Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: September, 2016

Old politicians should be made to retire

It takes me longer to get going in the mornings these days. I no longer spring out of bed when the alarm rings.  By such small measures, I know I am not fit to be the next President of the United States or the Leader of the Labour Party.

Don’t get me wrong. I am in good health for my age. My doctor could let you have very, very specific information, which Donald Trump promised but did not provide.  But there is no doubt that I am slowing down and enjoying the freedom to go at my own pace.

I have the good fortune never to have suffered a bout of pneumonia .  I now know  it takes many weeks  to fully recover and so question whether Hilary Clinton should undertake 5000 miles of travel and campaigning this week  – although there are rumours she has a body double. But a  woman who has driven herself for 520 days and counting to become President, is not going to let up now.

I am petrified at the thought that questions about  Clinton’s health will swing a neck and neck  election in Trump’s favour. How can this glorious but crazy country have been so  carried away as to have selected candidates aged 68 and 70 to battle it out  for the White House.  Bernie Saunders, the Democrats runner up, is 75.

Trump would be the oldest person to take the oath and Clinton would be the third eldest by a short head behind Ronald Reagan. Either would face the prospect of a punishing schedule for the next eight years which no amount of cosseting by a posse of staff and advisers  could hide. The President may be required to make life and death decisions at any time  of the day or night at an age when their energies and health are likely to be failing.

The American constitution sensibly limits a President to two terms of four years.  Such a prohibition in this country would have saved us from the diminished third terms of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Politicians hang on to power and need saving from themselves. Uncle Joe should now introduce a rule that a President should be under sixty on inauguration day and so out of office shy of seventy.

We could do well to follow suit. Look at the final terms of William Gladstone, aged 83, and  Winston Churchill, aged 77.  Both were among our greatest prime ministers but neither served their country or their reputations well in their final years.  Robert Mugabe defies the odds at 92.

Similar restrictions should be imposed on parliamentarians. The burgeoning benches of the House of Lords could be relieved  at a stroke if a compulsory retirement age of 75 was introduced. The current average age of their Lordships is 69.  Members of parliament should step down when they draw their state pension.  The allure of the so called ‘ best club in the world’ is too great to give up. There is no reason for the powerful to be granted these dispensations from the normal rules of working life. However, the Queen should remain exempt from  retirement at any age.

Jeremy Corbyn would then have to stand down as Leader of the Labour Party. It may be the only way he will do so. Only a year ago, I was writing in this column of my enthusiasm for a man of my own age who had gained power. The oldies were back. I supported his stand in opposing the war in Iraq and the now derided invasion of Libya and loved him for  wanting to ban nuclear weapons and re nationalise the railways. I applaud the way his idealism has swelled the numbers of a great political party.

But politics is the art of the possible and I do not see Jeremy pulling  his parliamentary party together or winning over the electorate. I think that allowing party members to elect the shadow cabinet is irresponsible.  And so with a heavy heart, I have just cast my vote for the other chap.

I do not warm to Owen whats-his-name. He makes up policy to please  and lacks the experience needed for the job. I am dismayed that more experienced Labour politicians have kept their heads down. They must grow up and re join the shadow cabinet after Jeremy’s expected re-election. The Labour Party needs to vociferously oppose a bold and right wing government before it is too late.

The years of peak performances are in the fifties when experience has been gained and energy is undiminished. Thereafter the elixir of wisdom may still mature and to be drip  strictly on request but the edge is lost.

So I propose one further rule of political life. We should emulate the Roman Empire where consuls had to reach a certain age before being allowed higher office.  In my new schema, cabinet ministers should be at least forty and prime ministers should be at least fifty on taking office. They could then gain experience of the world and learn the wiles of political life before holding the high office. If this rule had been in force, we would be staying in the European Union.

Published in Newcastle Journal 20th Sept 2016


As my postcards are delayed, a dispatch from God’s Own Country

According to legend, the reputable Indian god  Lord  Parasurama, one of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu,  flung his battle axe over the waters to create the narrow strip of land called Kerala  for his devotees to live peacefully.  It is a land of rain forests and lazy lagoons full of Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and Christian churches  with a reputation today for religious tolerance.

It thus has good claim to  be called   “Gods Own Country” .The slogan was coined by an advertising man, Mr Walter Mendeez,  in 1989 who has assured Kerala’s place on the tourist bucket list of places to see before you die. I have just ticked it off.

I doubt if anyone  consulted  the Yorkshire Tourist Board whose claim to be “God’s Own County” is more tenuous.  County Wicklow first adopted the title in 1807 and others in Australia, New Zealand and the United States have followed suit abbreviating it to “Godszone”.

We are told that “ in my  father’s house are  many mansions” ( though modern translations of John’s gospel  cognisant of the housing crisis downgrade the accommodation to ‘rooms’  ) so God may well move around with his angel train.  Nomenclature is anyway  not a problem in India where there are more than enough gods to go around.  Four of the world’s major religions started life in India.

It is still a highly spiritual country. Everyone believes something and  wears their belief on their sleeve or on their forehead. Lorry drivers emblazon the name of their God across the windscreen – Hare Krishna, God is Love, Jesus – in much the way we do for our football team or girl friend.  There are no Darwin stickers.

Although 80% of the Indian population are Hindu, religious freedom is a cardinal right in the Constitution. Rituals, shrines and pilgrimages are part of the Indian way of life. If you pick up an early morning taxi, a Hindu driver is likely to be playing loud religious music as part of his daily ‘puja’. Cows are sacred and still roam across the dual carriageway making driving a frightening experience. One third of Indians are vegetarian for religious reasons. Marriages are still arranged by the young couple’s parents and apparently fare no better or worse than love marriages in the west.

Of course, religion has sparked violence ever since was India divided in 1947  into predominately Hindu and Muslim nations when 500,000 people were killed in religious riots.  There have been horrific incidents ever since including the recent terrorist attacks.  But I still like to believe that overall  the mish mash of religious belief  has a defining and beneficial effect on Indian life.

Back home,  I read Andrew Brown and Linda’s Woodhead new book, ‘That Was the Church That Was’, that describes, with much bitterness, the way in which the Church of England has lost its place in the nation’s heart over the last thirty years. The authors claim it has been poorly led  and consumed by its own internal divisions over women’s ministry and homosexuality. Only this weekend , the former vicar of St George’s Jesmond,  an utterly honest and gifted man, has received unwarranted attention as the country firstly openly gay Bishop.

For the first time ever, most people say they do not follow any religion. But Brown and Woodhead point to how those who  left the church have taken up tai chi, mindfulness,  yoga and other forms of spiritual exercise in search of the truth.  The ancient parish system may be dying out but perhaps the break up of  the established church  will allow the spirit to bloom in a thousand ways. We may learn to co-exist in a land of different religions and, who knows, we may yet become  forthright  about our shades of  beliefs in the Indian manner.

India had every reason to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Independence last month.  It has succeeded against the odds. Few would have predicted that the hurried division of a country that speaks 22 languages and contains almost a fifth of the world’s population would have survived and prospered.

After four visits to a family friend in Bangalore over 15 years, my impression  is that living standards are rising in both town and country.  Bangalore  boasts a new airport and new metro system. IBM employs more people in India  than in the United States. They are well paid jobs. The economy grows at 8% a year but inequality  is rising too.

Yes, there is shocking  violence against women and conflict in Kashmir. The caste system  still casts a shadow and corruption and bureaucracy are still common if in retreat. My postcards home still have not arrived three weeks later which, I am told, is “very Indian.”

This is an energetic country on the up, tackling vast problems  successfully.  It is taking education seriously and fusing traditional ways with western style to great effect.  Young  women perched  on scooters  weave through the  furious traffic  in shalwar kameezs   mixed with leggings or jeans and balancing a designer handbag . Wherever you go, you are greeted with glee  and made to feel at home which is just what you would expect in the gods own country. Praise the Lords.

published in Newcastle Journal Tuesday 6th September