Crossrail

I am a regular user of the railways, though not – at the moment – a commuter.  Rare is the week that I do not make at least one, roughly-matched pair of journeys.  I do this rather than drive (or fly) largely (I fondly imagine) as a matter of personal preference.  However, having recently read Michael Sandel’s Justice, I have come to realise that it is also a political act – by using the train (or even the bus), I rub shoulders (and sometimes more) with my fellow members of society and so interact with the full breadth of UK social class (all the way from standard to first) – an experience which is largely avoided by those who drive everywhere, (in)secure in their own private “bubble”.  Emboldened by my unintended political engagement and the recent news, I thought I’d be more overtly political about the railways.

In recent weeks, the government has produced a new “initiative” (one of depressingly many) that what is holding the north back is the transit time by rail between its major cities.  Now, I will admit that Trans-Pennine Express is a good description of the train’s route, but is rather optimistic about its pace (unless one is a geologist).  Nevertheless, I am somewhat sceptical that knocking 10 minutes off the transit time between Manchester and Leeds will create a new tiger economy in the lee of the M62.  However, the output from this government “tank” (which I presume is what remains once we has extracted any thought from a think tank) is that faster trains in the distant future is what is needed to revitalise the north.

I travel around the north by rail quite rarely, but I follow several people on Twitter who are regular users.  Now, I will readily admit that this sample has not been selected with the sort of rigour expected of a regular listener to More-or-Less – but remains interesting anecdotally.  I have yet to see any users of TPE complaining about the speed of service – but many complaints about the lack of seating and excess of unreliability.  The same story applies to Northern Rail – which, from what I read, must have taken its mission statement from one (or more) of Dante’s nine circles of hell (or perhaps the franchise is being operated by agoraphobic sardines?).  I would be willing to go out on a limb (statistically) and suggest that for the majority of northern rail users, some extra rolling stock and some decent maintenance tomorrow would be far more appreciated than standing for a slightly shorter period of time in a decade or two.  It would also be much quicker and cheaper to deliver.  One is left to ponder for whose benefit is the government intervening in the operation of the railway?  It would seem not to be either the passenger or tax payer – so who?

This question was brought into sharper focus today with the news about East Coast.  I have been a very regular user of the East Coast Main Line, and still use it in preference to flying to Edinburgh (which would be both cheaper and faster).  East Coast – the current state-owned operators – seem have made a decent fist of running it.  Not quite a return to the glory days of GNER, but a far better job than almost any other rail franchise.  I have seen much Twitter traffic praising East Cost and looking with horror on its replacement – which is not something you saw with the end of the First Capital Connect franchise (to take but a single example).  On the whole East Coast seems to be viewed somewhat favourably by its users – but this holds little sway with our political masters.  Once again, the government makes clear by its actions (rather than its empty rhetoric) that the railway is clearly not there to serve its customers.  It would seem to be there to deliver a hefty “bribe” to the Treasury (£3.3 billion – or 3.5 years of work from East Coast) and to enrich the shareholders of Virgin and Stagecoach.  I found myself wondering how many passengers East Coast carries per year and how this compares to the number of UK-voting and tax-paying shareholders of Stagecoach and Virgin (combined).  I suspect the balance would lie heavily in the East Coast passengers favour.  I have limited experience of Virgin’s rail performance, though news from a while back suggests that it is at least better than First Group, but Stagecoach have little in the way of laurels to rest upon.  Indeed, so toxic is Stagecoach’s name considered that despite owning 90% of the company which has “won” the franchise, it will be the Virgin “brand” that will appear on the trains.  Leaving the appearance that all rail routes to Scotland are controlled by Virgin – so much for competition!  (Well, in the private sector anyway – it still seems to be full-steam ahead in the public sector.  Perhaps the NHS should start dropping sizeable “bungs” to the Treasury?).   Or is this a punishment for the Scots for having the temerity to almost leave the union?

It is perhaps ironic that in many cases the UK government is keen to dispose of our “loss-making” railways to companies owned by foreign governments, who then make substantial profits from them.  We seem to be keen to give our money away to the French, Dutch and Germans – swapping subsidising our own railways with subsidising those of our neighbours.  This is very European minded of us, and quite at odds with most of the rhetoric produced by the government in recent weeks.

Political parties seem to be casting around randomly for policies that might appeal to voters in the run up to next year’s General Election.  Might I suggest that with the exception of East Coast (and perhaps a couple of others), promising to replace the current rail franchise holders would be a major vote winner.  It would also be one which avoids overly strong parallels with the rise of National Socialism in 1930s Germany – which would make for a nice change.

In the meantime, I shall be reviewing my travel arrangements to Scotland – a slow boat, perhaps?

Keeping an open mind

I do like to try and keep an open mind – and also recognise that this is different from having a hole in the head.  Of course, being human – as far as any tests yet applied are able to ascertain – my mind is a rag-bag of ill (if at all) considered default positions, contradictory beliefs and prejudices.  Some of these I can recognise, some of the time, and try not to be too foolish about – and have, thus far at least, managed to avoid blogging (tweeting or the like) while drunk or under the influence of other mind altering drugs (with the obvious exceptions of cheese and cake).  I also try to avoid being needlessly offensive to other people – not as a result of any particular attachment to the much maligned “political correctness” but as a matter of common courtesy, which strikes me as basically being the same thing (under an older name).

Often my opinions are generated “live” as I’m speaking (or typing), as unlike so many we hear or see in the media I do not have well developed views to deliver in response to any question asked.  Sometimes they surprise me!  (If it’s a nice surprise, I’ll hope I remember them later).  On the whole, I work on the principle that every question has (at least) two simple answers and they are both wrong.  If something seems obvious, without having previously gone through a lot of detailed research and mature reflection, then I probably haven’t understood it.  Even when I have put a lot of effort into an opinion, it still tends to be contingent on new knowledge presenting itself – though like everyone else, it is hard to let go of a long cherished view merely because it clashes with reality (though, in the multi-worlds model of quantum mechanics you may be able to comfort yourself with the thought that at least it is still viable somewhere in the multiverse).  New input comes from many places – but usually a good book or decent podcast (often courtesy of Radio 4) – and is always a joy, even – and sometimes especially – when it disrupts a long (or just firmly) held view.  I fear I would make a very poor fundamentalist – I am far too inconstant (sometimes changing opinion within the span of a single spoken sentence).

Still, I think that’s enough set-up and we should probably make a start on the actual content.

It is all too easy for me (and I am sure many others) to view this government’s actions as an unwanted alloy of wickedness and incompetence (and also appropriate given its composition).  This task is made much easier by its consistent trumpeting of its wickedness and the fact that its incompetence stretches to include its generally transparent attempts (at least to the regular More or Less listener) to try and conceal its uselessness.  In an attempt to be fair to our political masters, many of them probably don’t attempt to be actively wicked but are just thoughtless and fail to consider (or care overly about) the consequences of their actions.  This is probably aided by an overly tight attachment to the random bunch of opinions and ideologies that (presumably) served them well as they climbed the greasy pole to relative political eminence.  In this respect (and so many others), this government is not so very different from many of its recent predecessors.

In my desire to think good of others, I have oft tried to think of something positive that the current incumbents of Westminster have achieved – to offset their botched interference in the public sector (and beyond) in an attempt to find an easy way (for them, but few others) to save some money.  It always seems to be easier to remove biscuits from meetings than to tackle the actual issues in a country or corporation.  Of course, governments tend to be more successful (with some help from their friends in the media) in convincing many that biscuits are the cause of all their woes than any of the companies for which I’ve worked (whilst continuing to give the choicest biscuits away free to themselves and their friends).  Still, I did manage to come up with only one positive achievement: equal marriage – which strikes me as an unalloyed good.

However, as so often I was wrong – and as is (almost) equally common it was The Life Scientific that set my straight.  I know I’ve probably banged on about how great TLS is before – but I will continue to do so until I have firm evidence that every man, woman and child on this planet (and any others we stumble across) has become a regular listener.  This time I was corrected by Professor Dame Sally Davies – a truly remarkable person and currently the Chief Medical Officer – who actually (and quite rightly) expressed pride in another achievement of this government.  This was the hospital just established in West Africa to help tackle the spread of ebola.  If I wanted to cavil, I might say that this took rather a long time to do – but I will freely admit I have never tired to set-up anything of this complexity so far from home so may be talking bunk.  She also suggested that the government is finally starting to recognise and act on the fact that mental illness is just illness – it is no more the fault of the patient than a head cold or dodgy spleen.  At a stroke, the positive things I could say about the government have trebled – and this does lead one to suspect there are probably more.  Oddly, the government does seem very shy about advertising the good it has done (unlike the ill) – for fear of upsetting its supporters?  Or just natural modesty?

She also made beautifully explicit how important competition was to finding the best solutions to medical problems but also that we cannot rely on the market to deliver everything that we need.  She highlighted not only the problems with finding new (and generally unprofitable) antibiotics but also diseases supposedly of the poor (like ebola) which the modern world can deliver to Chelsea or Mayfair in a matter of hours.  I cannot help but wonder how far the money now being spent in the richer parts of the world to manage a tiny handful of cases (or feared cases) might have gone in West Africa a few months ago (or in research several years ago) to ensure the dreaded virus was never allowed to reach its current extent.  But, as so often, I don’t know the answer (and nor, I suspect, does anyone else).

I think this has only reinforced my desire to stay away from the news until the level of debate has risen above that I thought I’d escaped when I left my primary school playground behind.  (Actually, this is doing a disservice to Lansdowne CP – where the rhetoric available at playtime was of a very high standard.)  But also acts as a reminder that one is rarely right – especially when certain!   A case of the old “confident, but wrong” syndrome which we must always guard against – impossible though that may be (or is it?).

Wake up sheeple!

Last night, I went to the cinema.  I almost didn’t go as the weather forecast suggested the evening would be exceeding wet (and I would be en vélo) and I did worry that the film would be a little grown-up for me.  As it transpired, it was rather less wet than advertised (though made up for this later) and I had passed sufficiently far into adulthood (though this latter assertion is very much a matter of opinion).

I am so glad I went – it was probably the most amazing film I have ever seen.  Whilst I am no Barry Norman (or modern equivalent), it is up against some serious competition this year alone.  Boyhood – Richard Linklater’s latest – was also an incredible movie and managed the amazing task of making the protagonist seem more “real” than most “actual” people.  I somehow left disappointed that I couldn’t go out for a beer with Mason Jr, as he was (mostly) fictional.  However, Citizen Four trumped it – despite being a documentary, a genre I tend to avoid at the cinema.

It tells the story of Edward Joseph (Ed) Snowden from his first contact with the film’s Director, through his revelations and beyond to cover some of the consequences for him and those journalists involved in telling the story.  The young lad (29 at the time) comes across as very likeable, principled and – despite his denials – as close to selfless as one is ever likely to find.  This contrasts with the governments of the US and UK who come across as almost totally unprincipled (no real surprise there I guess) and willing to do almost anything to protect themselves (again, I’m probably not going to make the front page of the papers with that particular revelation).  Barack Obama really comes across as a man whose principles (assuming they ever existed) have not survived the achievement of his ambitions, very much in line with the expectations of the 1st Baron Acton (though they never met).

I suppose I have been broadly ashamed of the UK government for some time (pre-dating, though accelerated by, the current incumbents), but this film did bring this into even sharper focus.  So draconian (a word I was disappointed to discover has nothing to do with dragons) is UK anti-terror legislation that the film’s director and several of its speakers were unable to visit for this UK première – though could go to the US for the première there.  It was also clear that whilst the US government is routinely invading the privacy (and liberties) of its citizenry, this is as nothing compared to the UK government’s activities through a GCHQ programme called TEMPORA (though, it must be said that its primary listening facilities are sited in truly beautiful scenery).  It was also interesting that the European Union was far more interested in protecting the human rights of we Brits than our own government – again, probably not that shocking given that human rights seem to be anathema to our current political masters.

Only yesterday, I recall news headlines about how busy the police were dealing with terrorism.  Regularly, we hear of yet more people being arrested under anti-terror legislation – but we rarely hear of any of these people making it to the courts and never (so far as I can recall) hear of an actual conviction.  In fact, this week has yielded news of at least one person making it as far as the courts.  I haven’t being paying much attention, but he (or it may have been she, as I said I really haven’t been paying attention) appeared to have made some threats about Tony Blair (but then again, which of us hasn’t been tempted) and have his home address (which I suspect is not hard to find).  This strikes me as a far lower level of threat than almost any even mildly public female figure receives on Twitter on a daily basis.  It would seem that if the terrorists were to restrict their activities to threatening the stronger sex, they would be able to continue unmolested by the forces of authority.  Indeed, although preaching hate while in possession of a beard and tan is a very serious offence, doing so while in possession of a pint and a fag is a loveable new force in politics.  I know Islam isn’t too keen on beer – its loss – but its more radical adherents might want to learn some lessons from UKIP, an organisation with which they share more than a few views.

Of course, some will say that I have nothing to fear from all this surveillance if I haven’t done anything wrong.  If I’m being honest, I must admit that – despite my attempts to appear as a devil-may-care maverick in GofaDM – I am dreadfully law-abiding in real life.  I won’t even walk on the grass or jump a red light on my bike (OK, I have occasionally done the latter late at night when the alternative was to wait several hours for a car to arrive and wake the traffic lights from their bike-ignoring somnolence).  I must admit that I was tempted by a little civil disobedience earlier in the week as I cycled past a very expense car (of a marque which was probably once British) which was clearly owned by someone senior in Wonga (corporate loan sharks to the desperate – surely, it is only a matter of time before the other staples of organised crime are brought into the corporate fold), but in the end my essentially law-abiding nature won out over the temptation to a little criminal damage

I suspect the law-abiding only have nothing to fear if you trust the government – and have you seen them?  I wouldn’t trust them not to mis-use a tea-cosy, let alone the personal data of an entire nation.  I suspect the only thing protecting us is their incompetence.

Still, excellent as the film was, I have to admit I didn’t sleep very well last night (though, given my chronic insomnia, this could just be a coincidence).  However, it does make me feel much better about the frequency with which I forget to carry my mobile phone or to turn it back on again after being at a gig (or similar event) – at least it might be making GCHQ work a little harder for my (entirely boring) secrets.  I think I might have to start buying more stuff in cash – just to increase the air of mystery that surrounds my doings.  I am rather tempted by this new life as a spy – at least in some small, rather ineffective ways – and already dislike going more than a few tens of yards in at straight-line when out walking (to throw off, or reveal, a tail – obviously).  I know what you’re thinking, how are these attempts at secrecy consistent with blabbing everything on GofaDM?  Well, (a) I never claimed to be consistent and (b) how do you know I’m not just making this all up?

Returning to Citizen Four, it struck me that it should be required viewing in all citizenship classes in the UK.  The film has a 15 certificate as the F-word is occasionally – and entirely reasonably – used.  I’m not entirely sure what 14 year old the BBFC is trying to protect, but frankly I think that ship has sailed for most children before they reach double figures.  Nevertheless, the film would still work at KS3 even with this certification.  Amusingly, a year to two back, I had a chance to flick through the citizenship test we inflict on foreigners wishing to live here.  The “syllabus” could be divided into three main areas:

1. Facts that would actually be useful to someone new to the UK, this was the smallest area.

2. Some very useful facts if the new citizen wishes to hold their own in a pub quiz, but which would be useless in normal life.

3. By far the latest category covered political and other opinions with varying degrees of basis in fact.

I think the good news here is the UK’s continuing commitment to quizing – a commitment all too evident in education policy which focuses on rote-learning of “facts”.  I think we can all agree that rote learning is the only way to grow the economy of the future (who needs understanding or creativity) – which is good news for me as I was always very good at it!  I look forward to the day when financial success is determined by quiz, rather than the tedious process of economics we use today.

Anyway, I seem to have digressed – and this post was long enough without me wandering off-topic.  My biggest worry on leaving the film was how young Ed is keeping himself (and girlfriend) in Moscow, as I doubt he managed to rescue his savings from the US.  I did wonder if we should be organising a whip-round?  I’d certainly be willing to chip-in.

Given the subject matter of this post, my closing peroration should probably be “Death to the West!” – well, who needs Cornwall anyway. (Sorry Cornwall! It’s nothing personal – just geographical).

Baffled by the news

I try and avoid the news, on which topic more will follow in a coming post, however I do occasionally catch brief snatches in between the songs on 6Music or before something interesting and informative (or just amusing) on Radio 4.  Two recent stories have left me somewhat baffled.

A woman who was found grossly incompetent at her recent job, rather than more competent but criminal, by a jury of her peers has described this as a “vindication”.  Not sure the very public announcement of my uselessness is something I’d describe thus – and not sure those who lost their jobs (or paid her salary) would view matters in quite the same way.  The ethics training inflicted on me by “the man” has been pretty clear that neither ignorance nor stupidity is any defence in law.  I may be wrong but I’m fairly sure that her employees have been caught making inappropriate payments to public officials – and this is very much within the scope of my training.  Is “the man” fibbing to me? Or is it one rule for the plebs and another for the patricians?  I am always amazed at the ability of those benefitting most from capitalism to draw a high salary, but then escape any responsibility for those actions that the man, woman or dog in the street might expect to be a basic consequence of their highly paid position.  Obviously, I do realise this is sour grapes on the part of the dog who is merely upset that no-one is willing to pay it a vast salary for something it is completely unable to do.

In another story, the government has decided to ban khat (and not as I first heard, cats – though this would probably have more logic given their very destructive influence on our native fauna).  I presume this is on the basis of the huge success we have had banning other drugs: the trail of dead young people and the volume of drug-related criminal behaviour and the cost of detaining at Her Majesty’s Pleasure those miscreants actually caught.  Then again, given the recent history of our entirely legal food companies and their flexibility with the ingredients, perhaps criminal gangs are the safest suppliers of drugs to the nation’s young.  I presume this ban will vastly increase the profitability of the khat trade and encourage the entrepreneurial with flexible morals to enter the field in droves.  I do sometimes wonder if the Home Office is taking backhanders from various “industries” to keep them very profitably illegal.  Would that I could engineer such a ban on something I am capable of cheaply producing – drivel perhaps?

Talking of the costs of prison, I have heard it said – though this may be a zombie statistic – that it is cheaper to keep a child at Eton than in gaol.  Given that we are short prison spaces and rather long public schools (in my view), an obvious solution presents itself for future young offenders: pack them off to boarding school.  If nothing else, we should have better educated felons and perhaps a broader mix of backgrounds in the cabinet a few years hence.  Just a thought…

 

Growing up

Despite having reached a position on the great journey of life which would only be considered to fall within my teenage years if you use base 25 (or higher), I am still awaiting the day when I feel like a grown up.  Whilst I can pass for an adult for extended periods of time – usually sufficient to convince Joseph Q Public – I know that my inner child is still firmly in charge.

The recent news has cast my mind (or what’s left of it) back to my school days and, in particular, to my English lessons.  I was never very keen on English at school, though most of my objections related to the English Language section which required me to write on fixed subjects which never (so far as I can recall) inspired my youthful muse in the slightest.  As a result, I was grateful to take my English language O level a year early, so that my final year of formal tuition in my mother tongue could focus on its literature.   Whilst I was less than keen on the mechanics of using the language, I was lucky with my English teachers and they furthered my pre-existing love of reading and expanded it into more serious literary territory.  They also taught me other useful life skills – Mr Owen taught me to play the guitar (a skill sadly largely forgotten, but I have plans for its resurrection) and Mr Adams kept from ever owning a motorbike (by explaining that he could think of more enjoyable ways to die).

Despite a generally positive experience of literature at school, I did take against some of the “standards” of American literature.  In particular, I found the work of John Steinbeck – specifically The Pearl and Of Mice and Men – extremely unpleasant.  Had I been made Secretary of State for Education at the age of 15, I would have had them off the syllabus quick and lively.  Despite my earlier self-deprecation (wasn’t it adorable?), I have grown up slightly and under my glorious rule Mr Steinbeck’s oeuvre would be safe: but I fear Mr Gove may still be re-fighting the battles of his mid-teens.

In my case, the “growing-up” was thanks to a holiday in the US – travelling from NY to LA through the southern states.  My guide was a humanities major (one Brian Groves) who re-introduced me to the delights of that subject area – re-igniting my interest in history and “serious” literature.  Soon after I returned, I read the Grapes of Wrath and all of Mr Steinbeck’s previous sins were forgiven – it is not a cheerful book, but I don’t think the Nobel Committee were wrong to honour it.  I also read the entire of Hugh Brogan’s excellent History of America – and I’m not even an American, what could I have been thinking?  I suspect that a little knowledge of other people from other places and times is no bad thing to have – especially in today’s soi-disant global village.  I was wondering if the tax-payer should buy young Michael a holiday with American Adventures to broaden his horizons (as they did mine) – but a quick web-search suggests that they may be no more.

Actually, I do wonder if the government is using reverse psychology on the whole nation as a novel new form of governance.  Presiding over the closure of so many libraries, “banning” books in prison, slashing funding for the arts and continually trying to make the curriculum as boring as possible while preparing young people for the challenges of the 1970s.  Have they finally learned the lessons of years of failed drug policies?  Make stuff really difficult, force it underground and it will become both very popular and wildly profitable.  I think we might be on the cusp on an unprecedented surge in reading and interest in the arts and humanities.  It’s been easy to mock, but are we all the victims of a classic “long con” – mere pawns in the Coalition’s cunning master plan?  Or maybe they are just as clueless as they seem – sometimes there is a very fine line between genius and total idiocy.  I should know: this blog exists entirely in that liminal space – or so I like to imagine!

Self-Obsessed

Clearly, today’s title could have been applied to the vast majority of the 463 posts which proceeded it – but, for once this is not all about me.  OK, if you insist, at least some of it isn’t about me and it was inspired by another.

On Friday, I caught our Prime Minister talking on the news about the situation in Crimea.  I am under few illusions that I am as egocentric as the next man (even when the next man happens to be a rampant egomaniac), but even I would have struggled to start quite so many sentences on the subject of the Crimea in the first person.  In the majority of cases, it wasn’t even the first person plural – no, Mr Cameron prefixed most the sentences I heard with the word “I”.

This started me thinking that perhaps, despite the evidence of this blog, I am still insufficiently self-obsessed for a career in politics – or at least one at (or near) the top.  Whilst the last 400 years have generally seen a move away from an earth-centred universe towards a heliocentric one and finally one which lacks any kind of centre at all (and, indeed, makes the whole concept meaningless), many politicians seems to have placed the centre a lot closer to home.  I suppose the clues were there to be seen…

Anything which might be considered a success, howsoever caused, is claimed as proof of the correctness of the path being taken.  Only this week, the Business Secretary congratulated the government for Hitachi moving its rail division HQ to the UK.  I notice he (and his predecessors and colleagues) talk to the press much less rarely to take the rap when a large corporation leaves the UK taking its jobs with it.  In fact, if things go wrong there seems to be a general hierarchy to the excuses – you blame the previous government, failing that the international situations (out of our control, mate) is a decent backup and failing that you blame something like the weather (or, as I heard this week, I think a corporation – rather than the government – blamed the timing of Easter for its substandard performance.  How foolish of the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE to fail to consider the impact of its work on corporate results in the 21st century).  Actually, the current government has – on occasion – taken a rather novel approach to deal with the disastrous economic and social consequences of some of their policies: they have decided that things going so badly actually supported their plan and proved it was the right thing to do (presumably, had things gone better they would have abandoned the policies in question and issued a grovelling apology?  Or perhaps, the government – like me – grew up watching Paul Daniel’s Bunco Booth, and unlike me took it as a model to be followed?).

I think a lot of these problems arise from the unfortunate human habit of believing that one is right.  I am afflicted by this particular malaise myself – but do have the benefit of being extremely fickle in my opinions.  So much so, that I have been known to start a sentence with one opinion and finished it convinced of the completely contradictory one.  I often only discover what I think by listening to what I am saying (never wise) – this seems to be particularly true at work where I seem to do some of my best “thinking” by flapping my mouth in public.  I do go to some trouble to seek out views that are not my own, particularly if they are articulated by someone with some skill in cogent thinking and explanatory power.  It is usually, initially at least, irritating to find someone can argue a viewpoint you disagree with and do so convincingly – but it does tend to lead to a more complete and balanced understanding of the issues.  I would give honourable mentions here to Roger Scruton (a philosopher with whom I share almost no political common ground but whose Points of View are always full of insight) and Victoria Coren-Mitchell (who both in Heresy and her Observer column always manages to come at an issue from a new direction).

Problems can even arise if you doubt your own rightness and refer to others.  I once arrived at a meeting very early indeed (about 6 hours) as a result of an error of this type.  I was the secretary to the meeting and wasn’t quite sure when it began, so checked with the chairman.  He confirmed my belief – and so we both arrived incredibly early.  It later became clear that his information had, in fact, come from me – and so I had, inadvertently, checked with myself!   Even checking with many others can go wrong, I well remember a situation where a particular part of a market design was believed to be so poor that anything would be an improvement.  After many, many hours (and £s) of work, a new design was produced and everyone was able to agree about one thing: it was MUCH worse than the thing it was intended to replace.  The dear old Coalition seem to have fallen foul of much the same issue with its change to student funding – it would seem that not only is it rather unpopular (especially with the young – though luckily they tend not to vote) but it also seems to be even more expensive that the system it replaced.  Since its sole benefit (so far as I can determine) was to reduce costs, this seems to have been somewhat of an own goal.  I am beginning to wonder if when you have a system that everyone can agree is so bad it can’t be made any worse, the last thing you should do is try and change it – “Do Nothing” really is always an option and often (I suspect) to quickly rejected.  I fear our whole society, and government in particular, feels it must be seen to be doing SOMETHING (anything!).  Again, I am guilty of this myself: feeling guilty if I’m doing nothing (and now feeling guilty about that guilt.  Arghh!).  Perhaps it is time to embrace indolence and finally realise my ambition to become a flâneur.  Well, it’s either that or take my self-obsession to the next level and run for office!

A bridge too far?

I learned to play Bridge while at school – which may tell you something about my age and social background (or may not).  I did not live anywhere terribly posh during my school days and my schooling was provided by the State.  Perhaps curiously, I was taught by my chemistry teacher – which I suspect he did in his own time (Bridge certainly wasn’t on the curriculum) – or this may be entirely normal (a web search suggest this link between chemistry and contract bridge may not be entirely uncommon).  I have no idea whether today’s young people are exposed to the delights of Acol and Blackwood whilst in their teens – I fear they may have superficially more exciting things to do than we had in the early 80s.

Bridge is a very cheap hobby (unless you bet on the outcome): all you need is a deck of cards, three friends (or you could use complete strangers, but this may be harder to arrange without an inappropriate degree of coercion) and a pen and paper to keep score.  I played at school, at my grandfather’s and most recently on a holiday in Iceland.  I do find it is becoming harder to find people who are both able and willing to play Bridge, which is a pity – or perhaps I just move in the wrong social circles.

But why is the old fool banging on about Bridge?  Well, you should blame HMRC for I learned in the news today that the Courts have agreed with HMRC that Bridge is a game rather than a sport.  I think I’d always known this: it is clearly a card game (like cribbage, whist or Newmarket), I am not aware of any card sports (though this may be a result of my sheltered upbringing).  Confusingly, when I was forced to play sports at schools, the lessons were described in the timetable as “Games”.

One might wonder why the judiciary and excise should be bothered by this difference – well apparently sports are not subject to VAT while games are.  Yes, it is the whole Jaffa Cake debacle again whereby cakes and biscuits have different VAT treatment and the courts had to decide into which camp the orangey treat should be placed.  I suppose I shouldn’t blame HMRC, they merely enforce the laws of taxation – it is government that creates these laws.  I find it hard to explain why successive UK governments have decided that sport and biscuits are good, but games and cakes are bad.

I suppose sport has supposed health benefits – though does also seem to generate an awful lot of injuries (everyone I know who played football in their twenties had totally wrecked their knees by their early thirties) which is not something which I would expect from playing Bridge.  I suppose sport might also have benefitted from the Victorian vogue for muscular Christianity.  However, I fear it does give the impression that the State is rather keener on brawn than brain and I’m not sure this is going to help us in the “Global Race” (which is apparently so important to the current government), unless this race is a rather more literal one than I had previously understood.  It also seems to reinforce the school stereotype that “jocks” are more lauded than “geeks”.

The preference for biscuits over cake is unfathomable – does the state have some issue with raising agents?  Was this an attempt to support British biscuits against an onslaught of imported cakes (a flood of gateaux and torte)?  I suppose baking powder et al work their magic through the production of carbon dioxide, so perhaps this is an early attempt at green taxation to tackle global warming?  Still, I can’t imagine that the baking of cakes is a major contributor to atmospheric CO2: even given my own consumption.

What other weird incentives is our VAT system giving to the good folk of the UK?  I seem to recall there is some strange difference in treatment between hot and cold food – with cold food favoured (very much not the position taken by generations of mothers – but I suppose for much of history they were not given the vote and even now are rare in government).

Many in this country (and probably others) whinge about the European Union and its supposed legislation on the curvature of bananas and the definition of carrots as fruit (so that the Portuguese can make jam out of them).  I really don’t think we need to look to Europe for such irrationality, perhaps we should focus our efforts on our own taxation system.  That way we could reduce the scope of confusion and expensive court cases and rationalise the incentives we provide to our citizens.   Let’s have a level playing field: whether it be of grass or green baize.  Let’s have fair competition between the cake and the biscuit!