30 May 2006

Bush, Blair and Aristotle

Be wary of opinion polls. Not the words of Aristotle, but close.

Yet it would be hard to ignore the relentless evidence on both sides of the Atlantic. Electoral support for Blair and Bush is ebbing away.

Blair's popularity ratings are lower than those of any previous Labour Prime Minister. Back in 1968, cocky little Harold Wilson devalued the pound sterling and was swiftly savaged by cartoonists and comics when he claimed that the 'pound in your pocket' would not change value.

His popularity rating collapsed in a heap of derision, but Blair's is actually lower.

Even when President Clinton finally admitted to close personal contact with Monica Lewinsky, his resultant popularity score was around twice that of Bush's today.

Both Bush and Blair are on their way out. We shall have to endure George until January 2009. Tony likes to keep us guessing.

Both are hoping to go down in history. They believe it will be for their handling of Iraq, though the list of additional personal successes compiled by Tony may be a bit longer.

'History will prove the decision we made to be the right decision,' said Bush, back in 2003.

Blair conceded that he just might have been wrong about the actual reasons for military action. 'If we are wrong,' he said, 'we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive.'

What about the inhuman carnage and suffering in Darfur, or the despotic regimes in Zimbabwe and Burma? But then, they don't fill our petrol tanks.

Blair seems to have forsaken the 'core values' of New Labour – though the exasperated Brown never stops talking about them. Unfortunately Bush gets closer to his core values by the day and remains – to use his exact words – 'driven with a mission from God'. He recalls God saying:

'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.' 'And I did,' said the President.

Perhaps what history will fail to understand is why, in both countries, even when the Iraq business was an established fiasco, the two leaders were voted back for a further term.

That's democracy.

Around 320 BC Aristotle remarked:

'A democracy is a government in the hands of men of low birth, no property and vulgar employments.'

OK, so he got the property angle wrong. But when we use military might to impose our particular brand of democracy on others, an alternative voice on the subject is no bad thing.

I suspect George doesn't rate Aristotle highly. He would prefer the voices of Rumsfeld and Cheney – and of course, God.

But at least Aristotle is still going down in history after 2,300 years.

23 May 2006

Read all about it

My computer is cunningly designed so that BBC news flashes regularly appear on-screen accompanied by a merry little jingle. This is not a special deal for ex-employees – anybody can play.

The other day I was addressing my keyboard while listening to a Haydn string quartet. It would have been theoretically possible also to have been eating a cucumber sandwich, sipping a chilled sauvignon and watching the trout rise on the Ballynahinch River.

But I try hard not to be pretentious.

In the middle of all this creativity stuff, up flashes the headline 'German Cannibal Jailed For Life'. I thought I should hear out the Adagio before clicking on to the full story. It's all a question of values.

I am sure it was the great American columnist HL Mencken who defined news as anything that makes you say 'gee whiz'. I'm equally sure there's a stronger local translation, but please don't write in.

That particular newsflash certainly had more grab than 'Antrim Cow Is World Beater' which once appeared in a local shall-not-be-named daily at a time when the international world was falling apart.

And it's even more succinct than 'Police Probe Widow In Garden Riddle' or 'Sex Bishop In Mercy Dash', or even, ‘England Hope In Gay Romp’.

News is irrational. If a team of professionals spends ten days saving a child's life in hospital, that's not news. If a comparable effort is needed to extract a child from a cave, that could have world headlines.

Meanwhile, the celebrity factor is taking over. I came across research into an Atlanta newspaper – it could have been any newspaper anywhere – ­which devoted 90 articles in 2004 and over 80 photographs to a local girl who reached the final of the 'American Idol' competition. She lost unfortunately to one Fantasia.

'It's Fantasia!' declared the front page's tallest headline, above a full-page tear-sodden picture. Elsewhere a much smaller headline read: 'Terrorists aim to hit US soon'.

Advertising and news are getting closer – where would newspapers be without the ambiguous 'advertising feature'? Advertisers are the real Big Brothers.

The Health Promotion Agency once ran a commendable advertising-information campaign about sexually transmitted diseases, targeting the loos in public houses. It was reckoned that young men, six pints into the evening and hopeful of 'getting lucky', would be making frequent visits to the place of relief and would have enough quality time to peruse the facts and the warnings, close up, at eye level.

But 'convenience advertising', in many bizarre forms, appears worldwide.

One TV country music station advertises through a talking urinal. Don't ask me what particular action triggers the message. But the sexy female voice coos: 'Don't miss tonight's show. You seem to be missing everything else!'

This is James Hawthorne, for the Down Democrat, reporting from Crossgar.

16 May 2006

Losers and winners

Tony Blair's recent bad days at the office were not enough to dissolve his perpetual smile. It might even have broadened once he wiped clean the knives after his brutal Cabinet re-shuffle.

The line is that, the last time Labour had disappointing results in local elections, they went on to win their third parliamentary victory.

Of course no political party ever has a bad election – according to the leaders' buoyant interviews afterwards. Everybody can be a winner.

We accept that the Tories had their best haul of seats for fourteen years.

'We see a Labour Party in some sort of serious meltdown,' said a triumphant deeply-sincere David Cameron, 'with people coming straight from Labour to the Conservatives.'

His office spoke of 'the special magic' he had brought to the campaign. Perhaps you didn't notice.

The Liberal Democrat leader Sir Thing Campbell said it had been an 'election of consolidation . . . I think we have come through this test.' What particular test was that?

The Greens are happy too. Supporters who defected to other parties apparently did so because those other parties are supporting the Greens' ideas. Work that one out.

The 'far right racist' British National Party is jubilant. It claims to be 'the Labour Party your father voted for'. Not my Dad, Mr Nick Griffin.

I feel just a bit sorry for Charles Clarke, erstwhile Home Secretary and the new boy in the back bench block. Articulate to a fault, he inherited the muddle of his predecessor David Blunkett. Even the loquacious can soon run out of excuses.

But is there not a touch of xenophobia, for which we are all guilty, about the scandal of the non-deportation of foreign criminals?

Like it or not, 'foreigners' who live in the UK legally, and who have served prison sentences, should not get a lesser deal than our own home-grown criminals. We stopped transporting undesirables 150 years ago. If however they have been living in the UK illegally, they should have been deported or extradited – before trial.

John Prescott has been less upright than horizontal. Today is the fifth anniversary of his punch-up with an egg-throwing critic, after which his 'two Jag' nickname became 'two jab'.

It has now evolved into 'two shag' for reasons best not disclosed to my older readers.

Had he been suffering a private marital crisis we might have had some sympathy. But a regular work-out with an underling exposed, amongst other things, bad judgement.

Did it not occur to him that, rather than hoping for lasting bliss with the new hunk in her life, the lady may simply have been dreaming of the dosh a tabloid would pay for her story?

As I said, everybody can be a winner.

09 May 2006

The public interest

In my constant search for truth and justice I discovered that today is the fiftieth anniversary of a nice piece of Prime Ministerial skulduggery.

In 1956, during the Cold War, a state-of-the-art Russian cruiser, the good ship Ordzhonikidze, with Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Marshal Nikolai Bulganin on board, arrived at Portsmouth on a 'goodwill visit'.

The Russian captain spurned the services of the local pilot and docked his gigantic vessel, inch-perfect, unaided.

That seemed to have stimulated MI6 to mount a spying escapade in which a frogman, appropriately named Crabb, went in close for a look-see.

After that things turned a bit sour. The Soviet Government protested to the Foreign Office that the said frogman had been spotted.

The unfortunate Crabb was reported 'missing presumed dead'. The following year his torso was discovered near the scene, and ten years later his skull – facts which seemed to confirm the essentials of the official report.

The Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden had of course explained matters to a packed House of Commons on 9 May 1956 – fifty years ago today.

He had refused to reveal the details, or answer questions, about 'the disappearance of a naval diver'. He had assured the House however that 'appropriate disciplinary steps' were being taken. We are left wondering what these might have been.

'It would not be in the public interest,' said the PM, 'to disclose the circumstances in which Commander Crabb is presumed to have met his death. While it is the practice for ministers to accept responsibility, I think it is necessary in the special circumstances of this case to make it clear that what was done was done without the authority or knowledge of Her Majesty's ministers.'

So spinning, covering up and evading responsibility – although Blair, Prescott, Reid, Clarke and others have this down to a fine art ­– would appear to be a parliamentary custom of long standing.

But if you really want to know the truth, worry not. The Cabinet papers concerning the Crabb affair will be opened in 2057.

Roll back the tape 100 years. In 1957 I was on a visit to Soviet Russia, not to sabotage their navy, but for matters cultural. I was heavily disguised as a member of the Belfast Girl Singers and was accompanied by, amongst others, my fiancée and the remarkable MacPeake folk-music group from West Belfast.

The late, inimitable and amusing Francie MacPeake, got an invitation to a reception at the Kremlin. To my chagrin, I was not included.

After the party I asked Francie how things had gone.

'See Khrushchev,' said Francie, 'smoked my fegs all night.'

Note my readiness to release this highly classified material – in the public interest.

02 May 2006

The Zanzibar formula

Mainly thanks to Gordon Brown's raid on pension funds we shall all have to work longer in order to get less at the end. But those of us who have already passed our sell-by date can hope to remain undisturbed, secure in our scrap heap.

Many current employees, who signed work contracts which set out their pension arrangements, will simply have those contracts revoked.

Big corporations will explain that such revisions are necessary. 'Revision' is top management-speak for 'reduction'.

So I thought I should cast a beady, and a possibly jaundiced, eye on how top brass themselves are taking the strain.

London transport guru Bob Kiley, for example, whose efforts to eliminate gridlock fell somewhat short of expectations, decided to quit just one year into his second contract with three still to go. He departed with a £745,000 pay-off, as well as £113,425 in benefits stretching over those three years.

He also landed a consultant's fee of £3,200 a day for up to 180 days. And of course he has been allowed to stay in his grace-and-favour Georgian townhouse.

'I do not leave with a bleak or troubled conscience,' said Mr Kiley. Perhaps he's missing one.

But generally, it must be said, heads of big commercial corporations have their pay and conditions calculated in an impeccably rigorous way. It goes like this.

When the board of Company A is deciding how much they should reward their top managers (that is to say, themselves) they compare salaries with similar companies B, C, D and E.

Oddly enough when Company B, C, D or E are facing the same perplexing problem they measure their own remuneration against each of the others, including the folks at Company A.

That way we have a nice cosy club which simply fixes its own salaries, without any external or independent evaluation. Consequently nobody suffers a bleak or troubled conscience. The simple argument is, if we don't pay ourselves very high salaries we won't attract the right people. Add in the practice of offering 'golden handcuffs' to encourage top managers not go elsewhere, and 'golden handshakes' to encourage other top managers to do the opposite – often because they have screwed up.

Once upon a time, in Zanzibar, it is said, an old retired official used to fire a noon-day gun – in keeping with colonial tradition. How did he know when it was exactly noon?

Simple. Through his polished brass telescope he did a daily visual check with the village clockmaker.

Somebody asked the clockmaker how he kept his clocks so accurate. 'Simple,' he said (in Swahili), 'I check with the noon-day gun.'

The Zanzibar formula seems to be working well at the top end of the salary scale.