Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Who Governs Britain?

wgb

Professor Anthony King’s book Who Governs Britain? is about as even-handed an assessment of the topic as one might hope to find. King is a distinguished and considered expert in the field, as I experienced in a public debate at which he spoke. The book is well-written and entertaining.

And yet one is still forced to come to the conclusion that the system is broken, or at least cracked. And highly inconsistent and illogical. Published in 2015, the book is prescient in its observations, given what has happened since.

There is some discussion going on regarding Theresa May’s deserving of sympathy. King’s book puts this in an interesting perspective. I doubt the criticism that suggests she has put party survival ahead of country – she is not that much of a team player. But she still represents the worst of the Establishment – inflexible, unfeeling and out-of-touch. The government’s response to criticism from Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on poverty, is just another timely reminder of how unresponsive is the British Establishment to real, urgent needs of ‘ordinary’ people. I wonder if it realises how badly its outright denial of the problem appears in the nation at large.

May’s woodenness and emotional illiteracy are thus just par for the course, team player or not. Whatever she really thinks about Brexit, her chosen approach has just reflected the ability of this country’s executive to do what the hell it likes, in between the occasional need to flatter the nation with false promises at election time. She could have chosen to acknowledge the closeness of the vote, and seek to reconcile Remainers with what she thought needed to be done. But as with them all, it was more important to score points than be right, more important to retain power than admit weakness or error, even where the latter might have brought relief. More important to bang drums than admit the country’s weak position and seek collaboration with our supposed partners.

She – and the whole of her misguided type cannot change. Their commitment to the ‘national interest’ is nothing of the sort: it is (perhaps unwitting) loyalty to a certain kind of establishment interest largely unchanged since the days of Empire, and as such not deserving of any sympathy. Even if one sympathises with the personal price she is paying, a lot of it is self-inflicted.

Whatever happens in the coming months with Brexit, it is easy to argue that the whole British governmental and constitutional system is in urgent need of review and overhaul: Brexit has thrown its limitations and contradictions into stark relief.

Unfortunately, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, so the chances of one happening are virtually nil. The only person whom I suggest might be able to instigate one is err…. the Monarch, through a Royal Commission. There is no other mechanism. Not an appealing admission for a republican – and I suspect she’s actually Queen Turkey herself in any case.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Google-bombing Europe – or a nation in ten pictures.

One way of assessing the condition of a nation is to look at its landscapes. There are of course many factors that influence the physical appearance of an area: the topography, the climate, the ecology, geology and so on.

But part of the equation is also the prevailing social and economic conditions. The landscapes reflect the way in which a nation manages its territory: the levels of investment, the planning systems, the architectural requirements, the attitudes and expectations of the people towards their surroundings, the history of the nation.

Google Earth presents a fantastic opportunity for surveying such things, so I thought I would conduct a small experiment to see what could be found with as objective an approach as is reasonably possible.

In coming posts, I am going to present sequences of ten photographs chosen more or less at random by ‘dropping in’ on places. I will mostly leave readers to draw their own conclusions, but if I do have a point to prove, it is that the care and effort put into the surroundings in different countries does vary significantly – and that it makes a material difference to the places in which people live, physical conditions notwithstanding. I suppose I should also confess my expectation that the U.K. does not fare particularly well in terms of its built environment.

The ‘rules’ I set myself were:
1. Set the camera at an altitude of about 500km (high enough to take in a large part of the country, and to obscure any obvious features).
2. Drag the peg-man and drop before the map has stopped moving, thus making the destination as random as possible.
3. When the image resolves, ‘permission’ is granted to take a 360 degree look around and choose the most interesting view.
4. Not to move the camera laterally from where it falls.
5. One reject allowed in each ten samples to allow for tedious repetition or utterly bland images that show nothing of interest.
6. The above accepted, aim for reasonable spatial coverage – e.g. don’t just drop the peg in the middle of the country each time.

In some cases, it is even possible to land inside a building, which can reveal things about the style and quality of interiors.

A perhaps surprising thing is how rarely one lands in the centre of a major urban area: while these dominate the social climate in a country, in spatial terms, they are very small. One lands far more frequently in open countryside (which is reassuring in a certain way) and, in the U.K. at least in identikit suburbs (which is perhaps less so).

Ten pictures are hardly enough to present a coherent impression of a country, and by definition a random sample may be neither consistent nor representative. But as a random slice through the combined effects of physical and human activity, they can perhaps tell us something. The first two countries presented here are Germany and the U.K. More to follow in subsequent posts.

Germany:D01D02D03D04D05D06D07D08D09D10

The U.K.:

UK01UK02UK03UK04UK05UK06UK07UK08UK09UK10

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Empty vessels….are world class.

We in Britain are regularly regaled with the claim that every next new thing is going to be ‘world class’. Methinks the country doth protest too much: anywhere that needs to bang on like this with such tedious regularity deep down knows that it is way off the mark. But it’s cheaper and easier to slap the ‘W-C’ label on something than actually do anything about it. But too often, that abbreviation really does have a better meaning.

Case in question is the new Swiss-made trains shortly to be delivered for my local Greater Anglia rail service. (Non rail-enthusiasts bear with me here – there is a wider point coming…) Knowing Swiss Railways inside out, I leapt with anticipation when the announcement was made a couple of years ago that Anglia would be the first British franchise to be buying Swiss in a big way.

Now I generally have a favourable view of Greater Anglia as being one of the more enlightened franchisees – probably something to do with their in reality being Dutch. And it is true that excellent cycle facilities now abound at stations all over their network.

But an article in the industry-journal Modern Railways suggests that once again, the new trains represent a missed opportunity. The first train is due in the U.K. about now, and I await visual confirmation that we do have proper Swiss build-quality.

But the insides are as dull as every other British train. Anglia claims to have focus-group tested the designs – but as the MR article points out, people can only compare against what they know. And in the case of British trains, that is not a great start.

Comments from the manufacturer also sound underwhelmed with the end result – but they pointed out that they only deliver what the customer asks for. How Swiss. But that lays the blame for this lost opportunity firmly back at the British end of the contract.

It is of course true that British trains are smaller than continental ones, and that does create real problems – but why does Britain have seat-specifications (supposedly in the name of safety – read litigation) far in excess of what the EU requires – and which rule out most of the better seating in use elsewhere? It leaves us with ultra-high backs which render the interior claustrophobic, while fire standards mean that almost no padding can be provided – hence recent widespread complaints about how hard the seats are in new trains. It is most definitely NOT that pesky EU spoiling our chance to have good old British rubbish here.

The real problem is that those who specifiy British train design are more concerned with maximising capacity (hence revenue) and minimising repair costs. It is also the case that many who profess to be impressed quite possibly haven’t seen the alternatives available in other countries. And yet the country persists with the ridiculous nonsense about world-class everything. It kids no-one with a slightly wider perspective.

While train design might hardly seem to be a world-stopping issue, this matter serves to illustrate some wider issues:

1) Poverty of expectation in this country is alive and well and expressed in things as everyday as trains. It is partly because so few experience what happens elsewhere.

2) Short-term, profit-driven so-called public services will only ever deliver bargain-basement quality because of the need to make a quick return.

3) ‘World-class’ actually means precisely the opposite. It is an excuse for having to think genuinely hard about getting something right.

4) This country never learns. And that includes the fact that in many cases, standards really are higher on the continent. I expect that these trains really will represent an improvement on what went before – but that is more an indictment of the past, rather than much to crow about. We are still a good way off the best.

Never mind, soon with our World-Class Brexit we will officially soon be officially rid of those pesky continentals and their ludicrous ideas – and we can carry on doing World-Class mediocre to our hearts’ content.

img-1451_w555_h555
The new Greater Anglia ‘Flirt’ unit. Not bad from the outside, though it would be better without the non non-obligatory yellow end.
tn_ch-sob-traverso-stadler
Yep, this is definitely the same train – albeit built to rather larger continental dimensions…
tn_gb_stadler_flirt_greater_anglia_interior_2 (1)
The cramped and grey standard class interior of the GA unit. Still, at least we have continental-style window blinds.
stadler_flirt_sobvoralpen06Südostbahn
The equivalent interior for the Swiss Sud-Ostbahn. Respective interior specifications courtesy of the customer consultation.
First-class, Swiss-style. Admittedly, also a bit grey.
41615510_342015486368932_4879372965262620119_n
On-board catering. When will British providers (of almost anything) stop banging on about being world-class while diluting standards for the U.K. market?
Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Your starter for ten…

Here is a little analytical challenge for a Monday morning. I produced it as a self-challenge to my preconceptions about the quality of life in other (mostly European) countries. The graph below shows the murder rate per million of population of selected countries. The data all derives from the same year, 2016 and is drawn via Wikipedia from apparently reputable sources. My source can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_intentional_homicide_rate

murder stats graph 2

The challenge I presented myself was simply to test the preconception that there are some countries that are much more socially stable than others. To my mind, that is a key determinant of a ‘successful’ country, one that might be held up as an example to others. Murder rates might be considered a suitable indicator of such. My experience, for example, of Germany and Switzerland is that they are so law-abiding and generally well-run that nothing truly, intentionally bad ever happens there. It is an illusion of course, and I know that.

But stereotypes are powerful. How easy is it to imagine a Swiss or German company being guilty of malpractice? The Volkswagen emissions scandal shows it can and does happen. Temptation is the same everywhere I guess, though the extent to which people act on it may not be. And temperament varies too.

Did I succeed? Well, only in part. There are considerable differences between murder rates (and that is without considering the absolute figures, which seem only partially reflect total population size).

I suggest that homicide rates are a reasonable indicator of social stability. The rise in knife-crime in the U.K. cannot be without its causes. So make of this self-created graph what you will. I know there are distortions introduced into the rankings, for example by the fact that I have not included all countries. In general, I have left out the smaller states except where they perhaps provided insight. In general, smaller nations seem to have lower homicide rates – from which we might learn something.

With my strong reservations about the way British society operates, I expected the U.K. to be towards the upper end of the European rankings – which it is. But so are France and Germany, the latter of which in particular I did not expect. On the other hand, Italy is not as much higher than the U.K. as might have been expected. I suppose we should also accept that the figures are only for reported murders; who knows what else goes on in some places…

Maybe we should simply conclude that there are certain factors at work in larger populations (increased anonymity perhaps) that affect perceptions of our fellows.

And it is also noticeable that some of the countries held up for their good social model seem to have higher than (I) expected murder rates, for example Finland and Sweden. I wonder if environmental factors are at work there – but then, Norway is lower. And even in the seemingly-model society of Switzerland (often held up as one of the world’s most civilised places to live), 45 murders happened in 2016. Personally, I have never met a Swiss who seemed capable of killing a fly… But it is necessary to remember that thanks to military service, the Swiss have loose gun-laws compared with the rest of Europe, and I suppose some people (including some Swiss I know, but not I) would instinctively blame their high immigrant populations. Who knows the truth?

Before jumping to too many conclusions, I suppose one should really conduct a much more detailed study of the circumstances and motives for murders, which might tell us much more than relatively raw totals.

The stark contrast with Russia and the USA are not a surprise – but might still teach us something about contrasting social models. The authorities in the U.S. had to deal with 17250 murders in 2016 alone. And spare a thought for Brazil, with its rate of 295 per million, or 61283 murders in that same year…

Travel

The joys of (near) home…

How often is it the case that one overlooks the benefits of the familiar? I suspect I’m not the only one who tends not to venture out into my nearer region as often as I should. Though my new walking regime has at least encouraged a move in the right direction.

East Anglia is not exactly known for its dramatic scenery – but what it does do well is miniatures – small, quiet and often very picturesque corners. Dedham Vale, part of the Stour Valley, on the border between Essex and Suffolk is one such area: now designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it was the subject of many paintings by John Constable.

Even though both the A12 trunk road and the main railway line cross the area, the tranquility is surprisingly rarely broken, though the small road in one of the pictures below was a lot busier than one might expect, it being a cut-through to the railway station at Manningtree, whence commuters head for Liverpool Street Station in London.

The weather was on its best behaviour yesterday, for a walk from Dedham to Flatford Mill, which Constable painted several times, and back. There is a pleasant National Trust cafe at the Mill, which has become a centre for nature studies in the area. A selection of pictures taken along the river and back in Dedham, itself give a taste…

Very pleasant for an early-autumn walk; with thanks to my two companions for a good day out.

 

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