columnibus

Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

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

 

 

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

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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

 

 

 

 

 

Charities are run by inspirational people who need our support more than ever

The highlight of my week was an all too brief visit to the open day at Children North East held at their WEYES project on the West Road in Newcastle. I was shown around by a bright young volunteer and then spoke to a series of staff about their work.
First, Lesley Henderson, running NewPIP, one of seven pilot schemes offering intensive counselling to young mums and dads in the belief that help in the first years of a child’s life prevents trouble later. This was seriously well thought out work and it seemed a no brainer to me.
Then on to the Whoops scheme which makes sure that young children are safe at home and the Youth Link peer mentors scheme which trains 18 year olds to support young teenagers. I shuddered to think how I can have coped with that role in my youth.
Next, Poverty Proofing the School Day which offers a week long audit for schools to make sure that children from disadvantaged homes get the most out of their education. The scheme was developed by CNE and is being delivered around the country. Finally the sexual health clinic, a fully equipped room with a confidential service fed by outreach sessions in schools and colleges.
More young volunteers offered me tea and cake, told me about the young people’s drop in sessions at WEYES and signed me up for a fund raising event in a pizzeria on Saturday. I nodded in passing to the besuited Chief Executive, Jeremy Cripps, and reminisced with one of the management team about a past Chief Executive and personal friend, Joy Higginson, sadly no longer with us, who would have so proud of what has been achieved.
No wonder Children North East was North East Charity of the Year in 2016. Here was a series of innovative schemes, some just practical and others policy making, presented articulately and passionately. They take this 126 year old charity that originally took poor children for a day out to the seaside, slap bang into the present day.
Children North East restored my faith after picking my way through a series of reports casting doubt on the future of charities. On Sunday of all days, but still failing to grab the headlines, the House Of Lord select committee report chipped away at government policy on regulation and commissioning and almost convinced me of value of a thoughtful second chamber.
The public has lost trust in charities and My Lords call for better governance. They recommend improved selection, rotation and training of trustees and make a sensible idea that companies give staff time off to sit on charity boards. They uphold the cherished principle that trustees should not be paid for their time.
As a veteran and increasingly intolerant trustee, I have endured more than my fair share of frustration, crisis and scandals but I do not think that the governance of charities is any better or worse than public authorities or medium sized business. It is just that the public expects us to be holier than thou. Everything palls in comparison with Tescos’s £129m fine for false accounting which passed by almost without comment last week.
A punchy report from Lloyds Bank Foundation warns that charities must change to keep up with the times. They are a service industry and digitalisation is the order of the day. Face to face meetings for advice, information and support will be out dated and too expensive in a few years time. I hope that the soothsayers are wrong as nothing beats looking people in the eye with a little human kindness.
An IPPR North survey by the redoubtable Tony Chapman points out that charities perforce spend too much time on fundraising and grant applications to the detriment of strategy and operations. Get that right first, Chapman argues, and the funding will follow. As a trustee of a grant making trust, I am depressed to see so many medium sized charities desperately seeking money just to get through the next twelve months and having little hope of a long term future.
A friend who volunteers for a bereavement counselling service tells me that since the local authority withdrew its grant to save money, it has been forced to make the administrator redundant and expect new volunteers to pay for their own training. This cannot continue.
There has been an unwritten deal for as long as I can remember that selfless volunteering, madcap fundraising and philanthropic grants are under written by public funding. It is the small frontline charities like bereavement services, the Lloyds Bank report warns, that are most at risk in these hard times.
My cousins in the United States spend every Friday at an extravagant charity fundraiser and I really hope we don’t go that way here. They are the most inefficient ways of raising money and favour the cuddly causes with well connected friends.
I am continually amazed by the creativity, perseverance and self sacrifice of people running charities. They often would not fit into more bureaucratic organisations. They come up with the best new ideas and get to places that others cannot reach. If charities become the easy pickings of austerity, we will lose something precious in our civic life and all be the poorer.

Published in Newcastle Journal 4th April 2017

There’s nothing wrong with the poor that money cant put right: the case for universal basic income.

Nixon

Richard Nixon came within an ace of eradicating poverty.  If fate had dealt Nixon a kinder hand, he would have established the principle that everyone is entitled to what we now call a universal or unconditional basic income . History would have deemed him a hero not a villain.

In a series of pilots throughout the United States, everyone was given a basic income whether or not they were in work. The results showed that beneficiaries worked as hard as before and had more time for child rearing and family life. Educational attainment increased and health improved. The leading economists of the day said the scheme was affordable and would eventually pay for itself through reductions in the public purse. There was widespread public support for a universal income scheme to be rolled out.

And so in 1969, Nixon introduced his Family Assistance Plan for a modest basic income describing it as “the most significant piece of social legislation in our nation’s history.” The nation which had just put a man on the moon was all set to establish the principle that money was a basic right.

The Bill passed the lower house with a large majority but got bogged down in the Senate. It was “the most expansive welfare legislation ever handled” according to one Republican senator. Nixon reintroduced the Bill in a revised format  the following year but it never got on to the statute books and was finally shelved in 1978.

A similar scheme was tried in the 1970s  in a small town in Canada where 1000 families, about 30% of the population, received a cheque each month to raise them above the poverty line. The Mincome project was  abandoned when a conservative administration came to  power four years later.

The evidence from  Mincome was stored away in cardboard boxes and only analysed recently. It also showed that total hours worked were much the same, birth rates dropped and school results improved.  Hospital admissions dropped, domestic violence decreased and mental health improved.

The  conclusion  from these studies is that there is nothing wrong with the poor that putting money in their pockets will not cure. We know too that  living a hand to mouth existence for any length of time puts people under pressure, restricts their options  and leads  them to make poor decisions.

Had the United States, the world’s worthiest nation, gone down this route, there’s little doubt that other countries would have followed suit, according to Rutger Bregman, whose new book ‘Utopia for Realists’  retells the stories of the North American experiments and makes a passionate case for universal basic income and other radical ideas too.

The other stark conclusion is that universal income  is political dynamite. It is difficult to shake off the dogma, Bregman argues, that if you want money, you have to work for it. It is much more comforting to hang on to the belief that the poor are feckless, lazy and workshy  despite all the evidence.

Margaret Thatcher’s view of  poverty  as a ”personality defect”  still permeates our benefits system today. Anyone receiving Job Seekers Allowance or Employment Support Allowance  will be assessed for their capability for work and expected  to take part in job training schemes. They will be financially penalised if they do not take part in good spirit.  An army of civil servants are unnecessarily employed at great expense to cajole claimants into work whether or not the jobs exist.

When the self employed  were threatened with increased national insurance payments after the Budget,  they were overnight dubbed as “strivers”  as opposed to the “shirkers” or “scroungers” who claim benefits. It demonstrates how desperate we are to keep the poor in their place. To reinforce the point, universal credit and tax credits will be cut next month by £12bn to make living on benefits even more uncomfortable.

Rutger Bregman goes on to argue that the days of relatively full employment  are numbered as artificial intelligence takes over. The ethos of going to work will be undermined. Economists say that the factory of the future will only employ a man and a dog. The man will feed the dog and the dog will stop the man fiddling with the machinery.

Only the highly educated, the residents of Silicon Valley and the out of power politicians will have jobs. “If we want this century to be the one in which we all get richer” Bregman argues” we’ll need to free ourselves of the dogma that all work is meaningful.” The gulf between the rich and poor will dramatically increase and a far more radical way of redistributing money will be needed.

Utopia is an aspiration rather than a blueprint in Bregmans’ inspiring book.  When we reach the land of plenty, according to Oscar Wilde, we should gaze at the farthest horizon and rehoist our sails.

Bregman may fall short on practicalities but he puts forwards the big ideas that scare off mainstream politicians. A further experiment in universal income is underway in Finland. There are plans to try it in Glasgow too.  Matthew Taylor may commend it in his forthcoming  review of work. Is it an idea whose time has come round again?  Richard Nixon must have regretted losing his place in history. Lets not lose our place too.

published in Newcastle Journal 21st March 2017

 

 

 

 

Dont let the nasty party define the new normal

After the turmoil of the last few months, life is getting back to normal. At Sotheby’s, a landscape by Gustav Klimt has sold for £48m, well above the expected price. The art world  breathed a sigh of relief. The cheque books are coming out again.  It is reassuring too that revenues at luxury shoe maker Jimmy Shoo are up 15% and that Frank Knight sees no end of ultra high net worthers moving to London as their city of choice.

As news of the Trump tweets and the Brexit Bill dies down, there is even space for a story about Mike Ashley once more. He has bought up the failing lingerie business Agent Provocateur to take his business empire upmarket. It puts a whole new meaning on changing the away strip.

Theresa May’s government will rise or fall on her herculean task of taking the country out of the European Union but in other news her government emerges more right wing, punitive and inhumane than ever. In normal times, and with a better opposition, there would be an outcry. Here are some examples.

Irene Clennell has been deported. The 52 year old mother and grandmother from Chester le Street, who cared for her chronically sick husband of 27 years, failed to meet the Home Office requirement of continuous residency because she had returned to Singapore to care for ailing parents. There was no compassion from Amber Rudd who has barred the Dubs kids too.

Irene described in a newspaper interview how she was taken without warning to a detention centre and then put on a plane back to Singapore. “They treated me like a terrorist” she said.

A French national, Bruno Pollet, married to a UK resident with a young son, has also been denied residency because his work as a climate change scientist took him to South Africa for three years, breaking 25 years continuous residency in the United Kingdom. He and his family have decided to move to Scandinavia.  Applications from E U Nationals for U K residency have doubled since the Brexit vote but one quarter have been rejected. The government turns a deaf ear to suggestions that E U nationals should be allowed to stay whatever.

In both cases, the Home Office is applying the letter of the law rather than using discretion or applying common sense. Campaigners say this hard line stance is happening all the time as  the government is so determined to reduce net immigration and feels  empowered by the patriotic antipathy for anyone from abroad.

George Freeman has made a gaffe and been  forced to apologise. He will keep his job as one of Theresa May’s closest advisors as she gathers her Home Office trusties around her.  In a Donald moment, he criticised a “bizarre decision” by a tribunal that ruled that people with mental health issues should be entitled to receive Personal Independent Payment. The payment should be restricted, Freeman said, to “really disabled people”.

PIP is to be further restricted anyway by new rules coming in this month. The process of applying for benefit remains as long drawn out and demeaning as possible with the apparent aim of ruling claimants out. Public donations to West Northumberland Food Bank spiked after a special screening of I, Daniel Blake, it was reported at the AGM last week, showing the public disgust at the way decent people are treated. Welfare benefits are frozen until 2020 which CPAG estimates will reduce the annual income of a family with three children by £2500 a year. No Klimts in these households then.

Claire Philipson will lose her job. Sunderland Council has cut the grant to Wearside Women In Need, which Claire has unflinchingly lead for about 30 years. Sunderland Council has said it is rethinking its provision for victims of domestic violence but in the meantime it  becomes the only city in the country without a womens refuge. The Council has also cut services to homeless people and youth services in order to save £74m before 2020. Jimmy Shoo is unlikely to open up here.

Other authorities are in a similar desperate position. In Newcastle, numbers of people receiving home care have been reduced by 4000  in order to save £39m from their social care budget as part of overall savings of £221 m. There are calls for an extra inheritance tax earmarked for social care, which I would welcome, but this kind of serious problem with no quick fixes is one that that governments always avoid.

Whitehall departments are now drawing up scenarios for a further wave of austerity. It is a fair bet that local authorities will again bear the brunt as they have done for the last nine years. These are cowardly and wholesale cuts that deflect the blame on to mostly Labour authorities and leave them with the responsibility for dealing with the pain and suffering they cause. They are probably unnecessary in the greater scheme of things and look like an ideological attack on local government and local services.

In all these examples of buried news, the government is using the smokescreen of Brexit and the wave of selfish populism to become again the nasty party. We are in danger of regarding this as normal. The new normal is not very nice.

Published in Newcastle Journal on Tues 7th March

Sotheby's auction house staff pose for photographers with Austrian artist Gustav Klimt's "Bauerngarten (Blumengarten)"

Why has the National Trust run out of steam at the Birthplace?

Image result for george stephenson birthplace

 

I have never understood why we do not make more fuss of George Stephenson. And now, to add insult to injury, National Trust has shut down his Birthplace on the waggon way at Wylam.

His statute in Neville Street is lost amongst the roadworks and, for some absurd reason known only to the sculptor, portrays him in classical fancy dress. The engineering works in Forth Street is neglected and his house in Killingworth is closed to the public. The so called Stephenson Quarter takes his name in vain. If you want to find out about George Stephenson, head for Chesterfield, where he ended his days and where he receives due honour.

As so often, I blame Margaret Thatcher. She is reputed to have never travelled on a train the entire time she was Prime Minister. Railways were deeply unpopular. In those far off days, we were bequeathed the National Glass Centre and the International Life Centre. It would have taken a brave man to propose the World Railway Centre but no one could have argued with the claim. Railways were born in the North East and George Stephenson was their Father. His 4 ft 81/2 inch gauge was adopted throughout the known universe.

George Stephenson ranks in the top one hundred Great Britons of all time. His face appeared on a five pound note even though he did not build the Skerne bridge pictured alongside him. Every schoolboy knows his name.

Stephenson’s story was embellished after his death by that great prophet of Victorian virtue, Samuel Smiles. Amazingly, his best selling biography of George was the standard work for over 100 years.  As a self made man, Stephenson was the  perfect example of Smiles gospel of self help and that is why the Birthplace is of such interest. Although the bulding  looks impressive to anyone walking, running or cycling past the door, the Stephensons and their six children only rented one room from the mine owner in Wylam who employed George’s father. We know very little about these days though this did not stop Smiles making up a story or two.

The Birthplace shows how mining families lived in the late eighteenth century. Visitors are amazed that the family all slept in one four poster bed, which has a truckle underneath for the younger children, and drew their water from the river. Worldly wise school children  express surprise that the family grew to such a size.

George never went to school and only learned to read and write at night school in his late teens. “ You can make your fortune even if you skip school” I tell then children to their parents disapproval on my occasional days as a volunteer guide.

As Adrian Jarvis points out in his reassessment of Stephenson’ career, he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Coal could not be transported by canal from the rich seams of  the Northumberland and Durham coalfield. When most of the available horses were requisitioned for the Napoleonic wars, the mine owners needed to innovate and trusted the dependable young Stephenson. He built on other peoples work and was neither an outstanding surveyor or engineer, despite what Smiles might say.

George Stephenson grasped the potential for railways to carry people and had the vision of a joined up national rail network. After his success with the Stockton and Darlington and the Liverpool and Manchester railways, Stephenson became the ‘must have’ person to establish the credential of any new railway line.

He shrewdly bought mines and quarries near the new lines that accrued in value and ended his life as a wealthy man in a small stately home on top of  extensive mineral rights. He was lucky to escape being brought down along with the fraudulent railway entrepreneur George Hudson. In fact, he was the kind of calculating businessman sailing close to the wind that Margaret Thatcher might have admired.

So why has National Trust closed the Birthplace for this coming year without warning or consultation?  It is supposed to be a pause to evaluate how to make the best use of the property by engaging some university students to come up with bright ideas.

The Cottage is at the end of a long chain of command where the new smart tills have yet to be installed. It is poorly marketed and out of touch with the local community.  The café provides the best bacon rolls for miles around to anyone passing by and the staff sell more raffle tickets than any other property of comparable size.

The answer is to invest in the Birthplace and build on the growing interest of the Great North Exhibition in 2018 when Stephenson’s famous Rocket is rumoured to be returning to the North East.

The National Trust is a wealthy organisation. It should look after the little gems like the Birthplace, Cherryburn and Washington Old Hall and not just put resources into corporate development and blockbuster attractions. In a fine turn of phrase, National Trust says it will not “engineer” all its properties in the same way  but “ leave room for the application of common sense and discretion.”   Think again National Trust because we want, perhaps late in the day, to praise our famous sons.

Published in Newcastle Journal 21st February 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Awards for people who stand up for their beliefs : first winners announced

We all love awards ceremonies  and so this morning I am  launching my own awards and will from time to time announce the winners in this column.

Hepburn’s Heroic Awards will be bestowed upon those rare people who have the courage of their convictions and the bravery to defy the so called ‘will of the people’. Readers are invited to nominate heroes but should be aware that I have the casting vote. Today I can reveal the names of the first three award winners.

The bronze award goes to Gateshead Council whose members last week unanimously voted not to welcome President Trump to a town which J B Priestly famously described  in 1935,  as appearing “to have been carefully planned by an enemy of the human race.” The Donald could not have tweeted it with more spite.

The President is rumoured to have set his heart on a round of golf with Her Majesty at Balmoral and it is not known if Gateshead figures on his itinerary. But hurrah to the Councillors for making their position clear. Gateshead has the second highest number of Syrian refugees in the country and the Council is right to show solidarity.

Some will say this is meaningless gesture politics but I do not agree. The President’s now infamous executive order will cost the lives of refugees waiting for safe haven, Amnesty says, and every small act shows our disapproval of the inhumanity and thoughtlessness of the White House.

A speech in the Palace of Westminster was much more likely to be in President Trump’s sights but last night John Bercow used his right as Speaker to ban him because of Trump’s “sexism and racism”. Bercow gets a last minute bronze award too.

The silver award is hung round the neck of Newcastle North MP Catherine McKinnell for being the only North East Member brave enough to vote against triggering Article 50 last week. The Hush Puppy award for lifetime achievement goes, of course, to  Kenneth Clarke,  for being true to the European ideal.

In his speech, Clarke referred  back to Edmund Burke’s classic distinction between a member of parliament being a delegate, who is mandated to vote as instructed, or a representative, who follows his beliefs as Jeremy Corbyn used to do.

McKinnell’s statement, printed in Friday’s Journal, is more nuanced. She said she could not give Theresa May a blank cheque and allow her to leave the European Union in a way that could be “enormously damaging” for the region. McKinnell plans to support an amendment requiring greater consultation when  the committee stage of the Bill is debated this week. More awards are on offer here for Members who speak up for the right of parliament to oversee the most fundamental change to the United Kingdom in our lifetime. It is unfortunately  forcing us to hold hands squirming our way down Pennsylvania  Avenue.

The Journal letter writers will be sharpening their pencils to say that my side lost the referendum and that I should accept the result with good grace. The arithmetic was not  that convincing. The  Leave majority  was far less than would be required for a Trade Union to call a strike or for parliament to be dissolved.

I may have lost the vote but I have the right to protest on every street corner dishing out awards for heroism to any one  I find dodging the flack. This brings me with a drum roll  to the first gold award.

Sometimes you can be brave by just doing the day job. That is what James Robart did this week in a court in Seattle and for which he receives the gold award.  It takes courage to stand up to the President of the United States who was quick to criticise him for making a “ridiculous decision”.

The Trump administration justified banning people from Muslim countries by reference to the 9/11 attacks. Judge Robart pointed out that none of the terrorist attacks in the United States were committed by foreign nationals arriving from the seven countries banned under the order.  He was ”asked to look and determine if the executive order is rationally based” he told the Justice Department attorney, “and grounded in fact instead of fiction.”  It is not.

Judge Robart gets the award for calmly picking up the facts of the matter and not getting swept away by the storm. A demagogue is dangerous when pronouncements lose touch with common sense reality and must be countered by innumerable small points of order.

It is easy to say that Trump will blow himself out and that ham fisted advisors will flounder. We cannot rely on them to  cock up. Steve Bannon, the self styled Thomas Cromwell at court who sits on the Security Council, expects a 50 year Trump dynasty  and  foresees a  necessary  war in the South China seas to make America great again. Even if there is only a small chance of these wild predictions coming true, we must stand up to them now.

So turn up for the award ceremony at Grey’s Monument on 20th February. There will be a huge turnout to protest that Trump is not welcome here. I hope James Robart is packing his bags to collect his award. He may have triggered a constitutional crisis and I would like to shake his hand.

Published in Newcastle Journal Tuesday 7th February

 

How to survive the courgette crisis

Did the wealthy and well fed eat courgettes with their silver spoons  in Davos? Only they could afford them.

George Soros didn’t mention courgettes in his after dinner speech at the Davos  Economic Forum. He predicted that  Donald Trump  will fail in his trade war and that Theresa May’s government will fall over Brexit but he overlooked one commodity making a lot of money at the moment. Courgettes have quadrupled in price. This has been the week of the courgette crisis.

It is Britain’s tenth most popular vegetable. It grows anywhere, mixes into any dish and can be spiralized by the fashion conscious. Courgettes are a key ingredient in the January health recovery plan  but you will struggle to  find one in your supermarket today. The price has rocketed and the shelves are bare.

Floods and then snow in southern Spain have ruined the courgette crop and the little baby marrows will not be back in the shops at a reasonable price  for months to come. To keep up to date, follow  #courgettecrisis .

My crisis strategy  has been to sign up for a supply of locally produced organic vegetables from The Paddock at High Spen.  The proprietor, young entrepreneur of the year  Laura Jayne Burlison, brings round a box with a smile every Thursday night.

Laura is scathing about the courgette crisis. Her grandparents never eat courgettes in January. They waited until the British season started in June. Instead Laura offers Jerusalem artichokes and purple sprouting broccoli and tells me to spiralize a purple carrot instead.

Courgettes are big in Denmark. The latest Scandinavian craze sweeping the country is ‘folkeligt’ which is the warm sense of pride that comes from eating courgettes and other organic vegetables. The  Danes celebrate Okodag or Organic Day every Spring when the cows are put back out to pasture.  They  spend £141 per head a year on organic food whereas  we weigh in at a measly £24. That is all about to change, thanks to what may be one the last scheme  funded in  Brussels,  as a £9m campaign persuades us to go folkeligt.  Hygge is old hat.

There are questions about whether organic produce is all that it seems and whether the price is payable but the arrival of odd shaped root vegetables and muddy potatoes on the doorstep  is so much more heartening and infinitely more tasty than picking up perfect produce flown into our supermarkets from all over the world.

Up the road in Finland, another crazy idea is being piloted. Out of work Finns will receive  a guaranteed  minimum income for two years even if they get a job. It will transform the demeaning way we treat people all too often regarded as scroungers. The Scots are interested and I hope it catches on here too.

Mr Woodreeve’s courgettes

Matthew the Woodreeve went folkeligt years ago . His secret round acre small holding somewhere in the Tyne Valley surely includes a courgette crop. Woodreeves are ancient keepers of the forest and Matthew’s  story is told in my friend Robert Bluck’s first  novel, Mr Woodreeve’s Reflection. The book  is launched tonight after  150 odd subscribers to Robert’s crowdfunding appeal allow Unbound to publish it.

The story is set west of Hexham in locations you almost recognise. I think I have tracked down Mathew’s cottage but I am not giving anything away. Mr Woodreeve  is an utterly absorbing romp of a read with a clever plot revealed in a succession of secret letters and only unravelled on the final page.

All too often books  promoted as dealing with family secrets are full of fear and foreboding but in this case the secrets are joyous and life enhancing. There is a mysterious, supernatural element in the story as well which challenges the reader to see the world differently. It has taken Robert five years to write and is a triumph.

Lew Feldstein’s zucchini festival

My old  friend and one time colleague, Lew Feldstein, also a courgette champion though, as an American, he calls them zucchini. The courgette seed originally came from the Americas but became popular in Italy in the late nineteenth century under its more appealing name of zucchini.  Lew once put a sleepy New Hampshire town on the map by starting an annual  zucchini festival showing that the courgette can lead to urban regeneration.

Lew spoke at a conference in Newcastle nine years ago alongside  the political scientist  Robert Putnam about how communities rich in courgettes will prosper. Over dinner afterwards, they told the story of how a young and unknown black politician had joined their prestigious civic leadership seminar at Harvard.  No one had heard of the junior senator from Illinois but within a year Obama had won everyone round and become the most respected person in the group.

Barack Obama had then just won the nomination. Feldstein and Puttnam feared for the future of their protégé and worried that expectations would be far  too high. I thought of Lew this weekend and wondered if, like me, he had smiled at George’s Soros’s prediction. In these extreme and frightening times, we have to hang on to the hope that the green sprouts of courginis will break through the ground again.

Published in Newcastle Journal 24th January 2017

 

Driverless cars will know exactly where to take us

So Carlos Ghosn has confirmed it. The autonomous car is revving up just around the corner.  I will be riding in a driverless car into the age of automation  in my lifetime. I may even rise into the sky on my final journey in an ambulance drone.

Uber is already  running cars by computer in Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Driverless cars are on trial in California, Germany and even in Milton Keynes. Amazon is delivering parcels by drones in Cambridgeshire to a few customers with long gardens.

Yesterday, Carlos Ghosn announced that the Nissan alliance will have driverless cars on the roads by 2020. They will be built in Sunderland. Who would have thought it?

The change will be as fundamental to our economy and our lifestyle as the introduction of railways in the nineteenth century. The railway pioneers were madcap entrepreneurs. Trains were a product of free economy that lead to a mishmash of competing lines and little overall planning. The era of the driverless car will be much the same.

In his new social history of railways (one half of my non-fiction Christmas reading), Simon Bradley describes how our lives were transformed. Greenwich Mean Time was imposed everywhere, fresh fruit and vegetables arrived on our tables and W H Smith popped up with easy reading at up station bookstalls. We developed ways of coping with strangers across a cramped railway compartment.

Just think about the implications of the widespread adoption of driverless cars. Carlos Ghosn talks of giving us the choice to drive or not to drive. But the real benefits only occur only when the entire traffic system is given over to what Nissan dubs’ the autonomous drive car’.  The days of the conventional car are numbered. Eat your heart out Jeremy Clarkson.

In less than 20 years time, a computer controlled  pod will arrive at your door or your office exactly when you when want it and take you to your destination. It will chose the least congested route and may well drive on roads built over  redundant suburban railways lines. You will not need to park as the clever vehicle will head off to its next customer when you have completed your journey.

Will we welcome the benefits? There are 1 billion private motors cars in the world. They could be replaced with 50 million communal shared autonomous vehicles relieving congestion and transforming the road network. No more need for massive new roundabouts in Newcastle or extra lanes on the A1.

There are currently over 1 million deaths and 31million injuries from car accidents worldwide. As autonomous cars take over these numbers will plummet. The elderly and disabled will be able to travel more freely. The harassed commuter will relax and read. Thanks to electric power, air pollution from exhaust fumes, one of the great unchallenged health hazards of our time, will be history.

But there are downsides. There are 300,000 taxi drivers in the United Kingdom many of whom  have already been made redundant once. There are 600,000 lorry drivers who will also be looking for work. According to White Van Man website, there are 2.5 million delivery men who claim to be intelligent (50% are bookworms) and romantic (5% claim romantic entanglements in the van). Much more than the kissing will have to stop.

There were 2.7 million cars purchased in the United Kingdom last year and about 1 million people employed in the manufacture, distribution and servicing of petrol or diesel driven cars. The new generation of electric driverless cars may well put the traditional  manufacturers on the scrap heap so Nissan is wise to change gear now.

The driverless car is just one aspect of a fundamental mind shift that faces modern society. The economy will shortly reach “peak human” ahead of robots and artificial intelligence taking over. Up to 15 million people will lose their jobs because of automation swelling the ranks of the disaffected and alienated. We should seek to get the future in our bones IPPR tells us in its new report ‘Future Proof Britain in the 2020s’, but that’s a big ask. Will we willingly give up our little castle on four wheels or our cherished privacy? But beware, it is happening already.

Google can detect a flu epidemic in minutes by analysing emails and search requests a week before anyone with the flu goes to the doctor. If we click 300 likes, Facebook can predict our behaviour better than our husband or wife. Machines will know us better than ourselves, according to Yuval Noah Harari in his consummately written and  thought provoking book ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’ ( the other half of my serious  Christmas reading). By 2021, the average desktop computer will have the processing capacity of the human brain. By 2050, one desk top will be have the processing power  of all humanity.

Harari raises a more troubling point about the sanctity of life and the primacy of Homo Sapiens. Are we really, he asks, only a collection of algorithms whose ability to manage data is about to be surpassed by much more sophisticated machines. Sooner or later, will we pass from the age of humanism to the age of dataism when Harari predicts “unenhanced humans will become completely useless”. We will  be conveyed in and by driverless cars which will know exactly where to take us.

 

 

 

 

Who walked tall in 2016? The walkers report:

Who is your person of the year?  I asked everyone I had walked with during 2016 to nominate the man or woman who had most inspired them. There are outwalkers in the group but I should warn you that my companions are mainly elderly, leftie blokes so no votes then for the epoch changing Nigel Farage who was shortlisted by Time magazine.

In a year in which the goodies lost too often and too many died, there were three posthumous nominations. Chips (valiant recovery from walking related injury) voted for David Bowie, an enigmatic pop alchemist who dispensed style with substance for over 40 years. His last creative acts were to finish the stage musical Lazarus and release the album Blackstar to critical acclaim, when he knew he was dying. The words gracious and generous occur frequently in his obituaries, Chips notes, but the word overrated only from his own lips.

Robert (debut novel launched next month) proposed Leonard Cohen who was the  poetic, if glum,  voice of our student years  and the songwriter and wonderful singer of Canada’s most popular ever song – Hallelujah! Cohen struggled with sex and drugs and rock and roll, but was a fantastic poetic voice – and a Zen monk for five years too.  I failed to persuade my chums over a pint that Dylan was greater than Cohen.

John ( welcome new boy to the group this year) went for the less well known Bob Holman. He was Professor of Social Work at University of Bath who took the audacious decision, aged 39, to relinquish his post and live with his family in the vast and deprived Easterhouse estate in Glasgow where he spent the rest of his life helping the poor and the sick, the troubled and the isolated. Holman continued writing and speaking about poverty and  injustice right up to his death aged 79, but much, much more than this, John says, he lived out his principles. Whilst we may talk the talk, and many of the group are comfortably retired social workers, Bob Holman walked the walk.

In the international category, Paul (often away in camper van) proposed  the Green Party’s  Professor Alexander Van der Bellen, the newly elected President of Austria, for defeating the far right  Norbert Hofer, a neo-Nazi, who Paul says “would have put the final nail in the coffin of the most dreadful year.”  Paul’s runner up was Sadiq Khan for the dignified way he defeated the ugly and racist campaign of Zac Goldsmith in the London Mayoral Election, and stood out in British politics as a beacon of hope and aspiration for a multi-cultural and inclusive Britain.

The other international nominee came from Dan ( cheerful even in the rain) who put forward  Dr Pietro Bartolo because of his extraordinary dedication over more than 20 years to the care of migrants arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa.  He has said  ‘We do what we can, because it’s right to do it’. Bartolo has personally met around 250.000 migrants, most of them having arrived in dreadful circumstances.

Duncan (glorious week walking the Exmoor coast in June when the people spoke ) has a better feel for the mood of the nation than the rest of us. He nominated Boris Johnson as someone who flies the flag for the United Kingdom. Boris always causes controversy in the political arena, Duncan says, and gives the high profile political leadership we need in difficult days. Johnson is a popular leader in waiting though not, I suspect, a popular choice with the other walkers.

Another popular choice from Richard (at a desk in a darkened room), is the one woman  British Olympian to have won four or more gold medals – Laura Trott. She stands around 5ft 4in and weighs just over eight stone which also makes her stand apart in a list dominated by brawny male cyclists and rowers. Trott was born prematurely, suffered a collapsed lung and only took up cycling to help her deal with her asthma. But, goodness, she is driven. A damehood surely awaits.

Richard speculates that if she and her new husband Jason Kenny, who has won six cycling Olympic gold medals, can order up a boy and a girl they will surely hurtle to victory at the Felling International Velodrome in the NewcastleGateshead Olympics in 2048.

Mike (rang in sick one morning in June) nominated 80 year old  film director Ken Loach.  Almost 50 years after making his legendary Cathy Come Home, Loach directed his best film in a long time. I, Daniel Blake is the story of a middle aged man and a single mum who are condemned to a life of poverty, not through any fault of their own, but by deliberate government policies. It is made all the more poignant as it is set and filmed in Newcastle.  Asked why he was angry about the story he tells, Loach replied: ‘If you’re not angry, what kind of person are you?’.

Mike asks me also to mention  Asif Raza Shah, Consultant Cardiothoracic Surgeon at the Freeman Hospital, who described his day as ‘uneventful’ when performing life saving surgery on our friend Mike, who will be back on the hills next year.

Ken (long conversation walking in Arkengathdale) championed the footballer Andy Woodward who found the courage to speak publicly about the alleged sexual abuse he suffered from a charismatic but perverted coach. Woodward felt scared and very alone, Ken says, but broke a powerful sporting omerta and  cried when a number of ex players, inspired by his courage, felt able to tell their own painful stories. Andy Woodward is ‘pushing back’ against the odds and set an example to us all. Conversations about the troubled child sexual abuse inquiry featured on a number of walks this year. Will history judge our generation by how we resolve this horror?

Nick (repeated a walk from 1980 across the Seven Sisters cliffs ) went for the brave Gina Miller. By rights, Nick says, the parliamentary opposition should have been pursuing the claim that parliament had the constitutional right to agree to the serving of notice to leave the EU. It seems to have been left to private individuals to take it on themselves to assume responsibility to seek this really important clarification, and for her pains she has been subjected to trolling on social media and abuse from the gutter press. (We caught the bus back this year but think we walked both ways the first time. There is an inverse relation between age and ascent.)

Kathryn ( rainy day across Beadnell Bay) nominated Jo Cox not so much for the tragic events on 16th June which brought her to our attention, but for fighting so hard all her life for the most pressing causes. I would also give supporting awards to her husband Brendan and her sister Kim, for the remarkably humane way they spoke about her death. They refused to let evil overcome good. We need more young, energetic and passionate people in her mould to take up the challenge and fight for the common good in the year ahead.

Published in Newcastle Journal on 27th December