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.

The new Greater Anglia ‘Flirt’ unit. Not bad from the outside, though it would be better without the non non-obligatory yellow end.
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.
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.
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:

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…

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs


The Britain I grew into in my formative years was a stable, safe and benign place. Green and pleasant, even. My parents were teachers, whose income permitted a secure if fairly modest way of life, and over time their hard work permitted progress to a better home and a more comfortable way of life.

From my South-Western perspective, general British life held every hope of my own following a similar pattern. But I was aware that the same was not true everywhere: journeys to family in the Midlands, and later further north revealed a country pock-marked by industrial decline, many of whose towns and cities were dowdy, declining places where life was basic, and getting worse. Despite my own good fortune, my memories of the period include images of national decline and industrial strife, not to mention the desperate situation in Northern Ireland; the trajectory seemed to lead inexorably downward.

Yet much of my recent reading has hailed the Seventies as the tail-end of the most egalitarian period in Britain’s history, when people like my parents had the best ever chances of social and material progress.

The about-turn of the late 1980s came as a welcome shock: it seemed that, after all, Britain was capable of being a positive, colourful and dynamic place where optimism ruled. Thatcher’s revolution did indeed seem to be turning the country around, something I encountered most strongly when I landed in the South-East in 1987, where wealth was clearly being generated and a revival was underway.

But it quickly became evident that a teacher like me had already been priced out: on my salary of £8500, at £35,000 even a terraced house was already out of reach, and I was forced to rent rooms for the first eight years of my career. But I could see people all around who were buying fast cars, furnishing desirable homes and taking glamorous holidays. Somehow I accepted the suggestion that it was not for the likes of me.

In the interim, we have been presented with an image of a Britain as the economic innovator of Europe, a thrusting buccaneer of the deregulated market. And the number of towers visible on the journey into London has indeed mushroomed ever since. Large areas of the East End are unrecognisable from the dereliction that I used to travel through. Even parts of the great northern cities have followed suit.

And yet mid-way through 2018, with Brexit a mere six months away, I feel increasingly bewildered about the nation of which I am a part. I wonder whether I really knew it all along – or whether the last forty years have been one enormous confidence trick. A recent visit to Italy only served to amplify this – and I made the ‘mistake’ of reading Danny Dorling’s blood-pressure-raising book Inequality and the 1% on the way home.

The great national revival of the last few decades seems to have got us – or at least most of us – nowhere. Much of the gloss put on the state of the nation ever since has done nothing more than paper over the long-standing structural weaknesses which have never been properly repaired, and are now all too visible again.

While life has continued to get better and better for the former Yuppies, everyone else has been left behind. It’s glaringly obvious to me that it was the same people who trashed the economy in 2008 who were racing their Porsches around the M25 a few decades earlier. They have been feathering their own nests at everyone else’s expense ever since – only now they control the system too. I find it all the more galling that they are the people who, as a grammar-school first-year I looked up to as the responsible sixth formers.

The Crash and Brexit have done nothing more than reveal the rottenness that has been there all along: the extent to which this country still mostly operates in the interests of a small elite of often-hereditary wealthy, who have been joined by a new breed of narcissistic sociopath who can only see the rest of the population as the suckers from whom as much should be taken as possible, and who lack even the social conscience – such as it was – of the traditional higher orders.

The great (financial) services sector on which Thatcher built our new economy has utterly failed to enrich the nation at large, or to deal with its structural and attitudinal problems. Those whom it did help have pulled up the ladders behind them. Beyond the newly-glossy city centres, not much has really changed either in the depressed places ‘up north’ – or the smaller towns have had even less attention from a polity whose entire focus was city – and mostly London – centric.

The hollowing out has picked up where it left off. It has become acceptable that services for the least fortunate have been pared back, that food banks are a fact of life, and that there is almost no welfare state to act as a safety net. Much of what passes for national life has been built on access to cheap credit that has ultimately only enriched the already-wealthy. And much of the rest of the country is being bricked over with amenity-less, community-free rabbit hutches whose main purpose is also to enrich the companies that build them and the landlords who let them.

This has been further driven home by my own circumstances: while we are hardly a priority case, the lack of realistic hope of accessing any support since I lost too my job (partly as a result of public-sector cost-cutting) has had a severe impact on our circumstances. Such is the over-demand, my G.P, recommended I go private for mental health services when I needed them quickly, at a cost well into four figures, when we could least afford it. It had to be done.

As someone who paid all his taxes and National Insurance, who did a demanding, socially-conscious job – and who made no call on that same ‘insurance policy’ beyond the odd bit of health care (having no children, we have never drawn even child allowances or used the school system), I can’t help but feel we were sold a pup. So much for the social ideals and ‘guarantees’ of the post-war period. So much for the customer being king: thanks to the free-marketeers, the British welfare state has become a rubbish product.

But this is not a personal sob story: my own situation is only (mildly) reflective of the real, deep difficulties encountered by too many in this country. But if it is affecting even a middle-class professional like me, there must be something deeply wrong.

One observation in Dorling’s book startled me. Rather naively, I believed that the riches hoarded by the well-off were somehow additional to the rest of the nation’s wealth. But it is not so: the more the 1% takes, the less there is for everyone else. There is a direct correlation between inequality and general means – and it explains why, in less unequal countries that I know, even my peers have noticeably more resources than their British equivalents.

To put it starkly: one person whose income is 20 times higher than the national average is actively depriving another nineteen of a significant share of the national wealth, that might be distributed amongst them, or spent on the general good. The enrichment of the 1% actively contributes to the impoverishment of the rest – and not only those at the bottom, for all that they fare the worst.

Trickle-down theories of wealth have been shown not to work: the more the 1% acquires the greater lengths it goes to, to make sure it keeps hold of as much as possible. The argument for high taxation is often rebutted on the grounds that it raises relatively little revenue; while this may be true, it does suppress the incentives for the avaricious, low-conscience few from hoarding so much in the first place. An altogether more convincing case.

It becomes increasingly clear that the self-image that this nation still holds dear is – as it always has been – almost entirely the fabrication of a small, extremely privileged group for whom life is very good indeed. Their brilliance was in selling it so successfully to the rest, to the extent that it is, even today, more ingrained than we imagine.

The approach of Brexit has led to more such drum-banging by those most likely to be insulated from its effects. They feel entitled to do so because they feel entitled about life in general, in a way I don’t encounter in more democratic countries – and they care little about the free-fall that the rest of the nation is experiencing.

But Brexit, as with the Crash and M.P.s’ expenses scandal has presented the privileged classes with crises that even they have not been able to cover up entirely. Above all, Brexit has faced our ‘exemplary’ democratic system with a dilemma that it simply cannot handle. It has not been maintained well enough by those self-same ruling classes to do so in any meaning of the General Good.


I sense this country is approaching a critical moment in its history: something dramatic which in itself, we never expect to experience in Britain. Brexit may well prove to be the trigger for even bigger changes to come. I don’t know what, but something is going to happen. And I don’t trust or believe that it will be brought about by the existing order, who show time and again that they only ever look after their own. May’s instincts are as authoritarian as Thatcher’s – itself ironic since neither came from the traditional ruling classes.

The double-nelson in which the elite holds the nation makes it likely that we will follow the U.S. down its lonely path to ever greater inequality, to depths that even this country has yet to experience. Or could it be that this will be the spark-point for something that puts us back on the path that almost all other advanced nations have been following while we and Uncle Sam were fooling with our free market nonsense? Nations where inequalities have fallen, and even now are being held in check to a degree that the British system (which actually fuels them) has failed to do.

What will be the effect of changing demographics and life-chances on the nation as a whole? I find it hard to believe that we can maintain business as usual for much longer.

It’s an illusion to believe that other countries don’t have problems. Italy has more than its share – but they have something right, because at least in the north, their towns are vibrant, thriving places, and their communities still seem to be socially connected. It is visible to anyone who visits. This in contrast to the atomised, hollowed out lives and places that are too much a feature of this country, even in parts that have sufficient wealth that one might expect them to be different.

And there are plenty of other countries nearby who seem to be weathering the challenges of our era far better than Britain. Post-War, they built stronger foundations.

My overwhelming sense at present is of confusion: of not knowing my own nation any more. Everything I thought I knew about it turns out to be built of the sand of blithe assurances and myth-building by a class who were working to an entirely different agenda all along. Even now they continue to present a public facade of implacable self-assurance. It’s all they know how to do, even in the face of a nation that can now see right through it.

At last they and their blathering have been revealed for what they are – but is it too late for a nation in a tail-spin? As/if we leave the EU (whose main ‘threat’ to this country is its tendency to undermine elites in the name of perhaps-idealistic democracy) how will we pull out of the nose-dive?

Opinion & Thought, Travel

Bologna la buona

What better way to start the day?

After far too long a break, we found ourselves back in Sprezzatura’s spiritual homeland this week. After a couple of years in which travel has been difficult, we spent a few days in Bologna – and much good it did me. It was my fourth visit to the city, which is rather overlooked in comparison with Florence, Venice and Sienna. A business centre it may be, but in some ways all the better for it. Unlike the honeypots, the city is not drowning in tourists, and you do feel as though you are seeing something close to the real place rather than a pastiche put on for visitors. You don’t hear very much being spoken in the streets other than Italian.

While it perhaps lacks the top-division attractions of those other cities, it has plenty of very attractive quarters, and is also a great place just for wandering. Many of its streets are lined with colonnades which make walking a pleasure, shielding both the summer sun and winter rain. And there is an infinite supply of entrancing shops and bars just asking to be sampled. A visit had to be made to the local branch of Boggi, albeit for only a small treat…

I prefer this to Lakeside.
Pity about the red plastic


It is home to the oldest university in the world, and also some of Italy’s best food. And it has an airport that is a mere 30 minutes away by shuttle bus.

Equally welcome was the fact that despite the current sterling-Euro exchange rate, Bologna is still affordable – again it escapes the ritual milking of the tourist market.

We rented a small but nicely contemporary apartment in a small street right in the centre; the nearest espresso was about 30 seconds away. We were also spoilt for eateries within about a ten minute walk, and just around the corner were the entertainingly chi-chi boutiques of the Via San Felice. Within about five minutes’ walk was the Mercato delle Erbe, an indoor market where cheeses, hams, bread, fruit, vegetables fresh pasta and just about every other culinary product of Italy could be bought – useful for ad hoc lunches.

Most of the sights can be covered on foot in a couple of hours – but the good thing about Bologna, as previously mentioned, is that it is just a great place for hanging out, wandering and people-watching. You don’t really need to be doing very much at all: the free show of great style and the natural vigour of Italian street life are entertaining enough on their own. You can be pretty sure that every classic image of Italian life will come by within a few minutes….

Could you wear those colours in Britain?

On our second day, we caught the train to Parma, a place to which a pilgrimage has been long-overdue. The hour on the regionale cost a mere £11 return. We were surprised at how low-key Parma is too: another (smaller) very attractive town, but seemingly mostly still ‘owned’ by its locals, with only relatively restrained evidence of its exquisite culinary wares. Nonetheless, insalata parmenese was an indispensible choice for lunch…

Parma doing what Parma does best
Parma: duomo


You can pack a good amount into a mere three nights away, and the trip proved to be an excellent tonic after the trials of the past two years. And the temperatures still in the low thirties in mid September were welcome too, though we are feeling unseasonably chilly now back home…

It’s always very difficult to know how accurate an impression one is getting when visiting foreign places, and it is all too easy to draw inaccurate conclusions from what are inevitably generalisations, and perhaps not fully realistic ones either. Italy has many difficulties, but its general deficit vis à vis the U.K. has clearly shrunk in recent years: much work has been done to tackle the decline I saw when I first visited in the late ‘80s. Even the trains are much less clapped out than they were, and while I hesitate to admit this, the wider presence of English does make functioning easier than it used to be, when one hadn’t a hope against the torrent of Italian one generally received in return for venturing even a little in their own language…

I wouldn’t dream of living in most cities in Britain: despite their own good progress, they are too often too large, too characterless and too suburban to be pleasurable, with the good bits being out of the reach of ordinary mortals. By contrast, Italian cities throb with down-to-earth vitality, no doubt in large part due to the fact that many people do still live right in the centre. Many of the same urban pressures must exist in Italy too, and yet they still manage to produce places that are chaotic, intense and immensely vibrant, where one could easily imagine living. And it is that verve for everyday good living, rather than its organisational abilities, that makes Italy simply a fantastic, inspirational place.

Opinion & Thought

In a rut


I recently read a piece about the difficulties of getting people in the USA to use public transport, in the way that is quite normal in Europe. There is a growing realisation amongst more thoughtful types in North America that their current mobility model, based on heavy car and air use, is not sustainable. A couple of states are toying with building high speed rail, such as exists over much of Europe and Asia.

But the problem lies making it work in an American culture: the way in which American environments and lifestyles have evolved means that it is more complicated than simply laying lines. The writer of the article described it as a cultural matter.

This got me thinking about the effects of such things – and it became apparent that this is a deeper and wider problem than one might credit. I would go so far as to extend the name to cultural inertia.

In the case of rail travel in the U.S., the need for action on reducing emissions, congestion, oil dependence and more is at least established as a good idea – but what people are doing about it is another matter. It seems that their established cultural norms make it much harder to effect fundamental changes than it might seem. Somewhere deep in the mind, those pre-existing patterns are strongly wired – and no amount of enlightened thinking seems to have much of an impact when it comes to changing them.

Part of this is, I suggest, confirmation bias: people find all sorts of rationales (some more plausible than others) for not changing their behaviours, even when they intellectually accept that they need to. I can find no other sensible explanation for the reason why one can see, everyday, many people still walking out of supermarkets with single-use bags full of multiple-packaged items. Surely there can be no one left who is ignorant of the problem?

Almost everywhere you look, it seems that the same problem exists: despite decades of information about healthy eating, fast and pre-prepared food remains dominant; in Britain too, people still sit for hours in huge traffic jams, even though they know that they are part of the problem with still-high car use. They rationalise (not entirely without reason) that the alternatives are not there. And at a different level, we are still building green-field retail and housing developments that will only perpetuate the problem, as well as leading to the decline of traditional town centres – that people then protest loudly about.

One could go on and on: despite warnings about unhealthy lifestyles, people are still largely glued to their T.V.s, and mobile phones. And it comes into matters of taste too: despite decades of home improvement shows, the average British home still remains a practical and aesthetic nightmare; the nation’s general aesthetic sense is no better either. While it is hard to argue against people’s right to make the choices they wish, that does not necessarily mean that the psychological mechanisms they use for making them are sound. I suggest that in many cases, confirmation bias, inertia and copied behaviour are the most powerful factors, particularly early-life conditioning, rather than any even vaguely rigorous attempt really to think things through. Research has suggested that even matters like the perceived comfort of seating is culturally conditioned.

This is not entirely without explanation: the brain occupies 2% of the body mass but consumes 20% of its energy: thinking is quite literally hard work, and as psychologists like Daniel Kahneman have shown, many brains simply can’t be bothered with anything more than amygdala-generated gut reaction. Quite where this gets us in evolutionary terms is unclear!

It is of course entirely possible to turn the argument on its head by claiming that other people’s meat is just as much my poison as the converse. But there is an asymmetry to that argument: it is one thing to have tried and rejected, and quite something else never to have tried in the first place. The latter amounts to nothing more than sticking to the tired old defaults, whereas it can be argued that experimentation and rejection is an entirely rational position since it is no more credible unthinkingly to accept everything new than reject it.

I have an interesting, if unintentional little test that runs on visitors to my home: design wise, it is a complete rejection of traditional British style, being instead inspired by modern European design. The reactions of those who visit are interesting, from complete ignoring (studied or otherwise) through those who see it as a novelty and sometimes struggle to cope, to a few who are very enthusiastic. But I still don’t know a single other British person who lives in a really contemporary home. This is a topical issue for me at present, as I ponder the chances of success of a contemporary interior design business.

This is not to say those others don’t exist, and more importantly, there is plenty of excellent modern design in the public realm in this country which might influence people more widely – but somehow it never seems to make a dent on the widespread individual psyche. What’s more, it is interesting to note where people do take their cultural leads from: to my eye, British homes are more like American ones than any other, just as British food and dress sense is closer to American taste than continental European, for all that a sector of the British population purports to be enamoured of the nearer continent.

Not long after reading the article mentioned at the start, I came across a discussion of the best way to spend a Gap Year. One veteran of that experience observed that ‘going travelling’ is not at all the same as living somewhere as a semi-native for a lengthy period. Only the latter allows you into the local mindset, and only the latter can be expected to have a significant, lasting impact on the individual. I have never lived abroad, but I have spent protracted periods in some places, such that I suspect there is much truth in this.

And while I have mostly discussed relatively trivial matters in the foregoing, there are of course far more important issues at present, where the inability of people (in this country) to understand, empathise with and even evolve towards different outlooks is creating huge problems for the country…

As one who generally gives serious consideration to most new things I encounter (even if I don’t later adopt them all), it seems a depressing commentary on humanity that so much of it seems stuck in a behavioural rut. It gives pause for thought that perhaps ‘cultural norms’ are far more deeply and stubbornly embedded in people’s behaviour than the ability simply to change one’s mind might suggest. Even worse, I have no reason to suspect that in reality I am any less prone to it than anyone else…

Perhaps the only way out of it is through the passage of generations, whose base-line is inevitably different from their predecessors. But as we know, the older generation in Britain has recently stolen the chances of future ones of making such adaptations, at least in the direction of our near neighbours. Let alone my chances of persuading them that clean, modern European-style homes really are more desirable than over-stuffed, nostalgia-ridden British ones.

Opinion & Thought

Here he comes, lookin’ for the rent…

…His greedy yellow eyes and his tongue all bent…*

Many years ago, when Mrs Thatcher was heaping praise on men with small firms, there was no such thing as Society, and Moving Hearts were pumping out the above lyrics, I had a room in a post-student rental house. Once a month the landlord, a builder, would appear to remove from me a wad of cash (only) at what seemed the extortionate rate of £15 per week. Standing behind him were always a couple of his larger employees, and one wondered what would happen if said wad was not forthcoming. (When the immersion tank started leaking , it took the same employees nearly three months and a flooded kitchen to appear to fix it…)

I’ve a run-down room with a two-way roof.
That man’s a thief. I’ve even got the proof.
He likes to take, he doesn’t like to give.
I have to pay him rent just to have a place to live.

Some years later in another part of the country,  I saw the other side of the deal for a different landlord (through a short liaison with his daughter). These were people living a gilded but philistine life by reaping a monthly income from a series of student houses that they had accumulated. To be fair, they worked hard, provided a decent quality of accommodation and were not unreasonable. But they still made a large income through the simple need of the less-well-off to have a pretty basic roof over their heads.

I did also see (as I have done again since) the appalling way in which some tenants treat properties. ‘To Let’ sometimes really does need an ‘i’ in the middle… That is a perennial complaint from landlords, but shocking as the results can be, one does wonder whether it is nothing more than the subliminal revenge of the ‘little people’ for being thus ripped off. There is some two-way psychology going on there: wrong though it might be, people tend not to treat things well when they have no interest in doing so.

Oh how could you treat me so cold?
Got a mortgage on my body and the deeds of my soul.

It’s still going on, as the mosaic of ‘To Let’ signs on some of the recently-built blocks of flats show, their having been sold on the euphemistically-named buy-to-let market – sometimes even at the active exclusion of would-be owner-occupiers. It may yield a good, minimal-effort income to those already with capital to invest – but when it comes at the price of damage to the social fabric of our communities, there is surely an argument for legal restraint. This is arguably one of the worst excesses of the dog-eat-dog place that Britain has been encouraged to become. And the chances of new-build developments ever establishing settled communities is an early price paid for the ‘right’ of the landlords to derive their incomes from a flow of insecure short-term lets.

It’s not only the residential sector either. The greed of such people is one factor behind the ongoing damage to our High Streets. In the small town where I live, several buildings have fallen into decaying limbo because of the intransigence of their landlords. One such building, grade II listed, used to be a pair of shops. The current owner, a property developer, wants to convert it to residential use, despite its having no off-road parking. Planning permission has so far been refused. So the rent has been set at a level that makes further retail use utterly impossible, and the developer is refusing all enquiries. In the meantime, the prominent building is falling into serious disrepair, though mercifully the vandals have yet to strike. Repeated planning applications are being submitted, presumably until the local council caves in. Another word for this is blackmail.

In another example, a project to find a community use for another long-empty retail premises is being held up by a landlord who appears to want to charge commercial rates even though he already has a tenant with a long tie-in. In both cases, the community is disadvantaged by wasted amenities and the declining appearance of the townscape.

The conflict of interests between the legitimate right of people to do as they please with their own property, and the collective good of the communities where that property comprises physical urban fabric, is not an easy issue to resolve. But at present the balance presumes far too heavily in favour of the former, who are too-easily able to externalise the costs of their self-interest onto places and people remote from their own lives. There is nothing inherently wrong with the notion of building rental, but the terms on which it is conducted in this country are long overdue for re-examination.

But the real problem is the limited vision of those who can only see personal gain in narrow, sometimes extravagant, financial terms, whether it comes at the expense of their fellow people or not.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Is the tide turning?

Britain’s long, febrile ‘continental’ summer seems to be affecting people’s minds. The campaign for a second EU referendum seems to be gathering pace, as it becomes increasingly clear that the supposed options and benefits of leaving are not on the table. Hard Brexiters and Hard Remainers are joining forces in their opposition to what is on the table.

Some Leavers are starting to conclude that life outside the EU is not going to be on the terms they claimed, and that May’s compliance-without-influence solution is not acceptable. With which I generally agree, except if the alternative is No Deal.

I want to consider here some alternative ways of looking at the issue of remaining in the E.U. I will start by conceding that they do depend on a certain perception of the players involved which not everyone shares. In particular, beliefs about the current efficacy of the U.K. as a sovereign nation-state and the reasons why the EU is pursuing the approach to Brexit that it is.

My own pro-Europeanism is not fundamentally political. For most of my adult life, I have travelled in other European countries at least two or three times a year. I have made lasting and in some cases close friendships with people in those countries (both ex-pats and nationals), to the point that nationality has all but disappeared as an issue. The mental map that defines my own life is now quite instinctively at least as often that of Europe as that of Britain. It feels a good way to live.

Those many, many visits to other countries have led me, despite my best efforts to shake off the effect of rose-tinted spectacles, to the conclusion that in general, life as a citizen of many of the countries with whom we might compare ourselves, is better than it is in this country. It is seen in part from the materially superior condition of those countries, where investment in infrastructure has been more consistent, where matters such as people’s living environments are generally more pleasant, and where higher material standards still seem to be balanced by a stronger commitment to matters such as social justice and the environment.

But it is also there in aspects that are much less visible. The mindset of people – even close friends – is different, in ways that even they may not realise. The embedded class-consciousness of Britain is absent: people simply do not have such a strong sense of social hierarchy, and it is liberating for one’s perception of one’s place in the world. Total equality of opportunity and income is never achievable – but the much greater sense of equality in people’s minds makes a significant difference. In my experience it means, for instance, that corporate structures are flatter, and people are given more agency to run their own affairs. One might claim that trust remains stronger: certainly I saw that when comparing the experiences of colleagues in my own field of education with experiences in Britain.

What’s more, structures are organised to push in this direction, rather than reinforce privilege. Policies such as legally-guaranteed worker representation in company board rooms makes corporate mal-governance less likely, while stronger environmental regulation adds different restraints. Quick-win shareholder gains are not top priority in the economy. But it is also the mindset that tends to make wrong-doing less likely in the first place: there is often a stronger sense of civic obligation than remains in Britain, where we have been fed ‘dog-eat-dog’ for four decades or more.

By comparison, revelations in recent years have shown just how rotten the British system has become. Even setting aside matters such as the parliamentary expenses scandal, the prevalence of lobbying, big-money influence, the too-close forms of patronage suggest that too much is done in Westminster for reasons other than democratic mandate. There is too much evidence for at least some of it not to be true. The mis-representation of the population in terms of the elected representatives and other top positions is more evidence that this country is not – and probably never has been – really run ‘for the people’ in the way post-War continental countries have come much closer to.

Another part of the problem is the Monarchy. Whatever one thinks of those individuals, the fact that the British monarchy remains the most influential in Europe distorts the mindset of the entire nation. Deference to a hereditary individual – and the existence of the whole associated hierarchy – is simply not compatible with running a nation in the name of ‘The People’.

Then we have the electoral system. As Vince Cable recently observed, in a first-past-the-post system, the formation of more than two parties distorts the process by dividing the vote, and can be seen as electoral suicide by anyone contemplating it. This creates a system where binary choices are the norm, and where far too much effort is put into winning power and discrediting the opposition. It operates on confrontation rather than consensus, and it means that the country is in a constant state of conflict between two power-groups. The effects can be seen everywhere in the utter inconsistency of national policy over decades, the frequent policy reverses and the vast waste of money, time and resources that accompanies it.

It is probably an integral feature of relatively educated populations that consensus will fragment as people gain more ability to make decisions about their own lives. Set against that, Britain has a large remnant of under-educated population, whose tribal instincts are increasingly manipulated by the media – and which ironically play to the status quo. And it is large enough to sway the political process.

For all its compromises and complexities, a system that accurately represents multiple viewpoints has to be preferable, and that means proportional representation. The fact that it is mis-sold in Britain cannot hide the fact that almost all other democracies now use it in one form or another. The fact that it requires compromise and consensus surely has to be worth the difficulties – and its tendency is to promote agreement where it can be found, rather than manufacturing disagreement even where there is none, which is a feature of the FPP system.

So much for Britain’s shortcomings. What about those of the E.U.?

It is certainly not perfect – what system is? But it seems to me to be the logical extension of co-operation between European nations. Indeed, what would that co-operation mean without some organ by which it is conducted? I do not believe that shifting bilateral agreements between nations would ever achieve the same thing. And we all live far too close to each other ever for Splendid Isolation to work.

Some have criticised the E.U. for its inflexibility in the Brexit negotiations. But it is a rules-based system – something that again the British system cannot understand. It means that the rules, once agreed, have to be rigorously but impartially applied, otherwise they are meaningless. And that means that Britain needs to accept that it cannot cherry-pick EU membership, however much the British Establishment might be used to doing precisely that everywhere else.

It would be naive to think that all other EU countries are perfect; of course they have their own inconsistencies and play for their own interests too – and this is why a strict framework of rules is necessary. But we should not forget that they have been agreed by all national legislatures, including our own. So they are not ‘imposed’ by some faceless third party. As any sport fan will hopefully recognise, any match only works if both sides accept the rules, even when they work to their short-term disadvantage. One might hope principled nations would accept the same. Or maybe some have difficulties with that; I really don’t know.

Personally, I have never seen the European issue primarily as one of competition.

There is always a case for reviewing the functioning of the EU – but it can only be done from the inside. Having studied the workings of the EU at length in order to teach students, they seem to me to be well thought out, and logical, in a way that the British system – which has never been fully modernised – just is not. I advocate the strengthening of the European Parliament, because it has a direct democratic mandate. But we should not forget that the European Council does too, as it is made up of national administrations.

While the E.U. may seem remote from everyday life, in some ways that is a good thing. For a start, it can hardly be otherwise when it represents such a huge populace – but that is not to deny that it still deals with issues of concern to all Europeans. It needs to have a degree of detachment in order to remain impartial.

But one might consider it to be the higher chamber of a bicameral system where the national legislatures constitute the lower house. In all such systems, the duty of the upper house is to be impartial, to take the larger, more principled view and remain above the partisan and often short-term priorities of party politics. That is in effect what the E.U. already does. Alternatively, one might perceive it as a collective European presidency – in the sense that a president remains above partisan loyalties.

I view it as the guarantor of trans-national stability and co-ordination in Europe, the defender of cross-border issues such as trade, travel and the environment – and the promoter of inter-national understanding – which I suspect is actually what a lot of anti-Europeans feel afraid of. My experience is that it is liberating and affirming to cross borders. The island-nation British would benefit from doing more of it – and I don’t mean just by going on more holidays. One way the EU could help this would be by diverting cohesion funds to drastically reducing the costs of cross-Channel travel. Although even there, many of the practical barriers to movement actually originate in Westminster rather than Brussels.

I do rather hope that the E.U. is deliberately playing hard-ball on the Brexit negotiations. But I also believe that it is not doing it to be cussed – or from megalomaniac tendencies. It has a responsibility to uphold the principles agreed by all member states – and that includes the indivisibility of the four principles of mobility. But I also hope it believes that by forcing Britain to make a hard choice,  it will bring this nation to its senses for its own sake, as to where its real best interests lie.

Because where the British have got a short deal from E.U. membership, it has often been due to their own insistence on semi-detachment and opt-outs. Who really loses out from the Home Office’s insistence on retaining frontier checks? Or indeed from the need still to change currency? Or from the exemption from the Working Time Directive? Or from the national failure to implement high environmental standards (such that we have been fined for it)? Who will really gain if Human Rights legislation is repealed in post-Brexit Britain?

One has to question why systems that suit 27 other countries (including Schengen) are so anathema to the 28th. Why is Britain so exceptional? I suspect the real reason is that the nation’s ruling classes realised that they were going to lose too much of their traditional hegemony if European standards and systems were given the free rein that have everywhere else. But from past and recent experience, perpetuating that is certainly not in the wider national interest. I would rather put my faith in remote but impartial bureaucrats than the entitled classes of the British Establishment.

The big problem that remains to be solved lies not in Brussels, but with those in the U.K. who cannot see that the real problems lie much closer to home in the unreformed way in which the U.K. still operates – and above all in their own heads.