About Me

Welcome to my blog. I am a former local journalist who now works in PR and a Conservative and community activist in Woking and Horsell. This blog will keep updated on local issues as well as my interests and quirky news stories.

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Eye have moved

Please visit The Woking Eye to carry on where I left off…

New beginnings

On June 29, this blog will be one year old. During the election campaign, I experienced quite a bit of traffic as the Rosie vs Jonathan battle heated up but with the elections over and everyone fed up of politics, those readers have gone and the number of repeat visits – mostly I suspect from Lib Dem activists checking what I had written – reduced.

During the next 10 days, I will be busy preparing to get married and am going to take that time away from the blog to think about how to make it better for readers in future. I want to move it away from being nominally a Horsell blog because there wouldn’t really be enough to write about on a daily basis and now Horsell has The Resident blog, I’d rather contribute to the debate on that site that try to match it here. So a change in name is probably in the offing, which I know is terribly confusing but it’ll hurt me more!

I’d still like to be able to give a view of what’s going on in the Woking democratic process from the perspective I get working quite closely with the Conservative group and association. I think that’s something you probably can’t get elsewhere and could be useful (but not too useful, obviously!). I’d also like to be able to talk, within obvious boundaries, about my experiences as a magistrate because again, that’s something that isn’t necessarily available elsewhere.

As I go through my CIPR course (I got a distinction for my first assessment, by the way!) I’d also like to start talking more about Public Relations as a influential factor in our society and politics and picking  up on instances of bad PR and where it has had a subtle effect. For example the Daily Mail carried a story today about a Piranha being caught in a Kent lake. Not at all tied in to the Piranha 3D movie, released in August, I’m sure.

What I don’t want this blog to become is a commentary on national politics, because there’s a load of other blogs that are better than me at that. You know my position, liberal Tory, finding out what someone thinks of every issue gets tedious unless they’ve anything unique to say. So those are some of the thoughts going round in my head. When I get back after my marital mini-break (we’re not honeymooning until September), they’ll be a redesign using the superb WordPress 3.0 and a re-launch along slightly different lines.

Forging ahead

The government today announced some more projects that would have to be put on hold in light of the economic circumstances we find ourselves in. Among them was the £80m loan to Sheffield Forgemasters, which sits very close to NC’s constituency.

Labour beatniks, keen to grab back Sheffield City Council from the Lib Dems and keep them out of the Sheffield Central constituency where the majority is now just 165 for Paul Blomfield, have already been condemning this move. But to say that it will cost jobs is just nonsense – no jobs currently exist; the postponement of the loan will mean that they won’t be created as planned. This money would be better spent avoiding cuts to the hundreds of other projects where cancelled government funding will mean private contractors losing revenue and having to lay off staff.

But as they are involved in the “leaching” industry of outsourcing away from union-backed in-house public sector workers, Derek Simpson doesn’t give so much of a monkey’s about them. Apart from anything else, £80m is simply far too much public money to spend on 150 jobs, whether in Sheffield, South Wales or Surrey.

English football fever

The first world cup I can remember was Mexico ’86 and I was mad about it. I still remember the dramas – Bryan Robson‘s injury, Ray Wilkins getting sent off against Morocco and the glory of a Gary Lineker hat-trick against the Poles to get out of the group stages. Then onto the great game against Paraguay and finally the infamous Argentina game where Diego Maradona – just as bonkers then as now but no less brilliant for it – decided the result with the best and worst goals in history.

It’s scary to contemplate how different the game I adored as a youngster is from the game we are currently watching in South Africa. In 1986, you could hear a dull thud every time the ball was hit hard (see video below) – now the ball is so light that it hardly makes a noise. Before the flooding of the Premier League with overseas players, there was a considerably larger pool of talent for the England manager Bobby Robson to pick from. They also knew how to play as a team and England caps – not the silly money of the Premier League – was their number one motivation.

During the years between Italia ’90 and France ’98, the English game changed dramatically. It ceased to become a sport and became instead a form of entertainment that was commoditised by BSkyB and sponsors to reinforce their brands. Footballers were no longer sportsmen, they became entertainers and even famous celebrities and were paid accordingly. England wasn’t the first nation to do this – Italy had been paying big wages in Serie A – but it was the first to do so in such a comprehensive way.

In all the excitement, no-one stopped to think how so wealthy and powerful a league independent from the Football Association could possibly benefit to the England football team. Or perhaps they did and ploughed on regardless. But rather than opening up the football market, the Premier League created several super-teams, three of whom have shared all but one of the titles since the formation in 1992. Rather than creating better English players, it was more commercially viable to buy them in. And rather than seek to teach English managers how to galvanise and control the newly-inflated egos of football, the new money meant that they could simply be hired in, ready-made from the continent.

The movement that was supposed to set English football free had no time for development, training or nurture. It just wanted success – at whatever price was deemed reasonable.

Every world cup, one looks at the players in the English side and concludes that they must be one of the top five or six sides in the world. But in each of the last competitions we have lacked the ability to beat Brazil (2002), Portugal (2006), Argentina (1998) and Germany (1996), Portugal (2000), France and Portugal (2004). In that time we beat the Netherlands (1996), Argentina (2002) and Germany (2000) – but only during the group, not knock-out, stages. We can’t lift our performances for the big occasion. And that’s about attitude and teamwork.

You can argue that in 1986 and 1990 things were no different but I disagree. England were hugely unlucky in both tournaments not to reach the final and in 1990 I think they could and should have won. Looking at highlights of these games now, it is difficult to imagine today’s team playing with the same fluency, awareness, communication and selflessness. They may have got fitter but that’s about all.

And until our domestic league structure changes and England comes first, we will never win another competition as we’ll always come up short when the pressure is on. That success has been mortgaged and sold off by the Premier League to pay for its footballing theatre.

Can flat tax be made fair?

I’m increasingly interested in the concept of a flat tax rate for the UK economy. Under such a tax regime – which would save a great deal of time and money in the collection – the personal allowance threshold would be raised and then a single rate, regardless of income, would be paid on all earnings above that figure.

Critics of the idea call it regressive because as a proportion of income, those on lower incomes pay more – really? With a 25% flat rate and a £10,000 threshold, someone earning £25,000 pays £3,750 tax a year and someone on £100,000 pays £22,500. I have to say that that doesn’t sound hugely unfair to me – the lower earner is paying 15% of their income and the higher earner 22.5%. Is there something I’m not understanding here? I think the real reasons that critics oppose it is because it isn’t progressive and they like the idea of punishing higher earners.

There are concerns that VAT also hits the less well-off – I agree that it does but that’s nothing to do with a flat tax rate as far as I can see. In fact, if the government were to build VAT and council tax into the flat rate and tax at 37.5% while abolishing VAT and local authority charges altogether, surely that would be even fairer to those on low incomes? Whether it would bring in enough money is another matter – but that addresses the other point about flat tax.

I’ve argued before that the 50% tax rate is morally justifiable but practically pointless because of the ease of evasion. One of the primary advantages that I can see of a flat rate is to get the wealthy engaged with the tax system and paying up. Needless to say, any move to a more encouraging tax outlook for entrepreneurs and wealth-creators would need to be accompanied by a total clampdown on loopholes – something that Labour seemed to shy away from.

Anyway, I’m still looking at it.

The 180-degree turn

As a student at the University of Surrey just after Labour came to power, one of the few Labour policies that I supported was the introduction of tuition fees. I sent countless letters to the student newspaper in support  and – unsurprisingly – didn’t find much room for my view among the NUS establishment. My point then was that the fee structure as originally proposed exempted many of the less well-off students from paying the fees – but that the abolition of the maintenance grant as part of the tuition fee introduction hit poorer students far harder.

But the NUS didn’t listen to me and since then things have changed hugely, with the cost of a university education now unenviably massive. I cannot think that anyone would found a nation on the principle of leaving young graduates tens of thousands of pounds in debt as a price for their education and it’s utterly bonkers that we’ve got to the stage we have.

Even in 1998, it was obvious to me that there was a pretty simple problem here. The vast majority of young people educated to A-level now wish to attend university – yet the nation simply doesn’t have the funds to allow them to do this and support the swollen university corps needed to deal with the numbers. There are, it logically follows, only two ways to deal with this – to reduce the number of students at university or to increase the amount of money in the system.

Labour’s solution, typically, was to give students money from the future and postpone the resolution of the problem until some unspecified date. Today, David Willetts revealed that even this charade had now run its course and that resolution was now needed. There is no more money left to go in.

It would be great if everybody could have a university education but I have always believed that there are far too many students taking courses that don’t improve their life chances, too many students only at university for social reasons and too many who, even though committed and willing, don’t end up giving the nation back the value of their degrees. Conversely, the amount of money going into serious research in our universities is falling year-on-year. They have become places that cater for drinking and socialising first and research and academia second.

There’s nothing wrong with drinking and socialising - but not when it’s funded by the taxpayer. And if the Lib Dems are not prepared to U-turn and countenance further rises in tuition fees, we all need to do a U-turn and consider once again what the purpose of universities and their facilities is. I believe that there are much more imaginative and worthwhile ways that those facilities can be tied into higher learning without the need of three-year courses. I also think the nation needs to work out how many university places it can afford – and what it wants to use them for – and award that number, not have a show of hands who fancies a spot at uni and then try to squeeze them all in.

Higher education in this country isn’t working, similar to many of the young graduates it produces. It’s time that we had a cultural re-assessment of the role that universities play in our society and lives because the bare fact is that the good times of universal higher education are coming to an end. In future it must be a properly integrated resource available to the most able regardless of background, not a sellable commodity for anyone able to pay (or borrow).

PS I’m not exempting myself from this – I did an undergraduate degree in Music, which was very good and enjoyable. But was it necessary and could it be justified under current economic circumstances? Doubtful.

A Bit of Beethoven

I enjoyed doing the first one, so here’s another – this time Beethoven and the slow movement of his Pathetique Sonata.

Very interesting listening to yourself play – it accentuates everything so you notice how good the fluent phrases are and just how terribly off-putting all the bad habits and idiosyncrasies are. It makes me want to record it again but I think it’s more interesting posting it warts and all.

PS this one is in HD so if you have a slower connection, it might be a bit of a pain to load. Sorry, I’m experimenting with the camera

Cutting with credibility

The PM speaking at MK

The PM’s speech in Milton Keynes was among the most important of his political career so far. It defined his position more clearly than anything previously on the defining political question of the decade – how to get Britain back into business.

We can take from it several things – firstly that the PM will lay it on very thick about the economic crisis being Labour’s fault. I think that’s no bad thing – particularly because they are starting to come out with some pretty outrageous criticism of the coalition on a situation they helped, at least, to create. But I think he’s got to be careful and not get too free with this tactic. He needs to be the consensus man, the leader, the unifier and the solution, not the “new” problem.

Secondly, the PM is happy to tell us just how bad it is, unlike Labour. Not everyone will agree with him but it is obviously in his interest to make things seem as bad as possible. I don’t think a great deal of exaggeration is necessary – things are very, very bad – but the openness he is in a political position to afford could be something of an advantage. I think if played well, far from Mervyn King’s prediction being correct, the public could be sympathetic to the Coalition for some time to come. Honest actions go a long way in politics nowadays and the public recognise favourably politicians who are prepared to do the right, if not popular, thing.

Thirdly, Danny Alexander will be right next to him – all the way. There’s no way that the Liberal Democrats are getting off the hook with this one as full members of the Coalition and I don’t think they want to. NC has said that there will be a “cut with kindness” policy that will shield some of the most vulnerable from the worst of what needs to be done but that can only do so much – they can’t be protected from council cuts in many areas.

Nor do I think it’s a good idea for George Osborne to widely consult the public on where to save money. This is a very risky strategy that could puta very considerable rod in his back when Labour organises a Twitter campaign to get people to respond in a particular way. The results could then be FOIed and may not be where the final decision needs to be made. It could look like the public has been consulted and ignored – not great PR.

The simple answer here is that, a bit like Masterchef, this new economic future is going to “change our life”. There are opportunities for efficiency, yes, and looking at different ways of providing services. But the bottom line is that we need to get a £170bn deficit down and there’s a lot of money to hack off budgets. It must be done, it must be done quickly and there is a certainly amount of political risk that is going to come as the pay-off of winning the election (sort of).

I think the Coalition needs to remember that the public has a great deal more of a problem with dishonesty than ineffectiveness. If the government tries to mask the problem, if it breaks its promises over what it is going to cut, if there is a suspicion that certain groups are being unjustly protected or if there is any underhand treasury regulation as with the last government, the considerable goodwill that the public holds will drain quickly.

If the government is straight, calls a cut a cut and acts responsibly for the best interests of the nation, it might just find itself laying down a legacy of decencyif not prosperityand a chance in 2015 to lead the country properly back into the new world economy with its head held high.

No case for foxhunting

As Basil Fawlty said: "Cuddle one of these and you'll never play the guitar again"

I don’t subscribe to the view that while British soldiers were dying in Afghanistan, it was wrong to run a story about two young girls being mauled by a fox in their own home. Two little girls have been nastily injured and that would have been a story whatever else was going on.

But neither do I agree that this case furthers the argument to repeal the hunting ban. We have plenty of foxes around here and as soon as they see you, they scarper. None would dream of coming into the house and if they did – ban or no ban – they’d be lucky to make it out again. But truly urban foxes – those that live in London boroughs and inner city areas – are much more used to human presence and have learned that we are rarely a threat (at least intentionally) and they can outpace us in unenclosed spaces.

Foxes are highly evolved predators, which makes them efficient hunters but also rather unpleasant killers of domestic pets. There is a reason, after all, that hunting was initiated in the first instance ie to protect livestock. That reason still holds but the Hunting Act has been in force for five years now and livestock numbers have not dramatically fallen and foxes are still controlled in the countryside – often, it has to be said, by huntsmen.

The difference in behaviours between the urban and country fox means that trying to use an urban context to justify a country pursuit is just nonsense. I maintain that illiberal though the Hunting Act may have been, the country has moved on and there are more pressing things to attend to. As you can see in the Daily Mail comments, the nation is totally polarised on this issue – the anti-hunt lobby are prepared to libel the mother in the story by insinuating that foxes weren’t responsible for the attack and the pro-hunt viewpoint is that we should be able to kill these animals as necessary.

My heart instinctively wants hunting back – it was a spiteful, class-fuelled sop that has done little for animal welfare. I respect the traditions of the countryside and believe in supporting the people who live there. But my head says no – there is simply no justification for the coalition to split itself and everyone else into opposing camps for an issue that in overall terms matters little other than to quench the thirst for revenge.

There are better battles to fightConservatives should let this one go.

Mind your language

This story particularly caught my eye today both in the papers this morning and then Radio 5 Live earlier this evening. There is a move by the Queen’s English Society to form an Academy of English to protect and adjudicate on the proper use of English worldwide.

It’s interesting on a number of levels. A lot of people will say “who knows what the correct version of English is?” and the answer to that one is simple – anyone who understands the rules of grammar and cares enough to stick to them. The next question is “So which version of English are we talking about?” and the answer to that again is simple – the original, English one.

Then we move onto “How do you expect to get people to speak English according to the rules?” and the answer to that is that there is no expectation to be able to do this – the academy is simply there to preserve the heritage and providence of the language. In France and Spain, similar academies exist.

The final objection is usually one of snobbery – the idea that correct use of English is somehow a statement of class and superiority. I don’t accept that  our great language should become a pawn  through which people express their desired status. It may be that there are differences in English proficiency between socio-economic groups but the academy wouldn’t seek to highlight those and nor should it. Neither must it be held hostage by any perceived taboo within them.

It is important that we understand the unique place our language has served in the world in modern historical times. Those who enjoy it in a purer form than one typically encounters in everyday life should have an establishment that ensures future generations can do so too.