European Union: Is the UK’s exit inevitable?

Regardless of your views of the merits of the European Union, the current political make-up of the United Kingdom government, the rise of independence parties and the actions of European bureaucrats themselves must have increased the likelihood of a UK exit.

Is the exit already ajar?

Is the exit already ajar?

Given the divisions within the Conservative party, it is unlikely that the euro-sceptic wing of the party will lessen the pressure on the party. Their calls to address issues such as EU membership, immigration and sovereignty are unlikely to reduce, particularly as the influence of coalition partners reduces as the election comes closer.

Putting the natural reduction in cohesion aside, the rise of parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) are likely to raise the priority of these issues. This is in part due to electoral boundary changes and the increasing number of marginal seats across both Labour and Conservative MP’s.

Regardless of whether you agree with the anti-European position, many polls indicate this is reflecting a large percentage of the wider electorate. Indeed, as long as this is the case, the battle to out-UKIP UKIP is likely to be taken on by all parties to a greater or lesser extent.

If this wasn’t enough. Prime Minster David Cameron has set himself a deadline of the New Year before which he must provide an indication of how he will limit EU immigration as part of a wider renegotiation of EU membership. It would be hard to think of a less contentious and more difficult area of policy to change. Given this, he has set himself an almost impossible challenge.

José Manuel Barroso

José Manuel Barroso

If this wasn’t complex enough, President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso has made it clear that any move to reduce free movement of people within the EU would (in his view) be contrary to European Union law.

Whilst acting within his European role, Mr Barroso may have misread the British nature – at last that of those who are more naturally Eurosceptic. His public statement may have served only in reinforcing the position of UKIP and Conservative sceptics. Indeed, it may have similarly convinced the more moderate members of both Conservative and Labour parties that any meaningful renegotiation is impossible.

So, it appears that the Prime Minister finds himself searching for a middle ground. However, his problem is clear. Any solution likely to find support with European colleagues is highly unlikely to be ‘strong’ enough for his own parties euro-sceptic let alone UKIP. Equally, anything likely to gain their support is unlikely to gather any support within the wider European community.

As if this wasn’t making the case for continued European Union membership difficult enough, the past week has seen a demand from Brussels for a further £1.2 billion pounds to be paid by 1st December 2014. Cross party rejection of the demand has done little but paint the EU as acting unreasonably and without appropriate governance. However, Brussels response has been to threaten the UK with fines of £275,000 per day along with withholding the UK rebate. This has done nothing other than secure support from all parties for Mr Cameron’s position of refusing to pay the latest demand.

Given these pressures, no party is taking the pro-European position. Indeed, increasingly the political classes are using phrases such as ‘ultimately this will be a choice for the British people’. It certainly feels to me that many of the parties are thinking what would previously have been unthinkable. At what point does EU membership become an electoral liability?

What is clear is that this is a question which will form a major plank of party electoral positions in 2015. Recent polls show a hung parliament in 2015 is the most likely outcome.  Some show such strong fragmentation that no two parties could form a government. If this is the case, the balance of power would appear to move to the euro-sceptic parties.

Perhaps Mr Barroso’s intervention is not as ill-considered as it appears. Certainly, he would be aware of this likelihood. Perhaps he is merely bringing the issue to a head. It appears that the UK relationship with Europe is going to be a hot topic for the next six months in the run up to the election.

 

Broken news: The drugs war is lost

It is now 43 years since President Richard Nixon announced his ‘war on drugs’. His comments came in the summer of 1971 at the height of public concern in America over cannabis use, fear at a growing ‘hippy’ culture and two years after Woodstock. Many commentators believe the war he mentioned focused on Cannabis, however it has widened in recent years to include all drug classes.

In recent weeks Admiral Robert Papp, head of the US Coast Guard was heavily criticised for stating that it was disheartening to watch a continued battle against drugs being lost. Many will not agree with the premise of his argument, however, it was sufficiently interesting to make me consider a number of similar comments in the United Kingdom.

The more I looked the more I was surprised by the apparent cross party agreement that the current status quo is failing to prevent the steady growth in drugs use and availability.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat) called for a Royal Charter to investigate the possibility of moving to the Portuguese model where all drugs are no longer subject to criminal sanction but rather become considered a public health issue. He was quoted as saying that the UK was ‘losing the battle against drugs on an industrial scale.’ Despite rapid dissociation from the Prime Minister, this remains Liberal Democrat policy.

His argument was that countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States end up criminalising significant proportions of their population for drugs offences often initiating a downward spiral. He suggested that once in possession of a criminal record for drug possession/supply, an individual was effectively marginalised in society. This made their employment less likely and ultimately increased the potential for them to re-use.

In the summer of 2012 former Home Secretary and political heavyweight Ken Clarke (Conservative) also commented that the United Kingdom was losing it’s war on drugs. Despite being lambasted for making such a comment he wasn’t alone in holding those views at the time. Although taking different views on the solution, a similar admission is made by Louise Mench MP (2012) Speaking against legalisation. Ms Mench was a fellow Conservative MP at the time and open in her admission of previously having taken class A drugs.

Former chief advisor to the government Professor David Nutt (politically independent) is perhaps the most well known individual to take a public stand which ran contrary to public policy at the time. Nutt argues that his views are based on empirical evidence and is nothing more than a logical position based around the relative dangers of non-prescribed (illegal) drugs, compared to items such as tobacco and alcohol.

To complete the political consensus, it was only this summer that the Labour magazine claiming to voice thought leadership to the party made the same comment. It encouraged the party to support legalisation of recreational drugs – including those currently classified as Class A such as Crystal Meth and Cocaine.

In addition to the voices from the political classes, a number of social commentators have been calling for a debate on current drugs policy. Some are perhaps unsurprising.

Russell Brand’s debate and near battle with Peter Hitchin on Newsnight has become something of required viewing when considering the two most extreme ends of the spectrum. One considers the requirement to move from criminalisation to treating as a medical condition akin to a disease or illness. The other holds the position that a more punitive enforcement of the criminal law would be more likely to lead to success.

However, increasingly less typically anticipated voices are making themselves heard. Richard Branson recently spoke out encouraging a move to treatment rather than regulation. He also made the point that most politicians in power find it impossible to speak out about the issue. However, they frequently move to the position once they have left power. He cites former Presidents Carter and Clinton as examples. He also drew comparisons between the fight against drugs and the prohibition of alcohol in 1920’s America.

So my position isn’t to propose a ‘solution’ I don’t presume to know enough to do so. However, what is clear to me is that the current status quo isn’t working. More over there appears to be near political unanimity in agreeing that position. I don’t want a world where the population is wandering around in a drugged stupor (legal or illegal). I’ve also seen far too many people’s lives ruined with remarkably little in the way of support.

My question and challenge is that if that is the case – where is the political discussion? Is it simply easier to sedate large numbers on methadone rather than face up to a problem we all know exists and isn’t improving.

How many politicians from how many parties and political stances does it take to speak out before the issue becomes important enough to shape a new public policy ?

Joyeux Noël: It’s downhill all the way.

Firstly, I must declare an interest. I’m with Dr Sheldon Cooper in being no great fan of the festival of Saturnalia. The over-commercialisation of the season has made it lose it’s appeal and meaning to many. I can see it’s potential, but the traditional family Christmas hasn’t been big on my radar for some years.

A particular dread in relation to season Saturnalia is the fact that it seems to be moving rapidly to a rolling celebration. As a child, I remember Christmas started with Advent – around 1st December, maybe late November if you were really unfortunate. Then through the 80’s and 90’s we gradually moved backwards starting in late November, then the middle of the month and increasingly in early November.

The Christmas Isle appears in mid October

The Christmas Isle appears in mid October

Today, despite the fact that I know products were launched by many supermarkets in September, I found myself in the seasonal goods isle and Christmas has definitely arrived. I would like to point out it’s yet to be Halloween so in my book it’s considerable too early for Christmas cakes, mince pies and Yule log.

Ironically, in the baked goods isle I’m still able to buy a range of Hot Cross Buns – but that’s another story. I couldn’t help but notice that the best buy/use buy date on many of the seasonal goods on offer expire at least 3 weeks before Christmas itself. Perhaps that could be a rule of thumb supermarkets could introduce to kerb their natural retail tendencies.

So now the battle to avoid the tinsel, canned carols and musak will escalate until a point (usually around 16th December) when I simply don’t want to go out of the house. Thankfully this year, I will be in Australia for the Saturnalia celebration. Whilst I’m certain it has reached Melbourne and Sydney, it will be so different to the UK that I almost felt I was getting a year off (until the supermarket incident).

To confirm my prejudice, Harrod’s Christmas Grotto has been forced to advertise that it is already closed before it even opens on 7th November. Entry to the high-class yule-fest is by ticket only (nothing so common as a queue in Harrods) and these are already sold out a few days after going on sale. So it appears you now have to plan for the Harrods Christmas Grotto visit at roughly the same time Wimbledon fortnight ends in June.

You never put a fairy on that !

You never put a fairy on that !

Around the country hooks and holders are already being put in place just waiting for lights to be strung from them as soon as the evenings have the decency to get dark at some reasonable hour to allow better retail sales.

Four employment agencies have already published urgent calls for Father Christmas candidates at shopping centres and grottos. It’s ironic (at least to me) that they are being employed before we’ve even got Halloween out of the way .. just morally wrong!

One exception to the bland preparations for the festivities is the sculpture recently erected in Paris. Apparently this green objet d’art is allegedly supposed to be a Christmas tree. However, according to those who should know it appears to be an oversized butt plug. Now who say’s the spirit of Christmas is dead ?

 

 

Defer your family to boost your career ?

I know I’m about to tread on territory that many will say I have no right to comment on given that the subject matter is exclusively a choice faced by women. However, I’m taking a chance as I felt so strongly about the latest ‘option’ being introduced.

Benefits Package

Benefits Package

For many years women have been working to balance the demands of family life, parenting and career. So what some will say – so have men. However, men do this in a predominantly male oriented society and without the constraints of ‘the glass ceiling’ and a biological body clock ticking.

A huge number of women manage to do this brilliantly – however, I would be the first to say that business and society generally could do a lot more to make the process more achievable and introduce greater flexibility as well as a better work/life balance.

Having said that, I recognise that businesses continue to innovate and offer new and often imaginative ways to attract and retain staff of all genders. However, I find myself struggling with the most recent offer to female employees made by Facebook and Microsoft. Both organisations have announced that they will offer a financial subsidy to female members of staff who may wish to freeze their embryos – presumably to extend their working life and level the opportunities offered to male colleagues. The offer is around $20,000 US, (£12,500).  Other tech giants such as Apple have already announced their intention to follow suit in early 2015.

I include the financial sum purely to indicate how seriously the companies are taking this offer. For me the amount is not the issue – I find myself opposed to the idea on principle.

freggsFirstly, it’s important for me to draw a distinction between freezing due to medical circumstances (ie prior to radiotherapy) and elective freezing to extend working life. I have absolutely no issue with the former and recognise that this is entirely a personal view – but it’s my personal view and I believe I’m entitled to raise some questions about the practice.

I wonder what message this sends to employees (male or female). It would appear to be saying that work is the most important aspect of your life and the part which should determine other actions. This may be true for some but I doubt it is true for all. What pressure does this now bring to those women who are demanding enough to expect equality of opportunity without deferring a family? It doesn’t take much of a jump to imagine employers pointing out (in measured terms I’m sure) that if you want promotion you may wish to consider ..

I recently visited Microsoft offices in the UK and (like many others) found catering, gaming, relaxation and even some ‘crashing’ space. Whilst these were all legitimate staff benefits, a Microsoft manager also commented when it came to game developers we really want to remove their need to go home. Everything they need is here.

The unspoken and barely concealed drive to extend working hours in this way is clearly advantageous to the employer – but I wonder what it does for the employees work life balance?

In some ways, this latest offer is very similar. I acknowledge and support any woman’s right to choose if and when to conceive but is this decision fully informed in these ‘benefit’s package’ offers. A quick call to the corporate communication/press offices makes no mention of counselling, supporting medical advice or information about the consequences of deferring conception.

Are employees advised for example  that the chances of successfully conceiving reduce markedly for women between the  ages of 25 and 35. If not, then is this a truly informed choice? I can see what’s in it for the company. I would hope that if these offers become more common (and personally I hope they don’t) that independent medical advice/information is a compulsory part of the decision making process.

If employers wish to attract and retain staff I would suggest that available and cost-effective childcare might have been a better starting point.

Ebola screening: Lifesaving or lipservice?

Many students of politics will be familiar with the quote attributed to German Chancellor Otto von Bismar, that ‘politics is the art of the possible.’ A belief in this statement often results in actions which could be considered to be undertaken under the ‘Something has to be seen to be done Act’

The Ebola virus

The Ebola virus

As the west of Africa continues to be subjected to the ravages of Haemorrhagic Fever (more commonly known as Ebola) the threat of wider spread thanks to international travel appears to have fallen firmly into this category.

After initially denying the possibility (or at least minimising it to an inconsequential risk) of international transfer the possibility has now been recognised and a distinct jerking of knees followed apace.

It has become increasingly clear that the outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone is still far from under control. Those treating the outbreak remain under significant risk and new cases have been reported in the United Kingdom, Germany, America and Spain.

With this news, the government in the United Kingdom has come under pressure to introduce screening on those entering the UK. Despite initial reassurances that there are no direct flights from the affected regions to the UK, the government has now announced it will be introducing screening, initially at Heathrow and Gatwick.

Airport Health Screening

Airport Health Screening

However, the screening process does appear to be more an effort to appease the public clamour for action rather than something with concrete preventative measures likely to reduce transmission risks.

The screening process (less extensive that the digital thermal imaging used for H1N1 bird flu) is currently relying on people self-identifying as providing a potential risk of transmission. I can’t imagine many people at the end of an international flight volunteering to be held in a medical processing facility at the end of a long flight?

Given that the initial symptoms of Ebola are flu like symptoms, I can only imagine the number of stag-do’s returning on easy-jet (other airlines are available) to find they are exhibiting exactly these symptoms. Of course the multiple posters asking travellers ‘Do you have Ebola’ are likely to be immediately effective at identifying new transmission risks.

More challengingly, the incubation period for Ebola is roughly seven days, so (although not infectious at this point) it would be entirely possible for travellers infected but not yet showing symptoms to pass through any checks without raising any suspicion. Assuming that anyone travelling was exhibiting symptoms, they may be taken aside to determine an appropriate course of action, but nothing has been said about dealing with the cabin crew and fellow passengers who may have been on the same flight.

The reassurance that airport security checks presents would appear to me to be entirely superficial and mere lip-service to be seen to be doing something – however ineffectual that may actually be.

Birthdays, bugs and Balons.

Balans

Balans Restaurant Soho

The quickest of updates today as the cold from hell has me in it’s grip with no particular evidence to suggest it wants to let go any time soon.

Apart from the usual pleasure of spending some time with my partner, I had a very enjoyable afternoon at Compton’s celebrating the birthday of two friends and their 30th birthday. I couldn’t help but remember how I felt on the approach of my 30th birthday – a big zero date and a transitional one (at least in my mind) between the end of youth and the inexorable march towards middle age. Always the optimist aren’t I ?

Interestingly the transition from 30 to 40 was far less traumatic, almost unnoticed in fact. I couldn’t help but smile inwardly as the ‘birthday boy’ let slip a couple of remarks that betrayed the same thinking on his part as had been experienced in my own case. Perhaps I wasn’t experiencing anything unique after all. Do all people share the same transitional birthdays. Interestingly, at least for me even numbered birthdays always seem easier to manage than odd numbered ones. An experience I have had repeated to me by more than one other person, so maybe I’m not as weird in this regard as it would at first appear?

As both my partner and I find ourselves battling the lurgy, we settled on the belief that killing it off with alcohol was at least worth an experimental investigation. So, following a small number  of ciders we retired to Balans and discovered their rather inviting dark and stormy rum cocktails .. in fact I believe we may have discovered three. Along with a chance meeting with friends whose wedding we had attended in the summer and the lurgy was almost bearable for the evening.

Oh you are awful …. but I like you !

Dick Emery

Dick Emery

Any comic or sit-com actor will tell you that catch phrases can’t really be planned – they just take off and work their way into the psyche of the audience.

The other characteristic of a catch-phrase is their longevity. A case in point happened today when I was walking through an office reception and heard a rather plummy female voice utter the phrase ‘Oh you are awful !’

Cut to 1979 and the now virtually forgotten comedian Dick Emery who had a vast array of characters in his then iconic Saturday evening comedy show. One of those characters a young lady called Mandy found herself subject to frequent end of the pier double entendre and always responded ‘Oh you are awful … but I like you!’ – Followed by a swift left hand shove.

Instantly I heard the comment in the reception area I mentally finished the punch line, even though I hadn’t heard it for at least 30 years and was a young child at the time.

Then I began to wonder why Dick Emery had been erased from British Comedy? Others such as Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd and the like are held up as major comic influences on others. Considering some of his material it certainly wouldn’t be considered PC but its certainly harmless.

The clips above show a range of the characters Emery created. Now although not rip-roaringly funny in this compilation, some of his work was ground-breaking. He was one of the only commedians in the 1970’s and 80’s to feature an openly gay (and yes camp) man – but one who was clearly enjoying all aspects of gay life. Something we rarely see even today.

So today I found myself saying thank you Dick Emery for making me laugh as a child and for raising a smile some 30+ years later. That has to be some record I’m sure.

 

Summoned by memories

I am not sure what the word is which describes being called by a place or location. However, whatever it is, I’m suffering from it today and in fact for the past couple of weeks.

St. Ives Harbour

St. Ives Harbour

The first location calling me is a small fishing village (now a very small town) at the far south west of Cornwall. St. Ives is somewhere I have been on and off since a child. Don’t ask me what it is about the place which keeps drawing me back – I simply don’t know.

There certainly isn’t a throbbing nightlife, no parascending, banana boats or concert venues. The cinema has three screens and although the seafood is excellent there are five restaurants in total. However, the calm, tranquillity and simple beauty of the place is without question. I know I will relax and become ‘centred’ during a stay here.

The place is frankly unbearable in high season, but out of season its an oasis of calm and tranquillity where simple pleasures can be enjoyed. I haven’t been back to St. Ives for a couple of years and now I find myself wishing I could find a long weekend to enjoy the peace and the surrounding area. I wish I could introduce my partner to the place at some point – I’m sure that will happen – but as he’s more of an action animal than me he may find it just a little too tranquil at the moment.

Paris by night

Paris by night

A little further afield a second just as loud and persistent voice calls me in the opposite direction. Many people love Paris and I’m certainly no different in enjoying its food, culture, nightlife, romance and sense of place.

I particularly like the area around the 6th arr. Paris St Germain has a quality and character I simply haven’t found anywhere else. I’m sure I won’t be able to hold off the siren voices much beyond the spring. Again I would love to take ‘he who must be obeyed’ to enjoy the wonders of the city I love so much.

I’m lucky enough to visit London regularly and appreciate it as one of the world’s great cities. However, for romance and nourriture pour l’âme, I simply can’t better Paris.

 

So what is it I wonder that calls us to places at a given time? Perhaps just wander lust or sometimes a wish to escape from the mundane vicissitudes of life. However, for me it’s similar to a sudden craving for a particular food. I’ve learned to listen to my body in those situations – perhaps listening to these calls is no different?

The revenge of the Jedi ?

A chance view of a photograph on one of the numerous channels of rubbish on my television was like being thrown unceremoniously into a wormhole and emerging in 1979 – at least momentarily.

For those of a certain age, (those who were teenagers in the late 1970’s)  you will probably understand the feeling I’m describing. For others, you can’t understand the impact the Star Wars film had in that year. I can distinctly remember queuing for the ABC cinema in Swindon waiting to see this much hyped movie. I can also remember the feeling on leaving the film, that I – along with those who saw it with me in the cinema – had seen something revolutionary. There hadn’t been anything quite like it to that point.

Alec Guinness and Obi wan Kenobi

Alec Guinness and Obi wan Kenobi

I recall seeing Alec Guinness playing Obi Wan Kenobi and seeing him as some eldery character. Although, to be fair, he was an actor who  always appeared to be elderly even when watching films where he was in his thirties!

Of course as someone so young at the time, I had not idea of his actual age, nor how rapidly the sands of time run for all of us.

Equally, the remaining cast members were frozen in aspic as the characters they played. The only notable exception to this rule was Harrison Ford who aged gracefully through a range of film roles. His counterparts in the film kept a much lower profile in the following years which did nothing to break the enduring memory of them as they were in 1979.

The regular annual showing of the film at or around Christmas merely reinforced this belief. Even those significantly younger than me have no other points of reference for most of the actors who simply weren’t as prolific, successful or ever-present on our screens.

Luke Skywalker then and now

That made my sudden glimpse of Mark Hamill (the actor who played Luke Skywalker) all the more dramatic. In fact, by a strange twist of fate, he is the same age now (63) as Alec Guinness was when the original film was made.

I’m not entirely sure how this news made me feel, other than rapidly aging myself. However, I’ve since settled on the fact that age is merely a number. Rather like Oscar Wilde’s lines of settling on an age you feel comfortable with and sticking with it. Or, Lady Bracknell’s observation that there is sometimes a difference between ones actual age and that one admits to at dinner parties.

It also occurred to me how difficult it must be for actors and actresses (often delicate egos at the best of times) to be confronted with permanent reminders of their younger selves. I’m sure that isn’t something I would relish.

So, I will certainly see the latest Star Wars film (Star Wars VII) when it is released, although I think it will be less out of interest in the life of the Skywalkers and more out of a sense of nostalgia and a chance to recapture that feeling last felt at the ABC Swindon.

So, it’s often the surprising and unexpected situations that have most impact on you (certainly speaking for myself). Glimpsing a photograph has allowed me to revisit  my childhood and in part re-evaluate the present. May the force be with you !

Surprised by things you didn’t know you remembered

Isn’t it strange how some things impact on you and the rational state of your particular universe. Often, these things (at least to me) seem to be things which I was only partially aware of in the first place.

The news broke today of the death of a female singer songwriter from the 1970’s. Lyndsey de Paul was not immensely well known and wasn’t someone I particularly followed or even liked as a child. However, I do remember her singing Rock Bottom with Mike Moran in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1977. I was around 12 at the time and despite these events forming nothing more than a passing blip of recognition, the news of her death has had a significant impact on me.

Given her relatively young age (64) it isn’t perhaps surprising but it does make me wonder if I’m firing on all four cylinders at present. I often find that these rather random events gain greater significance that perhaps is due when I’m slightly off kilter.

Some people notice they don’t sleep well, others spot memory lapses or loss of appetite. I notice that I get a bit sentimental. Perhaps Rock Bottom has more significance than I had previously thought.