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Saturday, August 26, 2006
GEOFF (‘BUFFOON’) HOON.
[Geoffrey William "Geoff" Hoon is Labour MP for Ashfield and currently Minister of State for Europe.]
I have to start by admitting that the main trigger which sparked this piece is sheer exasperation brought on by the effort of trying to concentrate on the substance of an interview on R4 this morning in which Hoon was being questioned about various matters, the main one was what his opinion was on the subject of Tony Blair actually setting a date for his departure from the post of leader of the party.
The problem is that Hoon, throughout a fairly undistinguished career as a lawyer and a barrister for two years, has perfectly honed the skill of avoiding direct questions and beating his audience into submission by sheer droning boredom. Indeed, I am not sure whether the point of the interview was to elucidate answers, it seems to have been more successful in reinforcing the perception that, as a politician, he is as incisive and direct as a spoonful of treacle.
Exasperation alone isn’t enough to trigger me. Despite the dreadful quality of the responses extracted from him by Jim Naughtie, there was one nugget that I thought was worth concentrating on. Asked whether Tony Blair should give a definite date for retirement as leader at the party conference coming up at the end of September, Hoon launched into a PR exercise which attempted to prove that the present dreadful position of the Labour Party in the polls and public opinion would be rectified by the advent of Gordon Brown as the new party leader. He would scupper the Tories as he would be a ‘formidable opponent’.
The way his response was formulated betrayed three things to me; first, Hoon thinks that Brown should be a shoo-in. Second, that he believes that the leader of the party is the fount of all policy and that it is the duty of the members to support him. Third, and perhaps most worrying, he seems to believe that the primary aim of the party is to fight off a Tory challenge in the next general election. Let’s take these one by one.
The transfer of leadership of the party is not within the gift of the incumbent. It should be effected by a process starting within the party structure, at National Executive Council level, followed by debate at full conference and ending in a voting process. It is by no means certain that Brown would emerge as a clear choice. My own view of Brown is that he is more accountant than politician. He is obsessed by control and has shown that he is quite prepared to ditch principle and common sense to achieve it. I see him as a super-competent apparatchik rather than a charismatic politician. I don’t doubt that he has more principle and moral base than Blair but I do doubt his ability to overcome his personal failings and place these above pragmatism and short-term advantage. In short, my ideal would be an amalgam of Atlee and Bevan, not Major and Thatcher.
The leader of the party is exactly that, someone who leads. Leadership of a political party demands clear principles, the ability to identify and promote the ideals and policies of the members and the political skills to take the party forwards along lines which command the support of the majority. Over the last twenty years the ideal of cabinet government has been transmuted into a semi-presidential system but crucially, lacking the checks and balances of a written constitution designed to control such absolute power. The result has been more akin to dictatorship than presidency. Blair’s objective throughout his leadership has been to find mechanisms for effecting his own policies. These have been more to do with personal power than collective responsibility. The mechanisms he has employed are best described collectively as manipulation of the process and the public. I do not see any clear signs that Brown would eschew the same methods to achieve whatever his ends are.
The third concept worries me most. The main objective of the ruling party should be to govern the country according to clear principles and in pursuit of well-understood and accepted political and social policies. The 1945 Labour government identified the mood of the country, decided what the major flaws in society were and pursued policies designed to rectify specific ills and bring about a more just and equable view of society by lifting some of the burdens from the poorest people in our country. The last thing in their minds was to start fighting the next election. As Hartley Shawcross put it at the time; "We are the masters at the moment". We can take this literally, he used words precisely, his message was to sieze the opportunity and affect change in the window of history afforded to them. He was not advocating the raw exercise of power but the use of the political system to improve society.
This view of the use of power is to my mind the only justification for a system in which power is temporarily given to one political party. Once it is polluted by the exercise of power either for personal ends or as a mechanism for prolonging a majority, it has failed. Just and properly constituted reform will echo down the years long after the government that instituted the reforms has given way to another party. This is the only true legacy, the one Blair talks about is his personal place in history. Most people in Britain have forgotten Attlee and the 1945/51 government but the reforms they made have transformed the lives of all of us. Which lasts the longest? Which is the most laudable and effective?
I’ve arrived at my beef. My problem with Hoon this morning was that he, and the breed of politicians he represents, have lost sight of the goal, if indeed they ever knew where it was.
SCG/August 26, 2006
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
PITFALLS IN THE GROVES OF ACADEME.
Historical research is a fascinating journey. There is so much material out there and the only way I have ever found to get the material down to a manageable size is to reduce the area of interest. That’s why local history fascinates me.
One of the big problems in England is the absence of any written record until the Roman Occupation and beyond. So it was nice the other day to come across a transcription published by the Yorkshire Archaeological Society of the Bolton Priory Compotus and accounts (basically the business papers of the Augustine Priory) for 1286-1325 plus the accounts for 1377-78. I know that these papers contain fascinating insights into how the monasteries operated in general and the Priory’s connections with Barnoldswick. It was published in 2000 at £50 for non-members and I found a mint copy for £34 on Bookfinder. Yippee!
It arrived yesterday and is a magnificently produced volume of 650 pages, nicely bound with gold leaf embellishments and weighing in at three and a half pounds of solid scholarly research material, all prime source. Only one problem, it’s in Latin……..
A quick flip through proved that the preface, footnotes and index are in English but the rest is in Latin. Time for a rethink. I rang the YAS at Leeds and spoke to a very nice man called Mark in the library who promised not to laugh at me. He said I wasn’t the first to voice the query ‘Is there a translation?’. The answer is no and he said that he had never been able to understand why, when the authors were transcribing the original Latin, they hadn’t translated at the same time as they are both experts in Medieval Latin.
I asked him for advice and he has pointed me at a book ‘Latin for Local History’ by Eileen Gooder which he says has been his stand-by aid for years. So I went out onto the Tinternet web thingy and found a copy plus a Latin/English dictionary and a primer which is the idiot’s guide to Latin.
Someone asked me if I could get a refund but I told them I was made of sterner stuff than that. Because of the common roots of Latin and English you can almost see sense in the Latin even though you can’t read it. I reckon that with a bit of application I shall soon become competent enough to read the text because it isn’t literary Latin, it is more like a list with prices.
Isn’t life funny….. I didn’t think I would ever decide to, in effect, teach myself to understand Latin. I may be over-estimating my ability to learn but at the very least it’s going to be a good anti-Alzheimer’s strategy. Onward and Upward!
SCG/23 August 2006
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
RISK MANAGEMENT, [August 2006]
I’m happy to report that there may be a ray of sunshine on the horizon. The Health and Safety Commission (HSC) has urged people “to focus on real risks - those that cause real harm and suffering - and stop concentrating effort on trivial risks and petty health and safety”. Jonathan Rees, HSE [Health and Safety Executive], Deputy Chief Executive, said: "We want to cut red tape and make a real difference to people's lives. We are already taking action to put the principles into practice…….. These principles build on all of this and will hopefully drum home the message that health and safety is not about long forms, back-covering, or stifling initiative. It's about recognising real risks, tackling them in a balanced way and watching out for each other. It's about keeping people safe - not stopping their lives.”
I say ‘might be a ray of hope’ because I’m slightly suspicious about this initiative. There has been a rash of stories about ‘safety’ excesses; children forced to wear safety goggles when playing conkers. School trips cancelled because no teacher could be found to write the risk assessment demanded by the authorities and accept the responsibility of supervising the children. Tree-climbing discouraged and safety helmets demanded for the most innocent activities. I heard an interesting comment a couple of days ago from a chemistry teacher who said that she was constrained in the classroom because some vital demonstrations of chemical reactions were deemed to be too dangerous.
During my career I have seen some great advances in safety. The Road Traffic Act of 1968 was a landmark act as far as wagon drivers were concerned. Proper standards of maintenance and vehicle efficiency were laid down and rigorously enforced. We had one tanker at West Marton that was immediately prohibited because the handbrake was below the required efficiency but was still more efficient than the footbrake! We had been forced to drive that vehicle for years, the amazing thing is that it never had an accident. There were similar advances in other fields of industry which produced safer working conditions.
Legislation like this produced entirely predictable results. The first was that the employers realised they had to raise standards or suffer the consequences. The second was that they also realised that there were ways they could shift any blame that ensued. If they drew up their own internal safety codes they could reach the stage where, if there was an accident and a prosecution, they could shift the blame to the operative by saying that they had installed the safety mechanisms but the employee had ignored them by not reporting the inefficient brakes, not wearing the safety helmet or harness or using dangerous work practices which had been banned by the management. It became standard practice to ‘orient’ workers and outside contractors in safety practices and a whole industry grew up around this ‘cover your back’ exercise.
At the same time we had a population who had been reared in peacetime, surrounded by safety rules and the result was that they became inculcated in the ethos that 100% safety was possible. Legislation followed this path and we got to the stage where a risk of one in forty million of catching NVCKD from beef bones resulted in beef on the bone being made an illegal substance.
I think it is interesting that this initiative to cool down the public perception of risk management comes in the wake of the constant general effects of the ‘war against terror’ and specific reaction against the restrictions placed on the travelling public such as making mothers taste their baby’s milk in front of a security official. This was exacerbated last week when the passengers on a Monarch Airlines plane refused to allow it to take off because there were two people on the plane of ‘Muslim appearance’. The two innocent people were thrown off the plane and subjected to interrogation. They were found to be perfectly innocent and allowed on their way. There have been other incidents which I am sure you will have noted, a mobile phone ringing on a transatlantic flight resulted in the plane turning back. A disturbed woman caused the diversion of another flight…. Etc.
It seems to me that the constant emphasis on the risk of terrorist attack has conjoined with the deeper rooted perception that 100% safety is possible and the result is a higher level of background stress and a greater possibility of civil disruption as a consequence.
So, could it be that the new initiative by the HSC and the HSE is driven in part by the recognition that over-emphasis on safety by legislation is actually proving to be counter-productive?
On the wider political front, a recent poll shows that the Conservatives are well ahead of New Labour in the polls and one of the major factors in this is public perception that the government’s foreign policy has made it more likely that the UK will be the subject of a terrorist attack. This was raised last week in a letter from prominent Muslims to the government on the same subject and they were attacked by ‘sources in government’ as being ‘irresponsible and unhelpful’. I am afraid that the government is totally out of touch in this matter and it is becoming increasingly clear to them that they are in an impossible situation.
I think there is more to this initiative than meets the eye. We often complain about the lack of ‘joined-up government’ but there is one field in which they are wonderfully well organised and connected, in producing spin dedicated to promoting their views or avoiding criticism. There is very little that can be done to address the problems caused by foreign policy without admitting terrible mistakes but perhaps other contributors to the general level of stress can be mitigated and this might reduce pressure on the government. I have a suspicion that this might be the mechanism that is at work here. If it is, it is a short-term fix and will ultimately fail.
Why am I so cynical? I belong to a generation that was reared and had their mind sets formed under dangers that most of the general public [and this includes our political leaders] cannot conceive. Apart from nightly bombardment and the fear of being over-run and subjugated by the most dangerous threat to world peace ever, we watched 28,000,000 Russians being wiped out. We saw our troops driven off the Continent with tremendous losses. Our death was a lot less than a one in forty million chance. Add to this that we knew that certain diseases killed us. This was an age before antibiotics and modern surgery. We were forced to accept the dangers to our mortality on many different fronts. This is why the sight of kids wearing safety goggles to play conkers and similar initiatives have such resonance for us. Life without risk is probably the most boring prospect we could ever have. Ask yourselves why people do stupid things like bungee-jumping, go on ‘white-knuckle rides’ and indulge in ‘extreme sports’. Legislation can’t cancel out millions of years of evolution. Humanity has within it immense resilience and fortitude and the capacity to manage risk so long as it is not artificially stifled by the mistaken pursuit of 100% safety. If repressed on one area it will break out in another. Ask yourselves whether this could be at the root of rising levels of aggression in society, football hooliganism, ‘boredom’ in kids and even a factor in the radicalisation of Muslim Youth.
Eroding natural risk management and using induced stress by constant warnings of danger as a political tool could eventually be even more dangerous than the supposed evils such strategies are intended to prevent. There is more to these initiatives by the HSC and HSE than meets the eye.
SCG/22 August 2006