Issue 51: 2016 04 28: Ranting and Raging (J.R.Thomas)

28 April 2016

Ranting and Raging

by J.R.Thomas

2016 Presidential raceRogue Male“You think this is easy, ranting and raging?” yelled Donald Trump at a 5,000 folk capacity audience in an aircraft hangar at Hagerstown, Maryland, earlier this week.  It is not the first indication that some of the Trump style and Trump rhetoric may be playing to the gallery, but The Donald is increasingly dropping humorous little hints that his bruising and outraging is only one side of this potential Presidential candidate, a side put on to attract the attention of anti-establishment crowds and engender free publicity.

If it is an act, it is working.  Trump won all five states up for grabs in this week’s Mini-Super Tuesday, and his majorities are increasing.  Not only that; voter analysis suggests that his appeal is widening among all categories of voters.  The polls also show he could win practically every state still to vote, including Indiana and California.  What looked unlikely two weeks ago – an outright convention majority – looks possible now.

That is fuelling the bad nights of the soul which the GOP leadership is having at the moment; two concurrent nightmares playing all through the dark hours.  One is that Trump is what he appears to be, a right-wing demagogue driven by emotion and populism.  The other nightmare is much worse – that Trump is in fact a closet Democrat whose true political identity is somewhere to the left of Hillary.  This certainly accords with Donald’s previous known political leanings.  Once in the White House, they fear in those just-before-dawn moments, he will rip of the dark cloak of neo-conservatism and reveal the superman suit of Democrat clothes.

So searingly convincing is this nightmare that some leading Republicans are beginning to think the previously outrageously bizarre – vote for Hillary.  Several have said this in public – Charles Koch, billionaire businessman and one of the Republican’s major funders, said last week that not only is Hillary going to win if her opponent is either Trump or Cruz, she would be a better President for Republican interests than either.  An opinion poll, also last week, showed that over 20% of Republican long-term supporters would vote for Hillary if The Donald turns out as the GOP candidate.

Hillary 2016_1Once she has seen off Bernie Sanders stage left, is the thinking, she will slip back to her moderate rightish Democratism and become a safe pair of hands in the White House; and the Republicans can get on with preparing for the Presidential election of 2020 with a reformed party primary system that can never ever allow this to happen again. (Though how that could be done without abolishing democratic choice in the primary process is a little difficult to work out.)

Hillary is indeed close to pushing Senator Sanders off stage. She won four of the five contests this week, Bernie taking only Rhode Island. In his speech on Tuesday night, Bernie, elegant and polite as ever, said that he would fight the remaining fourteen contests as “issue related campaigns”.  Bernie has brought many new activists to Democrat politics and that may well influence a Clinton campaign, and a Clinton presidency, should it come to pass.  And that and his following and Bernie’s wide personal appeal all mean he keeps his hat in the ring for future influence in Washington, but for now, it is game, set, and shortly, match, to Hillary.

Now the speculators and strategists are starting to do the math on the Presidential contest.  Many of Trump’s supporters are not traditional Republican supporters – he is drawing in a lot of people previously not known for engagement in the political process; turnouts out in some Republican primaries have been anywhere from 40% to 60% up on previous times.  The question is, and it is not one that has really yet been focussed on by the opinion pollsters, how many Democrat votes could go with Trump.  Hillary is not that popular even among Democrats, and she is the ultra-establishment candidate.  In this mood of disillusionment and anger, will white Democrat blue-collar voters in the struggling industrial states vote Trump?  We could be looking towards an election with unprecedented levels of voter switching.  At the moment the polls say Clinton beats Trump, if that turns out to be the choice. But will the replies remain the same if that is the choice?  Voter behaviour, Messrs Cameron, Clegg, and Milliband can confirm, is not always what the pollsters think it will be.

Not to be taken as an endorsement...of hairstyles in particular

Not to be taken as an endorsement…of hairstyles in particular

But Donald is not the candidate yet.  What he has been saying is also beginning to look too true.  The traditional GOP leadership will do anything to stop him.  The latest Republican manoeuvre, and this surely has been brokered at a high level in the party, is that Cruz and Kasich have agreed ‘no fight’ pacts in some coming contests.  Indiana, which is winner takes all, could be the crucial contest to deny Trump his outright majority at the anointing Convention this summer and Cruz is fairly close on his tail there, so Kasich steps down to allow Cruz a free run.  On the polls to date, and assuming that all Kasich’s supporters switch to Ted, that gets Cruz all the votes in the Hoosier State.  Not so good though if Governor Kasich’s voters just stay home.

In return Cruz will not fight Oregon and New Mexico.  If all Cruz’s supporters all switch to Kasich, he wins.  That seems a very odd assumption; they are much more likely to switch to Trump, so presumably the Cruz team calculates they are going to lose there anyway, so what the heck.

Maybe this will deny Trump automatic selection, though this bizarre move actually probably ensures it. Ted, at a stroke, has made himself look like the establishment candidate, when his whole success has been based on looking like an outsider.  And even if works, and Donald does not get his clear majority, what then?  A furious fight at the Convention?  A new candidate slides in to take the mantle of Presidential candidate?  Trump storms out and fights as an independent?  None of those seem great election winners.  As Mick Huckabee, former presidential candidate and former Governor of Arkansas said on hearing the announcement, “I wish they wanted to stop Hillary as much as the Republican candidate who is beating them”.

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Issue 51: 2016 04 28: Academies – A Step Too Far (John Watson)

28 April 2016

Academies – A Step Too Far

The row about whether all schools should have to adopt academy status is an unwelcome distraction.

By John Watson

Watson,-John_640c480 head shotYou would have thought that the European referendum was sufficiently exciting.  A Cabinet split into two factions, a decision which will determine Britain’s place in the world for a generation, a debate on which the future of Europe may depend; surely this is the vortex into which all the energies of the politicians are being sucked, the anvil on which reputations are made and broken, the only significant question for 2016? It seems not.

Few readers will have commanded a ship going into battle, but those of us who have read Patrick O’Brian know how you had to begin in Napoleonic times.   The first thing was to clear the decks for action. That meant stowing all the kit not required for fighting so that the decks were free for the gun crews to fire the broadsides on which victory depended. Rather in the same way you would have expected that the Government would try to free itself of other contentious business so that it could focus its attention on the one debate which really mattered and minimise the chance of making mess of it.  In fact it has done nothing of the sort.  In his recent Budget speech George Osborne, who seems to have graduated from being Chancellor of the Exchequer to a Mikado style “Lord High Everything Else”, created a row within his own party over whether schools throughout England should be forced to become academies.

That involves the government in a second major conflict which can only divert attention from the more important issue, the first, of course, being the dispute with the junior doctors.  One can see how the Government got locked into that one.  The background, it will be remembered, was a public concern, inevitably egged on by the press, that patients were not being adequately treated in hospital over weekends. That led, as things do in these populist times, to a manifesto pledge to create a seven day a week health service, and in fulfilment of that pledge the government is trying to force a new contract on junior doctors.  Not being an expert on the health service, I cannot judge whether the old contract is fairer than the new one, but the move has certainly created a huge level of resentment in the medical profession, with many saying that the story about care not being as good at the weekends was wrong anyway so that the manifesto pledge started from the wrong place. Perhaps that is right but, however you look at it, to get the junior doctors out on their first ever total strike can hardly be described as a management success.

With this presumably unwelcome distraction already there, the Government has decided to push forward with the conversion of the remaining local authority schools, and in particular primary schools, to academies.  No doubt they think that that is a better system for governing schools and it may be that they are right. Even if that is the case, however, it is not obvious why you would force the new system on schools which are already well run or why you would announce it without fully explaining how local authorities are to satisfy their statutory obligations to see that education is provided without control of schools. Perhaps the change will tidy up the system, but is it really worth getting embroiled in this row when everyone should be focusing on a far more important debate?

Of course, generally speaking, governments like reform. They are made up of individuals, and people who go into politics are generally keen to help improve the national lot. Perhaps they look at the achievements of Atlee’s postwar Labour Government with its great reforming agenda and hope to be part of an administration which is mentioned in the same breath.  There is nothing wrong with that as an ambition. There are practical advantages too.  A Government with a clear program will simply ride over misjudgements and scandals which would stick to a becalmed administration.  Forward thrust acts as a political Teflon.  Besides many of the reforms being introduced by this Government are admirable.  Mr Gove deserves credit for his program to humanise the prison system. Although it is proving difficult to do, the simplification of benefits into a universal credit is clearly long overdue. But there must be a risk of undertaking too many struggles at once, and the conversion of good schools to academies does seem like one of those things which could have been left on one side. That would allow more focus on the things which the government does have to deal with, maybe with better results.

It must be difficult for a Prime Minister to know which programmes to push forward and which to pull back, but in making the decision he needs to remember what it is that the public who elected him expect. The present government is a Conservative one and the label send a distinct political message.  It is not, despite what you may hear in the City, a manic attachment to market forces. Nor is it, despite what some on the left would say, the government of the country for the rich.  Who, after all, could win an election on that agenda?  No, the trademark of a Conservative government should be that it thinks carefully before it changes things so that society develops by a process of mutation rather than by ripping things up for the sake of change.   Perhaps the academy system is more logical. Perhaps its universal application will be tidier.  Still, where local authority control is working well there seems little point in disrupting it and imposing something new.  Certainly it does not seem worth creating a new front of political discord when the Government has so much which is far more important on its plate.

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Issue 51: Another Volley From Remain (John Watson)

28 April 2016

Another Volley From “Remain”

By John Watson

Watson,-John_640c480 head shotAnother week, another salvo from the guns of the Remain camp.  President Obama makes his contribution to the discussion but without, of course, telling the British how to vote. He is here as a guest for the Queen’s birthday celebrations and he is far too well-mannered a man to do that. Instead he approaches things from a US perspective in two ways. First, he makes the point that it could be many years before a separate UK has a trade agreement with the US. There is nothing surprising here. The US and the EU have been trying to agree a trade agreement for many years and a negotiation between the UK and the US would have to start afresh and so would be further back in the queue.  Obama merely makes the point to counter misleading suggestions from the Brexit campaign that it will all be easy.

More broadly, he points out that the US wants to deal with a unified Europe, at the heart of which sits the UK. There is no suggestion here that the “special relationship”, whatever that is, is dependent on us being in the EU. It is just that the current dynamic works for the US, and the UK would be much less interesting if it was on its own. Hillary Clinton takes that view as well.

Mr Obama’s comments have met protests from the Brexit camp, who seem a little too willing to complain about breaches of political neutrality when things are said which don’t suit their arguments. Still, it profits them nothing as the importance of the debate means that senior figures, from the Governor of the Bank of England to the President of the United States, see it as their duty to explain their views fairly frankly. It would be odd if they didn’t. Suppose a decision is made which is later seen as an obvious mistake? No one will thank them for saying that they foresaw it at the time but decided to stay stum.  Attempts to stifle comments are unlikely to go down well with the public either. Why should they not hear the views of the most knowledgeable people before they make their decision? After all, the vote will decide their future. It is not a game of chess.

Well, if last week was the Treasury paper and this week was our US allies, what’s next? The Remain campaign seems to be developing their argument through a series of broadsides and presumably we can expect some new attack. What will it be? Loving comments from the leaders of other EU countries? Angela Merkel is certainly well respected here but I’m not sure that expressions of friendship from Hollande would go down particularly well.  Indeed the proposal that Marine LePen should pop across the channel for a little “Leave” campaigning is likely to be far more helpful to “Remain” than any endorsement from the Monsieur le President.

One place where we can look for more is the EU itself. Last week, Jean-Claude Juncker, the Chairman of the European Commission, admitted that the EU had interfered too much in the affairs of member states. There is something in the air here unless the Shaw Sheet is very much mistaken, and it would be no surprise to see some new commitment on subsidiarity and respect for national sovereignty emerging from Brussels. It is too early to know exactly what form such a commitment would take but one point should be borne in mind. The UK is not the only country where there is widespread public dissatisfaction with the EU so any reform in this area will be targeted at a wider market.  Still, the timing will be set by reference to the UK referendum campaign, so look out for something around the middle of May.

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Issue 51: Freedom of Speech (Lynda Goetz)

28 April 2016

Freedom of Speech

Have we lost the understanding of what this means?

by Lynda Goetz

Lynda Goetz head shotFree speech is generally understood to be fundamental in a democracy. It has been enshrined in international and regional human rights law, although it has a long history which predates such legislation. Most would probably consider ancient Athens to be the cradle of free speech or freedom of expression, but for those of us in the West in the 21st century the freedom we took for granted a few decades ago has been and continues to be eroded in a number of ways.

Author Timothy Garton Ash recently broadcast five fifteen minute programmes on Radio 4 on the subject of ‘Free Speech’  This is billed by the BBC, rather ironically perhaps, as ‘one of the most hotly debated subjects of our time’; although not, it would seem, in the universities. In the second programme he addresses the fact that in those places where free speech should be most expected to thrive it is currently being stifled by the ‘safe space’ policies and the practice of ‘no-platforming’ (amusingly addressed here in Shaw Sheet last week by Chin Chin). Sadly for Chin Chin, it is yet again a well-known person who has been ‘no-platformed’ this week. Boris has been banned by students from King’s College London from speaking in an EU debate after his ‘inappropriate’ remarks about the US President, Barack Obama.  They were referring, of course, to Mr Johnson’s comments in his ‘Sun’ article about Mr Obama’s ‘part-Kenyan’ heritage and his possible ‘ancestral dislike of the British Empire’.  Whether or not the article (which hinged on the removal of a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office) was good (Nicholas Soames MP, grandson of Sir Winston, was of the opinion it was not) or the comments were appropriate or relevant, was beside the point.  The issue, as always, is the right of anyone to express an opinion without being censured for it.

Part of the problem currently, as Professor Garton Ash touches on in his programme, is the fear of terrorism. This has resulted in government imposing on universities a duty to prevent the expression of extreme views, rather than the classic liberal view of allowing discussion and counter argument.  However, aside from that, the threat to free speech comes from within the universities themselves where ‘one group of students is being prevented from hearing something they do want to hear because another group of students doesn’t want that voice to be heard’. Online magazine, Spiked, has for the second year running produced a Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) and as they say, things are not looking good. 90% of universities are banning free speech, up from 80% last year, and the more prestigious the university, it would seem the more censorious both the university and its students are. The Russell Group universities come out worst of all in these rankings with a mere dozen of largely lesser-known universities with a ‘green’ or hands-off attitude to free speech. One of the better-known amongst the latter is Southampton and the other, interestingly, is the private Buckingham University, whose Vice-Chancellor is Sir Anthony Seldon, historian, biographer of Prime-Ministers and former Master of Wellington College.

Professor Garton Ash makes the point that the current keenness, particularly in universities, to ban those whose views we dislike, appears to confuse the legitimate silencing of those who would cause real harm and a subjective view of harm. It should not be enough to claim that some individuals may be seriously upset, offended or psychologically harmed by hearing a point of view they disagree with.  Articulate debate is essential; only by such discussion and debate can we pick apart threadbare arguments; reveal the real intentions of the opposition and air fundamental differences.  Individual, subjective vetos should not be allowed to prevail. This problem of subjectivity appears also in the tensions caused by free speech and religion in our modern world.  Historically, different religious beliefs have been the cause of wars, both international and civil. The religious differences between Muslims and Christians were at least in part a cause of the Crusades, the first of which began in 1095 (although it would be naïve to assume that the exercise of power was not also at the heart of these ideological wars sanctioned by the Popes, which continued until the end of the 13th century).  In Tudor England it was not safe to express Protestant views whilst Mary was on the throne.  Your life could literally have been at stake.  It was generally considered that things had changed by the 21st century until, amongst other things, Isil and the Charlie Hebdo killings brought us up rather short. Now, it would seem, we are once again living in a society where free speech is either not welcome or can result in very unwelcome violence – what Professor Garton Ash refers to as ‘the assassin’s veto’, as opposed to ‘the heckler’s veto’ and ‘the offensiveness veto’ used in the university situations discussed above.

Faith of course is a very difficult thing to discuss.  Either you believe, or you don’t.  If you do, no amount of argument is going to convince you otherwise.  You may be offended or upset by the views of those who do not share your faith or whom you feel do not respect your faith.  In a free and open society we should not have to live in fear of offending those of differing religions. We should be free to air our differences and if our belief is in tolerance and freedom of expression then we have a right to expect those who live with us to respect that too. We should have the right to offend, but not go out of our way to do so.

Our discrimination laws, drafted (almost all would agree) with the very best of intentions, have not only encouraged but endorsed the view that being ‘offended’ should be unlawful – hence the ‘offensiveness veto’. ‘Political correctness’, a term which has become very familiar since the 1990s, has been increasingly restrictive in terms of what people feel it is allowable to express, at least in public. The term PC has become, for the conservative media, a catch-all term to describe everything that is wrong with so-called regressive left views.  Interestingly, in the Guardian online this week, Gay Alcorn concluded, in a rather rambling article entitled ‘Conservatives love to hate political correctness, but the left should rail against it too’, that “progressives should argue against it…because it’s not progressive in any way. The censors of the left may have the best of intentions but, too often, they’re just another bunch of reactionaries.” Of course, but how to open up discussion when in so many ways it has been reduced to personal insults (as in online trolling), mindless heckling and the equivalent of ‘fingers in ears’ blocking out of viewpoints with which we do not agree? Perhaps it is time, as Stephen Fry said in an interview on free speech on American television, to ‘grow up’.  Of course the remark was taken out of context and he was forced to ‘apologise unreservedly for hurting feelings’ and for the fact that he had ‘offended and upset people who didn’t deserve to be offended or upset’.

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Issue 51:2016 04 28;Delving beneath the Junior Doctors strike (Trish Knight)

28 April 2016

Delving beneath the Junior Doctors strike

The case for the reform of medical education

by Trish Knight, Healthcare Workforce Specialist

As we work through a week in which junior doctors withdraw their support for those needing emergency care as well as routine treatment and many thousands of patients are, at the very least, being inconvenienced, perhaps we should stand back and look a little deeper.  As other clinical professionals try to cover the gaps in cover, the media is beginning to realise that this is not a straight argument between the government and the medical profession about ‘seven day’ services.  It is also clear that, when the dust has settled, the political landscape of medicine will have changed, with the power of the Royal Colleges and the BMA significantly reduced and the Government realising that they have been bruised by taking on the role of employer.  It is to be hoped that the real employers, the Trusts, will quietly solve the problem by using the contract framework to negotiate locally acceptable arrangements with their junior doctors, but there are other less obvious issues that should not be swept under the carpet.  Behind all of this lie the much more difficult questions of how we should educate our doctors, whether the present system is fit for a modern flexible health service and who is protecting the power base that comes from maintaining complex and lengthy training arrangements.

So how does it work?  At present those with high academic qualifications and caring aspirations enter medical school and do their five year training at university.  While this studying involves some clinical experience they do not actually qualify as a doctor until they have completed their first year of Foundation Training.  This initial practical experience is followed by a second year and most will reach the end of that.  It is then that the problems begin to emerge. The number of those who decide to take a break, go abroad or leave prior to Specialty Training is frightening, especially considering the time and resource invested in them.  Reports suggest that in some regions only 50% now cross this hurdle and enter the long haul to become a Consultant (6 to 8 years) or a GP (3 years).  Why this tremendous dropout rate?  Is it the thought of those long years with little or no autonomy over their location or work/life balance?  Many suspect it is.  It may also have a lot to do with the tension that will exist in those years between the role of providing a ‘service’  and the need to learn and develop.  As the NHS becomes increasingly stretched, the needs of the patient tend to predominate and this dichotomy can become intolerable.

The doctors in this long training period are the ones in the front line of the strike.  They are paid a good wage and have exceptional training and supervision paid for by the tax payer.  However,  it is obvious that they are extremely unhappy, despite being offered an average pay rise of 13% if they accept that working weekends is part and parcel of their role, as many other clinical professionals, especially nurses, have done for many years.

So why don’t the senior members of the profession and the medical educationalists change the system and so solve the deeper problems on a longer term basis. It is within their gift to make the necessary changes but the will and leadership is not emerging.  It would appear that there is a belief that such a change will lessen their professional and social power.  Only a few are beginning to realise that, without change, the provision of medical care will become so stretched that  other solutions will have to emerge to take up the shortfall. The medical profession has to provide an alternative to the long and highly resource intensive route to becoming a consultant.  The solution is surely the development of a shorter ‘in house’ training route which allows safe and efficient practitioners but within a limited field of practice and subject to more senior supervision.  This should not supersede the existing training pathway but run alongside it so that doctors have a choice.  Those with family and caring commitments would undoubtedly welcome this option, allowing them a quicker route to practice in the profession they chose without having to take the full burden of the present day Consultant.

The medical profession needs to swallow its pride and accept that the care of patients will be greatly enhanced if they embrace this alternative, welcome the new found workforce supply and savour the renewed reputation it will give them.

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Issue 51:21016 04 28:Boy (Adam McCormack)

 28 April 2016


The Almeida Theatre

by Adam McCormack

If we really needed anyone to tell us, the outlook for 16 year-old boys leaving school with few qualifications is bleak.  The world premiere of Leo Butler’s Boy at the Almeida very effectively takes us on a tour through a day in the life of Liam, a young man at a loss to know what to do.   The vehicle which allows this is a continuously moving travelator, which winds it way around the stage as the set is constantly replaced to allow us into a doctor’s surgery, a bus shelter, a park, a tower block, a sports shop, a lavatory and other areas of the metropolis, as Liam searches for someone to relate to and something to do.  There is a danger with innovative set design in that it can take over from the real substance of the play, but here (once one has got over wondering if you have wandered into an airport terminal or some kind of human dim sum restaurant) the set allows us to move with Liam and a remarkable amount of action and content is generated for a relatively short production.  The other innovation, the means by which the actors are able to sit or lie without any visible means of support, is clever and effective but occasionally clunky (literally), as the performers adjust themselves into place (this seemed tougher for some of the older cast members).

Frankie Fox makes his theatrical debut as Liam and produces an exceptional performance.  There is no respite for him as he is always on the moving stage, even though there are some well observed vignettes taking place elsewhere – two school girls in a bus shelter give a welcome comic interlude, including an exchange that culminates with “high five your face!”.  Many will come out of this play with a new view of those teenagers who they may have previously criticised for idly hanging around the streets and parks.  Liam can get no help from a doctor (who assumes he must be concerned about having an STD), former teachers, social workers (he is too old for school but too young for help), friends (who have gone to visit their Sports Direct nirvana on Oxford Street), or family.  Liam’s parents are not seen but are forced to neglect him, and his foul-mouthed younger sister, by a zero hours work regime.

If all this sounds grim, that is because it is and it needs to be.  It will be uncomfortable viewing for many, with scenes of onanism and vomiting adding to the gritty realism, but the cast (which includes at least 8 first time theatrical performers) does a first rate job at putting across a strong message.  There are some minor issues with dialogue in danger of being missed by scenes overlapping on the travelator, but there is no doubt that the audience will have looked at the youth of Islington in a different light as they walked home.

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Issue 52: 2016 04 28: ELO (Don Urquhart)

28 April 2016

Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra

At the O2

Reviewed by Don Urquhart

The Venue

We’ve been to a few shows at the O2. For Bob Dylan we were too high up and off to the side to see much of what was going on.  We had a bit more of a view for Miranda Hart and Peter Kaye but the seats at the side are so banked that crampons and ropes would have been handy.  On the way to the loo, one had to grab other members of the audience to keep one’s balance, and this created an atmosphere of anticipation and disdain along our row.  For the ELO we were in the posh seats, in the belly of the hall at the back in lightly-banked tiers.

Mouths to Feed

I first came across the ELO in 1977.  Out of the Blue knocked my socks off and I was soon devouring their complete oeuvre.  And they are a rock ensemble you can use arty words about.  I remember attempting to share my enthusiasm with a workmate.  They created such a rich classical/rock mix.  You mean they’ve got a violinist, he sullenly replied.  These days Jeff Lynne uses a big team – three keyboard players, two cellists and a violinist together with three guitarists and a drummer.  Richard Tandy, an ELO original, still plays piano.  It’s a lot of mouths to feed, but it’s a big auditorium and our seats cost twice the price of a depressing afternoon at The Emirates.

On Our Feet

For 45 minutes we were entertained by an excellent outfit called The Feeling whose lead singer claimed that they sought to emulate ELO, but I thought they had a lot of Supertramp and The Eagles about them and were none the worse for that.  For a septuagenarian Jeff Lynne is in remarkably good voice.  His group’s MO is perfect replication of their studio successes and boy do they manage it.  In front of us we had a line of yuppie types who seemed to drift straight in from Canary Wharf in time for Tightrope, for my money one of Jeff’s blander numbers.  Then there was a bit of a wait while Jeff argued with his team about what came next, but that was the only hiccup and they were soon into Evil Woman which had the yuppies and the row in front of them on their feet and that’s where we all were for most of the next 90 minutes.  At Mamma Mia and Bjorn Again I had been uneasy about wobbling around and joining in, but these were my heroes and the top item of my bucket list was being expunged.

All Over the World

It takes a lot for me to feel able to bond with Dockland yuppies but for a short period these were my best mates as was everyone else in the whole world.  While All Over the World was playing a tear came to my eye despite it being among the most cheerful of anthems.  It was something to do with me being in love with it for the thick end of four decades.

Microphone Location

Pointless to recite the set-list, but in Strange Magic everyone sat respectfully for one of the great love songs of the pop canon.  It was followed by Rockaria with its explosive use of a marvellous soprano.  Jeff took us though Telephone Line, Turn to Stone, Sweet Talkin’ Woman and Mr Blue Sky.  It was great good luck that kept the microphone from my vicinity thus avoiding the amplification of my tuneless, approximate but sincere contributions.  Me and several thousand others, I guess.  Thanks Jeff, Richard and co.  I can now die happy.


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Issue51:2016 04 28: The State Visit (J.R.Thomas)

28 April 2016

Fading Icons – The State Visit

by J.R.Thomas


Rogue MaleMr Obama came, spoke, dined, and left.   Just two days in London, no time to visit the galleries or stroll in Hyde Park admiring the late daffodils.   Maybe just as well that he did not prolong his visit; the speaking part caused no end of a kerfuffle, with London’s wild haired Mayor being especially ungracious about the visitor from western lands.   But, Boris would point out, correctly and with great authority, State Visits are not the occasion for intervening in the host’s political debates.  (Technically, this was not a State Visit but an Official Visit. Still one where the rules and the ceremonies are pretty similar.)

Of course, visiting heads of state often have something they wish to get off their chests about the doings of the UK, but the tradition is that this is done in  carefully coded and moderate language, with any further exploration of the delicate subject being relegated to some obscure speech in, let us say, a rodeo in Austin, Texas, or a diner in Marseilles, or perhaps a summit in the Balearics.   Mr Obama though, as so often, was not a man to be restrained by convention, especially on Referendum matters, and especially after careful Downing Street to White House briefings, and waded in.  In doing so he may, almost as much as his wife’s breach of etiquette in touching Her Majesty on the back during his State Visit in 2011, have driven a further nail into the closing coffin lid of the grand head of state visit.

Her Majesty did not seem to mind that friendly pat.   She has carried out more State Visits than anyone else on the planet – one hundred and thirteen, the Shaw Sheet researchers suggest, and two as queen of Canada; and has seen many remarkable things.   (Her very first State Visit was to Panama, for collectors of strange coincidences.) This great total does not include all those lesser visits which are merely Official Visits, Working Visits, and private visits encompassing some official activity.

What distinguishes a State Visit from all those lesser varieties is the attendant ceremonial which must include heads of state receiving each other, formal entertainments, presentations (all those weird and sometimes wonderful presents), an emphasis on confrereship – and not getting involved in domestic politics (kindly note, Office of Protocol, Washington DC).  In all her travels Queen Elizabeth has never expressed any opinion which could possibly be interpreted as in favour of or against anything, though very occasionally her loyal aides de camp have suggested, should any doubt have arisen, that Her Majesty is indeed in favour of motherhood and apple pie (though not of course implying the exclusion of other domestic arrangements or other pies).

But the State Visit is not what it was.  Anybody living or working in central London will probably breathe a sigh of relief at that, as ceremonial and security do tend to clog up the streets something rotten.   We all ought to be delighted at the presence of, say, the King of Norway, or the President of Benin, or even the President of China, and in days of yore our recent forefathers did appear to be so, forming thick crowds to watch the Very Important Visitor progress past in a carriage and six.  But our generation, in yet another disappointment no doubt to our parents and grandparents, are too busy at the office or going to meetings or working shifts or on the treadmill at the gym for standing in Whitehall and politely waving the visitor’s flag, and we increasingly audibly resent the chaos caused by the honoured one’s moving about in narrow streets where we feel we should have priority.

Screenshot (3)

Any sign of them yet?

The urge to please the street constipated locals may well explain Mr Obama’s behaviour.   He sped off to Windsor for the royal part of his visit, and then moved about by helicopter.   That may have cheered the London cabbies and bus drivers up, but perhaps not the American tax payer.  Arriving in Air Force One, his jumbo jet, Mr Obama also found it handy to import three identical very specialist looking helicopters which confused Londoners for several days before the Presidential arrival by flying around, perhaps so the crews could view the sights.   Also temporarily imported were three special armoured American built limo’s so that Mr O could arrive at the palace in style for his banquet.  Why three of each?   Not, as you may think, because American vehicles are not as reliable as the Queen’s fleet of rickety Rolls’s and ancient aircraft.   No, this is to create confusion in the minds of potential assassins as to which one the President is in.   As they fly or drive about in close formation that might not be beyond the wit of a reasonably intelligent terrorist to deal with, but we digress.

In this age of equality and austerity State Visits look rather extravagant and pompous.  Don’t take three helicopters with you then, you respond, but they represent another problem with this type of visit – the security concerns are worrying and mind boggling complex.  Indeed, retrospectively so to several African heads of state who found themselves defenestrated from the Presidential Palace at home, without even the courtesy of an election, whilst waving grandly in European capitals.  It is a lot easier to both protect and remain Citizen Number One at home than when riding in carriages in strange overseas locations.

Many heads of state are executives rather than, if one can be so inelegant, non-executive, and in the modern world with so much to do and the complexities of politics and managing the media, it is not so easy to find time for all the travelling and ceremonial stuff.   It is indeed a great tribute to the close friendship between rightish Prime Minister and leftish President that Mr Obama did make the time for his visit and helpful remarks for his friend’s slightly struggling cause.

Much more to the taste of modern leaders are the summits where various common interest categories – European Heads of State, the G8, the G12, the G21, the Davos Group, can gather in some suitably modest and low key hotel (we are jesting here) and confer informally, without the intrusion of too much protocol and with minimal ceremonial, other than the smiley group photograph.  Things do get done at summits, not always, but quite often, and personal relationships can be much strengthened, which is certainly usually good for the world.

We are probably watching the State Visit become a rare beast.   Not extinct, they still have their uses.   There are certainly occasions when such visits do much to cement relationships, maybe to repair a previously fractured relationship, perhaps to introduce a new Head of State, especially if likely to be long in the job, such as a monarch or maybe a French President (though the current one has no great enthusiasm for such things, and, allegedly, only one pair of black shoes, which must be tricky with day after day of formal attire).  The fraught relationship between France and Britain before the First World War was famously repaired and indeed turned into the Entente Cordiale, an alliance which enabled two previously rather distant nations to stand close in the Great War, because of Edward VII’s visits, State and otherwise, to Paris after his accession.   The great flowering of the Special Relationship in the Thatcher Reagan years was firmly cemented by the State Visit of President Reagan in June 1982,  Reagan striking up a close and personally engaging rapport with both monarch and her Prime Minster.

So, lovers of ceremonial and marching bands and highly polished carriages, do not despair. Though they may become less frequent, the spectacles are unlikely to disappear completely.   A future King Charles III may well want to organise more of them to get to know world leaders, though if his Prime Minister is Citizen Corbyn that might take negotiating skills akin to those of his Great-Great-Grandfather.   But good news for those of us who need to rush about central London, We are less likely to be obstructed by visiting grandees: just by the usual problems of Marathon preparations and TfL painfully and slowly constructing extraordinary bike highways.


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Issue 51: 2016 04 28:Barack Obama and the UK’s 1776 Moment (Neil Tidmarsh)

28 April 2016

Barack Obama and the UK’s 1776 Moment

A president of the USA opposing a Declaration of Independence? What a delicious irony!

By Neil Tidmarsh

Tidmarsh P1000686a-429x600 Tidmarsh head shotWhen faced with a difficult and important decision, it’s always a good idea to consult friends, neighbours and allies for their advice and opinions. So we should thank President Obama for his recent counsel.

Readers of Shaw Sheet will know that I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the USA and its current president.  Nevertheless – a President of the United States opposing a Declaration of Independence?  What a delicious irony!  Britain is facing its own 1776 moment, and Obama just didn’t get it!  What on earth would Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and all the other Founding Fathers have thought about his views?  Imagine…

The year 1776, a committee room in Philadelphia.

JOHN ADAMS:  OK, Mr Jefferson, what have we got so far?

THOMAS JEFFERSON: (stops writing, puts down his quill pen and reads from the manuscript): “When in the Course of human affairs it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitles them – ”

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN (interrupting): Wait, gentlemen, wait! It’s just such a huge decision! IN or OUT? Are we sure we’re making the right choice?

JOHN ADAMS (scratching his head): You’re right. Perhaps we need to give this some more thought.  At the moment we’re a member of one of the most powerful and wealthy political bodies in the world –

THOMAS JEFFERSON: But we want to leave – we want to become independent – because this body, with its distant and increasingly centralised power-base, is over-ruling our laws, undermining our democracy, controlling our trade and taking our money, and has no respect for the sovereignty of our people….

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: But will we able to survive – let alone thrive – on our own? We’re so small, and this is the modern age, gentlemen, the Age of Empires, not the age of little independent nations like our own.  We’re just a mere handful of sparsely-populated states on the edge of a huge wilderness, remote from the centres of power.  Are you sure we wouldn’t be better off staying in the big political conglomerate, staying subject to the British crown, even if we don’t like it very much, even if we have to sacrifice some of our freedoms?  Wouldn’t it be worth it to be safe and protected?

JOHN ADAMS: If only we could see into the future… if we could summon someone from, say, the 21st century to see what happened, how everything worked out…

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: Yes – if we did go independent, then there’d be Presidents of our United States in the future, wouldn’t there?  Let’s see if we can contact one of them, ask him how it all turned out, ask his advice!

THOMAS JEFFERSON: Summon a President of the USA from the future?  Well, I guess it’s worth a try. Gentlemen, let’s put our hands together, close our eyes, and concentrate…

(A loud bang, a bright flash, a puff of smoke, and a tall, slim, crew-cut figure wearing a dark blue suit appears in the middle of the committee room.)

EVERYONE: (Startled) Who are you?

GFP: I am the Ghost of a Future President of the USA.  (Looks around).   Wow, one moment I’m in the UK, next I’ve jumped about three and a half centuries back in time, by the looks of it.

JOHN ADAMS: The UK? What’s that?

GFP: Oh, it’s this little country, part of the EU.

THOMAS JEFFERSON: The EU? What’s that?

GFP: It’s this big political and economic conglomerate.  The UK wants to leave, wants to become independent, because the EU, with its distant and increasingly centralised power-base, is over-ruling their laws, undermining their democracy, controlling their trade and taking their money, and has no respect for the sovereignty of the people.   On the other hand, the UK is worried that it might not be able to survive, let alone thrive, on its own.   After all, the 21st century is the age of globalisation, of big political/economic conglomerations, not small nation states.   It’s wondering if it might be better off  staying in,  surrendering its freedoms just to remain safe and to protect its prosperity…

ALL: (Looking at each other, excited, amazed): Well, that’s incredible!   Because we’re in a similar position, you see, that’s exactly what we’ve been talking about, and we were wondering if you might be able to give us some advice!   We’ve got to make this huge decision.   IN or OUT.  Just like the UK, by the sound of it…

GFP: Well, in that case I’ll give you guys the same advice as I gave the UK.  Stay IN!  You’d be mad to turn your back on the huge economic and political influence of the conglomerate of which you’re a member!  Risk striking out on your own into dangerous and uncharted waters just for the sake of freedom and democracy?  Crazy!  Insane!

THOMAS JEFFERSON: But you say this EU has little respect for the sovereignty of its people?

GFP: That’s right. Ask any ordinary citizen in France, Greece, Spain, Italy, the UK…

THOMAS JEFFERSON: But… but… what about the idea that government derives its power from the consent of the governed?

GFP: Huh?

THOMAS JEFFERSON: (shuffles among the pages of manuscript on the desk in front of him) Here we are… listen… (reads) “…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it…”

GFP: Huh?

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: And you say that the EU is over-ruling the laws of its member-states?

GFP: That’s right. Ask any ordinary citizen in France, Greece, Spain, Italy, the UK…

THOMAS JEFFERSON: (shuffles among the pages of manuscript on the desk in front of him): Listen to this.. here we are… (reads) “…We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us”.  Oh, yes, and this:  “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good,  He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent shall be obtained, and when so suspended he has utterly neglected to attend to them..”  And this: “He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws…”

GFP: Huh?

JOHN ADAMS: And you say the EU doesn’t seem to understand democracy?

GFP: That’s right. Ask any ordinary citizen in France, Greece, Spain, Italy, the UK…

THOMAS JEFFERSON: (shuffles among the pages of manuscript on the desk in front of him) Listen. (Reads) “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”

GFP: Listen, guys, what I’m saying is, stay IN, hang on in there, and then you can get everyone else on-side to fight for those rights, to reform the system from within!

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: But why on earth hasn’t the UK been trying to do that already?

GFP: Oh, it has.  For years.  For years and years and years.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: And yet the EU still hasn’t reformed itself?

GFP: Not a jot.  Diddly squat.  It seems that no-one else can be bothered to do anything about it.

THOMAS JEFFERSON: (shaking his head) Once again, same old story.  Listen. (reads) “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury”.

GFP: Listen, guys, let’s get real about this, OK?  In the real world, at the end of the day, it’s all about the dollar, isn’t it?  “It’s the economy, stupid!” as another GFP would say to you.  Forget everything else!”

JEFFERSON: But what about freedom?

ADAMS: And sovereignty?

FRANKLIN: And democracy?

GFP: Come on, guys. Do you really think you could cut it as a trading nation on your own?  Alienated from the British, French, Russian and Dutch superpowers?  Choose OUT and you’d have to go to the back of the queue to get trade deals signed with any of them.  It would take forever.  And what about Security?  Aren’t the Native Americans determined to strike terror into your hearts?  Don’t you think you need to co-operate with the red-coats for your own protection?   Don’t be crazy.  Stay IN, where it’s safe and secure.  Remember what I said back in the 21st century: the whole world wants a strong UK in a strong EU ! (Begins to fade)  Listen, guys, got to go.  Got a busy schedule.  Saudi Arabia, Germany… Nice talking to you, fellas. Have a nice day… (Disappears).

ADAMS: Well, gentlemen! We have our answer! Not OUT, but IN! A strong American province within a strong British empire!

FRANKLIN: Phew, that was close! We nearly took a completely wrong turning! Nearly threw world history onto the completely wrong track!

JEFFERSON (tearing up the manuscript): Won’t be needing this Declaration, then. (Sighs).  Shame, I was hoping that it would forever be “to the world, the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government”.  Oh well.  (Shrugs, and picks up his quill pen again).  So… let’s see… what do we want now..?  (Reads aloud as he writes).  “To His Majesty King George the Third, by the Grace of God, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, etc.  Almighty Sovereign, We, your subjects in your North American colonies, greet you with the love and gratitude of true sons and daughters of the mother country, and write to assure you of our continuing and endless loyalty to your crown and heirs…”


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