Saturday, 15 February 2014

Après Le Déluge

In May 2012 the good folk of Staines, down the road from where I used to live, upgraded the name of their town to Staines-upon-Thames.  They were trying to boost the local economy by promoting its riverside location, albeit with the unfortunate side-effect of making it sound like a layer of scum.  Two winters later, it turns out they simply got the words in the wrong order:  it should have been Thames-upon-Staines.  As for the local economy, sadly, the river’s been not so much a shot in the arm as a punch in the guts.

I get stressed and shouty when I can’t find my keys or the broadband connection goes wonky, so I shudder to imagine what sort of meltdown would ensue if an endless tide of filthy water ever came frothing through my living room.  When I walked the Thames Path a couple of years ago, in the days before scuba gear was required, I did feel twinges of envy at some of the fantouche properties strung out along the riverbank.  Yes, householders, I was that furry lardball in shorts flicking surreptitious V-signs at your dream home.  But don’t worry:  BBC News 24’s relentless visual onslaught has touched my heart, and now I weep for you along with everyone else.  (I know that probably isn’t helping much.)

If the Jet Stream hadn’t shimmied southwards as smoothly as John Travolta in his heyday, this fusillade of gales and tempests would be battering the west of Scotland, and the BBC would be struggling to fit the story in between shots of Andrew Mitchell removing his cycle clips and ageing celebrities arriving at court for their acquittal.  The narrative would be far simpler too, since clearly the whole thing would be Alex Salmond’s fault.  

In England, where media bias is more evenly distributed, the question of who gets the blame is more complex.  But now that the devastation has spread from rural areas to the homes of people who actually count for something, it’s becoming hugely important.  We know this because every politician who pops up on the screen is now swearing blind it doesn’t matter a jot.

David Cameron, discomfited to find Kent and Somerset locals haranguing him rather than strewing rose petals in his watery path, swiftly concluded that “lessons had to be learned”.  In his case the lesson proved to be “I need a human shield”, which led to a fresh outbreak of Owen Paterson, a comedy legend in the shadowy world of ready meals, but not exactly a dab hand at retrospectively dredging rivers.  Mr P gave everyone involved six weeks to sort it all out, or he’d come down on them like a ton of bricks, just as he’d done with the badgers.  It was empty posturing, naturally, but enough to leave the scapegoat vacancy tantalisingly unfilled.

The situation clearly demanded an amiable but undynamic peer with Labour connections, nominal responsibility for the crisis and his hands tied behind his back.  Lord Chris Smith, in the three hours he was allowed in Somerset before being yanked to safety by a giant shepherd’s crook, could hardly have had a worse reception if he’d set about a wasp’s nest with a golf club.  When he said flood prevention meant difficult decisions and he was proud of his Environment Agency staff, it was undoubtedly true, but it was also as welcome as a doctor telling you, “The NHS has some smashing drugs, but you’re not getting any because, with your lifestyle and genetics, you’re completely buggered.”  

Ladbroke’s immediately stopped taking bets on the identity of the scapegoat.  The local Tory MP, Ian Liddell-Grainger, a man of royal blood currently 309th in line to the throne, shook off the shackles of in-breeding to deliver the lacerating critique, “He’s a git… he’s a coward… I’d like to stick his head down the loo and flush.”  Could Disraeli have put it more wittily? 

There was little comfort for Lord Smith at Westminster, where Owen Paterson was undergoing an eye operation and had temporarily been replaced by Eric Pickles, who is still waiting for his people skills operation.  On the Andrew Marr Show Eric weighed in, horrific as that may sound, by blaming the Government’s failure to carry out repeatedly requested dredging in Somerset on bad advice from the Environment Agency, bleating that “we thought we were talking to experts”.

As Messrs Osborne, Balls and Alexander may shortly discover in connection with the Scottish referendum, you don’t back people into a corner unless you’ve taken the standard Tory precautions of breaking their arms and legs.  The Environment Agency soon had a snarky rebuttal doing the rounds, pointing out that successive governments had slashed their overall funding and the current lot’s arbitrary spending limits prevented them from recommending any course of action that had the remotest chance of achieving anything.

The spotlight was shifting and the outermost reaches of Eric’s ample girth began to appear in its glare.  Cartoonists sharpened their pencils and depicted his buttocks as the ultimate sandbag.  But, as everyone knows, weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.  Eric went straight to the despatch box and poured out undying admiration for the EA’s works, in words that definitely didn’t contradict his previous statements, though they happened to have the same pronunciation as ones that did.

Meanwhile, the Thames Valley was now underwater and civilisation under threat.  Instead of a couple of squaddies with a bucket awaiting orders that would never come, we had whole battalions of beefy troops and even a couple of Royal princes manning the pumps to divert the flood from the playing fields of Eton.  David Cameron promised “money is no object”, at which the Chancellor’s eyes grew even more coal-black, his complexion slightly greener and his vision of Dave’s ultimate death at his hands more painful.

Into the breach now stepped Philip Hammond, the man who sneers at an independent Scotland’s ability to defend itself while allowing Russian ships to roam unchecked in Scottish waters.  He’s anxious for his troops to relieve the crisis speedily, so that he can get on with giving them their P45s. Moreover, he’s the MP for Runnymede, a place coincidentally just downstream of Datchet, which got lots of help with manpower and sandbags, and across the river from Wraysbury, which didn’t. 

Philip therefore didn’t look entirely comfortable on Newsnight, explaining to a live audience in the George Inn at Wraysbury why they, unlike their neighbours on the opposite bank, had been left to fend for themselves.  Er, it was down to the differing “topography” of the two areas, announced Philip queasily, playing the duffest “Get Out Of Jail Free” card you could possibly imagine.  Nothing like a nearby Cabinet Minister’s footprint to change the landscape in subtle but important ways.

In truth, it’s difficult to envisage a level of preparation adequate for weather conditions last seen when Mozart was doing his pre-pubescent tour of Europe.  But the current crisis is a genuine once-in-a-lifetime exception  - isn’t it? - and, however prolonged it may be, the inundation will at some point go away.  Westminster politicians with a penchant for empty promises and circular back-stabbing are, I’m afraid, harder to get rid of, since you can’t even sack one without inadvertently electing a replica.   Until we learn not to give attention-seeking loudmouths a respectful hearing, but to fling them into the nearest dungeon and throw away the key, this problem will simply continue.

If only we had some sort of Ark to take us away from it all.  Whatever the uncertainties of the voyage, I’d happily clamber on board and I’m sure a lot of people living around me would too.  We could give it an ambitious forward-looking name, such as the “Ark of Prosperity”.  What would we use for currency?  You know, I don’t flaming care.

Friday, 7 February 2014

The Greatest Love-Bomber of All

Mr Cameron addresses three-quarters of the nation.

People of England, Wales and Northern Ireland!

Scotland!  Stop pulling that face.  This is about you, but it’s not for you.  Daddy’s speaking to the other children now.  Don’t interrupt.  Why?  Because it’s rude.  Look, I don’t care if that IS what Evan Davis does on the Today programme.  Evan is a big boy, so he knows when he needs to step in to stop you embarrassing yourself. 

Sorry, everyone, I’m afraid Scotland is a bit tired and crabby this morning.  Must have had a little too much Irn Bru last night.  (Pause while acolytes hold up signs saying “LAUGH NOW”.)  Anyway, we have lots to talk about, so let’s ignore their high-pitched whining and get on.

Look around you at this magnificent Olympic park.  Isn’t it a splendid example of what we can achieve as a united British people?  It doesn’t matter in what corner of these islands you were born, or whether you can afford the outrageous train fares to get here.  You still had the honour of paying through your taxes for these splendid facilities, which the people of London and its burgeoning tourist industry will enjoy for decades to come. 

That’s why the warmth of our gratitude, which is a thousand times more valuable than money, will always be radiating outwards from the M25 to wherever it is you people live.  But as well as gratitude, there’s glory, with the memory of our Team GB competitors kicking the arse of the world, really sticking it to those bastards in the G20 who said we were just a titchy offshore island with delusions of grandeur.

But it’s not simply about the winning;  it’s about the red, white and blue.  Blue is in my blood, so can you imagine how it would feel to have that drained out of our flag?  The French would never let me hear the end of it, Obama’s flunkies would simply put the phone down instead of putting me on hold, and Vladimir would taunt me about the flag going pink in the wash.

Think of our connections with each other.  The UK is an intricate trap… I mean, tapestry.  Look at me:  I have West Highland Cameron ancestors, but I’m also the 5th cousin of the Queen. The name Cameron may mean “crooked nose”, but my forebears had good enough spin doctors to fix that.  They coined the motto “Let Us Unite”, a useful rallying cry in 1707 when the overwhelming mandate of the privileged brought Scotland into England’s embrace.

We can’t unpick institutions and infrastructure that have grown up together.  Can you imagine how Scottish supermarkets would suffer if lorries had to queue for hours at border posts we’d erected for no discernible reason?  What about the chaos if Scotland had a different legal system?  Or a different tax regime?  I don’t know how the Europeans manage, not that that will matter a jot after 2017.

Our prosperity, which from personal experience I can tell you is very real, even though invisible in your own daily lives, depends on sticking together.  We have a long term economic plan -  no, a vision, though I’m sure George hasn’t done drugs since college -  for Britain to be innovating, creating and shovelling the proceeds down our banker pals’ throats until the Sun goes nova.  Without access to Scottish resources, George and I could find ourselves getting boiled in oil, in a nice ironic touch, at the next Bilderberg conference.  

Our armed forces?  Finest in the world, though Philip Hammond is working on that.  Our shipyards?  Thanks for taking one for the team there, Portsmouth.  But it’s not just about national vanity, although obviously that’s mostly it. 

We’re also the soft-power super-power, a crucible of creativity that produced Emeli Sande, whose CDs the people of Kazakhstan would chuck on a massive bonfire if they discovered she was Scottish and not North British.  And what about Sherlock, whom Conan Doyle would have been too poor and stupid to create if the country had just stopped at Hadrian’s Wall?  (Is that where the border really is, Tristan?  Can someone check before the speech?)

Then there’s the BBC, whose reputation for fairness and impartiality goes without saying.  More and more frequently, as it happens.  But Aung San Suu Kyi was a fan, so that’s the moral high ground secured against annoying questions.  (Tristan, can we leave out the part about her bopping along to the DLT Show?) 

This is a country where, if we see someone who’s sick, or has lost their job, we don’t just walk on by.  We kick them in the nuts, get them evicted from their home and say it’s all their fault.  Let’s keep speaking out for these values together, filling the gaps with “la la la” if we must, to shut out any dissenting voices pointing out the immense moral vacuum at their heart.

We are the pride and hope for the world.  Think of the British ships, named after different parts of the UK, sailing to the Falklands to protect the then-popular principle of self-determination.  Think of how, in 1964, Nelson Mandela, even though he was at that time a terrorist, delivered a moving speech in court about his respect for British institutions such as Parliament.  Can you imagine? Unlike the Jocks, he had no place to air his grievances!  Whereas we gave the SNP at least 10 minutes yesterday to make themselves heard above the heckling, and some unelected peers as long as they liked recently to explain why the very idea of independence was pants.

My favourite book when I was growing up was Our Island Story, which may be sub-titled A Child’s History of England, but also contains several compelling paragraphs about the provinces.  I want to give it to my three children so that they, too, can pee their pants with laughter about the gigantic con we’re… I’m sorry, I’ll read that again.  Britain is our family home, which we built brick by brick through brave buccaneering belligerent blustering brash brawny brilliance.  I couldn’t bear to see it torn apart, and to prevent that I’ll fight with everything I have, except my debating skills.

So let the message ring out, from Manchester to Motherwell (Tristan, is that where we shut down those steelworks?) , from Pembrokeshire to Perth (shooting and fishing country, we’re on firm ground there), Belfast to (crap, can’t think of anything!  Will they notice if I just say Brigadoon?  Oh, wait a minute, there’s an earl of…of…where is it?) BUTE, from us to the people of Scotland:  we want you to stay!  Please please please!  Don’t go breaking our hearts!

Alternatively, let us have all the oil, then you can bugger off.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Accentuating The Positive

Selected highlights from the Independence Referendum Campaign in January.

Alan Cochrane is in a tizz.  The bitterness of the independence debate will create fissures in Scottish society for generations to come, says the Daily Telegraph’s Scottish Editor.  Or maybe it’s the stand-up comedian with a similar name;  I do tend to get the two mixed up.

As Alan sobs gently into his comfort blanket, he should rest assured that kindred spirits are available to offer him a group hug.  For January 2014 was the month when several stalwarts of the No campaign, including Alistair Darling, Jim Murphy and up'n'coming Labour starlet Kezia Dugdale, appalled us with fearful stories of “Cybernats” hurling online poison at them from dank bedrooms across the land. 

Online abuse is disgraceful, but most would agree that it’s (a) a general problem, by no means specific to the referendum debate, (b) a minority pursuit, (c) present on both sides of the argument, and (d) not masterminded from an underground bunker by Alex Salmond.  However, this view proved too nuanced for the Daily Mail, which under its guest editor Senator Joseph McCarthy launched a two-week witch hunt of separatist agitators, even door-stepping a few who’d escaped detection by the elaborate double-bluff of using their real names and not actually saying anything very controversial.

I’m sure Alistair and his friends would be horrified if this unpleasantness were to distract us from the real debate.  So let’s stick with the positive campaign stories of January, such as Alistair’s own heart-warming reconciliation with former neighbour and boss from hell, Gordon Brown.  Through boom and bust they’d shared a brotherly bond, until the day Alistair had spoiled it all by giving an update on the economy in the style of Private Fraser from Dad’s Army.  Now, with Westminster’s throttle-hold on Scotland at stake, they’d put all the volcanic tantrums and self-serving memoirs behind them and were back in harness.

The rapprochement didn’t extend to appearing in public together, which saved someone the job of ensuring all throwable objects were nailed down.  But it did involve Gordon smiling in that peculiar, disconcerting way of his, lavishing praise on Alistair in a speech and even remembering to remove his radio mike before getting in the car.  Gordon is now scheduled to disappear for months on end, as usual, and step in to save the day once Alistair’s cocked everything up.  Alistair’s views on all of this are not recorded, but he seems to be fluttering his eyelashes quite a bit.

Meanwhile, Labour were busy launching their latest buzz-phrase, “pooling and sharing resources”, or, as the rest of us say, “kicking the Barnett Formula in the nuts”.  They also added to the mystery surrounding their classic slogan “a bigger idea than independence”, in a First Minister’s Questions performance by Labour leader Johann Lamont that was extraordinary even by her standards. 

In Johann’s words, which Alex Salmond helpfully repeated back to her in case of any mistake, removing Trident, avoiding illegal wars and tackling child poverty are “wee things”.  Blimey, you might think, this idea Labour’s got must be really massive.  That must be why they didn’t get round to implementing it in 13 years of government.  Maybe they’re worried about its gravitational pull causing tidal surges.  Or perhaps Johann is just looking at independence through the wrong end of a telescope.

The spate of “love-bombing” promised by Better Together was almost a positive story, but didn’t work out as expected.   William Hague marched into Edinburgh to deliver a lecture, long on bombast and short on understanding, that was more of an oaf-bombing.  Then on Burns Night John Barrowman didn’t show a great deal of love, but certainly bombed, punctuating a bizarre Immortal Memory with elephantine asides calling Alex Salmond a pudding.  About his jacket it’s kindest to say nothing, except that the day’s statistics for self-inflicted eye injuries must have been somewhat alarming.

Elsewhere on the explosives front, a stink bomb went off at BBC Scotland, as the University of the West of Scotland released a report demonstrating bias in their referendum news coverage in favour of the No campaign.  Everyone assumed it was part of the university’s “Bleedin’ Obvious” series of reports, a successor to the ground-breaking “Cows Go Moo” and “Ye Canny Shove Yer Granny Aff A Bus”.   

The BBC certainly seemed to assume it wasn’t news, since they didn’t report it.  Instead, in a letter sneakily copied to his boss, they demanded that the author, Dr John Robertson, show them his workings, so that a middle manager with no relevant academic qualifications could “evaluate” them.  “Heroic Apparatchik Debunks Hate Report Using Plain Common Sense” -  now that’s news!

Another notable publication during January was Jim Sillars’ alternative vision for Scotland, in Place Of Fear II.  Its title’s a nifty homage to Nye Bevan, it’s downloadable to your Kindle and, at a sixth of the length of the White Paper, you can read it in an afternoon without your head exploding.  Its release coincided with Jim’s appearance on BBC Question Time from Dundee, where his natural authority never lost its grip on the audience’s attention, even when he strayed off topic into a lengthy reflection on quantitative easing, while David Dimbleby shuffled uncomfortably in his seat, steam gently hissing out of his ears.

Jim doesn’t agree with the SNP on a number of things, including a sterling currency union, so he may have had a beady eye on Mark Carney’s “technocratic” outline of how to operate one.  The BBC marked this key moment in the campaign by switching into “gloating in advance” mode.  Would Salmond be handed his chosen currency option in a bin bag, or be given a dustpan and brush and ordered to sweep up the mess himself?  What would “Ye cannae dae it” sound like in a Canadian accent?  The occupants of Downing Street gathered round the telly with beers and Cheesy Wotsits in anticipation of a rout.

Instead, what we got was a scrupulously even-handed, non-judgmental analysis, a master-class in tightrope-walking over a minefield with a nuclear warhead strapped to one’s back.  The subsequent press conference re-enacted the story of Robert the Bruce and the spider, but with an alternative outcome, as time after time James Naughtie and his colleagues tried to put words in Carney’s mouth, only to be gently encouraged to sod off and get a life.

“The idea of a currency union is now normal, not risky or outlandish,” we thought, until we read the brain-shredding spin in the newspapers the following morning and realised we’d been visiting a parallel universe.  It seems that if you can’t pin a damaging quote on someone, you declare it’s what he didn’t say that matters.  As he left Edinburgh, Carney’s parting words had been, “It’s over, it’s over.”  But it never is.

In the universe inhabited by Better Together, not so much parallel as accessed by falling down a rabbit hole, it was as if someone had flicked a magic switch.  “Goodbye to the pound,” screamed their new leaflet, aimed at commuters on the basis that one must always have something sensational to read on the train.  It’s unclear whether they really printed the 500,000 copies they claimed, or someone in the press office had fat-finger syndrome.

Never mind, though, I’m sure there are many uses to which squillions of unread leaflets can be put.  We could even knit a few together and make a nice new comfort blanket for Alan Cochrane.  I’m positive his old one’s getting a bit worn.