CategoriesLegalPoliticsEssaysThought of The Day

The Middle Class Advantage?

(I would prefer never to speak of any particular “class”, but as the term retains utility, I shall use it.)

On Friday evening, I had an emergency telephone consultation with a GP. Her advice was unequivocal: go to A & E. Not what I wanted to hear – of course – but I appreciated the clarity.

What I think I needed was for my blood pressure to be checked. Attending A & E alone was a non-starter, as I couldn’t stand up. We therefore asked our wonderful neighbours for an emergency babysitter. In that chat group was a GP.

Now I can assure my readers that I did not want our friend to check in on me, but check on me she did. (As I thought, my blood pressure was too low on standing, flooring me. A & E was spared my needless presence). For our friend, I feel immense gratitude, and I hope that she never needs to check on my again. But such fortuitousness (or not) gave me pause for reflection at the reason for my “luck”.

During my teens, my middle class, wonderful parents secured me two weeks of legal work experience. Unpaid, of course, as such work experience always is. These two weeks not only set me on my career trajectory, but then made it easier for me to find my first job in law. During my gruelling interviews to become a trainee solicitor, I remember citing my work experience as evidence that I understood the profession.

Today, routinely I help my friends and family with their legal problems. No question. Like me, most of my friends and family are “middle class”. Candidly, in the past, I was more likely to sanction a work experience placement if I knew the family.

But let me confess: over the years, I have joined in the pillorying of Old Etonians – particularly the Bullingdon Club boys – for using their upper class connections to further their interests. Even recently, Reckless Boris appointed yet another “Buller” to – believe it or not – take a seat on the Whitehall sleaze watchdog. And let’s not forget Matt Hancock, who appointed his “friend” from Oxford as a non-executive at his department. They soon got to know each other better.

Writing in The Times, Matthew Syed notes:

“The American data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz estimates that the son of a president is 1.4 million times more likely to become president than an average American. He also shows that the sons of governors have a 6,000 times greater chance of reaching high office, and the sons of senators have an 8,500 times greater chance.”

Such statistics will be similar in the UK. Locally, my former colleague, Richard Burgon, MP for Leeds East, is the nephew of former local MP, Colin Burgon. More famously, in the next constituency – in Leeds Central – we find Hilary Benn MP, son of Tony Benn. Tony Blair’s father stood for the Conservatives, although usually most Labour MPs are drawn from unions – another club of sorts.

Witnessing the building work carried out on our house, it is clear that tradespeople, on the whole, have their own code of honour, able to call on each other whenever they need to. I envy it. Just as when I give free legal advice to friends or family, or when Reckless Boris appoints another mate, tradespeople often go to who they know; whom they trust; who is any good.

In the same Times piece, Syed also notes that the world’s greatest sport – football – is immune from nepotism. Billions play it, because all you need is a football and two jumpers for goalposts. Very few barriers to entry. In football, family ties mean almost nothing: you need ability to succeed. Connections won’t get you far. Unquestionably, the quality of football improves each season. No Premier League Winner in the 1990s would make a Premier League-winning team in the 2020s.

Whilst I am sure that we would all like to live in a more meritocratic world – a world which is mercifully becoming more meritocratic – it would pay us all dividends to consider how we use our own networks to get on, and to help “our own” to get on. The Etonians of this world are just doing what the rest of us do. The only difference being is that they usually control the levers of power. Our GP friend checked up on me – to my advantage – because we live in the same leafy suburbs. I live in a leafy suburb, thanks in large part to the advantages bestowed upon me from childhood. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with such opportunities being passed down the generations– that I should have rejected our friend’s generosity, due to an acknowledgement of historic injustices – but it is right that I realise that most people cannot call upon a friendly GP on a Friday evening.

Turning to our “clan” is what we have always done as a species. In football, we can see a brighter future, where all our talents are deployed to the benefit of the collective; a nirvana to aspire to. In the meantime, next time I contemplate decrying Reckless Boris, I shall first consider my own hypocrisies.

CategoriesPoliticsThought of The Day

In Cummings We Believe

This evening, Cummings enjoyed a one-hour prime-time slot, interviewed by his chum, Laura Kuenessberg.

In this blog, I’ll set out Cummings’ broad thesis.

  1. The party system is flawed.

As Cummings put it, any political system which provides Johnson and Corbyn as the only realistic options is – without doubt – broken. Hobson’s Choice, he says. Cummings highlights that, for MPs to climb the ladder, then they must play the party political game. This game does not promote the best people that the country has to offer.

  1. Whitehall is broken.

One plank of Cummings’ three-pronged deal with Reckless Boris – or “The Trolley” as he prefers to call him (noting that, like me, and unlike Starmer, Cummings wants a name to stick in the mind of the people) – was that he would only enter government if he could smash and then rebuild the civil service. His other demands were: that he could “get Brexit done”; and that he could heavily promote science.

  1. People are generally either competent or incompetent

Time and again, either in interviews or in his meandering tweets (rarely seized upon by the media, so frenzied they read), Cummings takes the view that either you’ve got it, or you haven’t. Accepting that it’s an unfashionable view, Cummings’ elitist position will win him few friends. For it is he and his coterie of “a few dozen Vote Leave key personnel”, he says, who make these decisions of far-reaching consequence for the rest of us. This Illuminati of British politics, he reckons, determine a key person’s ability to govern, casting aside “losers” and promoting their own.

  1. Johnson is clueless and dangerous

Devoid of any plan to govern, and “ludicrous”, said Boris of himself, that he was PM, Cummings admitted that his intention was to steer The Trolley. Post-2019 General Election, however, Cummings says that Carrie – Reckless Boris’ umpteenth partner – commenced a purge to remove all of the Vote Leave executives, supplanting them with her friends.

  1. To make an omelette, eggs need breaking

Explaining the nadir to which our politics sunk, with the unlawful prorogation of Parliament, the misleading of the Queen and the firing of multiple high-ranking Tory MPs, Cummings defended his tactics. His view was that he was without options: that the establishment had lined up to thwart Brexit and, in a political war, no prisoners could be taken.

Let’s quickly examine his positions.

Incontrovertibly, on counts 1, 2 and-4, Cummings is right. And he may well be correct on point 5, too. With point 3, surely people are on a sliding scale of competency.

The party system rejects the independent-minded. The brightest and the best don’t apply. Wannabe MPs have to fight unwinnable seats to prove their mettle, often taking decades to secure election, finding themselves in a seat which they don’t know. Once an MP, though the salary is double the national average, for many MPs it’s a pay cut – a pay cut coupled with a schizophrenic existence: Parliament and the constituency. Few sane people would wish for such an existence, all the while pilloried on social media, or under constant scrutiny, or threat of real danger, as what happened to Jo Cox MP.

Unlike in Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand and other countries, the British response to Covid was lamentable, almost genocidal in its effects. At the feet of Reckless Boris, I lay a good chunk of the blame. Time and again his instincts and slow decision-making costs thousands of lives. The last 11 years of Tory mismanagement of healthcare must shoulder a sizeable amount of blame, too, with the rest lying squarely at the door of the senior civil servants. As Cummings points out, when Covid came, the plans were deficient. The wrong stats were used to determine policy. Senior mandarins have had centuries to improve this process, failing us all at the most urgent of times. The deliberately delayed inquest into this carnage will not be kind to the zenith of our civil service.

Reckless Boris’ every key move during Covid has been wrong, or wrong as well as being too late. What Reckless Boris somehow has evaded blame for – though he should face trial for – was ramming home Brexit in the midst of this pandemic. Not even Farage could have blamed him had he pushed it back one year. Worse still, he threatened a No-Deal Brexit at this time, with the concomitant upsetting of our EU friends. When we needed cooperation, Boris sowed division. This is reckless in the extreme, utterly unconscionable, though brilliant. Such malevolent shenanigans unidentifiable through the Covid fog.

To make the omelette – to “get Brexit done” – essentially Cummings took the view that this was war; that the moral political equivalent of carpet bombing was permissible in the circumstances. On this, I shall ponder his view, which has the hallmarks of Machiavelli’s recommendations to statesmen in The Prince, together with Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Whilst considering the ethics of Cummings’ approach, I shall also contemplate the possible return of one, Tony Blair.

CategoriesHealthThought of The Day

Get Well Soon?

Chronic conditions are the hardest to treat – as the prophetical Seth Godin just blogged here – simply because we don’t pay them sufficient energy. This is not just true of medicine but for all realms. Covid’s acuteness trumps the existential chronic-ness of climate change. Chances are, we will die from a chronic condition, rather than an acute one.

 

Suffering from a chronic health condition requires the patient to become their own advocate; their own post-doctoral research fellow, too. Few people have the skills, time and money to do that effectively. Oh, and luck – you need vast amounts of that, too, should you want to make any progress. And the bloody mindedness to challenge and push the medics.

 

If we were to start from scratch and ask ourselves – how should we provide healthcare in 2021 and, of course, how should we provide pre-healthcare, so that fewer require acute interventions? – then we would not design what we have. “Time to return to the drawing board” would be apt, had the drawing board ever been used in this case. Time to buy one.

 

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I have the YouTube algorithm to thank for recently introducing me to British philosopher, Alan Watts. Long since dead, Watts studied the Eastern traditions, leaving numerous voice recordings of his musings. This one moved me. In it, he tells the story of a Chinese farmer.

 

Elegantly, Watts says:

 

“Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbours came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.

 

The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbours then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again, all the neighbours came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

 

Wise farmer. Wise Watts.

 

Being ill, perhaps permanently so, is – I tell myself – a “maybe”: neither good nor bad. Contained in that simple logic there is immense hope.

 

Watts’ story reminded me of the key learning point in the harrowing Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankel. Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist, contemporary of Freud, Frankel explained that man needs purpose in order to survive any horror – well, to psychologically survive at any rate. After all he endured, Frankel would know. My hope is undiminished; more possibilities have opened up in my mind.

 

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This week, my awesome Quaker friends delivered a signed Get Well Soon card, of sorts. Well, our Quaker version of the Get Well Soon card. In it, the card reads: “Thinking of you all during this time of change.” Gorgeously put: thanks everyone! A “maybe”.

 

Purchased from the Woodlands Trust, (as of course a Quaker card would be), the front cover depicts an enchanting path, leading through some woodlands in the summer: a journey has commenced. It’s as if my friends knew what I was thinking this week.

 

CategoriesThought of The Day

Potholes

In the days following his murder – though the Jury deemed it to be Death by Dangerous Driving – often I would find myself, in the middle of the night, inconsolable and alone, on the bridge where he met his tragic end. An instantaneous end. Murder, in my book, for it was deliberate, unprovoked, drug-fuelled. Fleeing the scene, when he could have been alive, callous in extremis.

On the tarmac, forensic officers painted white circles to highlight where the various parts of his body were found; mostly the smashed teeth, I think. Even now, twenty years on nearly to the day, each time I see a painted circle around a pothole in the road, I think of him. What would he have become? Would we still be friends? Frankly, I cannot imagine him as anything other than the student with whom I lived, frozen in time.

For many years after, I relished the pain, the anguish. Such intense, profound, all-consuming grief surely meant that we had been good mates, right?

These things shape you – don’t they just? – but, sadly, foolishly, maddeningly, it’s only in my latter years when I have come to realise that each person has battles – won and still ongoing – that we know nothing about. Don’t judge others! It is often said that if each person’s problems were clear to see, then we would choose our own troubles. That is certainly true for me.

CategoriesThought of The Day

The Mother of All Recoveries?

Will the economy tank, as I have been predicting in my blogs? Or will it bounce-back? This issue is dominating my thoughts and conversations.

Last week brought us confirmation – as if it was needed – that the economy took a 20% fall in April. The only surprise was that it was only 20%. Of course, some businesses are booming, but the majority have been hit, just as my firm has been. Some sectors have been cryogenically frozen. With our economy heavily dependent on the pursuit of pleasure, with most service jobs furloughed, our economy ought to be permanently poleaxed. A depression – not just a recession – ought to a sure thing.

But then again, as the unfairly named “Project Fear” predicted in the run-up to the EU Referendum, if Brexit was voted through, a recession was bound to occur, so went the argument. I thought as much myself. And although post-Referendum the pound took a pummelling, there was no recession.

Which leads me to the failure of economists: the failure of those who tutored me at university. There are Marxist Economists and we have the Chicago School, with everything in between. Science and medicine do not have such polars. Economists agree on little. Economics simply isn’t a science. What happened historically isn’t often an accurate predictor of what will happen in the future. Economists are educated guesses, at best.

In predicting what should happen, what economists frequently misunderstand is behavioural analysis of the key economic actors: us consumers. People rarely behave as anticipated. The Brexit shock, so the theory went, should have led us to a recession, but that was more of Millennium Bug Moment: the world didn’t end, so let’s get on with our lives. Confidence – the currency of capitalism – was not dented.

Now I’m beginning to wonder whether the opening of non-essential shops yesterday (15 June 2020) – and there were the below queues outside Sports Direct today! – will trigger the most positive multiplier that we have ever seen, spinning us into prosperity.

sports direct harrogate

Perhaps people will think like this:

“We haven’t died! Let’s live for the moment. Let’s spend, spend, spend! We’ve taken one for the team. We’ve played our part. We’ve suffered. Thanks our to collective sacrifices deaths have finally reduced. We’ve won! Let’s party! We’ve got the measure of this beast and we are still here.”

And in so doing, we restart the economy, contrary to all predictions, including my own. Like pulling back a giant elastic band for three months, either the band will snap, or perhaps the recovery will soar. The collapse in GDP wasn’t caused by typical capitalist economic cycle, rather it was a choice we had to make. Perhaps the economic fundamentals are sound.

Of course, economic predictions are notoriously difficult due to the multiple and interconnected factors, but I’ll have another go: the UK economy will bounce back – no-deal Brexit or not – though we may not recover as to where we were in January 2020.

CategoriesThought of The Day

Your true colours

During these frightening times, my recent experience of business, politics, family and friendships instructs me that people’s true colours shine more clearly now than they have ever done. 

 

In business, regardless of sector, caring and talented leaders are making caring and skilful decisions. Dedicated employees are now more dedicated. Lazier staff are now doubly lazy. 

 

Of late, I’ve seen some truly outstanding businessmanship and equally some pretty sharp practices too. Business saints pre-Covid haven’t become sinners, rather just more saintly. 

 

In politics, those with spine, with something to say, say it now unimpeded. And they’re cutting through to the public. Incompetence is now – particularly in government – amplified a thousandfold. Small mistakes are having catastrophic consequences.

 

Have you ever wanted to know about your character? If so, appraise yourself now. Are you happy with what you see?

 

CategoriesThought of The Day

Marxists and Capitalists

Marxists and Capitalists make the same mistake: both describe our current system as capitalist. Sure, it is capitalist, but missing is the sub-category.

As Yanis Varoufakis skilfully explains here, when Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations in 1776, he was of course writing about that time. At that point in history, a butcher, baker and brewer in a village would produce the best products they could, sold at the cheapest prices. They did so not for the benefit of society, but for their own benefit. And in so doing, society benefits.

Today, Yanis argues, we are living in monopolistic capitalism, a substrata of capitalism. By way of simple example, even if my business (circa 20 people) grew by 10,000 times, we couldn’t take on some of the monopolies: Google, Amazon and Facebook are untouchable and unstoppable. Only if there is an international restructure of these monopolies, Yanis argues, will capitalism return to helping the totality of society, as Smith had observed capitalism can do. There is something in this analysis.

CategoriesThought of The Day

Good Days, Bad Days

After a bad day – as today has been – as a sufferer of a chronic pain-type illness, I now sympathise with those who have had the good day-bad day, seesaw. Such health erraticism is mostly unfathomable to non-sufferers.

Equal with the bad days – and the bad days can be grim – is knowing the sheer boredom it elicits in the listener when they ask you: “How are you.” When you reply on the phone, you can usually hear the listener reach for their device, for anything – and they’re right to be bored: it’s is boring. Acute symptoms garner all the sympathy. Those of us with chronic conditions are often regarded as malingerers, misleaders, wimps. We are not.

CategoriesThought of The Day

Don’t Look Back in Anger

Don’t Look Back in Anger by Oasis captured the spirit of the mid-90s. At 15, I remember that time as one of optimism; we knew that something better was en route. Find me someone who doesn’t appreciate the magnificence of this song and I’ll show you someone who is anti my city: Manchester.

Just over three years ago, on 22 May 2017, terrorists hit my city. The bomb at Manchester Arena – a venue I had visited many times – targeted children and parents at a pop concert. 23 people were slaughtered, half of whom were kids. Hundreds more were injured. The horror is unimaginable. Targeting kids.

Yet this recent barbarism is rarely spoken about. But why?

Awaking to this news on 23 May 2017, as a Mancunian living here in Harrogate, I felt compelled to act. I just had to do something, but what. Assisted by social media, I organised a vigil at The Cenotaph. Around 30 people showed up. I handed out the words to Don’t Look Back in Anger. Led by the tour de force that is Michelle Beckett, we sang. It was beautiful, moving, cathartic. Kindly, staff from Bettys provided us with free teas and biscuits.

harrogate photo

When I consider acts of terrorism in my lifetime, I think of 9/11, 7/7, the first Manchester bomb in 1996, Dunblane of the same year and the Warrington bomb of 1993 which killed two boys. One of those poor boy’s names is burned into my memory: Tim Parry. But I’m afraid to say that I cannot tell you the names of anyone who died in the Manchester Arena, just three years ago. I should know some of their names.

Pondering this puzzle this evening, my conclusion is that the people of Manchester didn’t let this event define them. Internecine conflagrations did not commence. Months later, the Arena was used again for a concert. Manchester did not look back in anger.

CategoriesThought of The Day

Lockdown Weather and Pascal’s Wager

At the high risk of being ridiculed, I’ll write it regardless. The best weather in my lifetime, coincided with the only lockdown in my lifetime. During this weird period, like many people, I have never spent more time outside. And I love it.

Quoting the devout atheist Christopher Hitchens: “Coincidence is no accident.”

I don’t believe that God (if such a thing exists) has punished humanity with floods because, say, of gay marriage, but I don’t know why it feels (how unlawyerly, how unscientific) that this Great Pause has something otherworldly about it. The coincidence that we are compelled to spend more time outside whilst the weather is spectacular blows my little mind.

For me, never has nature seemed so bouncy, so effervescent, confident. I feel as if nature is saying: Look at us! Yes, us. Take care of this planet. We all rely upon each other. This is a warning. Humankind, make changes, now.

A few weeks ago, I walked around The Stray in Harrogate, taking routes that I wouldn’t normally use. I found myself down an empty road – a road which is usually a de facto carpark, hence in normal times it wouldn’t be a route to take. I may sound like an oddball, but at one point I had to stop and admire the majesty of the trees. They stood, well, proudly, perkily, commandingly. The photograph below will not win awards, nor does it capture the energy – the fizz – of the moment. It is my recording of that instant, for me.

photo of harrogate

Some of you will be familiar with Pascal’s Wager – that humans should believe in God because if they are wrong, then they lose very little, but if they are right, then they stand to gain a great deal. Deploying similar logic, regarding our environment I would say: if you take the view that humans aren’t causing climate change, or take the position that our activities have only a negligible impact on global heating, on the basis that you may be wrong, given that we are stuck here for the foreseeable future, wouldn’t it be optimal if we proceeded as if we are destroying earth? If you are right and I am wrong, we have lost little. If I am right and you are wrong, we have all gained immeasurably.

We must make changes as to how we coexist with nature. The planet cannot withstand our pursuit of perpetual growth in GDP. We know this.