This week with Brian 10 to 17 November 2022

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including a crisis of confidence, mid-term blues, presidential blackmail, political bullying, a quick Q&A, a prescient spell-checker, budget time at the town halls, the road to zero, clockwise cats, free busses, getting it wrong on air, a unique flag, the little town of Bethlehem and where’s the weekend?

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 don’t know too much about US politics but the mid-term elections seem to be a pretty good way of preventing the President from doing what they were elected to do, particularly in the second half of their term. As this Wikipedia page shows, since 1970 only during Jimmy Carter’s presidency (1976-80) were both the House and the Senate controlled by the President’s party. This seems likely to happen this time. At the time of writing, the House will probably be Republican while the Senate is on a knife-edge. It’s almost as if the framers of the constitution didn’t trust their Presidents: with good reason, perhaps. In economic and geo-political terms it doesn’t seem to have done the country any harm. That may all be about to change, of course.

[more below] 

• The extra significance of these elections is that this comes at a time when the USA seems to be having a crisis of confidence. The threats posed by Russia and China are, on their own, enough to occupy any administration full-time. Then there are Covid, inflation and climate change – three more full-time jobs, perhaps. One must add to this two internal enemies.

• The first is a general concern about systemic problems with the electoral system. these don’t just include “stolen votes” and foreign intervention but also issues such as voter suppression, whereby states may only accept certain identifications for being able to vote (an excellent programme on BBC R4 last week, the name of which I can’t recall, referred to one state, which I also can’t recall, accepting gun-club ID but not student cards. It’s easy to see which party this is likely to favour). The federalist structure of the country leaves it open to many accusations of localised bias.

Imagine if, say Sussex and Staffordshire had different rules for what could be produced as evidence of entitlement come voting day? True, for all I know, the four countries of the UK may have different rules but as most of them vote differently from England on most matters this probably makes no difference.

A peculiarity of the US system, and one which is designed to reinforce the power of the states as states rather than as centres of population, is that the US Senate has two votes per state, irrespective of how many voters it has. As the races are normally quite tight, a few states with strange regulations can change the result of an election: and thus, given the USA’s power and its fondness for meddling with other countries (which is, after all, the best way that power can be expressed), can change the world.

• The other internal enemy is the former PoTUS Donald Trump. He endorsed a number of candidates although, as this BBC article suggests, it was a bit of a mixed night for him. His plan appears to have been to have used a Republican wave, featuring many of those he had anointed, to underpin his planned announcement next week that he would run again in 2024.

The main winner, to Trump’s chagrin, was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a one-time protégé of Trump’s and who seems to have modelled himself on Trump to the extent of imitating his strange speech patterns and intonation. The blond vote-denier clearly sees Ron as a big threat: why else would he said that, if DeSantis stands for President, Trump would “reveal things about him that won’t be very flattering”. So, the blackmail has already started, just under two years from when the votes will be cast. Business as normal, I guess. It must be just the same in China and Russia, except that there we don’t get to be able to report on them.

• Back in Blghty, our leader has his own problems. That of Suella Braverman is an ongoing issue for him. More recent is the problem of Gavin Williamson who has resigned as Minister without Portfolio (just as well he had no portfolio, perhaps) as a result of accusations of bullying.

This word means different things to different people, but his apparently potty-mouthed rant at for mer government Chief Whip and his suggestion that a civil servant should “slit his throat” might reasonably be included in this definition. After some pressure from Kier Starmer at PMQs this week, the PM seemed eventually to agree. Then he spoiled it all by saying , “but what I think the British people would like to know is…” a phrase which has the same effect on me as does a knife being scraped across the bottom of a saucepan. So, I can’t tell you what exactly he thought the British people would like to know because I switched him at that point.

• In most ages apart from our own, bullying in political life would not have been regarded as odd; perhaps even as a sign of someone being an effective operator. Is there a point where the severity of what you’re dealing with transcends normal laws of conduct?

Just Stop Oil would argue that there is and – though I don’t claim to speak for them – that a tipping point has been reached. The Suffragettes and the Civil Rights protestors felt the same thing. Their methods were irritating, disruptive and perhaps illegal. So are JSO’s. Let’s look beyond this: why are they doing it and might it on any level be right? Time for a quick Q&A…

  • Is there a valid cause there group is espousing? Yes, there is.
  • Do we agree with the tactics the group is using? Possibly not.
  • Will people die because of the protests? Possibly: indeed, it seems that they have.
  • Is that good? No.
  • Have people died because of ambulance delays for a whole host of other reasons, ranging from roadworks to under-staffing? Yes.
  • Is the idea of the rule of law essentially a contract between the rulers and the ruled, between the state and the people? Yes.
  • Does a point come when this contract is felt to be broken and people therefore have recourse to other methods of protest? Yes: it can happen and our government has supported many such actions in the past, such as in Iraq.
  • Has this point been reached here, now, with regard to the response to climate change? Some certainly think so.
  • Is this a political or nationalist issue? No.
  • Does it involve an existential threat to all of us, the more so as the world is so inter-connected? Yes.
  • Is inaction or denial a suitable reaction to this problem (as it is to some: including, as I’ve discovered, to parking tickets)? No.
  • Is it not therefore worth hearing what any group proposes, regardless of how irritating we might find its tactics? Yes.

There’s no point in pretending that these protests are, as the Home Secretary unhelpfully suggested, “selfish,” This is playground language. Few people like JSO’s tactics. Many don’t agree with its specific aims of stopping all oil production now. None the less, it’s an internally rational reaction to an existential problem we face and should be engaged with on these terms, not by demonising it. They are the messengers of unwelcome news which they’re delivering through a megaphone turned up to 11 out of 10. Does this make them wrong? Not necessarily, and probably no more wrong than were the Suffragettes and the Civil Rights protestors.

• As I write a lot of words each week, I find myself constantly at war with the spell-checker on my Mac. As I’ve mentioned before, a few years ago an OS upgrade caused it to achieve sentience and also, in many ways, the dominant role in out relationship. Previous to this it would suggest alternatives f0r me to accept, or not; now it makes the changes and I have to over-ride them. It seems to be learning my ways, but slowly. For a long time, whenever I typed “Theale” it preferred “These”. With the Hungerford wine merchant The Naked Grape, it tended to prefer “The Naked Grope” which is not at all the kind of place this is. “The” regularly coming out as “there” is more of a problem as I type the word about 300 times a week. What part of “the” does the spell-checker not understand?

The name it’s having real trouble with at present is “Rishi Sunak” which it tends to change to “Ritchie Sunk.” I don’t know if the spell-checker is prescient as well as sentient – anything’s possible these days. So, if our leader anglicises his first name and then resigns after some horrible scandal, remember – you heard it here first, and before it actually happened…

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

Budget time

This is not a great moment for people setting budgets for any organisation. The future is uncertain in so many ways: but the one thing those involved can be fairly sure about is that costs are going to rise and revenue is going to fall. The inevitable results will, for those providing services, be a reduction in what can be offered.

This is particularly a problem for councils and other bodies which provide statutory services. A restaurant, for example, can stop offering free take-away delivery to cut its costs but a local council can’t stop emptying bins, fixing potholes or funding schools to help balance the books. Most importantly, it cannot stop providing social care.

As a glance at this excellently clear chart shows, West Berkshire Council spends half of its £150m budget on this. The chart also shows several other services, such as those mentioned above, which the council is obliged to provide. True, it can cut costs and introduce efficiencies: but a good chunk o0f the outgoings are things like salaries, contract payments and materials that it’s stuck with.

I suggested to WBC’s Leader Lynne Doherty on 10 November that these costs that are effectively ring-fenced perhaps amounted to 80% of the expenditure. She felt my figure was a little high so, for the sake of argument, let’s call it 65%. (In some cases, of course, you never know how much can be cut from operational expenditure without causing problems so the exact figure is impossible to calculate.)

As agenda item 7 in the November meeting of WBC’s Executive makes clear, the Council needs to find savings of £15.8m. On one level, that’s just over 10% of its budget. However, if we assume that about two-thirds of the money is non-discretionary and the minimum that can be safely allocated, the savings can really only come from the roughly one-third of the budget that isn’t one way or another ring-fenced. In other words, more like 31% of savings need to be found from the rest of the expenditure. This is likely to lead to some stark and unpopular choices.

Will Whitehall ride to the rescue? It’s possible, though Mr Sunak has his own accounting problems at present. Lynne Doherty said that much letter-writing and lobbying had taken place but that it was unlikely that anything would be announced before the Budget Statement on 17 November. Many people will be waiting anxiously for this.

Other news

• All bus services in West Berkshire will be free all day on seven days days in November and December – click here for details.

• West Berkshire Council’s annual Giving Tree campaign to support victims of domestic abuse and their families over Christmas is now open to receive donations. Click here for details.

Click here for a summary of how West Berkshire Council feels it’s doing on its journey towards carbon neutrality. Other points of view exist about this and I shall try to bring you some of these next week. One point that seems quite pertinent is that whereas the original climate emergency referred to initiative for West Berkshire as a whole, the ambitions no0w seem more to be focused on the Council’s own carbon footprint. Tat said, there have certainly been some good local initiatives, some done by individuals and voluntary groups and others (like the proposed solar farm near Mortimer) by WBC.

• The new weekly food-waste collection system has started in West Berkshire (which receive a communal bin store collection will need to wait until 28 Novemeber). You can click here to see a separate post we’ve done on the subject; and click here to see WBC’s recent newsletter about this. As well as being environmentally beneficial, financially advantageous and legislatively compliant, the scheme may also reduce food waste by confronting us with the consequences of what we throw away. 

• West Berkshire Council has announced an initiative to help those who have tins of unused paint at home left over for from DIY projects. It will shortly be introducing “a new community paint re-use service at the Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRC) at Newbury and Padworth. Community Repaint allows residents to drop off left over paint at either of our HWRCs in the usual way. Staff at the HWRC will assess the paint and see if it is in a good enough condition to be re-used.” Click here for more information.

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 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 our three cats. Why? because I’ve recently noticed that when they curl themselves up to sleep, which they do most of the time, they almost always do so clockwise. Having never thought about this before now, whenever I see them, I can think of nothing else. Have any other cat owners noticed this? Perhaps they only do it this way in the northern hemisphere.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of Rishi Sunak, Conservative priorities, municipal social-media behaviour, an error of judgement and firework delays.

• 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

• Lordy, here we are at the Song of the Week. Let’s have another Deaf School song as I like them so much: a Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday little cabaret-rock masterpiece called Where’s the Weekend?

• So now let’s turn to the Comedy Sketch of the Week. We had something from Chris Morris’ sinister Jam programme last week: here’s one from the slightly less sinister The Day Today, a wonderful spoof current affairs programme. In this one, Peter O’Hanra-Hanrahan gets it wrong on air.

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What is the only country in the world with a non-quadrilateral flag? Last week’s question was: Which town, which has a population of under 30,000, has 39 twin towns and sister cities including Abu Dhabi, Athens, Lourdes, Glasgow, Florence and Cologne? The answer is “the little town of Bethlehem” about which people tend to sing quite a lot at this time of year.

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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Covering: Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage, Lambourn, Compton, Swindon & Theale