Friday, 29 May 2009

Where Angels Fear to Tread

This week as a kind of personal dare I have signed up to an unfamilar internet forum, an atheist one. Its an interest because somehow I have felt the need to explore the limits of my own faith and to understand the views of those totally opposed to mine. And boy are they different: unreconstructed Dawkinists everyone of them, articulate, smart (smarter than me at least) and passionate about their subject.  
Its been instructive I think. The fact that a Christian - and in my case a pretty poor one - would stick their head over the parapet was cause for cordiality followed pretty swiftly by a barrage of  very searching challenges and questions. Whilst there was hostility there has been a resolve on all parts to try and keep the debate respectful. 
And  it has been worth it.  To begin with I was not alone in terms of fellow Christians who believe we should stand up for what we think.  I found some of their postings extremely  insightful. And it helped me too.  Since the first sign of evasiveness or woolliness was pounced on with glee it helped me to really get my head round what my faith was about and why it was such an important part of my life.  Far from talking me out of Christianity I fear they have helped me take a further step in the right direction. 

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Out of Order

One week further on and the latest revelations from Parliament keep coming. Takes our minds off  swine influenza I suppose although it also helps me forget there's another round of elections next month.  Of course I must vote but it will be for the least bad rather than the best candidate/party on offer I suspect. 
The picture is the late Phil Silvers in the role for which he is best remembered: Bilko. Bilko ran scams that make some of our MP's look like amateurs although they invariably backfired on him by the end of the show. The morality and standards of the age dictated that crime should not pay and so in the Phil Silvers show it did not.
Few MP's can now believe that the creative and innovative approaches they took to their expenses were worth it. Whilst the disclosures in the Telegraph were necessary  they have proved damaging.  Like the banking system once the hue and cry has settled some positive changes to the system of MP's remuneration will be necessary. It should be an opportunity to take a harder look at what we ask of our MP's and so come up with something that will encourage those with a wish to enter Parliament appropriate and proper incentives to do so. A quick shopping list suggests:
- A decent salary. £65000 is not enough. An article in last weeks Times said that might be about £25k light. That seems a lot closer to a fair wage given the responsibilities we place on our MP's;
- A substantial reduction in the number of MP's to finance the  salary increase above. I'd suggest say 200 off the current cohort of 650 or so. A good saving on the public purse (maybe £50m) which could more than fund increased MP's salaries and pay  for our hospital chaplains, thus keeping the National Secular Society happy.  All round this seems to be a much better use of  public money;
- e-enablement of Parliament. Is it necessary that we drag MP's out of their constituencies to be lured into the temptations of the Westminster village? Do they actually have to be in and around the house as much as they are? For some debates surely it is not beyond the wit of someone to provide a facility for on-line voting. For some meetings video conferencing would surely be a good substitute for being there in person. I am not saying IT is the answer to everything (for example, Ministers would still need to be in London)  but it should be available to allow some MP's to spend more time in their constituencies - and with their families. It would also save some money.   e-enablement would also have benefits on Parliamentary demographics - people who felt unable to commit to living away from home would be able to do so much easier.
I think that's a few starters for ten. 


Wednesday, 13 May 2009


Am I alone in thinking that these days the freedoms we take for granted are under threat. Not as a result of some later day Orwellian totalitarian police state but rather as a result of  a succession of rather mean spirited and more trivial restrictions.  Nanny state stuff. Smoking bans, responsible drinking campaigns, CCTV cameras and so on. All of it possibly with some merit but sometimes perhaps enforced disproportionately. 
But in a development reminiscent of Passport to Pimlico (from which the still above is taken) comes this really heartening snub to the massed ranks of petty officialdom. Its  concerns the story of a pub in Barnsley that claims to have found a loophole in the smoking ban.  By designating a separate room as a "Smoking Research Centre", they then invite customers desirous of a cigarette with their pint to first complete a survey which  asks them about their smoking habits post the ban. Having done so they can then have then have their nicotine and alcohol fix. Custom at the pub - which was struggling and up for sale - has soared. 
I think this is a brilliant and enterprising initiative, the British at their best. Suffice to say the forces of petty officialdom in the form of the Local Authority are winding up for a swift and decisive counter-offensive to put paid to this impertinence.  Shame! Killjoys!!
Margaret Rutherford, Stanley Holloway: where are you when we need you?

Monday, 11 May 2009

Its the paperwork.....

Being self employed has some things to commend it. In particular I am pleased to have dispensed with the pretence that the organisation I work for is wonderful, has a mission and strategy that I believe in wholeheartedly  and that their values are my values. In the end its a job of work. If I do it well then the client is happy: if not, they can show me the door.  Somehow that seems a better way of working, free of the office politics and all the other baggage that comes with being a corporate animal.
But it has its drawbacks: the paperwork, the tax returns and the taxes themselves. Once the government have got the income tax, the national insurance, the employer's NI and VAT out of me they have done far better out of it than I have. However I feel very fortunate to be working at a difficult time for the economy. So I happily render unto Gordon that which is Gordon's. 
Had I known that quite a lot of the rendering was going to be more unto  MP's themselves than  I might do  so a bit more grudgingly.  Its not the money itself that is the problem rather the conduct of MP's from whom we might expect better standards of conduct. Surely the noble calling to public office should not be devalued by the kind of naked self interest so evidently displayed by MP's on their expense claims. What example does that set to the rest of us?
There is a pressure group called "None of the Above" who believe that we should be allowed to tell politicians just what we think of them by positively voting for none of them. If we had an election tomorrow I am sure that the "None..." party would have a landslide on its hands.  

Friday, 8 May 2009

Who's fault is it anyway?

 An excellent piece in Thursday's Times by Daniel Finkelstein sums up better my thoughts on our current public finances than I could ever say myself.  Its here out of interest.  What is particularly striking is that the latest drive on reducing public spending  suggests that vast sums can be saved simply by making central government more efficient. That is doubtful. Of course there is scope to do better and get more bangs out of the taxpayers  buck but there is a myth that public sector land  is some sort of haven for the idle, with huge salaries, two hour lunch breaks for all and only the occasional inconvenient interruption when mandarins have  to  spoil an otherwise agreeable afternoon supping tea and eating cucumber sandwiches to deal with affairs of state.  In truth the public sector is a place where people work hard and  where the myth of "jobs for life" is just that: a myth. The low hanging fruit of easy efficiency gains have long since been picked and what is left will be modest in scale and something of an uphill struggle for those left to deliver it. 
For my vast army of readers I'll offer two suggestions for getting public finance back under control. Under this government there has been a proliferation of independent or quasi-independent organisations set up to deliver some aspect of government policy. I believe many - each with their own boards, accountabilities, and internal mini-bureaucracies are a luxury we cannot afford. A very quick and wide-ranging cull is needed. That doesn't necessarily mean putting a stop to the function but just merging it into the work of another organisation. Secondly I believe that what makes good politics (short term, expedient, media friendly)  can be the enemy of sound stewardship of public money.  All too often hapless officials are expected to justify decisions which in all honesty were not really theirs but those of their political masters.   This is not about clobbering Ministers.  By contrast I think there is a wider issue about managing our own expectations of what governments of whatever political persuasion can really do and whether the only response to some media outcry is to throw money (our money) at it. It all goes back to the Daniel Finkelstein article: we are the ones who have created the mess but when are we going to accept some responsibility for the mess we're in? 

Sunday, 3 May 2009

To sung mass at 10:00am - I failed hopelessly to organise myself for the normal 8:00am. As it was I was able to listen to a very uplifting homily about Jesus the shepherd and us as his sheep. I am resolved to be a better, God-centred  and more joyful sheep as a consequence. 
Joyful and sheep was the theme for the middle part of the day as I took advantage of a free ticket to join 22,000 other sheep to watch Charlton's last game in the Championship - for a while at least. There had been talk before the game of a demonstration after the match to show the club Board what we thought of them. Frankly the performances on the pitch over the season as a whole merited nothing less. But a glorious spring day, a 4-2 win (which sent the opposition down with us) meant that any thoughts of protest soon evaporated in the warm sunshine. We were happy bunnies.
After a week of flu scares and  wavering governments  it is good to sit here with a glass of Jameson's,  the wonderful Amiina playing in the background, laughter upstairs as my son's darts evening with his mates moves towards a pulsating climax and the prospect of a day off tomorrow on what promises to be yet another beautiful spring day. Does it get better than this? Probably not.  Reality will intrude soon enough and in ways which are unwelcome. But for now I am, as they say, seizing the moment.