Saturday, 18 December 2010

End of Part One

The loss of a close family member is never easy to take. I think grieving is the loss we feel for someone taken from us. In this case someone very special who I know I will miss. The funeral service yesterday was a reminder how great that sense of loss will be.
But there are consolations. The loss of someone dear can be a time when those left behind can give and draw strength from one another. A large family meal on the eve of the funeral (an even bigger one scheduled for last night fell victim to the weather - we were all a very long way from home and travel prospects for the next day were not promising) underlined the point. I just hope that we don't lose that real sense of the ties that bind us.
And there was a final act still to be played out. Following the committal the church was filled with the sound of a cherished favourite of hers - Vaughan Williams Lark Ascending. It was a present I remember buying her a few years ago and for a few minutes I realised that the gift I had given was now being shared. This beautiful piece of music had become a keepsake, one that will always remind me of her. What a wonderful way to say goodbye!

This is the point at which I have decided to reflect on where this blog is going. It began as an attempt to try and make sense of the world I live in. 3 years on and rather than continue to allow myself to be confused, frustrated, angered, heartened, inspired or amused by what goes on around me I have decided to stop being bemused and anchor myself to something more solid. In the past 14 months or so, in common with other Anglo Catholics I have been reflecting on how to respond to the prospect of joining the new Ordinariate. During the autumn I had one of those 'got it' moments, when things just became really clear. Now, inasmuch as anything makes sense to me, the Universal church does. I think now I would prefer to be there. I hope they'll have me.

So I am not sure I should really carry on with this when there are scores of far better informed and more erudite bloggers out there. I am not sure I have anything left worth saying. So for a while, I may just not say it.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Ordinariate Exploration Day

We live in changing times. For many Anglo-Catholics its time to consider how we should respond to the Holy Father's offer of full Communion with Rome through a new (yet to be established) Ordinariate.

For those of us resident in this part of Kent we have the good fortune to be able to hear more about the Ordinariate next Saturday, 20 November. There are three excellent speakers so we should have, after an hour or two, a much better idea of what the Ordinariate is and the options available to us.

The meeting was originally going to be at 10:00am but this may have denied people the opportunity to attend the Bishop of Fulham's final Mass in London. So in keeping with the theme of changing times, the Ordinariate meeting will now start at 3:30pm. If you are planning to attend, please note the new time.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

North of the Border (and The Big Silence, last time)

A couple of days north of the border to mark our 20th wedding anniversary. It was a wet and cold Friday evening when we arrived. The city in the twilight looked every bit as gloomy and unforbidding to my French wife as it must have done to Mary Queen of Scots roughly 450 years earlier. But a bit of sunshine transforms even the most sombre of places and so it was on Saturday morning.........

.... we set out reasonably early and visited Edinburgh Castle in bright autumn sunshine. By late morning we were ready to continue the well trodden path down the Royal Mile to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The Royal Mile has turned into a bit of a tourist trap with plenty of opportunities to part the unsuspecting tourist from their hard earned groats. I thought we were doing well when we stopped to pay a visit to that most uncommercial of venues, St Giles Cathedral - only to discover that if you did want to take pictures, that would cost you. In practice the extensive restoration works there meant that we should perhaps await a future visit before taking pictures.

So....back to the Royal Mile and on to the Palace.............

.........which greeted our arrival with a traditional Scottish deluge. You'll have to take my word for it that we actually visited. It was too wet to take pictures of the Palace from outside whilst, inside, photography was strictly forbidden.

For all that and in particular the rain, a wonderful couple of days. But for our next anniversary I promised my wife to chose a location with a more equable climate. That will be a challenge given we were married in early November. The UK certainly is out!

Returned home and caught up with the last episode of The Big Silence. The programme finished with each of the 5 volunteers setting out to find silence in their everyday lives. That each of them appeared to be determined to succeed, in spite of initial difficulties, was enough to reassure me that silence is more than golden, it really is transforming.

For obvious reasons we were not at home when the programme went out. A few years ago I would have attempted to video the programme on the Delay Timer facility on my Video and hope for the best when I got back. Nowadays the video recorder is pretty redundant. Many channels show their programmes more than once a week; or they have a +1 (Hour) channel (Channel 4, for example); or they allow you to view programmes on-line through facilities like the BBC's i-player. It was the latter I relied on to catch the last part of The Big Silence.

The downside of the BBC i-player is that programmes are removed a week or so after transmission. Fortunately some very bright person has put the whole series on YouTube and you can find it here . As far I can see it has been uploaded in the form of 12 x 15 minute segments. Perfect to digest in small segments if you don't want to watch it all the way through in one sitting . And a case of Youtube matching the BBC in Public Service broadcasting.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Guardian Angel

'See that you despise not one of these little ones: for I say to you, that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heaven' (Matthew 18:10)

A wonderful story from France about an 18 month old toddler who survived falling seven stories from the balcony in the flat where he lived, by landing first on to a cafe awning and then bouncing into the arms of a passer-by. The little boy's saviour had to move a little to get into the right position but having done so, caught the boy. Apparently the toddler was fine, cried a bit but then calmed down straightaway. Not a scratch. Even more extraordinary is that the cafe itself was closed and normally, when closed, the owner wound up the awning. It was however broken so on this occasion he hadn't been able to.

It transpires that the boy had been left alone with his three year old sister by their parents, who had gone for a walk, so I guess he needed a guardian angel to look out for him. Whatever you think about that, it is still a miraculous escape and unusually in the press these days, a story that leaves you smiling.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

The Big Silence (3)

The second of the three-part series following 5 people who embarked on a journey through silence to better understand their deeper selves was broadcast last night. The five volunteers had been taken out of their busy everyday lives to spend 8 days at St.Bueno's in North Wales, time that was spent in silence save for a daily half hour session with a spiritual guide.
The pace of the programme was very slow as the transition of each volunteer into acceptance and the embrace of the deeper silence took place in front of us. At the end each had undergone a transforming experience, one that they would now carry back with them to the 'real' world.
Next week's programme will follow their subsequent progress and will allow us to see whether they can hold on to what they had gained at the retreat. It is compulsive and at times very moving. Both the first programmes are available on BBC i-player. If the Channel Controller BBC-1 is reading this, can I suggest a repeat showing at a more popular time. All religious programming should be this good.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

The Big Silence (2)

An intriguing first programme. Meeting my son in London for a weekend home from university meant I missed the original transmission (which just tends to prove my point that 7:00pm is just simply the wrong time, 9:00pm would be far better) , so I caught up with the programme this morning via the BBC iPlayer.

"When people enter into the silence that's when they meet God.......". For those of us lay people whose lives surrounded by noise and busy-ness, that is a potentially disturbing yet truly inspiring reflection. I look forward to the rest of this series.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Big Silence

Tucked away at the less popular time of 7:00pm, BBC2's new series 'The Big Silence' starts this evening. As the BBC website has it: "Abbot Christopher Jamison, a Benedictine monk, believes that he can teach five ordinary people the value of silent meditation, as practised by monks in monasteries, so they can make it part of their everyday lives. He sets up a three-month experiment to test out whether the ancient Chrisitan tradition of silence can become part of modern lives."

If its half as absorbing as "The Monastery" it will be worth watching. Its not often that religious programming is given space to make a case for the alternatives to secular living. Perhaps BBC2 might be tempted to re-run the programme at 9:00pm when the busy people it could engage are actually sitting at home?

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Mixed Emotions......

Big day yesterday as we took our son to University. As far as I can gather he settled in OK - within 10 minutes of arriving he disappeared with a few other new arrivals, clutching some of the finest beverages on offer from the lager brewers of Europe. So much for the bit that says: will he be able to meet other people and make friends?

As a parent I realise the adjustment parents have to make when the people dearest to us do what we brought them up to do - fly the nest and start making their way in the world. At which point you then ask yourself: can they cope? Parenthood is never a short term project. It seems to last well past the point when other people would tell you they are adults and perfectly able to fend for themselves.

For all that, I feel blessed. I will miss my son (and in a year or so's time with any luck my daughter) like mad. Not just because they are my children. But rather because I really like them. They are nothing like me but they are great when they are around. That is a fantastic thing to take from 18+ years of parenting and I hope that others in a similar position feel the same way.

But it is still bittersweet...........just when your children grow into the people you like to be around, they go and leave you. That's how it's supposed to be, but its still not easy.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

A lifestyle choice?

"I loved him. I will miss him every day of my life. I will miss him every minute of every day. I thought the world of him. I couldn't have had a better son."

These are the words of a father whose son took his own life in a suicide pact with someone that he had met on the internet. You can read more in this report from the Indy. As a father myself, I found these words unbearably sad.

I recently wrote about an organisation called Exit International who offer seminars to people over 50 to tell them about End of Life choices - killing yourself in the most convenient and painless way possible. Exit are not, I must stress, implicated in this terrible case. But they are helping to make suicide respectable, attractive even. And what is to stop the odd, determined and depressed person under the age of 50 arming themselves with the necessary hints and tips from Exit to do what 35 year old Stephen Lumb and 34 year old Joanne Lee did? Who is to say that mum or dad having decided they were just a burden would not leave their children to deal with the consequences of opting to take one of Exit's 'Life Exit' choices? And supposing their children felt that maybe, doddery or not, they would rather their parents saw out their time with their love and support?

Where next? Can we expect a rallying cry from Rights activists saying that not only should we have the right to terminate life in the womb but we should be supportive when people feel they are past their sell-by date and help them take their lives? Is anyone interested? Does anyone care?

Monday, 20 September 2010

One way trip ........

The picture above is a moving scene from a film called 'Soylent Green', released in the early 70's. The late Edward G Robinson, plays Sol, a man living in New York around 2020. He is utterly devastated when he discovers a secret, state sponsored solution to deal with the problems of the overcrowded, polluted, environmentally devastated world he lives in. In this world the authorities permit (even encourage) people to die early and Sol elects to take this way out. He visits a clinic which duly obliges with the fatal injection, easing his passage to the next world by allowing him to watch panoramic scenes of awesome beauty to the background of Beethoven's Pastoral.

I was reminded of this film earlier this evening when I tuned in to Radio 4. I picked up on part of a programme called 'Choosing a Time to Die'. The bit I heard included an interview with Philip Nitschke, the founder of Exit International, an information and advocacy outfit that aims to raise awareness about 'End of Life choices' or voluntary euthanasia. This link to the BBC website offers a summary. Among Exit's service offerings are seminars to the over 50's on easy ways to commit suicide. The matter of fact way it was discussed was extremely disquieting.

I hope this is not the start of a new trend towards making VE respectable or a way of further aiding those who are campaigning to make assisted suicide legal. But a concept which 40 years ago seemed chillingly dystopian appears to be with us, here and now.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Message Received........

'For this reason I appeal in particular to you, the lay faithful, in accordance with your baptismal calling and mission, not only to be examples of faith in public, but also to put the case for the promotion of faith’s wisdom and vision in the public forum. Society today needs clear voices which propose our right to live, not in a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms, but in a society which works for the true welfare of its citizens and offers them guidance and protection in the face of their weakness and fragility. Do not be afraid to take up this service to your brothers and sisters, and to the future of your beloved nation.'

So spoke the Holy Father at yesterday's mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. I found these words inspiring. Is there anything in those words that any Christian - and not just Roman Catholics - could take issue with? I say this because the anti-Papal (he's German so he must be planning to invade Europe shortly, he's promoting paedophilia) sentiment which is very evident at present is not just coming from atheist fundamentalists. It is coming from within the Christian community too, in one case openly supporting the National Secular Society. So it's not just Ian Paisley but what I hope would normally be more informed and thoughtful voices from within the CofE. Presumably these people skip over the 'One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church' bit when they recite the Creed on a Sunday. All very sad.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

With friends like these..........

This is the list of the great and good who signed a letter - from the look of things drafted for them by those good people in the National Secular Society - in today's Guardian protesting at the fact that the Pope's visit to the UK is a state visit:

Stephen Fry, Professor Richard Dawkins, Professor Susan Blackmore, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, Ed Byrne, Baroness Blackstone, Ken Follett, Professor AC Grayling, Stewart Lee, Baroness Massey, Claire Rayner, Adele Anderson, John Austin MP, Lord Avebury, Sian Berry, Professor Simon Blackburn, Sir David Blatherwick, Sir Tom Blundell, Dr Helena Cronin, Dylan Evans, Hermione Eyre, Lord Foulkes, Professor Chris French, Natalie Haynes, Johann Hari, Jon Holmes, Lord Hughes, Robin Ince, Dr Michael Irwin, Professor Steve Jones, Sir Harold Kroto, Professor John Lee, Zoe Margolis, Jonathan Meades, Sir Jonathan Miller, Diane Munday, Maryam Namazie, David Nobbs, Professor Richard Norman, Lord O'Neill, Simon Price, Paul Rose, Martin Rowson, Michael Rubenstein, Joan Smith, Dr Harry Stopes-Roe, Professor Raymond Tallis, Lord Taverne, Peter Tatchell, Baroness Turner, Professor Lord Wedderburn of Charlton QC FBA, Ann Marie Waters, Professor Wolpert, Jane Wynne Willson

Good for them that they can get these things off their chest and thanks to the Guardian who decided to let them share it with the rest of us. They have now had their say. I hope they have the courtesy and good grace now to step back and allow the visit to continue as planned. As so many of them are such sanctimonious windbags this may require a supreme effort of self restraint. But we live in hope, eh..?

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Back to Business

A short break on the Algarve (just: I got the day wrong and we only just made it to the airport in time) to recharge the batteries. Having eaten well, slept soundly and got a bit of golf in I returned to find the country in chaos. Charlton, on the wrong end of a late penalty at Exeter have now slipped further down League 1, the Coalition government is embroiled in scandals (phone hacking and shared hotel rooms) and Stephen Hawking confirms there is no God. Enough to tempt one back onto the plane and head back to Portugal.
Fortunately September is the month when things do start getting back to normal. This article by Michael Bywater in Saturday's Independent captures the mood perfectly. And on reflection there is a lot to look forward to: my son embarking on his university studies; taking my daughter out for some driving lessons; the Holy Father's visit later in the month and the prospect for some renewal of spiritual life in the UK; even the party conference season and in particular the Labour leadership election.
I'm ready to roll.

Monday, 9 August 2010

The Big Kick-off.......

........was of course last Saturday in spite of some mistakenly thinking that the minor league competition known as the Premiership, which begins again next weekend, is really the main event.
Arriving at the Valley on Saturday for our first game against Bournemouth it felt like there had never been a close season and certainly no World Cup. That there has been a lot going on at Charlton in the past few weeks soon became evident when we took our seats. What was virtually a new team was introduced to the crowd (and in one or two cases, probably, to one another) whilst the giant electronic scoreboard was turned off, a cost cutting measure whilst the club awaits a sponsor.
As for the game itself, a goal midway through the half from Akpo Sodje (one of the few survivors from last season) was enough to secure three points. A pretty harsh sending-off of midfield anchorman Jose Semedo meant that Charlton played the last 30 minutes a man short. Bournemouth used the one-man advantage to press forward but they offered little threat and in the end we saw out the match comfortably. Tonight I fear we may assume the role of Goliath when we travel to League 2 Shrewsbury for the first round of the Carling Cup. Embarrassing cup defeats have become something of a habit in recent years and tonight's draw has the potential to be the latest. Still if the worst comes to the worst the manager has the opportunity to argue that we can now concentrate on the League.

Meanwhile story of the week has to come from the Southampton vs. Plymouth game. Southampton advised the Plynouth Herald newspaper that they could not allow one of their photographers into the ground. Undaunted the paper asked local cartoonist and Plymouth fan Chris Robinson to capture some of the highlights of the game for their readers. The excellent results left compare favourably with the 'real' Roy of the Rovers item that leads this post. I'd like to think this is a trend that could catch on. The speech bubble in the crowd is a particularly nice touch.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Merlin (Part 2)

The news from Pakistan means that humanitarian relief is everyone's priority this week. As one of the organisations that forms part of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), Merlin will be co-ordinating its efforts with those of other aid agencies. The appeal for funds is being led through DEC.
Some further photographs showing the widespread flooding and the work of the Merlin teams in some of the devastated areas can be found here.

Friday, 30 July 2010

I have the good fortune to be working currently at Merlin, an international aid and development charity. Its not the biggest of the charities working in this area but it has carved out a reputation as being pretty good on its feet in an emergency (we were in Haiti soon after the earthquake) whilst also hanging around long enough to help put more durable arrangements in place in those countries that need it most.
Sustainable healthcare provision requires properly trained health workers. Without them it will simply fall apart. So we are currently campaigning for world leaders to step up to the plate and commit to having properly trained health workers in those countries that need it most.
You can go the campaign page here. Read the stories about people working in some of the toughest countries in the world and then decide whether the campaign is worth supporting . It costs nothing to add your name to the petition but if the campaign has whetted your appetite and you wish to find out how you can donate just follow the links to the main Merlin site.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

They think its all is now

In spite of temptations to add to the outcry about England's lamentable performance in the 2010 World Cup, I initially decided to say nothing. It seems that Fabio Capello was asked to take a group of tired (in one or two cases downright unfit) and not particularly motivated players to take on the world. How could we expect any more than the debacle that followed.
For England's players the priority is the Premiership. That is evident when, between tournaments, clashes between club and country are settled in favour of the former. And why shouldn't they be? These players are highly paid to play for their clubs, not for England and certainly not to risk injury whilst playing in their country's colours.
The Premiership itself is a high speed, spills and thrills affair: great for the viewing millions worldwide and certainly a better spectacle for the neutral than the rather more sedate ((if technically superior) football on offer in the Italian or Spanish Leagues. But the physical demands on the players must be huge and come late May after 38 league games, two cups and maybe even some European games there cannot be a lot left in the tank. Little wonder they look lacadaisical. The players need a holiday, not another 4 weeks of football.
But the players are certainly not blameless. They are quite happy to receive huge sums of money that reflects the riches that come from subscription television, notably Sky but also latterly ESPN and a host of overseas buyers. In fact it is subscription television that has undoubtedly been the key factor in creating the monster that is the Premier League. Billions paid for broadcasting rights quickly get paid to the clubs but then just as quickly are turned into huge salaries (£90,000 a week anyone?) paid to some not particularly outstanding players. And to the agents skimming off their percentage. Wage bills are now such a high proportion of a club's total expenditure that many are now reduced to spending money they do not have either to simply stay in the League or to compete for a European place. In fact the biggest irony of the present set up is that in spite of the billions that have gone into football the game has never looked more bankrupt. How can this be?
What subscribers like me have to acknowledge is that so long as we keep paying our £20 a month to watch football we are simply perpetuating a problem. And so it was yesterday with a heavy heart I decided to forego my weekly (in practice, if you choose, it can be a daily) fix of live football: I cancelled my subscriptions to Sky Sports and ESPN. I will continue to watch anything free to air and I may use some of what I save to watch my beloved Charlton away from home as well as at the Valley. But what I cannot do is acknowledge that I am part of a problem and then do nothing about it.
Now to get another 100,000 like-minded followers of lower league football to do the same.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Sunny Afternoon

A gorgeous summer afternoon in July saw us go to Paddock Wood for the annual Hop Farm festival. A great day out and all within 30 minutes drive from home. This year the bill was topped by none other than Bob Dylan. On a very full festival bill there were some excellent support acts, all of whom acquitted themselves very well, among them Seasick Steve, Mumford and Sons and a new name to me Johnny Flynn. Such was the wide appeal of the line-up that ageing and wizened old hippies like me could rock along to Ray Davies singing "You Really Got Me" or Dylan (albeit with much of the voice all but gone ) singing "Like a Rolling Stone" whilst the younger generation enjoyed Mumford's "Little Lion Man" or Laura Marling's "Alas I Cannot Swim".
However what really struck me was that how this contemporary music really appealed to all ages. I saw a group of lads joining in with old Kinks numbers as if they had grown up with them, grandads appreciative of Johnny Flynn's eclectic folk; and everyone rocking out to bluesman Seasick Steve among whose armoury of eccentric guitars was the quite astonishing Diddley Bow (an old piece of wood, one string, and what appeared to be a can of coke at one end) . In my youth my father was less than polite about my 70's Progrock LP's ('Is that on the right speed?'). Such divisions in this post rock'n'roll era seem to be a thing of the past. We all rock together.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

View from the Pew

I have just sent my annual renewal payment to Forward in Faith. That being so I reckon I have earned the right to offer an ill-informed opinion to the discussions on the latest proposals announced by the Archbishops of Canterbury and Rome on women bishops - and in particular the arrangements for parishes who would rather they kept with the traditional arrangements of men only priests and bishops. Its a perspective offered by a fairly worldly accountant (if there can be such a thing) who has helped organisations get their financial affairs in order.
Larger failing organisations - and I refer to those in the public or not for profit sectors - often get mired financially because it is not clear who is responsible for what. Its not practical for the Chief Executive to take every financial decision, so to make matters manageable the CEO will delegate to others in the organisation, responsibility and authority for financial decision making. Usually those responsibilities are consistent with the wider management responsibilities that individuals carry. Typically therefore I will get a budget to cover the costs of the staff I manage and maybe the costs of training, travel and equipment that allows them to do a good job.
Where this process gets more complicated is in larger hierarchies where the process of delegation carries on down through the chain of command; so that middle managers will get a slice of budget to manage on behalf of, say, their Director. The logic is the same: the manager is closer to the decisions that need to be taken and so they should be responsible for the financial consequences of their decisions.
However a scheme of delegation is not without its problems. Lets say that as Middle Manager A I am rather good at managing my resources. Near the end of the year I have a bit of spare cash and I would like to use it to buy some nice new IT kit for my team. However my boss has a problem in that Middle Manager B has got themselves into a financial hole. So my boss would like to raid other parts of their empire to make their books balance. If as Middle Manager A I am truly empowered, then I can in theory say, sorry boss, but the new IT kit is on its way in. If, on the other hand, my boss's view prevails then I hand back the nest egg I have built up, consoling myself that perhaps its for the greater good. That said, there is no guarantee that my boss having perhaps juggled the money successfully, got herself out of a hole and is now keen to thank everyone for a job well done with a 'Fun' team event does not then find themselves having to instead hand the money back to the CEO who has an even better idea.......
Often I have been through a process of saying to managers throughout the organisation: 'who is in charge of the budget when...........'. Because the answer to the question tells you where real accountability and responsibility lie. Some organisations genuinely try to push responsibility right own the line and absolve senior Directors teams of any formal delegation. That's fine when things are going well but not advisable if the going gets tough. Others tend to place effective control nearer the top of the organisation which can be a bit stifling for every day decision making but does at least mean that the Board are better placed to take take urgent resourcing decisions . What is clear though is that the answer to the question: who is really in charge when ......... can only have one person as the answer. Regardless of what the answer is, the real decision can only really sit in one place. Answers of 'one the one hand it could be, but on the other hand its also...' or worse still 'we don't know/we've never thought about it, people tend to make it up as they go along...' just do not work. This sort of ambiguity or decision-making vacuum is the recipe for the type of financial problems that caused you to ask the questions in the first place.
This slightly rambling piece was prompted by reading the Archbishops proposals because it seems to me the one question I would ask is this: 'Who is in charge when.......'. If its crucial to the parish and its a. The Bishop brought in to oversee the Parish - then its a Flying bishop; if its b. Its down to the Diocesan Bishop - then its no different to the current code of practice; and if its c. 'Well... both' then by my analogy with delegated management, the whole proposal would be doomed to failure.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Sunday, Sunday

Two Sundays this week. To begin with I made it to church twice: once for early Mass and once for the celebration of Corpus Christi. The latter was followed by the Forward in Faith AGM for the Rochester diocese. All in all an occasion to lift the spirits which you can read about here.

The other bit of Sunday was a bit of serious digging on my allotment - which sits behind St John's, Sevenoaks and was my first port of call after the 8:00 Mass. My wife is largely the inspiration for the increasingly pleasing results in the picture. But assuredly my back will testify that it too has played its part in ensuring that we don't get a letter soon telling us to get our plot up to scratch.

Saturday, 5 June 2010


A very much delayed postscript to the earlier sequence of thoughts on the election. That 'New' Labour probably spent a lot more of our money than was wise seems widely agreed. But was it all bad? That thought struck me recently as I was reacquainted with the journey up the A1 to Yorkshire. I have always taken the A1 in preference to the M1, not least because if there is a hold up there are plenty of easy ways round any delay. Not so on the motorways where there is no relief before the next official exit. Against that the A1 was always a tad slower, not least because a succession of roundabouts between Peterborough and the A1(M) in South Yorkshire added to journey times. Those have now gone - replaced by slip roads and flyovers at each major junction. The result was a much better journey, doubtless achieved at a cost but equally very tangible evidence that taxpayer's money was being invested for our collective benefit. I have also heard (and to some extent seen) the benefits of the Labour government's investment in schools and hospitals. They are now in far better shape than they were when Labour came to office in 1997.
All this was thrown into even sharper relief last week when I accompanied a number of others on a bus journey through the new Olympic Park.To be honest I was stunned at the progress - 2 years out from the Games, remember - that was being made. Many of the stadia are now nearing completion and some of the early landscaping of Olympic Park is underway. This surely is cause for some early national pride on a very professional approach to such a huge challenge.

The Olympic programme is not simply about hosted the Games. Its also about the regeneration of some of the most disadvantaged parts of London. Parts of the Olympic Park will after the games be transformed into areas of new housing. Meanwhile just down the road at Stratford, the new Westfield Shopping Complex will be one of the largest undercover retail centres in Europe. I hope that having embarked on such an ambitious project the new coalition does not lose its nerve and see this through to a fitting conclusion: a transformed East End of London.

Monday, 3 May 2010

On Thursday I will vote. I can honestly say that my mind is not yet made up although it is also fair to say that I live in a constituency where my vote will not make much difference. A goat wearing a blue rosette would probably be returned with a 10,000 majority. No disrespect to the sitting MP who does a pretty good job but this is not the sort of place that is ever likely to be other than "Con. Hold" when the results flash up on the screens on election night.
I have seriously tried to be a good citizen. In particular I have read the manifestos, watched the Leaders' Debates and read the papers. As a Christian I have been particularly struck by Choosing the Common Good, the booklet issued by the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales which basically seems to argue for a public life that is underpinned by virtue and a concern for others.
We cannot pretend, too, that the state of public finances is other than a cause for great concern: as a country we are living well beyond our means and early action is needed to bring public spending under control. I have therefore looked hard to see who can set about delivering a stronger economy and social justice within the framework of repairing society.
I cannot support Labour. To begin with I believe they waged an illegal war against Iraq and in justifying their decisions, misled the country. There is blood on their hands and the passing of time only reinforces that belief. For the rest I can only direct you to this website which sets out so starkly the binge spending that has taken place since 1997. Government spending is set to double over 13 years, debt has more than doubled. Had spending kept in touch with inflation spending this year would have been a shade under £450bn. Instead it is heading for £700bn. Whilst there have been real improvements in health and education in line with their priorities I think the current administration has shown less than ideal levels of stewardship. An opportunity to deliver both sustainable and affordable improvements in our public services has been lost.
The debate about virtue in public life so admirably articulated in Choosing the Common Good has sadly been overshadowed by concerns about immigration which, after the economy, appears to have been the other big issue of the campaign. As a result I think the Conservative's ideas of "Big Society" (and by implication, Small Government) have not been sufficiently prominent. I suspect the Conservatives themselves concluded that people for the most part were not interested. However if the Conservatives were returned to Government I hope they would return to the concepts of "Big Society". Under Labour the state has become increasingly overbearing and has pursued an increasingly secular agenda. It is hard to see that another term of Labour would see any softening of tone or a change of direction.
For me the last challenge is balancing the need for tightening of belts with social justice. To this end it seems to me that the Liberal Democrats rather than the Conservatives have made a better case. Raising the income tax threshold to £10000 coupled with the programmes for tackling youth employment seem more than substantial than anything on offer from the Conservatives. Whilst, too, I think the Lib Dems plans to bear down on tax avoidance as a means of paying for their pledge to support the lowest paid are a triumph of hope over experience they are still considerably better than the Conservatives plans to raise billions from efficiency, plans which are patently laughable. So, expect a VAT increase (20% basic rate with some further widening of scope) whoever gets in to Government.
Nobody in this campaign appears to have demonstrated the leadership and vision that this country badly needs. On that basis a vote for 'None of the Above' would be a fairly verdict on each of the three main party leaders. Sadly that option is not available.
Rather then that chaos should descend on Friday I would not be sorry to see David Cameron in Government: but with a majority of 1-5 seats, dependent on Liberal Democrat support to see difficult measures through. In return for that support legislation would be brought in to reform the current electoral system. Because even if the Conservatives confound the polls , are returned with a working majority (30+) and 40% of the vote, they will probably have done so with less than 25% of the people actually voting for them. That's a democratic deficit which needs to be put right.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Looking after the pennies......

With nine days to go before polling, the Institute of Fiscal Studies pronounced that not one of the three main parties seeking our votes was being sufficiently explicit about how they would tackle the black hole in public finances. The introductory remarks by Robert Chote are backed up by a wealth of analysis from other IFS speakers. But the overall point is the same: the gap in Britain's public finances is matched only by the gap in credibility displayed by the major parties in how they would cut the deficit.
Political parties do not tend to write manifestos that are too honest about what they would do if elected to office. Labour learned their lesson well and truly in 1992 when the late John Smith's Shadow budget proposals were rather too open about what would happen if John Major's Government were not re-elected.
So we now have obfuscation, evasion and less than transparent answers to awkward questions. The Labour Government should have had a spending review in advance of the election. They haven't because presumably the outcome would have been a sure-fire vote loser. Whoever takes over now will need to move pretty swiftly to fix budgets for the three year period from 2011/12 or the uncertainty around public finance will only increase. Whilst Labour are culpable neither the Tories nor the Liberal Democrats have offered us any real clues as to what they would do. No-one can object to more efficiency (Tories), or bearing down on tax cheats (LibDems), so that's where, we are told, the savings will be found. How is trust to be restored to political life if our leaders or would-be leaders cannot be honest about the difficult decisions they intend to take?
The latest slew of opinion polls suggest that maybe David Cameron is recovering some of the ground lost when the Nick Clegg bandwagon began to roll after the first televised leaders' debate. At 36% the Tories have a solid led over both Lib Dems (29%) and Labour (28%). But even at that level this is hardly a bandwagon, let alone a would-be landslide.
We are told that coalition government or hung parliaments make for weak and indecisive administrations. But how democratic is it that a party with barely one third of those voting (and probably less than a quarter of those eligible to vote) can be said to have a clear mandate. If the Lib Dems surge says anything it is perhaps that more representative Government comes from more than one party having a say in running the country. And after the expenses scandal perhaps it is better to have two-party government so that one lot can keep an eye on the other...........

Monday, 19 April 2010

Liberal with your money

Last week I had a look at the Conservative party proposal to fund £12bn of savings through a new Efficiency drive in the public sector. I concluded then the plans were unlikely to generate a fraction of the sums quoted. In part this was because they were covering ground that was already the focus of efforts to generate savings and in part because some of the proposals were based on full year projections when an incoming Government starting in May would not have a full year to start with.

So if I am sceptical about the Conservative's plans the Liberal Democrats financial proposals appear eye-wateringly fantastic. £17bn tax redistribution alongside a spend and save package aimed at generating a net £10bn a year after 2010/11. I am not a great expert on the fiscal arithmetic but the critique of the Lib Democrats tax proposals here is fairly balanced. It has been costed and independent observers generally believe the figures quoted are reasonable. What it fails to observe is that the projected savings may be eroded by the tax avoidance industry. Certainly the £5bn targeted from anti-avoidance measures strike me as a triumph of hope over experience. I also cannot believe that those home owners sitting on a £2m+ pile will not sit by and let the state take a 1% levy. Finally hitting the airline industry with a per plane duty may not be viable in the wake of the current disruption to services - huge losses are currently being suffered by carriers. So overall a creditable effort but not one that quite does it for me. Either those ambitions of a £10,000 threshold will need to be phased in or like all the other parties there will have to be an increase in either the scope or basic rate of VAT.

So on to the spend and save package. Here I think they have done a good job. The savings proposals for the most part in quite specific areas. Whilst many will welcome the end of the ID card scheme and biometric passports, they may feel less comfortable about the proposals on Trident and the reform of winter fuel payments. There are weak spots in these proposals. A lot rides on our old friend Whitehall waste. The Lib Dems also appear to dislike Quangos so much they are going to abolish them twice (once in Education and once everywhere else). These proposals may not withstand scrutiny once they see the light of day but I doubt whether any party does not have a bonfire of the Quangos in its sights. And we do at least we know what a Lib Dem Government would do to save money. And no-one - even the Labour and Conservatives who must now consider how to deal with resurgent support for the Lib Dems - can argue that the proposals lack transparency.

My challenge to the two main parties would be for equal transparency. Do I think we'll get it? If they want to recover lost ground I think they must. The two party cartel is having to deal with a challenge to its inalienable right to take it in turns to run the country. They should stop trying to tell us what they think we want to hear and tell us instead what we need to know.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Work in Progress

My very low expectations for this election campaign are not being disappointed. Yesterday the newspapers carried a story about how the Conservatives planned to finance their policy of reversing Labour's planned increase in National Insurance contributions - the tax on jobs you will recall. The Conservatives acknowledge that the NI policy - at a cost of £6bn - will need to be funded. Interestingly they have indicated that they have plans to raise £12bn with half paying for NI, the remainder to go back to the public sector.

The source of this funding - discussed in the FT by none other than that public sector efficiency guru Sir Peter Gershon - would be as a result of driving out further efficiency savings in the public sector. All very laudable except that the targets for driving out £12bn in a year seem for the most part very familiar - back office reform, better procurement, freezing IT projects and bearing down on consultants. I would be amazed if this shopping list was not already the focal point for many public sector organisations as they look to deliver on existing efficiency targets. For that reason I believe that most of the £12bn is accounted for in existing targets and plans - in short there is a huge amount of double counting here. Many public sector operations are already struggling to realise bottom line savings as a result of these initiatives (many of which have been worked on since "efficiency" and Vfm resurfaced in 2004) and so to believe that there will be a step change in improved delivery immediately after the election is hard to swallow - hence the leading cartoon. And even if there is a vast swathe of public sector organisations not yet 'doing' efficiency, many of the proposals here cannot be done either quickly or without a cost - and zero cost is implicit in the Conservative Party figures.

However that is not to dismiss the whole exercise as fanciful. The plans to freeze recruitment and allow savings to be generated as a result of not filling vacancies ought to meet the objective of generating savings in 2010/11 and at no cost. So this morning, with my trusty fag packet to hand, I did some quick figure-work.

The assertion I have seen is that turnover rates in the public sector is 8%. Lets assume that the 8% represents a net exodus from the public sector (questionable but still) and lets assume an average salary of £25000 or just over £2000 a month). The ONS statistics on the public sector indicate there are a staggering 6.1m employees. If 8% are leaving annually that is nearly 1/2m a year or more pertinently, 40,000 a month. So each month the public sector could find itself able to save £84m (40,000 leaving multiplied by £2000+ per month) simply by not replacing the people that leave. Now as we go month by month through 2010/11 the accumulation of savings is impressive. For example in the first month of 2010/11 (April) we save £84m; in May we save £168 - the £84m from the people who left in April plus a further £84m from the May departures. By my estimates that is worth £6.6bn by March. Impressive and certainly sufficient to pay for the NI policy.

But: recall that the savings have to be generated in 2010/11 at no cost. We're already into 2010/11 and there will be a flow of appointments already in train which are probably irreversible. So I have written off the first three months. No matter because by my estimates there are still potential savings of £3.8bn to be had even if the policy only starts to bite after three months. If we also assume that the promise to afford a degree of protection to front-line services would mean that only half the departures would not be replaced we could see a saving of £1.9bn being generated - in line with Conservative thinking here.

Just one small snag - the number of post losses to generate this saving in 2010/11 has been quoted as 40000. By my reckoning its rather more than that. Partly because the machinery to ensure an effective freeze could probably only operate for nine months in the year of the election; and partly because, on the assumption that this is being done by natural wastage, savings will be built over the year as people leave and not from Day 1.

By my reckoning the post losses that would need to be found to fund plans in 2010/11 are 182,000. It is only once we have a recruitment freeze running across the whole year that savings will start approaching target levels. My own estimate is that on the basis of an average public sector salary of £25000, one would need to lose 80000 jobs to save £2bn in a full year. That a bit less scary than the 182,000 required for 2010/11 but still more a good deal more than 40,000.

And bear in mind, thats the most do-able bit of the £12bn we have been told can be saved through efficiency. In short the whole thing is fantasy politics. Lets hope the rest of this campaign can be conducted on the basis that the British people are not idiots.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Weighing up the Pro's and Con's

....and we're off. Four weeks or more when our political leaders will be alternately meeting the real people in whom they are now taking an uncharacteristic interest; or rallying the faithful at set piece "meetings". And whatever it is they are doing, ensuring that the mass media are watching. The public meanwhile will be trying to assess which party is promising the best hand-outs or at least is offering a commitment not to touch the things that matter to them. On such things will the latest 5-year contract be drawn up between the people and the party fortunate enough to win enough seats to form a government.

The ideas such as they are seem to revolve around "change", "fairness" and - serious expression - "tough choices" (is there any other type of choice?) over taxes and public spending. I will listen to the debates and then I will vote. At this stage (unusually for a life-long centre/leftie) I have a really open mind. I am attracted to some of the Big Society rhetoric of David Cameron and so am really prepared to give the Conservatives my vote. However they have this habit of blowing their credibility with silly stunts like the promise not to reverse the impending National Insurance increases. That's £7bn that will need to be found elsewhere - not a trivial exercise. Labour are the devil we know but they look tired and I am not sure they have the stamina to govern for another five years or to start dismantling the bloated bureaucracy that they have spent 12 years building. The Lib Dems meanwhile have a real asset in Vince Cable but unlike Lionel Messi at the Nou Camp last night I don't think he can win this one on his own.

The best contribution to the debate that I have seen to date have been Choosing the Common Good published last month by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales. On a similar theme a new book, 'Red Tory' by Philip Blond, (read about but not read yet) appears to express similar sentiments, arguing that our broken society needs to be repaired by more communitarian solutions rather than, on the one hand, the promotion of unbridled free markets associated with the Tories, or the state sponsored solutions that are Labour's stock in trade. Armed with these two, my choice will be for the party which is at once brave enough to deal honestly about our options for public spending and taxes before being elected and then has the courage to set about rebuilding a country in which people take greater responsibility for contributing to the communities in which they live and the people that live there.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

So dull I cannot even think of a title...............

I forgot why it was I had not shared the financial results of the British Humanist Association until I read them again tonight. They are pretty unexciting, which says a lot even for annual accounts. The trustees there appear to be models of financial rectitude and the financial stability of the BHA with income just below £1m per annum seems pretty assured for the future. The accounts for 2008 show that around £12ok was spent on the atheist bus campaign although with donations slightly in excess of that, a very public campaign did not blow a hole in their finances. If you are suffering from insomnia the accounts are free to view on the Charities Commission website. Perhaps I have missed something noteworthy based on a quick read through, but I suspect not.

I have recently reflected on the sheer poverty of choice for the British electorate in the forthcoming General Election. Any remaining vestiges of sympathy I might have had for Labour were well and truly blown away with the revelation that former Cabinet Ministers were offering their services (for cash) to lobbying companies. The whole lobbying process feels to me wholly undemocratic and whilst I am not so naive not to realise that this is how business gets done in the Westminster village it is yet another unwelcome reminder as to how far standards have fallen in public life. Still I suppose it gives the Government a decent election slogan: Vote Labour: the Best that Money can buy.

A final parting shot is this. The combination of a determined (zealous) group of anti-religionists, a workable (but not huge) pot of money, some lobbying skills, a friendly media and a group of former Cabinet Ministers for hire may be all it takes to further undermine and marginalise religious life in this country. Nothing in the election campaign thus far suggests that any of the major political parties will do more than stand by and let this trend continue.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

And the winner is........

The following excerpt from Wikipedia on the 1992 election makes for interesting reading. I have italicised and boldened a few select passages.

"The United Kingdom general election of 1992 was held on 9 April 1992, and was the fourth consecutive victory for the Conservative Party. This election result was one of the biggest surprises in the 20th Century, as polling leading up to the day of the election showed Labour under leader Neil Kinnock to be consistently, if narrowly, ahead.

John Major had won the leadership election in November 1990 succeeding the outgoing PM Margaret Thatcher.

During his term leading up to the 1992 elections he oversaw the British involvement in the Gulf War, introduced legislation to replace the unpopular Community Charge with Council Tax, and signed the Maastricht treaty. The UK had gone into recession around the time of Major's appointment, along with most of the other industrialised nations. John Major announced the date of the election on 11 March shortly after Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont had delivered the Budget. It was one of the most dramatic elections in the UK since the end of the Second World War, after the Conservative Party defeated the initial favourites, the Labour Party.

Labour had been ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls since as long ago as 1989, and Thatcher's main reason for her resignation was that she felt that the Tories would stand a better chance of winning the next election if they had a new leader. As 1992 dawned, the recession deepened and the election loomed, most opinion polls suggested that Labour were still favourites to win the election. However, on Election Day, The Sun newspaper ran a front page headline which urged "the last person to leave Britain" to "turn out the lights" if Labour won the election. This headline was widely regarded as the saviour of the Conservative government, and The Sun famously ran a front page headline the next day - It's The Sun Wot Won It - to claim that it had won the election for the Conservatives."

Today's Sunday Telegraph reports the Tory lead in the polls down to a 2-year low. This is in line with the trends reported by other pollsters. Now not all the parallels are the same - not least because the current PM does not appear to attract the same degree of public support and sympathy as John Major. But the scepticism about Mr Cameron does appear to have echoes of the Kinnock leadership.

Overall I do not think one can rule out the potential for a re-run. The prospect of lightening striking twice and an unlikely Labour win strikes me with about as much glee as the Major, "against the odds" victory in '92. But if Mr Brown does pull it off in the face of such hostility to him and his government, no-one can say that he hasn't earned it or that the Conservatives hadn't blown a huge opportunity.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Export Drive

As part of an irregular enquiry into how secularism is being funded I had the good fortune to stumble upon the accounts of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason Ltd. These are filed with Companies House so we can all view them provided we are prepared to pay the princely sum of £1.
My money might have been more wisely spent. All the accounts for the year to 30 April 2009 tell us is that there has been a substantial growth in income up from £81k to £317k. The balance sheet reveals a cash balance of £186k and debtors of £57k. The accounts make it clear that reserves (reflected in the cash and debtors) are being built up to to establish the charity.
Of the donations that have been made, the British Humanist Association got £13k, which will have pleased Stephen Fry. However the biggest item by far is a donation of £102k to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason (US). The US arm of the Dawkins Foundation actually controls its UK equivalent so I guess that having racked up some Gift Aid from UK donations the money goes to support its bigger cousin across the pond.
So next step is to see what is on the record for the Foundation over there.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

A Party Political Broadcast...........

Two interesting pieces in the papers about the place of Christianity and the church in everyday life. The first from Nigel Farndale in the Sunday Telegraph argues that national life without the Church of England would be much diminished, a curious conclusion, perhaps, coming as it does from an atheist. Whilst I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the piece it strikes me as a plea for the preservation of the faith as heritage asset: Morning Prayer as an event that overseas tourists would queue up to watch; the sort of institution that John Major was conjuring up when he talked about warm beer, cricket on the village green and old maids cycling to evensong. Nostalgic certainly, beguiling perhaps, but ultimately irrevelant.
The second from Frank Skinner in last week's Times takes a rather different, Christian perspective. As far as persuading me is concerned, he was pushing at an open door. And his comment that whilst there are relatively few people in church these days, they are at least there because they want to be there struck a particular chord. Whilst I do not believe Frank's tongue was entirely absent from his cheek I think there is some truth in the idea that persecution (even it is of the "Oi, you, God-botherer" variety) is the natural condition for the average Christian.
A General Election is weeks away. Thus far, the choices put in front of the electorate have been lamentable. A government as tired as this one ought to be looking at meltdown on polling day. Thanks to David Cameron and the Tories "New" Labour is now believing a hung parliament may be a realistic outcome. And not forgetting the Liberal Democrats, challenging though that is. The remarkable thing missing from all three political parties is leadership, a sense that they have what it takes to see this country through the depths of a recession, are able to take the tough decisions on the economy and at the same time, take us with them.
The most compelling pitch in the forthcoming election debate I have seen thus far is Choosing the Common Good, not bad considering it was written by Catholic Bishops in England and Wales. Of course they do not have votes to win but it is perhaps that very factor that allows them to write with conviction; and to spell out an agenda which seems to me to argue persuasively that our growth as individuals is in large measure about the things we do and the care we take of those around us. This is not the church as quaint relic or as beleaguered and oppressed pariah struggling for survival in a secular world; this is the church with a relevant message for the world today. If only I could given them my vote...........oh, I just have.

Saturday, 27 February 2010


Are we seeing history in the making? It seems to me that a great institution, one that seeks to shape people's everyday lives, is now tearing itself apart. Differences of opinion are being expressed in very strong terms and it may be that it is too late for reconciliation. Perhaps there will just have to be a parting of the ways with one camp staying put and the other moving off in a new direction. This of course is a reference to the unholy row that has blown up among members of the Richard Dawkins foundation. This article in yesterday's Times tells the whole story.
I have from time to time ventured onto an atheist discussion forum to offer a Christian perspective. Whilst some of the exchanges have been extremely cordial I have nevertheless suffered the proverbial hairdryer treatment at the hands of the more fundamentalist factions of the atheist community. It now seems that they are turning the hairdryers on one another and even on their leader. Poor Professor Dawkins: how he must be suffering for his faith.

Its not often that I sign petitions but this one which I read about on Fr. Ivan's excellent blog got my early and unqualified support. There is a fair bit of dust being kicked up by the NSS and others about the fact some of the costs of the visit are being picked up by the taxpayer. Why shouldn't they? The fact that some people do not necessarily wish to engage in a particular activity does not mean that those who do should have their views or aspirations trashed. Nor is it without parallel that State visits (or in this case one with equivalent status) are supported with public funds. So, since the secularists have a petition I think its terrific idea that we fight fire with fire and have one of our own.
I think its worth comparing the scale of taxpayer support for the Pope's visit with the money that we are being asked to find for the 2012 Olympics. Because there is one certain parallel between the two and that is whilst everyone may not support a visit from the head of the Roman Catholic church there are plenty who are equally unenthused by the Olympics. Now the costs of the former according to an NSS article is £20m. I would suggest this compares extremely favourably with the £9bn+ that is being spent on the Olympics (or, for every £1 for spent on the Holy Father, that's £450 for the Olympics). The Olympics investment of course is in part about legacy and the laudable plans for the regeneration of areas of East London . So I suggest that the Pope's visit may leave another legacy, the regeneration of Christian faith in parts of the country. Now that, as they say, would be priceless.