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Theresa May will win. Here’s why.

In a world of complete political chaos, where quite literally anything could happen on an hourly basis, surely only a muppet would try to predict the outcome…? Well….

When she goes inside 24 hours, everyone can have a laugh at how wrong I got it. But here’s a contrarian’s view: I think Theresa May is going to win.

Here’s why.

There are three groups of people in the Britain today: Leavers, Remainers, and people who want some kind of compromise deal. You may argue that no such thing as a compromise can exist, and the inherent contradictions of Brexit mean that you either leave clean or you stay in. But compromises are generally what politics is all about, and so a compromise is what we have.

Like all compromises, it pleases no-one. But other than the obvious point that by definition it is closer to each side than each is to the other, it does have one thing going for it in political terms: in being a Brexit deal, it can claim to be Brexit – and that will be enough to satisfy some. Leading Brexiteers will scoff and say it is Brexit in Name Only, but as it ends free movement, it does a job. By no means all who voted Out did so out of fear of immigration – Tory Brexiteers in Parliament who oppose the deal will argue that “reclaiming Sovereignty” was the key – but for many in Labour-leaning constituencies, immigration and its surrounding perceptions about jobs played at least a part.  Wherever Jacob Rees-Mogg and the ERG sit, therefore, it’s unarguable that Theresa May’s deal delivers some of the things that some of the people who voted to leave had in mind when they did so. Put simply, the deal clearly isn’t the exact status quo, so it can’t be Remain. Which means it is Brexit – of sorts.

What that means in turn is that it squares a circle for some MPs: those who themselves think we should remain, but whose constituents voted to go. That group – which includes a not insignificant faction in the moderate wing of the Labour party – can back the deal, tell their constituents that they have voted for Brexit, and get something closer to remaining (which they would like) than a departure on WTO terms (which they dread). Long story short, while it is easy to suggest that adding disgruntled Tories to the Opposition benches means that the maths are strongly against the deal (particularly if you’re an ERG MP and are talking your own book…), there is nonetheless still a fair probability that Labour MPs who oppose Brexit (of which there are many) will demur from the Corbyn viewpoint and vote with the Government (or abstain). And there is an equally strong possibility that those who do so will outnumber the unhappy Tory Brexiteers. On that basis, the deal will go through.

In that scenario, Theresa May will have been saved by the Opposition – an intolerable position for the Tory Right – so she would suffer a Vote of Confidence, which at that point she would probably lose. But… Though she would then fall, the victory for her Tory Right opponents will be Pyrrhic: Brexit would have gone through in a format that they hate. Which means that in reality, they have to act sooner than that, and try to oust her before the deal comes to the House.

But… If that happens, would they win it? Many Tory MPs fear the implications (which are that it adds to the risk, as they see it, that Corbyn ends up in Number 10), and 159 would have to vote against her. Even the ERG believe that they only have 80 or so who would vote with them on the deal, and it seems unlikely that more would vote with them on a confidence vote. Worse than that for the ERG: the Prime Minister needs only to win a Vote of Confidence by a single vote to continue, and if she does, she will win a 12-month stay of execution before anyone can challenge her again. So a challenge before the deal is voted on could actually mean that she could win the Brexit vote with Labour support and then not be at risk of being ousted by disgruntled Tories because it’s a year before they can vote again. No wonder opponents are still hesitating to call for the wielding of the knife.

So the key to it all lies in how many people in parliament (or more specifically, Remainers in the Labour party) think that they can get a Second Referendum if this deal is voted down. If enough of them do, then the deal will be defeated. But that seems to me unlikely. Sure, they know that if May is defeated in the Commons on her deal, she goes; but they also know that it is far more likely that she will be replaced by a harder-line Tory Brexiteer than by a Remainer – and that as a consequence, the chance of us falling out of the EU with no deal will become more likely than the chance of a second vote. Picture yourself as a Labour Remainer, and imagine which way you would bet. They seem to me far more likely to conclude that the best deal that they can get is the deal that is on the table: a customs union half-way house that retains much of our current EU trade.

None of which is to say, of course, that there will not be some seriously rocky moments. If Gove resigns, as many think he will, life will be extremely uncomfortable for the Prime Minister. But important people resign and the world goes on. Nine Cabinet Ministers have resigned this year, and I bet most people can’t name two of them. What matters is who wins the votes (of Confidence, and on the deal), and while resignations will influence where a few people come out on those, the basic facts laid out above don’t change because Michael Gove is no longer in the Government.

So all in all, it may be an unusual view, but I think May is going to win. This deal will pass the Commons either after she wins a Vote of Confidence, or before she loses one.  But either way, I’d bet that the deal that’s on the table is going through.

Posted in Britain, Politics.


AGM speech

Although I said that my next blog post would outline the reasons why, in my opinion, people should want to be members of British Rowing, I thought I would post the speech I made at the AGM today for those members who are interested but were unable to make it. It preceded the formal part of the AGM and constituted the welcome and introductory remarks.

It’s an honour to stand here for the first time as Chairman, and I’d like to start by paying a particularly warm tribute to my predecessor in the role. Annamarie has left me extremely large shoes to fill. Not just for her ubiquity at rowing events; not merely for the astonishing depth and breadth of relationships that she has across the sport both domestically and internationally, or the wisdom and knowledge that she brings to every discussion; but also for the obvious affection in which she is held across the sport. We owe her a very large vote of thanks, and it is, I am sure, to our huge advantage that she remains so deeply involved in rowing at an international level. Annamarie, thank you.

This has been a year of considerable change for British Rowing, not simply with my own appointment and other changes at Board level that were driven by the adoption of the Sports Code of Governance, but also at the Performance level too. We bade farewell, after an extraordinary 21 years, to Sir David Tanner, whose impact on British Rowing would be hard to exaggerate. I was amused to meet him at GB Rowing Team Senior and Under 23 Trials on my first day in the job back in April, demonstrating his love and passion for what we do in being there before the start, even though he was no longer in charge.  There will not be a person here who is not aware of his remarkable achievements, and our new Director of Performance, Brendan Purcell, has – like me – a tough act to follow. I am delighted to say that my initial engagements with Brendan – in Lucerne at World Cup 3 and in Plovdiv at the World Championships – suggest to me that we have just the person to take us forward from here. His style will be very different; and he is already having a very positive impact. Our results at a senior level – two bronzes and one para gold at the World Championships, when we had a target of 4-6 Olympic-class medals – have this year not, it is true, been as good as we are used to. But our team is young and margins are small. I am confident that our vastly experienced coaching team knows what it wants to address.

Below the Senior team, the GB Under 23s had their best-ever result at a World Championships, returning home with eight medals – including three golds. That in itself is impressive; but it is even more so, given that the standard of racing this year was incredibly high.

The Junior GB Rowing Team also had an outstanding World Championships, bringing home three medals – two gold and one silver.  I know that Brendan and Andy are very pleased with the excellent relationships between athletes and coaches across both the Under 23s and Junior squads.  Well done to them all.

In Cork, Ireland back in July, Great Britain won 11 medals across the weekend at the Coupe de la Jeunesse, thus winning the title for the 15thtime since the event’s inception in 1985.  Meanwhile, Great Britain’s junior rowers retained their title in the annual J16 match against France, winning nine of the 13 races in Vaires-sur-Marne.  That is our seventh win in the last eight matches.

In addition to our crews, our commercial partnerships have performed well this past year.  In SAS and Mizuno we have two excellent partners who are helping grow our reputation in the sponsorship market as an NGB worth backing.

SAS’s investment in British Rowing has grown by several hundred thousand pounds since this time last year.  Their cash sponsorship has enabled them to appear on GB Rowing Team racing kit and boats, while their expertise and world-leading software is now helping British Rowing become a data-drive organisation.  What does that mean?  It means we will soon be a governing body with a fit-for-purpose approach to data management and analysis. That will allow us to make decisions based on fact and insight rather than opinion, which is an increasingly important thing in today’s high-tech world.

Mizuno is one of Japan’s leading trading companies, and their support over the last 12 months has not only made the GB Rowing Team the most professional-looking team on the international circuit, but has increased income as well.  We receive a substantial amount of free kit from them each year – kit that we would otherwise be buying – and we are now starting to generate a good return from our Mizuno merchandise range (including a very large order from Korea, of all places!).  From nowhere a few years ago, retail and licensing is starting to feel like an area that could become a good, sustainable income stream.

Meanwhile, we still strive to find a major sponsor, and an exciting new sales campaign is about to be launched. So I hope to be in a position to bring good news this time next year.

My predecessor talked last year about diversifying and expanding the rowing offer, and this year saw the inaugural Power 8 Sprints and Commonwealth Beach Rowing Sprint Championships. Both were fun, well-organised, and in terms of those who were present, undoubtedly a success. As Power 8s are being reviewed by the Board at its next meeting, I would not wish to pre-empt wider analysis with any further anecdotal judgment. What I will say, though, is that this diversification and expansion is important not just because it allows us to grow the sport from the bottom up by attracting new audiences, but because of the extent to which it safeguards the future of the sport from the top down. The need for flexibility at an international level is, I think, widely recognised when it comes to the absence of rowing as a sport from the Commonwealth Games programme, but it is far less recognised in the context of the Olympics. A recent presentation to International Federations by the IOC President Thomas Bach underlined that we would be wise to remain alert to the threat of changes in the programme, and any analysis of new events which does not include this as a consideration would be incomplete.

Which is not to say, of course, that we do not face a challenge in needing to test, develop, and grow these new formats in a financial environment which is difficult. Some of you may have seen my recent blog about our current financial position, and others who haven’t will undoubtedly be looking at the financial statements in your AGM pack with at least a raised eyebrow. For those who have done neither, let me lay out in bald terms where we stand financially and what we are doing about it.

The combination of our budget deficit and our investment in new formats means that we will overspend this year by around £750,000, and as the Chairman of our Finance Committee John Hinnigan will report shortly, we are unlikely, as things stand, to break even over the four-year period of the current cycle. There is a case for ensuring that we do so by cutting programmes, but that would – in my view – be damaging. I am well aware that the absence of regional reps has been keenly felt across the country, and my strong belief is that we must – and can – address our budget shortfall by growing our income lines rather than by cutting our costs.

The way we will do that in the coming months will be through a concerted drive to increase our membership – not incrementally, but by effecting a step-change. Doing so will not be a trivial exercise, but it is certainly not impossible. We can do it by openly explaining where we are at, why we exist, and what we are trying to do – three things you would think are obvious, but three things that are not as widely understood as they need to be. As a National Governing Body we are seen to be regulators who tax our members’ enjoyment of a sport that would exist quite happily without us. In fact, we are guardians of a shared passion who safeguard the sport not just for today but for successive generations – here to enable clubs, to protect the framework, and to ensure the future. In the coming weeks we will lay out in more detail exactly what that means, and why it doesn’t happen by itself.

If we are successful, we will encourage the many, many thousands of people who consider rowing to be their sport to see the relevance – aside from race licences and insurance – of being members of British Rowing, and in doing so we can turn around our financial position, invest significantly, and start to create a virtuous circle which will be transformative for the sport.

The vast majority of people here are volunteers.  Of course, that does not make us unique, as nearly every sport needs a large and passionate group of volunteers to operate. But the sport of rowing in Great Britain would not survive without you and the thousands of people like you who give up your time and spend your money week in, week out, year in, year out to run clubs, competitions, events; to manage membership; to coach… The list goes on…

It is impossible to single out anyone, because each person makes an important contribution; so I would like simply to say thank you to all of the volunteers here today, and to everyone across the country who willingly and freely not only keeps rowing going but develops it for future generations.

Later this year, we will be starting work on a new Volunteer Strategy for rowing, in the full knowledge that volunteers play a critical role across the sport. We want to understand how both British Rowing and our 550 affiliated clubs can be more effective in how we attract, retain, support and celebrate them. We will draw upon recent national research and consider how these learnings can be applied to our sport, whilst also considering the unique challenges and opportunities associated with volunteering in rowing.

The 2018 membership survey closed yesterday, and we received 1,150 completed responses. We asked our members questions about their type of involvement in rowing, and how they feel about the sport and the key activities British Rowing has undertaken – as well as their view of the membership offer and how it can be improved in the future. We will now analyse this information to see where we can improve our operations and offers. I know Andy and the team in Hammersmith will be communicating this to the rowing community at the beginning of the New Year.

Now… let me move on to the Competition Framework, which as you know is the national structure that supports the way competitions are organised and run. You almost certainly don’t need me to tell you that it’s the architecture and system that underpins the racing scene in this country and, as such, it is incredibly important to the sport.

Let me briefly cover the background, just so that we are all starting on the same page…

Since the 1940s, a rower’s competitive status has been determined by the number of events he or she has won at regattas.  Various changes and additions have been made to this framework over the years, most recently via a formal competition review led by Ann Colborne in 2002, which led to a tweak in the points system in 2009. But even after this, there was a growing sense within the sport that a more fundamental overhaul was needed.

In June 2014, Council agreed a proposal for the NCC Competition Review Working Group to develop a new Competition Framework.  This working group included Guin Batten, Phil Clements, Fiona Dennis and Tim Walton, along with British Rowing staff.

Under the new Framework, it was proposed that rowers would get ranking points for racing and beating crews.  The higher up you finish in an event, and the more crews you beat, the more ranking points you get.  The more ranking points you have, the better you are at beating crews in your event. So the purpose of creating the new PRI was to create a more accurate reflection of a rower’s and crew’s ability, in order to allow them to be more matched in competitions.

We formally launched the new competition framework and PRI in April this year, happy that years of hard work from volunteers and staff could benefit rowers across the country.

Now, I would have to be deaf not to have noticed that the changes have not been universally popular, and issues have been raised. But there are also plenty of people who tell me that the new system works well.

So this is what we are doing.  As I said we would when I was asked about this at the start of the summer, we are reviewing where we are at on the basis of a summer’s data. When I say “we”, I don’t mean British Rowing, and I don’t mean the people who designed it. Instead, to get an entirely impartial opinion, we have asked SAS to undertake an independent review of the algorithms within PRI so that we have complete empirical analysis of its impact, conducted by independent mathematicians.  We expect their analysis and the results in the coming weeks, and we will act on any recommendations they make. Similarly, we will proceed as planned if their report validates the system as it stands.

I know that traditionally this address concludes with the announcement of the British Rowing Medals for 2018 – the Medal of Merit, which is awarded to individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to regional and club rowing, and the Medal of Honour, which recognises the highest levels of service and exceptional commitment to the sport of Rowing in Britain and internationally. Both these Medals are in the gift of the Chairman – but, I must admit, I am not entirely comfortable that that should be the case.

It concerns me that the impact of such a system is that it has an in-built bias towards people who I happen to know, or people who know people I happen to know – a fact perhaps best illustrated by the fact that 80% of the nominations that I had this year came through one person! I think that a system that disproportionately recognises those with an ‘in’ is likely to be inherently biased towards the south-east, and to too small a cohort of potential recipients. So, I am today announcing a change to the system, to be brought in from next year, which will mirror the honours system used nationally.

Although the details are to be ironed out, the basic principle of the new system is that people can be nominated and seconded on a dedicated form that is rubber-stamped by the relevant regional chair, then to be considered by an Honours Committee that will be constituted in the coming months. That Committee will consider all nominations, and decide where, on the scale of potential recognition, a given nominee might fit – just as nationally, a panel decides whether someone should be eligible for an MBE or a Knighthood. I have gone back to all those who have nominated people to me directly this year and have asked them to nominate next year under the new system, which I believe should be welcomed for its greater transparency, and which I hope will encourage people throughout the sport to get involved.

There is, however, one obvious recipient of our highest award, the Medal of Honour, who I think would be unquestioned under any system – and while I may have known her for 20 years, she is just as well known to everyone in this room and throughout the sport.

My predecessor as Chairman of British Rowing, and previously Deputy Chairman and Lead Safeguarding Officer between 2002 and 2013 (during which time she oversaw anti-doping, governance and equality policies), she has been actively involved in rowing for over thirty years, after taking up the sport at university. She enjoyed a successful international rowing career representing Great Britain at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta (in the women’s eight). She also competed in the World Championships between 1991 and 1995 and was World Champion in 1993 (in the lightweight coxless fours) and World Indoor Rowing Champion and World Indoor Rowing Record holder between 1992 and 1995 (for lightweight women). She was the first female board member of The Boat Race Company Ltd, working with the universities’ sponsors and men’s clubs to bring the Women’s University Boat Race to the Tideway in 2015. And she has been a Steward of Henley Royal Regatta since 2002.

She has done a host of things outside the sport, but was awarded the CBE for her services to rowing in 2015. There is no more worthy recipient of the British Rowing Medal of Honour than Annamarie Phelps.

 

Posted in British Rowing, Rowing.

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Six months in: it’s the membership, stupid

It is exactly six months since I took over as Chair of British Rowing (the appointment having started on 1st April 2018), so I thought it was a suitable moment to do what I have been saying I will do for ages: start to put down a few thoughts about how I see the world.

The period since spring has been busy. We’ve only had three Board meetings (May, July and September), but in addition to those I’ve been to quite a lot of events – regattas at Wallingford, Maidenhead Juniors, Marlow, Henley Women’s, Henley Royal, the British Masters, the Europeans at Strathclyde, the North of England Sprints, World Cup 3 in Lucerne, Power 8s in Bristol, the British Offshore, the Commonwealth Beach Sprints, and the World Champs in Plovdiv – and have accepted invitations to visit one region and two clubs. There have also been Regional Chairs’ meetings, a morning down at squad trials, and the ‘day job’ of sitting down with the Exec to talk about strategy and vision.  On top of all of which, I was on my way to the U23s in Poznan, but only got as far as Luton airport. What a lovely place to spend five hours that is, before they cancel your flight. I can recommend it to anyone. 🙂

With all that, I have had a lot of conversations with a wide range of stakeholders, and lots of thoughts arise. I can’t cover them all in one post, so I will aim to return to them in the coming weeks. And for now, I’m just going to talk about our finances.

It’s been quite notable to me that of all the subjects that are raised with me by people when I go around, British Rowing’s finances are not high on people’s agendas. Perhaps this is because people consider us to be a rich sport, as a result of their knowing about our UKSport funding. What few seem to realise, though, is that that funding is ring-fenced for very specific purposes; and in terms of our day-to-day finances, we have for some time been running a budget deficit. It isn’t an insignificant one either. In fact, when you combine the deficit with financial investment in new ideas like the Power 8s (of which more another day), we are, in round numbers, spending £750,000 a year more than we have coming in.

When you consider that we have around £5m in reserves, and a reserves policy that requires us to hold £3.75m in order to allow an orderly run-off of our obligations, you don’t need to be a mathematician capable of dissecting PRI to work out that the position is unsustainable for very long. Were we to keep spending at that level with the same income, then in a couple of years, we’d be going bust.

Hoorah, I hear the cynics say. What did British Rowing ever do for us anyway? (More of that in another post soon, too…) But for now, let’s accept for a moment that BR going bust is not a great idea. What, therefore, to do to make sure it doesn’t happen?

Well, we could stop spending. But there are not many spending lines on the budget that can be cut – certainly not of a size that will make a dent in our overspend, even if we take out investment (a bad idea I’ll address in a future blog) and just look at the budget deficit represented under Business as Usual. The biggest easily deletable line is Rowing and Regatta magazine, and I was delighted that the Board was unanimous, recently, in agreeing that cutting that (when we want to build an ever-stronger community, and communicate more, not less, with everyone) is not a good idea in the absence of a lot of groundwork being done first.

Other than that, there’s not a lot of fat that can come out: in fact, you could argue that many of the programmes that we absolutely have to run as an NGB (safeguarding, etc.) are already run on a shoe-string. In short, if we have to solve our budgetary position by cutting stuff, no-one is going to be happy – least of all me.

Now, you didn’t need to be Einstein to work out the maths; and you don’t need to be Keynes to get the economics.  If we can’t cut spending, then we have to grow the income lines, and “income lines” means one of two things: either sponsorship, or membership income. And in the absence of much of the former (again, more on that another time…), then it has to be the latter that grows. And there are only two ways to grow your membership income: a good way and a bad way.

The bad way is obvious, and a route to oblivion: put membership fees up. Short term gain, long term disaster. Upset everyone, see people leave, have fewer people to get subs from, put subs up again: the vicious circle you create is obvious. It’s the simplest way to destroy the sport, squeezing ever fewer numbers of people for more and more money, and it’s not what we have any intention of doing while I’m in the seat. The path we follow has to be the good way – and for that, we need members’ help.

The good way, obviously, is to increase the number of people who are paying a sub in the first place: that is, significantly grow the membership of British rowing. Is that realistic? In my view, it is – for one simple reason: there are, I  believe, literally tens of thousands – perhaps even hundreds of thousands – of people out there who readily say that, “rowing is my sport” – but who don’t pay a sub that proves it.

Of course, the obvious question is, “why the hell should they?” – and I am afraid that that, again, is a subject I will leave for another time – although in this case, next time at least (so you don’t have too long to wait!). But for now, suffice it to say that this is our challenge, as I see it: to engage with, and persuade to join us, a lot of people who love the sport just like members do, but who for whatever reason are not at the moment members themselves.

What sort of people? Well, folk like the 20,000 or so individuals who we know are currently members of a rowing club somewhere in the country, but not members of British Rowing – some of whom pay several hundred pounds a year to wear a tie and have access to a clubhouse that they don’t actually use.  Or, the literally thousands of people who are members of the Stewards Enclosure at Henley, who also pay vast subs every year in exchange for tickets that they leave in a drawer (yep, me too), who need each only pay the cost of one Wednesday ticket a year to British Rowing to safeguard the sport. Or the multitude who don’t fall into that category, but are nonetheless former rowers – oarsmen and women who were members while they raced but who look at membership as a tax and a race licence, when it is so much more than that (wait for the post!! ;)). Or even the throngs of parents who go and cheer on their children at regattas all over the country, who have got “the bug” too late (in their view) to get out on the water themselves, but who compete through their kids and extol the virtues of the sport. They currently would not even consider why they should join up, not least because there isn’t really a membership category that fits them.

I think it is our challenge to explain to these people why they should be – no, why they will want to be, once they have had it explained – members of British Rowing. To the explanation itself, I will turn another day. But if we succeed in persuading them, we will wipe out the deficit that hangs over us, and we will take the sport forward in a pile of different ways which I hope to get to on this blog over the coming weeks and months.

For now, one last thought. British Rowing is just about to embark on a comms programme around a new membership structure that details how we will be moving from the old categories of Platinum, Gold and Silver to Row, Race, Coach and Support. It will explain how as well as being a modern makeover, the new categories will allow the NGB to speak to each defined group about things that matter to them. In other words, it’s an enabler to offering more bespoke comms to members going forward.

But for me, the most important thing about the new structure is not the new membership cards (which are great) or the significantly improved management that will result from it (which it definitely will). The most important thing is that the new structure will introduce a mechanism by which we can engage with all these people that I have detailed above, and bring them into – or back into – our sport. With that, and with your help in selling the reasoning in the coming months to all the people you know who fall into the categories (and more) that I have mentioned above, we can wipe out our financial deficit – even get to run a surplus – and not just secure the sport, but build it an ever brighter future.

Of which, more anon.

Posted in British Rowing, Rowing.


The weekend’s British Masters

I walked into Holme Pierrepoint last Sunday morning for the first time in nearly 25 years. And it’s fair to say that the immediate impact was to feel as if I’d been stung by a bee.

Just setting foot in the place carried me back to sitting a set of finals papers between outings –  what does studying its budget tell you about the European Union was one of the questions I recall – but it was some of the more calamitous moments sitting in a boat that really made me shudder. I took a fin off an eight there once in windy conditions. And I’d forgotten all about it until the weekend.

But unhappy memories were soon banished by a day at the British Masters Rowing Championships that put a smile on so many faces, and handing out medals on the pontoon to one delighted crew after another would have been enough to send anyone home with a spring in their step.

Among all of them, though, one stood out. As I handed a gold medal to the winning cox of a IV+ from Minerva Bath Rowing Club, I thought I was unlikely to find anyone more chuffed and emotional about victory for the rest of the day. But how wrong I was: by the time I had got down to the stroke man, the level of delight had reached a whole new peak.

I have no idea what the background story was, but clearly, the win meant an enormous amount: his sheer ecstasy could not, I think, have been bettered if he’d just won the Olympics. He kissed his medal and pumped his fists with more raw passion than I’ve seen in many years.

Well done that crew – and everyone who took part. But particularly well done to the volunteers who organised everything. You made a lot of people very happy!

 

 

 

Posted in My articles.


Reflections on the NHS

When I left school, our Head Master made a memorable speech based around three thoughts, one of which had to do with the benefit of experience. He made the point that as you go through life, you will find that everyone has a view on things – particularly institutions – but usually, every opinion they hold is based on hearsay. He told us what a privilege it always is, whether you have loved something or hated it, to be able to base your opinion on the solid foundation of having actually known what it was like.

I thought of his advice this week after I had spent a week in hospital, getting my first experience of the NHS since I had a minor operation as a 7-year-old. Very rare visits to the GP aside, I have had no personal interaction with any part of our health service since 1978 – other than the natal wards, which seem to me to be such a ring-fenced part of the service that I am not sure that they count.

The conclusion I have drawn is that the NHS does one thing unbelievably well, with the pity being that it is true in both senses of the word: crisis.

The efficiency of the operation that I witnessed when things were going pear-shaped was awesome to behold. From the much-maligned 111 service onwards, it was impressive. The paramedics called ahead after they had picked me up: this was a cardiac situation, they explained, not one for A&E. That meant they were going either to Hammersmith Hospital or to St. George’s – so which should it be? The answer came back that St. George’s was busier. To Hammersmith we went.

On arrival, everyone was ready. An entire team took me in, cleared me up, and sorted me out. From start to finish, it had been seamless. There is no doubt at all that between them, they saved my life.

But having immense admiration for everyone involved cannot mask the obvious inefficiencies in the system which became apparent as I progressed through the next few days. Of course, because I was recuperating, I was never in any rush, and was always happy to wait for things to happen, not least because I had a comfortable bed; I was being looked after; and I had plenty to ponder on, read, or watch. But it was striking how long was every delay between any decision being taken and any action being implemented – an extraordinary phenomenon best exemplified by my discharge last Thursday. Told I could go home the night before, I was then asked to stay overnight. Did that mean leaving mid-morning, I asked? No,  they said: it will be 2 by the time we’re ready… But at 11.45, that became 4; and at 3.45, six. It meant I got a cab home when I was finally discharged.

In a similar vein – more worrying still, perhaps – the most shocking thing about Hammersmith Hospital is its lifts. I couldn’t fault my ward: it was clean, well-equipped and more than adequately staffed with people who, if they are as stressed as anecdote relates, betrayed none of their concerns. But to get from one floor to another for anything – a scan, a check-up, or even a life-saving operation – took at least ten minutes.

There were two lifts in my wing. One was not working at all, and the other regularly went on the blink. Hospital porters would lean on the doors to ‘help’ them close, but at least one in three attempts to move floors would result in an automated voice saying that the lift was out of service. Once it recovered, a few seconds later, it would creak up and down, full to the max and opening at every level to expectant crowds. They would have to await its next pass, at a minimum, before they could get in.

What point is there in having world class cardiac facilities on the first floor of a building that you can’t get to because there isn’t a lift up? It seems the most basic and obvious thing in the world,  and – you would think – not terribly expensive (in the context of the overall budget) to put right. But it was clear that this was not some recent breakdown: everyone knew that they had been like that for years.

It’s odd that nothing has ever been done about it, and the fact that nothing has suggests that it isn’t an unusual phenomenon. Unlike the issues of bureaucracy, it has an obvious – and easy to implement – solution, which isn’t even that expensive. Like a lot of things in the last fortnight, I’m still trying to work it out…

Posted in My articles.


Thoughts, a week on…

I was discharged last Thursday in the end. It might have been a day earlier – on Wednesday they came to tell me I was free to go, but changed their minds moments later so that I would still be under observation when I moved from liquid to tablet antibiotics – but what was one last night in a hospital ward, when five nights earlier might have been a final one on earth? I spent it alongside John, an 81-year old who lives by himself in Hounslow but has struggled since a recent fall, reliant on a walking stick deemed by the physio to be too short for his 6ft 2inch frame.

The last ten days have without any doubt been the most extraordinary of my life. As I got into bed at home on Thursday night, Miranda and I looked at each other in complete wonder. It was, we agreed, as if literally nothing had changed; and yet, of course, everything had.

It’s a strange thing to walk about the world,  realising things that might be absurdly obvious, but somehow never really cross our minds. What is striking is how diametrically opposed some of them are. Last week it was whether I was lucky or unlucky; this, it’s the contrast between meaning something to people and honestly not mattering a jot.

On the one hand, the unbelievably touching response I have had from friends all over the world has been genuinely humbling. People I felt no particular reason to believe I meant very much to have pointed out that I’ve been missing something in plain sight. I’ve had messages from friends I haven’t seen for years, and a series of the kindest and most emotive notes which have been hard to read without a tear in the eye. Learning that you are more important to people than you thought is a privilege you never expect to get.

At the same time, though, there’s a curious sense of your own irrelevance to the bigger picture.  Having drifted in and out of consciousness for as long as I did, I’m very aware of how easily I might just not have woken up,  which means I now walk around constantly realising how everything that is, just is: things are still there, whether I were here or not. Every piece of news I’ve heard, every object I’ve focused my gaze on, every sports result I’ve either delighted in or grimaced at, every mark reported from each school test: I haven’t been able to stop myself thinking that all of them would have happened just the same. I just wouldn’t have known any better.

To be here and therefore to know is one reason I consider myself unbelievably fortunate, but these last few days, I have come to understand that the fortune runs much deeper than surviving something odds against.  The realisation of it is the strangest feeling of all, and its articulation sounds ridiculous, but neither makes it less true. Speaking from my own perspective and not the family’s, and obviously knowing that I got out the other side, it is this: if I look back ten days, I am honestly not sure whether – given the chance  – I would change anything that happened.

Generally-speaking, you only get to see life from a different perspective by going through a sustained – possibly never-ending – period of hell. A ravaging disease; the loss of a limb; a terminal illness; the death of someone close: these are the things that change our lives, from which people bravely take the positive of a new sense of proportion.  In my case, the legacy of what happened is that I need to take aspirin every day. It seems to me an unbelievable trade.

Only one thing was missing when I got back on Thursday – the most excitable part of every ‘Welcome home!’ these last eleven years: our old dog Pomme had died peacefully the day before.  I sat down on the very kitchen bench that I had crawled off five days earlier, her empty bed just a few feet in front of me on the floor, and for the first time, the enormity of everything that had happened hit me. I realised that she had been there when I left, but now wasn’t; while I nearly hadn’t come back, but was now home. And everything else just was.

 

 

[A year on from this, I am fund-raising to build a lift up to the cardiac unit at the Hammersmith Hospital that saved my life. If you would like to contribute to that cause, you can do so here.]

Posted in My articles.


I’m still here. And on Saturday that wasn’t looking likely.

John, the anaesthetist, told me when he came to see me on his Sunday round that I had just been “incredibly unlucky”.

His reasoning was that what had happened to me was extraordinarily unlikely, and not linked in any way to lifestyle, or diet. As he explained it to me, the walls of our arteries resemble a mesh which holds back gunk, and from the age of 25, that mesh cracks. Apparently, it happens to all of us, and is rarely a problem. But very occasionally and unusually, the mesh breaks. The blood isn’t happy to find stuff tipped into the bloodstream, and it reacts as it does when anything else goes wrong: it clots.  In my case, it clotted at the entrance to the artery that carries 66% of oxygen to the heart. I had a heart attack.

‘Unlucky’ was John’s version: mine was the polar opposite. I’d take that bad luck, I told him, for the good luck of how and when it happened. I had 20 minutes from the time it started, and any of a whole host of things might have taken me minutes past that. By rights, I should be dead.

It happened on Saturday afternoon. I was walking downstairs, having been in my study and then briefly chatting to my eldest daughter, Emily, in her room, and as I reached the bottom I sensed a not-particularly-alarming pain in my chest and then suddenly felt very ill. I lay down on the bench alongside our kitchen table for a moment, but then, realising that I might be about to be sick, decided it would be wise to move towards the loo.

Only, I couldn’t really move. I crawled off the bench, and on all fours made minimal progress. I lay down on the floor in the foetal position, suddenly feeling terrible.

It was the Fours’ Head in London this weekend, and as a result we had three Cambridge oarsmen staying with us in the house. One of them, Piers, walked into the kitchen as I lay on the floor. I heard him say, “are you all right?” and I replied, “You know… I really don’t think I am…”

I sat up on the floor, as Piers called Riccardo, his fellow oarsman and a third year medic, and told him I didn’t look great. When Riccardo appeared, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, with my chin to my chest and my eyes shut. I had started to sweat – a lot. I could hear him asking me if I was all right, but I couldn’t answer. I sat there, sweat dripping off me, eyes shut, head down. “Mark, are you all right?” he kept asking.

Then, just as suddenly, I was fine. I lifted my head, opening my eyes as I looked up. Riccardo was crouching in front of me, and Piers was behind me. “Wow,” I said. “That was seriously weird! What on earth just happened there?”

At just about that moment, my wife Miranda came in from picking up our third daughter Alice from ballet, walking in through the front door behind our second, Lexie, who had been dropped back by a friend after a hockey match. She took one look at me and exclaimed about the colour of me and the sweatiness of me. We all said how weird the whole thing was, but by now, I was on my feet, and apparently absolutely fine. But it was odd, and someone – I don’t remember who – suggested that we call 111 to ask them what it might have been. Something had clearly happened, but in truth it was as much for reasons of curiosity as anything that I thought it sensible to call and find out what.

I went off and got my phone, in no particular rush, and went to call from the sitting room. I sat on the sofa, got through fairly quickly, and started to tell them what had happened. I was totally fine: I felt perfectly well now, I was lucid, I was sitting on the sofa,  and I was chatting to the woman on the other end about how strange the whole thing had been.

“Just to let you know,” she said as we talked, “I have dispatched an ambulance to your address. And I don’t want to worry you, but I have made it high priority. They should be with you within seven minutes. If you have aspirin in the house, take 300mg. When you get off the phone to me, don’t phone anyone else in case we need to call you back.”

I wasn’t particularly concerned. OK, I said. I would do that. I hung up. I took the aspirin. And then suddenly – very suddenly – I started to go downhill again. I called out for Miranda, who had gone upstairs. By the time she came down, I had slipped off the sofa, where I suddenly had felt very uncomfortable, and was lying on the floor, clearly – and rapidly – getting worse. The next thing I knew, I was aware of a flashing blue light coming through the window, and then paramedics rushing into the room.

I was lying between the sofa and an extremely heavy coffee table made of granite, so they couldn’t actually get to me. How Miranda moved it, I have no idea: we have tried to do it between us plenty of times in the past and we always need an army to get it off the ground. But somehow she and Piers picked it up to give the guys space.

I remember them putting me on a trolley and loading me into the ambulance. I remember them saying to Miranda as she got in that I wouldn’t be back tonight. I remember them then giving me a commentary about where we were all the time, and me telling them I didn’t need one because I knew exactly where we were from the bends of the roads. All I wanted, I said, was a blanket, because I was perishingly cold and shivering uncontrollably. (I later learned that my temperature had dropped to 30 degrees.) I also asked if they had a pillow,  because my head was drooped lower than my shoulders. They didn’t, but one of the paramedics – apparently fresh to the job in the last fortnight – kindly manoeuvred herself so that I could rest my head on her knees.

Over Hammersmith Bridge we went, heading towards the Hammersmith Hospital, where they told me a team was on standby awaiting my arrival. I remember the drive up Shepherd’s Bush Road, but then from Shepherd’s Bush I must have passed out because the next memory is arriving. Amazingly, even at this point I wasn’t actually sure what was happening and why: it was only as they wheeled me out of the ambulance and in through a door which had a sign over it which said, “Heart Attack Unit” that I knew for sure what was going on. It sounds so ridiculous to say it really, but no-one had mentioned the words. And I didn’t see myself as a heart attack candidate: I have never smoked; I exercise six times a week; I don’t eat much meat; and I live a pretty healthy life.

They wheeled me to the lift, where I remember one of them saying, “this is usually the slowest part of the journey”. Sure enough, we waited for ages as various full lifts came and went, until they decided that we had to take the lift down in order to be the incumbents as it came back up, or we would never get in. I recall a lift arriving and it emptying of people.

We were heading down in the lift when I flat-lined for the first time, and apparently, they twice did CPR before we were out. Miranda was in there with me, as she had been in the ambulance, but I remember nothing about it. I regained consciousness, though, as they wheeled me into room I assumed to be the operating theatre, where I was struck by the sheer number of people on hand. I remember them asking me if I minded them cutting my shirt – I had changed out of my sweaty t-shirt – and me telling them that I really didn’t mind what they did, providing they did it quickly. I remember them whipping my trousers down, but leaving them at my ankles, which I remember complaining about because it was very uncomfortable. A young lady called Charlotte introduced herself on my left and told me what she was there to do, but I don’t remember what it was. And then I heard a voice say something about the need to hit me now, and BANG! they unleashed the CPR machine on me. I subsequently learned that they did it five times in total, for four of which I wasn’t conscious. This time, I knew all about it – but as I was told later, my heart had stopped and every second was crucial, so there was no hanging around. Still, I can safely say I have never sworn so loudly in my life. It wasn’t the sort of word you want to be your last.

My next recollection after that is of lying calmly in a bed and wondering whether,  if I opened my eyes, I was going to find myself in hospital or discover that everything was a dream. I opened them slowly, and I was clearly in a hospital. It had genuinely happened.

Now, three days on, I feel fine. The people who have helped me in the hospital have been extraordinarily kind. A lady just came to ask me lots of questions to check that I hadn’t lost any brain function – obviously, a major knock-on effect when you’ve lacked oxygen – and it looks like I passed. All things being well with a scan tomorrow, I should be leaving here in 24 hours, and, they say, even back on the football pitch in the New Year.

So when John the anaesthetist came to see me on Sunday evening and said that I had been incredibly unlucky, I had to demur. Had I not been fit (he told me), the chances that the part of my heart functioning on 33% could have kept me going for long enough to make it would have been incredibly small. Had I been by myself at home, I don’t think there is any chance I would have called 111 when I suddenly felt all right again, and by the time I didn’t, it would have been too late. Had the lady who answered the phone not immediately diagnosed what had happened; had there been more traffic; had I not been at home, but more or less anywhere else – on the street, in a plane, further from a hospital – it would have been curtains. And even if I had survived, without a lot of quick thinking from a lot of people, I might have done so with a fraction of the brain function that I had before it happened, instead of all of it. So, far from being unlucky, I was about as lucky as it was possible to get.

I think in many ways, it was all far worse for the people close to me than it was for me. I was drifting in an out of consciousness (and bizarrely, dreaming very heavily when I was out), so there somehow wasn’t the time to be scared – and as I said to Miranda on Sunday, despite everything, I never believed at any point that I was about to die. “I did,” she told me, particularly when things were going pear-shaped in the lift.

Meanwhile my son Theo, who is 9, took himself off upstairs when the paramedics arrived and Skyped my parents, who are abroad. They asked him how everything was, and he replied, “well, I’m very well… But I have come to Skype from upstairs because I am banished from downstairs because the ambulance people are here.” “The ambulance people?” “Yes. They’ve come because Daddy has collapsed. Oh – I can just see the blue lights of the ambulance now heading off down the road.” It was a few hours before they got any further news. That must have been fun.

From my perspective, the whole experience has been rather surreal. It has sunk in a bit more than it had a couple of days ago, but I am not sure that it has done fully yet.  What I do know is that I count myself extraordinarily lucky to be here. Every day’s a bonus day after that.

 

[If you’re interested, you can read my follow-up to this piece, a week on, here.]

 

If you would like to donate to my efforts to get a lift made for the specific use of the cardiac unit, you can do so here.

Posted in My articles.


The cost of social housing

Ever ask your Uber driver, Deliveroo biker, barista, your builder’s casual brickie or the guy mopping up sick on the Tube platform whether they have a bedroom of their own? Or how many share their lavatory and gas ring? Of course we don’t ask. We’re British. We embarrass easily. We respect their privacy. Their culture, innit?

It’s not good enough. Booming cities bring a price, and we’re not paying. Decent social housing is the highest of priorities and to afford it will hurt.

 

Libby Purves, in The Times.

Posted in My articles.


How much do we spend?

The government is spending over £13,000 a year on every man, woman and child in the country: over £50,000 a year on a family of four. That ought to be enough, surely, to pay for policemen, soldiers, teachers, doctors, hospitals – and safe tower blocks. To finance this, the Government is borrowing over £100,000 a minute.

 

Bruce Anderson, writing in Reaction

The Trots will go too far and the troubled Tories are stronger than they look

Posted in My articles.


More money goes to NI than to EU

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics last month showed that while Scotland consumed £2,824 more in public expenditure per capita than it raised in taxes — a source of irritation to the English — the average inhabitant of Northern Ireland consumed £5,437 more public money than they paid in taxes. There has been a payment from London to Ulster of about £10bn in each of the past three years, slightly more than the UK as a whole has been paying — net — to the EU.

 

Dominic Lawson, writing in the Sunday Times

Posted in My articles.


Austerity, British style.

George Osborne’s great trick was to talk tough while putting into practice a programme which was admirably pragmatic and flexible. Whereas Ireland managed to reduce its gross public debt from 86 per cent to 75 per cent of national income between 2010 and 2016, Britain’s public debt carried on rising: from 76 per cent to 89 per cent. In short, Britain never experienced austerity.

Nick Macpherson, former Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, writing in the FT.

Posted in My articles.


How the dementia tax would become a blueprint for the NHS

One of my earliest school memories is of a teacher whose oft-repeated mantra to pupils whining about the equity of any issue was, “life isn’t fair. The quicker you get used to it, the better”.

Perhaps that was easier to learn when raised in connection with something trivial; but the wider lesson stands whatever the circumstances. If the debate provoked by Theresa May’s new social care policy serves only to bring in to sharp focus the fact that life is a lottery, it will have achieved something.

But I suspect that its legacy will be much broader than that. What is being mooted over dementia seems to me likely to become the solution to what has become known as the crisis in funding in the NHS.

I am not suggesting it will be popular. The idea that you can have built something up all your life that you wish to pass on to your children, only to see its value whittled away by the need to pay for social care if you suffer from dementia, is objectionable to many.

But the harsh reality of it, as Will Hutton pointed out in the Observer over the weekend, is it means “the spoils of undeserved brute good luck will pay for the costs of undeserved brute bad luck – and the state gets resources it otherwise would not”.

Brute bad luck indeed. The hypothetical example of two families with identical houses is laid out by Libby Purves in the Times. The offspring of parents who die suddenly inherit everything, while “next door’s oldster lingers on for a decade needing care from the state”, and the children’s inheritance dwindles to a hundred grand. The unfairness of life is laid bare, but as Purves points out, “if you are wistfully hoping your parents drop dead quickly to make you richer, you don’t deserve anything.”

The trouble is that once you have accepted the premise, the question surely becomes why you single out one disease over another. As Jeremy Hughes of the Alzheimer’s Society wrote recently to the Times, “In the lottery of life, people with dementia remain the principal victims, forced to spend hundreds of thousands on care — unlike those who develop cancer.”

Dominic Lawson’s forthright response in today’s Daily Mail, arguing from tragic (and multiple) personal experience that families “laid waste by cancer” can hardly be called “the winners in the ‘lottery of life'”, is hard to dispute. But competitive diseasing and death, which would have a touch of the Monty Python about it were it not so tragic, can be looked at from the other side of the telescope. Far from being a reason not to introduce the solution mooted to address social care, the Hutton balance could surely be looked at more widely as a means of addressing more generally scarce resource.

Many will doubtless point out the cruelty if families that are ravaged by disease should find themselves stripped of their assets to pay for the care that is required to address it – a cruelty exacerbated, presumably, the more you have to lose. But if life’s a lottery, then it is hard to see how the right place to draw the line is at dementia, rather than generally at the affordability of care. It is unquestionnable that up to a point, alleviating suffering is easier, the wealthier you are. Undeserved brute luck is surely the point, either way.

Posted in Britain, My articles, Politics.

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Why everyone hates Maria Sharapova

On a day when Donald Trump has done his best to remind people of the old adage that it isn’t the original act but the cover-up that does for your reputation in the end, I see that Andy Murray has stepped in with his tuppence-worth about Maria Sharapova and her wildcard in Birmingham.  The decision by the LTA to grant her one has, he says, “been a very divisive subject. Some people think it’s absolutely fine, some people think that it isn’t.”

To a degree. But what seems to have been missing from the Sharapova debate is that while it looks on the face of it to be all about drugs, in reality it is nothing of the sort. As with Trump, it’s all about the cover up. Or more specifically, it’s about the fact that Sharapova is in that group of people that seems to think the world is so stupid that they can just make anything they like up and we will all believe it.

To recap: Sharapova was banned for two years for using meldonium – a substance which had been legal for years and then suddenly wasn’t. Too blasé to notice that the rules had changed, and clearly surrounded by a support team which like her lacked attention to this particular detail, Sharapova carried on taking it after she wasn’t allowed to. She got caught.

Had she stuck her hands up at that point and said what was true, the tennis world might have forgiven her as soon as her ban had been served. “I’m sorry. Like many others, I’ve taken this stuff for years while it was a legal substance, because it gives me a bit of an edge. In the same way that some people are sharper when they take caffeine, and therefore do so within the allowable limits, I’ve taken meldonium. I was an idiot for not realising that the legal status of the drug had changed, and I hold my hands up to that. Equally let’s not pretend that my taking it for years before that moment was for some other random medical reason lacking all credibility that I might disingenuously make up. I took it because elite sport is competitive, and as all leading sportsmen know, you take any legal competitive edge if you want to get to the top.”

But that’s not what she said. Instead, she blatantly made up a pack of lies and expected the world to swallow it. She told everyone that her taking the substance was “unintentional” and that she had not tried to use a “performance-enhancing substance”.

So the reason that people hate Maria Sharapova is not that, as Eugenie Bouchard put it, she’s a “cheater”. It’s because her dishonesty takes us all for mugs.

Posted in My articles, Sport.

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Burke on Twitter

Love this line from Daniel Hannan:

If ever you find yourself confusing social media with public opinion, look at what Edmund Burke had to say about Twitter back in 1791:

Because half-a-dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.

Source: Brexit is happening – so let’s all cheer up about it – CapX

Posted in Politics, Quotes.


US GDP/Debt ratio predicted to hit 150%!

Federal debt levels are going to surge to 150% of GDP in 30 years as a result of huge unfunded outlays on healthcare, social security and interest payments, according to the US Congressional Budget Office, which is an independent body.

Other than now (when is is 77% – double what it was (35%) in 2007) only once has the level of debt in America exceeded 70% – and that was immediately after World War II. Over the last 50 years, it has averaged 40%.

There are lots of reasons why that’s problematic, not least of which is that it severely limits the government’s ability to respond to unforeseen events and cannibalises government spending which has instead to be ear-marked for interest payments. It also reduces national income.

Posted in Politics, Stats, US politics.


Matt Ridley nails it

We can and must make an offer to the fundamentalist Muslims: abandon your political ambitions and become a religion as this has come to be understood elsewhere in an increasingly diverse and tolerant world — a private moral code, a way of life, a philosophy — and you will find the rest of us to be friends. But threaten the hard-won political, intellectual and physical freedoms now accorded to every man and woman, yes even and especially women, in our essentially secular society and you will be resisted and, pray god, defeated.

Source: Stand up for our right to criticise Islam | Comment | The Times & The Sunday Times

Posted in Issues, Politics.


The Budget debate explodes a myth

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the debate on the increase in National Insurance Contributions for the self-employed is that it lays bare the lie that people are happier to pay more tax to fund the NHS.

In December, the Guardian reported Lib Dem leader Tim Farron highlighting research from October by ITV News that suggested that 70% of people would “happily pay an extra 1p in every pound if that money was guaranteed to go to the NHS”, while almost half of the 1,000 people surveyed said that they would even pay an extra 2p in the £.

Where are these people now?  A 2p in the £ increase suggested for a sub-section of people (a sub-section, don’t forget that currently pays less than those who are employed by firms to do the same jobs, and who will still pay less even after this increase) has led to all hell breaking loose. It seems the reality is that people want more money to go into the NHS, only so long as someone else is providing it.

The extent to which that is true could be heard clearly on last night’s Question Time, where repeatedly people commented on the fact that it should be ‘the rich’ who pay more. The trouble with that is that ‘the rich’ is nearly always defined by people as ‘those who are richer than me’.

You disagree? Then tell me this: what price do you consider is a fair one for people to pay for better services and better healthcare, assuming for a moment that it is true that both are created simply by finding more money to fund them?

I’m not an accountant, but bearing in mind the personal allowance of £11,000, it seems to me that the 2% rise in National Insurance contributions for someone earning £15,000 a year will mean an additional bill of around £80 a year, or £1.30 a week. The same thing for someone earning £40,000 a year means a bill of £580 a year, or £10 a week. And if you’re earning £100,000+, your bill will go up by £1,800 a year, or just shy of £35 a week.

Can we all accept that if you are earning £100K a year, you can afford to lose £35 a week? I suspect that we can (although admittedly I know people who would debate it – the same people who don’t look at their restaurant bill twice and wouldn’t notice if they’d been charged for the wrong bottle of wine).

I wouldn’t argue with the £40,000 earners who say that they are a long way from being wealthy even if they are approaching the top band of income tax, but it seems unlikely that they would think twice about spending £10 a week on something that they really wanted. It is, after all, the price of a (bought-in-a-shop) cup of coffee a day, and a lot less than they will be spending regularly on things they would regard as less important than their health. Having to fork out £10 a week more than currently will be annoying, but hardly unmanageable.

For the £15,000 earner life is tough: they are not earning a lot, by any yardstick, and the difference here of £1.30 a week may well make a difference when finances are tight.  But there are lots of people in this bracket out there, and presumably they were included in the 1,000 people survey, where nearly half of those polled said they would be happy to pay.

The NIC debate of the last two days might be couched in terms of a broken manifesto commitment, but let’s be honest: what proportion of people knew it was before that became the narrative? How many people voted the Government in on the basis of it? The notion being touted is that the Treasury didn’t even realise, so what price the idea that the person on the street did?

The debate might also be sidetracked by arguments about how self-employed people have none of the safety net of working for a firm – although interestingly, that doesn’t exactly loom large in the ONS’s study of self-employment trends.

And equally, plenty will seek to debate whether it is ‘bad politics’, but again, that is a different argument (to which an obvious counter would be that the bad politics was making the commitment in the first place).

The reality is that the argument about the Budget explodes a myth, which is this: when people say, “I’d be prepared to pay more to fund the NHS and/or social care,” they don’t actually mean it – and we know that because when they get it, they object. They argue in favour of a hypothecated tax for social care, but this is as close to a hypothecated tax for social care as we can get: £2bn being raised from a change in NIC contributions on the same day as £2bn extra was announced for social care. And people really, really don’t like it.

So the narrative that politicians are slippery and change their minds is a nonsense when you consider the fact that the public is far, far worse. Asked by pollsters in October about a policy, people were overwhelmingly in favour.

But in March, when it has become clear that that same policy will actually affect them as individuals, on top of being paid by others, they’ve changed their minds.

 

(This article was published on Spectator Coffee House today)

Posted in Britain, My articles, Politics.


The tax take

The UK’s tax take has remained completely static since 1984-85 when it was 33.9 per cent of national income (compared with this year, at 33.7 per cent).

“As Mr Hammond contemplates reaffirming his plans for the highest tax take since 1982, he should bear in mind that such a yield eluded his seven immediate predecessors.”

Source: The power of political theatre explains Budget’s enduring mystique

Posted in Britain, Politics, Stats.

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Middle East/Africa population growth

In 1950 the population of the Middle East and Africa was equivalent to half of the population of Europe. By the end of this century, it will be eight times the size of Europe’s.

Source: Even in an age of austerity, aid works. We have to keep giving | David Cameron | Opinion | The Guardian

Posted in Europe, Geopolitics, Politics, Stats.

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Anderson, post-Burke

These days, far too many MPs seem to believe that they are a walking opinion poll. Their constituents think this, and they must be right. We need more MPs who are happy to say: “Although a majority of my constituents appear to think this, they are wrong, as I hope to persuade them. If I fail, they may choose to sack me: that is their prerogative. But I will not change my mind.” An MP who did speak in such terms might be pleasantly surprised by the respect it earned him, especially if he were from Yorkshire. “He’s a cussed bugger, right enough – but he’s our cussed bugger.”

Bruce Anderson

Source: The Lords may be flawed, but it should be heard on Brexit – Reaction

Posted in Quotes.


Trump’s Russia policy

Trump may attempt an abrupt reconciliation with Russia that would dramatically reverse the policies of President Barack Obama. It is hard to overstate the lasting damage that such a move would do to the U.S. relationship with Europe, to the security of the continent, and to an already fraying international order.

As Trump will likely discover, reality has a way of interfering with attempts to transform relations with Moscow. Every U.S. president from Bill Clinton on has entered office attempting to do precisely that, and each has seen his effort fail. Clinton’s endeavor to ease tensions fell apart over NATO expansion, the Balkan wars, and Russian intervention in Chechnya; George W. Bush’s collapsed after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war; and Obama’s ran aground in Ukraine. Each administration encountered the same obstacles: Russia’s transactional approach to foreign policy, its claim to a sphere of influence, its deep insecurities about a yawning power gap between it and the United States, and its opposition to what it saw as Western encroachment. Finding common ground on these issues will be difficult.

Posted in Geopolitics, Politics, Quotes, Trump, US politics.

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The difference between the US and Russia

We forget the difference between our societies and Russia’s at our peril. In Putin’s very first year in power, when a Russian submarine sank in the Barents Sea, the Russian leader refused to leave his Crimean vacation spot to go to the scene, even though the crew was still alive, trapped deep in the abyss for several days. Putin eventually arrived ten days after the accident to talk to wives and mothers, by which time all on board the sub were dead. Asked on CNN’s Larry King Live what had happened, Putin quipped with a smirk: “It sank”. Seventeen years later, this man is still the undisputed leader of his country.

Chad Nagle

Source: Russia, Iran, and the demise of Michael Flynn – Reaction

Posted in Geopolitics, US politics.


London’s air quality is getting better, not worse

 

Do you think London’s air quality is better or worse than 20 years ago? Most people would answer “worse”, but they would be wrong. London’s air quality, though bad, has been getting steadily better. The average concentration of particles 10 microns or smaller (known as PM10) is about 20 per cent less than it was 20 years ago and the average concentration of nitrogen dioxide is 30 per cent less.

Matt Ridley

Source: Dash for gas could solve the diesel crisis | Comment | The Times & The Sunday Times

Posted in Uncategorized.


Moore on diversity

“If we really cared about diversity, we would honour the difference between past and present, not erode it.”

Source: What Vladimir Putin said to the Eton boys

Posted in Quotes.


Venezuela

Last year in Venezuela, imports collapsed by more than 50 per cent and the economy nosedived by 19 per cent. The budget deficit is around 20 per cent of GDP. Market distortions mean petrol is sold locally for less than one penny per litre. The country has a complex monetary arrangement that makes use of three different exchange rates simultaneously, feeding  rampant corruption: the President’s cronies can buy dollars from the state at ten bolivars a dollar but sell them at 3,300 bolivars a dollar on the black market. Price controls have made it unprofitable for small businesses to sell staple goods, leading to widespread shortages. Carjackings and kidnappings are now epidemic. Caracas’s murder rate is 80 times higher than
London’s.

Source: Britain under Corbyn? Just look at Venezuela

Posted in Uncategorized.


How best to oppose Trump

Trump’s opponents will go wrong if they overlook his real failings in order to keep insisting he is a fascist. It would be an unusual fascist who wanted smaller government and less military intervention abroad

 

Source: Trump has his enemies just where he likes them

Posted in Politics, Trump, US politics.


Business rates

Two takes on the increase in business rates:

Martin vander Weyer in the Spectator says that the idea that it can be defended because it is revenue neutral is bunkum. He writes, “a smarter calculation of ‘revenue neutrality’ would take account of profits generated, jobs created and benefits unclaimed in thriving towns and high streets. On that basis, the Treasury would be better off if there were no rises in business rates anywhere.”

But Tim Worstall on Cap-X believes that the increases make sense and the market should dictate: people who use less land, and less expensive land, should pay less tax than people who use more and more expensive. He believes we’re not converting empty pubs to houses and shops because of business rates, but because those alternative uses are more valued by the market in the first place.

Source: London Stock Exchange picked the wrong year for a pan-European merger and Why the Government is right to tax the high street

Posted in Britain, Issues, Politics.

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Don’t be a snowflake

John Stuart Mill diagnosed what today’s “snowflakes”, focused on no-platforming people who have views other than their own, are missing.

In On Liberty, he wrote: “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Source: Students can’t be allowed to curb free speech | Comment | The Times & The Sunday Times

Posted in Britain, Politics, Quotes.


The alliance of the feminist left with Islam cannot last – Matt Ridley

One of the most surprising features of the modern world is the degree to which the left is making common cause with any religion, let alone one that is so dominated by socially conservative opinion and so frequently associated with discrimination against women and homosexuals.

Islamophobia is as great a crime as transphobia in the student world, and a greater one than criticism of Christianity or Judaism. You can mock Mormons all you like, and make a musical out of it, but woe betide you if you mock the Koran.

Consider the case of two women who have criticised each other recently. Guess which one has been no-platformed?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born champion of women’s rights who suffered genital mutilation; escaped an arranged marriage by seeking asylum in Holland; left Islam; became a Dutch MP; and wrote a film whose director was murdered by an Islamist, the killer leaving a note pinned to his victim’s chest warning her that she would be next. She calls for an Islamic reformation.

Linda Sarsour is a hijab-wearing Muslim who defends Sharia, was one of the organisers of the Women’s March after Mr Trump’s inauguration and has since deleted a tweet in which she said she wished that she could “take away” Ms Hirsi Ali’s vagina.

In reply, Ms Hirsi Ali wrote: “There’s no principle that demeans, degrades and dehumanises women more than the principle of Sharia law. Linda Sarsour is a defender of that.”

Yet it was, incredibly, Ms Hirsi Ali who in 2014 was disinvited from receiving an honorary degree by Brandeis University. The episode revealed a deliberate attempt to portray criticism of Islam as equivalent to criticism of women or minorities.

Few feminists spoke up for her. “The concern,” blathered one, “is that her intervention into the issue of gender equality in Muslim societies will strengthen racism rather than weaken sexism.”

This alliance of the feminist left with Islam cannot last. Mr Trump’s crass travel ban may have breathed new life into it, but the tensions are growing and the audiences for the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos with them.

Matt Ridley

Source: Students can’t be allowed to curb free speech | Comment | The Times & The Sunday Times

Posted in Britain, Issues, Politics.


Scotland, Brexit, and nightclubs

[Arguing that Scotland voted to stay in and would vote the same way if it knew that England was not going to stay in with it] is like saying that if four of five friends on a night out decide to go to a restaurant and the fifth expresses a wish to go clubbing, the person who disagreed would have wanted to go to the night club had she been on her own – or, even less likely, have left her friends to go to the club by herself.

Source: With Brexit negotiations beginning soon, we must challenge the myth that Britain remains a divided country | BrexitCentral

Posted in Britain, Europe, Politics, Uncategorized.