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Theatre Review: King Charles III at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

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This play isn’t for everyone. If you have no interest in constitutional matters, or are not a serious thinker, it’s probably best that you stay away.

I have long believed that the death of our current Queen will have a far deeper and more profound effect on this country than most people realise. When that sad day comes, as it inevitably will at some point within the next 15 years or so, a lot we currently take for granted will suddenly and abruptly become far less certain.

Nobody under the age of 70 has any meaningful recollection of a time when Elizabeth II wasn’t our Head of State. Our current Queen is kind and dignified, but it is a myth that she has remained carefully neutral on political matters.

For example, she did not speak out when she might have done about the surrender of our independence to the European Union, which badly damaged her own position, turning her from a Sovereign into just another EU citizen.

In 1998, Her Majesty went out of her way to endorse the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement, and helped Mr Blair bamboozle Ulster’s Protestants into voting ‘Yes’ to a gradual and on-going surrender to the IRA godfathers.

In her 2004 Christmas Day broadcast, she proclaimed that ‘diversity is indeed a strength’ effectively endorsing the multiculturalism many oppose and dislike.

In other words, the Queen has always sided with, and aided, the government of the day, even if it damages herself and the Crown. Her reign has been steady but highly predictable.

By contrast, Prince Charles is a man of unfashionable opinions and strong conservative instincts (not Tory, by the way, a party which often does some very un-conservative things). I am sorry that the climate change lobby has got to him, but he has a great deal of value to say when he expresses opinions that embarrass the government on matters such as selection in education, rural affairs, medicine, social cohesion, opportunities for young people and modern architecture.

And it’s this entirely plausible conflict between Charles and the government of the day that provides the pretext of this play. The plot is relatively simple to understand: The Queen has died, and Charles, as King, holds his first weekly audience with a slippery Labour Prime Minister, Tristram Evans, who explains that he will shortly be asking Charles for royal assent for a parliamentary Bill that will severely restrict the freedom of the press.

The King’s respect for our country’s ancient liberties kick in, overriding any personal bitterness he may feel for the treatment he has received in the press over many decades. He refuses to support or sign the Bill, thereby invalidating the unwritten rule that the Monarch will give royal assent to all Bills passed by Parliament. The battle between government (supported by a two-faced Tory Opposition leader) and Monarch develops, yet Charles stands firm. He appears to share my sentiment that Parliament, on all sides, is dominated by career politicians who think and behave like teenage social liberals who know little and care nothing of our national heritage and ancient liberties.

Charles attempts to exercise his right to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections, which triggers protests, especially in London. The Duchess of Cambridge plots a solution, which involves William publicly offering to be a mediator between the government and his father. He announces this at a press conference without his father’s knowledge, and, seeing this as betrayal, Charles reacts angrily but ultimately finds himself forced to abdicate in favour of William (and Kate), who signs the Bill and restores the status quo between king and parliament.

The playwright Mike Bartlett, still only 35, clearly has a deep appreciation of Shakespeare and has borrowed ideas from Macbeth, with the ghost of Diana meddling as she plays Charles and William against each other, while the Duchess of Cambridge is revealed to have a ruthless, cruel and ambitious streak.

Robert Powell, one of Britain’s most versatile and diligent actors, is excellent as Charles, while his appearance has barely changed at all since I watched him alongside Jasper Carrott in The Detectives during my childhood in the 1990s.

Jennifer Bryden is spookily convincing as the Duchess of Cambridge. She looks, sounds and dresses exactly like her, while adding a much darker side to her character.

Another stand-out performance comes from Tim Treloar as the shifty, devious Prime Minister with a comically exaggerated Welsh accent thrown in for some light relief, while Lucy Phelps as Prince Harry’s rebellious, socialist, republican girlfriend Jess Edwards provides an important subplot.

A favourite scene of mine is when Prince Harry gets talking to a kebab vendor, who ponders: “When does Britain get so cut down, that it’s not Britain anymore?” He goes on to list the shrinking of the armed forces, and the demise of the NHS and Post Office as signs that Britain is a shadow of the country it once was.

Director Rupert Goold’s careful casting and attention to detail gave the play authenticity. It gets the balance right between entertainment, fun and wit, while still providing a powerful commentary on the monarch’s role in society and an entirely possible conflict in the not too distant future.

The play left me even more concerned about the future of this country than I was before. Britain is an increasingly divided and mistrusting country, and there are simmering tensions behind the orderly façade of law-abiding civility. The political classes consist of youthful, careerist politicians, PR men, retread Marxists and Europhiles who think the country should be governed by bureaucrats in Brussels.

The political establishment is loathed by millions, with both major political parties kept afloat by State funding and dodgy millionaires, rather than the membership fees and donations of ordinary people. If Charles did get involved in such a conflict for real, he could, with some legitimacy, claim to speak for many of the majority of people who did not vote for the government of the day.

Reform of the political establishment is a much more pressing concern than reform of the Monarchy, the House of Lords and the judiciary.

One of the biggest contrasts in the play is between the reassuringly wise yet outspoken Charles and William and Kate, who are youthful and popular.

William and Kate’s popularity, both in the play and in real life, is worthy of further analysis. Unlike Charles, they have never expressed a controversial view on anything. Like the current Queen, they play it safe and are never likely to criticise, let alone attempt to block, the government of the day.

Their popularity is superficial. Young British people, especially women in their teens and 20s, very often treat celebrity gossip with a religious reverence, and feel they must take a deep interest to fit in with their friends. They are interested in William and Kate in much the same way they are interested in the Beckhams and the Kardashians. It’s the celebrity they want, not their role as a constitutional monarch and defender of ancient liberties, which few know nor care very much about thanks to nearly half a century of inadequate comprehensive education.

If you managed to make it this far into my review, you’re the type of person who absolutely must go and see the play if it tours within reasonable commuting distance. I travelled from my Cardiff home to Cheltenham, and it was worth every penny and every bit of inevitable inconvenience on the creaking rail network.

This play deserves much greater attention, and should be made into a film or a TV serial. It provides a thought-provoking yet entertaining peek into a scenario that may well unfold for real one day quite soon. 10/10

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Written by Marcus Stead

March 6, 2016 at 6:18 am

Preparing the BBC for the Next Decade

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Here is a short analysis of the situation the BBC currently finds itself in. In it, I look at how the BBC can prepare for the next decade and continue to do what it does best under the backdrop of tighter funding and a government that is ideologically opposed to its existence in its current form.

The BBC prepared for the digital revolution remarkably well during the 1990s. For all his faults (and they are many), the then-Director General, John Birt invested both money and resources in creating, building and maintaining the BBC’s online presence as the internet became an integral part of people’s lives in what was, looking back, an astonishingly short period of time.

Praise too for Birt’s successor, Greg Dyke, who pulled a masterstroke with his pivotal role in creating Freeview. As he admitted much later, Freeview flooded the market with ‘dumb’ boxes, with no card slots or encryption technology,  meaning they were incapable of turning the BBC’s channels into ‘pay as you go ‘ services at a later date.  This effectively secured the long-term future of the licence fee.

However, as the multi-channel era took off, the corporation lost focus, and began to battle on too many fronts. The licence fee ‘pot’ was spread too thinly, there were too many new services, and too many attempts to mimic the commercial sector.

A combination of the new licence fee settlement, recently-announced initiatives plus political pressures ahead of next year’s charter renewal means the BBC needs to save a total of £650 million over several years.

This chart is several years out of daBBC spending graphicte but it provides a rough idea of how much the various BBC services cost, but there are a few glaring omissions, such as the £75 million it now provides to fund Welsh language channel S4C.

Yet it provides an adequate guide to how money could be saved without compromising what the BBC does best.

Here are my suggestions:

Axe BBC Three (saving £112.9 million per year). Yes, we know this is becoming an online-only service from January, but there is a strong case for closing it completely. It was created with the aim of attracting the ‘yoof’ audience and being a sort of young, ‘innovative’ creative hub, but there has been a huge amount of trash on the channel like Freaky Eaters and My Manboobs and Mewhich have no place on a public service broadcaster and are clearly attempts to compete with the ITV2 and MTV demographic. Most of BBC Three’s successes have been imports, repeats from other BBC channels and films. If, as its supporters claim, it really has been a successful creative hub for comedy and other ‘talent’ (I see little evidence of it personally), the controllers of BBC One and BBC Two need to become more creative themselves when commissioning new output, especially comedy.

Axe BBC 6 Music (saving £11.7 million per year).  This is, to a large extent, providing a copycat service to those available on commercial digital radio, however, what’s innovative about it could be continued by moving it to off-peak slots on Radio 1 and Radio 2.

Axe BBC Asian Network (saving £13.0 million per year). We are a multiracial society, and that is welcome, but an increasingly large number of people, including our own Prime Minister, have gone on record as saying they do not believe in multiculturalism, which means something quite different. In a stable society at peace with itself, you can have many races, and many faiths, but you can only have one culture, in other words, one set of laws and values upon which we all live. It therefore follows that it is unwise to spend licence fee money on a service that encourages Asian people who have made Britain their home to look backwards towards the place from which they came, rather than towards their future here with us. It’s the role of a public service broadcaster to help them to integrate and adapt, rather than to segregate. Besides, from what I’ve heard of the Asian Network, it appears to be a largely Pakistani and Bangladeshi service, rather than a truly Asian one. Plus it’s only available on FM in a small part of Britain.

Axe the BBC News Channel (saving £57.5 million per year). This was a well-intentioned idea of John Birt’s when it was launched in 1997, but technology has moved on rapidly in the years since, as is the way we consume news. In 1997, the internet was still in its infancy and smartphones were some years away. Today,the vast majority of people have the internet in their homes and an ever-increasing majority have smartphones. The concept of 24 hour news channels is far from obsolete, but with the BBC providing news across a plethora of platforms, the BBC News Channel is an unnecessary luxury in this day and age.

In addition, I propose major reforms to the BBC’s local radio network (current budget approximately £146.5 million per year). 

At its best, BBC local radio provides an excellent public service for the areas it serves, while news and sports coverage has largely disappeared from many commercial stations during the last 15 years.

At its worst, BBC local radio provides endless hours of stale, formulaic programming, typically phone-ins about dog poo before Granny Adams pops in to the studio to tell us about her prize-winning parsnips.

Another interesting issue is guests. If, for example, an author has a new book they want to promote, they will often be booked to do a number of interviews on BBC local stations across the country. They will be asked to attend the nearest BBC studio to where they live, and will, over the course of a few hours, do a series of near-identical interviews to different BBC local stations. This strikes me as expensive and unnecessary.

I would change this, so that there are eight hours of truly local public service broadcasting throughout the day, but during other periods (lighter, entertainment-based programmes), one programme would be networked on all 39 BBC local stations in England, as well as BBC Radio Wales, Scotland and Ulster, with short news and travel bulletins still remaining local throughout the day.

A typical weekday schedule on BBC local stations would look something like this.

6:00am Breakfast (local) – News, sport, travel, weather and entertainment for your area. A lighter, localised version of the Today programme.

9:00am Simon Bates with the Golden Hour (networked from Plymouth) – Bates already presents the breakfast show on BBC Radio Devon, which can continue, and he follows this with the Golden Hour, which could be networked to the whole country.

10:00am Jason Mohammad (networked from Cardiff) – Music, chat, competitions and special guests.

12:00pm The Lunchtime Phone-In (local) – Political figures from your area answer your questions. In the second hour, experts from law, medicine, cookery, gardening etc take your calls.

2:00pm Martin Kelner (networked from Leeds) Two hours of entertainment, chat and music.

4:00pm Drivetime (local)  News, sport, travel, weather and entertainment for your area. A localised version of the 5 Live Drive programme.

6:00pm Sport (local) – Sports news and discussion for your area.

7:00pm Mark Forrest (networked) – An improved, livelier version of what’s already in the slot. There will remain local opt-outs for live sports commentaries.

10:00pm Allan Beswick (networked from Manchester) – The king of late-night phone-in radio in the North West during the 1980s returned to his old timeslot earlier this year, and this would be networked to the entire country.

1:00am As Radio 5 Live

This, I believe, strikes a solid balance between protecting, even improving what BBC local radio does best, while removing the bland, the formulaic, and the duplication of services. Across 42 stations, the savings would be considerable.

Back to television: There are rumours that the BBC Four TV channel is under threat. With a budget of £67.8 million per year, it’s a bargain, and is a superb example of what the BBC does best. It is, without doubt, genuine public service broadcasting. It MUST be protected at all costs. It is distinctive, and is not a gap that could be easily filled by the commercial sector if it closed.

One final note: The BBC needs to stop competing with the commercial sector when it comes to populist, formulaic programming. By all means innovate and create its own popular formats (Strictly Come Dancing is an example of something the BBC created that became mainstream and popular) but there is no case for the BBC spending £22 million to buy the rights to the format of The Voice. That is a clear abuse and waste of licence fee payers’ money. This sort of thing belongs on the commercial sector.

These proposals would save the BBC £280 million per year, at a conservative estimate, and I haven’t even touched on the way the BBC could save money internally, with a simplified, smaller management structure and more frugal use of resources.

These are tough, radical proposals, but if carried through, would reinforce the BBC’s commitment to public service broadcasting, while also continuing to inform, educate and entertain.

Thoughts welcome……………

Written by Marcus Stead

September 8, 2015 at 6:23 pm

Posted in Comment, Opinion, Review

Twitter Trolls, and How to Deal With Them

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IT’S an unfortunate fact of modern life that everybody in the public eye will, at some point, be subject to abuse on social media.

And I do mean everybody. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an A list movie star, a member of parliament, a parish councillor or a journalist on a local newspaper,  if you are in any way known to the wider public, sooner or later abuse will come your way.

Twitter is by far the worst platform for abuse. It differs from Facebook in that you are not communicating with friends and acquaintances, but with the wider world, complete strangers who know little or nothing about you, your life, your work and your beliefs. What’s more, you have a 140 character limit in which to make your point.

On Twitter, even those who are in no way in the public eye are subject to abuse. Having a few strong opinions is enough for absolutely anyone to be abused, or ‘trolled’ as it’s now known.

I have long since become accustomed to banal attacks on Twitter. Sometimes people have read my work and dislike it. Sometimes petty jealousies from former colleagues resurface. On other occasions, my simply criticising the content of a television programme can lead from a barrage of abuse.

It is usually at its worst when Question Time is broadcast on Thursday evenings. If, as David Dimbleby suggests we do each week, and tweet with ‘#bbcqt’ at the end, you can be sure that no matter what you tweet, you will be subjected to some deeply unpleasant attacks. A few typical examples of how a comment translates in the minds of your attackers:

Uncontrolled mass immigration is bad for this country = You are a racist who hates immigrants.

Britain would be better off outside the European Union = You are a racist and a xenophobe.

Marriage should be between a man and a woman = You are a homophobe, a Nazi and hate all gays.

The Tories are right to make cuts to public spending to bring the deficit under control and to encourage the unemployed to find work = You hate unemployed and disabled people. You’re ‘Tory scum’.

The most aggressive mob by far are what I call ‘liberal bigots’, a group of people who pride on calling themselves ‘tolerant’, but don’t really mean it. What they actually mean is that they are tolerant of you only if you share their views: Pro-EU, pro-mass immigration, pro-multiculturalism, anti-austerity, anti-Tory, pro-gay marriage, pro-Islamic, pro-Palestinian, pro-Russell Brand.

They suffer from ‘liberal superiority complex’, namely that they think they’re better than you because they are liberals, not because there is any strength to their arguments. The fact they are liberals is enough. Anyone with views different from their own is fair game for abuse.

One of Twitter’s main weaknesses is the 140 character limit, which does not allow for thoughtful, well-developed arguments, and is instead a friend to the soundbite and the ‘Smart Alec’ comment.

It’s generally pointless trying to debate with such people under these conditions, but sometimes I give it a go.

Around a year ago, I appeared on a Channel 4 programme called ‘The Complainers’. On the day of broadcast, all contributors received an email from the production company advising us of how to deal with abuse on social media, which broadly, and rightly said, don’t engage in debate with abusive people and block them immediately.

For those of you who didn’t see it, the programme itself took quite a light-hearted tone. During the short few minutes in which I featured, I was seen walking around my estate reporting broken street lights, vandalism and dog fouling to my local council using the FixMyStreet app (I’d recommend it, by the way).

The Twitter response was mostly positive – most said things like ‘good on you’ and ‘that’s interesting – I’ll download the app’ and there were a number of humorous remarks that were in good taste. In the weeks that followed, I was approached a few times while out in public, and at the two weddings I attended in the months that followed I got talking to people who’d seen the programme. In real life, nobody was anything other than pleasant and good-humoured.

Inevitably, there were about six very aggressive people on Twitter. All, bar one, were people I’d never heard of, and were swiftly blocked.

The exception was Chris Jameson, a middle-aged ‘box office supervisor’ of a theatre in Harrogate, who had hurled a series of tedious insults at me in the previous 12 months, dating back to when I had commented, during an episode of Educating Yorkshire, that the headteacher, Mr Mitchell, had not behaved appropriately by putting his feet on his office desk and repeatedly addressing a pupil as ‘mate’ as he reprimanded him.

Jameson had drifted in and out of my Twitter feed in the period since, often responding to points that weren’t made. He also developed a habit of taking screenshots of my feed and making comments of his own. It became quite an obsession. All quite sad really….

I’d largely forgotten about/ignored Jameson until last weekend, when, late on Saturday evening, I experienced an instance of social media abuse far worse than anything I’d gone through before. I’ve come to expect a little abuse every time I give a radio interview (usually about sport) but I hadn’t done so on Saturday. This was on a totally different level.

I had never even heard of Victoria Chipp until late on Saturday night. She works for the recruitment consultants, Badenoch VChippblogpic1and Clark in London, but is originally from Harrogate, perhaps coincidentallyVChipp blog pic 2 the same town as Jameson, perhaps not. She is also a ‘rugby groupie’ and raises money for rugby union charities in her spare time.

I can only assume she had been drinking when she began ‘debating’ the EU referendum with me late on Saturday evening. The picture on the left is how the discussion began.

It declined in quality as the discussion went on, and the caption on the right shows how we parted. The rest of the discussion consists of her resorting to cheap, clichéd insults, often in semi-articulate English, often replying to points that weren’t made. She preferred to think of me as a caricatured ‘xenophobe’, immigrant-hating eurosceptic, when in reality I had not posted anything that could lead any logical person to reach that conclusion.

On Sunday morning, I received further correspondence from her friend, Katy Bowling, who had the nerve to accuse me of being ‘childish’ with my responses to the foul-mouthed Miss Chipp. Earlier on Sunday morning, Bowling had annoyed England rugby international James Haskell on Twitter (he went on to compare Bowling to ‘Ronnie Corbett in drag’ before blocking her).

I’ve since received self-pitying emails from Bowling, who insists she hadn’t been drinking, but was suffering from food poisoning at the time. She also describes Chipp as an ‘inspirational woman’. I kid you not!

VChipp blog pic 4

Back to Sunday. This was getting tedious. Chipp had accused me of ‘asking for her phone number’ the previous evening. This was an outright lie. Here is the screenshot of what I actually said to her. As you can see, I offered to give her my phone number so we could continue this discussion in a (hopefully) more adult way outside the confines of Twitter. It takes a far braver person to debate an issue over the phone than to hurl drunken insults from behind their keyboard. As you can see from the screenshot, I did not ask for her phone number, which, in any case, is easily obtainable on at least one rugby fundraising website!

VChipp blog pic 5

As the day wore on and their dreary, foul-mouthed ramblings continued, she was joined by her friend, the opera singer Ben Sweeney (no, I’ve never heard of him either). A little later on, Chris Jameson decided to join in, with his usual lack of wit:

VChipp blog pic 6

If Jameson had a fraction of the intelligence he thinks he has, he could have looked up my CV online with relative ease and discovered that by the time I was Chipp’s age (25), I’d already had three books published, and that I’ve worked in newspapers, magazines, radio and online, and have work published across all platforms on a frequent basis. There again, maybe he wasn’t trying to be funny and he really is a ‘bodybuilder’, albeit one with a muscle wasting disease…..

He also decided to post this feature in my local paper about my appearance on The Complainers. He’s put the word ‘journalist’ in inverted commas, as though me being in this feature somehow disqualifies me from being a journalist.

VChipp blog pic 8

This weirdo’s fascination with me continued. He went on:

VChipp blog pic 10

Well, as anyone who saw The Complainers will know, I don’t ‘spend my evenings’ ‘pointing at bags of dog dirt and broken street lights’. As the programme made clear, I simply report such things to the council using an app when I’m out and about. All pretty mundane stuff compared to his peculiar Twitter stalking……

Chipp herself didn’t get any better as Sunday dragged on:

VChipp blog pic 11

Chipp clearly isn’t all that bright. There is no such thing as a ‘wrong fact’. It’s an oxymoron. In the space of a day, she had called me a ‘chav’, a ‘wanker’ and a ‘prick’ on Twitter. I hadn’t resorted to any such language, yet she was claiming to be the victim of a campaign of abuse by me, without a shred of evidence to back it up. There’s more. A LOT more. But it’s too dreary to post on here.

I got bored with this tirade of verbal diarrhoea from Chipp and her keyboard warrior friends and blocked the lot of them. Life is too short to waste too much time on people like that.

One final twist to this episode. Some months ago, a person I’d never heard of called Matthew Bullman asked to become my friend on Facebook, saying he was a fan of my work. I don’t normally allow people unknown to me to become a Facebook ‘friend’, but he’d been complimentary so I made an exception.

Over the course of a few months, he had occasionally joined in Facebook discussions but had generally said very little. On Sunday, he followed me on Twitter, having previously been largely inactive. As you can see from this screenshot, on Sunday he was supportive of me and sent me a sympathetic message (see the bottom of the shot and work your way up)

By Monday evening, he had blocked me from both Facebook and Twitter, and had joined Jameson and Chipp:

VChipp blog pic 13

There’s just one problem with what Bullman says about me – none of it is true! For a start, I’ve never, ever fixed a street light in my life, let alone done it for a living. At no point in either The Complainers or in the Wales Online feature was such a claim made.

Secondly, I don’t often use the terms ‘left wing’ or ‘right wing’ in my work, or indeed in conversation. There are two reasons for that:

1. I’ve never heard definitions of either term I’m happy with.

2. Generally speaking, both are used as terms of abuse, as Orwell pointed out more than  60 years ago.

All these people are now blocked and are out of my life. Any further abuse by them will be reported to Twitter directly, or, if necessary, the police.

I’ll probably never know for sure what motivates these people. At a guess, Chris Jameson is disappointed with the way his life has panned out and/or hates the fact I outwitted him in our original Twitter argument. For a man who claims not to like me, he spends a great deal of time discussing me on Twitter.

What motivates Victoria Chipp? Evidently, she is not as clever as she thinks she is. I suspect she is just an attention-seeker.

As James Haskell pointed out when he was irked by her friend Katy Bowling, maybe, deep down, they hate themselves and resort to attacking others to make themselves feel better. I never had Haskell down as a philosopher before Sunday but he may well be onto something with this. That might well explain Jameson’s lengthy periods of attack against me.

To end as we began, I am certainly not alone with this. More than once, a well-known sports star has handed me their phone to let me see the daily tirade of abuse they endure on Twitter. I’m amazed so many of them continue to use it!

One friend of mine, an inoffensive and affable radio broadcaster, told me he gets a barrage of abuse at least once a week, simply for expressing his opinion on a sporting fixture or TV programme during his show.

I don’t want to waste too much more of my time on these sort of saddos, so am going to take a new approach, and I’d advise all readers of this blog to do the same:

At its best, Twitter can be a fun, engaging place, to monitor opinion, share humorous remarks, and to help and inform people. At its worst, it can be a vehicle for anonymous, vile ‘trolling’. Not every tweet deserves a reply. If a person wants to make a stupid comment, be rude, and think they’ve won an argument against you, let them think it. It’s not your concern. Your time is too precious to waste trying to educate and persuade people who have no intention of engaging in civilised discussion.

Focus your time and energy on those who deserve it.

Written by Marcus Stead

June 9, 2015 at 6:13 am

Posted in Comment, Opinion, Review

30 Years On: An Honest Assessment of the Miners’ Strike

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By MARCUS STEAD

It’s 30 years since the end of the 1984/85 miners’ strike, and in the coalfield of South Wales, a version of events has gone down in folklore that bears little resemblance to the facts.

The conventional wisdom dictates that Margaret Thatcher had some kind of mad vendetta against the mining communities in general, and that her policies are somehow to blame for everything that’s gone wrong in these communities in the years since.

This crude, caricatured thinking conveniently ignores numerous inconvenient truths, such as that Harold Wilson’s government closed far more coal mines than Thatcher ever did (Wilson closed 260 to Thatcher’s 154).

The ‘blame Thatcher every time it rains’ rhetoric also ignores the reality that between 1997 and 2010, the party most former miners loyally support, Labour, had an unbroken period of government (on-going if we include the Welsh Government), and did little to seriously improve these communities or the lives of ex-miners and their families.

As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. It’s easier and more comfortable to run with the theory than to face up to the reality that the miners themselves need to shoulder much of the blame for letting themselves be manipulated by National Union of Mineworkers president Arthur Scargill’s vanity, hypocrisy and madcap leadership.
On this sad anniversary, it’s time for a reassessment. Nelson Mandela believed in truth and reconciliation as a means of healing a society.

First must come truth, for without it those 30-year-old wounds cannot heal. It’s not morally right to continue to indoctrinate the young with the ‘Thatcher’s evil’ version of events, nor is it right for the miners themselves to continue to present Scargill as a hero, for it was his recklessness that led to ultimate defeat and the eventual destruction of the mining industry.

Let’s start at the beginning: The coal mining industry of the early 1980s required enormous government subsidies. In 1982/83, the stated operating loss per tonne was £3.05 (around £10.20 in today’s money), and international market prices for coal were about 25% cheaper.

The industry itself was losing around £1.5 million per day (around £4.6 million by today’s figures), making it an intolerable and unsustainable burden on the taxpayer.

Several years before the strike, the Thatcher government made it clear that to return to profitability, the mining industry would need to modernise, invest in mechanisation, and yes, there would inevitably be subsequent job cuts.

The pretext of the strike was a very modest proposal by Ian MacGregor, head of the National Coal Board, to close, over a period of time, just 20 of Britain’s 170 coal mines with the loss of 20,000 jobs, spread across northern England, Scotland and Wales, undoubtedly difficult for those communities affected, but peanuts compared with what happened in the years immediately after the strike.

Three years earlier, the Thatcher government backed down from plans to close 23 pits after Yorkshire NUM members passed a resolution to strike if any pit was threatened with closure for reasons other than exhaustion or geological difficulties.

Following MacGregor’s announcement, Scargill made an unsubstantiated allegation that the government had a long-term strategy to close 70 pits.

There was absolutely no room for manoeuvre with Scargill. Not a single job loss, whether as a result of pit closure or modernisation in working practises would have been acceptable to him. His demands were to intensify to an absurd degree later on.

Arthur Scargill in recent years.

Arthur Scargill in recent years.

Crucially, Scargill, a man of infinite vanity, never called a full, national ballot, which would have strengthened his moral case enormously, and would become a legal requirement when the Trade Union Act 1984 came into law shortly after the strike began.

Upon the enforcement of the Act, striking miners were not entitled to state benefits due to the lack of a national ballot, and Scargill shamefully decided he would rather force miners, their wives and their children to rely on handouts and charity for food and clothing rather than call a ballot and ensure they had the safety net of state benefits to keep them in an acceptable standard of living for the strike’s duration.

Each mine had an individual ballot, with 18 of the 28 pits in Wales voting against strike action. The way ballots were held in pits that voted in favour was also highly dubious, with Betws and others holding a show of hands rather than a secret ballot.

In other words, miners may well have felt intimidated into voting in favour of action, even if they knew it would be self-defeating. Indeed, that year’s Trade Union Act, soon to be enforced, made secret ballots a compulsory precursor to strike action.

Intimidation was the main method used by NUM militants of spreading the strike across the many South Wales pits that didn’t vote for it and didn’t want it, with flying pickets appearing at mines as men arrived for work. This was confrontational, anti-democratic and bullying behaviour from Scargill and his apparatchiks.

Scargill’s other gross miscalculation was to begin the strike in the spring, when demand for coal had peaked. Unknown to most at the time, the Thatcher government was well and truly ready for the strike.

It had stockpiled enough coal to fulfil the country’s energy needs well into the future, thus ensuring the NUM could not hold her government to ransom the way they did with Heath, Callaghan, and indeed Thatcher herself in the near-strike of 1981.

Striking miners protest in London.

Striking miners protest in London.

By the summer of 1984, Scargill’s demands had intensified and become even more ludicrous. Preventing pit closures was no longer enough. He now also demanded, amongst other things: A four-day working week; a substantial increase in wages; retirement age brought down to 55; consolidation of the incentive bonus scheme, development of 40 million tonnes of new capacity; new investment to expand all existing pits.

There were other demands, too, but these are the ones that stand out as the barmiest. There was no way the Thatcher government could possibly give in to them.

Scargill himself was now a regular fixture not just on the heavy political TV programmes, but also on light entertainment chat shows, where he made no secret of the fact he was a Marxist who wanted to bring down the democratically-elected Thatcher government.

This was now a straightforward battle between parliamentary democracy and mob rule led by a union baron who didn’t even legitimise his own strike with a full, secret ballot. We should all be glad that parliamentary democracy won, including the miners who lost their jobs.

As time went by, a minority of miners in South Wales returned to work, believing the strike to be futile and knowing it wasn’t in the best interests of themselves, their families, or the long-term future of the industry. They were subjected to cruel taunts of ‘scabs’ by their colleagues, for abandoning a strike that was only ever going to end one way.

It wasn’t just name-calling. Many strike-breaking miners had their properties vandalised, faced physical violence, and were shunned by former colleagues when the strike eventually ended.

One other highly irritating aspect of the strike’s legacy is the way people in mining communities try to romanticise and sentimentalise it, by talking about the sense of community, the togetherness, and of fighting for principles.

The reality was far less happy. The lack of money coming into their homes meant miners were reliant on union reserves for food, as well as parcels from Paris, Amsterdam and even Russia.

Striking miners depended on money gathered from charity collections in town centres to pay their household bills, with public sympathy gradually eroding as the months rolled by as the futility of the strike became apparent, all while Scargill lived a life of luxury cars and properties paid for by his members.

Strains were put on marriages, long-standing friendships were tested, and there were several violent incidents where innocent people tragically lost their lives.

Due to the sheer length of the strike, many pits permanently lost their customers, at a time of extensive competition in world coal markets as well as a concerted move towards oil and gas power production.

There was to be no way back. The NCB accelerated the closure of pits on economic grounds, resulting on a far greater loss of jobs over a far shorter period of time.

The knock-on effect of widespread pit closures was massive. In many valley towns, the pit was the main employer. It was going to be extremely difficult to encourage new jobs to the affected areas to fill the gaps.

Long-term unemployment became a very real problem. Areas that were known for their Protestant work ethic, close families and tight-knit communities began a downward spiral into crime, poverty, drugs and welfare dependency.

Of course this is something to be regretted, but former miners owe it to themselves, and to future generations, to acknowledge that were it not for Scargill’s gross mishandling of the conflict, the speed and scale of pit closures would have been far less severe, as indeed would the social impact that followed.

Written by Marcus Stead

March 3, 2015 at 3:16 pm

A Christmas Reflection

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Years ago, I attended a church where every Christmas morning the priest went through a routine at Mass that has stayed with me ever since.

It was the same every single year. He would begin his sermon by inviting all the children to sit in a semi-circle at the front. Then he would ask them what presents they’d received for Christmas. Excited hands shot up and the answers were much as you’d expect: games consoles, footballs, dolls houses and so on.

Next he would ask them what presents they had last Christmas. No excited hands shot up this time. A small number, maybe 10% of those assembled, cautiously raised their hands and could just about answer.

Then he would ask them what they received two Christmases ago. Not one hand went up. Nobody had a clue. Then he would turn to the adults and ask them the same question. In a congregation of around 300 people, not one individual could remember.

Now it’s your turn. What presents did YOU receive two Christmases ago? Can you really remember what you got last Christmas? There may be the occasional reader of this blog who received an engagement ring from their partner from the top of the Empire State Building, but for the most part it’s long forgotten.

This year, a great deal of media attention has been drawn to the phenomena of ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Manic Monday’. I first became aware of the former around a decade ago from America, where apparently it crept in during the late 1990s, but until now was unfamiliar with it in a British context. I can honestly say I was completely unaware of ‘Manic Monday’ in any sense until this year.

Those crazed scenes of stampedes of people  charging through supermarket doors before they’ve had a chance to open properly and those arguments between customers over who put their hand on the last cut price 42” LED TV first have become extremely ugly, unhealthy aspects of Christmas.

Whether you’re a child or an adult, ask yourself how much the presents will matter to you next month, let alone by next Christmas. In reality, people are sucked in by cleverly-pitched marketing campaigns and alliterative tabloid headlines. They are told that aspiring to own that TV or that computer game will make them happy and their life complete.

The truth is that excessive consumerism offers us no such thing. The more you have, the more you want. What you currently have will become the norm, and you will want more. This leads to neither happiness nor contentment long-term. In fact, the novelty will wear off in days or weeks, months at the absolute most.

Think back to your old childhood Christmases. Most people, including those youngish like myself, can remember a time before Black Friday and Manic Monday, when there was very little hype until well into December, and shops weren’t afraid of putting up Nativity scenes in their windows – the official excuse for not doing it is that it’ll offend people of other faiths. The reality is that it’s generally the aggressive secularists and radical leftists who dislike it the most.

Can you remember many (or even any) of your presents from those Christmases? Probably not. What you are more likely to remember, especially if you were fortunate enough to have a happy childhood, are family gatherings, nice meals, sitting in front of a warm fire watching TV or playing games together.

If you consider yourself a Christian, you’ll want to remind yourself every year of the Christmas story – of the baby Jesus born in a stable to give hope to a troubled world. But even if you’re not, it’s time to go back to basics, to a Christmas of families, long days spent with people who won’t be around forever, children appreciating the magic of the season.

These are the things you’ll cherish in your hearts in years to come. The other stuff, the forced jollity, the Black Fridays, the Manic Mondays, the big-screen TVs and games consoles that seemed so important at the time will all be long forgotten.

A happy and joyous Christmas to you all.

Written by Marcus Stead

December 25, 2014 at 3:42 am

Qualified Praise for George Osborne – The True State of Britain’s Economy

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It’s true to say there are causes for optimism with regards to the British economy at the moment – unemployment is falling, consumer confidence is rising and the private sector is expanding. But this ‘recovery’ is fragile, and there is still a very long way to go before the nation’s balance sheet is back on a stable footing.

Gordon Brown grossly mismanaged the British economy

Gordon Brown grossly mismanaged the British economy

Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves how we got into this mess, and what the true causes were. Gordon Brown’s track record as Chancellor was largely to blame for the scale and severity of the recession. During his decade as Chancellor, he sold off much of Britain’s gold reserves when it was at the bottom of its economic cycle, he raided the private pension funds of working people who had saved and done the right thing by preparing for their old age, he introduced 157 new taxes, he borrowed more money than all previous British governments in history put together, and he paid for public sector ‘investment’ by private finance initiatives, a form of borrowing that was to land future governments with hefty bills that would need to be paid years after he was off the political scene.

Brown was fortunate that the chickens didn’t come home to roost a lot sooner than they did. He was lucky in that the global economy was largely stable for much of his tenure as Chancellor, and currencies weren’t as affected as they might have been by instability on Japan or the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

When the rain eventually came, there was nothing in reserves to help the country battle through a few hard years. Every responsible individual, and every responsible family puts some money to one side in case they lose their job or are unable to work due to circumstance. Mr Brown did not do the same with the nation’s money.

The banking crisis has its origins in legislation President Clinton brought in during the 1990s that effectively removed the boundaries between the day-to-day banking most of us use and the high-risk casino banking very few of us will ever encounter. The USA sneezed, and the world caught a cold, though it is worth remembering that during its 13 years in power, New Labour did absolutely nothing to stop ordinary people being exposed to the consequences of casino banking, nor did it do anything to prevent high street banks from merging, which led to them becoming too big and resulted in a lack of competition.

Then we have the elephant in the room, the big issue that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough – personal debt.

UK personal debt has doubled since the turn of the millennium. Our cultural attitudes need looking at if we are to address this problem. In Germany, the word for ‘debt’ is the same as the word for ‘guilt’. That, combined with looming memories from the financial ruin of the Weimar Republic in the early 1930s means that the German people have a completely different, and much healthier attitude to debt.

The German attitude to household debt is very different to Britain's

The German attitude to household debt is very different to Britain’s

Most Germans pay for their weekly shopping in cash. Credit cards are rare. Most people, even middle class professionals, rent, rather than own their homes. We, as a country, need to learn lessons from this. In many cases, the debt burden of having a mortgage is too great, and people would be better off renting, which allows people to move house easily and at short notice as their jobs and personal circumstances change. You are only ‘throwing money away’ by renting if property prices rise indefinitely, if you are willing to gamble on what state your life will be in 25 years from the start date, and if you are willing to spend large sums on maintaining the property.

Then there is the issue of consumer debt. This will require a massive cultural shift. I hate consumer debt with a passion. I cannot imagine, at any time, or under any circumstance, taking out a loan or credit agreement to pay for a car, a new sofa, or a holiday. If I cannot afford something, I go without. I choose not to run a car because I wouldn’t use it anywhere near enough to justify the cost. It’s 10 years to the week exactly since I returned from my most recent foreign holiday (I have been abroad much more recently for work purposes). ‘Keeping up with the Jones’s’ is not one of my hobbies. Many people subtly try to outdo their friends by buying flash cars, building conservatories and holding fancy wedding days. They don’t fool me. I’m not impressed with any of that, because whenever I see it, my first question is: How did they pay for it?

This combination of factors means that George Osborne’s task wasn’t and isn’t one to be admired. Since he became Chancellor in 2010, his track record has been mixed. He deserves credit for raising the Personal Allowance, which has removed millions of low earners and part-time workers from income tax completely. He can take credit for the fall in unemployment and for creating the conditions that have allowed the private sector to grow.

The ‘tax cut for millionaires’ has been nothing of the sort – they’re actually paying more tax than before, and besides, Mr Osborne understands full well that raising taxes for the richest only leads to them taking their money, and their businesses, to other countries with a more competitive rate. That was a mistake Labour made during the 1970s and it would be even more disastrous in today’s globalised economy.

In today’s papers, we read that Mr Osborne is planning to merge income tax and National Insurance if the Conservatives win next year’s general election. It’s about time too – it’s a total myth that there is a separate pot of money set aside to help individuals in times of need, and it would be far more honest, and ultimately far more efficient, to make the two a single tax.

Yet Mr Osborne’s track record is far from perfect. Perhaps his biggest piece of good fortune is that most people don’t know the difference between the terms ‘debt’ and ‘deficit’. Understanding this point is crucial. ‘Debt’ refers to money owed historically, whereas ‘deficit’ refers to the amount the government borrows every year. Mr Osborne has indeed cut the ‘deficit’, but the ‘debt’ itself is still piling up year on year.

Government borrowing, namely the ‘deficit’ was £107.7 billion in 2013-14, down from £115.1 billion the previous year. That means that Mr Osborne has made up for an income tax shortfall to the tune of £107.7 billion this year by borrowing. There are two ways this figure can be reduced: 1. By increasing the amount of money the government receives from taxation. 2. By spending less.

Option one can be achieved by getting more people into work and paying tax, which, to his credit, he has helped to make happen. It’s important not to fall for the myth that the government could receive more tax revenue by raising taxes – this would lead to people having less money to spend on products and services, and therefore fewer jobs would be created, whilst business is lost to overseas markets.

Option two means accepting the cuts, making the public sector work more efficiently, and accepting that the government should do less, which means individuals and families would have to take far more personal responsibility for their lives.

Only once the deficit drops to zero, and the government receives more tax revenue than it spends (a surplus), can it start paying down the debt. And boy, does that mountain of debt need to be dealt with. It currently stands at around £1.3 TRILLION, but when we add in all government liabilities such as state and public sector pensions, the true figure is closer to £4.8 TRILLION. That works out at roughly £78,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. The interest alone currently amounts to £1 billion per week.

In conclusion, we are going to have to accept the ongoing cuts. There are numerous examples, especially among Labour-run councils in places like Sheffield, of pet projects continuing and the number of well-paid consultants increasing while frontline facilities like libraries and leisure centres are closing. The electorate needs to be vigilant in ensuring that their taxes are spent wisely, and that their council is run for the benefit of local people, rather than the people who work for it.

We should also fully acknowledge Labour’s role in creating the economic crisis. Gordon Brown’s closest adviser while he was playing hard and fast with the nation’s finances was Ed Balls, the current Shadow Chancellor.

There appears to be an inbuilt belief among the Labour hierarchy that all problems can be solved by throwing money at them, or by expanding the role of the state. Indeed, the public sector expanded by more than one million workers between 1997 and 2010. Good, efficient management and increasing productivity doesn’t seem to register with them. Of course, the fact that public sector union votes were the key to getting Ed Miliband elected as Labour leader, and that union donations are keeping the party afloat probably clouds their judgement somewhat. As far as Labour is concerned, all public sector cuts are bad and the current government is only making them to be nasty. They haven’t come close to grasping that these are necessary measures to clear up their mess.

The problems are many, and it’ll be a good while yet before the nation’s finances are back on an even footing. We are being kept afloat at present by the availability of cheap credit, which won’t last forever, so carrying on as we were before is not an option.

No matter how bad things are, and however much we may dislike the cuts, letting Labour back into office would lead to things being far, far worse.

Gordon Brown ruined this country’s economy. Don’t let his closest adviser do the same again.

 

Written by Marcus Stead

July 1, 2014 at 7:17 pm

Beggars Can’t Be Choosers – Britain’s Coming Energy Crisis

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FOREIGN policy is, by definition, messy. To be too ethical and moral would result in no oil imports from the Middle East, no gas imports from Russia, and no cheap clothes and electronics from China, not to mention the economic investment they’re giving this country. Yet if we have an ‘anything goes’ policy, we are accused of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses and aiding terrorism.

It’s a fine line all world leaders need to tread, and the correct answer is not always obvious. President Obama is cautious in relation to the unfolding chaos in Iraq. He’s a second term President, so doesn’t need to worry about re-election, but at the same time, he knows he leads a country weary of the human and economic cost of military conflict, and, for the time being at least, he has decided against sending the troops in to fight ISIS.

Depending on who you believe, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was about overthrowing Saddam Hussein, an evil dictator who apparently had weapons of mass destruction, or it was about American oil interests in the Middle East.

Fracking in North Dakota

Fracking in North Dakota

Oil may or may not have been the agenda, but there is no escaping the importance of oil supplies to the Western world. Or, at least, that used to be the case. By the time President Obama leaves office in early 2017, US oil imports from the Middle East will have reduced to almost nothing as it moves towards oil self-sufficiency, and it already imports absolutely no gas from the region. From the USA’s point of view, energy dependence is becoming less and less of an issue all the time. The two major factors behind it are shale gas ‘fracking’ in the US itself, and oil drilling from within its own borders. If foreign policy is a priority of Obama’s at all, his primary interest is now the Pacific.

In other words, the only questions Obama needs to ask in relation to Iraq and ISIS are political rather than economic. That’s not to say these questions aren’t important. If ISIS were to conquer a large part of Iraq and establish a Taleban-like terror state, that would have serious consequences for the security of the wider region and indeed of the United States itself. Yet at the same time, sending the troops in would result in the bodybags coming home, and would largely scupper the economic recovery. Send the troops in, and this will be inevitable; stay out, and he risks going down in history as the President who sat back and did nothing while Iraq fell into the hands of terrorists.

These are the thoughts that will be going through the minds of Obama and his administration. For the time being at least, Obama has decided that his war-weary nation doesn’t need another conflict, either in terms of economics nor in human life.  Oil doesn’t come into it. This is a luxury Obama has due to the energy independence his country will soon enjoy. It’s a very different story here in Britain.

Ours is a country sleepwalking into an energy crisis. Anyone under the age of about 45 will have no meaningful recollection of the regular power cuts of the early 1970s when Edward Heath’s government had to deal with the coal strike, the Arab oil crisis and the consequences of a three-day week.

Those over 45 (and I am still many years away from it) will have no idea what it’s like to have to endure regular power cuts. It’s assumed that with the flicks of switches and the pressing of buttons, all the devices in our homes will work. Actually, regular power cuts now would be far more damaging to our lives than in the early 1970s. Manual typewriters and shop tills have been replaced by electronic versions. Coal fires have been replaced by gas or electric alternatives. Shopping by candlelight before coming home to spend an evening talking and singing around a coal fire with your family would not be possible. The shops would be forced to close and the evenings would be spent shivering in darkness, while the most serious consequences would inevitably be for the elderly and vulnerable. It is perhaps good to remind ourselves that ‘change’ and ‘progress’ are two very different things.

If you’re under 45, you have no comprehension at all of what long, regular power cuts are like. If you’re over 45, it’s worth reflecting on how much more severe the impact would be this time around.

Didcot Power Stations

Didcot Power Stations

European Union carbon quotas mean that it’s highly likely that Britain will cease to be self-sufficient in electricity generation within ten years. Last year, Didcot ‘A’ power station in Oxfordshire, which had many years of life left in it, was mothballed to fulfil the quota. Meanwhile, our countryside is ruined with useless wind farms, which, combined with solar panels, cannot come close to producing the levels of energy Didcot ‘A’ and other closed stations once did. The fact remains that quite often the sun doesn’t shine and it’s not that windy.

Similarly, and very unlike the United States, we are dithering on shale fracking. Once we look beyond the scaremongering of Caroline Lucas and her allies, it becomes clear that provided sensible safety precautions are taken, those living near fracking sites have nothing to fear. Add into the mix the possibility of Scottish independence and the inevitability that North Sea oil will one day run out, it’s easy to see how Britain is facing an energy crisis.

They say beggars can’t be choosers. We are already seeing this is the case with our economic dependence on China. Just last week, our Queen received Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, even though he was not on a state visit and therefore not entitled to such a meeting. Similarly, do not expect the Dalai Lama to be given a warm welcome at Downing St or Buckingham Palace any time soon. Britain’s subservience to China on economic matters is very real and is here to stay. We are going to have to get used to it. The days of Britain lecturing China on ‘human rights’ are now over as well.

Soon, we will face a similar situation with regards to our energy needs. As we shiver in the cold and dark, our leaders, possibly including Ed Miliband who, as Energy Minister, did much of the damage that led to the shortage, doing deals with Russia and Saudi Arabia. President Putin or his successors would no longer take moralising lectures from Britain about its policy on Ukraine, and we’d just have to shut up about the limb amputating and woman oppressing that goes on in Saudi Arabia. They would sell us their oil and gas, but on their terms, just as the Chinese are currently bailing us out of our economic crisis.

The sad fact is that this coming crisis is entirely avoidable. By withdrawing from the European Union, we would no longer be subject to its absurd carbon quotas, based entirely on dodgy science and the dubious cult of man-made climate change. We could have kept Didcot ‘A’ and other power stations like it open; we could have developed modern, clean, open-cast coal mines, lots of them, in our vast coal fields of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and South Wales; we could have built nuclear power stations whenever and wherever it suited us.

We have chosen the wrong future for ourselves. The question is: do we have the will and courage to reverse it before it’s too late?

Written by Marcus Stead

June 27, 2014 at 3:07 am