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16 October 2018

BREXIT .. It's up to US

My earlier Blog was an attempt to lighten the mood. Now is the time to get a bit more serious.

Whether you voted to leave the EU or voted to remain, you didn’t vote for the unmitigated chaos that we are now wading through, and neither did you (no doubt with a few swivel-eyed exceptions) vote to be poorer, or to be marched off the cliff by a group of fanatics telling you that you’ll enjoy the drop and when you hit the water some of you will drown, but others will swim on until they rock up on the sun-drenched beaches of an island called Our Glorious Past.

The UK does not do referenda as a matter of course; we are a representative democracy in which we elect Members of Parliament to represent us to the best of their ability. But thanks to the efforts of Nigel Farage and others of his ilk, former Prime Minister Cameron tried to stop his Party from haemorrhaging votes to UKIP by promising us a referendum in the mistaken belief that the country would vote to remain. All he achieved was to cause an acrimonious division of roughly one half of the population against the other half. It is Cameron who is to blame for the mess in which we now find ourselves.

Then along came Theresa May as the new leader of the Conservatives, and thus Prime Minister. She demonstrated her soundness of judgement by calling a completely unnecessary election (she had a working majority, remember) in the belief she could increase her majority. The result was that she lost her working majority and had to ‘bribe’ the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to prop her up in Parliament. As a result, the Northern Irish bigots have her over a barrel.

The problem we have with our Parliament now is that there are divisions all over the shop regarding how to proceed with Brexit, the worst of which are within the governing Party. Even within the Prime Minister’s Cabinet there are divisions between ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’, and there are further divisions even between the ‘Leavers’; some want a good deal with the EU, others are happy with no deal. The Labour Opposition also has its fair share of Brexiteers; the Party is torn between supporting a deal brokered by the Prime Minister and opposing everything she comes forward with in the hope of triggering a General Election which they are fairly confident of winning. The two Parties which are consistent in their desire to remain in the EU are the Liberal Democrats (not enough of them to make a difference) and the Scottish Nationalists.

We can no longer rely upon Parliament to come to any meaningful decision on how to proceed, which brings me to the so-called People’s Vote being called for by increasing numbers of despairing people. They are shouted down by every Brexiteer in the land uttering the wearingly familiar “We’ve already had a people’s vote in 2016 and we voted to leave the EU. We don’t want a second referendum.” I despair: are these people so thick that they cannot realise that what is being asked for is not a second bite at the cherry, but a vote on the DEAL that is finally served up to us? Clearly Parliamentary arithmetic is so fluid that the only people who can accept or refuse the final deal are .. US!

WE were given a vote on the original proposition, and now, to have our say in how we implement it is not a denial of democracy, it is an EXTENSION of democracy. It is Democracy Plus. After all, from time to time we elect Parliament, and by extension, Government. Nobody says that a decision we take on that should not be re-visited five years later. Nothing is set in stone forever. Conditions change. New information becomes available. People ‘fall off’ the electoral register when they reach the end of life; others come on to the register when they reach voting age.

There is nothing wrong with the ‘People’s Vote’. Give us the real facts, and give us the vote.


17 September 2018

Brexit for Dummies

A Brief History

About two years ago there was a referendum on whether we should all eat a Full English Brexit or opt for the healthier Continental option. Just over half the country voted in favour of the Full English Brexit and ever since then we have been a Disunited Kingdom inhabited on the one hand by ‘Brexiteers’ and on the other by ‘Remoaners’.

It was all started by a man called Nigel who was uncomfortable with hearing foreign languages being spoken on the train and yearned for the ‘good old days’ when farage balloons were flying over London and we were busy telling the pesky Germans where to stick their bratwursts.

He started a political movement called UKIP which came to be known as the Kippers (which, as you know, also feature as an option on Full English Brexit menus). UKIP was so successful that eventually they represented as much as 0.3% of the British House of Commons which  threw the then Prime Minister “Call-me-Dave” Cameron into a blind panic, believing that the Kippers were causing a stink by stealing Conservative votes. So Dave went for discussions with the European Onion to see if he could peel away some of the layers without causing tears at bedtime. He returned waving a piece of paper, declaring “Peace in our time”. Sorry, that was someone else, back in the good old days. But the effect was the same; it wasn’t peace and he hadn’t persuaded anyone to make the Continental option look more like the Full English. But he was confident that he had, and so triggered the referendum which he knew he would win, which he didn’t.

The Kippers were more successful in gaining entry to the European Parliament thanks to a different voting system, and they devoted their time to frustrating proceedings, led by Nigel who (I felt in a rather un-British way) proceeded to personally insult the people running the European Onion, in particular the President of the Commission; Nigel told him he had the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk and the charisma of a wet dishcloth (or something along those lines) .. i.e., British diplomatic manners at their finest.

Back in Britain, Nigel the Chief Kipper, failed to get himself elected to the British Parliament in spite of having built up a fanatically loyal fan base rather like the one ‘The Donald’ built in the USA. In fact Nigel actually spoke at one of Donald’s rallies. They both have a lot in common.

Where are we now?

As we approach the time when we must depart the shores of the European Onion, there has been much talk about staying within the supermarket. This is understandable because having been inside the supermarket for 40 years we are still unsure about where they’ve put the custard powder this week. I think it is wise to stay inside the supermarket until we find out, but Prime Minister May has accepted that in order to exit the supermarket there is a price to pay on exit (which is known as the ‘Checkout’). She has come up with a plan known as the Checkers Plan allowing us to go past the checkers without too much fuss, and be taken home in a big red bus stuffed with extra money for the NHS.

Nigel wants nothing to do with the supermarket because it’s full of nasty foreign stuff, and you can never find the custard powder or, come to think of it, the Marmite. He wants British Aisles. He also wants less freedom of movement (though to my mind, you couldn’t have much less, what with all those shopping trolleys). Now the one consistent thing about the supermarket is that the fruit and vegetable section is always near the entrance and it tends not to move about too much, but even here the Kippers are complaining that there’s a preponderance of Brussels, and moreover the leeks are being seen to by Polish plumbers. And if you find yourself in front a large beetroot that is, as often as not, just Nigel getting very, very angry.

Now the ‘Three Brexiteers’, Bonkers Boris Johnson, Evil Doctor Fox, and the Honourable Member for the 18th Century, Jacob Rees Smug, are telling us that life outside both the supermarket and something called the Custard Union is going to be a bowl of cherries, because the Germans are still going to want to sell us their big Aldi cars (and even the Lidl ones), the French will still want to sell us their wine, and the Dutch will still want to sell us their cheese for so long as it takes for us to find the flavour.

The Custard Union is something that causes much consternation because it raises the subject of some Celtic border or other, possibly the Cornish Border? (At least a ‘hard’ border here would deal with those pirates of Penzance). But I digress; I am advised that we are concerned here with the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, across which there is much agricultural trade, and I’m assuming this is the reason for concern about a ‘hard’ border jeopardising the ‘Good Friday Peas Agreement’.

So, all in all, this is turning out to be a bit of a Dog’s Brexit, but I hope I’ve helped to throw some light on the subject, so you can vote sensibly when we have a referendum on the referendum, or possibly a General Election producing a Labour Government which will put the great British sausage into Public Ownership. Pass the custard mustard.

Lionel Beck
September 2018 

10 January 2018

What a Way to Run a Railway!

Margaret Thatcher’s government privatised everything that moved, with the exception of the railways; this appears to have been a step too far even for Mrs Thatcher who didn’t much like trains. Her dislike of the railways manifested itself in the form of systematic financial starvation of the then nationalised British Rail. This had the effect of eventually making BR so shabby and inefficient that it paved the way for her successor John Major to complete the Conservative portfolio of privatisation by taking the railways out of public control.

And what a dog’s breakfast that was! We had Railtrack - a hotchpotch of companies running the tracks and signalling (which in turn sub-contracted out work to all and sundry with often disastrous results) - and an assortment of train operating companies to run trains as route franchises granted by the government, using rolling stock leased from yet more companies.

In the quarter century that has passed since this mishmash was set up a certain amount of rationalisation has taken place, notably by replacing Railtrack with Network Rail (an arm’s-length branch of the Department of Transport). Train operating companies have come and go; some are reasonable operators and some are truly dreadful. The National Audit Office has just reported to Government (January 2018) that Southern Trains, Thameslink, and Great Northern franchises are providing poor value for money.

Why not re-nationalise the railways?

The Labour Party has pledged to bring the railways back into public ownership, but predictably the Conservative privatisation die-hards ridicule the idea. It appears, however, to be quite a popular idea with the general public and long-suffering  train passengers.

I am waiting for these Conservative die-hards to come up with better arguments for their case than the tired old “Don’t people remember the bad old days of the British Rail curly sandwich?”. Oh please, give me a break! As it happens, I was a frequent user of the East Coast main line between York and London during the 1970s and 1980s, and what I do remember is excellent food on those trains; proper food, prepared and cooked in proper kitchens, and served by smartly-uniformed stewards at properly laid-out dining tables. Come to think of it the trains were usually on time, and they completed the journey from York to London in about 1 hour 55 minutes. (In the first few years of privatised train companies the same journey mysteriously slowed to about two and a half hours.)

Here’s another argument trotted out by the Conservatives: “Have people forgotten the decrepit rolling stock, the poor service, the bad time-keeping, the ever-increasing fares?” .. And your point is? .. This seems to me be a pretty accurate description of what we have NOW.

The first company to get the East Coast Main Line between London and Edinburgh and beyond was GNER (Great Northern Eastern Railway). They were, to be fair, a half-decent company that ran smart trains with friendly staff, and continued the practice of serving proper food. But in due course they couldn’t hack it financially and handed the keys back. The franchise then passed to National Express (up to that point just a long-distance bus company). After a new paint job on the trains, some new logos, and a few years’ service they also couldn’t balance the books and handed the keys back.

At this stage (2009) the Labour Government of Gordon Brown took the route back into public ownership and the trains were run by Here is the significance of this move: after the inevitable new paint job and logo changes this line actually started producing a profit for the Treasury. The trains ran on time, they were fast, and they had a customer satisfaction rating of 91%.

This must have been so embarrassing for the subsequent Conservative-led Coalition Government: a State-run railway actually doing what it was meant to do, and making a profit into the bargain. Indeed it must have been so traumatic for the Conservative privateers that it wasn’t long before they put it out to franchise again, and this time it was snapped up by Virgin/Stagecoach. Another day, another paint job.

And now, once again, the latest franchise is in trouble. Virgin/Stagecoach paid the government £3.3 billion to run the franchise until 2023, and now they want to cut it short and also reduce their payments to the government. No doubt anxious to avoid the embarrassment of yet another company handing back the keys the Secretary of State for Transport has caved into the company’s wishes.

Other European nations appear to be able to run perfectly good publicly-owned railways, but British Conservatives are unwilling to see this, although – perversely – they appear to be quite sanguine about the fact that these other railways have a significant stake in our own train companies. For example, Grand Central Trains (also using the East Coast Main Line) are part of Deutsche Bahn’s international arm.

International subsidiaries of European State railways have a part interest in the following ..
Greater Anglia .. Dutch
London Overground .. German
Merseyrail  .. Dutch
Cross Country .. German
Southern .. French
Arriva Wales .. German
South Eastern .. French
Northern Rail .. Dutch
Docklands Light Railway .. Spanish & French
C2C .. Italian
Govia Thameslink .. French
Scotrail .. Dutch
Eurostar .. French & Belgian

The London Underground (a large network reaching far beyond the confines of Central London) is publicly owned and works well.

It seems that dogmatic Conservatives are dead set against State-owned railways unless they are foreign ones!

What a way to run a railway.
Re-nationalise, and let’s have a single (properly funded) national British railway system that we can be proud of, instead of this ridiculous kaleidoscope of companies which are constantly dropping in and out of franchises or pleading for government hand-outs and concessions.

©Lionel Beck
January 2018