Thoughts whilst the Lights are out

 Tonight across Britain the landmarks and Homes of Britons will be shrouded in Darkness.

It was a century ago that Sir Edward Grey remarked that “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”.

As we sit in the dark a time to remember those details of The Great War passed down to us.

Several are personal to my family, others, to vast swathes of the Empire. All will no doubt come to mind during that hour tonight.

There was the ambulance-driving Great-Grandfather who may have met several future relatives on the Western Front.

There is the Indian section of the family, calling to mind the Imperial unity which made Britain’s war effort possible.

Another Great-Grandfather who lied about his age to join up (as did many in those days), and took up smoking in the Trenches. He died in his fifties, one arm badly damaged during the war, of lung cancer. His body still held shrapnel which had hit him in the fighting.

The curious name of one of the units our family served in. The London Scottish was formed of the Scots living in London who wanted to “do their bit”.

The story of an officer who led his men with a handkerchief tied to his staff.

The ways the war came to the “home front” such as air raids linger in the mind too. King’s Lynn was bombed on the first night, a local story tells that the lamps were being turned out by the “lamp boys” by hand, it had been decided turning off the gas at the source might cause a panic.

The first bombs to fall on Lynn landed in Marsh Lane, the 9th to be launched by “L4” which had already targeted various places along the coast from Sheringham. These included the Church at Snettisham and the vast bringer of terror was seen by the Queen at Sandringham. Today Marsh Lane is called Tennyson Avenue. More bombs then hit the town, including Bentinck Street, where two were killed. Further bombs fell in East Street, Albert Street, the Alexandra Dock and Cresswell Street.

From the beginning it was the areas with smaller houses that were targeted. It has also been suggested that the bombers followed the railway line, as they would in the Second World War.

Then there are the thoughts of the cemeteries. Those miles of neat stones, so many marked with “A Soldier” with details such as regiment where they could be known. The different marks on the graves, crosses, crescents, stars, this wasn’t political correctness, it was honouring the dead.

The hospitals too come to mind. Great houses, even the palace of Brighton Pavilion, turned into places for the wounded to recover. Including various members of one’s own family. The women who served as nurses, or came to try and relieve the horrors of a hospital with music and entertainments.

The women who took up “men’s work” to help the war effort, dangerous jobs in munitions factories, and jobs it would have been unthinkable for them to do before the war, like cleaning railway engines and working as bus “conductoresses”.

The way the whole country put arguments aside. Women who had fought for the vote helped the fight to save the country, Irish nationalists who’d been prepared to lose the Crown, in 1914 were determined to save it. Clerics who went in amongst the troops to bring the comforts of Christ, and those who arranged more worldy comforts, like chocolate and cigarettes for the soldiers.

The railways which were swiftly built to keep the supplies moving, the engines sent to France by British companies, and the “standard” type built to keep production efficient. All those who left what would have been considered “essential” occupations to go and fight.

The memorials all over the country. From Railway Stations and Churches to the old photographs on a mantelpiece, always beside a favoured flower of the person pictured, tended by a woman who would always be “a spinster of this parish”.

The Blessed relief of peace. The thankfulness that we are so far from the days of conscription now. Not yet a century separates us from them, but it is coming. That we can sit at home, and light a candle to remember, is thanks to those who fought.

The muddle now standing at platform 3

When BR was Blue

When BR was Blue

 

I try and be a positive person. But this going to be another cross-patch article, because its’ subject is absurd.

The spectre of nationalisation is back to haunt our railways.

To the socialists, the “success” of the East Coast TOC, run by Whitehall as the previous contract holder bailed, is proof we must renationalise the railways.

So let’s take that apart. We’ll start with the single example in the whole country, East Coast.

East Coast runs on the East Coast Mainline, a line built jointly by various companies in the 19th Century, electrified in the 1980s. It includes at its full length the Forth Bridge, that monument to Victorian grandeur.

East Coast runs a fleet of two types of train. The Inter-City 125s of 1970s vintage still have slam doors and despite being given new engines, are what they are. Which is a stop-gap soldiering on long after it was supposed to. The trains which were meant to replace them never came along. These handle all traffic North of Edinburgh, on non-electrified lines, and various Yorkshire and Northern services.

Then there are the 225s, so called because they run that fast in Kilometres per hour. 125s’ top speed is in miles per hour. They are marginally faster in theory, in practice the two can swap roles on electrified lines, and do. British trains are limited on most routes to 125mph. The 225s are more modern, having been introduced in the late 1980s. There were formerly “Eurostars” on the line, but these weren’t a success and were returned before the “renationalisation”.

Plans for new trains, much like trains, have been “coming” for what feels like forever. East Coast has refurbished some, however the company still uses surplus trains from East Midlands trains to plug gaps in their own fleet. The company’s major improvement has been abolishing restaurant cars and turning all 1st Class into a restaurant instead.

Hardly the impressive level achieved by Virgin Trains with their new Pendolinos & Voyagers or the efforts of other companies such as Hull Trains, Grand Central and East Midlands in getting new trains. Indeed, there are plenty of new trains East Coast could have ordered to replace its ageing fleet ready off the shelf from manufacturers.

The problem with a Whitehall Railway, is that a railway is not a bureaucracy. It actually has to work, and work constantly. Already that sounds very Un-Whitehall. It demands more of the civil service than it can deliver. It’s worth noting that since privatisation, for all its flaws, the railways have hugely improved. More people are travelling, fares are very affordable if you’re not buying at the booking office and there are penalties for bad operators.

But what would happen if the Whitehall Railway Company Limited joined the bidding fray, as proposed by Messrs Miliband & Unions incorporated? Well, in the first place expect the competition commission to come down on it like a ton of bricks. The government that awards the contract is also bidding? You can already hear the company lawyers getting their court clothes ready.

Then there’s the fact that Whitehall, if the process was fair, would be out-bid. The government is terrible at running railways and knows it. So a lot of civil servants will waste their time organising bids. What they’ll do between bidding periods we don’t know. Perhaps they’ll be given a huge train set to play with and learn the trade?

If they do win, and fail, what then? Whitehall railways are meant to be a caretaker companies for when others fail. Who’ll clean up if they fail?

Then there is the other question. Is this actually going to please the unions? There were plenty of rail strikes on the nationalised railways. With one of the major unions, the RMT not involved in cooking up this policy mess you can bet they’ll be less than pleased if Labour continue to leave them out of their chumocracy. Will Unions in the inner-Labour-loop get preference? Now there’s something that would cause a strike.

The worst thing is though isn’t how ill-thought out the policy is. It’s that the solution is obvious. De-nationalise. Let the railways be run by companies. Set each franchise up as its own company and then just let the market take its course. Franchises were always a very bad idea for the railways, permanent companies have a stake in investing that franchise-holders don’t. If lines need subsidies those can be paid at arms’ length. Companies which include a mainline and several feeder routes however should be able to sustain a small service that loses less in a year than a mainline makes in a month.

After all, the railway companies managed better than BR to run a good and improving railway.  

The Meanness of Middle Income Politics

What you get for being hardworking. Image by: "Money-pounds" by George Hodan - http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=30693&picture=pengar-pounds. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Money-pounds.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Money-pounds.jpg

What you get for being hardworking.
Image by:
“Money-pounds” by George Hodan – http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=30693&picture=pengar-pounds. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Money-pounds.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Money-pounds.jpg

Labour’s old love of taxing everybody to the hilt so they can play Lady Bountiful to people with their own money has come out again.

Harriet Harman is the most principled Labourite. Which means she believes in all the things that have made every Labour government a disaster.

The latest slip of the mask however is especially nasty. She doesn’t want to tax the Middle Classes, an old left-wing formula for moderate managers and other mildly prosperous people.

No, it was the “Middle Income” people. In most countries that is equivalent to the middle class. In Britain of course it isn’t, it’s the upper end of the working class. The plumbers, carpenters, roofers, school teachers, the non-conformist clergy and many others that live quite ordinary lives.

These are the people who live in Victorian houses with bay windows, the small semis of the 1930s, and the shoe box houses of the modern age. The people who don’t get benefits but always worry that a bad spell in their business or time between jobs could take them through those doors into the benefits office.

A middle income household has struggled a lot in the last few years. The pinch of higher taxes, school strikes adding to the household expenses. Every rise in a household bill means another of life’s little luxuries denied. People who might have before the recession stretched to a second holiday, not a luxurious holiday, but some pleasant time away from home and being a tourist.

Now the Labour party want to rob them of their comforts. Of a new outfit for weddings. Some days out with the family. Being able to give to the charities they support. All the little things which are the rewards for being decent hardworking people who’ve managed to climb a little in life.

Such people are the enemy for the Labour party. The people who leave trade unions and “we always vote Labour” for considered voting and demanding politicians who are capable.

It has long be the aim of all those who live under the British Crown to be in a better position when they die than the one they were born into. To be a “social climber” in Britain is to be a part of the British. Others may mock our manners and morals, but they do at least mean that there is more to improving your lot than making more money.

It is not British to be a socialist. What’s shocking though, is that those socialists in Britain who want to get their hands on power, are determined to preserve their own wealth, but rob those of moderate means.

Not even Mr Marx would consider that a good thing.

European Elections: Who are you all?

European elections are the poor relation to the others. They’re newer, aren’t based on single representative constituencies and let’s face it, a lot of people still have to google what an MEP is.

So you could be forgiven for not having heard of every person on the long list of candidates, especially if they’re from say the Lib Dems, which are now getting like Bitterns (or Buttles for those of you who speak proper Norfolk), rare.

But whole parties? Even I, somebody with a political interest level most fairly described as “nerd” was surprised to see the full range of parties to choose from. Being active in politics has the advantage that you meet more of the people standing, regardless of side, but I feel rather like I’ve just discovered an extra line of numbers on my bingo card.

There are in the East of England 10 parties putting up lists of candidates. You can view the lists for the various regions here: http://www.europarl.org.uk/en/european_elections/candidates2014.html . London has an impressive 17 standing. Surprisingly Scotland has only 9, and The North West of England and Wales both have 11.

A special mention should go to a candidate for the Yorkshire First Party (I spent 3 years as a student up there and never heard of them) who gave their address in Norway. It is a strange but true fact that addresses are still published for anyone who stands in an election. The North West is an area being contested by the Pirate party, but not the South West. Feels like a wasted chance to make a Gilbert & Sullivan political fundraiser.

Another particular gem is the South East of England’s Roman party. Party like it’s A.D. 44 perhaps? Though I suppose they’d find friends amongst Italian MEPs.  London’s offering includes the “national health action party”. Given that Healthcare has nothing to do with the EU parliament, a small part of me suspects some doctors felt like having a laugh at one of the hospitals.

Coming back to the East, there’s a Christian People’s Alliance amongst my options. Now, I’m all for faith in politics, not least since the ten commandments are the sort of thing one ought to encourage in general. They’re basically biblical greens though, so one’s not too much of a fan.

All these parties do show a few trends. There are a lot of far left groups that can scrub together the names for a nomination paper, and a lot of anti-EU groups. Indeed, it is a question worth asking, if the media gave them all equal airtime, regardless of how truly fringe they were, would groups like UKIP and the Greens fail? After all, they do have a lot of competition.

Looking at the results from last time, I’m not sure that Yorkshire First are going to need to buy a season ticket for the Norway-Humber ferry. Despite the vast variety, people tend to stick to what they know. There is a reason there are mainstream and fringe parties, and it’s not down to who newspapers like.

Though I will offer a bit of advice to fringe parties. Stop using logos that make word art look sophisticated. Please.

Even with my list of ten, there was only one party I actually wanted to vote for though. Indeed so far just two have deigned to provide my household with information about their policies. And of those two, one was UKIP, the other, the Conservatives. And today is the day all across this district (earlier in some) that the postal votes arrived in households.

The Conservatives wrote something addressed to me. It was well written and quite pleasant to read, on nice paper. UKIP’s leaflet was a poor effort. Their colours are ghastly and it looked like a takeaway leaflet. And their policies were phrased so that one does honestly suspect they were not the result of careful contemplation about the electorate. So who do you think I picked?

Of course, I’d made up my mind before the campaigning got under way, being a member of a party of good policies and values. But it’s nice to know that I’d still make the same choice if I was voting for the first time.

Was today made out of the breaking?

Cameron is getting ready for something big.

Today’s events have been astonishing. 2 people have gone in less than 24 hours from the upper regions of the Conservative party.

One was inevitable. The other opportune. Both however have something in common. Both could have caused problems for party unity.

Maria Miller was always going to go. She jumped very shortly before she was pushed. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of her case, the media and public were calling for not just any scalp, but hers. Expenses are to 21st century British politics what cake was to the Bourbons.

So out she went.

Michael Fabricant was different. For a long time he’d been causing mischief over the controversial-but-necessary HS2. For those who want to stick out over something, express loyalty is the best way to make sure you stick out, rather than fall out. Anybody can be allowed a single issue of conscience.

Today by getting involved in the Maria Miller fall out, he put himself in a dangerous position. Any commenting on what has been one of the most difficult episodes of the year so far for the government was going to be high-risk

Cameron’s line on Miller was obviously a morally just one. Miller had obeyed the rules. Sadly the rules are far too toxic to defend anybody with them.

When you find your defences are weak, it’s not the time for your army to start talking about how they could have been built differently. Fabricant risked it. And out he went.

The conservative party is engaged in a fight for the nation. The old order, in Britain one of prosperity, hope and social climbing, is under threat. UKIP would turn us back to the 70s, lacking an Empire and a role. Labour would turn back to the 40s, squandering the prospects of growth for an ideology. The Lib Dems would panic and flounder like Labour’s first attempt in government before the last war. All three stand outside the Versailles that is Whitehall, trying to break in and destroy all hopes of a return to progress.

Since the days of King Louis much has changed. Not least, people have learnt that a crisis needs responding to by something other than division. Today’s events have shocked the Conservatives. They have however removed causes of division. Had King Louis done that, this long metaphor wouldn’t have worked. Expect Cameron to build on today, with progress.

Welcoming the Thru’penny Pound

We’re getting a new pound coin.

Cue cries of “what’s wrong with the old one?” “How much’ll it cost?” And of course “The EU is plotting to make us take the euro with a coin that looks a bit like a Euro”. Or crazy variants thereof.

It’s not actually new. It’s the old Thru’penny bit (warning, local spelling may vary) cross bred with the two pound coin. It’s deeply unoriginal.

This should in theory lessen resistance. Of course the fact that our old Thru’penny coin has in less than century been upgraded to the pound by inflation isn’t great. But the number of people that will have used both as money is going to be tiny.

A bigger problem is of course vending machines which will all have to be changed, but it’s something that comes along every so often, the industry is prepared for it.

Another aspect though is it means the current pound has had a short life. Or if you prefer, another coin bites the dust. Anyone who’s ever had an old five pence piece will know the feeling of dismay at old coins nowadays.

In the past we had a simpler system, where old coins just carried on, without withdrawals. Bun pennies, from Victoria’s reign, were collected for charity in the 40s since they held their value even though they were too worn to use in machines. Mostly though they just carried on in circulation until melted down. In North Africa as late as the 19th Century Roman gold coins were still in circulation.

Nowadays, we have people who wonder if we’ll have to re-issue all coins for a new monarch. Thanks to decimalisation we don’t have a lot of old coins in circulation now. The cultural value of coins includes the fact that they last. If we can’t undo the mess of decimalisation (and I’m all for that personally), we must at least begin to have coins that will last.

The current pound is incredibly easy to forge and is one of the world’s top coins for forgeries. It’s the most common reason your pound coin won’t work in that parking machine. For a few years now there’s been a quiet murmur that something needs to be done about it. That’s why we’ve got the new coin. If things got to the point where people didn’t trust the pound in their pocket, a crisis would occur. As it is the problem has been sidestepped.

So, there’s nothing more than a mild excitement at something new happening really.

Let’s make sure Britannia is on the other side though. Coins may change, but Britannia always ought to be on the money, don’t you think?

The next Triumvirate

Since today is the Ides of March I can justify having classical references.

At the moment, there’s an obvious triumvirate at the top of the Conservative Party. Cameron, Osborne and Johnson (Boris). The PM is a given, the Chancellor inevitable in the present economic situation. The third is unusual by tradition. Boris is there though because of his prominence, and his power as Mayor of London.

Within the party, there’s a faction that thinks at some point Boris should follow Cameron. The opposing camp has mostly clustered around Osborne. Though thankfully, the party is not in an overly leadericidal mood at the moment. If 2015 is lost, expect those old tendencies to resurface.

The obvious solution though is to transition from one triumvirate to another. There’s a good second tier of “should have more power in the future” ministers in the cabinet at present. For the many obvious reasons, no Lib Dems allowed.  I suspect “Liberal Democrat Cabinet Minister” will not be a term entering the BBC Pronunciation dictionary when it’s next reworked.

In the long run a new Triumvirate has its advantages, not least variety. With the key offices of state (Not counting the Foreign Office here) having been reduced to two-and-a-half, it’s time we accepted we need to find a replacement third.

Whilst the FO Minister is an obviously important role, I’m not counting it for the obvious reason it’s not one that’s too popular at home. Diplomacy is important, but we don’t visit our ambassadors most of the time when we go abroad these days. So except in times of great international stress, it’s not very prominent at home.

I’d suggest the office of Mayor of London as one of them. Given the huge power of London’s Mayor over the Capital and Largest City in Britain, and huge media exposure, it’s a safe choice. Whilst Ken Livingstone had the PR skills of Gordon Brown, the job under Boris has become both high profile and capable of wielding its huge power. Is there any other office in Britain outside parliament capable of being considered a stepping stone to PM?

However, the present trio are so enmeshed, removing all three at once is the best solution for when they go. Without Cameron, Boris and Osborne won’t unite the party as well as their supporters think. So, with the present triumvirate gone, who should follow?

First up must surely be Gove the Glorious. He’s reformed education, which even the ladder-pullers who abolished grammar schools couldn’t manage as well as he did. If he can manage that, who can doubt he’d be good at other things.

The next obvious member of the next Triumvirate is Theresa May. She’s been a thoroughly decent Home Secretary, so she should stay at the upper end of the cabinet table. It is a pity she’s had the office after it lost some of its former grandeur and power.

So the next question is, who’s third?

Here I’d feel a little less certain of myself. Of the present cabinet I’d say it was Jeremy Hunt, since he has pulled off some successes so far, and has yet to properly put his foot in it. His work with the NHS though is incomplete and needs to be done to a level similar to Gove to fully put him in.

You’ll notice, I’ve not done this by who I think in the cabinet takes tea in a three the most often. Instead I’ve done it by ability. Any other method is I think doomed to failure for both the party and the country.

The other awkward question is which of those three should leave parliament for the London job? For that, I’d suggest Hunt of the above. He’s got plenty of potential for the post, and would probably do well in London.

So, who for the Treasury, and who for PM? Here we hit a snag.

They’re both seriously good. I’d be happy to see either as PM. In a straight contest between the two I’d suspect most people would be inclined to be happy with whoever won. There’s a lot to be said for May as PM, but that is true also for Gove for PM. But the good thing is, it isn’t up to a single person, but the party

First though, we have to get there. Let’s hope the present Triumvirate ends pleasantly, unlike the one that ended in Rome this day many years ago. Though thankfully, the Conservative Party is usually a lot nicer than the Roman Senate.