Skip to content

Grenfell – after the fire, the blame storm

Aberfan Disaster

Theresa May must be thanking her lucky stars that the awful Grenfell Tower fire didn’t happen two weeks earlier. Had that been the case, by now we would probably have been getting used to a Labour government.

It’s human nature that even before all the victims have been identified, people are popping up everywhere to point the finger of blame.

There’s been talk of corporate manslaughter. Mrs May’s new chief of staff has been accused of not acting on a report warning of fire risks in tower blocks from when he was Housing Minister.

Exits from the tower were reduced during the refurbishment. The Fire Service gave standing instructions to residents to stay put in their apartment if a fire broke out elsewhere in the building. Fire station cutbacks allegedly increased the time it took for the fire engines to arrive at the scene.

There have been rumours about the cause of the initial fire that I won’t bother to repeat because they probably have more to do with social and political narratives than with the fire itself.

Some media commentators have blamed austerity for the disaster. David Aaronovitch of The Times looks back at a string of disasters in the Eighties that involved mass casualties – the Bradford City stadium fire, the Herald of Free Enterprise fire, the King’s Cross underground fire and the Hillsborough disaster. Given the lessons learned from these events, he says, we shouldn’t be here. As he describes them, the common threads in these disasters were that:

“by and large they arose from the use of old, near-obsolete and dangerous infrastructure, from under-investment in improvements and a generally negligent attitude toward health and safety.”

He could have added that there’s another common thread. Just as was the case with Grenfell Tower, there was no lack of people warning about the potential for these kinds of disaster. Go back further than the 80s to Aberfan, where an unstable spoil tip in a Welsh mining village slipped down a hill and engulfed a school.

At Aberfan, the concerns of the locals about the tip were dismissed. It was only when an “expert”, the Borough Engineer, wrote to the National Coal Board with his concerns, that the NCB took notice. But such actions as they subsequently took did not prevent the disaster.

All too often, we rely on experts to allay fears based on what is plainly obvious. Anyone who went to a major football stadium before Hillsborough would be able to tell you of the risk of crushing. And it shouldn’t have been up to a fire officer to point out that allowing thousands of people to gather on an antique wooden stand full of inaccessible rubbish was a recipe for disaster.

So here, unfortunately, is what seems to be a universal human trait. Even in a society that accepts the need for strict health and safety regulations, we trim, we get by, we take risks and we ignore hazards. Regulations can’t cover every eventuality. They are built on what we know, not on what we don’t know. And even when we know about a new risk, it can take an inordinate amount of time to update the regulations. It’s only when a catastrophe forces us to learn lessons that we take rapid action.

It has always been thus in the aviation industry. Most of the technological weaknesses in aircraft are first identified because of crashes. Investigations reveal the causes; manufacturers and operators fix the problems. The one problem they can mitigate, but never fix, is human error.

It will be no consolation to the families of those who died in Grenfell Tower to know that the deaths of their loved ones will probably make similar disasters less likely.

But there will be man-made disasters in the future. Some will come seemingly out of the blue, only for people to tell us after the fact that they told us so beforehand. Others are staring us in the face – infrastructure vulnerable to cyberattacks, major floods caused by climate change for which we have not prepared, nuclear detonations.

We are not, contrary to what Aaronovitch says, back in the Eighties. We are where we have always been, balancing foresight with expediency, and sometimes getting it wrong. And infrastructure that is old isn’t necessary dangerous. If that were the case we would need to demolish the majority of our churches, palaces, Georgian terraces and Tudor farmhouses, and with them the cultural soul of our country. In fact, young infrastructure is often more dangerous than old, because it’s more complex and not designed to last.

If you exclude the threat from terrorism, our country is a safer place today than it was in the Eighties. The very fact that a disaster like Grenfell Tower stands out is because it’s relatively rare. Unfortunately, there’s one thing the designers and the regulators can’t anticipate every time. Us.

We are fallible, stupid, vain, complacent, greedy, selfish and negligent. We are human. We have some positive qualities too, as all those who rushed to assist the survivors of Grenfell Tower have shown.

But if you know anyone who has never taken a risk, cut a corner or accidentally put someone else in danger – and got away with it with a sigh of relief – then you know a very rare person.

So the blame storm rages away, almost as fiercely as the fire that consumed the tower. The rich and the poor blame each other, as do the left and the right. In a disaster of this magnitude we can always find someone to blame. Whether or not we are justified in pointing the finger, this is how many of us make sense – our sense – of what happened.

No doubt there will be an inquiry. People will be held responsible and recommendations made. But whatever sanction the state might impose on such parties as may be identified as culpable, I suspect that it will be nothing compared to the punishment they will exact on themselves, knowing that they have contributed to all those needless deaths.

With that in mind, when you drive your car a little too fast on the motorway, or take your eyes off your kids in the shopping mall for just a little too long, you might want to spare a thought for those who took a risk and didn’t get away with it, or looked away when they shouldn’t have done, and say to yourself “there but for the grace of God go I”.

Qatar- swift resolution or lengthy siege?

Evening view of the West Bay skyline from the Corniche in Doha, Qatar. Photo by StellarD

One or two people have asked me in recent days about the background to the rupture between Qatar and its neighbours. They know I have lived and worked in the region, and that I’ve written a fair amount about Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Bahrain over the past seven years. Qatar less so, though you’ll find one or two pieces if you search this blog.

None of this writing makes me an expert on the current situation, and I wouldn’t presume to be an authoritative source on the subject any more than someone whose views on the United Kingdom are based on experience of my country that dates from before the seismic events of the past two years.

That said, I’ve read plenty of analysis, ranging from a dissection by Hassan Hassan, an eminent political commentator, of the geopolitical aspirations of the Middle Eastern power blocs involved in the action, to Christina Lamb’s excellent piece in today’s Sunday Times, which dwells on the human as well as the political aspect of Qatar’s new-found isolation.

Hassan’s explanation is rooted in this description of a new reality in the region:

A new geopolitical settlement has emerged in the Middle East since the 2011 Arab uprisings. This realignment remains largely overlooked, even though much of what ails the region today can be better explained through it, instead of the traditional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran or the sectarian tension between Shia and Sunni.

The countries of the region can be divided into two camps: one that seeks to advance its foreign interests through the support of Islamists, and one whose foreign policy is guided by opposition to the rise of Islamists.

Countries in each of the camps are not necessarily aligned with each other so they do not form together on one side. This, understandably, makes it hard for policymakers and observers to view the region as such. But it is this realignment that could provide clarity to the United States as it recalibrates its approach in the region. Support or opposition to Islamists informs the foreign policies of the Middle East’s main powers. For some of those countries, it is the single greatest foreign policy driver.

Qatar, Hassan claims, is firmly in the camp of those who, like Turkey, support the Islamists. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain are in the other camp.  This may come as a surprise to those who believe that Saudi Arabia, considered by many to the principal exporter of the ultraconservative theology that is shared by many of the Islamist factions. They forget that Saudi Arabia has been under attack for over the past two decades by violent forces determined to bring down its rulers – first Al-Qaeda, and now ISIS.

The states seeking to isolate Qatar are united in their fear of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar sits uneasily on the other side. It has good relations with Turkey and with neighbouring Kuwait and Oman. Although it has contributed troops to the coalition fighting the Iranian sponsored Houthis in Yemen, its relations with Iran are far less adversarial than are Saudi Arabia’s.

What particularly irks those who have taken action against them is Qatar’s refusal to disavow the Brotherhood. Its media empire, most notably Al-Jazeera, has infuriated both Sisi in Egypt and his allies with its perceived bias in support of Islamist causes, not least the uprising in Egypt that brought Mubarak down.

Lamb speaks of Qatar’s Janus-like foreign policy, its investments in the West contrasting with its harbouring of Taliban exiles and of Yusuf Qaradawi, spiritual head of the Brotherhood. She also describes the defiance of ordinary Qataris as they come to terms with their status as pariah of the Gulf.

After the initial shock of the blockade, Qatar has turned to defiance. Shops were replenished — with the exception of the Saudi chickens — while the ministry of commerce issued a video showing well-stocked shelves. “We can live for ever at the same standard,” said Al Thani, noting that only 16% of Qatar’s food imports came through the land border crossing with Saudi Arabia.

The toll on thousands of people caught on the wrong side of the border for work, studies or mixed marriages has nevertheless been great.

“The Saudis want to control us,” said Wafaa Al-Yazeedi, chairwoman of a state hospital in Doha, who has raised her son and two daughters alone since divorcing her Bahraini husband. Children in the Gulf take their father’s nationality, which means they are now facing expulsion.

“They can stop our food, our water but they can’t take our children,” she said, tears rolling down her face. “To do this in our holy month of Ramadan. Even if this is resolved, we will never forget.”

With these highlights I haven’t really scratched the surface of a highly complex story, let alone mentioned a further joker in the pack – the US, with its investment both in Qatar and in two of the three power blocs. What is going on in Washington – with Trump yapping away on Twitter about Qatar as a sponsor of terrorism and Tillerson in the State Department urging swift resolution of the crisis – is anyone’s guess.

But on some things I do have a view.

First, the Saudi/Egypt/UAE/Bahrain alliance will be betting on a speedy capitulation by Qatar. They will know that the longer the impasse remains, the greater the chance that Qatar will be drawn into Iran’s orbit out of a sense of self-preservation. The prospect of Iran gaining a foothold in the Gulf would horrify the Saudis. It could even be a casus belli.

Second, there have been suggestions that the Gulf alliance would like to see the overthrow of the current Emir. This would be an almost unprecedented event, in that it would have been so blatantly inspired by foreign actors. Other rulers have been deposed – in Qatar itself and in Oman – but any foreign support by their neighbours or by powers further afield (the US for example), has been shadowy and unproven. Both overthrows were seen at the time as internal affairs motivated by the desire to modernise what were backward nations. In fact the neighbouring monarchies have typically been inclined to support their brother rulers under threat – as they did with Kuwait in 1991, and more recently in 2013 when the Al-Khalifa family in Bahrain seemed to be on the verge of downfall.

Third, if Sheikh Tamim survives but is forced to give in to the demands of his neighbours, it will be a humiliation in a region where face is of paramount importance. Relations between him and his fellow rulers will never be the same again. And it’s quite possible that his resentment will be reflected in the wider population, who have for so long been fed the line that they are part of one big happy family of Gulf Arabs.

All of these factors suggest to me that one outcome is quite possible – the replacement of Sheikh Tamim by members of his family more likely to make the required concessions. Other developments, such as a military takeover by the Saudis and Emiratis, are less likely because of the long-term damage they would cause to relations between the Gulf Cooperation Council members, including Kuwait, which has shown more sympathy to the Qataris than the others.

It’s also possible that the current regime will tough it out. Its economic well-being as a major gas producer is unlikely to be jeopardised by the sanctions imposed by its neighbours. As long as it can keep its population onside, the inconvenience of what is basically a state of siege is unlikely to cause the country to grind to a halt.

But if the economic interests of wealthy Qataris start to become threatened, then the Emir and his allies will start to feel the pressure to cave in.

It’s easy to look on the current contretemps as a spat – a cat-fight in which rhetoric plays as important a role as claws scratching faces. Rhetoric is something in which the Arab world excels, often with no discernible consequences. Declarations of undying amity frequently precede actions that belie the sentiments. Likewise, blood-curdling threats are not always carried out.

But this is different. It will be seen by many Qataris as bullying. If the impasse leads to bloodshed, it will create yet another cycle of martyrdom. The temptation on the part of the Iranians and Turks to intervene might become irresistible. And the Gulf region will experience an instability and insecurity that makes the turmoil in Bahrain seem like a minor squabble.

The US, which has a military and economic footprint across the Gulf and Saudi Arabia – including 10,000 troops and a major airbase in Qatar – would be advised to tread carefully. Whether in the hands of Donald Trump it is capable of a coherent policy is highly questionable.

It’s understandable that we in Britain, with our chaotic political situation and the imminent Brexit negotiations, and Americans, obsessed with Trump’s problems at home and North Korea abroad, might overlook the argument between a tiny Gulf state and its neighbours.

We shouldn’t. It’s important and potentially dangerous.

Punishment rooms in care homes? I can think of worse ordeals

Political incorrectness alert: this post contains content that some readers might find offensive, especially if they are beyond retirement age and facing the prospect of spending the rest of their lives in a care home.

Good. That’s that sorted.

I’m delighted that the directors and employees of a care home company in the West Country have been convicted for their policy of locking up awkward residents in a punishment room. I’m not sure what is likely to shock the British public more – that the grumpy recalcitrants were banged up in a damp cold room with no toilet and only a half-inflated airbed for company, or the fact that these unfortunates actually paid for the privilege.

But ever since I read about this story, I’ve been thinking. Perhaps punishment cells for the elderly do have a part to play in their care. Before you choke on your Waitrose guacamole, hear me out.

I’m not quite at the stage when my children might think fit to wheel me into a care home. But if and when that time comes, I would demand to see the punishment cells. You see, I always thought that I’d cope with prison pretty well, so long as my fellow inmates left me alone. Four walls, barred window, a ton of books and some writing materials? Heaven!

Now assuming I was reasonably compos mentis by the time I checked into my geriatric Hotel California, it wouldn’t take long before I was howling for some peace and quiet. I know this from my observations of my mother’s care home. It was very benign, but the life of the inmates was punctuated by continual interruptions.

Well-meaning people trying to encourage you to dance and take part in quizzes, though mercifully not at the same time. Residents suffering from mild dementia patrolling the rows of incumbent sleepers, inspecting their personal belongings and engaging in meaningless conversations – mostly with themselves. The occasional tourettes-like outburst from one lady who wanted to stand up when she was sitting down, and sit down when she was standing up.

I can imagine that I would react in one of two ways. Either I would become demented in very short order and join the mumblers and the ranters, or I would be become irritated to the point of violence. So the idea of a punishment cell to which I could retreat after pouring tea over my neighbour, putting rat poison in their cake or groping the carers would actually be quite attractive. And if I wanted to make the swiftest possible exit from this world with a nifty dose of pneumonia, the colder and damper my place of confinement the better.

Of course it would help if there was also a room with slightly less spartan conditions where I could be locked away with my books without the chance of my expiring within 48 hours. But I’d probably want to stay there indefinitely.

A really imaginative care provider might also provide a cooler, where I could sit like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape chucking my baseball against the wall, fantasising about breaking out of the home on my mobility scooter and coming to grief in the privet hedge at the back of the garden after a thrilling chase by the care workers dressed as camp guards.

Speaking of Nazis, you could also have the Max Mosley option (for an extra charge of course) wherein you are locked in the punishment cell in the company of a couple of jackbooted dominatrices, there to whip you until you expire with the excitement of it all.

The way I see it is that if you are going to pay good money for the privilege of being incarcerated by a gang of psychotic profiteers, you might as well enjoy the experience, even if it’s the last you have on earth.

With that in mind, unless I’m lucky enough to keel over before I reach the portals of the Sunset Retirement Home, I’m going to compile a list of all the nasty, petty, spiteful things I could do to upset the owners and the staff. And I shall keep it in my pocket, in case I forget them by the time I get there.

Come to think of it, no need. I’ve been practising on my long-suffering wife for years.

UK Election – thoughts from the wreckage

A few thoughts in the immediate aftermath of Britain’s general election:

First, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour did far better than expected. They ran an excellent campaign. But they benefited from the implosion of the Conservative campaign, and more specifically from Theresa May’s dismal personal performance. To use a sporting analogy, they took advantage of an unforced error by the other side.

I suspect that had Labour gone into the election with a leader who was not subjected to the virulent Corbyn-phobic messages churned out by the Daily Mail and other right-wing media, they would have performed even better. In other words, under someone like Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham, Labour might actually have won a majority.

Second, the UKIP vote share was pulverised. Would it be too much to hope that Nigel Farage and his friends will disappear from our TV screens, from the mainstream media and from the social media? Will they fade away into the obscurity they deserve?  Unfortunately, though the BBC can’t justify giving him as much air time as before, Farage will no doubt be as busy on the social media as ever before as the self-proclaimed guardian of Brexit.

As for the opinions that UKIP drew upon in their previous success, they will be well represented by the right wing of the Conservative party, as they always were in the past. Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose.

But fat chance Farage will disappear unfortunately. Even as I write this, he’s already talking to the Beeb.

Third, once the exit polls showed the likelihood of a hung parliament, pundits on the BBC were telling us that the EU would prefer to negotiate with a majority British government, whichever party was in power. This will not happen, but we should be less concerned about the EU’s preference than by our own approach from here onwards. It’s pretty obvious that a minority government will have a hard time maintaining May’s “no deal is better than a bad deal” policy.

Watch out for some serious wiggling on the issue of our participation in the customs union and single market. Hard Brexit? Don’t bet on it. Referendum on the ultimate deal? Don’t bet on that either. But the chances are that the negotiations will be the proverbial bugger’s muddle, which will increase the chances of a deepening disillusionment across the electorate over the wisdom of continuing down the Brexit path. Hopefully.

Fourth, the Scottish Nationalist’s reverses would seem to have put the kibosh on a second independence referendum any time soon. Good news – the last thing we need is another bloody referendum on any subject other than Brexit.

Fifth, one of the most telling comments by David Dimbleby during the BBC election coverage: the Greens get 2% of the votes and one seat; the SNP get 3% and thirty-five seats. Fair? Equitable? That’s for you to judge. Time to revisit proportional representation.

Sixth, indications are that Theresa May won’t resign. Not surprising, given that negotiations on Brexit are due to start in less than two weeks, and the Tories wouldn’t be able to find a new leader in time. If she resigned, it would mean the postponement of the negotiations.

However, if I was in her shoes I would go. I would consider the outcome a personal failure. And if she was the CEO of a major company whose profits suddenly and unexpectedly collapsed, she’d be out on her ear in five seconds flat.

Seventh, the person I feel most sorry for is Nick Clegg, who lost his seat. He’s a decent man whose misstep on student fees was punished disproportionately. Theresa May’s U-turns during her tenure as Prime Minister puts Clegg’s “betrayal” into the shade. Good luck to him. He still has a career ahead of him.

It’s going to be an interesting few months. Get ready for another election soon. This parliament will not last until 2022.

The hidden role of cake in British politics

On this Election Day I have nothing further to say about the momentous choices facing the electorate. In fact I’m not sure that what I had to say before was of much significance. A series of long, weary sighs would probably have sufficed. But I do have a question that nobody in politics is likely to want to answer.

Some time ago, as an aggrieved baldie, I wrote a piece about how if you’re male and blessed with a bright shiny pate, you have no chance of being elected to lead just about any country except France. At least – in the case of Britain and the USA – not since the days of President Eisenhower and Sir Alec Douglas-Home (who wasn’t elected anyway, and ended up being unseated by Harold Wilson after a couple of years in power).

Now for another earth-shattering observation masquerading as a question. Why is it that the women who have risen to prominence in our leading political parties have such different body shapes? None of them are bald (as far as I know), but I can’t help noticing that the Tory women are built like hunter-gatherers, as are Theresa May, Justine Greening and Andrea Leadsom. But among the upper echelons of the Labour side there seems to be a preponderance of women built like earth goddesses. I’m thinking of people like Diane Abbott, Emily Thornberry and now the person who has temporarily replaced Abbott as Shadow Home Secretary, Lyn Brown.

This is not a commentary on the attractiveness or otherwise of these women. I’m neither a fat-shamer (how could I be, with my generous 18-stone physique?) nor an ardent admirer of the lean and mean.

But I do wonder why things have changed since yesteryear. The time was when the Tory women – especially those of the shires, who kept the blue flame alive and sailed like battleships into the party’s annual conferences – were often as wide as they were high. And Labour’s senior female politicians were the sort of women you would bet on completing a three-hour marathon: Barbara Castle, Margaret Beckett and more recently Harriet Harman.

One possible answer has its roots in cake.

Since its inception and until fairly recently, the core purpose of Women’s Institutes, those alleged hotbeds of Tory fanaticism, was to keep the home fires burning. Yes, they stuck up for women, but suffragettes they were not. At the risk of appearing unfair, sexist and, heaven forbid, patronising, one of things for which WIs were famous was the quality of their cakes, even in wartime when the normal ingredients were unavailable.

In recent decades, the WI has broadened its scope and appeal. Food still features strongly, but these days you are more likely to find “healthy” recipes on their website than instructions for making a treacle tart.

At the same time as the organisation has moved beyond its traditional appeal, we in Britain have started to celebrate the naughty but nice on a far wider scale than the WI ever achieved. To a large extent, this has been down to the success of The Great British Bake-Off, which is a triumphant celebration of the empty calorie.

Of the presenters and judges, only Mary Berry would be recognisable as a archetypal Tory, even if she’s a frigate rather than a battleship. And the competition winners come from all walks of life, exemplified by the lovely Nadia, who is a Muslim of Bangladeshi descent. Could it be that Bake-Off has convinced a greater number of Labour voters that cake is cool – and I’m not talking about Mr Kipling’s lamentable creations?

To be honest, I have no idea whether the ample proportions of the senior Labour women have anything to do with the national obsession with cake. For all I know, the opposite might be true.

More likely it has to do with wider lifestyle issues, and the fact that these career politicians are struggling to balance family life with the needs of the job. There are no free lunches if you’re in opposition. I suspect that the senior ones eat quickly and on the run, which is not the best way of controlling weight, assuming they actually wish to.

On the other hand, May and her colleagues are pretty busy too. The PM suffers from Type 1 diabetes, so she has to control her calorie intake, but what about the others? Is the difference down to vanity, being comfortable in their skin or otherwise? Is body size more important to censorious, image-conscious Tories than to the more tolerant, inclusive Labourites?

Whatever the reason, it might just be a passing phenomenon. The junior members of Labour’s shadow cabinet more closely resemble their Tory counterparts, and Ruth Davidson, who leads the Conservatives in Scotland, is hardly a stick insect – though to be fair, she does come from the home of the deep-fried Mars bar.

Whether it’s down to the cake, the demands of the job or personal preference, I prefer to see a little diversity of shape among those who are governing us. Or to put it another way, I’m somewhat suspicious of those who – in the words of Shakespeare – have “a lean and hungry look”. Like Cassius, who did for Caesar, they tend to be the assassins.

Political oratory in 2017: the battle between clarity and incontinence

I can’t recall ever feeling more relieved to see the end of an election campaign. As Britain goes to the polls – yet again – I suspect that one politician will be particularly glad it’s over, whatever the result.

Theresa May has seemed so far out of her comfort zone that she must be praying for deliverance – desperate to return to the familiar embrace of her Westminster cloisters.

I’m even beginning to feel sorry for her. It must be deeply humiliating to have presided over such an abject train wreck of a campaign.

But I’m even sorrier for the English language. In the hands of her advisors, she is reduced to terse formulaic utterances as devoid of content as those terms and conditions you hear rattled out during the last ten seconds of a radio ad promoting financial services.

We all know about “strong and stable”, which seemed to be the anthem of the early part of the campaign. But I wonder if anyone else has noticed her new catch-phrase: “I’m clear that…..” As in her latest tweet: “I’m clear: if human rights laws get in the way of tackling extremism and terrorism, we will change these laws to protect the British people.”

The other day, she answered every question in an interview with “I’m clear that…” and proceeded not to answer the question.

She uses the word clear so often that I’m beginning to wonder whether this daughter of the Church has become a secret Scientologist. However, I looked up Scientology on Wikipedia and discovered this definition of the word:

“the attainment of Man’s dreams through the ages of attaining a new and higher state of existence and freedom from the endless cycle of birth, death, birth … Clear is the total erasure of the reactive mind from which stems all the anxieties and problems the individual has.”

That doesn’t sound like Mrs May’s state of mind to me, so the responsibility for her monochromatic delivery must lie with her hired sloganators.

How she must yearn for the gorgeous language she hears every Sunday from the pulpit. Phrases like:

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

A much more eloquent expression than “I’m clear that with a strong and stable government we will do what is necessary to bring these terrorists to justice”.

Another phrase I can’t abide, but which I can’t lay at Mrs May’s door, is “it is right that…..” That one seems to have originated during Tony Blair’s term of office. Every five seconds it seemed that some minister would pop up to claim that this was right and that was right. And I wanted ask “do you mean morally right, right as in the correct exam answer, right because it said so in your manifesto, or simply expedient?”

By tomorrow it will be over. Except that it won’t be over, because in the coming months we’ll be subjected to an endless stream of Brexit-speak. Who will be in power to utter the robo-rhetoric remains to be seen. If it’s Labour, be sure that their sloganators will be just as relentless as May’s.

Years ago I stumbled on to a language called Simplified English. It’s purpose is to ensure that in an international environment you should easily be able to learn a thousand words of English – enough to prevent catastrophic misunderstandings in fields such as aviation. Hence if you look out on to the wing of the aircraft taking you to Majorca, you will see the words “No Step” emblazoned on a part of the wing that is not built to withstand a technician jumping up and down on it like a demented gorilla.

The point about Simplified English is not just that there is a limited vocabulary, but that only authorised words and phrases can be used. Could it be that the sloganators have latched on to this in their inventive choice of words for the likes of Mrs May?

Certainly, monotonous though she may be, she is at least clear, in her gnomic kind of way. Unlike Boris Johnson, who sprays words about with the glee of a two-year-old boy peeing in a paddling pool.

I fear that from now onwards we shall have to endure both styles of discourse: politicians like May being clear and saying nothing, and incontinent orators like Johnson and Donald Trump saying the first things that come into their heads in incoherent lumps of brown, disconnected verbiage.

God protect us from both styles, though at least Trump is contributing to the development of the language with his imaginative new words.

Me, I’m going back to my grandfather’s King James Bible to find some proper English. The old words are the best ones, I reckon.

Message to Corbyn and May: enough is indeed enough – start thinking long term

I have a message for Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn:

Enough is enough. Please stop using policing and national security as a political football. Neither of you have all the answers and you know it.

You, Mrs May, cannot prove that reductions in police numbers since 2010 have had no effect on terrorism or any other form of crime. You, Mr Corbyn, cannot prove that by recruiting more police you will make any impact on the current rate of terror attacks.

You both know that potential attackers have thousands upon thousands of potential targets. You cannot protect them all with a few thousand extra bobbies on the beat, armed or otherwise. You know that when attacks take place, too often the police can only minimise casualties, just as happened thanks to their swift intervention at Borough Market.

You both know that to deploy armed response teams in every town and city in the UK to guarantee intervention within minutes would be prohibitively expensive, and you have no intention of doing so. The public have no reason to expect the arrival of an SAS helicopter to back up the police in Plymouth, Loughborough or Norwich. And you know that sooner or later there will be attacks on softer targets less intensively policed than London and Manchester.

You agree that the number of armed police must increase. Fine. You agree that the security services must hire more people to keep watch on the high number of potential jihadis across the country. Fine again. But what you don’t tell us is that the kind of people MI5 and GCHQ need to hire are not lined up outside job centres ready to sign the dotted line. It takes time to recruit and train them, and until they do, the security services must make do with what they have. The same goes for the police.

In other words, what you don’t tell us – unless the whole issue of extra numbers is a red herring – is that in terms of our ability to anticipate and defend ourselves against attacks, for a while things are likely stay as they are, or possibly get worse, before they get better.

And while we’re on the subject of red herrings, you should not be preaching certainty where it doesn’t exist. When you trot out statistics on crime, and correlate them with police numbers, do you take into account changing demographics, the effect of poverty, wage stagnation, financial insecurity and other factors that affect crime rates?

In your quest for differentiation, you seem to be ignoring the same reality that advertisers have long recognised, which is that “50% of our advertising is a waste of money – the problem is, we don’t know which 50%.”

Can you, Mrs May, tell us in words of one syllable why police numbers have fallen? What services are affected? What has been the impact of reduced numbers? What “smart policing” actually means? And can you, Mr Corbyn, tell us how your proposed recruitment drive will materially improve what is currently deficient, other than that you will increase the number of front-line officers?

Can both of you guarantee that our membership of cross-EU security organisations such as Europol will continue after Brexit? Can you guarantee that the current level of cooperation between security services in the UK and the rest of the EU will continue after Brexit? Of course you can’t, because these matters are subject to the Brexit deal. But at least you can make clear that this is the UK’s intention.

I will not criticise you for failing to elaborate how you propose to minimise online recruitment of jihadis. This is a complex issue which requires the cooperation of the social media and search companies. But you are not pointing out that draconian action can have unintended consequences. Do we wish to become even more of a society under surveillance than we already are?

Mr Corbyn, Mrs May, these are issues that transcend party politics. They call for coherent policies that survive the lifetime of a particular government.

Both your parties have since 1997 been agreed on the benefit of devolving monetary policy to an independent body – the Bank of England. For centuries we have had an independent judiciary that is much admired throughout the world.

Now is the time to create an independent authority, accountable to but not controlled by the government of the day, to build and implement a consistent, coherent, long-term policy on policing and national security.

It should be an authority that recommends changes to legislation, takes opinion from all sections of our society, including our ethnic and religious minorities, and delegates tactical decisions to the Home Office and security services.

Just as the Bank of England has a duty to explain changes in monetary policy, so the new body should be accountable to the public as well as to the government. It should explain policy changes, highlight uncertainties and threats as well as achievements, and interpret statistics in a clear and consistent fashion.

There will always be secrets relating to national security that it cannot disclose, but the rationale for secrecy should be clearly set out.

You will no doubt bristle at the suggestion that the safety and security of your fellow-citizens is too important to be left solely to the discretion of whichever of you forms a government after June 8th. But I suspect that I’m not the only citizen deeply frustrated by the inability of successive governments over the past two decades to build a national consensus on issues that are fundamental to our well-being, and by your personal failure to demonstrate that you are speaking for all of us, rather than in the interests of the political parties you represent.

We need the best brains available, regardless of their political affiliations, to take a long-term view. Because, in case you hadn’t noticed, this is a long-term problem – way longer than the five years that await you.

Enough is indeed enough.

%d bloggers like this: