The Politicians We Deserve?

City Hall “Rubbish, rubbish, you’re talking rubbish!” cries the Mayor of the greatest city in the world.

“Boring, boring, boring!” chants an elected member of the assembly that’s supposed to be holding him to account.

Welcome to Mayor’s Question Time at London’s City Hall.

Labour leader Ed Miliband worries that the weekly bun-fight at Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament “subtracts from the reputation of politics.”

He should take a stroll eastward and cross the Thames. He’ll see how Mayor’s Question Time leaves that reputation in shreds.

The Mayor is of course, Boris Johnson who sits at the centre of a horse-shoe of desks. Behind him are the sloping glass walls of the City Hall chamber. Stunning views of the Tower of London, the Gherkin building and the river frame his famous blonde head.photo[2]

The subjects under discussion, including sponsorship of the city’s bike hire scheme and the budget for building new homes, are serious.

The debate, if one can call it that, is not.

Questions from the Labour members are often lengthy and repetitive. Answers from the Conservative Mayor are evasive at best. Attempts to get any firm information from Mr Johnson are met first with bluster and when that doesn’t work, with tired attacks on Labour. Amongst other things, he accuses them of being “consumed with hatred for the private sector” and of wanting to deprive the people of Lambeth of access to the hire bikes.

Ever the performer, the Mayor sprinkles his responses with mild insults (Labour members are like “passive Buddhas”) and belligerent clichés (“So put that in your pipe and smoke it!”)

When the audience in the public gallery, at least half of them primary school children, start to giggle, you can see the light go on in Boris’s eyes. Previously slumped, he sits up straight, his voice rises, a smile spreads across his face.

After barely half an hour, the Assembly Chair is exasperated. “When the Mayor gets found out he resorts to abuse of Assembly Members,” he exclaims.

He’s quite right. Tory members ask questions too – of the “would the Mayor agree with me that he is marvelous?” type. Another half hour passes and despite a couple of informed questions, we’ve learned nothing from the Mayor at all.

But incredibly, it’s about to get worse.

It’s the turn of Green member Jenny Jones to ask a question. She and the Mayor talk across each other. She accuses him of “making things up to amuse the audience.” So far, so predictable.

And then, out of the blue she describes Mr Johnson as being “a proven liar to Parliament.” Boris is completely unfazed and barely responds, even when she repeats it. But a Conservative member asks Baroness Jones to withdraw the accusation  – or substantiate it.

“I don’t have evidence to hand,” is her airy response. She then adds that the Mayor has accused her in the past of being a liar and “I don’t see the difference.”

Ed Miliband said last week that politicians give the public “the sense that their kids behave better than we do.”

The children watching from the public gallery in City Hall must have been wondering when someone would tell these two to shut up and behave. (Jenny Jones did eventually withdraw the accusation of lying to Parliament and later acknowledged breezily via twitter, “Oh god I think I shall have to apologise to Boris.”)

Soon after this unedifying exchange, low rumblings amongst a group of grown-ups in the gallery erupt into shouts.

photo“Homelessness isn’t a crime,” yells one. “Homes not jails!” they start to chant. They’re protesting against Operation Encompass, a police campaign to deal with beggars and rough-sleepers.

The most vocal are hustled out of the chamber. One young woman is grabbed by the wrists and ankles and carried to the door after she refuses to budge.

“Boris is a wanker!” is the parting shot from the last to go. The stunned children let out a collective gasp, then start to laugh before being hushed by their teacher.

I really do think London is the greatest city in the world. But it has some massive problems, of which a dire shortage of affordable housing is perhaps the most acute.

I saw nothing in the City Hall chamber to suggest London’s representatives are working together to deal with that, or indeed anything else.

Surely, we deserve better than this.

 

In Praise of School Governors

Wicked Wire after school clubA little-known secret: being a school governor can be fun.

Yes, it’s a commitment. Giving up your time to read and sometimes write policies. Analysing data on progress and attainment. Working out which children are not doing well and why.

Yes, it’s a responsibility. Setting the school’s budget and its curriculum priorities. Helping the head teacher resolve tricky staffing issues. Dealing with sometimes anxious, occasionally angry parents. Even eating school lunch with the children in order to prove to a mother that the food isn’t as bad as she believes.

I’ve done all the above – and much more in my nearly ten years as a primary school governor. It’s been one of the hardest roles I’ve ever had and also one of the most rewarding.

But it’s not difficult to see why there’s a constant shortage of people willing to volunteer for the posts.

According to the government-backed organisation, Governors for Schools, a quarter of governor places in some rural and deprived areas go unfilled.

Across England, one in 10 of these crucial posts is vacant.

That’s roughly the same number as five years ago, when a survey by the University of Bath found 40,000 positions on governing bodies empty.  It concluded that prospective applicants were put off by a role that seemed “overloaded and over-complicated”.

The answers to the problem back then have been repeated many times since (including by me). Better recruitment and training, more acknowledgement of the complexities and demands of the role, greater participation in school life by local businesses and their staff. To which I’d add, less soul-destroying criticism from the likes of Education Secretary, Michael Gove.

But nothing much has changed. Except for the increased level of responsibility governing bodies now have, and the growing pressures that go with the (unpaid) job.

Setting schools free from local authority control (as the current government likes to describe its sometimes chaotic and fragmented approach to education) has put more power in the hands of head teachers. But that only helps if there’s a strong governing body recruiting, supporting, guiding and ultimately checking-up on the head.

The school’s inspectorate, Ofsted comes down hard on any governing bodies that don’t take these tasks seriously – and so it should.

But neither Ofsted nor successive governments has ever acknowledged that being a school governor takes thought and commitment. Nor  that governing bodies are expected to carry out their duties with minimal support.

In many parts of the country, local authority education departments have shrunk almost to non-existence. With their demise has gone valuable training and advice. For many governing bodies, it can be very lonely out there.

And who would want to take responsibility for institutions that, thanks to the Govian revolution, are in a constant state of flux? Places where, we’re told by government, teachers lack ambition for children and don’t really care whether they succeed.

Where are the voices telling us about the positive parts of the job? The thrill of sitting at the back of a classroom of excited, happy children and watching them learn? Or attending an assembly where seven year olds describe carefully and seriously what they have been studying that week.

And yes, even school lunch, squeezed between a couple of five-year olds, their sticky hands tugging at your sleeve as they compete to tell you the synopsis of Sleeping Beauty can make the slog over the data and the Ofsted requirements all worth while.

Not enough people getting the message, or signing up to be school governors? We all need to talk more about the good bits. And a little more  support, encouragement and – dare I say it, praise from the government and Ofsted really wouldn’t go amiss.

Reporting child abuse is only the start

On one side a shabby council estate, on the other side a pitch-dark park. Not the kind of street I particularly enjoy walking along.

Not the kind of place either that small children should be unsupervised at 8.45 on a Saturday night.

But that’s where I came across them. Three boys involved in a vicious fight.

I heard them before I saw them, a string of F***s coming from the older one as he smashed the little one’s head against the park railings, adding the occasional furious punch to the guts.

At a rough guess I’d say they were aged about six and nine – at the most.

“It’s alright, they’re brothers” said the third one as I waded in.

“It’s not alright” I said, lowering my voice slightly from the initial “OI STOP THAT” yelled when I first saw them, and physically pulling them apart.

The older one stomped off. A little ball of fury chocking back tears. His younger brother sniffled along a few yards behind.

They seemed so vulnerable – and I don’t mean to each other. What were they doing out alone on a cold dark night?  It occurred to me to march them home, but to what? I didn’t fancy a confrontation with whoever was supposed to be in charge of these kids.

What about calling the police? I thought about that too but I was late for the event I was supposed to be at, the police probably had better things to do on a Saturday evening and besides, what could they actually do for these boys other than maybe, for that night at least, get them off the street?

Which brings me to Keir Starmer’s call for mandatory reporting of child abuse allegations.

It’s a perfectly laudable aim in many ways. But my question for him is: then what happens?

The failure of health, education and social care professionals to report suspicions of abuse is appalling – when it happens. But it’s not the only obstacle to protecting children. Far from it.

Manipulative parents are good at running rings around hard-pressed professionals. We’ve seen it time and again. Worse, as I’ve written here before, vulnerable young people are too often simply not believed.

It’s true that many of Jimmy Savile’s victims were dismissed or told to keep quiet when they reported abuse to hospital or school staff. But when allegations did get as far as the police, “Jimmy” (as the interviewing officer called the star throughout his interview) ran rings around them.  Just take a look at the transcript to see how it was Savile, not the police running the show, dismissing his victims as hangers-on hoping for some cash.

Similarly in the appalling case of four year old Daniel Pelka, starved and tortured to death by his mother and her partner. Of course teachers and doctors should have done more, but it’s not as if the police didn’t know there was a serious problem in the family.

They had visited the boy’s home 26 times in the years before his death. As the official case review said, Daniel was “invisible,” while his mother had a remarkable ability to “hoodwink” anyone who questioned his health.

And remember the young women raped repeatedly by the gang of Rochdale men who then trafficked them to countless others? Social services let them down badly for sure.

But one girl did go to the police. She told her horrific story, she even provided samples of her attackers DNA. The police believed her and arrested two men. But the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute. The teenager was too damaged to be a credible witness in court, they said. The men were released without charge and the abuse continued.

So, Keir Starmer, by all means change the law to compel professionals to report allegations. But only if we go further and rethink the way in which those allegations are investigated. To start with, police, social workers, schools and health services have to work more closely together. In the words of the Pelka case review, there must be a more “holistic” approach.

And yes, maybe neighbours and even strangers in the street have to get involved too.

But joining up the dots is only the start. Once the allegations are reported, investigators must listen to the victims. And everyone – police, CPS, judges and juries – needs to remember that authority figures, whether parents or TV stars, sometimes lie. Just because a young person is vulnerable or damaged doesn’t mean they can’t be believed.

Mind Your Language(s)

To quote Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” At least when it comes to reports of the demise of foreign language teaching.

UK universities are “abandoning” European language courses, according to the Guardian. Over the past 15 years, more than a third have “given up offering specialist modern language degrees.”

The same figure was quoted in a remarkably similar article just two months ago when the Guardian warned that 40% of existing university language departments could soon be closed.

Both pieces quote academics worried about the state of language teaching in schools.

First they blamed Labour’s (admittedly foolish) decision in 2002 to scrap compulsory foreign language GCSEs, which made a steep decline in numbers taking language exams inevitable. But that decline has now been reversed.  According to the universities minister David Willets, foreign language learning at GCSE is at its highest level in five years.

So now the blame’s being pinned on over-rigorous A level marking. “Unfair” grading is putting off gifted linguists. Apparently the best and the brightest are dropping German like hot kartoffeln and saying non merci to French as soon as they’ve done those GCSEs.

But what about the departments offering those “specialist” European language degrees? They must take some responsibility for their own predicament.

University College London enthusiastically offers an “emphasis on film and literature studies” in its list of “degree benefits” if you study there for a French BA.

At Oxford you have the pleasure of “prose and drama from 1890 to 1933” as a compulsory first year subject for a German degree.

These are wonderful, fascinating subjects in their own ways and I’m all for university being a great place to expand cultural horizons.

But in an era of £9,000-a-year fees and diminishing graduate employment prospects, these institutions might want to re-think the content of their “specialist” degrees.

Because buried deep in that Guardian article about the “abandoned” European language degrees is some rather more positive news.

There’s evidence that students are still signing up for languages when they’re linked with another subject. Numbers studying “law and French or business studies and Spanish are stable” the article says.

Similarly, students are still interested in taking language modules as additions to their main subjects.

Chinese (Mandarin) while studied by relatively small numbers is growing rapidly in popularity. And the government’s backing a British Council campaign to send 15,000 British students to study or gain work experience in China by 2016.

Russian and Arabic departments are still going strong and there’s a continuing niche market in Japanese.

It would be great if, as with my generation, the state would fund young people to stay on in education for the sheer pleasure of learning and broadening the mind.

But those days are gone. Students go through University racking up debt. If they can see employment benefits of studying a language then they’ll do so.

“Specialist” language departments should take note and stop blaming our schools.

 

 

It’s 3 a.m. in the White House

Oh how we laughed.

“It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safely asleep”, began the deep, urgent voice in Hillary Clinton’s 2008 TV ad.

“But there’s a phone in the White House, and it’s ringing,” the voice went on, over pictures of a sleeping child.

At the time, then-Senator Clinton was slugging it out for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination against young upstart Barack Obama. The ad was supposed to convince primary voters that in a dangerous and unpredictable world, her experience in international affairs trumped his.

Who did you want to answer that phone?

“Someone who already knows world leaders, knows the military, someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world,” the ad replied.

That’s why some of us covering the campaign laughed. Was all this experience accumulated during Hillary Clinton’s eight years as First Lady? Okay, she might have slept close to that ringing phone, but surely she had never actually dealt with the calls?

Or was it her time in the interminably slow, endlessly deliberative Senate that meant she was “tested and ready to lead”?  It sounded like a desperate attempt to scare Democratic voters into rejecting the charismatic young man running against her.

Light on experience Mr Obama might have been, but he was also free of the political baggage and controversial Senate votes that weighed Mrs Clinton down.

I’m not laughing now.

Granted, President Obama has faced unprecedented levels of hostility from his Republican opponents. Some in his own party are barely more cooperative. It’s been a long hard slog on the domestic policy front.

And fair enough, on foreign policy, he kept his promise to bring American troops home from Iraq; he’s on course to do the same in Afghanistan. He was decisive enough when he ordered the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. And when he escalated attacks on suspected terrorists with the use of drones.

But extracting the US from deeply unpopular wars wasn’t that difficult. Bumping off America’s most wanted man was a no-brainer. Dropping bombs from pilotless planes that the American public hardly ever hear about is easier still.

Sometimes though, decisions are not so black and white. And Mr Obama’s consensus-building, consultative style doesn’t work well with the greys.

Egypt was complex and messy. The White House embraced its elections but was never comfortable with the result. It wasn’t sorry to see the Muslim Brotherhood ousted but didn’t like the way it was done. It couldn’t call the military takeover a coup – that would have meant cutting off aid. It fudged and fumbled and lost credibility and influence in the process.

As for Syria, it was already a horrendous mess before President Obama imposed his arbitrary chemical weapons red line. Once Assad’s murderous forces crossed that line, he had to respond. Military action was on the cards. But then, possibly influenced by the vote in the British Parliament, the President shoved the problem at Congress to decide.

Now, suddenly, the focus has shifted to chemical weapons stocks and away from the grinding toll of Syria’s brutal civil war. In short, when the talking and voting is over, nothing much is likely to have changed.

This is not in any way a call for action. On the contrary: it would have been both honest and accurate if, early in the crisis and repeatedly since, Mr Obama had said, “This is all terrible but there’s nothing we can do.”

It’s the lack of clarity and appearance of dithering that’s bothering me – and opinion polls suggest, the American people too. The failure to articulate any policies or even to define simple bilateral relationships with the volatile countries of the Middle East.

Which is not to say that Hillary Clinton would have done it better (though she may yet try).

But back in 2008, she was right about one thing: It is the President’s job to pick up that phone.

Right now, it’s 3 a.m. and all  the callers have been placed on hold.

 

(For more on who takes the decision to send American forces to war tune in to my World Service documentary “Congress and the Commander in Chief”)

Royal Baby brings world…..Meh

easelWho decided we were all excited?

Where did the memo come from stating as fact a collective holding of expectant breath? Not just in the UK but all over the world: All of us were apparently desperate for the happy news of the royal birth. All of us were thrilled to bits when the baby boy’s arrival was announced.

Except even the most basic analysis suggests we weren’t.

“The world waits” was a headline on the BBC’s online page for much of Monday after the Duchess of Cambridge went into labour. It was a strap-line for most of the day on the BBC’s rolling news channel where desperate reporters filled for hours while, in the case of one now wildly popular presenter, admitting they had nothing to say.

Across TV and radio channels, veteran royal watchers (nearly all elderly men) wittered on about “history in the making.” Beaming news anchors told us we could barely contain ourselves in our excitement over the arrival of the royal child.

It was the same earlier today. “Royal baby brings world celebrations,” was the BBC online headline. “World Welcomes the Royal Bub,” said an almost hysterical Sky.

But evidence of a global delirium is hard to find. A quick scan of newspaper sites from Indonesia and Ohio to Uganda and Kenya suggested not a jot of interest in the impending arrival of the third in line to the throne. (With the one exception being the Straits Times in Singapore). The Arab media has barely mentioned the news at all.

The birth itself prompted only slightly more coverage, little if any of it celebratory. Much of what foreign newspapers write merely reflects back at us what we’ve been told: that the entire British population is as besotted with the child as the new parents must be.

I blame in part the TV networks, particularly in the US. As the near-obsessional devotion to Downton Abbey suggests, Americans love it when their dated notions of a quaint old Blighty are confirmed. A beautiful princess, a future king, what could be more perfect for what passes as news on today’s celebrity driven infotainment TV?

In Canada the Queen is head of state and there’s a genuine affection for the royals. But that affection’s being manipulated by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper who’s been busy re-shaping Canadian institutions to reflect long-lost ties with the UK. (Critics say it’s his way of countering multi-culturalism) The armed forces have had the word “Royal” added to their titles and their Maple Leaf insignia replaced by the crown. Canadian Embassies have been instructed to hang portraits of her Majesty on their walls.

So I understand and almost forgive the Canadian and US media for going over the top, but not the media here.

Somewhere it was decided that the British were all-a-flutter over the royal baby. That became the story regardless of the facts, and nobody has listened to the public ever since.

Not even the Royal-obsessed Daily Mail or indeed the establishment-friendly Telegraph. Comments on their abundant royal baby pages suggest a certain indifference – at best – amongst their readers. At least amongst those bothering to write in.

The once avowedly republican Guardian clearly got the mysterious baby directive (email? telephone call? sofa conversation? Who knows…) stating that all of Britain would rejoice. But their extensive and largely glowing coverage was met by reader gripes about the cost of the royals and the predictable arguments about whether we’d all prefer a “President Blair”.

And what of the gushing torrent from the BBC – an organisation committed to (and largely practicing) balance and impartiality on all other issues? It may have looked like a throng of people outside Buckingham Palace but in the scheme of things, they were a tiny proportion of the population. Never mind. They were the people whose enthusiastic views were sought and put on air.

Where were the counter-views of the vast majority who, my unscientific online scan suggests, might wish the parents and child well but don’t want to hear much more about it. And where was the evidence of the waiting world and the global celebrations? (Pro forma and utterly predictable congratulations from foreign leaders aside)

I fear the already bruised BBC couldn’t face another walloping by the government or the right-wing press. With last year’s disastrous coverage of the Thames Jubilee Pageant still haunting minds, editors clearly swallowed the cool-aid and gave us wall-to-wall baby-happy TV.

So the official line was created. Britain was going nuts for the royal birth. The foreign media picked it up and told their audiences we were going nuts. The coverage on news channels abroad fuelled the frenzy here.

Nobody asked the public (I don’t mean the self-selecting palace visitors) what they thought. And when we told them via twitter or comments pages, they took no notice.

So much for user-driven content and interactivity. A cabal of Old Media decided the news line and then told us what we, the weary public, believed.

 

 

A Love Letter to the NHS

Like all those we love most, you are far from perfect.

There are the minor irritations, the disappointments, and sometimes much more serious failings that can’t be ignored and shouldn’t be excused.

And yet, we couldn’t live without you – literally, in my recent experience – though I fear that’s what the government is planning: a relentless running-down of an overstretched, understaffed and occasionally badly managed health service to the point where we all accept your inevitable demise. (See my previous post for more on the Tory’s PR strategy).

That would be a tragedy. I’ve used your services more than I’d have liked to in the past year. Ageing relatives make for many hours spent in your hospital wards and A&E departments.

Mostly what I’ve seen is compassion, commitment and outstanding medical care.

The cheery nurses who, despite running from patient to patient for 12 hour shifts with barely a tea break still say, with passion, how much they love their jobs.

The doctor who, on his seventh consecutive day in charge of a huge ward takes time to listen, assess and explain without a hint of impatience or even fatigue.

The specialist who gently suggests another uncomfortable scan because she’s just got a “niggle” that something may not be quite right.

To Lucy, Zainab, Doug, Jonathan, Jackie and so many others at the sharp end, a huge thank-you. On the few occasions when I had criticisms of the actual clinical care, the problem was clearly that there simply weren’t nearly enough of you given the unrelenting demand.

To some of your colleagues though, forgive me but I have harsher words, most specifically for the administrators.

Vast bureaucracies are rarely associated with efficiency (I’m a former BBC staff member, so I know of which I speak) and you, dear NHS, are no exception.

Your armies of administrators either lack initiative or are forbidden from taking it. Too often they are unable (or unwilling) to understand an ill or anxious patient’s worries. It’s as if they work in an organisation manufacturing widgets, far removed from health or care or anything to do with important human needs.

It’s not acceptable to be told an appointment can’t be booked because the man in charge of that particular clinic’s appointment diary has gone to lunch and nobody knows when he’ll be back. Or that none of the 15 other people in the room can access the clinic’s diary, it’s not their responsibility  “so go home and we’ll be in touch.” (Except of course that the appointment does get made when the pushy middle class journalist type insists.)

It doesn’t inspire confidence either when several letters arrive from one hospital, simultaneously confirming an important appointment and cancelling it.

You have to wonder who’s in charge of the different teams that wash floors, change curtains and even clean the curtain rails. They haven’t assigned anyone to wipe the trays alongside the patients’ beds so it isn’t done, not once in the 18 days I was visiting that ward.

As for the complete failure to provide bed-ridden patients with any means of washing their hands when they’ve used a bed pan… I know, part of the problem is time. Over worked staff are rushing on to the next person in need. But given the omnipresent disinfectant dispensers and the constant reminders to squirt-and-rub to stop the spread of disease, it makes no sense. Presumably, like the trays, someone forgot to put it in the rules.

So yes, dear NHS, you need to shape up. You could do with more clinical practitioners and I suspect, fewer but better trained and motivated administrative staff. But you could also do without being the football in an increasingly poisonous political fight. I’ve lived in the US and in the developing world and believe me, after seeing the alternatives, I’m completely on your side.

 

Name Calling

David Cameron’s years in public relations weren’t wasted.

Whatever one thinks of his government’s policies, its mastery of linguistic tactics has been spot on.

Repetition has planted key words and slogans firmly in the public discourse.  A party not best known for its unity, not even capable of governing alone, has, with one voice, cleverly defined the political debate – and the Opposition.

First came “the mess we inherited,” the unrelenting mantra that cast Labour as the party of profligacy.  Out went any notion that millionaire bankers had brought the global financial system to its knees. Recession was caused by debt; debt was caused by the previous government’s giddy spending frenzy. What could the Conservatives do but “clear up Labour’s mess”?

Embarrassed by the chaos of the Brown years, stunned by the sudden ballooning of the debt after the 2008 crash, Labour was tongue-tied. So the public has accepted that the money was indeed wasted on fripperies as the Tories relentlessly implied.

Where was the counter-argument about improved public services? Yes, spending did increase under Labour and it’s true some of the money could have been better spent. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out, we didn’t always get bang for our buck.

But we did get a National Health Service transformed from the old Tory days of 18-month waiting lists for appointments in dingy, crumbling hospitals. Schools were rebuilt, their pathetic budgets increased. Teachers and nurses were recruited and, at last, properly paid.

Not that Ed Miliband and his friends had the wit or courage to say so. Nor have they countered the Conservatives’ re-labelling of one of the most important issues of our time. Income support, housing benefit, disability allowances – whatever the state benefit, whatever the level of need, it’s lumped together as “Welfare” these days.

And if you had any doubt about the pejorative nature of that term, imported from the US (land of the “welfare queens”, “welfare moms”, even “welfies”) just listen to Iain Duncan Smith. When the Work and Pensions Secretary scoffed at “Labour, the Welfare Party” on Radio 4’s Today Programme, he didn’t mean it as a compliment. (True to the Tory-PR style book, he’s used the phrase, or some variation of it repeatedly in recent weeks).

The party of welfare, of the unions, and of reckless spending on frivolous things. The words have been spat across the House of Commons or onto the airwaves so effectively that a paralysed Labour Party seems almost to have accepted the Tory labels. So have the media.

And now there’s another bit of slick PR sloganizing we’re likely to hear repeated endlessly in the run up to the next election. “From rescue to recovery” is how the Chancellor, George Osborne described the economy in his recent Spending Review. It’s the Treasury phrase du jour. Out it came again last week when the IMF said the UK could see economic growth this year of a pathetic 0.9 per cent.

Never mind that the “rescue” has seen falling wages and a growth in poorly paid, part-time jobs. Never mind the Local Government Association’s dire warning that budget cuts mean some basic public services could disappear altogether. Let’s not worry either about the doubling in the numbers of people turning to food banks in the past three months.

Of course, all governments try to tell the story their way. Labour were once Westminster’s masters of spin. Not any more. David Cameron is a much more accomplished communicator than people tend to think of a man who often has trouble getting his own party to listen.

His skill with language has changed the tone of debate and as a result, the substance.  Labour meanwhile, are all too often lost for words.

 

Making MINTs from BRICS

Indonesia rice harvest

      1. BBC R4 World Tonight Indonesia Report

Remember the BRICS? Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa were the future of the world economy once upon a time. Fast-growing countries with either abundant natural resources or vast forces of cheap labour (or both) and business-friendly governments happily creating middle class wealth.

You don’t hear so much about them these days. Slowing growth, regulatory problems, labour unrest and, in the case of Brazil, massive demonstrations on the streets have rather taken the shine off the BRICS.

So, enter the new darlings of the foreign investor community, the MINTs. 

I can’t speak for Mexico beyond the highly Americanised resorts (complete with their Walmarts and Sam’s Clubs) I’ve visited. I do wonder though about the wisdom of investing in a country where more than fifty thousand people (possibly double that) have died in the violent drugs wars of the past six years.

Nigeria’s not a place I know well either, though I’d think twice before setting up shop in a country with an increasingly violent al-Qaeda related insurgency in the north and decades of seething resentment in the oil-rich but corrupt south.

Turkey on the other hand always looked like a good bet. You couldn’t hear a word against it from the tourists at Istanbul’s chi chi restaurants and boutique hotels. Foreign investment doubled in the five years from 2007 as Turkey started to emulate the capitalist West.

But it all went a bit pear-shaped in last month’s unprecedented protests. Egged on by a belligerent Prime Minister, the police attacked demonstrators in a city centre park. The stock market plunged, and suddenly we all fell out of love with Turkey. It turned out they weren’t “people like us” after all.

So that leaves Indonesia – a place I do know quite a bit about having started my reporting career there as BBC correspondent 22 years ago. It’s a vast, complicated country. Not really a country at all given its stitched together diversity. For more detail and far better insight than I can ever deliver, read Elizabeth Pisani’s excellent blog and then the book she’s publishing next year.

In the meantime, here’s my  short overview of the economy of the world’s fourth biggest country.

      2. BBC R4 World Tonight Indonesia Report

And in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not rushing to invest in Indonesia just yet.


Me and Mrs T

Liverpool docks regenerationA former dock worker, 60-ish, ruddy-cheeked, and too big for the bar stool in this central Liverpool pub.  Not somebody I’d expect to find channelling my thoughts. But yesterday, we were in tune on Margaret Thatcher.

This past week and a half, I have avoided almost every word written about her. I have turned the pages of the newspapers unread, ignored the radio and television programmes, written nothing, and commented only once. (I was caught off guard when CBC Montreal called in the middle of lunch, broke the news of the former Prime Minister’s death, and put me straight on air.)

It’s not that I lack intellectual or even journalistic interest. It’s just that I simply don’t care. My fight with Mrs Thatcher was over long ago. It started in the sixth form of school, and raged through university when I marched against apartheid (she regarded the ANC as a terrorist organization) and her government’s homophobic Section 28.  I yelled ‘Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out!” when required, and stood quietly at the silent vigil that persuaded Oxford Dons to refuse her an honorary degree.  I did my bit as I saw it at the time. (My views have since benefitted from perspective: I remember what came before – and after.)

So forgive me, but my emotions are long since spent where the Iron Lady is concerned.

The former docker felt the same. “Don’t get me wrong, I hated her,” he said. “But that’s the past, what’s the point of going over it all now?” We agreed it was time to move on and talk about today. The bedroom tax (“not a tax, a benefit cut,” he corrected me). Unemployment – still higher than the national average in Liverpool despite regeneration that has physically transformed the city since I last visited nearly 30 years ago.

“Get rid of the current government,” my new friend said, adding with a disconcerting glare, “the whole lot of them.”

Not that he was a fan of Labour’s Ed Miliband. “Why isn’t he fighting?” he asked. “He should be shouting about what’s happening.” This ex-docker was getting dangerously deep inside my brain. I shook his hand and left.

Less than a mile away, in the vast neo-classical elegance of St George’s Hall, I found a tea dance in full flow. tea dance in St George's Hall Liverpool Couples waltzed and tangoed in a magnificent ballroom, with statues of great Victorians lining the walls. For decades this grand public building, once home to the courts, lay abandoned and decaying. A symbol of a city that, as Mrs Thatcher’s Chancellor advised her,  should be left to “managed decline”.

St George’s was brought back to life with a huge injection of lottery funds. Much of the rest of the city centre got up off its knees with government money leading the way. In 2008, Liverpool’s tenure as European Capital of Culture was a stunning success. Millions of visitors came, though one of the tea-dancers complained to me that “down south”, Liverpool didn’t get the credit it deserved.

But it survived, and according to residents is a better place to live now than before 2008. Maybe that’s another reason my ex-docker could let Margaret Thatcher go in peace.

As for me, I made a peace of sorts a couple of years ago when walking on a Saturday afternoon through one of the Inns of Court in Central London. There wasn’t a soul around. A car pulled up and a driver helped a beautifully turned out but frail old lady to her feet. Having gained her balance she instinctively looked around and seeing her public (my husband and me) smiled warmly and waved. I admit I was impressed and didn’t hesitate for a second.

I waved and smiled equally warmly at Mrs T.