Friday, March 16, 2012

Arguing over Amritsar

London University's Institute of Historical Research, where I was until recently a seemingly perpetual student, runs the excellent Reviews in History resources on its website.

This provides an opportunity for longer discussions of new history books than can be included even in specialist academic journals and also for the book's author to respond to the review.

Normally it is fairly well mannered stuff with measured reviews being met with grateful thanks for constructive comments on the book in question. But just occasionally it is handbags at dawn, as in the case of Kim Wagner's review of Nick Lloyd's recent The Amritsar Massacre: The Untold Story of One Fateful Day and Dr Lloyd's response.
 I haven't read the book, but it's fair to say in general I have little sympathy with the new strain of 'British empire was a good thing and much misunderstood' historical writing, of which the book would appear to be an example. At any rate it seems rather odd that Lloyd should take Wagner to task for having 'absolutely nothing to say about the violence directed against the Indian people by the successor state since 1947' when he was reviewing a book about the 1919 Amritsar massacre carried out by representatives of the British Raj.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Health bill supporters need to tell us what good they think it will do

I have never been a great fan of the Lib Dem Spring conference - it is always a long journey and by the time you have got into the swing of things it's time to go home again. So I am down here in Watford not up in Gateshead. This spares me the dilemma of how to vote in any debate on the health bill.

Although I should perhaps be reassured by the recent articles by Shirley Williams and David Boyle, for me their arguments for the bill highlight a problem. This is that the points made by Lib Dems in favour of the bill are couched in negative not positive terms. We are told that it is now much less bad than it was and a vindication of our participation in government - what wouldn't those horrid Tories have done left to their own devices? But given the importance of the NHS, in particular to Lib Dems, this on its own won't do. The bill's supporters need to explain why they think it will lead to a better NHS for patients, one that Liberals can be proud of. Making a bad bill less bad may be commendable of itself but that doesn't make it good. And if it is a good bill we need to hear exactly what is good about it.

Not being an expert on health policy myself I have no obvious way of getting beneath the rhetoric and deciding whether the bill is worthy of support or an outrageous sell out to the private sector. I could have a go at reasoning it out, as follows. In the past 20 years government of all stripes (Yes, Labour too) have introduced reforms that broadly embrace some sort of market principles and private sector involvement in NHS services. There may be many reasons for this, but the most obvious one is that a exclusive reliance on direct in-house service provision will inevitably lead either to high costs/inefficiency or to long waiting lists and poor service, or quite possibly all of these.

This is because the NHS is a huge organisation, providing a wide range of services, the demand for which is unlikely to be steady and predictable, and which is at the same time virtually limitless. If  it is maintained as a lean and efficient machine with no slack in the system then it is going to be unable to cope with any sudden increased demands on its services, leading to long waiting lists and times. And if provision is made to cope with all eventualities then there are likely to be long periods when services are not operating at full capacity, thus creating huge financial waste. Given the size of the NHS both things are likely to happen. So private sector provision is a way of adding flexibility and coping with the unexpected - all the more necessary if patients are to be treated as human beings not numbers on a waiting list.

So far so good, but beyond that I'm a bit stumped. I have no real way of calculating the precise level at which private sector involvement and competition among NHS providers ceases to be what is necessary for high quality services to patients and starts to be a surrender to greedy capitalists. Nor can I really say whether this is all best organised by the PCTs (as at present) or GP commissioning (as proposed).

I could simply make my mind up on the basis of who is on which side. If David Boyle and Shirley Williams support the bill then perhaps it is a good thing. I could let myself be swayed in favour of the bill by the obvious humbug of Labour's Andy Burnham, who was health secretary in a government which introduced market-orientated reforms and greater private sector involvement, but who now seems to be a born-again Clause 4 supporter.

The opposition of organisations representing NHS professionals isn't necessarily a reason to oppose the bill - professional bodies usually resist change and we should be guided by what is best for patients. At the same I am willing to believe that the level of ignorance that central government demonstrates about local government when introducing its various exciting reforms might well be replicated in its dealings with the NHS.

So I am relieved to be spared the ordeal of voting on this at conference. Even if Lib Dem delegates do vote against the government's proposals, even as amended, this won't necessarily kill the bill. But if Lib Dem ministers do wish to pass it, and not have every future problem that the NHS faces blamed on it, then they need to do more to explain what they believe are its merits and how it will benefit patients.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

In praise of Eugene McCabe

When I saw that the Slugger O'Toole blog contained a tribute to Eugene McCabe I assumed that the octogenerian Irish author must have died.

Happily this appears not to be the case and whatever has triggered it Andy Pollak's article draws welcome attention to McCabe's work.

Eugene McCabe is not as well-known on this side of the Irish Sea as he ought to be, perhaps because he is hardly prolific, perhaps because he apparently lives a quiet life on his Monaghan farm and is not part of any literary media circuit.

Nonetheless he is one of the most powerful and insightful writers about Ulster's divided community. His one novel, 1992's Death and nightingales, which portrays the troubled relationship between a Protestant stepfather and his Catholic stepdaughter, is a masterpiece that works both as a story in itself and as political allegory.

Likewise the short stories collected in the volume Heaven lies about us highlight the complexities of a situation where members of both communities live side by side with historical hatreds never far from the surface.

Anyone looking for the great literature of the Northern Ireland troubles (as opposed to the self-serving literary productions of its politicians) should check out McCabe's work.

On Norman St John Stevas and Chelmsford

Norman St John Stevas, who died on Friday, represented Chelmsford in parliament, a constituency that for much of the 1970s and 80s was a top Liberal target seat. The Liberal candidate there was Stuart Mole, speechwriter to David Steel and one of the party's rising stars.

However much one wished for a Liberal victory there, I remember thinking it a pity that, of all the Tory MPs we might be glad to see the back of, we were trying to oust one of the few who seemed quite a good egg. When St John Stevas announced his retirement at the 1987 general election I assumed that his semi-celebrity status had helped the Tories retain the seat in the past and it would now fall into our hands.

Then someone who knew the constituency told me that whatever St John Stevas's positive qualities he was a less-than-assiduous constituency MP and that much of the Liberal momentum in the seat had come from pointing this out. Such a view seemed confirmed by the Conservative majority increasing in 1987 from three figures to more than 8,000.

Thereafter the Lib Dem challenge in Chelmsford faded, although one hopes that our improved result there in 2010 means that we may yet one day take the seat.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Rediscovering Al Stewart

With musical artists as with authors, there are some that one follows and buys their every work, others who one likes for a while before moving on to other things.

So while I loved Al Stewart's Year of the Cat album, its successor Time Passages wasn't nearly as good, and I didn't bother with any of his other releases. And while it seems rather shallow of me, back in the 80s, I was aware that it was a bit uncool to like an artist who mainly wrote and performed songs on historical themes. It had overtones of the then much derided Prog Rock.

But recently I found Stewart's most recent studio album Sparks of ancient light on eMusic and downloaded it out of curiosity, half expecting it to be an even paler imitation of Year of the Cat than Time Passages had been. In fact it is a little gem, reminding me of what made Stewart an interesting songwriter in the first place

Although his songs do often deal with historical subjects rather than the familiar confessional themes of singer-songwriters, he avoids the twin evils of Spinal Tap Stonehenge bombasm or Steeleye Span morris-dancing twee-ness. Instead he milks historical topics for their human angle. So Like William McKinley is not an ode to an American president but rather a meditation on lost love with a historical analogy somewhere in there. Anyway the link is to a live performance of my favourite song on the album 'Hanno the Navigator' - and the album title is also taken from the lyric of this track.

I may now even explore the rest of Stewart's oeuvre.

Jenny Tonge - a case of not being able to have it both ways

The late Conor Cruise O'Brien used to refer to the sense of liberation he felt once he was no longer involved in party politics. It enabled him express his views freely without being bound by any collective responsibility. On the issues that interested him, such as Northern Ireland and the Middle East conflict, his views were at odds with the political mainstream. As a party politician he was fettered by the need to express the predictable well-meaning banalities that are expected on such topics. As a writer free of party ties he was free to follow the logic of his own arguments even if his views caused offence.

Jenny Tonge is hardly a thinker in O'Brien's class (and he had rather different views on Israel), but similar considerations apply. The Israel/Palestine conflict is an issue on which mainstream politicians in the West watch their words and strive for balance because what they say reflects more widely on their party and even on their country. It is hard to combine holding public office as a respresentative of a political party with expressing controversial opinions on issues like this. So Baroness Tonge has had to choose between resigning the Lib Dem whip or apologising for comments which the party leadership found embarrassing and offensive.

Tonge's defenders will doubtless say that there is nothing terribly controversial about saying Israel won't 'last forever' because it is true of any political entity. But this won't quite do. In such matters context is all important. If a well-known politician were to say with reference to Scotland becoming independent that the United Kingdom may not last in its present form then it would be relatively uncontroversial. Every expectation is that if such an eventuality arises it will happen peacefully and by mutual consent. If they made a similar comment with regard to Northern Ireland, with its recent history of politial violence, it would immediately raise the spectre of a United Ireland and the hackles of the Ulster Unionists. In the case of Israel, the existence of which has been controversial from its inception, saying it will not last forever is clearly going to be read as a thinly-veiled threat.

A similar point can be made about Tonge's previous faux pas in saying that had she lived in Occupied Palestine she might have considered becoming a suicide bomber. At one level this is such a statement of the bleeding obvious as to be hardly worth saying. Similarly had I grown up in one of the world's major conflict zones rather than in Watford I might not have arrived at the warm cuddly Liberal opinions that I hold. Who knows what any of us might do if we lived somewhere that was beset by persistent violent conflict. So the purpose of Tonge's comments could only have been to express some kind of identification with Palestinian suicide bombers.

There are good reasons why blandness tends to prevail on such subjects from the mouths and pens of those holding public office. Apart from anything else, the British government might reasonably expect to play some sort of role in a future peace process and it doesn't really help if it (or the parties comprising it) are seen by one side as so partisan that they cannot play the role of honest broker.

So it is right that if Jenny Tonge wishes to continue making the sort of comments on Israel/Palestine that have become her trademark she does so from a position where she is clearly not a representative of the Liberal Democrats.