This week with Brian 6 to 13 October 2022

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including splat the rat, no honeymoon, complete lockstep, in the naughty box, a Trumpian list, too important for politicians, blurred cat photos, Oliver and Noah, Ukraine and Russia, hats and scarves, Pascal’s wager, guess my job, fat bear week, doing the right thing, my girl, kill the poor and lots of zeros.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (updated every Thursday evening).

If there’s anything you’d like to see covered for your area or anything that you’d like to add to something that we’ve covered already, drop me a line at brian@pennypost.org.uk

Further afield

• I’ve never been and never will be a member of the Conservative (or any other) Party and this week I’m particularly glad about that. Were I to be, I might have been tempted to go to Birmingham and participate in something that seems to have been a botched coronation, an angry tribunal, an inquest with no body, a game of splat-the-rat and a re-enactment of several of the more menacing scenes from Pulp Fiction, all rolled into one.

[more below] 

I don’t know what standard party conferences are judged but on 5 October the BBC called it “a showcase of dysfunction and division” characterised by “indiscipline and mutiny”. The same day The Guardian listed a series of skirmishes, several of them involving cabinet ministers, on a wide range of matters including the 45p tax band, allegations of (or denial of) coups, political errors and the need for an election, as well as a number of personal comments including about “shutting up” and “dirty linen” which have the distinct whiff of unfinished business from a previous playground spat.  Sky News described the event on 3 October as being “shrouded in gloom.” Hannah White, writing in The Institute for Government website on 4 October, listed five reasons why Liz Truss has lost trust, which included misusing her cabinet, rejecting evidence and avoiding scrutiny. This is all after just one month. No honeymoon for Liz.

Even her discussions with her Chancellor were poisoned with different views about whose idea the 45% tax cut had been. And she couldn’t even get the music right, Mike Pickering of M People being “livid” that she’d used Moving on Up as her entry song. How dismal can you get than appropriating stolen and false emotions as a keynote moment? Welcome to the world of political party conferences, I guess.

We must remember that the people gathered in Birmingham were all members of the Conservative Party and that it was exclusively this group that voted for her. The MPs didn’t have her as their choice. The country hasn’t been asked. These aren’t opinions but matters of fact.

This article in The Conversation gives a fairly up-beat assessment of her speech, although does start off with the reminder that it was delivered against a backdrop of “of economic chaos, open party warfare and polling that shows she’s on course for a spectacular election loss.” It makes mention of her references to levelling up and Brexit, two issues which served her predecessor so well at election time; also to the fact that she repeatedly “spoke directly to the British people.” As for her relations with the Chancellor, she confirmed that they were “in complete lockstep.” I’d not heard that word before so looked it up. Merriam-Webster defines the phrase as meaning “in perfect or rigid often mindless conformity or unison.” The main buzz-word, though, was “growth.”

At about 25 minutes, the speech was pretty short by the standards of these these things. She certainly couldn’t wait to get off stage: most speakers need to be dragged away from the mic. Perhaps she felt enough had been said already.

• The PM has dealt with much of the opposition in advance by doing two things. The first was to say that there are two parties – “growth” and “anti-growth”. The second was to brand “anti-growth” as bad and make a box into which all its adherents will be placed, the better to deal with them collectively. She’s even named these enemies as “the anti-growth coalition”. Not very snappy or original: but one must make allowances as it increasingly seems that English is not our PM’s first language.

So who are these manifest enemies of progress? They include, as The Guardian reports, people who lived in “north London townhouses” and got taxied to the BBC studios to express their views” as well as “Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, the militant unions, the vested interests, the talking heads, the Brexit deniers, Extinction Rebellion” and Greenpeace, who interrupted her speech with a demonstration.

• This rather Trumpian list has the air of something that could have gone on for longer but was only cut short by Twitter’s character limit. I’m interested to know what “the vested interests” mean, coming from someone with her educational and commercial background. “Talking heads” presumably refers to anyone who writes or says anything, in any media, about politics. “Brexit deniers” I presume is a shorthand for “people who think that Brexit might, perhaps, have not conferred all the promised benefits.”

What about the rest of them? The Green Party, non-Unionist parties in Northern Ireland and Plaid Cymru for starters. Why stop there? Why not add those who have found the various actions of the two Conservative governments since 2019 in some way troubling and are therefore reluctant to offer it unqualified support; those who are instinctively sceptical of political slogans and generalisations; those who feel that her definition of “growth” in the long-term is irrelevant if they cannot get through the next couple of years; and those previously loyal Tories who now need to pay higher mortgages as a result of last month’s idealogical experiment, referred to as the mini-budget? There may be others, but perhaps that might do for now.

• There’s also a much deeper point at work in her use of “growth” as a definition of national success. GDP and GNI are measures of wealth created by an economy. Human behaviour tends to make these also measures of consumption as the money we have tends to be used to buy things that in turn need to be made. The axiomatic assumption is that more production (and thus consumption) is good and that the reverse is bad. Like sharks, we must move forward or die. If we don’t have the money now then we can borrow it, so that we may consume more. As the crash in 2008 (and others before it) shows, an alternative view might be that we are all trapped in a massive global Ponzi scheme.

• It’s perhaps not so much the creation of wealth as what we choose to do with it that’s the problem. As interest rates rise, many who have money to spare might want to invest it in government stocks, including Premium Bonds or National Savings – safe but unspectacular. I, however, would feel reluctant to do this given that the government is currently borrowing money  to fund tax cuts. Also, the tax it does raise can be promised for one thing but spent on another.

The PM said in Birmingham that the British people “knew best” how to spend their money. She also re-affirmed her faith in the workings of the market. Let’s accept these two points and see where they takes us.

If we’re going to be given more money there are things to spend it on other than a new mobile or a cruise holiday. Things such as green infrastructure, the railways, our leaking water pipes and, above all, the NHS need serious investment but the government seems unwilling and unable to provide this: and even if it did promise to do so it’s doubtful if it could be trusted to follow it through. Nor does this jive with the “lean state” aspiration.

Fine – let the public pay for these. What would be needed would be bonds paying a decent rate of return, the proceeds of which would be used exclusively for these or other investments. They would need to be run without any government interference, which would also ensure that the timescale of activity wasn’t the current “vision” period which is normally fixed on the next election. These matters are, or ought to be, apolitical. If Truss is really serious about the “small state” then this would be a way of putting it to the test. At present, funding for these important things is promised, or not (and then actually provided, or not) largely for political gain. Some things are too important to be left to the shifting will of politicians. As the last month has shown, the shifting can happen all too quickly.

• Consumption also needs to include digital transactions. A vast amount of time, money and electrical energy is spent on uploading images or data we’re never going to see again to the cloud, or downloading apps and their upgrades that we don’t really need. This article in The Conversation suggests that data centres consume more energy than does the aviation industry. How many blurred photos of our cat or copies of copies of emails to people we’ve lost contact with do we really need?

• All of this is less serious than what’s going on in Ukraine and Russia. According to the BBC, Putin has said he will “stabilise” and “calmly develop” the situation in the areas of this foreign country which he has decided is now his. I think we all know what these phrases mean. Nuclear stuff? Anything’s possible.

• I was astounded to learn that Oliver has been the most popular boy’s name in Britain for the last eight years. I only know one Oliver of my generation but, on thinking about it, quite a few of the younger people I know have that name. Noah is now the most popular: appropriate given the levels of flooding that an increasing number of us will experience due to climate change.

• There are many appalling human injustices in the world but the one that always gets me right in the solar plexus is one that involves discrimination against or persecution of woman. Organised religion is always in the dock on this one in my book as, without any particular exception I can think of, it has been a brilliant way for over-educated middle-aged males to determine what should or should not be regarded as correct. So hats off – or scarves off – to the people in Iran who have been protesting following the death in police custody in September of a young woman who was arrested for not wearing a head covering. What awful nonsense religions are if this is the best face they can portray. On this evidence I’ll take my chance with Pascal’s Wager and say “rubbish to the lot of you…”

Across the area

• News from your local council if you live in the Vale of White Horse, Wiltshire, Swindon or West Berkshire.

• Further information on your district, county or borough council’s activities is referred to in the respective Weekly News sections for the nine areas that Penny Post covers – Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area

Doing the right thing

This week’s letters page in the NWN has that rarest of things, a letter from a Lib Dem (Tony Vickers) praising a Conservative (Joanne Stewart) for changing her mind (about the closure of the Notrees care home in Kintbury) and admitting that the council needed to change course. I agree and had offered my congratulations to Joanne Stewart at the time (see the 14 July column of Hungerford Area News). I also pointed out that this showed it was worth taking part in consultations as they can be influential.

Sadly, of course, this is all too rare. As I consider in this article, politicians at all levels seem to find it very hard to apologise, use the reverse gear or perform a U-turn. Even the recent high-profile 180º from the PM and the Chancellor was heavily qualified: it was becoming a distraction; the ground could have been better prepared; the time was not right; it was stirred up and distorted by the media. These two couldn’t even seem to agree whose idea this had been in the first place, each blaming the other. A simple and clear “we got this wrong” is rarely heard.

Tony Vickers then switched onto the attack in his letter, the real point of which was to get the phrases “Faraday Road football ground” and “London Road Industrial Estate” into print again: not that these phrases are often lacking from other the NWN or Penny Post in any given week.. This is indeed a sorry and tangled tale which has seen the current administration paint itself into a very tight corner: once again, I have an article to hand which looks at this. Councillor Vickers adds that if the current council doesn’t change course “we will do it for them when we take over [after the council elections] in May”. Seven months to go but the campaign has, it seems, already started…

Guess my job

On 5 October I was invited to take part in this event at John O’Gaunt School in Hungerford. It was run by the Education Business Partnership which “each year supports over 1,700 students with work-experience placements and over 20,000 students with developing work-related skills by participating in careers-inspiration activities.”

I and about 10 other local business representatives were sat at desks in the hall and were for about five minutes quizzed by groups of year 11 students as to what we did. We then told them (if they hadn’t guessed) and then spent another five minutes talking to them about this and answering any questions. Then the group was replaced by another one. This went on for a couple of hours.

I can only speak for myself but the time flew by. Few people dry up when they’re given some chocolate biscuits and asked to talk about themselves, over and over again. The problem was rather to avoid talking too much and also knowing how to make all the writing that I do each day seem both positive and interesting. For many of the pupils, writing would mainly be associated with essays and so something akin to a punishment.

One of the things I suggested was that writing is, like playing the trumpet or speaking Danish, something you’re bound to bad at to start with and so probably not something you enjoy. You do it more, you learn from your mistakes and you get better. Most of them seemed to take this in and were reassured by the idea of improvement. It’s easy to think that, because we can all write sentences, that being good or bad at writing is both innate and immutable, like being tall or having brown eyes. If this idea bears any fruit with even a few of them then my morning, and theirs, will not have been wasted. I was certainly impressed with the seriousness with which most of the pupils took the exercise so hope that this will happen. With mock GCSEs coming up, followed by the real things in the summer, reinforcing the connection between effort and results seemed relevant.

Another thing I told them was not to trust any one source of information, particularly if they were going to take action as a result (including sharing it with others), but to try to check it. I explained that this was what we always try to do at Penny Post. It doesn’t, I said, have to be that time-consuming and is a very useful skill to develop.

There were several nods at this which suggested this has been covered in school. These days, I said, we are of course bombarded with posts, tweets and all the rest which may or may not contain any facts, many of which are, like a virus, designed to replicate and to infect its recipients.

I gave an example of a particularly bonkers story to one group. “Supposing,” I asked, “you read that someone had said that injecting yourself with bleach would prevent Covid. What would you think about that?”

“Crazy,” one of the pupils said. “What a crazy thing. Who said that?”

“The previous President of the United States of America.”

“Wow,” she said. “What was he on?”

I think we’d all like to know the answer to that.

Other news

• Over 3,000 children took part in this year’s Summer Reading Challenge in West Berkshire Libraries. Read more here.

Click here for information about help available with the cost of living crisis in West Berkshire, the Vale and Wiltshire.

Please click here for information about what local councils are doing to help support refugees from Ukraine and how you can help.

• Local charity Connecting Communities in Berkshire (CCB) has stressed that help is available for those struggling with rising energy bills. CCB has been running a project tackling fuel poverty for 10 years and can provide expertise in supporting low-income families that are struggling with the recently confirmed price rises. For more information, contact Helen Dean on helen.dean@ccberks.org.uk or visit www.ccberks.org.uk.

Click here for the best coverage we’ve seen of all things football-related in Berkshire.

Click here for the latest museums newsletter from WBC.

• Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Click here to visit WBC’s business website.

Click here for details of consultations currently being run by WBC.

Click here for the latest libraries newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest Covid newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest waste and recycling newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest residents’ newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest business newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest environmental newsletter from WBC.

• You can click here to choose to receive all or any of West Berkshire Council’s e-newsletters.

• See also the sections for Wantage, Marlborough and Swindon for initiatives from Vale of White Horse Council, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Council and the various towns and parishes.

• Click here for a post listing the various places which are offering a takeaway and/or delivery service. If you are aware of any others, let us know.

• The animals of the week are these participants in fat bear week in Alaska. The favourites at the moment seem to be four-time champion Otis and Bear 747.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of the First Battle of Newbury, fireworks, energy bills and the case for an early election.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently: see the various news area sections (links above) for further details.

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So here’s the entry music and our Song of the Week. No particular reason for choosing this except that it’s a damned good song and always cheers me up: My Girl by Madness.

• And here comes the leader’s keynote address that is the Comedy Sketch of the Week. I don’t know if a conversation remotely like this took place between the PM and the Chancellor before the so-called mini-budget but I suppose it might have done – Mitchell & Webb’s Kill the Poor.

• And as the PM jumps into the waiting Limo, that only leaves us with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What do Liverpool footballer Trent Alexander-Arnold, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, BGT’s Simon Cowell and Russian big-man Vladimir Putin have in common? Last week’s question was: To the nearest £10bn, what is the UK’s national debt? About £2.3tn. That’s 2,3 with quite a lot of zeros after it: not sure how many.

For weekly news sections for Lambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area please click on the appropriate link

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