Thursday, July 26, 2007

Life is full of disappointments

I mentioned once before that the Irish have started to show signs of betraying their traditionally admirable attitude to life and its stuffier aspects. One such is the building of a golf course on the spit of land leading up to the Old Head of Kinsale. You used to be able to walk (or drive for that matter, but I preferred to walk) along the path to the lighthouse unhindered, admire the view and reflect on the events of May 1915 when the Cunard liner Luisitania was torpedoed off the head and sank within 18 minutes with the loss of nearly 1200 lives. In 1997 a golf course was built here and despite claims that the planning permission guaranteed continuing public access you can no longer enjoy the walk. A somewhat belligerent notice at the entrance points out that the claim has been tested in court and dismissed. Since the lighthouse is unmanned it seems that the only people to get past the gate now are the golfers, the club staff and the man who goes to change the bulb from time to time. As a golfer I mostly welcome the expansion of the game, but not the modern resort clubs at a thousand euro a group for players arriving by helicopter. And this in Ireland, where there are probably more good courses per head of population even than in Scotland.

Meanwhile in Kinsale itself, known without complete justification as the gourmet capital of the south coast, I have been having a long fantasy ‘relationship’, as they coyly say these days, with the tall, blonde, slender, charming, delightfully Irish patronne of the classiest coffee bar cum bistro in town. On my latest visit I noticed that she was wearing a t-shirt with the logo of the Old Head Golf Club on one sleeve and asked if she played there. No, she said, she walked there. To my surprise that she was able to she revealed the devastating news: ‘my boyfriend is the manager’.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

We are the people of England and we have not spoken yet

I didn’t watch it and I’m glad I didn’t. The TV coverage of Tony Blair’s final Commons appearance and his handover to Gordon Brown was by all accounts nauseating. Boris Johnson’s amusing piece in the Telegraph summed it up, concentrating mainly on the scenes in the House, (full of de mortuis nil rubbishem or whatever it is) but it was the BBC’s report on its website that convinced me I was right to have been mending the phone line to the study instead. It had links like ‘Blair goes to Palace’, ‘Blair with the Queen’, ‘Blair off to Sedgefield’, ‘Brown goes to Palace’, ‘Brown meets Queen’ – you get the drift. A multi-episode sycophantic memorial edition to someone most people were glad to see gone, including many of his own party, as Boris pointed out.

But should we be so glad? Boris himself confessed to a dawning unease, born in his case out of fear that Brown will be dull and will regulate and curtail freedom and debate even more than Blair did. I agreed but was nevertheless left thinking that after ten years of having the answer to everything, of matey familiarity with the voters, of consorting with celebrities and of follies like the millennium dome and the olympics a little dullness in our prime minister might be welcome. It’s a fairly serious job after all.

I think the reason Blair jumped in first at that famous Granita meeting was that, like the boy who sticks his hand up before the teacher has finished the question, he was afraid that Brown knew the answer better than he did and he might never get his chance. He suspected that in the long run Brown would be the more acceptable to the Labour party, who could be relied on to pick Brown after the Blair years but not the other way around. If Brown went first and chose his own ministers and policies, then either Blair’s cover would be blown by the time his turn came or the electoral mood would have swung back to the Tories and it would be too late.

As for renewed new Labour under Brown, he has been upstaged so far by the terrorist plots and arrests of several immigrant doctors in connection with them – and he thought the NHS just needed more money. So far he has appointed a home secretary from England (good move) whose response to the failed bombs - in marked contrast to recent predecessors - has been an almost Thatcher-like message of business as usual (good move again). It seems he also proposes to remove the prime minister’s right to choose Church of England bishops (quite right, now remove them from the House of Lords), to move elections to weekends (fine, but unlikely to improve turnout I suspect), to hold hearings on big public appointments (what – adopt something the Americans do?), perhaps lower the voting age to 16 (why not 12 – or 10?), and to have parliamentary committees for each English region. And here I sense a Blair moment, the promise to make a change only to later enact a mess.

It is distinctly probable that a majority of English people are unaware of the existence of English regions. They were set up sneakily, at dead of night, without publicity and are unelected bodies. They are staffed by people appointed from the various councils of each region, a bit like a mini EU in our midst. Now they will get a formal link with central government, presumably to give them a pseudo legitimacy and as an attempt to answer the West Lothian question, for he has already rejected the idea of allowing only MPs with seats in England to vote on English matters. One can see why, of course, with his own seat (and those of three others in his cabinet) being in Scotland, but it is no answer. Indeed we should welcome this proposal for it will inevitably bring forward the day when the question has to be answered properly and the English have to be given their right to their own say in their own affairs.