Hobble Christmas and we starve

Mid-October and the Christmas displays are already going up, in the hope that there will be Christmas. Shops are relying on it: the Christmas trade can be the difference between survival and bankruptcy.

Retail has taken a hammering this year because of the lockdown and several large High Street names have folded – we are not seeing the full effect until the economy wakes up and we see who is not there. Some are nominally hanging on to see if their normality returns, but they are insolvent, and will go to the wall unless the turn-round is dramatic. Christmas sales are a key to this. It is not looking good.

Retail is not linear, but many of its expenses are. A shop will be paying the same rent, the same rates and the same wages and National Insurance throughout the year; insurance, hire charges and licences will be annual sums reckoned evenly across the year; however income is not the same. In most businesses there is a Christmas rush, and that earns is the money which pays for those expenses.

It is not considered odd that hotels and B&Bs will pay the same rent and rates in the winter as in the summer but do all their trade in the summer: they make a loss in the winter by paying out with no income because they will make it all up in the deluge of custom in the summer. This may seem less apparent in the retail trade, but that is how the economics works here too: the shop can tick by over the whole year, feeling the market, building goodwill, training the staff, but waiting for the Christmas rush.

Many a business makes no net profit all through the year month by month until the nights grow short: the profit is to be made in the run-up to Christmas, which pays for all the year’s expenses. I have seen shopkeepers, ready to take a new shop on, begging to get it done in October because if they do not get the Christmas trade, they will pull out rather than sit on a loss-maker.

It is not just obvious businesses which have a Christmas rush either – it reaches all sorts of enterprises; even builders’ merchants and pharmacies see it. Consequently all the suppliers feel the rush, and all the professions which serve those businesses. They all rely on it.

Now though, the streets are quiet and the shops have fewer customers. They are in fear as Christmas approaches and customers are still being driven away, and there is no assurance that they will have their one profitable time of the year. To cancel the Commercial Christmas or even to hobble it will delete the year’s profit from the ledger, for the majority of businesses and their employees.

Essentially, it is necessary either to end the lockdown or face mass shutdown. It will not be pretty.

Local politics is back

Those letterboxes are waiting, ready to be filled with our leaflets. Local politics is back. I cannot see the rising enthusiasm, the volunteers hammering at the door. We have been giving it a rest, and when the elections were cancelled in May, well, it seemed we could give up on the intensive work we put in each year. It was very pleasant, actually.

We are not allowed to canvass (which takes forever and you cannot persuade most members to do it as they think they will be embarrassed. We can however stuff letterboxes with leaflets. We have the routes planned out, age-old routes we can do in our sleep ,and frequently do. Those letterboxes in all their deadly variety, and the dogs behind them, are waiting for our tender hands.

Is the thrill of the chase returning, the heart beating faster? Those strategically written letters to the local paper fed in over the last few months, and photo-ops set up (to which the reporter never appeared in the end) to familiarise the neighbours with your hard work – some have been doing that.

It has been too tempting though to roll into a ball and hide away from local happenings and the petty politicking of the town hall, which the voters care nothing about, until someone starts painting a yellow line outside their house, to ignore that local involvement and instead to find other things to do, like DIY, watching old films, or writing a political blog. There are things so much more interesting happening nationally.

It is time to rouse to remember where I live, and look about me, see what the past year has done to it, and work out why the council spends so much money for so little done, and what the local party says we can do about it (short of abolishing the council, but maybe that threat is a political point to play with). Did I see what they did down at the other end of the village? How is the local plan going and will there be any farm fields left this time five years hence?

The leaflets them and the press releases. There I stop: after all that has passed nationally and the complete change in focus, what on earth is there I could possibly write?

See also

Build Back Britain, Boris

I worried about the new slogan, ‘Build Back Better’, looking out over the (so far still) green fields, but in the context, there is more to it than the sick-in-the-stomach vision of concrete and bricks: the whole underpinning of the nation’s political and social structure needs to be rebuilt. This afternoon, up stood Boris with a vision for that task. Let us hope his team are up to the task.

It has been 10 years since Gordon Brown was hurled out of Downing Street, and it has sometimes seemed like a wasted 10 years, but that is not so: David Cameron and George Osborne in their six years worked hard to mend the financial mess left by the Blair and Brown years, and to reverse much of Tony Blair’s egregious imprecations upon the liberty of the subject. They neglected to overturn the leftists’ stranglehold on the levers of state though and left the sprawling edifice largely intact; then on the Brexit issue they brought the party members’ ignominy upon themselves, but they deserve credit where it is due. Theresa May, though a likeable individual, was unequal to the immense divisions riven through the nation and was given little opportunity in her three years. Boris has been in for over a year but still seems only just to have begun.

In that time, Boris has only made one noticeable political mistake: the Lockdown, and it is an overwhelming mistake, that has wrought in a few months more damage then the whole of the Blair-Brown years. He can’t very well pull out of it now out of embarrassment, and so we are stuck in the mire for more months yet, and we descend further, maybe not as deep as Atlee territory, but deep and damaging. Maybe we are coming out. Now we must build back better; build Britain as she should be.

we human beings will not simply content ourselves with a repair job.

Now there is a truth. It is ludicrous to compare the Wuhan flu with the Black Death, but after the latter shock society was transformed, building itself back better, sloughing off the restraints of feudalism and even seeing the first daystar of the Reformation that was to rise over the lands nearly two hundred years later. This is not the Black Death, but it is a shock that has felled the economy and society in such a way that new normality much change to look for resilience, and to climb high enough that new shocks “the next cosmic spanner may be hurtling towards us in the dark” as Boris put it, can be ridden, without the temptation for another devastating lockdown of life and liberty.

Resilience does not fit the modern sentiment. Many are infantilised because we can be: there has been no active war for generations, which is an introduction to real life like no other, and the state has grown so as to smother all discomforts, which is exactly how it should not be. Immediately taking offence at trivia is a symptom of infantilised discourse (though more likely to be a bid for power).

This is not a luxury but basic survival necessity. This is a hard world, and has been since man first left Eden, and those who are ready for it will thrive, but at the moment we are the ones also made to carry the others. The problems of those others are real and heart-rending in their consequence: I have been in case briefings, told repeated stories of individuals who simply cannot cope with anything in life unless all their wants are brought to their plate by others, and who drift into crime and madness as an unavoidable consequence. Throwing money at the issue does not help if there is no training to resilience and independence, and any build-back must assume the necessity for individual resilience, or no other measure will work, or at least not reach those at the bottom of society.

What we heard from Boris Johnson today were ideas and inspiring ones. Behind it I could hear unspoken numbers, cash to be taxed on my children and their eventual children; or could it be done another way? Most government spending is on health and the welfare state (though goodness knows what the health spending goes on, because doctors have been refusing to see patients for months) and it may be that efficiencies can be made in this colossus of a budget, keeping effective spending up while reducing the amount actually consumed in the system. Outside that sector, there are many efficiencies that could be made in everyday government without affecting what it actually does, and much of what it does do it need not. That was a theme of David Cameron’s early years, but not one which really took off as it should have. At that time of course Dominic Cummings was not deployed to his full capacity.

The implied road-building programme then struck a theme I have often worried about. Roads are needed outside the South-East, although at the same time I believe would be better to let some roads rot for a few years as there is no money left to mend them; as long as they are not the roads I race down. The subject hovering over the project was the North. This is important for a proper Build Back Better: the Northern towns are not actually ignored by the government, but they can appear neglected – a drive through the leafy villages of the Home Counties, or up the millionaire’s row that is the Thames will look a world apart from a drive through the ex-industrial towns north of the Trent. The missing element to prosperity is not government but commerce. There is no inherent reason why Worksop should not shine like Guildford, but that economic buzz of the one stutters in the other. The thing is that this is not a zero-sum game between towns: if Nottinghamshire takes wing, that does not beggar Surrey. The nation is the poorer for having wealth-creation in too small a sphere, and if part of the fault is poor infrastructure, then putting some in may bring in the medium term a tax-take to repay it – maybe. On the other hand, that could be the wrong way round – the broad roads came to the Home Counties because they prosper, not to make them so.

(It feels like the Matthew Effect: For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.)

I am suspicious of government interference, and the spending of my money on projects that would be better done by those who know what they are doing, which is to say commercial entrepreneurs. That said, the south is awash with gold at the moment and can be left to fester for a bit while the North is under the spotlight, to encourage the private investment which could be its due. What the North needs more than grands projets though is less government; for the state, often local government, to get out of the way and let enterprising men and women do their magic (and not to blunder in with well-meaning subsidies to unfair competition).

If the left-behind areas can have the yoke taken off so that they thrive, that is more prosperity to the nation as a whole. That would really be building back better.

See also

Books

I’ve got a little list: do you?

Writing the unspoken voice of the audience, Gilbert and Sullivan, wrote in frustration at the politicians of their day, who were exactly like those of our day. When Ko-Ko produces his ‘Little List’ it satirised the politician having a malicious crack-down, but it is a list of those the audience-member would persecute were they in charge, which would be sobering if it were not so funny, and liberating to say.

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found
I’ve got a little list — I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!

Every performer playing Ko-Ko changes the list to include his own pet gripes or the politics of the day, with nods and winks to the audience, which is exactly what G&S expected. Gilbert’s original stil holds up though:

There’s the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs —

Yes – they get the writers’ frustration in first. Apparently some people still bother celebs in that way.

And all third persons who on spoiling tête-à-têtes insist —
They’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed!

Come now: in any of those endless tedious receptions the lone visitor is sent out into a room knowing no one and has to stand around like a lemon, with a compulsory glass in his hand, until he can contrive to interrupt some else’s conversation on the limpest of excuses. (A great blessing of lockdown has been avoiding those functions.) Have some sympathy, gentlemen

There’s the banjo serenader, and the others of his race
And the piano-organist — I’ve got him on the list!

Quite right too. Banjos are mercifully rare today but ukuleles are everywhere, encouraged even in some outwardly respectable schools. At least the ukulele is to be preferred to a banjo, as it burns better.

Then comes the piano accordion. I read that after the 1745 Rebellion, a youth was convicted of bearing arms against the King when he had but carried a bagpipe. Well, if a bagpipe is an offensive weapon (which few dispute), how much more the piano-accordion! If they were not punished hitherto, it is only because even the rough Highlanders would not have stooped to bearing such an instrument.

Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone
All centuries but this, and every country but his own;

Isn’t that just the curse of our times? Many an outwardly educated man will regale you unbidden about how our nation has fallen into decadency unlike some other age he may name, or to assure you that another country of his acquaintance is far superior in every turn of life, be it France, China or Darkest Peru, based on his long observations over a weekend break or a book he once read. I can barely imagine the Edwardians, for example, tolerating such impudence – that was a far more confident age where patriotism was expected of all and a natural thing, unlike these degraded generations, and even today you would not find this self-hating attitude in patriotic America, or France – the French indeed for all their bizarre philosophy are solidly patriotic, which is as we should be.

And the lady from the provinces, who dresses like a guy
And who “doesn’t think she dances, but would rather like to try”;
And that singular anomaly, the lady novelist —
I don’t think she’d be missed — I’m sure she’d not he missed!

Now wait; that “dresses like a guy” means “like a Guy Fawkes effigy”, not, well, you know. Country ladies in my experience are more elegant, though you take your context into account. Long, scarlet silk dresses, heels and jewellery do work in a London restaurant (or one of those tedious receptions) but are ridiculous the moment she is out of that room. Such apparel is not for real life hauling soggy dogs out of the back of a Volvo or being hauled by them through bushes. No; a country lass beats them all, and if she wants to write a book, good for her, as long as I’m not expected to read it.

And that Nisi Prius nuisance, who just now is rather rife
The Judicial humourist — I’ve got him on the list!

I sympathise with the judges. All day long, five days a week, and into the evenings, they are heads-down over papers that delve deep into the worst of profundities of humanity, or in the court itself, which is a piece of theatre (except that on a theatrical performance hang the livelihoods of the actors and all those who work at the theatre, while in a court hangs the livelihood only of the one man in the dock). The sordid underbelly of human life exposed, the future of the defendant in the balance, the reputation of order and justice themselves at risk; but it has to be played according to rules, with utter politeness and respect on all sides, strained sometimes, but it is not personal. It is an inherently ludicrous situation, so surely a judge cannot help but show it sometimes. He has to wade through the relentless awfulness of criminality, so a sense of humour is vital. On the other hand, if you are the defendant in the dock you expect your future to decided in a sombre, precise manner, not by what might as well be stand-up night at the Duke of York.

And apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind

And such apologies for statesmen we have today. What is it about apologising for everything? That is theatre in itself. I will at some point get round to writing about political apologies, but it would go on for longer than I wish to spend on a line of G&S. Suffice to say that a politician who apologises or kneels (or worse) makes himself despicable. I could name several but –

The task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to you
But it really doesn’t matter whom you put upon the list
For they’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed!

See also

Nicola’s Muzzle – 2

Since I last wrote of Nicola Sturgeon’s Bill to ban speech, more immediate events have seized the attention, but on this bandwagon runs. In that time yet more voices have risen against it. Yet Nicola controls in a presidential manner all the levers of state, and weak MSPs ready to do her will. The threat is very real. I chose to leave writing this until I was out of Scotland and outside her reach.


The ‘Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill’ is kept relatively short. It has been promoted as a measure against ‘hate speech’, but goes far beyond even the measures Tony Blair left us with.

I previously wrote about the opening, which has been little commented upon, forcing sheriffs to act outside common sense and conscience. The meat of commentary is on Part 2: ‘Offences relating to stirring up hatred’. Now, for a such a Bill to be promoted by a political party built entirely on stirring hatred up against their fellow countrymen, this is chutzpah indeed. The provisions are beyond humour.

It will be a crime to behave in a threatening, abusive or even merely insulting manner, or to communicate insulting material to another, if with the intent to stir up hatred against a defined racial or national group or even if with no intent if it is likely that ‘hatred’ will be ‘stirred up’. It does not say that SNP branch meetings are exempt, but I would not want to be the constable to tries to arrest the unbridled tongues that do just this at every one.

The clause would ban the Daily Mail and half a dozen other papers from distribution in Scotland, as soon as someone alleges that one of their leading articles has stirred prejudice against foreigners. Stirring hatred against journalists or political opponents is not covered.

Secondly, it will be a crime to behave in a threatening or abusive manner, or to communicate abusive material to stir up hatred, or be likely to, against a number of listed identity groups. It does not here say ‘insult’ here, but that will be added later, the moment an advocacy group in receipt of taxpayers’ money claims it is a hole in the legislation. In any case, ‘abusive’ may mean exactly the same.

The groups covered include the usual suspects, including ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘transgender identity’.

It would be a defence (at least in the initial draft – this may come out) for a person charged to show that their behaviour was ‘in the particular circumstances, reasonable’: that is undefined and I pity the advocate who tries to argue it, in professional terms and also because of the hate mobs who would besiege his chambers afterwards. ‘Reasonable’ by whose standards, or to achieve what? This may be interpreted, in the spirit of the Act, that no behaviour may be adjudged a reasonable infringement of the presumptions the Act contains, leaving no defence.

The major trap hidden in the formulaic words is in the key line ‘as a result, it is likely that hatred will be stirred up against such a group’. Consider it for a moment: it does not say how much hatred is t be engendered by the actions in question: it might be one mad, tinfoil-hatted nut on Facebook who reads words and feels hatred growing in his heart, and that has stirred hatred. Had the words said ‘in a significant portion of the population’ it would be bad but not as bad as this: had it said promoting violence against members of a group that would even seem acceptable, but stirring any hatred at all, that is unavoidable in social commentary.

It is worse than the apparent aim of the wording: it can catch anyone with views someone else does not want to hear. Hatred has to be directed at a group – but the Bill does not say that the speaker had to have that group as a target: he might be a Christian preacher with nothing but love in his heart but by saying something that an angry Woke mob does not want to hear, he has stirred the hatred of the mob against him and against Christians, and so he is guilty, and looking at 12 months in Barlinnie.

So much more could be said, and will be.

See also