29 December 2010

Geoffrey Grigson’s Definition of SW England

2011 will be the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain. Although now thought of as an exhibition on London’s South Bank which left us the Royal Festival Hall, it sponsored various other good works, one being a series of regional guidebooks. The About Britain Guides were published by Collins for the Festival Office in 13 volumes under the general editorship of Geoffrey Grigson, who also wrote the Portrait sections of Volumes 1, West Country and 2, Wessex.

In the 1930s Grigson had become an established poet, well-known in intellectual circles. He is one of the many writers and artists who Alexandra Harris, in Romantic Moderns, sees as coming to terms with Modernist abstraction by using it to reinterpret traditional English themes such as landscape. Her book is remarkably wide-ranging and informative, essential reading for anyone interested in twentieth century British art. Britain’s pavilion for the 1937 Paris World’s Fair by Oliver Hill embodies her theme (page 47-9):
"... as one approached it, the epitome of elegant concrete constructivism ... Then there was the inside. The ‘idea of England’ promoted in a series of displays ... was one of fishing, tennis and weekend cottages. ... This was a pavilion with mixed messages, advertising internationalism on the outside and Englishness within. ... it was a high-profile barometer of the difficulties involved in the attempt to reconcile international modernism with the language of national tradition."
Fourteen years and a world war later, much of this would be true again of the Festival of Britain, with its “contemporary” pavilions and domes and the Skylon on the one hand, and an eccentric mock-Victorian railway in Battersea Park on the other. As a later critic put it, “The contemporary style removed the visionary heat of Modernism from the exhibition, and replaced it with a cajoling warmth” (Robert Gregory, Architectural Review, 2000).

The Skylon, said to be, like the British economy in 1951, "without visible means of support"

To a reader today, Grigson’s depiction of the West Country seems very much of its time, although he avoided retrospective sentimentality in bringing the region’s history and its 1951 present together. Much of the business and manufacturing of the 1950s now seem almost as remote as the mining and cloth trades of the 18th century. The cover and dust jacket of each volume of The About Britain Guides provided a map of its region. As can be seen below, Grigson, by comparison with the SW England region used currently by the government (see this blog’s Profile above), chose to define West Country as being without the counties of Dorset and SE Wiltshire, both of which he placed in Wessex along with the Isle of Wight.

More recently, a government-sponsored website, ICONS - A Portrait of England, came up with a set of 11 English regions (including London) for its purpose, not dissimilar to Grigson’s, of being “a rich resource of material about our lives and cultural heritage comprised of the top 100 icons that best represent England ...”. ICONS excluded all of Wiltshire from its definition of the West Country and also excluded Gloucestershire. The county of Avon had a brief life from 1974 to 1996 when it was returned to its neighbours and Bristol.

Personally, I’m not sure where the West Country ends as one travels east in England, which is a small place in which to draw boundaries. On the whole I agree with Grigson, but some of West Dorset should probably be inside. I share ICONS’ reservations about Gloucestershire which, to me, consists of three distinct parts: the Forest of Dean, which is like nowhere else; secondly, the Cotswolds, which continue seamlessly into Oxfordshire; finally, Gloucester and Cheltenham (cities of the Severn plain) and the upper Severn valley, all going better with landlocked Worcestershire and the West Midlands than with maritime Devon and Cornwall.  It seems odd of ICONS to include the whole of Wiltshire and none of Dorset.


The Festival of Britain was open from May to September 1951. Any lasting effect, apart from its concert hall, was rapidly dissipated after the return of a Conservative government in October 1951. David Kynaston, in Family Britain, 1951-57, makes no bones about it: “... the Tory restoration – a restoration whose most obviously symbolic early action was the systematic, undeniably vengeful demolition of the entire Festival of Britain infrastructure on the South Bank, with the unavoidable exception of the Royal Festival Hall.” Another British historian of the period, Peter Hennessy (now Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield - in the County of Gloucestershire) takes a drier view in Never Again: Britain 1945-51, pointing out that “It was Herbert Morrison’s show. He picked up the idea and ran with it, selling it to the [Labour] Cabinet on the grounds that we ought to do something jolly ...”. Morrison (Foreign Secretary) would have been well aware that with a majority of only five seats after the 1950 election, Labour would be unlikely to last a full term and needed to court popularity.

Grigson continued to write poetry and about travel and the countryside. He died in 1985 at the age of 80. His third wife, Jane, was a well-known cookery writer as is their daughter, Sophie. In 2009 she wrote a tribute to her father in The Times when his guide to the British countryside, The Shell Country Alphabet, was republished.

ICONS seems to have been subsumed by Culture24 which “exists to promote and support the cultural sector online and to serve the needs of online audiences. We are a not-for-profit online publisher, working across the arts, heritage, education, and tourism sectors.” Culture24 was funded by the Arts Council, Department for Education and MLA Renaissance. The last of these, more prosaically the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, was abolished by the Coalition government in July 2010, and Culture24’s future must be doubtful, given the severity of recent funding cuts for public bodies.

26 December 2010

Baldwin and the Harlot’s Prerogative

Parallels have been drawn between David Cameron and one of his Conservative predecessors, Stanley Baldwin. For example, in a guest post in July 2010, Laurence Taylor warned fellow Young Fabians:
As historical actors, Baldwin and Cameron strike a similar pose. Both modernisers, both easy media performers, both leaders of anti-Labour coalitions. It seems from his speeches that Cameron is taking Baldwin’s style of leadership seriously, and so should we.
However irritating the coalition’s problems this month with the Daily Telegraph must be, Cameron’s difficulties are nothing like those faced by Baldwin 80 years ago. In 1929 Baldwin had campaigned unsuccessfully for re-election under slogans of “Safety First” and “Trust Baldwin”. Out of 616 seats, Labour under Ramsay MacDonald won 287 seats, Baldwin’s Conservatives 260 and the Liberals, led by David Lloyd George, 59. Unlike 2010 (Con 306, Lab 258, LibDem 57), the majority party did not seek to form a coalition with the Liberals, but by relying on their erratic support Macdonald was able to form a Labour government which would continue until 1931. Baldwin soon came under attack from the two rival right-wing press barons of the day, Lords Rothermere (Daily Mail) and Beaverbrook (Daily and Sunday Express, Evening Standard (London)). The two rivals made a common cause over free trade in the British empire, running their own candidates against the Conservatives in a couple of by-elections, but with mixed success. Baldwin, seeing the press barons’ campaign was faltering and antagonising the Tory party’s rank-and-file, counter-attacked on 17 March 1931 in a famous speech incorporating words from his cousin, Rudyard Kipling:
The papers conducted by Lord Rothermere and Lord Beaverbrook are not newspapers in the ordinary acceptance of the term. They are engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal wishes, personal likes and dislikes of two men. What are their methods? Their methods are direct falsehood, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker's meaning by putting sentences apart from the context, suppression and editorial criticism of speeches which are not reported in the paper. What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, but power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.
Immediately Baldwin was able to consolidate his leadership of the Conservatives for most of the 1930s, becoming PM in 1935. A remnant of Beaverbrook’s Empire Crusade lives on in Express newspapers' logo, parodied since the 1960s by Private Eye magazine.

Malcolm Muggeridge in his The Thirties noted that:
There are, indeed, few more tantalising situations in life than a Press Lord's. He has money, he has his circle of paid flatterers; he can have as much publicity as he likes since the headlines are his own to get into, and can make others famous or infamous as he pleases. Yet whenever he attempts to exercise his potential authority, he finds himself frustrated.
Rothermere and Beaverbrook had over six million readers to influence at a time when the total population was under 38 million, radio was still in its infancy and television unknown. Just under 14 million votes were cast in the 1931 general election.  Currently newspaper sales are much lower and declining (see chart below), although the population is over 61 million, and over 27 million voted in the 2010 election. Are the current owners of newspapers directing their editors to pursue political goals, or are they more interested in adopting whatever journalistic ruses might slow the decline in circulations? The Empire of interest to a Press Baron today is more likely to be his own multinational.

The loss of sales over the last decade must, in part, be due to the availability of news and comment for free over the web and is not unique to the UK. It is interesting to note that in the last year The Daily Telegraph, without a pay wall on its website so far, has lost over 12% of sales and The Times, with, has lost over 17%. The value of advertising on a website, be it free or pay, by comparison with print must be difficult to ascertain. But what is the future of print? Presumably some of the former hard copy readers of The Times are now downloading onto an iPad, but do they take in the ads in the same way?  Against this background it seems unlikely that all the current titles will be printing in five years time, let alone ten.

No doubt if, as has been rumoured, The Times and The Sunday Times are put up for sale, there will be eager buyers because of the prestige and access that still come with ownership. But the situation in the early 1990s - before Blair became Prime Minister, he and Alastair Campbell seem to have been in a perpetual state of high anxiety over the attitude of the press – is unlikely to recur. If an iPad-type device were made available at low cost, but locked mobile phone-style to a particular newspaper group, things might be different. As it is, control seems to be passing to the individual iPad user, who, even if he or she subscribes, is likely to want to download other news and views, readily available on the web. Newspapers, long accustomed to sharing the media space with television, are now being squeezed even further in terms of ability to influence individual voters. With such an uncertain future, could newspapers and their owners ever again going to be a serious threat to party leaders, as the “harlots” did to Baldwin, or have they been reduced to being at worst irritating bit-players in the saga of the 24-hour news cycle?

21 December 2010

Vince Cable and Chairman Mao

The Daily Telegraph’s developing scoop concerning Vincent Cable (UK Coalition Business Secretary) may yet lead to his resignation. The problem is the indiscreet nature of his comments to two undercover reporters, Holly Watt and Laura Roberts, at a surgery (MP’s consultation session) in his Twickenham, SW London, constituency.

One of his remarks reported on 21 December:
There are a lot of things happening. There is a kind of Maoist revolution happening in a lot of areas like the health service, local government, reform, all this kind of stuff, which is in danger of getting out of control.
intrigued me, because we don’t hear so much about Chairman Mao Tse-Tung these days, certainly by comparison with 40 years ago when the Cultural Revolution was at its height. Vince Cable and I are old enough to remember the Chairman’s Red Book on sale in translation - probably as incompletely read as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, but much cheaper. So it’s a funny old thing when Mao appears prominently twice in three days in the UK press. Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer on 19 December had an articleChairman Cameron's regime is not a million miles from Mao”, subheaded “Anywhere you look in Whitehall, there's a secretary of state unleashing upheaval with reforming zeal”.

All we know so far from the Telegraph about the timing of the calamitous surgery is that it was “earlier this month”. Cable’s website says that his surgeries are on Fridays, so Mao was on his mind before the Rawnsley article was published.  Perhaps this young lady, Red Book in hand, had turned up at one of them, and Rawnsley is a clairvoyant.

Surely not a Twickenham constituent


19 December 2010

Andrew Marr – a Bloggetariat response

The South West of England probably has more than its fair share of annual literary/literature festivals, held, for example, at Bath, Dartington and even Budleigh Salterton. It also hosts one of the country’s major festivals at Cheltenham. This year (8 October 2010) Andrew Marr, a leading BBC political presenter, gave a talk at Cheltenham: “exploring the impact of technology on our consumption of journalism, he joins us to consider the impact of the Internet on the reporting of current affairs and asks what is the future of news?” His comments on blogging in particular were picked up by the media, for example The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian, and were quoted thus:
"A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed, young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting. They are very angry people. OK – the country is full of very angry people. Many of us are angry people at times. Some of us are angry and drunk. But the so-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night. It is fantastic at times but it is not going to replace journalism."
Responding to a question from the audience he added:
"Most of the blogging is too angry and too abusive. It is vituperative. Terrible things are said on line because they are anonymous. People say things on line that they wouldn't dream of saying in person."
I only learnt about Marr’s views recently, and I don’t think they would have put me off starting Western Independent at the end of October. But to reassure anyone passing through: this blogger is not single, is too old to be pimply - at the price of a receding hairline, and hopefully less than slightly seedy. And we all have to live with the noses (or ears) we are given, don’t we? I don’t blog late at night, or very drunk, or in my mother’s basement. Surely these posts aren’t angry or ranting, though possibly I seem irked at times?  As far as appearances go, not long since I almost bumped into Marr in a London street. He’s on the short side in comparison to, say, the current and last three Prime Ministers, delicate rather than wiry, and could be considered unwise to raise the subject of baldness. He was well-groomed, but not exceptionally so for a prosperous London media type.  To judge from suits he wears on the BBC1 Andrew Marr Show, he likes to shoot a lot of cuff.

More seriously, Marr, a very talented man, has climbed high up the ladder of journalism and television, and may well take a dim view of clever arrivistes who seem to have discovered a short cut from mere blogging to mainstream media success and its rewards. Examples are Will Straw, formerly in command of Left Foot Forward, and Ian Dale of the Diary, who both, substantially on the strength of their blog reputations, were taken up by Any Questions on the BBC and the like, and are now giving up blogging for greater things. There are other bloggers who post thoughtful pieces which are well worth reading (eg Hopi Sen). But their presence, and the consequent claims they make on the finite resource which is readers’ time, can be seen as posing a threat to the existence of traditional journalists. Journalism, like acting, is an occupation which many people fancy as an option, and, unlike say the law, has always had a low entry threshold. Take this passage from the  Decline and Fall volume of Chris Mullin’s (a journalist turned MP) diaries (10 August 2005):
Ngoc [Mrs Mullin] drew my attention to the following passage in Andrew Marr's introduction to his book My Trade: 'Despite having a first class degree and reading an unfeasibly large number of books, it began to dawn on me that I couldn't actually do anything. I can't sing, act, tell jokes, play any musical instrument, hit, kick or catch a ball, run for more than a few yards without panting, speak another language or assemble things without them falling apart immediately ... journalism seemed the only option.'
'That's you,' she said.
And so it is, minus the first class degree.
It isn't too fanciful to wonder whether blogging is making the entrance level to a pretty marginal profession still lower, with the inevitable consequence of some real (ie non-citizen) journalism being displaced, contrary to Marr’s view.

Returning to Marr at Cheltenham: “People say things on line that they wouldn't dream of saying in person." So, would I have gone up and said all this to him in person? Yes, but that’s an academic question because I am a very ordinary “citizen blogger” ( a member of the bloggetariat – a word surely already coined) whose posts go unnoticed anyway. But, given the chance, I would have taken the opportunity to challenge his pretty harsh generalisations. I would also have said that his criticisms might have been better directed at the sort of comments that the web pages of serious newspapers permit to appear in their hundreds, attached to well-written pieces by quality journalists. Far too many of these contributions seem to come from the mentally disturbed, or just plain vicious, who must think their ramblings are given substance because they appear in font in a public space. Why the various Lord Coppers’ servers are ready to accommodate such ravings is unfathomable. There are, of course, honourable exceptions like The Economist and Financial Times websites (both protected to some extent by pay walls and registration), where, by contrast, the knowledgeable comments often add to the original offerings.

17 December 2010

Oh, my! PAPA, are you so wonderful?

Mike Smithson’s PoliticalBetting.com describes itself as “Britain’s most-read political blog – and the best online resource for betting on politics.” Punters, as well trying to read the runes from opinion pieces, take as keen an interest in opinion polls of voting intentions as politicians claim not to. So, to assist its readers, PoliticalBetting has recently introduced PAPA - The Politicalbetting All Pollsters’ Average:
[PAPA is] calculated by taking the average shares for the three main parties from the latest poll of from each of the polling firms in the preceding month.
Unlike the UKPR average PAPA does not discriminate for or against any pollster and only includes the latest survey from each of the firms. The aim is to recalculate it as each new poll comes out or as old polls drop out after passing the month-old point.
I think it would be fair to describe PAPA as an unweighted (but see below) rolling average (a rolling polling average!) of the most recent (ie in the last four weeks, rather than “preceding month”) polls by the major pollsters.  “UKPR” refers to another popular political website, Anthony Wells’ UK Polling Report (no opinion pieces, just polling data), which advises:
The best way to judge the polls is to take the broad picture, not an average, look at the general trends and if they are showing a contrasting picture look at the possible reasons why. I hope that is something that UK Polling Report does for readers. If you don’t have time for that though, and just want a simple overall figure that tells you how the parties are doing, then here is the UKPollingReport Polling Average.
The UKPR Polling Average takes in polls from the last 20 days and gives them weightings based on various factors, including how recently they were conducted, the past record of the pollster producing the figures, the methodology used, the sample size and how many polls have been produced by a single pollster.
UKPR goes on to explain the weightings it uses. But how do UKPR and PB crunch their numbers? I took data from the two websites at 12:00 GMT on 16 December 2010 (UK notation so 16/12/10 etc). They draw on non-identical but overlapping sets of recent polling results, as shown in the table below. To bring them into alignment I’ve worked out what I think PAPA would have been on 10 December, but it doesn’t have much effect on what follows.

Certain points can be drawn from this table. Firstly, PAPA is not “unweighted”, rather it gives an equal weighting to those polls PB select and a zero weighting to all others. Secondly, the only reason for following polls is to observe changing public opinion, so, all other things being equal, the more recent a poll, the greater its significance. Because PAPA polls can span a month and are equally weighted, stale results are not given less emphasis. Therefore PAPA is inherently a lagging indicator by comparison with UKPR’s figures. Finally, there is the issue of accuracy, a big subject (see the answers to "FAQs By Members Of The Public” from the British Polling Council). While combining polls carried out at the same time should reduce random errors and give a more accurate result, I am doubtful as to whether PAPA should be presenting data to three significant figures (ie introducing a decimal).

Lord Parkinson (a Cabinet minister under Mrs Thatcher) was asked about political betting on BBC Radio4 PM on 15 December. He said that he never gambled, summarising bookmaking as: “You bet, we win”. I’m inclined to agree with him, but if I were a gambling man and wanted a summary figure for recent polling, I would take UKPR’s average more seriously than PAPA.

POST TITLE: Younger readers may be unaware of a 1954 number one hit recording by Eddie Fisher, “Oh! My Pa-Pa", translated from the song, “O mein Papa”, in a 1939 German musical:
Oh, my pa-pa, to me he was so wonderful
Oh, my pa-pa, to me he was so good
No one could be, so gentle and so lovable
Oh, my pa-pa, he always understood.
etc, etc

12 December 2010

SW England Redefined

MIT researchers have produced a novel means of assessing the UK's regional boundaries:

"Do regional boundaries defined by governments respect the more natural ways that people interact across space?  This paper proposes a novel, fine-grained approach to regional delineation, based on analyzing networks of billions of individual human transactions.  Given a geographical area and some measure of the strength of links between its inhabitants, we show how to partition the area into smaller, non-overlapping regions while minimizing the disruption to each person's links.  We tested our method on the largest non-Internet human network, inferred from a large telecommunications database in Great Britain.  Our partitioning algorithm yields geographically cohesive regions that correspond remarkably well with administrative regions, while unveiling unexpected spatial structures that had previously only been hypothesized in the literature.  We also quantify the effects of partitioning, showing for instance that the effects of a possible secession of Wales from Great Britain would be twice as disruptive for the human network than that of Scotland.
Carlo Ratti, Stanislav Sobolevsky, Francesco Calabrese, Clio Andris, Jonathan Reades, Mauro Martino, Rob Claxton, Steven H Strogatz - PLoS ONE, 2010"

Their method is explained on YouTube, and at this point, where the existing boundaries are superimposed, it indicates that the South West ought to lose East Dorset which, unsurprisingly, prefers to communicate eastwards: Bournemouth, Southampton etc.  Otherwise, quite a good fit, as would be expected for a peninsular region of an island.  It doesn't look as though the detail supports Cornish nationalism, given the would-be statelet's interaction with Plymouth on the other side of the border.

10 December 2010

PMQs and Parliamentary Sketchwriters

There is a long British tradition of Parliamentary sketchwriters providing much-needed light relief. For my money The Times’ Ann Treneman is the best at the moment. One of her gifts is being able to report mainly male antics with devastating female dryness. The aim of a sketchwriter is, of course, to amuse his or her audience, not to provide thoughtful analysis. From what I can see, most of the sketchwriters took a similar view of PMQs on 8 December, for example that of Simon Carr in The Independent:
... "Rank hypocrisy. Shameless opportunism," Cameron had said. "He's behaving like a student politician and that's all he ever will be."
"I was a student politician," EDM [Ed Miliband] said, "but I didn't spend my time hanging around with people who were wrecking restaurants and throwing bread rolls."
Whatever it looks like on the page it had a wonderful effect on his reputation. He can't be said to have won the questioning – he tripped up a couple of times, and two of his gags didn't really fire, but all that became irrelevant in an instant. He'd bopped the Prime Minister on the nose and his MPs were crazed with excitement and relief, jack-knifing with that laughter they do. ...
... Kerry McCarthy asked him a pert little question about The Smiths (who recently banned Cameron from liking them). The PM was able to come up immediately with a couple song titles. "I probably wouldn't get 'This Charming Man'," he said, in that charming way he has.
Then he dispatched Jack Dromey's much-interrupted question with the words, "He has the unique qualification of being selected on an all-woman shortlist – next time he comes in he should dress properly." ...

But nowadays we all know how much preparation goes into PMQs.  A wide range of questions likely to be forthcoming from those opposition members lucky enough to be chosen for PMQs are researched and assessed by very bright people who then carefully fireproof the answers. So:

1.  I think Cameron was giving Miliband an open goal and a boost - I wonder why?
2.  Given recent Twitterings like
@Johnny_Marr David Cameron, stop saying that you like The Smiths, no you don't. I forbid you to like it.
McCarthy's question was predictable, it’s just that the No10 team wouldn't have known which opposition MP would ask it instead of, say, something to do with their constituency.  The Smith's song titles would probably be listed somewhere in the PMs brief.
3.  Similarly, given that they knew a question was coming from Dromey, that all-purpose put-down would have been on the stocks.

6 December 2010

“The Westminster village” – the peaking of a cliché?

“The Westminster village” (or occasionally "bubble”) has become a shorthand for the overlapping worlds of politics, government and media in London, all centred on the Houses of Parliament. If the village had a physical existence, its inhabitants would hang out in the locale which runs from Trafalgar Square down Whitehall and past Downing Street, through Parliament Square and College Green and on down Millbank, with excursions along Victoria Street and across Vauxhall Bridge. But the metaphor contains an element of criticism: that those who live and work in the Whitehall village are inward-looking careerists,  are preoccupied with the dynamics of the 24-hour news cycle and have only feign interest in the concerns of the rest of us.

A recent (3 December 2010) and random example comes from the Financial Times’ Westminster blog:
Vince blows the gaff and pledges to vote for the tuition fee rise
Vince Cable has consigned the idea to the dustbin, saying he’ll vote for a rise in fees. He broke the news to the Twickenham Times. ...
Why the sudden about turn? He may have seen Danny Alexander’s mauling on Question Time, which is certainly a wake-up call for all Lib Dems who thought the negative reaction to abstaining would only resonate in the Westminster village.
(Background: Cable's interview with the Richmond and Twickenham Times was given earlier on 3 December and reported by their website as Breaking News; Question Time was on BBC1 the previous evening.)

I thought it would be interesting to trace the increasing usage of “the Westminster village” (“TWV”) over the last few years by means of search results from NewsUK and Google. The former is confined to the main national and regional newspapers and weekly magazines, while the latter covers less of the conventional media but looks across many websites and blogs. The annual results are shown in the graph below:
There are some interesting features. Firstly, NewsUK sources show “TWV” use beginning in 1994 whereas the first Google result was in 1999. It then took a few more years for “TWV” to penetrate the wider Google-searched world sufficiently to overtake its use by the mainstream media. Growth as reported by Google has been strong since then and shows no sign of abating. Google also tends to underestimate by grouping like instances under, for example, “Show more results from bbc.co.uk”.

However, the NewsUK sources show a peak in 2009 at 236 occurrences and fall in 2010 to 188. The 2010 figure is for the 11 months to 30 November, but the full-year figure is most unlikely to jump by 48 at end-December as the monthly average this year has been only 17. Interestingly, this decline has occurred in a period of extensive political coverage with the general election and the novelty of a coalition. This suggests that the conventional media led the way, firstly in originating the expression, and now in tiring of it. If so, the newer media, for all their decrying of the “dead tree press”, is perhaps more derivative and less original than it would like to think.

So who invented “TWV”? Well, as far as I can tell from NewsUK, it was the journalist Linda McDougall in her review of Edwina Currie’s novel (conceivably roman à clef) A Parliamentary Affair, which appeared in The Guardian on 19 January 1994. Unsurprisingly given that Ms McDougall is the wife of Austen Mitchell, MP for Great Grimsby, she wasn’t much enthused by a tale of political adultery and  commented wryly:
... the parliamentary novels of the nineties have taken the lives of those of us who live in the Westminster village and invested them with amazing glamour. ...
“TWV” was used on two more occasions that year and three again in 1995. The NewsUK occurrences trickle on to double figures in 1998 and then take off to exceed 100 in 2002 - a cliché was born!  It now seems to be on the wane.

4 December 2010

Post: as in Post-Impressionism

In his the friday column in yesterday’s Times 2 (3 December 2010) Richard Morrison set about debunking Virginia Woolf’s idea that December 1910 marked a significant moment in the history of human nature. There is no point in giving a link to an article behind The (London) Times’ paywall, but this extract gives the gist of Morrison’s opening argument:

“On or about December 1910,” Woolf wrote, “human character changed.” Relations shifted, she went on, between “masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct politics and literature.”
It says something about Woolf’s intellectual confidence – or perhaps her ignorance of what had been going on in Europe for the previous 30 years – that she was blithely able to identify a single month as the moment when civilisation went crazy. As we now know the Impressionists – who so dazzled Woolf and her Bloomsbury circle when Roger Fry organised his London show of their work in 1910 – had been around since the 1880s in Paris.
It says something about Morrison’s blithe self-confidence, and The Times’ standard of fact-checking, that he can get this wrong. It is certainly true that French Impressionism was not much liked by the Edwardians. In 1905 the first major show in England of French Impressionist paintings (300 works by Degas, Monet, Manet, Renoir etc) had been organised by the dealer Durand-Ruel. It had a poor press and few pictures were sold. Roger Fry (b1866), a leading British art critic, was known at the time for having little taste for Impressionism and to favour a return to the traditional techniques and structural design of the Renaissance. However, the show Fry organised in 1910, which was of course Manet and the Post-Impressionists, introduced London to Cezanne, van Gogh and Gauguin. Fry saw in their work a return to constructive design, but others were deeply shocked and even thought the show would destroy the fabric of European painting. The exhibition coincided with a Welsh miner’s strike, growing Suffragette violence and an accelerating naval arms race with Germany, all resonating with the public unease which it provoked.

Morrison goes on to suggest that Woolf's pinpointing one month is risible, but acknowledges that a lot changed between 1890 and 1920 (!).  He then asks whether digital technology and the internet are effecting a change in human affairs now “comparable to that seismic shift a century ago” – the one that he has just cast doubt on presumably. He doesn’t know at present, but we might do in 2024 – Woolf wrote her essay in 1924, you see.

22 November 2010

Some Royal Marriage Statistics

As Sesame Street might say, this post is brought to you by the number 7.

It’s a pretty unpleasant response to the announcement of a couple’s engagement to call them shallow, and predict that their marriage will last seven years. Given that the couple are Prince William and Catherine Middleton, the Bishop of Willesden (NW London), Peter Broadbent, should have expected a rough ride from the press for his remarks on Facebook. His opinions are not much worth considering, but I find the choice of seven years amusing. To us pedestrian techies seven is just one of the ten digits. But for those of a mystical turn of mind and who like to see some deeper spiritual or esoteric significance in numbers, 7 is a big deal, certainly fighting above its weight between 1 and 9. It must often be on the Bishop’s mind as he spreads the Christian message – sins, virtues, loaves, pillars etc, all coming in sevens. He might also be a Marilyn Monroe fan – she was, of course, the temptress in The Seven Year Itch.

By the way, it seems likely that Adelard of Bath (a town in SW England, the Roman Aquae Sulis), often regarded as the first English scientist, was the translator into Latin of a treatise on Arabic arithmetic by al-Khwarizmi (hence algorithm) and so brought the Arabic numerals to England, c1125AD.

Now for some stats. Since 1945 prominent members of the royal family have married for the first time on six occasions:
  • 20 Nov 1947 Princess Elizabeth m Philip Mountbatten
  • 6 May 1960 Princess Margaret m Antony Armstrong-Jones (divorced 11 July 78 )
  • 14 Nov 1973 Princess Anne m Mark Phillips (divorced 23 April 92)
  • 29 July 1981 Prince Charles m Diana Spencer (divorced 28 Aug 96)
  • 23 July 1986 Prince Andrew m Sarah Ferguson (divorced 30 May 96)
  • 19 June 1999 Prince Edward m Sophie Rhys-Jones
The four marriages which ended in divorce did so after 18.2, 18.4, 15.1 and 9.9 years respectively, not much support for a forecast of 7 years. But the Bishop might quote the only significant royal divorce prior to Princess Margaret’s. Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria, married Prince Ernest Louis of Hesse in 1894 and divorced him in 1901. Better still, on 9 April 1894 and 21 December 1901, so not just 7, but 7.7 years after! However, Victoria then remarried to her Russian first cousin, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, in 1905. Most of that marriage was spent in exile in France, but it lasted until her death in 1936, over 30 years later.

PS The Bishop has now admitted to “a major error of Judgement” and has apologised, just once so far!

17 November 2010

'The Pre-Raphaelites in Italy' at the Ashmolean

Away from the great South West again, just for a day, driving through frost and fog to Oxford, primarily to visit the Ashmolean Museum.

Rick Mather’s skilful redevelopment of the Ashmolean has provided space for temporary exhibitions on the third floor, their first major show being The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was closely associated with Oxford and many of their works are held in the Ashmolean’s collection or by the colleges. Italy was a central inspiration for the PRB and provides a good subject for this scholarly exhibition, definitely worth seeing before it closes on 5 December. Busy, but not crowded when I went; captioning good by current standards (I recently moaned about this); £6 maximum, guide good value at £4.

Two oddities: John Brett’s Capri in the Evening, lent by a private collection, being last exhibited in 1866; Burne-Jones’ The Tree of Life, lent by the V&A, with an unusual, almost geeky, formatting of some of the details on the frame:


The Ashmolean Dining Room was as described by John Lanchester in the Guardian last month - attempting to select sensibly from the menu items which were actually available had a Carrollian twist.

15 November 2010

Blair and Science (again)

My first post consisted of some hand-wringing about the political class’s view of science. It touched on Blair’s reporting in A Journey of his Chief Scientific Adviser’s contribution (“faute de mieux”) to dealing with the foot and mouth epidemic - “Blow me” etc.

I was delighted to find this passage in Allan Mallison’s Spectator review (The other Prince of Darkness) of The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World by Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, (drawn on before in a post):
When Foot and Mouth strikes, for example, Powell rings (‘most days’) a farmer in Cumbria whom Blair had met on a visit: the impression is one of surprise that there are telephones in Cumbria, or farmers who speak the language. But just when there seems no solution to the terrible plague afflicting the people of this little-known country, ‘a saviour appears in the unlikely form of the government’s chief scientist, David King’. Why, one wonders, is it unlikely that the chief scientist would be the source of cool scientific analysis?

Mullin Diaries: Public Expenditure

Chris Mullin was Labour MP for Sunderland South for 23 years, standing down at the May 2010 general election. The first volume of his diaries, A View from the Foothills, covering his period as a minister (1999-2005), was published in 2009. I have quoted before from the second volume, Decline and Fall Diaries 2005-2010.

Some of the entries reveal that there had been a long-running concern about public expenditure levels in some Labour circles. After the bank bailout in the autumn of 2008 which led to a sharp drop in the tax yield from financial services and stamp duty, the consequences were inevitable.

13 May 2008
Later, in the Library corridor, I came across a loyalist colleague who was lamenting the ‘awfulness’ of Gordon. He added, ‘The truth is that public expenditure has been out of control for the last three or four years because there are so many sacred cows ...’
21 October 2008
During tonight’s Division, a former Treasury minister whispered that, about a year after we were elected, he took part in a two and a half hour meeting at which officials briefed Gordon that our apparent prosperity was built on unsustainable levels of debt and that, sooner or later, the bubble would burst. Gordon rejected the advice and the rest is history. In fairness, let it be said that Gordon no doubt took the view that this was an attempt by officials to nobble Labour’s spending plans before we had our feet under the table.
24 November 2008
To London for Alistair Darling’s pre-Budget statement. ...Billions splashed about everywhere in a desperate attempt to kick-start our ailing economy. ...Of course it will all have to be paid for but not until well after the next election.
22 April 2009
Budget Day. A budget anticipated like no other in recent history. A last throw of the dice as we contemplate oblivion. ...borrowing is predicted to rise to a shocking 11.9 per cent of GDP and the books are unlikely to balance again before another decade or more. So much for having ended boom and bust. The Tories were surprisingly subdued. As well they might be. This could be their inheritance. ...Cameron’s response (‘the government has run out of money and moral authority’) was devastating, provided of course that one forgets that all this stated with his irresponsible friends in the City.
21 May 2009
This evening, as I was departing, I ran into Chief Whip Nick Brown. ‘Between you and me,’ I said, ‘given that we are going to lose the election we should be planting a few booby traps.’ I had in mind a few modest measures such as the selection of select committee chairmen.
‘I think we’ve done that with the PSBR,’ replied Nick, smiling wickedly.
6 July 2009
To the meeting of the parliamentary party ... Our debt, [Darling] said, would rise to 80 per cent of national wealth ‘because we took a deliberate decision to increase spending up to 2011. We will need to halve the deficit over a five-year period. ...’
29 September 2009
[Labour Party Conference, Gordon Brown’s speech] ...Of spending cuts, there was scarcely a mention, which leaves us just a teeny bit vulnerable, since much of what was promised seems to involve more, not less, public spending.
9 December 2009
Alistair Darling delivered his pre-Budget report. ...Re the deficit (a whopping £178 billion), containment rather than reduction is the strategy. It will not go down next year, but he did talk vaguely of halving it in the four years thereafter. ...The great unanswered question is, of course, how we are going to extricate ourselves from the vast swamp of debt into which we have been sucked by the avarice and stupidity of the bankers.
... For all his bombast, one suspects that George [Osborne], too, is none too keen to go into detail this side of an election as to precisely how the Tories would tackle the deficit. The electorate would run a mile, if only they knew.
Only Vince Cable affected to remain above the fray, pouring scorn in equal measure on both our houses while at the same time leaving us none the wiser as to what he would do either.
24 March 2010
... Some good news – the deficit is £11 billion less than previously expected, but still a whopping unsustainable £167 billion.
PSBR – Public Sector Borrowing Requirement, the UK government budget deficit (excess of spending over income) now called the Public Sector Net Cash Requirement (PSNCR).

9 November 2010

Glasgow Boys and Gauguin

I am ‘out of area’ for a few days and have been to a couple of excellent exhibitions: The Glasgow Boys at the Royal Academy and Gauguin at Tate Modern.

Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880 – 1900, to give it the full title, shows works by the group of about 20 young painters who, the RA says, created a stir at home and abroad in the final decades of the nineteenth century. They were the first significant group of British artists after the Pre-Raphaelites and “by the turn of the century the Glasgow Boys were acknowledged as the only British painters of international standing”, according to the curators of the exhibition.  The Gallery Guide at £2.50 is poor value, particularly in comparison with the educational guide at £4.50 (while stocks last). The exhibition runs to 23 January 2011, £9 max per ticket.

I now realise how much the Glasgow Boys had come under the influence of pre-Impressionist French painters like Millet and Bastien-Lepage. Whereas Gauguin, their contemporary (1848-1903), started as an Impressionist and eventually was selected by Roger Fry as one of the original Post-Impressionists in 1910.

Gauguin: Maker of Myth is a 'must see' exhibition with many of his major works and so, unsurprisingly, very crowded. Curators currently seem to favour captioning works in very small print and sometimes at a considerable distance (up to 2 metres!). Perhaps this is to boost the sale of audio guides, but does nothing to ease the crush. Gauguin runs to 23 January 2011, £13.50 max per ticket, free brief guide.

Down below, Tate Modern's Turbine Hall was given over to Ai Weiwei's Unilever Series commission, Sunflower Seeds, which consists of 100 million porcelain replica seeds, no longer to be touched or walked on. The Tate thinks that the sight “invites us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today”. The artist has just been released from recent house arrest and is urging David Cameron to raise the issue of human rights on his current visit to China (BBC News).

Outside, it was a cold, grey, wet London November day, nothing like Tahiti.

7 November 2010

Blair and Trident

I posted last month about Tony Blair’s A Journey. Some unkind reviewers have called it an “autohagiography” (ie an autobiography by a self-styled saint), a word apparently coined by the occultist Aleister Crowley in 1929 for his The Confessions of Aleister Crowley : An Autohagiography. This work is still in print at 984 pages - 266 more than the UK edition of Blair’s book.

Towards the end of A Journey, Blair touches on various issues which came up at the end of his premiership, one being Trident (pages 635-6):

"We agreed to the renewal of the independent nuclear deterrent. You might think I would have been certain of that decision, but I hesitated over it. I could see clearly the force of the common sense and practical argument against Trident, yet in the final analysis I thought giving it up too big a downgrading of our status as a nation, and in an uncertain world, too big a risk for our defence. I did not think this was a 'tough on defence' versus 'weak or pacifist' issue at all. On simple, pragmatic grounds, there was a case either way. The expense is huge and the utility in a post-Cold War world is less in terms of deterrence, and non-existent in terms of military use. Spend the money on more helicopters, airlift and anti-terror equipment? Not a daft notion. In the situations in which British forces would likely be called upon to fight, it was pretty clear what mattered most. It is true that it is frankly inconceivable we would use our nuclear deterrent alone, without the US - and let us hope a situation in which the US is even threatening use never arises - but it's a big step to put that beyond your capability as a country.

So, after some genuine consideration and reconsideration, I opted to renew it. But the contrary decision would not have been stupid. I had a perfectly good and sensible discussion about it with Gordon who was similarly torn. In the end, we both agreed, as I said to him imagine standing up in the House of Commons and saying I've decided to scrap it We're not going to say that, are we? In this instance, caution, costly as it was, won the day."
“You might think I would have been certain of that decision” – well certainly you might if you had read Blair’s Foreword to the Defence White Paper in December 2006, The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent, Cm 6994. This is easily accessed so just a few extracts:

"... we need to factor in the requirement to deter countries which might in the future seek to sponsor nuclear terrorism from their soil. We must assume that the global struggle in which we are engaged today between moderation and extremism will continue for a generation or more.

We believe that an independent British nuclear deterrent is an essential part of our insurance against the uncertainties and risks of the future.

I believe it is crucial that, for the foreseeable future, British Prime Ministers have the necessary assurance that no aggressor can escalate a crisis beyond UK control. An independent deterrent ensures our vital interests will be safeguarded.

These are not decisions a government takes lightly. The financial costs are substantial. We would not want to have available the terrifying power of these weapons unless we believed that to be necessary to deter a future aggressor."
In A Journey giving up Trident is seen as “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation”, a justification not addressed in the Foreword. Some light is shed on this discrepancy in the second, somewhat melancholic, volume of Chris Mullin's diaries (Decline and Fall Diaries 2005-2010). On Tuesday 23 January 2007 Mullin had a conversation about Trident renewal with Des Browne, the Defence Secretary.

"I said I thought it was all about keeping up with the French and retaining our permanent seat on the Security Council. Interestingly, Des said that the Foreign Office had included that argument in the first draft of the government’s position paper, but he had asked for it to be struck out."
On the other hand, the Foreword’s references to “the global struggle in which we are engaged today between moderation and extremism” and to the sponsorship of nuclear terrorism aren’t reflected in A Journey in the context of Trident renewal.  Elsewhere, however, particularly in the final chapter, Postscript, Blair takes a robust line on the need to confront extremism (page 674 et seq).

Finally, Blair says he “had a perfectly good and sensible discussion about it with Gordon” – well there certainly don’t seem to have been too many of those en route. Assuming Blair and the Chancellor only discussed Trident replacement once (which seems unlikely), the tenor of the discussion is open to doubt unless it took place before Brown’s Mansion House speech on 21 June 2006. Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, remarks on that speech's aftermath in The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World (page 43):

"We were rather taken aback when, instead of a commitment to public service reform, the evening news announced he had committed himself and the government to continuing with Trident, our submarine-based nuclear deterrent. We had no particular problem with the commitment itself, but he had not consulted anyone before making the statement and it pre-empted the orderly discussions that were going on in government on the subject. The Cabinet Secretary, who was chairing the Committee of Permanent Secretaries preparing the advice to ministers, was particularly peeved."
Powell goes on to say that Brown was seeking the support of the Murdoch press. This view is only shared in part by Andrew Rawnsley in The End of the Party (page 437-8 in the revised edition):

"Brown announced that, as Prime Minister, he would modernise the Trident nuclear deterrent. This was widely interpreted as him sucking up to the right-wing press and getting in early with his disappointment of left-wing supporters. His main motivation was to pre-empt Blair so that his rival could not use the future of Trident as an excuse to delay his departure."

HMS Vanguard, one of the Royal Navy's four Trident submarines currently in service

2 November 2010

All That Glistens?

In today’s The Times (London) is an advertisement for bullionvault.co.uk. Their website explains that:
“BullionVault is the easiest, safest and cheapest direct way to own gold. You own the pure metal, safely stored in your choice of authorised vaults in London, Zurich or New York. You’ve access to your account 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Your gold is safe in professional vaults, and is insured and audited daily.”
BullionVault explain that they will charge commission and an annual custody and insurance charge (costed in US$).

I was intrigued by this, although I’m neither wealthy nor an expert investor. It seems to me that there are two main reasons for the “mass affluent” (as opposed to the criminal) investing in gold: as an insurance against some form of catastrophic economic collapse, or because you think that world demand for the metal will grow strongly.
If you believe the first of these, then surely you would be better off keeping some kruggerands in a safe place (maybe not under the first loose floorboard) to be retrieved and exchanged for food and other essentials when the bad times come. The kruggerand may not a very pretty coin, but its price I believe reliably tracks a small margin above the price of bullion.  After all, if we are off to hell in a handcart, will BullionVault be online, and if they are, will the banking system be operating, and are you sure you can get to Zurich?

The Great West Window of Fairford Church, Gloucestershire: “The Last Judgement”
A blue bearded devil with a brown wheelbarrow wheels an old woman to destruction - “to hell in a handcart”

On the other hand, if you see the world (and in particular BRIC) as wanting more and more physical gold for jewellery, dentistry, or even to hold as coins, why not invest in a specialist unit trust like BlackRock Gold and General , which “aims to achieve long-term capital growth by investing in gold, mining and precious metal-related shares”?  Personal declaration: I hold some shares in this fund in my modest personal pension.

There is a third reason, I suppose.  If you are very rich indeed and want a part of your portfolio in physical gold as a safeguard against inflation, there will be a limit to how much of the stuff you can keep around the house – or more likely houses. After all, as the Gatlin Brothers used to sing: “... all the gold in California is in a bank in the middle of Beverly Hills in somebody else's name”. So is the ad in The Times aimed at the “mass affluent” or the super-rich?

China on my mind

Recently I went to a picture sale at a West Country auctioneers. Among the lots was a watercolour landscape of Hong Kong in the colonial period, at a guess late 19th century. It went to a phone bidder for more than twice the catalogue estimate and by now is probably on its way east. One can expect that there are quite a few people in 21st century Hong Kong who would appreciate the picture’s historic value. They are also too sophisticated to be offended by the red-jacketed British soldier in its foreground.

Since the sale, China has kept coming up, to start with in the lead story in 18 October’s DefenseNews:
Turkey, China in Exercises – NATO Blanches as Ankara Looks East
“... In mid-September a fleet of Chinese Su-27 and Mig-29 aircraft flew through Pakistan, refuelled in Iran and reached Turkish airspace for exercises with the Turkish Air Force.”
According to DefenseNews this was the first time a NATO member has held joint drills with the PRC. So it wasn’t a surprise to read in the FT (£) on 24 October that India is considering:
“an $11bn deal to buy 126 multi-role combat fighter jets to rearm India’s out-of-date air force and boost defence capabilities against Pakistan and China. ... India has a choice of F-16s or F-18 Super Hornets over Mirages, MiGs, Eurofighters and Gripens. ... China’s assertiveness in the region – over trade, global finance and its borders – is overshadowing the traditional and better-understood threat from nuclear-armed Pakistan.”
The FT quoted an Indian strategic affairs analyst, C.Raja Mohan:
“... The rise of China is going to cause a whole set of problems across Asia.”
On a lighter note Decanter.com on 26 October revealed that:
“Chateau Lafite Rothschild's 2008 bottle is to feature the Chinese symbol for the figure eight in celebration of the First Growth's new vineyard venture in China. ...Lafite is in partnership with CITIC, China’s largest state-owned investment company, to develop 25ha of vines on the Penglai peninsula in China’s Shandong province. ...The symbol, which is considered especially lucky in China, will be on every bottle and magnum of Lafite 2008.”

The most expensive Bordeaux wines have recently taken the fancy of China’s wealthy elite, as David Gauvey Herbert pointed out on 28 October in Foreign Policy:
"Chateau Lafite is the wine of choice for those with serious RMB to drop. Just as the American hip-hop community rescued French cognac from the brink in the last decade, the Chinese obsession with this French Bordeaux is sending prices through the roof: Last year, Chateau Lafite sold its 2008 Lafite Rothschild for €185 a bottle, but that price hit more than €1,000 on the resale market last month, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The reasons for Lafite's success are something of a mystery, but Jean Marc Porrot, a wine importer in Shanghai, argued that it is a combination of the label's early entry into China, French origin and its Chinese translation of "lafei," which is easy to pronounce.
"Eighty or 90 percent of the people who buy Lafite know nothing about wine," said Porrot, who himself thinks the label is overrated and has only tasted it twice in his life."
Wealthy Chinese could easily afford to buy up all the best, not just Lafite, of every year's vintage if they wanted to now, let alone after another decade or two of spectacular economic growth. However, also on 26 October in his Asia in Numbers article in The Times (£), Leo Lewis, reported a:
“... grim government survey in which a third of the 6000 scientists at China’s best research institutions admitted to plagiarism or falsifying results. Revelations such as these, analysts argue, make it doubtful that China's corporate R&D departments actually have the expertise to match the country's roaring ambition. For Nicholas Smith, an MF Global strategist, these dismal realities deal a heavy blow to the notion that China is only inches away from performing the supposed "miracle" that turned Japan into the technological powerhouse it became in the 1960s. In that era, he says, the quality of Japan's education and its educated youngsters provided the perfect ingredients for the shift to knowledge and innovation-based growth. China’s system, by contrast, has already left its corporate sector facing a severe talent shortage even before the real shift from manufacturing has begun.”
which puts a different gloss on Tim Leunig’s view in Economy class in November’s Prospect (£) that:
“emerging economies such as China are very good at manufacturing and are moving up the value chain rapidly. After starting with textiles, Chinese manufacturers moved to medium-value manufacturing such as white goods, and are entering the higher value-added sector, such as high-speed trains. Chinese wages are very low, and countries such as Germany and Japan will have a serious competitor soon. I would not want to be in their shoes.”
Returning to the watercolour, I remembered reading earlier this year Christopher Meyer’s lucid account in Getting Our Way of how Britain came to acquire its former colony and our eventual departure. In the Opium Wars Britain had acquired Hong Kong Island (1842) and part of the nearby Kowloon peninsula (1860) in perpetuity, but in 1898 a large tract of land north of Kowloon was leased for 99 years. Well before time was up in 1997 the British had concluded that the colony would not be viable without the New Territories (as the leased area was called) and started tortuous but ultimately successful negotiations to hand all of Hong Kong over to the PRC.

One can only speculate as to the situation which would have emerged by now if the lease had been for 125 years, expiring in 2023. The relative economic and global significance of the two countries has altered markedly, and not in the UK’s favour, in the years since the negotiations. Probably just as well China’s post-Olympic supercomputing patience wasn’t put to the test.

30 October 2010

Blair and Science

Some years ago when I was working in a government department in London, the New Labour politician at its head (the Secretary of State no less) decided that he ought to meet some of the lesser mortals on his staff. A lucky few of us, no doubt perceived by our management as being of comparable character to the unarmed trusties who used to run the Mississippi state prison system, were invited to gather in a large and rather forbidding room early one autumn evening. On the tables were some glasses ungenerously filled with cheap wine and bowls of crisps to match both provided at our leader’s expense. Like many in the Cabinet at the time, our man was a Scot. The gathering was not well-attended and attempts at circulating were soon abandoned. I fell into conversation with a former colleague. The Secretary of State, one of those short men who are so graceful on the dance floor, glided up to us. “What do you do in the Department?” he asked. Unwisely, I replied “Oh, we are both scientists.” His small mouth opened and shut goldfish-like. Without a word he turned on his ample heels and slid away with an elegance which nowadays would make him a serious minor celebrity candidate for 'Strictly Come Dancing’. A few months later he quickstepped away altogether, having found a lucrative job outside government.

I was reminded of this incident by a passage in Tony Blair’s ‘A Journey’ dealing with the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001 (page 312 of the UK edition):
When I got back to Downing Street on Sunday I decided to grip the whole thing, and got my close advisers together. By some masterstroke - not mine, I hasten to add, but Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary's - our chief scientific adviser, Sir David King was invited to join the inner circle. If anyone tells you that scientists are impractical boffins, refer them to David. What he told me sounded a trifle wacky, but over the weeks to come it was to be of priceless value in defeating the disease. Essentially, by means of graphs and charts he set out how the disease would spread, how we could contain it if we took the right culling measures, and how over time we would eradicate it.
The officials were extremely sceptical. So was I. How could he predict it like that, with so many unknowns? But almost faute de mieux, I followed his advice - and blow me, with uncanny, almost unnatural accuracy, the disease peaked, declined and went, almost to the week he had predicted.
 “Blow me”, indeed. Does Blair really think impractical boffinry, "for lack of something better", keeps planes in the air, invented the internet and the pill, or threatens us with WMD (ok bad example)? The answer is that he just doesn’t see his world as having much to do with science and technology, as opposed  to, say in his case, religion or law. Nor do most politicians – according to The Times ‘Eureka!’ October 2010, there are only two MPs out of 630 with science PhDs. Blair again (page 646):
The fourth speech again concerned a quiet passion of mine that was partly the result of missed opportunities at school: science. I had been a woeful student. Failed my physics, gave up on chemistry, scraped through in maths, never bothered with biology and spent the rest of my life regretting it! For some reason or other, I just couldn't grasp it. I felt a deep stupidity about it, unable to glimpse let alone see fully its principles and elements, in any shape that bestowed understanding. So my early life in regard to it passed in a slough of frustration, incomprehension and indifference.
The school was Fettes (chosen by his father as the best in Scotland – page 43) which he says had given him an exhibition (page 561). No lack of opportunity then, nor presumably was Blair deeply stupid, although Roy Jenkins supposedly said that he is a first-class politician with a second class brain. It’s just that the culture and practice of modern democratic politics, about which Blair writes penetratingly, has little, if anything, in common with that of science and technology. Scant call for measurement, analysis, objectivity, verifiable and substantiated assertion and so on, in an occupation where the central skills include the avoidance of direct questions, media management and the squaring of circles, and in which the branches of Arithmetic seem to be those studied by the Mock Turtle: Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision. Blair’s next (one sentence) paragraph:
Now I am fascinated by science and by its possibilities; in awe of how its progress is changing our world and the lives we lead.
apart from its reading like an uninspired UCAS Personal Statement, is quite unbelievable in the context of ‘A Journey’. Much more credible is the account of Blair’s meeting with Bill Gates as Leader of the Opposition some time between 1994 and 1997 (page 255-6):
David [Miliband] was smart and modern on technology. I was non compos mentis on the subject, being a genuine technophobe. He tried to tutor me before the meeting, alarmed that I would behave in a way inconsistent with the New Labour ‘we are at the cutting edge of the technological revolution’ mantra.
We are then told that he didn’t disappoint David’s expectations, and got his terminology muddled in front of Bill. Well, much good has his geekiness done David recently.

The fact is that our Secretary of State’s attitude to us that evening and Blair’s to his much more senior Chief Scientific Adviser were of a piece. (I am giving that post capitals as Blair does not – but note “Cabinet Secretary” three words earlier above.) It would be naive to think things are going to be otherwise, at least in Western democratic politics and government now. On the other hand most of China’s top leadership are qualified engineers or scientists, a factor which may well influence their awesome investment in infrastructure and education, and shape the capabilities of their armed forces. The prospects for the US and Europe’s position relative to China by say 2050 do not look too good, probably with very uncomfortable consequences. Something for other posts in due course.

Senior government scientists who have regular dealings with politicians and the high mandarinate (the sort Blair happily capitalises) are far too intelligent not to be well aware of how they are regarded and valued. Some of them, understandably, sought status compensation by treating their own staff in a rather old-fashioned and high-handed way I used to think, with predictable consequences for morale. Not that this showed up in regular personnel surveys which would reveal that a high percentage were much enthused with their work and the way it was organised. This was to the relief of the high-ups whose bonus pay might have been affected. The fact that about half the staff declined to complete the survey forms, and the disenchantment that this might imply, were ignored, of course. No better than the politicians, really.