Saturday, August 29, 2009

Playing it Cool

On holiday in a fairly remote part of Croatia I find myself surrounded by a variety of different nationalities: Czech, Slovak, French, German, Polish, Hungarian, Montenegrin, Serb, Croatian and my own Bosnian hosts. Inevitably the subject of what makes us different comes up- and in a variety of different languages we explore the issue.

One asks me "whatever became of the "English [sic] gentleman?".

"Once", he continues, "the British would not show their emotions", this was, he submits, an amazing advantage, because "one could never tell when the British were beaten".

They would not show emotions whether faced with triumph or disaster.

I was immediately reminded of Kipling's proscription for Manhood :"if you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same". I suppose this is the very essence of "cool"- to remain unemotional when faced with considerable difficulty.

I think that this is what made me so very uncomfortable when the British newspapers led an orgy of shroud waving when Diana, Princess of Wales met her untimely death. All the emotion seemed so profoundly, well, just wrong. The Second World War was not won by unseemly emotion, but by a grim determination to "keep calm and carry on".

I was therefore rather cheered at Dubrovnik Airport to see an obviously British passenger wearing just that slogan on a tee shirt. Despite the emotive nonsense on so many subjects in the media; despite the incompetence and shallowness of so many of our supposed leaders, in the end the British People must hold on to such eminently sensible advice.

Playing it cool... is cool. Keeping calm and carrying on is what we always do when the chips are down.

So I replied to the question on whatever happend to the "English gentleman" as follows:

"Not dead, just sleeping, and if you don't believe me, remember 7/7". A cup of tea, a trip to the pub and we were back at work the next day.

That WAS cool.

And we have not been beaten yet.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Croatian Sunshine

Having snuck off for a few days in Croatia I have rediscovered the virtues of sloth when it comes to blogging. The sunshine helps lift the clouds of gloom that I feel as I contempate my own country, though this may be partly because the Croatians are more or less totally relaxed about anything, despite the fairly parlous state of affiars here. I think that they probably do not have a word as urgent as "manana" in Spanish. Certainly in the fifteen or so years that I have been coming here there is still much that remains totally unaltered.

As the moon rises over the stone houses here in Trbinj, a very small town on the Peljesac peninsula, I now feel that I should turn my attention towards this large beer rather than my computer keyboard.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Democracy 2.0

One of the biggest grips I have about the way that British politics operates is that there is such extraordinary inertia in the process of reform- pressure grows over a period of decades before necessary changes are made to our system of government. Though we are taught about the Reform bills of the nineteenth century as creating the a democratic franchise for the Parliament, the fact is that the modest reforms of the Reform bill of 1832 took decades of agitation before it was enacted, after having been first proposed by Pitt the Elder in 1786. It was still nearly 40 years before the unfinished business of 1832 could be addressed by the Reform Act of 1867. Some have defended this extraordinarily conservative approach to change as being protective of order and political stability- the idea that British politics is- and ought to be- based on an evolution rather than the potentially revolutionary consequences of more rapid political reform.

As the United Kingdom continues to slip further in the economic and political rankings of the nations, it strikes me that the failure to innovate in politics- as in much else- is costing our people very dearly. The need for change is becoming more urgent, yet there is little that is being done to prepare society for the changes that information technology is bringing. Privacy can not be safeguarded and the citizen of Britain has no right to know, let alone challenge information that may be held concerning them. Our 19th century Parliament continues to vote very slowly in lobbies rather than use any time saving electronic vote registration.

By contrast to all of this, there is the debate in Estonia.

I have been asked to take part in a conference inf the university city of Tartu to examine direct democracy. The point being that here in Estonia more and more people are choosing to vote online, as they do so many other things, such as banking, which is practically universally online, shopping and socialising. The growth on online voting for Parliament, the European Parliament and local government is making it increasingly practical for specific questions to be submitted to referendum. The question is whether this would bolster Estonian democracy or leave it vulnerable to greater populism.

The key, I suppose is to notice that the Estonians are already way in advance in their use and understanding of new IT and communications technology. Privacy protection is built into the structure of data handling and yet the presumption is that all state, as opposed to personal, information is public. Comparing that with the secretive nature of the British State, and the increasingly obtrusive surveillance of British citizens by their own state suggests that Estonia has already lapped Britain several times in the race to develop and use these new technologies in a safe and secure manner.

As Estonia considers the practicalities as well as the virtues of direct democracy, the rickety unreformed British constitution looks like an increasing anachronism. Evolution that takes decades to achieve the slightest progress does not look like a particularly good idea any more. Flexibility and openness are virtues that the new century will prize a lot more than the inflexible fustiness of British Constitution whose democratic centre, the House of Commons, can no longer police its own affairs, let alone legislate effectively for the nation.

The political class of Britain, isolated from the real experience of non political life, can not administer effectively, and the nineteenth century constitution even fails to reflect the wishes of the people. The result is political constipation and increasingly this results in incompetent and corrupt government.

Systemic reform is essential- yet still the political class refuses to acknowledge that it is they themselves that lie at the heart of our national decline. Change will come, but unless the hacks of party and Parliament become far more aware than they are now, that change could finally be more revolutionary than evolutionary.

It is just a shame that it will be too late by then for us to restore our national self respect and influence.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Russian darkness

I have tried not to comment on the anniversary of the Russian attack against Georgia- the scale of the crime and weakness of the Western response tell their own grim story. However another, perhaps less reported story has been the explosion at the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydro electric plant which has killed at least 74 people.

The accident is typical of the spectacularly bad safety record that attends most significant projects in Russia these days- the cause of the explosion remains unclear, but it is quite likely that water entering a capacitor bank was a major contributor to the disaster. At this point, the impact on the Russian electrical grid system is not said to be significant, and though the loss of life is appalling, the incident is- in full Soviet style- being played down.

However, the failure tolerances in the Russian grid system- UES- are at a critical level. Without full capacity from Sayano-Shushenskaya, the pressure in the other stations in the Urals will almost certainly mean critical problems come the Winter. The situation has now gone beyond supportable levels, and black-outs in early 2010 are now all but inevitable.

Meanwhile certain figures in the regime seem to implicated in the mysterious disappearance and reappearance of the Russian owned Arctic Sea. It is suggested that military equipment was on board the vessel destined for shipment to Iran. It would be entirely in keeping for the criminal interests around the Kremlin to provide such material for a pariah regime- and I am sure we shall be hearing much more about this sinister event.

Russia continues to walk in darkness, and soon- thanks the indifference and corruption of the current regime- that darkness could be quite literal.

Blog resurrection

Returning to the UK after a prolonged spell overseas has been a deeply dispiriting experience- so depressing, in fact that any blog comments of mine seem somehow inadequate. It is not just the chaos that has engulfed our airports, though the fact that we are not members of the Schengen area and our politicians have embraced intrusive but futile border checks now means that it can take more than two hours to enter your own country. The Libyan flight that landed at the same time as my flight from Copenhagen seemed to get through far more rapidly. I hear that the immigration officers intend to go on strike in protest at these conditions, and for once I can't say I blame them. Even when one has negotiated the squalid airport terminals, emerging frustrated and fuming, worse is yet to come. Despite a dramatic fall against the Euro, the fact is that London is still no bargain- the Heathrow Express is, mile-for-mile, one of the most expensive train rides in the world.

The air of defeat is palpable: so many of my friends from overseas are now making plans to leave London- some because they have lost their lucrative City careers, but more and more simply cite the idea that "London has lost its fun". The bitter shrillness of recrimination is turning the British into introverts. The newspapers fail to show a single spark of intelligence, preferring instead to play the pointless blame game: Politicians, Bankers, Bloggers all have been subject to intense fire. Yet at the end of the day the newspapers themselves will not accept that they themselves, with hypocritical cant and salacious tittle-tattle, have corroded much of Society. When newspapers raise a moral panic about sex crimes, it would be as well for them not to advertise premium sex phone lines and obvious links to prostitution. The former broadsheets now carry content that would have disgraced a tabloid not 20 years ago.

Britain has become coarse-a society once renowned for politeness is now drowned by a chorus of four letter words and drunken abuse. The long time squalor of much of the public sector is now matched by the collapse of the banking and financial sector and with it the permanent diminution of British Power. Instead of talking about how the labour force might use its own enterprise to build up small business, the talk is of state support and benefits- benefits that we can no longer afford. Unless there is a change of tack, it is quite clear that the UK is facing a drift towards further decline and even eclipse.

Of course much of this curmudgeonly spells reflects the profound dissatisfaction with the current government- only remove Labour from power, goes the argument, and the national mood will recover. Of course the end of Labour is certainly now quite necessary, but it is not sufficient.

Margaret Thatcher once looked around her cabinet table and said that if ministers understood industry, then more of them would be working in it. However, the current bunch of special pleaders for the public sector seem set to be replaced not with business people but with a bunch of PR merchants- and they, with no executive experience are likely to have no more basic competence that the current incumbents.

It will not be enough to change the party of government, but the system of government will need root and branch reform- and in particular the size and costs of public administration, across the board, will need to be reduced dramatically.

Apart from Vince Cable, it is hard to see which politician will have the courage to explain this to the electorate- in short to have the courage to lead.

As I return through the squalor of London Airport to the bright, modern and brand new facilities of Estonia, I feel a sense of relief and also foreboding for my own country.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Is Britain Decadent?

It was Georges Clemenceau who famously said of the United States that it was the only country that had gone from "barbarism to decadence, without the usual interval of civilisation". A comment that, while humorous, was not accurate even in 1918.

However as I consider home thoughts from abroad about the UK, it is hard not to become deeply concerned about the overall state of things in Britain at the moment.

The rather unpleasant attack with burning alcohol against a young Brit in Greece has been seen in that country as something that the victim in some way "deserved" and the perpetrator of the crime as a heroine. The constant stories of disgusting behaviour by "Brits abroad" has created an image of a practically feral population that has abandoned most of the restraints of courtesy and even of law. In the Baltic the repeated incidents of British drunks urinating on the hallowed freedom monument- a monument with the same significance to Latvia as the Cenotaph has to British people- has seen a clamp down, and those who do so are now arrested, gaoled and then expelled from the country. My Latvian friends speak with incredulity of the idea that one could be so drunk as to want to urinate on the street, and the Latvians are no slouches themselves when it comes to strong drink.

One does not need to go to Riga to see drunken bad behaviour- any Saturday night in any town or city in the UK, from Wick to Penzance, will see violence, public sex and all manner of drunken nastiness. Nor is drunken behaviour necessarily nocturnal: the "barmy army" of English cricket supporters has repeatedly barracked and catcalled the Australian cricketers in a way that would have been inconceivable even five years ago. I am sure that this only added to the sweetness of the latest Ashes victory by the Aussies.

So the Brits are a bunch of drunks? Many point out that behaviour was as bad or worse under the first Elizabeth and that while the Victorians may have been straight laced, but they were also quite hypocritical.

For me though the issue of our inability to drink sensibly is coming down to some very real and increasingly deep rooted issues within British society.

Once, British education- especially in Scotland- was the best in the world and the Protestant inspiration gave us a broad society of well educated, hard working- and sober- individuals. That is no longer true, and the UK school system now struggles with such subjects as maths and engineering, where individuals such as Telford and Brunel or Robert MacAlpine once led the world.

An Estonian friend of mine went to study in the UK and he pointed out the fundamental difference between the British and Estonian education systems. " In Estonia", he said, "we are taught to be accurate, in the UK accuracy is not too important, the point is to use your critical faculties."

In Estonia the key was the result, in the UK it was the process.

It is by no means a bad thing to use critical faculties, and perhaps it explains why the top of the British educational tree continues to bear good fruit. However it also explains why we have increasingly lost ourselves in a sea of moral relativism- the idea that few things are absolutely good or absolutely bad. In Estonia there is the idea of the correct result, in the UK, such absolutism is considered naive or even harmful.

Perhaps that is why we are now prepared to put up with behaviour that would have quite literally been unthinkable to our grandparents generation. The nastiness we find in our towns and cities and that we are inflicting on other countries reflects an unwillingness to suggest that this behaviour is actually completely - absolutely-unacceptable. We have become unwilling to discipline our society.

Without such discipline it is easy to accurately identify- using the Oxford dictionary- what we are now becoming:

• adjective 1 characterized by moral or cultural decline. 2 luxuriously self-indulgent.

We need to find a way to renew our national sense of worth and mission- and that is a job for all of society, not merely the narrow political elite.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Ryanair's Rattner moment?

After two weeks in deepest France where, unlike deepest Estonia, the Internet was impossible to find and mobile signals erratic at best I have now returned to Tallinn. sifting through the silly season news stories I find that Ryanair have been insulting their passengers again.

It was a failure in the Ryanair online check-in system that saw me denied boarding and forced to pay £200 to get the next flight that I needed. I swore I would never fly Ryanair again.

I suspect that this latest fiasco might be a tipping point- Ryanair's Irish "gobsh*te" boss, Tony O'Leary seems to glory in the negative press he attracts every time he suggests another way to extort money out off Ryanair's victimised human cargo, but even he would be hard put to say that the events of a few days ago at Stansted was anything except a disaster.

Gerald Rattner discovered that there is a limit to the insults that customers are prepared to take from a business before they will simply abandon it. After the catastrophic mishandling of Ryanair's fuel hedging, the company lost tens of millions of Euros, if customers begin to regard Ryanair as simply too much trouble, then even the supposedly financially impregnable low cost carrier may find itself under more than just a cloud.

At Gatwick a few weeks ago, I saw a rather triumphalist slogan on the fuselage of a Ryanair plane: "bye-bye SkyEurope", looking forward to the demise of one of the airline's competitors. Personally I found it as obnoxious as I find the arrogant Mr. O'Leary himself. If I were a Ryanair passenger whose holiday had been ruined because of their policy decisions, I would be quite happy to play very hardball to get restitution.

I think the humiliation of Mr. O'Leary would certainly bring a little ray of sunshine into all our lives.

Naturally my flights to and from France were Estonian Air/Lufthansa and not Ryanair.