Friday, 4 September 2009

Going Postal

There is nothing more annoying than doing everything you can to make something work, but being scuppered by forces beyond your control. Especially when the result is that you cannot fulfil your responsibility.

I have had just such an experience this week, courtesy of our increasingly erratic postal service. It's not as if I live in the middle of nowhere; a fairly central London address should, you'd think, at least mean you'd get your post on time. But no - it turns up when it feels like it. Delivery can be at any time from, on current form, 8:00AM to 2:15PM, and I don't have the time to stay in to wait for something important. And First Class post can mean next day or it can mean three or four days hence.

I am avowedly anti government interference, but I am also pro stuff working. Therefore I accept that there are certain things which Government can usefully do. Amongst them are run the postal service - something which actually can be usefully centrally managed, to standardise and maintain predictable levels of service across the country, since post goes everywhere. Governments can also run railways - my recent experience of French railways, contrasted with my recent experience of those in Britain, has convinced me of that. Not that I'd trust this lot to run anything, but the current system really doesn't work.

So there you have it - Government has a purpose. It's a carefully limited thing, but it exists. Trouble is, when you acknowledge that, they quickly announce that they want to decide what colour your socks should be too.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The gap between rich and poor

Question Time this evening has yet again been a polarised affair. Polarised, that is between people talking rubbish (Shirley Williams, Geoff Hoon and George Galloway) and people talking sense (Sayeeda Warsi and, especially, Clive James). 

There has been plenty of nonsense talked over the past few months, but the basic wrongness of some of what has been said this evening, needs to be refuted. I particular, I'm amazed that people are still fooled by wailing about "the gap between rich and poor". 

Shirley Williams sat there this evening complaining that bankers make lots of money. Much more money than people who aren't bankers. Some people make only a hundredth of that bankers make. Boo hoo. This is a very old argument, and it's wrong. Just because the gap is bigger doesn't mean that people are worse off. It just means that the richest people have got richer faster, which is only a bad thing if you suffer from Shirley Williams / George Galloway style envy. The poorest people in the country, and in the world in general are hugely better off than they used to be: they're living longer too, which gives the population alarmists a reason to twist their knickers yet further. 

The gap between rich and poor is not a problem. It's part of wealth creation - it's not pretty, but it exists. And Shirley Williams really ought to have got over it by now. 

Thursday, 14 May 2009

MPs' expenses: an awful lot of humbug

On this evening's Question Time, we had Menzies Campbell, Margaret Beckett, Theresa May, Benedict Brogan and Steve Easterbrook. There was a general, shouty indignation within the audience about the expenses claims (generally, it has to be said, for fairly small amounts of money) but look at the panel for a moment:

Menzies Campbell: old and useless. 

Margaret Beckett: old, useless and mendacious. 

Theresa May: useless and vague. 

Benedict Brogan: disingenuous and smug. 

Steve Easterbrook: CEO of Macdonalds and smug git.  

What a shower. Hopeless, vague MPs, a smug journalist and a purveyor of mashed cow bits. Most of the programme was, of course given over to the audience shouting in a self-righteous manner. 

This whole business of MPs expenses has, of course, been eye-opening. It was certainly enlightening to discover just what our elected representatives have been claiming for, and some of it was astonishing in terms of its pure brass neck. And no matter how big the cheque Hazel Blears writes now, the point remains that she shouldn't have claimed the money in the first place. 

However, a few points need to be made:

1) MPs work very, very hard. At least most of them do. Notwithstanding the fact that many of them are hopeless, they have what amounts to two full time jobs in two different places.

2) The annual salary of an MP is £64,766, which may seem like a lot of money (it's certainly more than I make) but its considerably less than Wayne Rooney makes in a week.

3) We expect MPs to be perfect, but we'd be pretty cross if we were held to the same standards. How many journalists, for instance, would be willing to have their expenses claims scrutinised by the same standards?

4) This whole business has obscured things that actually matter. A few thousand pounds here and there is nothing compared to what's going on in Sri Lanka and Burma right now, for instance. I'm sick of news programmes dedicated to shouting at MPs. Let's get on with real life now. 

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Cambridge is elitist. That's the point.

Today a whole bunch of whining liberal idealogues have got all upset because Cambridge have done the logical thing. They've seen the introduction of the new A* at A Level and decided to use it as a way of differentiating between the best and the second best. 

The big complaint seems to be that this is elitist. But Cambridge has always been elitist - it selects the intellectual elite. If it did anything else it wouldn't be the top university in the country; it wouldn't be one of the top universities in the world.   

One of the whingers, John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “I am extremely concerned about this. The effect of the A* on the system is unknown, so at the very least this decision is premature. I trust it will not be followed by other universities. There is plenty of other evidence on which we can discriminate between candidates.”
Like what? Their sock drawer? Or should we just ask them if they promise to work really, really hard?

None of this would be necessary if A-levels hadn't been getting easier for the last twenty years. Anyone who says they haven't is kidding themselves: kids certainly haven't been getting cleverer, and schools haven't, in general, got better. In the meantime, let Cambridge use the A* grade. The best thing about it is that you can't get it if you resit any module of your A Level - so the now-standard resitting-to-get-a-better-grade is eliminated. Worth a go, I say. 

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Modernising Royal Mail is a contradiction in terms

Our government have now decided that, because all their previous attempts at public-private partnerships have been such overwhelming successes (I travel on the Tube more or less every day, so I know what I'm talking about) they are going to part-privatise the Royal Mail.

My experience of the Royal Mail over my lifetime has been this: it used to be reliable; it had some problems; they reorganised it (losing second post, for instance) and it got worse. Now it is not reliable. I live in North London and my post arrives anywhere between 10AM and 2PM; things get lost; there are no apologies or even admissions of liability.

The Royal Mail is not a modern invention and its service is not something that can be improved by modern methods beyond the internal combustion engine. If we actually care about it, we need to accept it must be properly funded and organised. Organising a national postal service is one of the few things central government can usefully do - and ours can't even do that.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

We're not good at trains

Today, the government awarded a £7.5bn contract to build a fleet of intercity trains to consortium including Hitachi, a Japanese firm. They didn't give it to a consortium including Bombardier, who make trains in Derby, employing 2,000 people.

I'm not surprised. We are rubbish at trains in this country. If you exclude the Eurostar, which isn't ours, the best train we have is the Virgin Pendolino, which is always late and often broken. We aren't good at these things. The Japanese, on the other hand have the Shinkansen (bullet train) which is never late and always works and travels at 168mph or faster, depending on the line. I've been on the Bullet Train between Tokyo and Kyoto, and I'd choose it over our trains any day. The Japanese know how to make fast trains. We don't.

Apparently Hitachi have agreed to have the trains assembled in the UK. I hope they don't expect them to be ready on time.

Friday, 6 February 2009

I'm with Clarkson - Brown is an idiot

There has been a lot of huffing and puffing today about something Jeremy Clarkson has said about our dear Prime Minister. Comparing him to Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister, Clarkson described Gordon Brown as a "one-eyed Scottish idiot". He also accused Brown of lying to the public. 

Now, Jeremy Clarkson has a talent for offending people, and in this case has managed to offend Scottish people, blind people and idiots all at once. He has since apologised for making a comment about Gordon Brown's "personal appearance" but, notably, has not said sorry for calling him a liar and an idiot. And he shouldn't. 

Gordon Brown having only one working eye is irrelevant, so it was a cheap comment to make. But Gordon Brown being Scottish is not irrelevant, as shown by the furious response from Labour MPs and the Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray. Indeed Gordon Banks MP called Clarkson's comments "unforgivable". But why is it unforgivable to point out that Gordon Brown is a Scottish idiot?

Ever since Tony Blair (also Scottish, don't forget) brought the Scottish Parliament into being in 1999, we have been in the bizarre situation where England is run by Scottish people (Blair, Brown, Darling, Alexander, Murphy et al), Wales and Northern Ireland, despite having their own assemblies, are more or less run by the same bunch of Scottish people, and Scotland is run by two different sets of Scottish people.

Scottish devolution has created an imbalance in the power bases in the UK which will eventually need to be sorted out. Gordon Brown being Scottish is undoubtedly relevant, as is his being an idiot and a liar. We know he's an idiot, and a stubborn one at that; and if you count hiding public expenditure off balance-sheet and redefining the economic cycle so as to claim he has met his golden rule as lying - and I do - then he is a proven liar. 

I agree with Clarkson - and people need to stop bouncing up and down in indignation whenever people like him say anything mildly controversial. If they stop and think about it, they might realise he has a point.