us - the Georgian people enjoy Russian affection) in solving that greater problem.

He feared that the old goodwill had been killed by propaganda. He pointed to the fact that anyone with "southern" looks is now likely to be beaten on the streets of Moscow by nationalist thugs. Sadly he's right about that. An Anglo-Indian former colleague was taken for a Georgian or Chechen and thoroughly beaten while in Moscow to visit our office. As further evidence of the nastiness being dangerously fostered in Russia, he cited the hero's funeral (with senior politicians in attendance) given to disgraced Colonel Yuri Budanov. Strong stuff.

I read with interest the recent comments by Robert Gates, about to retire as the United States' Secretary of Defense. Personally, I would be delighted to see NATO disbanded, as I think it should have been immediately when the Soviet Union fell. It was formed as an alliance against the USSR and, while it genuinely sought (as any redundant bureaucracy will) to re-task itself, its continued existence sent all the wrong signals. I have no doubt that Poland, for example, joined NATO as a deliberate and typically exuberant provocation to its former comrades masters. Not that I justify Russia's behaviour, but it should have been no surprise to the West's governments that Russia reacted badly to Georgia's membership application.

What has all this fascinating stuff to do with the mission of The Freedom Association (or this blog)? Most of the ambassador's presentation was not about Russia, but about the reforms in post-Soviet Georgia. The government there dismissed the entire corrupt police force and recruited anew; beginning with the traffic police. Interestingly, road accidents declined during the handover month when there were no traffic cops! Public confidence in the police (polling at 3% before the reforms) has risen steadily since and corruption has, he claims, been eliminated.

Under the Shevardnadze regime, taxes were both heavy and numerous. It was impossible to do legal business profitably, as the whole system was designed to drive businessmen into the arms of corrupt officials. There are only six taxes in Georgia today (Income Tax, Corporation Tax, Value Added Tax, Customs, Excise and a local tax to fund local authorities). Income tax is flat and the results would, His Excellency claimed, "...put a smile on the face of Mr Laffer of the famous curve." GDP increased 12% in the year after the tax reforms and even now, post-crisis, was running at an annualised 8.5% in the first quarter. One of the questioners from the floor asked, "Could your government send ours a manual?" Quite.

I am not a member of The Freedom Association. After my flirtation with the Libertarian Party (of which I am no longer a member) I am in no mood to join any non-mainstream group at present (though I may venture a bit of Libertarian entryism shortly). Perhaps I should be braver, but I simply don't want to hang out with any weirdoes who might, by association, undermine the credibility of the common-sense political ideas I wish to advance. I was therefore curious to see what manner of folk might be found in TFA's ranks. There were a couple of eccentrics among the 20-30 attendees, including a splendid character in hiking-boots, bush hat and Union Flag tie, but most of the mixed crowd of all ages seemed well within normal operational parameters for the human race.

TFA does good work and - whether or not you decide to join - I commend its events to you. Now I am a Londoner again, I shall probably go to more of them myself.

Delusions of importance

One of the most disturbing things about being back in Britain is being exposed - for example when watching Question Time from Norwich this week - to the delusions of the British people about their country's role in the world.

One audience member after another said words to the effect that "we" cannot stand by while Africans starve / Libyans are oppressed, etc., etc. Well of course, shoulder to shoulder with our military peers (say Belgium) we can exert some influence. Otherwise, why is it any more for us to solve Libya's problems than, say, China? She has more than a million men under arms, the money to equip them and the resources to deploy them anywhere they are needed. Russia has a large army and a military itch to scratch. The aid we have given to Pakistan has freed up resources for that country to build up its armed forces. Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons and India even has a space programme (which Britain cannot remotely afford). Perhaps one of those guys could have a go?

We - for all the global pretensions of the naive of Norwich - have only a small number of overstretched, under-equipped but laudably loyal warriors. It is amazing that they remain so, despite being used principally to promote a macho image for effete ex-public school politicians, while being slagged by the likes of Germaine Greer as potential rapists.

Britain, it seems, has lost an empire but refuses to give up the role.

Are they rude, or am I out of date?

Crossing the UK border by car today, the young immigration officer asked me if Mrs P could look up and take off her sunglasses. His view of her in the passenger seat was blocked and he needed her to lean forward so he could do his job. Fair enough. Except he referred to her by her first name.

Mrs P. gets annoyed if I indulge in sarcasm like "You know each other! How nice. Where did you meet?" There was a time when I could not have resisted, but she's not well and I don't want to upset her. I bit my lip and drove on brooding, but I despise myself for it.

When will they ever learn?

Watching Question Time from my old stamping-ground of North-East Wales this week (Paine the Elder and I used to have season tickets to Wrexham AFC when I was a lad) was a dispiriting experience. I could barely contain myself as, commenting on the care homes scandal, a Plaid Cymru MP droned pompously that;

"Once the profit motive takes over from the giving of service, that kind of thing is more prevalent".

Most of the audience in a solidly Old-Labour area seemed to agree with him. Even after their ideology was tested to destruction on more than half of humanity in the 20th Century; killing millions and impoverishing hundreds of millions, there are still idiots who believe in the intrinsic moral superiority of state-run services. Even, can you believe, in a part of the world where childrens homes were run for twenty years by local authority-employed paedophiles (as I have posted before)? The social workers in question were not motivated by profit, so presumably that's all right then? I despair.

When I worked in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, a colleague had a serious road accident while exploring the countryside one weekend. The people sent to help found him in a bad way in the local hospital. Knowing how health care in that country had worked under Communism (and still did at that point) he asked to be left a supply of $100 bills so he could bribe the staff not to let him die. Those nurses were motivated by profit for sure, but the organisation running the hospital wasn't.

When can we bury these ludicrous (and insulting) notions that people are ping-pong balls wafted around by social, political and economic winds? My blood boiled particularly as a woman in the QT audience said the people who committed the care home abuses were "...probably on minimum wage..." while somebody made "...a fat profit..." I can hardly conceive of a less relevant observation.

Right is right and wrong is wrong regardless of motive. Profit made by people for doing good work is good. Profit made by cheating customers of the service they pay for (whether it's plumbing, rubbish collection or the care of vulnerable family members) is wrong. The same applies to wages earned by employees in public service, whether on the "front line" or in management. None of the wicked behaviours captured by Panorama's hidden cameras would have been less so if filmed on NHS or local authority premises (as the BBC could easily have done) or even in a charity home run by unpaid volunteers.

If carers neglect or abuse the people they are paid to look after, then the issue is not whether their bosses were motivated by profit for their shareholders, or by a desire for a cushy job-for-life with an unfunded pension. The issue is their wicked behaviour, for which they are directly responsible (both as a matter of civil and criminal law) and their employer is vicariously liable. Heads should roll, contracts should be cancelled and the local authority supervisors who failed to monitor the service they were paying our money for should be disciplined.

It's a little depressing that the debate has not moved on in that part of the world in the thirty or so years since I moved away.

Stepping in the same river twice

Returning to England after twenty years abroad is a culture shock. It's amazing, for example, that grown men and women are prepared to spend so much of their time sorting household rubbish into different categories. Isn't life short enough for you all? What do you pay your taxes for? Would it not be better to have a few hundred thousand rubbish sorters on minumum wage to reduce the numbers of the eight million plus "economically inactive?" Or is that too shockingly old-fashioned?

Trash generally seems to be a big topic of conversation now, which I don't remember from my previous life on these islands. We worried about the dustmen only once a year when we had to decide how big their "Christmas box" should be in order to ensure the minimum of future spills on the path to the front gate. Does anyone bother to tip them any more, given that they don't set foot on the property? Do they now tip the householders, who - after all - have done the bulk of the work by the time their roaring, beeping truck shatters the peace?

I need to know by next Christmas please, at least in relation to our Cheshire home. The trash is collected nightly from outside the apartment door in London so I assume the building's management deal with the dustmen and it's somehow reflected in the hefty service charge. So far I have only had to call the council's refuse department to pay £25 to have an old TV taken away. That's another innovation, and a surprising one. After all, the Council Tax has increased several hundred percent since we left England in 1992. Still they thanked me by email for the payment and though they misspelled my name, (written communications in modern England all seem to be misspelled*) it at least worked phonetically. I am learning to consider that a win.

In another sense, a lot of trash is being talked. A godson works for the BBC and summed it up recently when we were talking about the childish register of the approximation to English used on "The One Show." He laughed, agreed and said "Yes, it's just Blue Peter for grown-ups, isn't it?" But so, alas, is much of British TV. We have been restricted to illicit feeds of Sky News while we were abroad and thought the tone of that pretty condescending. Imagine our amazement to find it quite cerebral compared to the mainstream channels! When did they start talking to you like children, gentles? And why don't you object? Why, with all the hundreds of channels now available in Britain, is there not even one reserved for the intelligent? I thought catering to minority tastes (among which intelligent thought now seems to number) was going to be a big benefit of cable and satellite TV? Cheryl Cole on dozens of channels seems a small advance over Cilla Black on one, frankly.

Worst of all is the offensively matey tone taken by people in sales. This would be hard to pull off well, even if you are a native speaker. It's also highly regional in nature. Yet now it's attempted by speakers of ESL from offshore call-centres who have no hope of getting it right; still less of tailoring it correctly to regional tastes. You can call me (if you must) "me duck" if we are both in Nottingham or "mate" if we are both in Manchester but if I am anywhere in Britain and you are in Bangalore, surely it's best to stick to "Sir" or "Mr Paine?" As for going straight to "Tom", all uninvited, that is really quite a shock.

Millions of pounds in sales must be lost every day to this nonsense, surely? I don't know about you gentle reader (though I thought I did before I came home) but I will certainly never buy from someone who is impertinent. Least of all will I ever buy from someone who cold calls me about anything or (horrors!) sends me an unsolicited SMS about my "recent accident" on the offchance that I have had one. Please reassure me that no members of my once-honourable and learned profession are involved in that. On reflection, don't. Leave me some blissful ignorance, at least.

*Spelling corrected, with thanks to Hollando and Pedant2007

A luxurious home for the politically bewildered?

Eurocrats pushing for further integration - Telegraph

If I ever contemplate rejoining the Conservative Party, it's because Daniel Hannan is a member. If he can hold his nose amid the statists, maybe I can too? His article in the Telegraph today makes a simple point and makes it well.

Britain’s net contribution to the EU budget rose by an almost unbelievable 74 per cent in 2010, from £5.3 billion to £9.2 billion. This is more than the government has saved in all its domestic cuts put together, yet has provoked no angry marches through London.

Why is that exactly? Why do the guns of the Left fall silent when the EU has its hands in the nation's pockets? It's nothing to do with it providing a remunerative home for the political failures and incompetents of the member states is it? Or a temporary refuge for the politically-pressed?

The charm of leftist incompetence

Bestsellers There is some amusement in the Paine household each morning at the fact that a certain parcel has not been delivered. Since Mrs P. ordered a reading lamp from (aargh) the Guardian online store, other parcels have been ordered (and arrived) from those wicked capitalists at Amazon, L'Occitane, Aveda, Net a porter, Ocado and John Lewis.

Not to mention that iTunes has instantly delivered Lady Gaga's latest offering and several rental movies have been served up both by ITunes and (when Apple's sadly limited offering palls) Virgin Media to while away our housebound evenings.

Yet every morning, the Guardian's parcel reminds us of Billy Bunter's famous postal order. It's only funny, of course, because the Guardian's shop is in competition with others. The NHS monopoly of aspects of our health care (so beloved by the bumbling Guardianisti) is causing rather less amusement chez nous.

Still, Guido need not worry about the implications of the Guardian bookshop's bestsellers list. The books will probably never have chance to do their wicked work on soft Islingtonian brains. In relieving them of their money for inadequate service their agitprop organ of choice is, ironically, delivering an education (if nothing else) to Guardian readers everywhere.