Taxing Times

As Cornwall braces itself for the autumn blast and the rich crop of blackberries begins to fall, the newspapers are full of glad tidings. We’re all going to be paying less taxes, the NHS is in the money, hundreds of thousands of affordable houses are on the way. At the same time there’ll be a crackdown on benefits, tough talk to the EU, free beer… In other words it’s conference time, the annual festival of Cobblers everywhere.
The all-time record for discredited promises goes to Mr Cameron. His speech finished in time for lunch and its contents were already exposed as nonsense (following astute questioning from Eddie Mair) by tea-time, before the dutiful support from the Tory Press had even been written. Hurray, tax cuts. When? That’ll be 2020, two elections away, when these newspaper celebrations will be lining kitchen drawers and today’s needs and costs will be as relevant as the Corn Laws. Can we count on it? Certainly, as long as Britain has by then “balanced its books”. To forecast that the Conservatives must have consulted Joan The Wad as even the most barking economist wouldn’t dream of putting a date on it. So the tax savings you read about are jam tomorrow depending on something less likely than winning the World Cup. Where’s the money coming from for those golden days? It would come, said the spokesperson possibly reading for a part in “ Shameless”, from an additional £25b – that’s £25,000,000,000 – of so-far-unspecified “savings”. Are they saying there are £25b of savings they know about but can’t yet be bothered to chase? No. We all know what they mean. What’s left to flog? The Royal Family? Scotland?
And a word on houses. The government doesn’t build houses, big building companies do. If an extra 100,000 are passed like Epsom Salts through what’s left of the Planning Laws don’t expect any favours for our children. It’s Tory holy writ that the Market decides, and the unregulated housing market doesn’t have a conscience.
UKIP had their day, whining that it was spoiled by the recall of parliament – apparently some local difficulty in the Middle East. Their speeches were irrelevant anyway. Everyone knows what UKIP stand for. Forget their still-wet manifesto, they feed on the repressed desire for a little light ethnic cleansing, giving a respectable voice to those who’d like to turn the clock back before the “Windrush” docked, when black faces were only seen in the National Geographic, when Poles were people we’d go to war for but wouldn’t expect to find living next door. Having such a narrow focus will take them far, flush out Cameron-hating Tories who long for some proper red-meat English supremacism, and split the right-wing vote down the middle.
Enter Ed. And he will. Despite his own disparaging references to Wallace – those with longer memories might think Bungle more appropriate – and a delivery style which is worryingly disconnected the odds are that it’ll be Ed who stretches his long legs down Downing Street next May. Back in with him will come those whose complacency allowed the country to slip to within inches of bankruptcy. The Labour Party are a mystery for most of us now, no longer dazzled by neo-Conservatism but unable to reach out to a working-class rump that doesn’t exist, their platform as woolly as a field of sheep. The jostling for influence behind Ed’s back must make Julius Caesar’s Forum look like a group hug. But they’ll get in anyway.
And finally, as they will be, the Lib Dems. They haven’t had their conference yet but they may as well save their expenses for the last-ditch struggle they have coming. Their inability to distinguish between loyalty and political suicide, resolutely following their accident-prone leader over a cliff, will serve them right. The lessons of the Roman Forum would have been helpful here but it’s too late now, and many good people will pay the penalty for their impotence.
My least favourite quote so far this season was Cameron’s, promising to reward those ‘doing the right thing’ i. e. going to work instead of claiming benefits. The fact that 50% of those on benefits are already ‘doing the right thing’ but still can’t afford to live should shame him and any true Conservative to silence. But enough already. Take away your rotten promises, put away the snake-oil and pipe down, the lot of you…

The Scottish Spring

I looked up the derogatory Scottish word for English people “Sassenach” and was delighted to see it meant “Saxon”. What exciting times when the past jumps out of the history books into your face, and the attempt by the Saxons to subdue the troublesome Celts on their fringes which many thought ended with the Stuarts has shot off their pages onto the news.
How does the Scottish dash for freedom look from this finger of Celtic rock, subdued by England since the days of Egbert?
From here it looks like a lot of fun. This might seem a mischievous reaction but the best a financially weak and politically unimportant Cornwall can hope for is to occasionally twist Westminster’s tail, as Andrew George did so notably a couple of weeks ago. London looks down on Cornwall with patronising loftiness, throws it the occasional crumb, but doesn’t shrink from clawing back another £200m from its unitary authority. As in Herbert Read’s war poem: we have no power, therefore have patience. But Scotland has quite a lot of power and a rapidly diminishing supply of patience. Its referendum, devised as a way of showing up the nationalists as a tiny band of throwbacks, has blown up in the government’s face giving considerable joy to those of us who can only look on.
The government‘s first tactic was to treat the issue as a joke, a bonkers notion easily knocked out of court by some well-aimed if dreary economic ‘facts’. A verdict of at least two-to-one against was expected and it was an article of faith that no contingency plans should be prepared. As the odds have narrowed the government’s stance has resembled that of fish being drawn into a net, rushing around in ever decreasing and frenetic circles as it closes. Since the first poll indicating a nationalist majority emerged the mood music has changed from a soothing “Don’t Worry: Be Happy” to “I Predict a Riot” or more accurately the obscure Buzzcocks B-side “Oh S***!”
Connoisseurs of irony have welcomed the impassioned lectures on financial risks and fiscal prudence given by Messrs Darling and Brown, who (for the amnesiacs among us) allowed the City to gamble away our nation’s financial life-blood without even noticing. Even better was the desperate expedition of the three political Wise Monkeys (no doubt with SatNavs at the ready) to the land beyond Gretna Green in order to demonstrate that they at least knew the way though they felt unable to appear together. Nigel Farage spoke eloquently in favour of a union of nations. The Ulster Unionists reminded us how well remaining in the United Kingdom can work.
Freedom is a heady draught, even to a land well used to those. As with the Arab Spring the idea of Scots living a life of their own choosing under a government over which they had ultimate control took a while to percolate into a possibility. But once lit this kind of fire burns with sudden brightness and an apparently placid people can break the bonds of what they thought immutable almost overnight, and bay for change. This fills the more nervous with terror, causing them to cling to whatever comfort-blanket is available, the familiar ballast of the Union for which they’ve probably never had a good word, suddenly the only protection against a demented mob dragging them towards the exit.
A near tie is the most likely and worst possible result. The beads and blankets political leaders are offering Scots in place of their own government will simply infuriate them. The bald fact is out that half Scotland doesn’t want to be part of the union and was prepared to put up with all the bullying, the choreographed threats from major employers, the grovelling of ministers, the lies about monetary union (talks about which will happen the day after the referendum if the Nats win), and the Daddy’s-not-cross-just-really-sad sighs from the heart of Old England, they want out, and if they miss it by a few votes they’ll be back again and again and again. If they win the shock waves will echo not just around this country but everywhere with an active minority, while England will shrink down to a grumpy Saxon lump.
“If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it” said Mark Twain, but this time it really will, and it’s too close to call. Robert Burns was closer to the mark: “Oh what a panic’s in thy breastie…!”

The Party’s Over

It is with genuine sadness I have to announce the passing of the Liberal Democratic Party. It has been to the edge of extinction several times before, but has always clawed its way back up the evolutionary ladder. However this time the decay is irreversible.
The Liberal Democrats stood for the virtues of moderation, fairness, tolerance and a basic liberal conscience, not always an easy platform to put across. It’s hard to express passionate moderation, extreme centrist views or radical laissez-faire, which is a shame because it’s how most people live their lives. We don’t spend our days shouting the odds and getting in each other’s faces, and should welcome a party which reflects that reality. But on a gut level politics is essentially theatre, the posing and quarrelling and promises are a performance, and we’re drawn to those who are good at it. Do we believe them? No, but if we were driven solely by logic none of us would be buying a Lottery card today, no-one would think of voting for Nigel Farage. We like to be sold a dream however silly we know it to be.
For a while the Lib Dems rode the wave. Paddy Ashdown played the rogue male, Charles Kennedy the feisty Scot, Ming Campbell the honest “To Kill A Mockingbird” lawyer shaking his fist against the Iraq war. Nick Clegg rose without trace to the top job, but that seemed to make sense too. He was the Lib-Dems’ Blair, the smooth young well-educated internationally connected 21st century man who could run rings round the dim Cameron or the sinking ship that was Gordon Brown. “I agree with Nick” they chorused. Some of the puff had gone out of his balloon by the election but the Lib-Dems still won 57 seats with 23% of the vote. Note those numbers.
Some commentators blame their fall from pet poodle to smelly cat on their acceptance of coalition. It wasn’t that. They did the statesmanlike thing, some holding their noses, others quietly thrilled to feel their soft hands on the rough tillers of state. Much of their record in coalition is creditable, modifying Tory excesses and supplying positive input of their own.
But by then it didn’t really matter. Nick Clegg had made a solemn promise to thousands of young voters who saw him as someone out of the normal cynical mould, someone they dared to trust. His treachery not only destroyed their faith in him and his party, but soiled the whole concept of politics for another generation, something they remembered every time they counted their student debts.
The second pillar to fall was that of Vince Cable. His voice was the only one to warn of the fiscal madness that lost the nation’s shirt. As minister for business he could have carried through the re-regulation of the financial sector the country was howling for, an open door waiting to be kicked in. But too long in their company softened his edge. Bankers can sleep soundly even if the rest of us must still pay and pay.
That’s youth and business. Who was left to lose? Women. Last week in the summer doldrums the party exonerated Lord Rennard from multiple claims of sexual harassment, obviously hoping we wouldn’t notice, and reinstated him without an official stain on his character. It was the last straw. Underneath the tottering pile of weasel words about “credibility” and “proof” was the bald message that his Lordship’s electoral services are a worthwhile exchange for a little light sexual abuse, thereby insulting half (at least) of the population of Britain. It’s the end. There’s no way back from such myopic self-destructiveness.
This doesn’t mean there’s no space for a leftist third party with a moral base and a spine. The opening and the need is wider than ever, but the damaged goods formerly known as the Lib Dems can never fill it now. It’s time for those they’ve failed to cling together and start to build once more, this time with women as core members, and this time with the courage to challenge popularity with truth, something you can’t fake. It’s time for those Lib Dems who recognise how shamefully far their party has fallen to step outside its tainted shadow and stand upright, begin again. Otherwise it won’t be commentators like me who will write their obituary. Numbers don’t lie. 57 members, 23% of the popular vote? Would anyone like to hazard a guess what those figures will be come May 7th 2015?

OM 140



Someone suggested I set up a Twitter account.

Dear oh dear, don’t they know that people of a certain age and disposition find Twitter: a) Frivolous; b) Time-wasting; and c) Utterly Scary?

Like most people I had a little dabble when it was a novelty. The helpful suggestions of people to follow then included such as Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, and Stephen Fry, and since I’m not a bit curious about any of them I quickly lost interest. It hasn’t improved much. The world now waits breathless for its jewels from Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, and even among the non-singers neither Richard Branson, Alan Carr or Lord Sugar will ever find a home in my inbox. The only attractive character in the whole top list was Christiano Ronaldo and I’m more interested in his feet than his brains. Besides the whole idea of “Following” seemed to be a bit naff, with its overtones of fandom, even stalking (apart of course from Man U and the Cornish Pirates).

But it’s not like that, as so many of you found out long ago. I’m sure you can still tune in to find out what Justin’s been up to, Clarkson’s latest gaffe, whether Nigel Farage has finished his pint and so on, but Twitter is mostly just the instant headlines to whatever’s going on. Very little of its original intention of limiting messages to 140 characters now happens, as instead of few words you are enticed to click a link to what can be a full-scale feature, well-reasoned argument or, often, cute kittens. There are lots of photos, mostly of cake.

That’s a shame. The discipline of that random number had a certain genius, like a sonnet, and could be applied to so many different facets of life. Hamlet would have confined his musing to “To be or not to be, that is the question, so perhaps we’d all top ourselves if we had the choice but it’s all a bit scary so I probably won’t” It still works. The Lord’s Prayer would have ended enigmatically at “Give us this day our Daily…”.  Wordsworth could have got the whole first verse of “Daffodils” in, but with room to say only something like “They were nice” instead of the rest of the poem. Which wouldn’t have been a bad thing. On the other hand it’s difficult to say anything serious in such a short space without banality: “Oh dear it seems international thermonuclear war has broken out and we’re all doomed to die as the whole world explodes in flames.  Wot a shame.”

The worst of Twitter is the ear it provides to the vast and continuous babble of mankind at any point of night and day. We’re such a chatty lot, and it’s impossible to get more than a passing flavour unless you’ve got all day, and if you did what would you have at the end of the day except a lot of forgettable knowledge and an increased awareness of fluffy animals? And cake?

However I remember feeling this way about Facebook (still do), about mobile phones, pagers, calculators, the wheel… At some point we have to stop whining and jump in. Shift over, Cheryl.


Country Byways

The Last Trump

Originally published in The Cornishman

“Oh I would not bring you false hope, on this strange and mournful day…” sang Paul Simon, and it was a strange and mournful day indeed. Inured as I am to the appeal of killing animals for sport, I too felt that something was going out of the countryside as I once knew it. It was probably the same on the day they banned bear-baiting.

I have always declared myself a ‘Don’t Care’ about the end of fox-hunting. I’ve had my moments with the hunt. When they regularly blocked up my only road home, or came hopping across my fields after being told to keep out, or just looked at me in their usual rude way like kings of the countryside, I’ve often wished them to perdition.

My tolerance for cruelty has also grown less as I’ve grown older. I used to shoot and fish a little, and grow animals for slaughter. Now I’m disgusted at the sight of shooting, I’m angry at the assumption that fishes feel no pain simply because they don’t scream, and I’ve become a vegetarian. The notion of chasing an animal to death for a bit of harmless fun really does seem to belong to another century. And the justification of keeping down the fox population for the benefit of farmers was always so much bull, as every country person knows.

But neither can I join in the celebrations. The triumphant winners are a strange mixture of brave and well-meaning animal-lovers, their more extreme and loopy colleagues, smooth New Labour townies, and rough Old Labour workers tasting some class revenge. They’re welcome to their champagne.

Perhaps the whole thing made me miserable because it was just another milestone in the slow death of the countryside. Successive governments plunder world markets for cheap food and wouldn’t care less if farming in Britain ceased altogether. They want nice places to walk their dogs, pretty views from the train, beautiful surroundings for their holidays, and that’s all. The old boys shouting “Gone Away!” for the last time might be a bunch of old-fashioned reactionaries, but they spent their lifetimes learning how to care for animals, use machines, work all hours, and turn fields into food. They aren’t being replaced. They won’t be standing on the roadsides and hedges to watch drag-hunting. They’ll stay at home by the fire with their memories.

Damn it, I promised myself I wouldn’t get nostalgic about something I deplored in principle and found aggravating in practice. Good riddance to it. Those involved will carry on in some form or another, and there’ll be a flourishing ‘black’ hunt, so it isn’t even a genuine goodbye. But it was the last day of something; and the demise of anything ancient and familiar is, at the very least, a solemn moment. It passed.

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