Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Bringing Virginia Woolf back to life

I have enjoyed two weeks holiday on a grand tour down south. I have visited chocolate box places like Saffron Walden, Rye, Chichester and Lyme Regis. I have remembered old times with longstanding friends, told long winded tales and listened to theirs in return.  I am increasingly convinced that visiting friends is the only good reason to travel.

I have walked along cliff tops, listened to chamber music and watched village cricket. I have paid a ridiculous sum in a fashionable restaurant for a turbot plucked out of the sea that very day and I have met Marie Bartholomew.

To explain why a chance encounter  with Miss Bartholomew was the stand out moment of my holiday, I must try to unravel my lifelong fascination with Virginia Woolf, one of the greatest novelists of the last century, and her husband Leonard, author, journalist, politician and sage.

The late Jimmy Morris, my English master, as teachers were more appropriately called in those days, maintained that E. M. Forster was the greatest novelist of the twentieth century. Morgan Forster was a confidante of the Woolfs. On another day, I would make the case for Graham Greene but Virginia Woolf is right up there too and, to my mind, no one writes more beautifully.

A good cameo of  Virginia’s writing can be found in one of her first short stories which has just been reissued in Two Stories, to mark the centenary of The Hogarth Press. The Press started life in 1917 on the Woolf’s dining room table with a second hand printing machine  as Leonard’s idea to give Virginia some occupational therapy.

Virginia’s story, ‘The Mark on the Wall’,  is one of her first free flowing attempts to break away from the traditional novel form that was to find its apogee in The Waves 14 years later. Woolf is not an easy read but is well worth the effort.  The lyricism of her writing and her sensitivity to human feeling is incomparable especially when accompanied with a glass of chilled white wine.

I trawl bookshops in the vain hope of finding an early edition from the Hogarth Press, perhaps one of those printed by the Woolfs themselves. Virginia’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, designed the covers so they treasured by affectionados, but produced in modest numbers and long since ferreted away in libraries and collections.

Hogarth’s  jaw dropping  list included The Wasteland, perhaps the greatest long poem of the twentieth century, T S Eliot being another friend, and the complete works of Sigmund Freud.  Leonard’s unorthodox but successful  business model astonished the publishing trade and is worthy of a Harvard case study.

My fascination with the Woolfs extends to their role as members of the Bloomsbury Group who kicked over the traces of the Victorian age in their lifestyles, their culture and their thought. They were always up for what Virginia described as a ‘lark’ such as the occasion when they disguised themselves as members of the Abyssinian royal family and were entertained by the Royal Nay and inspected the fleet.

In his autobiography, Leonard describes returning to Bloomsbury in 1911 after seven years as a civil servant in what was then Ceylon, to be amazed by the outpouring of art at the controversial post  impressionist exhibition, the  performances of Russian ballet at Covent Garden  and falling in love with Virginia, who was one of the great beauties of her day.  He adds, honestly, that anyone meeting Virginia in the street would regard her as odd.

Civilisation, he believes, was destroyed by the first world war and then  battered by the barbarism of Hitler. The Woolfs  carried cyanide pills in case Hitler invaded. Writing in the swinging sixties, by then it his late eighties, Leonard Woolf is one of the most poignant witnesses of the century.

The Bloomsberries wrote extensively, kept diairies and left ephemera like holiday snapshots that have been endlessly mulled over for deep meaning. Their influence may be exaggerated. Virginia was well regarded in her life time but no one expected that so many books and thesis would follow in her wake including, for example, a study of her relations with her servants and an imagined novel of her time in the United States, where she never set foot. Enough!

I have read the books, visited the exhibitions and seen the movie ( the moody Hours) but never expected to meet someone who actually knew the Woolfs. Then came the unexpected  highlight of the holiday, on a visit to their home in Sussex, now a National Trust property. I arrived in the nick of time to hear a talk by Marie Bartholomew, aged 87.

Her father was the Woolf’s gardener and she recounted watching from her bedroom  window as the visitors in their party frocks arrived  at the Woolf’s house across the road;   how  her father argued with Leonard  over horticulture and how Mrs Woolf lived in a world of her own. It was as if it had happened yesterday.

I dared not ask Marie Batholomew about that day in March 1941 but without prompting she told how Leonard how banged on their door in desperation  whilst they were eating their lunch and asked her father  to help him look for Virginia who had waited until Leonard was out of the way, left a letter for him on the mantelpiece and set off to the river.


Published in Newcastle Journal on 22nd August 2017


If we wait for Michael Gove to deal with air pollution we may well be dead

I have never been too concerned about longevity. But I now want to hang around until 2040 and live longer than the internal combustion engine. My life has evolved around the car. I can still recite my number plates on 16 cars in 46 years and so the demise of the motor car will be a poignant moment.

Michael Gove announced that petrol and diesel cars will be banned in 23 years time when I will be ninety. It seems a long time away and Norway, which is such a sensible place, will ban gas guzzlers in 2025. I am curious to know how it will play out.

There are signs that the changeover will happen more quickly. Volvo has announced it will stop building conventional cars in 2019.  Tesla has half a million orders for its new economy model. The value of traditional cars will fall and we will shortly stop buying them. Petrol stations are already closing at the rate of 100 a year and will be consigned to Beamish.

The car of the future will probably also be driverless and configured in a completely different way. I imagine getting in my car in the evening and sleeping all the way to London. We are more likely to rent cars than own them and the most imaginative futurists envisage cars arriving at our door when we need them and going where we want to go without anyone giving the orders.

The problems  of electric technology  can be overcome  if  the engineers put their mind to it.  The price of electric cars will come down and no one doubts they are quieter, cheaper to run and last longer.  At present only 1 in 700 cars on the road are electric but expect that  to change rapidly soon.

There is a colossal  threat to the car industry but there is an opportunity too, if the government gets behind battery technology and skews transport policy. The German government, as ever much smarter, knows diesel is dead. They held a summit with car manufacturers last week to plan the transition.

There is a danger that we will run out of electricity. Electric cars will consume more power by 2030 than will be generated by Hinckley Point but solar panels and overnight charging may be the answer. Street lights can be adapted as charging points.

Government revenue for petrol duty will plummet as 67% of every litre from the pump goes straight to the Exchequer.  Fuel and excise duty could be replaced  with an annual charge for the number of miles driven weighted by the toxicity of the vehicle as proposed by Gergely Raccuja, a young post graduate student who won the Wolfson Prize for his scheme  in July. Like all good ideas, it is deceptively simple.

But hang on a moment, before I get carried away. Michael Gove grabbed the headlines with an announcement about electric cars when he was supposed to be outlining the government’s plan for tackling air pollution. This is the government’s third attempt to bring forward measures to satisfy European regulation. Client Earth calls it a “shabby rewrite of previous draft plans.. lacking in urgency” to  tackle  a public health emergency  that is killing 40,000  people a year. Air pollution is a bigger killer than alcohol or obesity according to Friends of the Earth. They call for a brand new Clean Air Act.

Electric cars do not get a clean bill of health either as they still emit particulates that are every bit as damaging as the damned diesel. The government plans to retro fit buses and taxis to control their emissions but it fights shy of charging motorists with diesel cars to enter city centres or introducing a scrappage scheme for the dirtiest cars. Instead, it has got itself in a tangle over a minor proposal  to remove sleeping policeman  and reduce air pollution  which has infuriated the road safety lobby. It should not come down to bumps in the road.

The trouble is that cowardly politicians do not want to antagonise motorists or offend the powerful automobile industry by bringing in measures with any bite. Neither will they make any attempt to control the growing number of cars on the road or put money into more efficient and healthy alternatives.

My friends in London rarely get their car out for urban journeys because the roads are so congested. It is quicker and healthier to cycle, take a bus or walk down the road to the train station.  According to London’s traffic expert David Kelly, the only real answer is fewer cars in cities.

We all travel more. It is tempting to load up the car and get away for the weekend even if the journey down the A1 is slower and more frustrating than ever.  We all expect white vans to deliver our consumer goods overnight even when we don’t need them in a hurry.  We are obsessed with getting there quickly and neglect the beauty of staying at home.

Yes, bring on electric vehicles and driverless cars as soon as possible but don’t be deluded into believing that the car of the future is the answer to a more healthy and fulfilling lifestyle and do not let Michael Gove kid you that we can wait until 2040 to control air pollution as by that time a good many of us will be dead.

published in Newcastle Journal 8th August 2017






Parliament must change its ways and could start by moving to Tyneside

My latest hero is Laura Pidcock. Within a few days of arriving at Westminster as the new member for North West Durham, she was on her feet declaring that “this building is intimidating. It reeks of the establishment and of power. Its systems are confusing, some may say archaic” designed for the needs of the privileged men who ran an empire.
The editor of this newspaper promptly told her to get real. You are in the establishment now so get used to its trappings. But I say, right on sister. You see things most clearly on the first day in the job. Parliament must change its ways to accommodate your generation, your class and your gender.
The Scottish MP, Mhairi Black said much the same towards the end of the last parliament. Another one to watch, Mhairi said she hated the place and was minded not to stand for re election.” It is so old and defunct in terms of its systems and procedures” she said, “ it is just a waste of time.”
Thankfully Mhairi changed her mind. We need outspoken young women to tell us to mend our ways. If we want to have any chance of engaging a new generation in the art of politics, then we must listen to them.
An unlikely ally has emerged in John Bercow. The Speaker has taken the revolutionary step of allowing members to speak without a tie. This may be a sign of things to come but much more must follow without delay.
Fortunately, there is a golden opportunity to get up to date. The Palace of Westminster is falling apart. Fires, floods and rats on a scale inflicted on the Pharaohs are expected any day. Deloittes has estimated that it will cost between £3.5bn and £6bn to repair and take between five and ten years. Just imagine asking a plumber for an estimate and getting that kind of a back of a fag packet reply?
By contrast, it will only cost £350m to redecorate Buckingham Palace which makes monarchy a much more cost effective method of government.
It may sound blindingly obvious but Deloittes found that it will be cheaper and quicker to repair the building if everyone, a cast of 10,000 by the way, moves out and so here is the opportunity. Parliament should take to the road.
Anyone concerned for the future of the Union should jump at the chance of relocating to Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh for three years each. It would give the strongest possible symbol of the intrgrity of the islands.
Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, has suggested a competition between English cities to host the Parliament rather like bidding for the Commonwealth Games. If the arts can change the face of Hull and maybe Sunderland, just think of the effect of becoming the roving seat of power as in days of old when kings imposed themselves and their retinue on far flung followers for months at a time. It would rebalance London with the rest of the country and show there is life in the north.
Jenkins says that Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds of Sheffield are the obvious candidates. I have been thrilled to see how the second city had been transformed into a vibrant, attractive metropolis by building a new John Lewis store and hiring a woman about the same age as Laura Pidcock to conduct the symphony orchestra.
Why stop at the big four cities? Quite by chance, Newcastle Gateshead has an opportunity to play at Westminster too. There may be time to reconfigure the new convention centre at Gateshead Quays into a temporary debating chamber or to knock up a prefab on the site of the current O2 Arena which has brown fields around and is in walking distance of the revamped Newcastle Station. New hotels are springing up with abandon and some of those colourful blocks of student accommodation could be requisitioned for minor factotums. We may all need to make sacrifices to win the prize.
As we all know, Newcastle Gateshead has excellent communications by rail and air but I am perverse enough to think that the journey matters and a certain inaccessibility improves decision making. Look what standing on a train did for Jeremy Corbyn.
The point about any decamped digs is that they should be as different from the current place as possible. The lines of leather benches must go. Debates in the round would transform the juvenile adversarial nature of political point making. I favour plastic chairs myself that prevent anyone from falling asleep.
There will be problems of course but they can be overcome with good IT and virtual debates. The reward of engaging with real people and getting away from City sharks and media moguls makes the upheaval worthwhile. Parliament could operate conventional working days and streamline its business. There should be time to enjoy the theatre and restaurants in the evening.

Of course, they need never go back. The Palace of Westminster could be given to Beamish so that people could parade about in ridiculous robes or sold to Travelodge to boost the tourist trade. Downing Street would be ideal for social housing.
At any rate, there must be a fundamental review of the way parliament is run. It is not a job for a retired judge and I can think of no one better to chair the inquiry than my new hero Laura Pidcock.

Published in Newcastle Journal 25th July

Would Lord Beveridge turn in his hilltop grave?

It took us a few minutes to find William Beveridge’s grave as it lies behind the more flamboyant memorials  to the local grandees. The pioneer women aviator  Constance Leathart  is also buried here and the novelist Tom Sharpe’s ashes were scattered one night  without so much as a by-your-leave  so Lord and Lady Beveridge are in good company.

The left leaning aged walking group had arrived at Throckington church for lunch. The oldest member admitted he was born in the year that Lord Beveridge  laid the foundations of the welfare state  in 1942. Two others actually had copies of The Beveridge Report,  which recommended  a safety net of national insurance handed down by their fathers.

What a place to be buried. St Aidan’s church is perched on top of the Great Whin Sill  with panoramic views all round. According to legend, a returning sailor brought home  typhoid that killed everyone in the  village which has long since disappeared  so the church is splendidly isolated  but regularly used and well  looked after. As we arrived, we passed a couple who had been married in the church forty years ago.

Beveridge was briefly the Liberal M P for Berwick but his connection with Throckington is tenuous.  His daughter married into a local family  and Lady Beveridge died when visiting her. The two simple and now pockmarked  gravestones are side by side.

It was thanks to Beveridge’s wife that the great report was written at all. He didn’t think the invitation to chair a committee on social insurance was sufficiently important to take him away from his Oxford college but  Beveridge extended his brief and produced  a report that sought to vanquish  the  “five giant evils ” of  Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness   by establishing a system of contributory insurance that would provide benefits for the sick, unemployed, retired and widowed. All this in the middle of a world war, yet to be won. Beveridge became a public hero who was stopped in the street for his autograph.

Would Beveridge turn in his grave today we asked over our sandwiches?  Standards of living, of education and of health care  have improved beyond recognition. Housing conditions are immeasurably superior for most people and unemployment does not blight large regions of the country as before the war.

Beveridge might be surprised by our longevity. In 1942 life expectancy was 68 year as opposed to 82 in the South and 80 in the North  today.  He might be bemused at the greater calls on the National Health Service when he imagined that improved health would reduce demands on hospitals.  He would never have envisaged the extent that inequality has become a modern evil and the way that the United Kingdom has become the seventh most  inegalitarian country in the advanced world.  Beveridge would be a kindred spirit of  Richard Wilkinson.  Whilst he might have predicted a man on the moon, would he  have dreamed of mobile phones?

In the last 40 years we have witnessed the dismantling of the Welfare State which was originally meant to be free for all at the point of entry. Beveridge was an economic liberal  but would still be shocked at how individualism has triumphed over any sense of community and at how we have allowed the excessive hoarding of wealth by a few.

Beveridge would be dismayed by the way people living on benefits are treated and stigmatised and would surely be supporting  Citizens Advice’s call for a delay in  mass implementation of Universal Credit over Christmas and New Year.  He would not have expected  that foodbanks would be needed to stop people from starving.

Beveridge was an indominatable researcher and campaigner rising early, taking  a cold bath and working a 14 hour day. His last words sitting up in bed aged 84  were “ I have a thousand things to do”.  What, we asked each other over a pint of beer after a long hot day walking in the North Tyne Valley, would he be reporting about today?

The most obvious cause is social care for the elderly which is an unintended consequence of longevity. He would undoubtedly build on the sensible ideas put forward by the Dilnot Report. He might make the case for universal basic income, championed by Rutger Bregman, which would transform the standing of benefit claimants and revitalise his cherished system of basic insurance.

Beveridge would be bound to tackle to the major issue of the day and look for ways to curb our obsession with economic growth as the be-all and end-all. He would want to see a society in which we cared more about well being. He might draw on Richard Layard’s work on happiness and find a way in which we could live with ourselves within the resources of the planet. Someone would have to explain  about climate change.

Beveridge always retained his idealism, stating in the House of Lords at the age of eighty that “I am still radical and still young enough to believe mountains can be moved”. Time for us yet then, fellow walkers, even if the mountains themselves are ever more difficult to climb.

Thanks to comprehensive information about William Beveridge at St Aidans’s Church, quoted here, and to thoughtful contributions from Tom Adams, John North and Mike Worthington.

Published in Newcastle Journal on 11th July 2017





Grenfell Tower: The mighty may fall

Words are loaded with portent. How best to describe the terrible events at Grenfell Tower? The fire that killed at least 79 people  has  been variously described as a tragedy, a disaster, a scandal and a crime.  In the heat of a Sunday afternoon at Glastonbury, John McDonnell spoke controversially  of the victims “being murdered by political decisions”.

When the evidence has been examined, we may eventually know how to attribute responsibility  between the contractors, the building inspectors, the housing management company,  the local authority and the government  but  we may never know the extent that sweeping public spending cuts led safety to be compromised in one particular fire.

The social significance of Grenfell Tower is another matter altogether. The fire and its extensive aftermath, in which every cladding tile tested so far has failed a fire safety test,  is likely to be a transformational  event. Anything less would be utterly shameful.

The current problems of a minority government have been compared to the similar situation in the 1970s but the events of Grenfell Tower remind me of the Profumo Scandal in 1961, when a government minister lied to the House of Commons about a fleeting affair that allegedly compromised national security. There was a judicial inquiry; the Prime Minister eventually resigned and within a few years the Conservative government fell. The implications were far wider than the sordid event . The establishment never recovered and gentlemen were never held in the same regard again.

There are equally widespread implications now. Firstly, social housing has been shown to be a public disgrace. Two days after the fire, I visited the housing estate where I had lived and worked 40 years ago and was dismayed to see how the early brave ambitions  of  local authority architects to design and build a futurist town in a coherent style, with open space and  community facilities , had given way to a hotchpotch of  new  private houses  crammed into every possible space.

Council housing after the second world war was intended, in Nye Bevan’s words, to be the place “where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived on the same street” and this aspiration remained, in my recollection, into the eighties, until council housing was removed from local authority control, arms length management was set up and Margaret Thatcher introduced the ‘right to buy’.  Council housing is now the preserve of the poor and the events at Grenfell Tower has brought the lamentable conditions  into the open.


Homeowners, like myself these days, turn a blind eye when the housing crisis is mentioned.  Shelter predicts a million homeless people by 2020 as lack of social housing drives the poorest into private accommodation that they cannot afford due to rising rents and frozen benefits.

Secondly, the economic zeitgeist of the times has been challenged. In order to grow the economy and create prosperity, regulations have been abandoned so that free enterprise may thrive. David Cameron pledged to “kill off the safety culture for good” with “a bonfire of red tape”. Boris Johnson claimed “health and safety fears are making Britain a safe place for extremely stupid people”. One of the lamentable omissions in the Grenfell Tower saga will surely be the failure of the coalition government to consider the recommendations after the Lakanal House fire in Camberwell in 2009 which warned against using inflammable cladding and argued for sprinklers to be installed. It was not a high priority for successive government ministers.

Funding for Health and Safety Executive has been cut by half but elf’n’safety is making the most unlikely of comebacks. At a  seminar last week  on the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation, which the presenter said would send most of the audience to sleep, my spirits rose at the thought that what would have been dismissed as unnecessary red tape only two weeks ago may now be taken seriously.  Devised in Brussels and backed  in Whitehall, the Regulation will place far more stringent conditions on obtaining  personal data  and impose fines of up to E10 million  on those  who flout it. The events at Grenfell Tower may just stop the rampant profiteering of neo liberalism and bring back sensible regulation to create a more civilised society.

Finally, Grenfell Tower is part of a community where some of the poorest in London live alongside the most wealthy including Roman Abramovich, Prince William and  David Beckham and where houses are left empty on purpose.  It is fitting that some of the families from Grenfell Tower will be rehoused in luxury apartments just along the road which come complete with concierge security, underground garage and a swimming pool.

UK income inequality is among the highest in the developed world and evidence shows that this is bad for almost everyone. Ever since Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett published ‘The Spirit Level’ in 2009, we know that societies with higher rates of inequality come off worse for jobs, health, education and crime and that even the wealthy live better and longer when inequality is tackled.

The Grenfell Tower story may soon slip out of the headlines. The promised  inquiry may take forever. But dramatic events can sometimes change history. Will neo liberalism be cast aside, will a government fall and social attitudes change because a fridge freezer failed in the middle of the night?

Published in Newcastle Journal 27th June 2017





Signs of hope and despair in a baffling election

Do not come here looking for incisive political analysis. I have been as bemused as everyone else since Big Ben struck ten on election night and the exit poll announced  that the Tories might not get a majority. Here are the moments that have stood out for me, and the first is  from retired school teachers in Canada.

 Christine Archibald was a 30 year old  social worker from British Columbia  who worked with homeless people. She was visiting her fiancé in London when she had the ultimate misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when she was killed in the terrorist outrage on London Bridge.

Within 24 hours, the Archibald  family issued an extraordinary statement. Their daughter and sister, they said, had room in her heart for everyone and believed strongly that every person was to be valued and respected. She would have had no understanding of the callous cruelty that caused her death.   Please honour her, they asked us, by making your community a better place. Volunteer your time and labour or donate  to a homeless shelter. “Tell them Chrissy sent you.”

A week after the horrifying events at London Bridge, I am still moved to tears  by  the compassion of a grieving family on the other side of the world who told us so clearly how to start putting this terrible world to rights. If we want to do something to stop people becoming marginalised, dehumanised and radicalised, we need to get out there and build stronger communities.

Tearing up the human rights laws is not the answer. They were designed to protect our way of life. Putting more police on the streets may help redress  austerity has cut too deep  in every  part of our public life ( but can you remember a brave  Home Secretary  taking on overmanning in the police in 2010? ). The real answer is to reach out and welcome strangers even if will take years of effort and may not stop other acts of terrorism in the meantime .

My other stark memory from  the final week of electioneering was during the hustings in my church in  Prudhoe. We were asked whether we wanted another vote on the terms of leaving the European Union.  The audience was not selected for political balance – though bear in mind that Prudhoe had for the first time in living memory elected two Conservative  County Councillors. ( Sorry Conservative and Unionist as they are now known).  I knew most of the people in the room. On a show of hands, they were split down the middle. I realised that Brexit still deeply divides us.

Despite a referendum and now a general election called to seek our views on leaving Europe, nothing is resolved. I doubt that many of us would claim to fully understand the issues or the nuances of negotiation that lie ahead of us.  In less than a year, the reputations of two Prime Ministers have been trashed. There is an overwhelming case for pausing  for a summer holiday, perhaps walking in Wales again, accepting Ruth Davidson’s plea to “ look again”  and considering Yvette Cooper’s suggestion of a cross party negotiating team, before more damage is done.

I was then intrigued by late developments in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. You may have switched off the television set before the last election result was declared there on Friday evening. After two recounts, Emma Dent Coad was elected by 20 votes making her the first Labour MP ever elected in  a constituency which boasts  the richest street in the country, just along from Kensington Palace, where the average house price  is around £20m.

Kensington is home to the trans global elite, moving in from the Middle Est Asia and Eastern Europe, and also to international investors who buy fabulous  properties and then leave them empty on purpose. Since the constituency was redrawn in 2010, it also includes the tower blocks  in Ladbroke Grove  and the multi racial communities in Notting Hill.

The economics of neo liberalism may have benefitted the few oligarchs and hedge fund managers  but it has failed the many watchers on. In this cameo of political life in Kensington, the poor edged it by 20 votes , thanks  to the resurgence of a Labour party promising to end austerity through increased taxation on the very wealthy. I admit to a moment of excitement.

Finally, spare a thought for apparatchiks, of whatever political persuasion, who are sacrificed to save their leaders heads. By all accounts, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill rode rough shod over their colleagues but it is despicable that the servants fall on their swords whilst the mistress stays in post, for now at least.

It is as if nothing has changed. The same top team are around the Cabinet table. The same gang head off to Brussels next Monday, shaken but still in charge. How long can this last? The lessons I draw from a tumultuous  time are that we need to get out more, be friendly in Europe  and deal urgently with excesses of  inequality. Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly as the Prophet Micah once said.

published in Newcastle Journal 13th June 2017

Crying into my beer about social care for the elderly

Over a pint of beer with a friend in his eighties, I wonder what my own declining years will bring.  The staff at his local know my friend well and pull his favourite beer but he no longer has any memory of having set foot in the pub ever before. He enjoys the outing and says   that he is happy with his lot.

Whenever  I struggle to call a name to mind, I fear I might be on the same slipway myself.  For a man of my age, heart disease and cancer are the most likely causes of my demise. But the longer I dodge the bullet, the more likely that dementia will set in and that is what haunts me most.

I jokingly point to the care home at the top of my street as my final destination but now find it is closing down allegedly because the council does not pay reasonable care costs. If the care home industry collapses through lack of funding, will be there be anywhere for me to rest my ageing bones with any degree of dignity?

So I was pleased to see Theresa May proposing to tackle social care costs, in that early and innocent phase of the election campaign before it was overshadowed by the terrible events in Manchester.  She then enjoyed such a commanding lead in the polls that she could risk losing the support of the mighty elderly voter. In her manifesto, ( or was it the Conservative Party’s?)  the triple lock was broken, the winter fuel allowance means tested  and a plan for funding end of life care  proposed. But the scheme was withdrawn three days later.

I was pleased to see someone take an initiative on a topic that had been consigned to the filing cabinet. The Commission chaired by the economist Andrew Dilnot had recommended in 2011 that those with the means to do so should pay for their social care but that personal  contributions should be capped at an agreed level. Thereafter the state would pay.

David Cameron accepted the findings but delayed  implementation until  2020. Under the current system, anyone  with less than £14,000 receives free care and those with more than £23,000, do not which, Dilnot said recently, creates both inequality and a fair amount of cheating. Us oldies want to know where we stand and to plan if we can.

The Conservative manifesto appeared to be more generous by meeting the cost of care for everyone with assets of £100,000 or less. But it actually pushed more of the cost on to the cared for by including the cost of their home and the cost of care at home as well.

The announcement received support from some unlikely quarters. Polly Toynbee and Will Hutton both welcomed it because it unlocked the vast pent up property fortune  that has fallen into the lap of most  pensioners through the housing boom.  The ’dementia tax’  stopped  the  ‘intergenerational injustice’ of the hard pressed younger generation, who cannot afford to buy a flat,  meeting the costs of the older generation living in their mansions.

But think further and you realise this scheme is an iniquitous lottery. At present one in five of  us will need long term care and  the numbers are rising partly because we are living longer and avoiding other death traps. Those unfortunate to suffer from a degenerative disease  will pay the cost. They will lose their savings and their children will not inherit. Those dying from cancer  will be treated for free and pass on their riches to the next generation. This is a long way from the universal provision of the welfare state.

And of course, apart from the principles of how to pay for social care, there is the mess of low wages for care workers, the dependence on E U migrants to staff the homes and the inability of local authorities to pay a reasonable rate. My beer drinking companion is able to pay his way and receives good care but life in a state funded home in years to come sounds like the modern equivalent of purgatory.

Sir Andrew, rightly ennobled for his work, is unrepentant. There’s plenty of money, he says. “ We may choose not to afford it but the notion that we can’t afford something, given what has happened to our income is striking and quite surprising, and doesn’t strike me as correct.” He and others propose different versions of taxation on all pensioners and their estates that would spread the load.

At least Team Theresa tried to come up with a solution and spin it into a vote winning one.  Now she is in retreat. There is talk of more consultation but expect the social care crisis to continue and to get worse. The Kings Fund says the cash shortfall will be £2bn by 2020.

Pensioners  have seen off  this half hatched solution over a weekend without even rising blood pressure.  Voters will worry whether someone who can change her mind so quickly and spectacularly can handle a long Brexit negotiation.

If I was Theresa May, I would be worried at my falling ratings. If I was Andrew Dilnot, I would despair and I am resigned to whatever the fates may deal me in future days and hope you will take me out for a pint of beer.

Published in Newcastle Journal on 30th May 2017




Dont be afraid to put pacificism at the heart of foreign policy

“I am not a pacifist” Jeremy Corbyn  insisted last week.  A pacifist is seen as the ultimate party pooper – someone misunderstood as cowardly, unpatriotic and beyond reason.

In fact, pacifists are about the bravest  people around putting themselves on the line to campaign for peace. They have been executed, imprisoned, beaten up, arrested and ostracised for their beliefs. Pacifists are however unlikely to win the floating vote.

Jeremy Corbyn spoke eloquently about pacifist practices in an under reported speech at Chatham House last Friday. The media  was obsessed with  manifesto leaks that day and nobody is much interested in foreign policy anyway.

The Leaders speech urged Britain to “walk the hard yards to a better way to live together on this planet”. Labour  would place far more emphasis on diplomacy, non proliferation and multi lateral disarmament and be far less inclined to rush to arms and put troops on foreign shores. He cited the disastrous intervention in Libya as a failure of Conservative foreign policy and  evidence that the war of terror was failing.

He quoted President Eisenhower’s warning of the unwarranted influence of the military industrial complex  and said there would be no more hand holding with Donald Trump. A Labour government would not be afraid to speak its mind.

In an article on the same day, the shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry evoked the late Robin Cook’s search for an ethical  foreign policy that would stand up for human rights, support emerging democracies and keep climate change at the top of the agenda.

In the leaked manifesto, Labour commits to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, maintain the 2% commitment  on defence spending and renew Trident. All in all, Labour proposes a thoughtful and different kind of foreign policy that also tries to keep the two wings of the Labour party happy.

Meanwhile no word from Boris Johnson on foreign affairs apart from a flat refusal to pay the Brexit bill and  a belief that the Russians would interfere to help Labour because “Putin would rejoice to see British defences weakened, Britain’s foreign policy become less active, to see us detached from the United States.”. He is being kept well up the back of the Team Theresa bus for the time being.

It was brave of Jeremy Corbyn to make a set speech on foreign policy because it exposes him to the suspicion that he is soft on defence and would not press the button to order a nuclear strike. World leaders would have catastrophically failed if this situation arose, he said, and  the results would kill millions and devastate the planet.

Indeed, it is alright with me if Corbyn does come out as a pacifist. He has voted against every use of armed force apart from Cyprus and East Timor.  But he held back to say that he would use military action under international law as a genuine last resort and that the safety and security of the British people was his first priority.

I find Corbyn’s hand wringing endearing and reassuring . I would not want to live under a Prime Minister who was confident about proceeding with nuclear war, intent on sending out the bombers or deploying the troops. By contrast, the Conservatives now say that would use a deterrent first strike.

Having only recently  written off Jeremy Corbyn as party leader and potential prime minister in this column, I find myself warming to him as the election campaign unravels. On the Six o Clock news every night, Jezza can be found sitting on the classroom floor reading to a child  or walking the  factory  floor in a pair of safety glasses appearing to enjoy himself and running the risk of looking silly.

Judged by the news clips, the contrast with Theresa May could not be greater. She stands to attention  in front of a few rows of well dressed Conservative supporters, reiterates her mantra and pours scorn on Jeremy Corbyn.  Her handlers will not cut her any slack.

On her raid into  Labour heartland in the North East,  Mrs May’s  one and only stop  in Northumberland  was at Eschott Airport?  Why not visit Newcastle International Airport and make a statement about airport taxes? I wonder if the empty acres and good road connections around the private airfield at Eschott are about  to be revealed as the new regeneration hub of the region?

She sneaked in the side door  at Linskill Centre in North Shields  to avoid the public outside with their placards and spoke to another select few including her great fan Laura Kuenssberg. Why not visit the much grander Memorial Hall in Wallsend or Sage Gateshead  to get a feel for the regions past and present triumphs? Why make the journey at all if you are not going to meet those “ordinary working people” you want to vote for you?

The Prime Minister is missing the opportunity to expound her vision for the country and her policies for the new government . Although she called the election over leaving Europe, Brexit is the elephant in the room. She may be heading back to Downing Street after the election but Theresa May is losing the campaign. Her lead dropped eight points last week and there are still three weeks to go.

published in Newcastle Journal Tues 16th May 




Save me from strong and stable leadership

Did Theresa May coin the phrase on a mountain  in  Wales or did it come to mind  as she stepped  out of Downing street a fortnight ago today to spring her surprise election? Beware of anyone who tells you they are strong.

Or were darker forces at play?  Is ‘strong and stable’ a carefully constructed coda worked out to appeal to voters and churned out at every opportunity. It has been calculated that a Conservative politician mentions  this quality every eighteen seconds. Constant repetition  will eventually allow voters to appreciate strengths of the leader and only news junkies like me are sick of it already.

Does it stack up? Has Theresa May shown much S&S so far? Only last week, the government was forced by the courts to publish its long delayed air pollution strategy. Air pollution causes 64 premature deaths  a day. This was an example of a government running scared of the motor industry and of car owners, like me, who mistakenly  thought diesel was better for the environment. That’s cowardly and collusive leadership.

Only a couple of months ago, the courts also ruled against Theresa May’s plans to trigger Article 50 which smacked of  arrogant and authoritarian leadership.  It is no wonder that she is being referred to as Kim Jong May.

Then there was the U turn on national insurance contributions for the self employed and the amazing volte face in calling a general election and ditching the well intentioned fixed term parliament Act. Shame on the Opposition for going along with it.

This deceit has tarnished the image of the vicar’s daughter and National Trust member who is on the side of the ordinary working family. A more devious and calculating character is emerging who wants to banish legitimate opposition and, as the Daily Mail puts it, ‘crush the saboteurs’.

The most serious lack of leadership has been the hapless way in which the government   has handled Brexit. It has lacked a plan and failed to listen to its European partners. It really is fake news for Theresa May to proclaim  that the country is united behind her in wanting to be bumped out of Europe.

But even if, for the sake of argument, I allow the claim of strong leadership,  is this the direction in which I want to be lead? This is a government cutting welfare benefits, building grammar schools, reducing green energy subsidies, scrapping the Human Rights Act, cutting inheritance tax for the rich, renewing Trident, failing to honour commitments to child refugees and bringing back fox hunting. It is not dealing with the housing crisis or the social care crisis.

There is talk of the Tories relaxing the triple lock . We pensioners have been  let off too lightly because our votes matter. There is a hint from the Chancellor that he may not renew the silly ban on tax increases. We middle classes have been wrapped in cotton wool for too long as well. Both good ideas but will the manifestoes tell us where the money will be coming from?  Don’t hold your breath.

The Labour Party has been churning out policies day after day. That is what politics used to be about. They may not capture the imagination but they take sensible steps on housing, education and jobs. Keir Starmer made an honourable attempt to explain Labour’s position on Brexit but could have given more hope to Remainers and allowed space  for a second referendum.

These are extraordinary times and I am actually attracted by the so called ‘coalition of chaos’ if it means that different parties get together to return members who will challenge the draconian view of Brexit that a May government seems bound to pursue. Caroline Lucas should be waved back in.

Theresa May does not give us her vision for the future or even a set of policies for the next government. Her one new idea of capping energy bills was pinched from Ed Miliband. She will not debate in public or meet real voters. But she will provide strong and stable leadership, which, as everyone knows, is her way of telling us that Jeremy Corbyn is not up to the job.

When  Jezza was elected the first time around, I was excited that some of my more cherished political ideals might be fulfilled. This is the man who has been on the right side of every major argument for the past quarter century, from apartheid to nuclear weapons, arms sales, railway ownership, animal rights, cannabis and even the poor old royal family. He is the street protestors hero.

I am disappointed by his inability to manage the Labour Party and sorry that he is lukewarm about Europe.  The Tory jibes are despicable but funnily enough, a “muddle headed mugwump” is not far off the mark. Jeremy Corbyn is an honest, thoughtful, independently minded vegetarian who is likely to mull things over and unlikely to push a button in haste.  He cares about real people, refuses to slag off his opponents and is sartorially relaxed, These are the qualities I look for in a leader.

But more important, he is doing his best to lead a party in the direction I want to go and it is policies rather than personalities that matter.

Published in Newcastle Journal Tues 2nd MayMay wlaking



St Magnus shows Donald Trump there is another way to sort out disputes between nations


It is exactly 900 years since Earl Magnus and Earl Haakon met on the island of Egilsay to try and resolve their differences. The two cousins had divided and ruled the islands of Orkney. But their followers had fallen out and rather than fight in battle, the joint Earls of Orkney agreed to meet and seek peace.

These were bloodcurdling times when rulers went by the names of Thornflinn the Skullsplitter and Eirik Bloodaxe. In this company, Magnus was something of an exception. According to Icelandic legend, as a young man he had refused to fight under King Magnus Barelegs against the Welsh ‘for he had no quarrel with anyone there’ and sang psalms while the battle raged.

In the Orkneyinga Saga, Manus is described as a man of extraordinary distinction, tall with a fine intelligent look about him. He punished the rich and supported the poor. He lived according to God’s commands, was faithful in marriage and whenever the urge of temptation came upon him, he would plunge into cold water and pray to God for aid. He could also put his enemies to death and torch their houses when necessary so lets not get carried away.

On the way to the fateful meeting with Haakon, Magnus was drenched by a freak wave in the stern of his ship which was deemed a bad omen. His men urged him to turn back.  It had been agreed that each cousin would bring two boats of supporters but when Magnus arrived he found that Haakon had turned up mob handed with eight boat loads.

Vastly outnumbered, and perhaps too trusting, Magnus offered his cousin a series of concessions. He would go on pilgrimage to Rome and never return. He would be confined to house arrest. He would have his eyes gouged out and spend the rest of his life in a deep dungeon.

None of these compromises satisfied the chieftains who wanted a single ruler and Magnus was executed by on Easter Day 1017.  Magnus allegedly prayed for forgiveness for his persecutors and asked to be killed by a single axe strike on his forehead as befitted his noble standing.  In an astonishing act of forgiveness, Magnus’s mother, Thora, later forgave Haakon in return for giving her son a proper burial. A cult developed, Magnus’s grave become a pilgrimage site  and a series of healing miracles were attributed to his spirit.

William the Old, Bishop of Orkney, warned against such heresies but was struck blind and only restored to sight after praying himself at Magnus’s grave. He quickly canonised Magnus, which may have been a simpler process in those days.

Twenty years later, Magnus’s nephew, Rognvald Kali Kolsson, promised to build a cathedral in Kirkwall in memory of St Magnus in return for ruling the islands.  In 1919 a wooden box was discovered during restoration in the cathedral. It contained a skull with a fractured forehead. In this same cathedral, St Magnus’s story was retold this past Sunday to mark   the 900th anniversary of his martyrdom and on Monday a pilgrimage walk on the route around the islands to his final resting place was inaugurated.

On this now peaceful island, whose history as a centre of civilisation goes back centuries before Magnus, I have spent the weekend anxiously listening to news of war mongering between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. I have felt more apprehensive over these last few days  than at any time since the Cuba missile crisis. Warships gathered, a Korean missile probably sabotaged by a cyber attack and all options were said to be on the table.

The President is failing on many fronts. He has been unable to get his way in Congress to repeal Obamacare. He has been unable to deny Muslims entry to the United States thanks to judicial challenges. He may well be impeached for his collusion with Russian sponsored election rigging. His advisors are squabbling, his press spokesman is embarrassing and his ratings are falling.

But this only makes Donald Trump a more frightening figure on the world stage. He tries to restore his reputation as a man of action by launching missiles and dropping bombs without any semblance of forethought or strategy.  At the back of my mind is Steve Bannon’s belief that  the United States long term interests are best served by  launching a war in the South China seas within the next five years.

It is wrong to single out Donald Trump. There are a few Skullsplitters and Bloodaxes around today including Bashar al-Assad.  Forget the obscene extravagance of the Mar-a-Lago holiday camp where Trump served President  Xi  chocolate cake and told him about bombing Syria. I would put them all in simple stone huts on a small remote island and with strictly two boatloads of aides and generals each. Let them eat gruel.

There is another way.  It requires courage and integrity to talk to each other. You can be betrayed as Magnus found out to his cost.  Ron Ferguson, former leader of Iona Community who preached the Easter Day sermon in St Magnus’s Cathedral, wrote in his foreword to Magnus’s life, “if human beings are to live together on this fragile earth, worship, reverence, love and willingness to sacrifice for others must be seen as necessities rather than as idealistic impossibilities.”

published in Newcastle Journal on Tues 18th April