Get Your Fix On Election ’66

election 66

Pic: Copyright BBC

If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.
Aristotle

 

Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.
Machiavelli

 

History at its best is vicarious experience.
Edmund S. Morgan

 

On this Easter holiday Monday, hard-core political and media anoraks were enjoying the 1966 general election re-run on the BBC’s Parliamentary Channel (three days ahead of the actual 50th anniversary – tssch!). The election resulted in one of only two decisive majorities in UK history for an avowedly Socialist party.

 

It has become a part of a public holiday treat for the channel to do these general election re-runs. For me and similarly nerdy/geeky types (OK, I admit it!) they provide a fascinating, indeed compelling spectacle.

 

The beauty and fun – yes, fun, say I! – of studying media ‘texts’ is that it involves the analysis of both form and content. In this case, we have in these few hours of archived, continuous television coverage (aside from state funerals and The Coronation about the only such television output that is available) a window on the politics of the time: the issues, the personalities, the psephology – AND on the way that BBC television at least, covered these events. How the audience and the politicians and other ‘actors’ in the drama are addressed; who is chosen for comment and reaction and how it is framed; how different demographics are incorporated into the unfolding, dramatic narrative of an election night (and following morning), and how the available technology is used. It was the last general election coverage to be in black and white.

 

Just a quick snapshot of the times and situation: Labour had been elected back into government in October 1964, after 13 years in opposition, with an overall Commons’ majority of just four. It was clear that such a majority would be insufficient to last the full, maximum parliamentary term of five years, without the constant risk of government defeat, and it being stymied in enacting a pretty radical programme. So, Prime Minister Harold Wilson – whose birth centenary was this March – having seen the favourable opinion polls, decided to gamble the small majority for a more secure base.

 

Wilson was from a modest, lower middle-class background. A clever, scholarship, grammar-school boy he went onto Oxford University and achieved great academic distinction and seemed to set to become an Oxford Don, until politics (originally he was a Young Liberal) took hold in his imagination and drive.

 

His main opposition was from the Conservative party, under leader Edward Heath, who was from a similar humble background, also grammar-school educated and who also ‘went up’ to Oxford. Unlike Wilson, he served with distinction in the army in World War II. Heath was the first Tory leader to be elected by his fellow MPs – all the previous ones had ‘emerged’ through what was known as ‘the Magic Circle’ of Tory grandees.

 

I guess if you’ve got this far in a blog like this you know all of that, and more. But it’s just worth pointing out that this election, although held in the ‘Swinging Sixties’, with The Beatles about to hit the crossover high-point between popularity and artistic achievement and England set to win the FIFA World Cup a few months later, and the country having experienced a ‘satire boom’ a few years earlier, British society was still very ‘small c’ conservative, not least amongst the working class.

 

The great social reforms of de-criminalising (to a very limited extent) male homosexual acts (the prospect of this was a hot topic in the election, as we shall see), of legalising abortion (again under strict terms), were still over a year ahead. The Race Relations Act had still to be passed, so signs advertising houses to let could still legally (and did) state ‘No, Irish, No Coloureds, No Dogs’. ‘Racialist’ prejudice was in common parlance and actions. Children were legally beaten in schools, and often at home, and flogging in prisons had only recently been abolished. The London theatres were still under censorship; the execution of convicted murderers had only been abolished the year earlier, and then only for an experimental period.

 

The British Empire still existed in a tangible form east of Suez. Most people still left school at 15 and went straight into work. University education may have been free and supplying a grant, but only a tiny proportion of school-leavers went there. Most men still worked in the tough, manual industries such as coal-mining and ship-building or on factory production lines. There was near full employment, though, and unionisation was high, as was class consciousness, with distinctions in so many ways between the social classes. Millions of homes were without central heating, or even indoor lavatories. There were hardly any women in politics, broadcasting, or on company boards.

 

The National Health Service and ‘cradle to the grave’ social security and insurance was less than 20 years old and millions not only had direct memories and experience of a world war, but also of the preceding great depression, with its mass unemployment, misery, insecurity, degradation, absolute poverty and humiliations.

 

As we’ll also see, controversy over whether the UK should or should not join the European Community – usually referred to as ‘the Common Market’ – was a huge issue in 1966. The country’s application in the previous Conservative government had been vetoed by France’s de Gaulle, as was to be the application the following year under the second Wilson administration. Heath, who was to unexpectedly lead the Conservatives to victory in the next general election in 1970, finally succeeded in this, in a move that is, of course, reverberating to this day, with a referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the now European Union in June this year.

 

The BBC-TV’s election night and following morning’s programmes (a novelty to have any TV then after midnight and in the mornings) were ‘anchored’ by the avuncular and urbane Cliff Michelmore – a former RAF Squadron Leader, who died earlier this month. Michelmore had taken over from the election coverage duties from Richard Dimbelby who had prematurely died in 1965, and whose eldest son, David, did the honours in general elections from 1979 to 2015.

 

What I had intended to be a few comments on the re-run of election ’66 and a couple of threads on Facebook, tuned out – I noticed to my genuine surprise – into some 30 comments and a total of some 2,000 words. In the event I had, to all intents and purposes, a live Blog. What follows is pretty much the unedited flow of these comments, with only the comments to them from other blameless Facebook friends cut. What I think (hope!) emerges is a commentary that, yes, demonstrates the huge changes in the last half century – hardly surprising – but also fascinating similarities and parallels with today.

 

Curiously, at the time of writing, the first part of the coverage is not online (but is promised soon) but if you are in the UK, you can watch the second part of the coverage online until the end of April, 2016

 

Thanks for your interest! (Note: ‘vox’ or ‘voxes’ refer to ‘vox pops’ (vox populis – the voice of the people).
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  • Harold Wilson just on, being his usual public self – sharp but good-humoured and self-deprecating. Observes that the majority in his own constituency (Huyton on Merseyside; think the interview will be from Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool) goes up the less time he spends there, and uses this to pay tribute his party workers. Takes a dig at newspaper political commentators who don’t have enough to do and just write one column a week for the Sundays (those were the days!) and notes they’re nearly always wrong. He simultaneously blames TV for “boring” the electorate due to all the coverage, but also concedes that, over the years, TV has helped people understand the main issues. Interesting that – presumably to reassure the middle-classes – he makes a cricket analogy as to who will be in his Cabinet and in what position (who will be ‘square-leg’ and so on). After England’s World Cup victory four months later his analogies were always football-led (who will take the penalty, et al).
    Ted Heath (first Conservative leader to be elected by MPs, and just eight months before) now on – effectively concedes: Bob McKenzie says this is the closest you will ever get in a British general election to a leader conceding defeat before the majority has been won on the other side. Heath has just seen his own majority slashed in Bexley, as well as the loss of many Conservative seats. He is unrepentant about his policies and campaign – “we were ahead of public opinion”. In other words: “WE were right and YOU (the voters) are wrong – IDIOTS!”. Ha ha.

 

  • Cliff Michelmore just mentioned his own seat in Surrey – ha! I was born in house very near his and although we left when I was barely two, we used to go back there to see friends every Easter. It became a joke that whenever we passed his house we saw him! Vividly remember going past and seeing him coming out of the front door and getting into his car. SOOO exciting! He was such a HUGE TV personality at the time and had been for years. And amazing to me that his house wasn’t that big and he drove quite a modest car – himself!

 

  • Fascinating int’ with Conservative Humphry Berkeley, who’d been defeated in Lancaster. Widespread agreement that this was cos he had introduced private member’s bill (!) to de-criminalise homosexual acts in private. Interesting character (I read on Wikipedia!) – in 1968, he resigned from Tories over their support for US in Vietnam War and later stood unsuccessfully for Labour.

 

  • …Barbara Castle says “we all agree” about only going into the Common Market on the right conditions – and notes approvingly that even Heath has said that!

 

  • …just a few seconds given for result from Finchley and win by a Mrs Margaret Thatcher. Only comment is that the Labour candidate has taken over from Liberal for second place – she is clearly of not interest at all!!

 

  • (Co-presenter) Michael Barratt saying “the Black Country is looking blacker than ever”. Bit unfortunate. In the last pre-colour election the black circles in fact represent Labour. But doubly unfortunate that he then goes straight on to talk about immigration issues! Different world.

 

  • Oh, I was wrong about locale of previous int – that must have been from Huyton. Wilson just arrived at The Adelphi – live coverage from outside, after link broke down. Harold now not playing ball – “I’ve already given interviews to the BBC and ITN and I’ve nothing to add”. “What are you going to do now?”, asks hapless interviewer. “I’m going to get some sleep”. Interestingly, there’s a lot of boo-ing as well as cheering. Imagine that now! Whole thing would have been stage-managed to ensure only loyal, security-cleared party members there and anyone else wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere close.

 

  • Peter Griffiths out in Smethwick – yay! Won seat on notorious “if you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour” slogan. Defeat gives Michael Foot particular pleasure, and attributes it to “the good sense and decency of the British people”.

 

  • “Now over to Alan Whicker, who once again is surrounded by pretty girls!” First vox (man) is one who voted Communist. (White, ob) Rhodesian woman is depressed about result. Another man predicts new govt will increase international debt and fail to get us into the Common Market. “Yes, that’s possible”, says Whicker. Due impartiality?! Still, that guy was a better predictor than most!

 

  • Interesting that all opinion polls had Lab majority much larger than turned out to be the case – ‘Daily Express’ poll predicted 250 Labour maj! Still shy Tories in ’66?? And of course they would vastly over-estimate Labour vote in 1970!

 

  • Young Labour activist says hopes new increased maj’ will mean government won’t support US so much over Vietnam and claims that current attitude “is more right-wing than some American Senators”.

 

  • Int with Edward Rowlands, first war-time baby (1940) to be elected to parliament. “I’m beginning to feel very old”, says Cliff Michelmore. Right!

 

  • By the way, technical matter. We are clearly watching a Telecine recording, presumably taken from original VT recording. Why preserved on film? Less expensive than keeping on VT? Or thought wold survive longer than magnetic tape? Surely not for overseas, later TX? Curious!

 

  • Michelmore: “We’ve had several appreciative calls from viewers saying the girls (women, confined to off-air roles as secretaries, result-takers, etc., natch) are much prettier this time – it’s because they’re younger this time!” Nice to get the continuity anno and the clock, closing down the overnight broadcast. Now we’re back at 0600 on Friday, April 1st. Michelmore pictured going through the studio to take his seat, like a bank manager entering in the morning. Famous bit, used in his obits earlier this month, where he blames a bird twittering at White City for depriving him of sleep even in two hours between broadcasts.

 

  • Patrick Gordon-Walker, who had been in the forces that liberated Belsen concentration camp, and who was defeated in the racist Smethwick content in ’64, is “overjoyed” that Labour has won back the seat.

 

  • Gerald Priestland, on phone, (still pics only to accompany report) reports from Washington. US press compare Wilson to LBJ – a giant in politics. Government there evidently pleased Labour has won as know the top team and clearly trust them. (Later, Heath was most anti-US post-war PM). However, press in France and West Germany aren’t happy – they think a Labour government means there is much less chance of UK joining the Common Market.

 

  • David Sutch shown standing against Wilson as candidate for ‘The National Teenage Party’ – very modestly dressed compared with later incarnations, and no mention of his peerage!

 

  • Impressive for the time live coverage from TV camera in car from Liverpool of Wilson leaving “the well-known hotel” and “into the rush-hour traffic in Liverpool”.You can see the then new Metropolitan cathedral. Then in Lime Street, and noting that Wilson’s car has to go through the one-way traffic. Michelmore is clearly knowledgeable about traffic system in the ‘pool: “he has to turn right, right , right and right again to get back to Lime Street station”. And this indeed is true! ….Amazing! We are informed of the arrangements for Wilson’s drivers and even the number of his hotel room (no.100!). Wilson gets on ‘The Shamrock Express’ – so-called cos timed to meet the Irish boats. Station-master wears a top hat: “Pretty sure the last one to wear a top-hat…the next one will wear a bowler-hat”!! Dig at BBC techies – “the engineers told us last time it was impossible to get live pictures from underneath the arches at Lime Street! Well, we did it – they told us again it was impossible but we did it again!” Wilson appears from carriage to acknowledge bag-pipers, there to play him off and out back to London!

 

  • More impressive use of technology for time – Alan Whicker on the move walking across Waterloo Bridge whilst doing vox pops.

 

  • Very chummy interview with the just-defeated Christopher Chataway, ex of ITN. “I’m sure you’ll be back soon”, gushes Michelmore. Indeed he was – in ’67 became Chair of the Inner London Education Authority and became an Alderman; in May 69 won a by-election to the Commons and following year in new Conservative government became (the first) Minister of Posts and Telecommunications and as such introduced independent radio to the UK. Strong opponent of apartheid and later headed charity in developing world. A good man!

 

  • Patrick Gordon-Walker who was defeated in the racist Smethwick contest in ’64, is overjoyed that Labour won this time.

 

  • Fyfe Robertson is on the production line at Dagenhams for voxes. Sounds like a caricature of himself! First assembly-line worker he accosts refuses to tell him how he’s voted – quite right! Very little interest from workers – and certainly not impressed – that they are on live, national TV. Just seem annoyed it’s getting in the way of their work!

 

  • Live voxes from steelmakers Stewarts and Lloyds in Bilston (west midlands). Michelmore says he gave reporter instructions on how to get to the two big green chimneys that you can see on main road between Wolverhampton and Birmingham (he obviously got about!). (Re)nationalisation is on the cards and there’s mixed views from workers and management about this! 14 years later I was there covering the national strike of that nationalised industry!

 

  • Taking advantage of crew and live link in Liverpool, reporter – with police permission, he’s keen to point out – stopped traffic out of the Mersey tunnel. What did commuters hope the government would do for Liverpool? Work to improve transport, is reply. That hasn’t changed!

 

  • Discussion with three foreign correspondents, from France, US and USSR (Radio Moscow). All fairly impressed with campaign – US one says there’s nothing wrong with UK body-politic with three such good and attractive party leaders. Naturally, the Moscow guy approves of Labour and its nationalisation! The French one says the parties there can’t work Wilson out – both the Gaullists and non-Gaullists suspicious re relationship with US (esp over Vietnam), the Common Market and international corporations. Michael Aspel in news noted that the ‘New York Times’ hoped the new government wold join the ‘Common Market’. Interesting.

 

  • Interesting point from Scotland – nationalists now taking place of Liberals as the radical party in the urban central lowlands. Michelmore craves forgiveness for referring to Scotland and Wales as ‘regions’ – explains they have divided country into regions for coverage purposes: but that doesn’t mean they think of these nations as ‘regions’! Shape of things to come.

 

  • Vox with man in Devon who served in the Royal Navy from 1906-1929. I remember so many World War I veterans from childhood. That does emphasise the distance from now.

 

  • Lots of support for very conservative (by today’s standards) issues – capital punishment (abolished for murder for an experimental period a few months before), and flogging of prisoners both popular. The ‘racial’ issue much discussed, though only one non-white person consulted: African-Caribbean man in Birmingham, who hoped, very politely and reasonably, for ‘equal treatment’. Mentioned there were no black policeman. “There’s one in Bristol!”, claimed one white woman. “But he isn’t paid!”. “Yes, well, you’ve got to start somewhere”, she rejoins. Later there’s an int from Birmingham with African-Caribbean who has lived here for nine years. To her, Wilson is “the best Prime Minister England has had…since I took an interest in politics”. But starkest difference is lack of women. None in presenting/reporting/interviewing/commentating team. None in discussion panels. A few in vox pops (but very much out-numbered by men, and, if not obviously young, usually framed as ‘a housewife’), and only one female politician, Barbara Castle. Who, as usual, is fantastic!

 

  • Discussion with Ray Gunter and others over an ‘early warning’ trades union bill. This eventually led to In Place of Strife White Paper in ’69; modest proposals from Barbara Castle, which tore apart labour movement and all but destroyed Wilson’s credibility when it was abandoned, and helped the Conservatives win power in 1970.

 

  • Reporter is on Harold Wilson’s train – live coverage from there is great technical achievement, but has to forlornly report that Wilson refuses to speak to him. The reason? Wilson was furious with the BBC (most of the time, after a brief honeymoon period!) and gave exclusive int to ITN on same train journey! See opening par of this piece:https://www.transdiffusion.org/2005/04/01/bbcthatcher

 

 

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SaVILE and the BBC – class is ‘in plain sight’

 

BH pic

The BBC’s HQ, Broadcasting House. A ‘ship’ that’s now holed below the waterline?

 

How did he get away with it? Why did no-one stop him? Why was everyone fooled by him?The report by Dame Janet Smith into the late Jimmy Savile’s sexual abuse, directly or indirectly linked to his BBC work, far from answering questions and satisfying his victims that some sort of justice had been done, seems to have caused only further anger, frustration, and accusations that it was a “whitewash”. One of the (surely?) unintended consequences of the report is of the veteran DJ, Tony Blackburn, being ‘sacked’ after he denied that a meeting had taken place 45 years ago after he was apparently named (amongst others) in a diary of a  15-year-old girl who committed suicide.

Tony Blackburn gave a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger interview to BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, broadcast today, in which he gave a (to me) highly plausible possible explanation as to how a memo of this supposed meeting could have been written. 

Full disclosure before I go any further: whilst I don’t claim to be ‘great showbiz mates’ with Tony Blackburn, I’ve met and chatted to him on several occasions, and I like him very much. He is an extraordinarily kind, positive and generous man, with a genuine love of music and an absolute passion for radio. I also have a pension from the BBC – so, on those grounds, at least, I’d rather it didn’t collapse for while yet!

As I’ve blogged before, I met SaVILE only once, though it was over several hours, when I was Programme Controller of a commercial radio station, when he came to do a promotional visit after I agreed to take his part-syndicated weekly show in the 1990s. I have a team studio photo, with SaVILE in the centre – with, naturally, one of the female presenters on his knee. In complete contrast to Tony, I took an instant dislike to SaVILE; finding him cold, cynical, arrogant, and totally untrustworthy.

Many explanations have been given for how apparently otherwise decent and certainly educated and cultured people, either turned a blind eye to Savile’s grotesque levels of sexual abuse, often on BBC premises,  or acknowledged that something bad was probably going on but excused it, because it was “just Jimmy”.

Looking through Dame Janet Smith’s 753-page report this week-end (I did so you don’t have to!), there are a couple of factors I’d like to discuss that are either not mentioned at all, or are mentioned only obliquely.

My starting point for looking at any situation in England (I specify that nation in the United Kingdom) is social class. It’s nearly always in there. Amongst the many things that Dame Janet seems not to have grasped is that SaVILE’s social background amongst the BBC’s radio and TV presenters at that time was his genuinely working-class roots. Most of the original Radio 1 team (Dame Janet  correctly points out that SaVILE joined the network about a year after its launch) were privately educated. Tony Blackburn is the son of a GP and attended the private Millfield School.   Jimmy Young was quite ‘common‘, being the son of a baker and Grammar-School educated. I think only Kenny Everett, the Liverpudlian son of a tugboat captain, could rival SaVILE’s background. John Peel admitted that he had only been given the job of playing psychedelic and ‘dangerous’ music because he was an ‘old Salopian’ and, therefore, could probably be trusted with the nation’s airwaves. And just as the ‘talent’ was overwhelmingly upper-middle-class, the BBC executives and producers were of ‘officer class’; mostly university educated and of a civil service mentality, who existed in a world of secure employment, graded salary scales, a hierarchy, of ‘referring up’, of BBC social clubs and gold-plated pensions and the countless unspoken but shared assumptions, attitudes, and ‘ways of doing things’. If ‘it’ had to be spoken about, it was a quiet word between chaps, and maybe a discrete note placed on the Personnel File.

SaVILE had left school at 14, had no qualifications, but was very bright and realised if he was going to make anything of himself it would be on his own terms, and forge an indelible impression through outlandish dress, behaviour, mannerisms, and overall persona.

The BBC just couldn’t get a handle on him. Since Reith’s time, the Corporation has treated the entertainment world with the sort of wariness that you might treat an excitable but temperamental dog. And when they had to engage with the showbiz world, they liked to deal with agents and managers, often – like The Beatles’ Brian Epstein – from an impeccable upper middle-class background, or were from the ‘showbiz royalty’ who owned and ran the theatres, cinema chains and ‘talent’.

In his autobiography and in a number of interviews, Tony Blackburn recalls  the legendary agent Harold Davidson, who represented some huge names,  sidling up to him at a party and promising that, if Blackburn signed up, within the year he would be the biggest name in British radio. He was as good as his word. But SaVILE had no agent – unless you count the ‘hard men’ from the northern dance-halls who often accompanied him.

So: he was from the north, he was working-class, he was clearly eccentric and unconventional, and was from the world of tough dance-halls, of chancers, of ‘bouncers’ who settled disputes with a baseball bat; of cash-in-the-hand-and-no-questions. Simply, I think they were embarrassed to tackle him, because to do so could be seen as snobbery, patronising, and implying that his class and attitudes were inferior. They were just too damned polite! And I think SaVILE sussed that and used it relentlessly. Worse, the BBC types – and this is where I think the Dame Janet Smith’s report is good – thought that, well, working-class girls probably are like that; promiscuous and often willingly having sex before the age of consent.

Another aspect is that, until 1967 (the year that Radio 1 began), male homosexual acts, even in private and involving those aged over 21, were illegal in the UK (and only de-criminalised in England and Wales – Scotland and Northern Ireland had to wait for a while after that). The BBC had no doubt had many gays in its employ, so there was a long-standing culture of secrecy and ‘knowing winks’ and whispers over sexual matters of a certain kind.   And, whilst the law might have changed, it took a long time for general attitudes on homosexuality to change and before people would feel comfortable and confident in ‘coming out’. I’m convinced that this all added to the mix of –  shall we say – unconventional sex being something that was known about and tolerated, and people not wanting to ‘get involved’ with such matters.

In the same week that the report into SaVILE was published, a number of men were jailed for lengthy terms after being convicted of horrendous and widespread sexual crimes over many years in the Yorkshire town of Rotherham, apparently (once again, following a depressing pattern with other scandals) acting with impunity, with the police and social services ignoring, disbelieving, or even conniving with the criminals. In many – but by no means all – of the recent scandals in the UK, the authorities are largely of a different class, and, in this case, of  a different ethnicity. Once again, I think they were embarrassed and very wary of tackling these men, because they were of a different culture and those investigating or challenging such behaviour and incidents could be accused of racism, or at the very least of cultural insensitivity.

But disturbingly, good people often turn a blind eye and refuse to believe the victims because those involved in the abuse are from the same class, background and culture. The excellent movie Spotlight is the story of how a team of investigators on The Boston Globe exposed the wiedepsread paedophilia by Roman Catholic priests in the city – and, as it turned out, in many other places in the US and worldwide. In several scenes in the film, the journalists and the editor are subject to appeals not to expose such gross abuse and criminality out of loyalty to friendships and kinship.

Two other points – touched on by the Dame Janet Smith report but perhaps not given sufficient prominence and which links with the Catholic priests’ abuse:

First, the fact that in the periods when the SaVILE abuse peaked – the 1960s and ’70s – children were abused, legally every day, in schools and at home. Boys and girls were (quite legally) beaten as a matter of course, and there is no doubt that many teachers who got a sexual thrill from, especially, beating boys on their bottoms, stalked the land, unchallenged and acting with impunity. I’ve previously blogged about one particular (I should emphasise long since dead!) master at my own secondary school.

 

But what I remember, aside from receiving and witnessing many beatings, including in the changing rooms, was this teacher openly masturbating as he watched us troop into the communal showers, in which, almost unbelievably to today’s schoolkids, the teachers joined  us!  On one occasion he had just beaten about half a dozen of us and was clearly relishing seeing his ‘handiwork’ as we walked past him, naked. But this teacher was regarded as ‘eccentric’ and, if you mentioned what had happened, you were just advised you to ‘try and steer clear of him’ and ‘try not to draw attention to yourself’. I think I’ve read all the autobiographies of the BBC’s leading radio personalities and they all have tales about such incidents – often, such  as Bob Harris, Johnnie Walker and Chris Evans – leaving them with a searing feeling of outrage and injustice.  I am not trying to equate these sorts of incidents with those discussed in Dame Janet’s report, but these are exactly the sorts of phrases that were used to any children and others who complained about SaVILE!

In private boarding schools, it wasn’t just the teachers one had to fear – decades after the event, John Peel broke down in front of his wife when he revealed that he had been raped by an older boy at his school. As with the Catholic priests and countless other abusers, the victim is made to feel it is their fault, and carry shame and guilt with them into their adult life; sometimes with tragic consequences.  Children of ALL classes and in all educational establishments just had no power and no control over their lives and, of course, young women were regarded as ‘fair game’ and expected to put up with unwanted advances in a good-humoured way.

Final main point  – and, again, this is certainly alluded to in the report but not, I think, given enough emphasis – and that is the enormous power and celebrity status of BBC TV and radio personalities, especially when there were just three TV channels, and the BBC held an official monopoly of radio until 1973 (and only a patchy network of commercial stations developing for about a decade and half after that); in the first few years  when SaVILE joined Radio 1, the network was the only daytime outlet for popular music and personality- type DJs. The audience figures were ENORMOUS! Out of those millions who listened every day to ‘the nation’s favourite’, there were bound to be some who entertained lurid fantasies about the DJs; as tragically, it seems, one did over Tony Blackburn (she also claimed to have been seduced by Frank Sinatra, and even Rock Hudson – who was gay!). So, you can imagine  that, when complaints were made, from perhaps ‘over-excitable girls’, it would be very easy to disbelieve them. Unfortunately, when it came to SaVILE, it seems they were usually true.

 

Taking all the acknowledged differences in culture, attitudes, etc. of 2016 compared with the dark old days in which SaVILE flourished, how do we guard against future abusers, be they in broadcast studios, on hospital wards, or in deprived towns of many cultures? I’ve no experience and, therefore, have nothing useful to add to the discussion about Rotherham or Rochdale. And we now have what amounts to a witch-hunt of celebrities from that period, with smears and innuendo, with no corroboration, let alone evidence that would meet the requirements of the criminal law, threatening to ruin the reputations of a wide range of people from pop stars to ex-service chiefs.

Every year, many teachers and others who have contact with young people, have their careers and reputations ruined by unfounded and often malicious accusations. We have to be careful. And you can produce as many ‘strategies’ and develop as many procedures as you like, but if you don’t have a culture where EVERYONE sees it as their MORAL (not just legal) responsibility to keep an eye and ear open for signs of ‘questionable’ behaviour, and where staff feel confident they can report such incidents, then abuse can still flourish. But crucially, we then must also give those against whom accusations have been made to know what is being alleged about them and to answer these claims.

But what, specifically, about the BBC? In a torrid period of scandal of many types at the Corporation, and with rocks being proverbially thrown at them from many different quarters, and its funding sliced and diced, is the world’s leading public service broadcaster now holed below the  waterline? I fear it might be. One commentator said some time ago that the BBC would not, in the end, be finished by right-wing ideologues, who hate and fear its culture, mission, ethos and dominance in our broadcasting and wider culture: it would be the cackling, peroxided pervert of SaVILE that would ‘do’ for them. Perhaps he is, like the UK’s nuclear deterrent Trident, able to wreak annihilation from beyond the grave.

I’ll finish with advice that I’m sure the BBC’s Director-General won’t read and won’t heed even if he did see it: give Tony Blackburn his ‘job’ back! HE is a national treasure, and much loved – and you are not.  Do you really want to your obituary and your legacy to be ‘the man who sacked Tony Blackburn’?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Terry Wogan was even more important to our lives and our country than we realise

Wogan once proposed as his epitaph: “He looked like he didn’t know what he was doing”. Has he improved on that? “What about: ‘Out of shot at last’?” he suggests, jesting till the end.

 

In what may have been his last interview – and, if so, it is appropriate that he was talking to Martin Doyle of the Irish Times – Sir Terry Wogan, whose death was announced today – ruminated about the importance of his Irishness.

 

As well as being a radio announcer, he was a pioneer in Irish television and, in his autobiographies, he partly attributes his famously (and genuine) laid-back approach to the terror of the early days of TV in the Republic: nearly all ‘live’ and with hardly anyone with any TV experience.  Naturally, there were numerous and very obvious on-air cock-ups and the consequent ribbing from viewers, I would guess, was a very important part of his fearlessness in tackling live radio and TV when he came to the UK – taking a very great gamble, by the way, especially given his family responsibilities; ditching his staff position with the Irish state broadcaster for the flimsiest of contracts with the BBC.

 

But his Irishness was of huge importance in the UK. He began his long stint on the Radio 2 breakfast show – migrating from Radio 1’s afternoon show, ‘fighting the flab’ an’ all’ – in 1972; just at the time that Irish republicans began their bombing and assassinations on the British mainland. In his autobiographies, he discusses the nervousness he sometimes felt about going on air the day of, or after, some atrocity, thinking that the English – much the largest section of the audience – would not want to hear an Irish accent on their radios. In fact, his audience kept on growing and his ‘normalisation’ of Irishness and the biggest daily audience on a domestic service, not only in the UK but anywhere in Europe, probably helped reduce tension towards Irish communities. Of course, this is impossible to measure and prove – but imagine if there were an ‘obvious’ Muslim in a similar position today.

 

I always try and be honest in my postings in social media and I am not going to pretend that he was my all-time hero in broadcasting or that he was the one that made me want to go into that field – I’d decided that when I was about three years old, in any case, long before I first heard Terry! I remember his afternoon shows on Radio 1, but he was in my view, as an early teen, one of the ‘square brigade’; he clearly wasn’t directing his programme at my age group (he is 20 years older), he hadn’t been a pirate DJ, and he didn’t seem interested in the music – or at least the music I liked. But I do remember listening to one link – I think this would be about 1971, when I would be 13 or 14 – that was so intimate that it was like, perhaps, a kindly (but not creepy!) uncle talking to you, in a very quiet, reassuring voice, right into your ear. It was quite astonishing, and I remember being impressed by this, so probably he was an influence on me, as he was on numerous other broadcasters up and down the land over several generations.

 

Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine recalled on his Twitter feed today how Terry had once been asked how big was his radio audience. He could have answered “about nine million”. Instead, his response was “just one”. Exactly so. The unique intimacy of radio. Of course, knowing that you should be speaking as if to one person is a different matter from being able to do it.

 

Later, when I had my first job as a trainee newspaper reporter, my landlady had Radio 2 on every morning, so I heard it when I was tucking into her ‘full English’. But he was a bit too whimsical, just too gentle for me, even then. And, again, the music wasn’t mostly to my taste – this was the time when Radio 2 still had the ‘bedroom slippers and Horlicks’ feel about it.

 

Later still, when he returned to his Radio 2 breakfast foray after his TV chat show was ditched – about which he remained quite bitter until the end, I think, and he certainly let rip about his feelings towards much of the BBC management in his books and several interviews and speeches – I appreciated him much more. The music and the badinage was sharper (of course, I was older!) and amongst his team was Alan Dedicoat, who I knew when we were both volunteer broadcasters for the Birmingham Hospital Broadcasting Network. For me, this was Terry’s golden period. The humour was quite sharp, even subversive.

 

As so many have pointed out today in their tributes, Terry (I can’t call him ‘Wogan’!) developed and changed his style in subtle but significant ways. He was a man for all seasons and all audiences and several genres. Andrew Neil has just finished The Sunday Politics with a generous tribute to him, with clips from an interview Terry did with Margaret Thatcher. A true ‘national treasure’, whose audience (according to anecdotal but probably reliable evidence) included the Head of State, over her breakfast at Buck Pal’ and who knighted him; first an honorary one but then, a full one. As Terry pointed out, Irish citizens who, like him, were born before the Second World War, could be bestowed full honours, in recognition of the importance of the contribution Ireland had made to the UK and its allies prior to 1916 (and some still after then) in World War One.

 

In 2007, when I was researching and carrying out interviews for my book on broadcasting, my academic interest in him was mainly how he had adopted and adapted his style and ‘production techniques’ and relationship with the audience in the age of email. I approached Radio 2 to ‘bid’ for an interview and this was dealt with by their head of publicity, who acted as a go-between with the great man, via one of Terry’s sons, who acted as his manager. “Sir Terry says ‘yes’” was the joyful email I received! I was to interview him in person in the studio after the show. But would I like to ‘sit in’ beforehand, as the show went out? Of course, to me that was like asking a devoted Liverpool FC fan if they’d like to meet the players in the dressing-room at Anfield, and watch the match sitting next to the manager!

 

I arrived very early (of course!) and was taken up just after the show had started and sat in the control-room, so I was able to see how the small team there fielded the responses from listeners and various other programme elements. During the 0800 news (by the way, then as now, the most listened-to radio news bulletin of the day on British radio!), Terry came into the control-room to introduce himself.

 

“Is this the man who’s come to tell us how we should be doing it?”, he asked with a gentle smile and, (yes) a twinkle in his eye. I did a sort of ‘we are not worthy’ gesture. But I think that opening gambit was very typical of the man – quietly provocative, didn’t take himself too seriously, but at the same time could be a little bit prickly and was well aware of his value to the BBC. This became apparent when he was quite unapologetic when his BBC fees were revealed (or ‘best guessed’ at). Given the audience he brought to the Corporation they had got him cheap, was the gist of his responses.

 

None of this is to say that he wasn’t as lovely, as generous, as empathetic and as kind as everyone has been saying today. Quite unprompted – and when Terry was back behind the glass and out of earshot – his producer told me: “He is exactly the same with everyone when they come in here, whether they be the cleaner or the Director-General.”

 

The atmosphere of a radio show that comes over the airwaves is hard to pin down but you know it when you hear it. And the atmosphere in that studio and control-room was just brilliant: relaxed, good-natured, a lot of ‘joshing’, completely professional, but never for a moment self-indulgent or cynical about its audience. They were the people that mattered.

 

In the interview, Terry answered all my questions openly, and – of course – fluently and perceptively, and was apologetic that he couldn’t give me more than about 20 minutes, as he had a TV thing to do. But at the end he turned to the aforementioned head of the network’s publicity, who was sitting alongside as some sort of gatekeeper (but who didn’t intervene at any time, or ask for specific questions in advance), looked her straight in the eye and said: “Now, if Richard wants to come back or has further questions you must arrange this and give him every possible help – OK?”. It was said quietly, but forcefully. Of course, I loved him for that!

 

Well, this has been a terrible month for losses in the broadcasting, music and acting fields. Those who have been part of our lives, who have been influences, who have given us so music pleasure and happiness, have been snatched by the Grim Reaper. But radio personalities in particular, especially perhaps those best known for their morning shows, who were part of our routines, and who (in the word of a great media academic Paddy Scannell) insinuate themselves into our lives, and over so many years, have a special place in our psyche and affections. This was especially so in the days before the great fragmentation of audiences; when most people’s first sensory input of the day was the radio alarm going off, rather than scrolling down a social media feed. In this, the clichés of tributes to the just-departed really do speak the truth. We, truly, shall never see – or hear – the like of Terry Wogan again.

 

 

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From the miners to Sports Direct, it’s a Dickens of a life

A Christmas Carol is one of my all-time favourite books and certainly my favourite  Christmas story.  Although, like many of Dickens’s works, it is often criticised for being oversentimental, even mawkish, and ties up all the loose ends just too neatly.  To that I say: ‘Well, if you write something with such enduring appeal over such a long period which is capable of being adapted into so many different forms and come back in 180 years or so, then maybe I’ll take the criticism seriously!’

So many aspects of the story have a profundity that speaks across the years and the generations, and in the very different times which we live today compared with Victorian England. This is the first of two blogs I intend to write, inspired by this story, which speak to aspects that I think have so much relevance to wider society, and to my experience and thinking. The second, much more personal than this, will follow if I can to get around to writing or dictating it without sobbing, which has been the main difficulty so far!

In this first one, I wanted to reflect on the attitude to work and the part it plays in our lives and emotions, which forms such an important part of the story. Scrooge, the miserly, surviving partner in a small financial firm, sees Christmas – which he is expected to support through the payment for non work on Christmas Day of his clerk, Bob Cratchit – as an unwelcome interruption in the business of making money, and a tiresome imposition.

 

In fact, compared with the working experiences of the majority of those at that time in England, Cratchit’s working conditions are not so bad. He is lower-middle-class and at least has some say over his work and has a direct relationship with his employer. This was not the case for the majority of the working classes who, if not in service, were mostly working in fantastically dangerous, dirty and literally backbreaking industries, such as coalmines.  They could expect to work in such conditions, at least 12 hours a day, six days a week, from before puberty until their bodies could no longer cope, with no welfare benefits and security offered by central government for when their ‘useful life’ ended.

 

Last Friday saw the last shift on the last deep coal mine in the UK. A moment in a day filled with poignancy; with some recriminations about the lack of government support and the consequences of free trade. There is still plenty of need for coal in these islands, but it will now come from imports – and there was much comment and wider reflection on the changing nature of work, indeed of working-class culture, of masculinity and self-respect. At one time 1.2 million men worked in that unforgiving, dark and dangerous subterranean world.

 

Going a down deep mine for a special programme when I worked at BBC Radio Sheffield (in a normal ‘sequence programme’ slot) was one the most memorable experiences of my life and, of course, now that it’s all gone I’m especially grateful that I had an experience that is now unrepeatable, at least in this country. This was in the very early ‘90s – after the miners’ strike, in which the coalfields of south Yorkshire had seen some of the most violent and bitter scenes of that pivotal moment in Britain’s post-war history, but only a year or so before the wave of massive pit closures, which were a prelude to re-privatisation of the pits.

 

The young, energetic, and forward-looking management at Maltby Colliery were keen to promote a better image of the industry – one with a good future, which used the latest technology, and approached the station to see if one of the mainstream presenters would like to go on a shift and do a whole programme from there.

 

I did the programme in what is called ‘as live’ mode: that is, I recorded all the introductions and links, from the start at the surface of the pit; into the ’cage’ as we plunged deep underground,  clutching on to my tape machine; doing interviews there and at the end the shift, and then mixing all the other elements of the programme ‘live’ in the studio on the day of broadcast.

 

The machine I used was one of just two supposedly portable reel-to-reel tape recorders that the BBC especially adapted for such a purpose.  It had a special outer case and insulation to prevent even the slightest, potentially explosion-causing spark from an electrical action being emitted. I remember it arrived with some fanfare at the radio station from ‘that London’ and it was quite an awesome responsibility to look after it, to use it in such difficult conditions and then return it undamaged.  This I managed, although I did slightly stumble a couple of times as I was bent double in the seam, wearing my overalls, helmet with light, boots and not much else (I was supplied with underpants – “don’t use your own, you’ll never get the muck out”- I was advised by the young manager who fixed it all up).

 

Trying to keep up a conversation/interview and refer to my clipboard, using the light from my helmet to introduce the next predetermined song to be played on the day of the broadcast, was something of achievement and I will say immodestly that I was very proud of the overall result. In fact, it was so authentic sounding that, when I was playing in the recordings, someone in the newsroom ‘buzzed up’ to the studio and asked who they thought was the technical operator to relate some information to me at the pit. They were amazed to hear me respond and find that I was sitting just a floor above them in the studio! They didn’t seem to realise that you cannot have a ‘live’ broadcast from that deep underground! I was so happy to come up in the cage, back into the fresh air: I was only down there a couple of hours but it was such a different world, so isolated from the rest of life, I felt that anything could have happened up in the surface and we’d have never known. A very strange, disorientating experience.

 

But, aside from these general impressions and the broadcasting side, the most interesting thing, and which stays in the memory, are the comments from the miners about their work – which varied enormously. Some had great satisfaction from both the work and the strong male bonds they formed; the comradeship, and indeed – though they didn’t state this specifically, it was not hard to decode – the status and respect they had in their communities.

 

For others, though, it was a dirty, dangerous job that they only did because they had no alternative and they certainly hoped their sons would not follow them down the mine.

 

It reminded me very much of when I talk to the General Infantrymen (or ‘Squaddies’ as they are usually termed), in the British Army in West Germany and West Berlin. They, too, loved the Band of Brothers aspect, and the fierce loyalty they felt for those in their own Battalion. For many of them, only mining or other heavy industries, provided any alternative. Going out with them on ‘the razz’ on a Saturday night gave me an insight into what is sometimes called ‘the biggest gang in the world’, or at least the country. And if some of them did think, as I’m sure did some of the miners, that I was a soft, middle-class ponce (and I couldn’t have blamed them if they did – I would probably have said that of me had I been in their boots!), they didn’t say so to my face, and in fact showed great respect, hidden amongst the usual ‘badinage’ (you only know you’re accepted, however fleetingly, if they take the p**s).

 

The thing that interested me was the lack of resentment towards, or even much curiosity about my (it seemed to me) much more congenial life, or of any of those outside their own situation. Both the army and coal mining produced a very insular world (literally in the case of mining) and set of assumptions about life and their own prospects and abilities.

 

As with those who leave the army, the miners who have suddenly found themselves unemployed will find life outside very hard. They’ve lost their employment, like many before them, but they’ve also lost their status and self-respect. The jobs that supposedly replaced those of the old industries on which Britain built its great, wealthy empire (which, of course, was of great benefit only to a tiny number) provide neither the security nor the status or self-respect.

 

At the beginning of last week came The Guardian’s  investigation into the working conditions at Sports Direct. In some respects it was like reading about the working conditions of old. The employment may not be as dangerous, but the attitude of the employer to the employees is something that Dickens, along with Marks and Engels and  numerous other agitators and reformers of the period, would have recognised. Or, for conditions between the world wars, you can’t beat Orwell for clarity of prose and clear-eyed judgement.

 

As in the classic capitalist mould, it appears the workers are treated just as units of production. There is no care, consideration or compassion, it seems. They are virtually chained to their work area and their every move is monitored. If they do not reach their targets they are shamed through loudspeaker announcements. If they have to take time off to cater for sick children their card is marked as being unreliable, so children are at home alone.

 

It took decades and numerous strikes and disputes for miners to have the right for their bath/shower clean-up time at the end of their shift to be classed as working time and paid as such. The modern equivalent is the search – intrusive and degrading to many– at the end of the Sports Direct shift. Up to an hour a half of waiting to have proven that they are not sneaking off the premises with company goods.

 

After the report was published, the company first blustered and denied the journalists’  findings and criticisms, but is now supposedly looking into its work practices. But it seems that all the rights gained over decades after so much hardship and sacrifice of those in the mines and steelworks and many other industries, will have to be won all over again in the modern service industries.

 

Now, once again, heartless bureaucrats – themselves under a harsh regime with targeted sanctions, privatised out from a direct government department – decide whether you are fit for work and entitled to some kinds of benefits, often with humiliating and degrading tests, leading many, especially those with mental health problems, to suicide. A heartless, harsh world – without now even the comradeship and solidarity of close, work-related communities to fall back on.  An individualistic, consumerist culture that excludes many and, I think, diminishes us all.

 

 

Tiny Tim’s survival chances today would surely be much greater that at the time of Dickens’s novel but many would still find Bob Cratchit’s working conditions and relationship with his employer enviable.

 

Well okay, let’s look on the bright side. Many children in Dickens’s time were brought up in institutions, often because they were dammed and cast aside as infants due to their illegitimacy. That, at least, is one stigma that has been all but eliminated. Today, those who are shunned and despised are those that arrive on our shores, seeking refuge and asylum, after experiencing unspeakable scenes and events in their home country. Now, they are the ones who have to throw themselves at the mercy of charity, with the state reducing its support even for unaccompanied children, and local authorities increasingly having to turn their backs on them, due to the public spending cuts, forced on them by central government. Just as with illegitimate children of old, these youngsters are blamed and sneered at for their own misfortune: but rather than being born ‘the wrong side of the blanket’, now it is for having been born in the wrong tribe, the wrong sect, the wrong religion in the wrong country at the wrong time.  Friendless, highly vulnerable and homeless, they now live on the streets and sleep rough.

 

I’m no theologian and indeed have never been baptised in any faith, but I think that those who think themselves even nominally Christian should pause for a moment – at this time of year if no other – and think that, if there is a Second Coming, another Christ child, from where would they come and in what circumstances. I’ve a notion that he (or she!)  would not be born into a comfortable family, set up with a trust fund and put into one of the top private schools from birth, but rather would be an abandoned, orphaned child refugee.

 

How the Dickens did we let this happen? And on that, rhetorical question bombshell….

 

 

 

Next Time – The Ghost of Christmas – and other times

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It’s one of those stories that leaps out at you. Partly because it’s probably something you never think about, partly because it seems so sad and partly because it tells you how society is changing. Kind of a canary in the mine.

Figures put together by BBC Local Radio following a Freedom of Information Request show that the cost to local councils of funeral and burial costs for those who die without any family or friends have greatly increased over the last couple of years. It used to be that councils only had to do this for vagrants – those of no fixed abode or known lineage. But, according to the Local Government Association, increasingly the deceased does have family – but they refuse to pay the costs. The fracturing of families, with the prevalence of second marriages, partners, ex-partners, step-parents and the kaleidoscope of relationships in modern Britain – and, perhaps, mere selfishness (“ should I pay out £3,000 for the old bugger when he’s left me next to nothing in his will?) – has led to a modern phenomenon. It’s sad enough and bad enough that there should be so many such people who die without any caring relatives or friends. But it also highlights how much as a society, for all our Smartphones, Tablets, email shopping and recreational culture, we rely on public services; of government at different levels; of ‘them’ to step in to save the day. The biggest increase in such ‘paupers’ funerals’ as they used to be called (‘public health funerals’ in today’s more sensitive/euphemistic times) is in the north-west – the region that is amongst those likely to be hit worst by the biggest change to the way local government is financed and configured since – well, pretty much since ever!

A combination of the HUGE cut in direct grants from central government ( 56% over the next four years; a figure buried away in the small print of last week’s autumn financial statement: no, you didn’t miss THAT in George Osborne’s statement – he didn’t mention it – on top of cuts of around 40% initiated by the previous ConDem government); the abolition of the redistributive nature of business rates and devolution to most of the big city regions (including Liverpool) amount to nothing less than a revolution.

Lord Porter, the Conservative peer who heads the Local Government Association puts in stark terms that are easy to comprehend the extent of the cuts and their likely impact:

“Even if councils stopped filling in potholes, maintaining parks, closed all children’s centres, libraries, museums, leisure centres and turned off every street light they will not have saved enough money to plug the financial black hole they face by 2020.

“These local services which people cherish will have to be drastically scaled back or lost altogether as councils are increasingly forced to do more with less and protect life and death services, such as caring for the elderly and protecting children, already buckling under growing demand.

Given that Lord Burns is not one of the usual suspects who can be expected to condemn everything a Tory administration does, I think we should take these remarks seriously and as correct.

Of course, the government will say that it is providing a pool of money for enterprise and that councils will be able to keep all of their business rates (levied on commercial premises at so many pence of the pond of their rateable – or rentable – value). Councils can also put up their Council Tax by 2% to help pay for social care – residential properties are put into one of eight bands, depending on their market value, mostly set nearly a quarter of a century ago.

Unfortunately, places like Liverpool are going to be clobbered all over again, in relation to other parts of the country. First, outside the retail sector, it has fewer, high-paying businesses and benefitted from the re-distributive nature of the national business rate ‘pot’. Secondly, it has far fewer domestic properties at the top Council Tax band, so a 2% hike here will be much less than, say, leafy Surrey. Plus, of course, Liverpool suffers from a range of ‘deprivation factors’ that means its citizens require – and rely on – more of the public services provided by councils than in other parts of the country.

Liverpool’s Directly Elected Executive Mayor Joe Anderson – true, a combative Labour politician but who has an open offer to government ministers and anyone else to look at the council’s ‘books’, probably does not exaggerate when he says:

…despite working hard to find innovative ways of keeping our libraries and children’s centres open, we cannot absorb such a scale of further cuts without it having a deep and lasting effect.

“But there is only so far we can stretch and the next wave will decimate us.”

The council’s own auditors give a stark non-political summary:

“It is possible that during 2017/18 the council will no longer have sufficient funds to deliver any discretionary services. A tipping point could be reached in 2018/19 when the council could struggle to fund all its mandatory service provision.”

So, we could be just 18 months from the council stopping everything except that which it has to (no libraries, leisure centres, etc.) and just two and half years when it cannot even carry out its legal duties – providing care for the elderly in their homes, or funding ‘care packages’ in residential homes, caring for vulnerable children, and – yes- funding the ‘paupers’ funerals’.

The combination of the cuts allied to devolution (an offer of extra powers over such aspects as planning and training but not, as in Manchester, the health service, and a so-called Metro Mayor for the city region), means that when people do realise the extent of these cuts, central government will be able to say “well, don’t blame us, look to your council for not spending their money wisely or being an attractive place for business”.

In the interests of political balance, it should be noted that the government says that, taken as a package, the spending on local government has not been reduced in a draconian fashion, but as a nation we’re still borrowing money at an unsustainable rate, and if not local government, what? Schools? Hospitals?

All that acknowledged – and the fact that central government is closing some of the tax avoidance loopholes, and that cuts already made to public services, particularly in the police, have not, in the event, had the calamitous conferences many had predicted – this is still a really big change; one of the most significant we’ve had in public life since World War II.

The effects are not going to be evenly spread and it’s hard to see how the cuts will not exacerbate a broad north/south, poor/rich divide and have a very significant impact – to put it mildly – on vulnerable people, as well as a further and dramatic hollowing out public provision more generally.

Indeed, the effects of all these changes – none of which, it should be stressed, the result of any direct democratic process; council leaders agreed the change with ministers, and then gained formal approval from their councils – are so huge, so fundamental, they amount to the ending of local government as we have known it.

At the time when my grandfather and great-grandfather were grand fromages in local government, the councils did most of the things most people cared about and which had a material effect on their lives – even survival. It was councils who largely built the sewerage systems and generated clean water supplies (so saving untold thousands from Cholera), built the homes and rented them out to most of the population, set up the gas and electricity organisations, built and repaired the roads, and managed the schools. Even in my time when I started as a trainee newspaper reporter in the mid-‘70s, they still did a lot of that, and we had the staff to ensure that we attended every meeting of every council, even the parish councils – one of my first jobs was to attend the meeting of such a council in a mining village. Council stories – whether from meetings/agenda or otherwise – generated page lead after page leads. Often the front-page splash. Local councils mattered and the local media (radio, too) covered their activities in great details. Even now, a quarter of all public spending is on local government – only, at the moment, most of that money is sent by grants using various formulae and criteria from central government. But no more.

As one commentator put it, councils are changing from being local welfare systems to enterprise bodies. I don’t think the majority of people have even begun to understand the earthquake that is going to hit them. And I’m not sure that local media are up to the task of either explaining what is going on, or galvanising their readers/viewers/listeners to start preparing for alternative ways to do the things that ‘they’ used to do, even with the BBC’s enthusiastic noises for support for hyperlocal news websites. A perfect storm of huge losses in journalistic staffs in local media and the closing and merging of hundreds of titles that used to be the ‘watchdog’ for local authorities and inform the residents as to what has been proposed and decided, has coincided with the point where social media has resulted in an increase in identity politics and new networks which owe little or nothing to geographical spaces, at the point where we live ever more atomised existence with many not even knowing their close neighbours.

Most importantly, we need to start thinking NOW how we can come up with alternative strategies and systems – involving charities, the voluntary sector, new groups as yet to be formed, with the means of communicating and generating support. Doing nothing, making no changes on how we ‘imagine’ local services and local governance, is not an option. If we don’t act, our local services and facilities will be dead and some sad souls will be buried without a funeral.

 

 

 

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The Row Over the Tampon Tax Could Be a Straw in the Wind

It’s nearly always tax and/or wages that causes revolutions and wars, isn’t it? The Peasant’s Revolt in England (the subject of an excellent new book by Melvyn Bragg)…the English Civil Wars…the American war of Independence…the Bolshevik Russian Revolution…even the 1990 Poll Tax in UK. The broad mass of populations in any country at any time are generally quiescent, pliable and docile. Mostly they are absorbed with the day to day business of living and raising a family and trying to enjoy some diversion from time to time. They often – quite rightly – fear that the replacement will be worse than the lot they have now. But every so often, something will happen that so enrages them that they take up their pitchforks/rifles/banners and rise up to drive out the elites – or at least a change in the leaders in that elite.

In England/UK, since 1649, the elites have been very clever in making JUST ENOUGH concessions to the plebs to stave off a revolution. I expect in terms of the planned cuts in working tax credits, which this week saw – according to some view-points at least – the most extraordinary political events and constitutional challenge in more than a century, this will also be true. There’s been so much comment on this that I don’t intend to dwell too much on that.

What intrigued me though almost as much was that, on the same day as the blue-bloods were upturning the agreements by the elected chamber, that very same House of Commons was discussing a Labour motion to demand the abolition of the so-called Tampon Tax. Now, Tampon is a trademark name, and so should really be called ‘Sanitary Towel Tax’, but this lacks alliteration and doesn’t look so good in a headline, so we’ll stick to Tampon Tax.

The issue is that that these are subject to a 5% VAT levy. That is only a quarter of the full/normal VAT rate applied in the UK. In reality, it’s not a huge amount. But the amount of the tax is not the critical point. The issue is that, no matter if all 650 MPs voted to abolish the tax, supported by every member of the executive, agreed by every one of the 850 (odd)(?) Peers in the Upper House  and given Royal Assent, that 5% levy would still be imposed. This is because VAT – which in the UK began as a replacement to Purchase Tax, levied on ‘luxury goods and services’ – is a European Union tax. And the bonkers rule in the EU is that this is an item that must be subject to VAT; furthermore, the rules state that once something has had VAT imposed on it, the tax can only be reduced to 5%. Not eliminated.

So, when Labour came into office in 1997 they wanted to abolish VAT on energy bills. This was a very popular policy – in a country a cold, damp and windswept country like the UK, fuel bills should certainly not be regarded a luxury, but almost as necessary in winter at least as a near-essential for life. But 5% it stays.

It seems that this fact – along with the dawning realisation sparked by the utter disaster of the Eurozone has made even the most unthinking liberal-lefty type – with their hand-me-down opinions and unquestioning obeisance to whatever is the broad, soft lefty view of the day – question the goodness of the ‘European project’.

‘No taxation without representation’ is what led the English Parliament to put a king on trial and chop off his head; it’s what led Americans – the same people (or at least their President and corporation chiefs) who now urge the UK to remain part of the EU – to ditch tea in the Boston harbour and demand their independence from England.

To my American friends, I respectfully ask them to imagine who they would feel if taxes were imposed on them by, say, an administration in Mexico, even if every Senator and Congressman, as well as their President, was elected on the pledge to abolish the tax. How would you feel about that? Furthermore, if a police officer in some small town in Mexico demanded that you be extradited to ther for a crime you are alleged to have  committed, even if there is no prima facie evidence for this, and then  you had to spend months in jail in Mexico without any charge even be laid against you and were ultimately subject to the judicial process and punishment applicable in that country?

How would you feel if every unskilled Mexican – indeed the entire population of that country – could legally up sticks tomorrow, sail through US immigration and immediately be fully entitled to exactly the same employment, housing, health, education and welfare rights as American citizens? Oh, and the skilled people you DO want – from Canada, say – who speak the same language and whose forebears shed their blood and guts on the same side along with your pa and grandpa’s generation -were unable to gain work visas?

Get it? Good! Because that is exactly the situation the UK is in re the EU.

US leaders have always wanted Europe to be one conglomeration. It makes diplomacy SO much easier. “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?”, more than one president has plaintively asked. Furthermore, they want the UK, as their most reliable partner, to be in there, to counter-balance those who – shall we put it politely? – have hsitorically been less reliable allies. Well, I’m sorry, but the US desire for convenience and tidiness is not a good enough reason to sacrifice your democracy and accountability. Or your individual liberty

Of course, corporate America is desperately hoping we will stay – big corporations in and outside the continent LOVE the EU. They are gagging for the proposed EU/US trade agreement – the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), as it will allow them the right – the RIGHT! – to buy off anything that is currently in public ownership and sue the government if they try to put a roadblock to it!

This week we have also the start of the full-frontal ‘project fear’ campaign by big business on both sides of the Atlantic as to the perils of the UK leaving. Very often they are the same groups – and very often the same individuals – who at the end of the last century warned that Britain would be become an economic backwater, denied inward investment, isolated and weakened, if we did not join full European and Monetary Union (EMU), and would be back, on our knees, begging to be allowed in, even on far worse terms.

Totally unashamed by their spectacular misjudgement and being completely ‘caught out’ by the reality, inverted from their own predictions, they are at it again. Corporations regard democracy as an unfortunate by-product of the free market. They work with any agencies and any party to suppress and castrate any movement that threatens their political interest. Through the IMF and World Bank, they first create the conditions that virtually ensure the failure of any attempt at social ownership of goods and services, then – as the price of rescuing the Socialist-led country – demand such painful cuts in public spending that said government is left exposed, compromised and humiliated that it resigns or is defeated, or gives in and throws their industries and social security systems and all those who rely on them to the mercy of the corporate Gods. This has happened over and over again in pretty much every part of the world, including the UK in 1976, in Africa, and South and Central America. It has been used to crucify generations of people in large part of Europe, notably Greece. See this superb interview with Yanis Varoufakis (starts 32.20).  His analysis of the situation in Greece and the EU will, surely, shatter any remaining illusions about this body. He compares it with a ‘power politics’ style 19th century force, crushing any country or people that challenges it. Did you know that, next month, ALL Greek businesses, from the lone fruit-seller to the largest corporation, will have to PRE-PAY all their taxes for a full year ahead? How, when they can’t even borrow from a bank the money equating to the profits they’ve yet to make?! Total, TOTAL madness. 

I could go on – and no doubt will as the referendum date is set as to whether we should ‘leave’ or ‘remain’.

It is possible Cameron will come back with a basketful of real reforms from his ‘renegotiation’, but I can’t imagine that he can achieve any agreement that, when it comes, will stop me voting to Leave with such vigour that I’ll break the voting-booth pencil. And, who know? Maybe millions more will do the same, partly inspired by the story of the Tampon Tax. Period.

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Corbyn may not shoot Trident but he’s shooting the messenger

Sir Humphrey Appleby (HA): It’s a deterrent.
Prime Minister (PM): It’s a bluff. I probably wouldn’t use it.
HA: Yes, but they don’t know that you probably wouldn’t.
PM: They probably do.
HA: Yes, they probably know that you probably wouldn’t but they can’t certainly know.
PM: They probably certainly know that I probably wouldn’t.
HA: Yes, but even though they probably certainly know that you probably wouldn’t, they don’t certainly know that although you probably wouldn’t, there’s no probability that you certainly would.

The best acronym ever contrived must surely be Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). It means that if any state with nuclear weapons fired one of them on another state with nuclear weapons they would be committing national suicide. Which is why no nuclear powers have ever gone to war in the 70 years since the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan ending World War Two.

Given that the major powers never knew what point the other had decided the nuclear threshold had been crossed, it may also be the case – as many believed – that the possession of nuclear weapons has not only prevented nuclear war but has prevented any direct conflict between the major powers. The logic of MAD though depends on the other side not being sure whether – or in what circumstances – you would ever use those weapons. It’s a game of bluff.

The dialogue above from the sitcom Yes, Prime Minister, was when the argument was about ‘upgrading’ from Polaris to Trident, as the UK’s Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD) and when 2020 was a long way off! Now, the UK will have to make a decision whether to replace Trident with the next-generation of nuclear subs, at least one of which is supposedly on patrol at all times. This also means that this form of nuclear strike force produces the greatest likelihood that nuclear war will be avoided, because they could be fired even if the entire government and military command has been knocked out in a pre-emptive surprise attack – what in Whitehall is known as “a bolt from the blue”.

Those who didn’t grow up in the Cold War period and not have the proverbial mushroom cloud hanging over their heads may well be wondering what all the fuss is about with new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stating that if you were to become Prime Minister he would never authorise the use of nuclear weapons, even if it was Labour Party policy to renew Trident.

The great political journalist and academic Peter Hennessy said the moment that you really know you are Prime Minister is when you are told by the head of the civil service that you must write personal letters to the commanders of each of the Trident (Vanguard) subs, to be kept in a safe on-board and to be opened only if all means of communication with the UK have been lost and it is presumed that the country  has been blasted, irradiated and burnt to kingdom come. You have to instruct the commanders of the subs what they should do in those circumstances. Only one Prime Minister has ever said for sure that they would retaliate and that was Jim Callaghan.

Coming to office in 1976 having uniquely held all three of what are regarded as the greatest offices of state other than Prime Minister – Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary – and an ex-naval man himself  (he almost certainly prevented a war over the Falklands when he was prime minister in 1978 by the strategic deployment of a warship to the area) – Callaghan later stated that had the UK suffered a nuclear attack, he would have instructed one of the then Polaris subs to retaliate. “But I would never have forgiven myself”, he mused.

For Corbyn, who was a unilateralist (or one-sided disarmer) even at the height of the Cold War and whose position on this can hardly therefore be a surprise, the issue of nuclear weapons is one of morality.

He believes it is repugnant and indefensible to even contemplate using such weapons which will be bound not just to kill millions immediately, but many more millions in a lingering, agonising death, not least because the whole of society and the means of food production and clean water would have completely broken down and large parts of the planet poisoned so much that it would be uninhabitable for generations. It is a perfectly understandable and, indeed, in many respects, a laudable view. And at least his position means means that there will be a national debate on the issue: something that has been lacking since the very earliest days, when the post-war Labour government (yes, that same one that introduce the welfare state, nationalisation of key industries, and cradle-to-grave welfare state) gave the go-ahead to develop Britain’s own nuclear weapons. Or as the then Foreign Secretary said: “a nuclear bomb with a bloody great Union Jack on top of it”. From the beginnings, the nuclear weapons’ issue has not just been about – possibly not even mainly about – deterrence, but an attempt to keep the United Kingdom as a world power. As one commentator put it recently: “Our nuclear weapons are being used every day – in diplomacy and in negotiations around the world”.

But we do need the debate because until now all the major decisions about our nukes have been made in private, and in secret, bypassing Parliament except for very occasional, formal votes on expenditure (themselves often disguised within other ‘estimates’), even though many would regard them as the most profound decisions that could ever be taken by a country.

It’s an issue which is nearly split the Labour Party several times. It was the increases in defence expenditure to pay for the UK’s bomb and the consequent cuts in the NHS in its very early days that led to the resignations of several Cabinet ministers of the post-war government t, including a future leader, Harold Wilson. In 1960, the party conference voted to abandon nuclear weapons, with the pro-nuclear then leader, Hugh Gaitskell, promising to “fight, fight and fight again to save the party I love.” In fact, when they did come back into power in 1964 under Wilson, they did go ahead with Polaris. Then, in the early 1980s, it was the election as party leader of a founder for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Michael Foot, which was partly responsible for defection of a number of Labour MPs, including former Cabinet ministers, to form a new, rival party, the SDP.

So, in the past, knowing what a toxic issue this is, Labour governments in particular have been especially nervous about the issue and have been very keen to keep the decision-making process as tight and restricted as possible. And Labour PMs have been very reluctant to discuss the issue in public, especially in the media, even when they’ve left office.

In 1983 when I was at British forces’ radio in West Berlin, Jim Callaghan’s office  agreed to an interview at the station while he was on a ‘goodwill’/meet the troops visit in the then divided city, and my boss generously asked me if I would like to do it. WOULD I? ‘His people’ had asked a couple of weeks before for an outline of the topics to be covered. He was still an MP but had no formal role in government, it wasn’t a news interview, so it was thought that was fair enough. I had told them – thinking about defence issues on a forces’ radio station – that I wanted to question him about his secret plan when in office a few years before to upgrade Polaris, which even most of the Cabinet hadn’t known about! (This article shows the ‘secret minute’ has been reclassified as Secret). He stormed into the reception, flanked by his armed bodyguards, and before we had even done the introductions said: “I can tell you one thing young man (well, I was then!) – I’m not going to answer any questions about Chevaline!”.

So, as Corbyn would say, let’s have a debate, but as he would also say, please let’s keep it civilised and respectful. Those who are anti-our current nuclear weapons let alone proceeding with a further ‘upgrade’ need to recognise that decent people, who also want to prevent war of any kind, who also love their children, and who also care about the planet, have different views on this and think the best way of maintaining peace and as the ultimate guarantor of our survival as a free country and think if we abandon nukes it won’t lead to a nuclear-free world, but a world where some very nasty regimes have them and we don’t. And, no, having nuclear weapons didn’t prevent 9/11, or 7/7, or the fight against ISIS. And lots of other threats. But, as I’ve argued before, that’s like blaming your home security alarm for not alerting you when your office or car  has been broken into. You need a range of conventional, effective forces as well (and an excellent intelligence service and diplomatic corps). And if you think there are no consequences in giving up nukes, ask some of the Ukrainians how they feel about giving theirs up now that Russian tanks have ploughed into their villages.

Nuclear weapons cannot be dis-invented and the idea that the Russian or Chinese leadership would be shamed by the UK’s unilateralism into giving up their nukes is naive and foolish beyond imagining, and fantastically dangerous and irresponsible. Given our world status now, we probably  wouldn’t become a nuclear state. But we do have them, have had them for a long time, and they form an important part in the collective security in Europe. That’s been my settled view for a long time and I doubt very much it’s going to change now. But I am prepared to debate and defend that view .

The new Labour leader is going to come under regular and intense scrutiny over this, perhaps more than any other issue,and ultimately it can’t be dodged. It could well split the party – probably not resulting in a new party being formed as such, but produce major blood-letting due to the dislocation between the views of the predominantly new members and supporters in the country and those of the elected MPs. The latter, of course, all won their seats on a manifesto that certainly did not argue for the UK to unilaterally abandon its nuclear weapons and who have a combined vote many, many more times the number who voted for Corbyn as leader.

The new leader has been basking in the warm approval of his party, especially its several hundred thousand new members/supporters, but sooner or later he’s going to have to face a much more hostile audience and series of interrogations, and the omens from his first couple of weeks in office are not good about his ability and his willingness to engage with those who have a very different view. His two major public speeches since elected Labour leader have both attacked the media, even berating them for reporting things which he has in fact said – such as his sponsored Early Day Motion (EDM) about wishing an asteroid would wipe out humankind  Well, OK, of course he wasn’t entirely serious, and was using it to make a wider point.but you wouldn’t have known from his attack on Tuesday that he had supported such an EDM (and if it’s now to be claimed it was entirely a joke it was a frivolous use of precious parliamentary time). He does tend to bask in his own self-righteous beliefs and gets very tetchy when anyone questions his own morality.

And it isn’t just Corbyn: his deputy, Tom Watson – whose views and attitudes towards press regulation are well known –  also has a tendency to get cross with interviewers who box him into a tight spot. Witness this interview he did with Simon Hoban of BBC Radio Merseyside, just a couple of hours after the leader’s speech.  It all starts chummy enough, with Watson trying to do the ‘ordinary bloke’ bit about his beloved footie team. But listen how hostile he becomes when the interview takes a direction which displeases him:

Hoban int Watson 29 Sept

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign and the excitement generated since has been like a huge shot of adrenaline into the whole UK political system. It has galvanised young people in particular and even if a lot of the ‘new politics’ do to me seem like a lot of the old ideas reheated, at least these constitute an alternative agenda and discourse and give hope to those who are being – and increasingly will be – hammered by cuts. But the total new membership of the party constitutes barely one and a half per cent of the electorate. There’s an awful lot of people out there who remain unconvinced by either the leader, or the policies – in as much as they have been articulated.

The debates – on nukes and all the other areas that Corbyn has pledged will be discussed – need to involve a much wider section of the population than the still very small party membership. And it can’t all be done on social media. Corbyn’s past statements, support, actions and ‘friendships’ are going to – quite correctly – come under relentless scrutiny now. If he thinks he can just deflect and characterise every criticism or every pointed, unhelpful question as part of a conspiracy by the mainstream media/Tory-supporting newspapers he will never reach out to the bulk of the electorate. Which would be a great pity, because this government certainly needs a credible, authoritative opposition. But that may be a completely MAD hope.

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