Friday, January 22, 2021

Why are so many right-wing commentators so touchy?

Gosh, such fuss about a bust of a foreign political leader! Or rather, why should the presence or otherwise of a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office really say so much about the future of United States/United Kingdom relations? Indeed, does it say anything other than the new President wanted to decorate it with things that mean more to him?

Yes, that's one of the things that is exercising right-wing commentators this week. Rather than address the fact that the United Kingdom has one of the worst death rates from Covid-19 in the world, or that we borrowed £31.6 billion in November to deal with a crisis made so much worse by the Government's dithering and desperate need to feel loved, they prefer to create a manufactured outrage about a foreigner's interior design choices.

It is, I'm afraid, all rather sad and pathetic. So much, it seems, for the idea of taking back control, being independent, standing tall in the world. No, apparently, we should feel slighted by the decision of the most powerful man in the free world to change the decor in his office. That really does send out a message to the world, albeit possibly not the one intended.

But then, they'd pinned so much on Donald Trump and the prospect of a beneficial trade agreement. Why that should be was anyone's guess, given his actions in withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership, renegotiating NAFTA to benefit the United States rather more than it had previously done and using tariffs as a stick to beat anyone who didn't worship at his altar. It could not have been more naïve to believe that a Trump administration was going to come to the rescue of the Brexiteers.

Now that we have an administration that is more minded to support the framework of free trade agreements, it's hard to credit that their priority isn't going to be the Trans Pacific Partnership and the European Union - that's where the big money is. What, exactly, do we offer the Americans that they can't get elsewhere? And given that English is widely spoken across our continent, language isn't really a barrier in the way it was before.

But it acts as a reminder that, for all the talk of British influence and pride, so many on the political right turn "snowflake" about things that aren't actually of any great significance, get all moody when called on it, and would rather misdirect their readers rather than admit that there might be some negative impacts from their beloved project. Admittedly, those negative impacts almost certainly won't impact on them, and they almost certainly don't care about the people they're attempting to stir to anger, which is perhaps the point. They want you to believe that it's never their fault, and their judgement is without flaw.

And, the longer and harder they fight a culture war, the more likely it is that their victims will hopefully forget what it is they've had done to them, and look for someone to blame other than the people who got them into this mess in the first place. The bust of Churchill is merely another arrow in their quiver of outrage, an attempt to distract us from asking them why their friends are making such a mess of things.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

"Don't stand, don't stand, don't stand so close to me..."

So, here we are, ten months into the pandemic, ten months since my gallant employers decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and sent me home whilst the situation blew out. Well, so much for that - I'm not expecting to be back in an office with other people until at least the Autumn.

And that's going to present some challenges. Now I haven't got as far as associating other people with death, but my appetite for crowds have never been great, and I've grown accustomed to keeping others at something rather more than arms length. But, at some point, life is probably going to return to something resembling what was normal, and I'm going to have to reconcile myself to commuting to and from a large building full of people whose aversion to risk might well not match my own.

It'll probably be alright, with the vaccination programme rolling out, but it will be difficult at first. Like most modern workplaces, HMRC likes open-plan layouts, with staff tightly packed together - efficient in cost terms but not necessarily conducive to concentration - and hot-desking to get even more value out of that space. Getting used to that, after what may be up to two years of working from an office across the patio from our home, will need to be a gradual, measured process.

And, if Covid-19 becomes endemic, like the common cold, it may simply not be practical to expect a bunch of middle-aged people like myself to operate in that way, even if we wanted to.

What that probably means is a hybrid form of working, where I appear occasionally, booking a desk as I need it, but otherwise staying in the Creetings, operating as HMRC Creeting St Peter. Perhaps I'll hang out a shingle - in accordance with the Departmental style guide, obviously.

Luckily, technology has moved with the times. Due to hot-desking, we don't use fixed computers, operating with Surface Pros instead, which allowed most of a large Government Department to go from office-based to home-based overnight, our letters are received at a central point and scanned there, and any letters we issue ourselves are sent through the ether to a large shed somewhere in the West Midlands where they are printed, enveloped and posted (which also allows bulk postage savings).

All of our guidance is online, there are experts on the other end of a team call, we don't have telephones - calls are made via Microsoft Teams and automatically forwarded to our official iPhones if we're not able to access our Surface Pros, and whilst our managers adapt to remote management, the distractions of workplace life are replaced with the challenge of self-motivation and isolation.

Things are never going to be the same again, are they?...

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

A new President in the White House and the promise of decency and competence

courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol
And so, the wearying drama of the last four years is at an end, and we can look forward to something resembling proper governance again. It comes as a relief, and whilst today was emotional for many, I personally look forward to a degree of relative dullness for the next four years.

That, perhaps, sounds a bit like "damning with faint praise" but I genuinely mean it as a compliment. The thing is that good governance is a bit dull, happenstance if you like. You should, in truth, be able to take it as given that the President decides on the basis of facts, underpinned by a political philosophy, that he or she stands for something rather more than personal advantage.

President Biden's inauguration speech expressed hope rather than bombast, talked about the left behind and the vulnerable rather than at them, and was long on the challenges that face the nation collectively and as individuals. It was a call for unity, something that the United States badly needs. I'm not counting on him getting much, and what he may get won't last long, but asking for it puts pressure on moderate Republicans to think about whether or not to reach across the floor to pass whatever legislation he needs.

For, regardless of the poetry of an inaugural speech, he will be obliged to govern in prose. Yes, the Democrats have control of both House and Senate, but the Republicans can still make life painfully difficult for the next two years, and even though the 2022 Senate elections slightly favour Democrats, for the two years after that too.

But, for the rest of us, a Biden Presidency offers reassurance. Greater engagement with Europe, a more activist policy in terms of trade and aid (although a UK/US trade deal looks slightly more distant) and a sense that there are adults in the room rather than a transactional toddler prone to tantrums and in thrall to dictators. That offers hope that some of the more intractable global problems might get the attention they deserve.

There will be calls for the United States to resume its role as the world's policeman, and I find myself hoping that a Biden/Harris administration might take advantage of the opportunity to encourage regional groupings to play a stronger role, and to reassign some of its huge defence budget towards supporting that. Rebuilding its diplomatic capability, both by restoring the State Department's budget, and increasing the use and reach of its soft power, will reassure nervous allies whilst re-establishing trust that has been lost during the Trump years.

What is most needed though is an America which is more at ease with itself, something that clearly isn't so at the moment. It's a huge challenge for any incoming Administration, as polling shows an alarming polarisation between progressives and conservatives, and Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy and their colleagues have their share of responsibility to support that effort. I don't expect them to agree with the Administration - I'm not that naïve - but nurturing an atmosphere of courtesy and mutual respect would be a good start, along with a marginalisation of the crazies.

So, I wish Joe Biden and Kamala Harris the very best as they take the reins. I also hope that we don't pin too much upon their success, because just as overpromising and underdelivering is a poor strategy, setting your expectations too high and then complaining when they aren't met is pretty foolish too. Dull, workaday competence needs, perhaps, to be more highly regarded...

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Who is this mystery Parish Councillor?...

The Chief Executive of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils, Sally Longmate, is on a mission to improve the way the organisation works, improving accountability, engagement and our relationships with other parts of the architecture of local government and the voluntary sector across the county.

As part of that, it was suggested that the Board might like to contribute a photograph and a paragraph or so about ourselves for the website, so that our membership might get to know us better. I’m keen on that as a concept, although less keen on the idea of having a photograph of me appear anywhere - I don’t tend to photograph well, especially if I know that I’m being photographed.

Luckily, the photograph is, for the time being, solved, thanks to the 2018 Harwich Shanty Festival and Ros’s Twitter feed. Yes, there is a pirate in shot, but I look relaxed and happy, and not as much like a walrus as is often the case.

As for the biography, the brief reads;

A brief paragraph about yourself, how long you have been a councillor, your position on the council, why you joined the board inc. your specific interests and maybe experience so far to help encourage others to consider this in the future.

So, here’s a perhaps not entirely serious first draft...

Mark Valladares is the current Chair of Creeting St Peter Parish Council, in Mid Suffolk South’s Gipping Valley, having been brought out of retirement by my now fellow councillors for reasons best described by the phrase “process matters”. I joined the SALC Board last year because it seemed that nobody else in Mid Suffolk South wanted to do it, possibly the story of my life in politics and local government. 

As you might guess, as my professional life revolves around stress-testing the accounts and records of small and medium sized enterprises for a major government department, my particular interests are governance and finance. As a somewhat improbable member of the BAME community, I take diversity issues seriously, based on the theory that organisations are best equipped by considering the widest range of perspectives in their decision making.

That does at least give me something to hone over the coming week...

Monday, January 18, 2021

Creeting St Peter: looking plaintively at the exit door?...

Year 1 of being Chair of my Parish Council was alright. Yes, I’d been rather hijacked by my colleagues who sprang a hitherto unknown two year rule for Chair rotation on me, but the job wasn’t very onerous and it was nice to be in charge, albeit notionally. After all, how much power can you have on a council with an annual precept of just over £5,000?

Year 2 ended with the onset of the pandemic. We were having some difficulties with the local concrete products factory, although that has been something of a slow burner, impacting on everyone who has chaired the Council since I joined, but it was as much about being available and helpful as anything else. And, in a village where people are great at looking out for their vulnerable, or even potentially vulnerable, neighbours, it was about passing on information, helping people to help themselves to some extent. Again, not too difficult.

The pandemic led to year 3, as nobody seemed much minded to change things. I’ve spent the year pottering about the village, talking to residents, trying to keep their spirits up (and mine). And now, I’m in the midst of two major planning issues, attempting to balance competing expectations. It does feel a bit more stressful and there is rather more confrontation, something that I must admit to struggling with.

My third term comes to an end in April and, for the first time, I’m beginning to wonder whether or not the Council requires a change. Admittedly, given that I’d not sought the job in the first place, and suffer from a touch of imposter syndrome, I’m a touch surprised that I’ve gotten this far.

This evening’s Parish Council came with a degree of trepidation. With the Managing Director of Poundfield Products, with whom I haven’t entirely seen eye to eye inviting himself, and the ongoing debate over Gateway 14, I worried about how things would go. I’m not a gung-ho sort of Chair, and prefer a more inclusive style. The problem with that is that, if things get heated, timing your intervention becomes more challenging, and that’s when my decision making is at its most fragile.

It was a robust, but mostly courteous affair, however. Whilst I remain to be convinced that the management of Poundfield Products are anything more than tolerant of my existence, that isn’t a problem unless I lose the confidence of Council. So far, that doesn’t appear to be the case, which is reassuring.

And so, another Parish Council meeting is safely delivered. Only one more is scheduled before I sleep, so to speak, although it’s highly likely that there’ll be an Extraordinary one to deal with the Gateway 14 hybrid planning application (coming to a District Council near you later this month). Perhaps I’ll fret about that another day...

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Ros in the Lords: Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation and Linked Households) (England) Regulations 2020

Ros’s first speech of 2021 was a brisk affair in the midst of yet another debate on Statutory Instruments linked to the ongoing pandemic. The Lords has spent a lot of time attempting to guide the Government into acting either more efficiently or more effectively, often. Both at the same time. In this contribution, Ros was trying to explore what more individuals might do voluntarily to keep safe at this trying time...

My Lords, there is no doubt that the appearance of this new variant has taken us into a very difficult situation. As welcome as the vaccine is, we have to acknowledge that getting the whole country protected will not be a very quick process. Therefore, the measures that we take, individually and collectively, while we wait to be vaccinated are absolutely key. 
I want to ask the Minister two questions. First, what work is going on to reassess the protocols and procedures that have been developed for workplaces, schools, places of worship and so on to ensure that systems which were fit for purpose with the original virus continue to be so with one that is more transmissible? 
Secondly, on an individual basis, I acknowledge that this is anecdotal but I am hearing a lot of stories about people who contract Covid and say that they have no idea how they caught it because they have been really careful and have followed all the guidance and procedures. Is any reassessment going on of the sorts of behaviours that many of us have fallen into the habit of adopting? Are those preventive measures still fit for purpose or should we be protecting ourselves and others differently? 
Finally, on a different matter, there is a huge role to be played in a vaccine rollout by volunteers, not just as injectors but in a whole range of ways. My plea to the Government is not to rely on a centralised system of the kind we saw last year, as that just does not work. There is a lot of good will but it needs to be harnessed and used locally, because that is where it can be used to best effect.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Sea shanties are fashionable? We’re so ahead of the curve...

Me at the 2018 Harwich
Shanty Festival
I admit that the sudden outbreak of sea shanties on something called TikTok has been fascinating. Not new, but fascinating nonetheless. It’s not new because, for those of us who have discovered the Harwich Shanty Festival, the idea of shanties as entertainment has been there for a while.

Admittedly, Ros and I came about the Shanty Festival by chance to some extent. As Ros was Deputy Chair of the Harwich Haven Authority, we visited Harwich fairly regularly, Ros for work, me for the occasional very nice dinner or New Years’s Eve night out at the Pier Hotel. We spotted the festival and thought that it might be a fun day out for her family.

And, as it turned out, we were right. The Festival is not just an excuse to sell more beer, although it might be fair to note that there is a very significant ale drinking, bearded element amongst the performers and audiences, but it’s a serious international event. And yes, quite a lot of the performances take place in pubs because, well, beer is readily available. For, let’s face it, if you don’t know much about shanty singing, beer helps to relax you into the mood.

I have a Festival t-shirt, which I wear in the gym occasionally (or at least, pre-pandemic, did), and I enjoy a shanty as much as the next pirate. And so I welcome the sudden exposure that shanties have received, all due to a postman from Scotland - he’s very good, by the way.

The Festival is an annual event, and it’s more than just some concerts. Our local Train Operating Company, Greater Anglia, run a shanty train on one day of the festival between Manningtree and Harwich Town, there are demonstrations at the Redoubt Fort and there’s beer. Oh yes, I think that I’d already mentioned that...