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Monday, September 26, 2005


Britain's premier holiday resort

I am happy to report that I am now back in the world of broadband, having given up on the 'facilities' at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool. Some were blaming the contractors hired to install the internet connections, others the party's conference organiser for failing to check whether things worked properly before the conference started.

But given that Blackpool's Winter Gardens is used by various conferences and exhibitions all year round, one wonders why the local council (which owns the complex) has not by now had the wit to install permanent broadband connections or even wi-fi.

At the beginning of the conference, none of the promised internet connections worked - the media, party staff, delegates and exhibitors were all deprived. The problem was not properly sorted out until half way through the conference, and even then the connection was a slow dial-up system.

However, the lack of broadband is the least of Blackpool's worries. Several Liberal Democrat bloggers have commented in the past week about the state of Blackpool, including
Adrian Sanders MP ("pools of urine and vomit") and Jonathan Calder.

The Liberal Democrats last held their conference in Blackpool in 1990. Even so, such is the town's reputation that delegate registrations were significantly lower than in previous years. Those party members who did turn up had a good time in an ironic way, sharing a gallows humour about bad hotels. But the Guardian's leader (21 September) "in praise of Blackpool" was not credible.

The more expensive the hotel, the worse the complaints. People paying as little as £16 per night for bed and breakfast could afford to be philosophical about nylon bedsheets and arcane rules. The biggest complaints came from guests paying £130 a night to stay at the Imperial, Blackpool's top hotel, which was used as the party's headquarters hotel.

Everyone had a hotel story. Here's mine. I stayed in a middling place, which was fine apart from the absurd plethora of notices stuck to every surface. I recall from previous visits that Blackpool's hotel owners had a habit of pinning to the walls assorted warning and rules, written in shaky biro. Since my last visit, desk-top publishing software and laminating machines have been democratised, and my hotel's owners had used both with abandon.

You could tell the signs were home-made rather than professionally published, because whoever designed them couldn't resist going overboard with colours, fonts and clip-art. The walls of the hotel reception were plastered with rules covering every possible contingency, including a ban on taking hot take-away food into one's bedroom (an extensive list of foodstuffs was helpfully provided, in case there were any doubt which types of food this rule might cover).

This decorative theme continued into the bedrooms. On the back of my bedroom door, beneath the obligatory fire alarm warnings, was a set of byzantine rules regarding the circumstances in which the bedsheets would be changed more often than normal, and a tariff for changing them in the event of wetting the bed (the highest price being charged for steam cleaning the mattress). At the bottom of this particular list of rules was a ban on feeding pigeons through the bedroom window.

This culture of petty rules suggests that, either most guests of Blackpool's hotels are barely civilised, or the hotel owners' basic assumption is that their guests are stupid and untrustworthy. Or possibly both.

Apart from conference delegates, it would seem that Blackpool's visitors nowadays comprise just two categories of people: the over-70s "mustn't moan, mustn't grumble" generation, who have never known anything else and like having dinner served in their hotels at 5pm prompt (this generation will be gone within ten to fifteen years); and working class 17-23 year-olds, in town for stag nights, hen parties or just the cheap drink (it was noticeable that these young people roamed the town in single-sex groups, never mixed). A phrase someone else thought up, "a Chav Beirut", is perhaps a little extreme but I wish I had thought of it.

What appals middle-class visitors to Blackpool most, however, is the sheer scale of the tawdriness. Blackpool is not the only British seaside resort dying on its arse. And likewise, every inland town in Britain has a shabby district on the fringe of its centre, dominated by kebab joints, games arcades, places that cash cheques and shops selling second-hand washing machines. It's just that the whole of Blackpool is like that - a large town with a resident population of a quarter of a million.

The political problem is that Blackpool has lost its economic raison d'être. It existed to entertain the industrial working classes from the mill towns. Now the mills have gone, and so have most of the working class. As Jonathan Calder put it,

... the British seaside is struggling because the working class has grown more affluent and expects higher standards. Which is a thoroughly good thing.
It might be more accurate to say that most working class people have become middle class.

It is commonplace to blame package holidays and cheap flights for the decline of Blackpool and other British seaside resorts. But a more basic reason is that, with a growth in affluence, tastes and expectations have changed. The punters would still have deserted Blackpool even if flights had remained expensive. Large resorts such as Brighton and Bournemouth have adapted and continue to thrive. Blackpool is stuck in a time warp.

The statistics speak for themselves. Blackpool's annual visitor numbers have declined from 16.8 million in 1989 to 11.1 million in 1999, a drop of 5.7 million over ten years, or 0.57 million per year. At that rate, the number of visitors will reach zero by the year 2018. The town's annual average hotel bed occupancy rate has sunk to 22%. It has the second lowest average life expectancy in the country, and the second worst rate of deprivation (one dreads to think which town is top of those two league tables).

Blackpool is now pinning its hopes on becoming host to Britain's first 'super-casino'. But who does it imagine will be attracted? The town lacks what one might term a middle-class infrastructure; the supporting network of more upmarket hotels, bars and restaurants, without which any casino cannot hope to attract affluent high-spenders.

It is hard to know what any government could do in such circumstances, or whether it should even bother. Government investment would be wise if it were pump-priming the development of alternative industries to get the town back on its feet. An endless state subsidy is not the answer.

Blackpool is dying because most people no longer want what it has to offer. Its traditional clientele is rapidly dying off and its youthful booze-fuelled clientele repels every other category of potential visitor. Most of its buildings are Victorian and in desperate need of repair. The cost of refurbishing the town would be enormous - and for what? As with some old mining towns, the only answer may be to demolish it and start afresh.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Blackpool Unplugged

So much to say, so little bandwidth.

Internet connections at the Liberal Democrat conference have been at best inadequate, at worst non-existent. I shall report at more length shortly.

In the meantime, one Blackpool story tells you all you need to know. A Liberal Democrat MP was travelling in a local taxi yesterday and struck up a conversation with the driver about Blackpool's plan to revitalise its image and economy with a 'super casino'.

The taxi driver said, "Well, if we're going to compete with Las Vegas and Monte Carlo, the council will have sort out the parking."

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Monochrome in Channel, continent isolated

Everybody's talking about the new Berliner format of the Guardian, so I may as well join in.

I bought my first edition yesterday in Brussels. Although the 'international edition' of the Guardian is printed on the continent rather than air-freighted from England, any reader purchasing this edition in the Eurozone must pay 2.80 euros (about £1.90), rising to a whopping 3.50 euros (£2.35) on Saturdays (in comparison, the UK cover prices are 60p and £1.20 respectively). This practice is not confined to the Guardian; equivalent editions of the other British daily newspapers are similarly priced.

At this premium price, I suspect most overseas readers examining the new format will have felt short-changed. The new size is fine but then size isn't everything.

While the UK edition is printed in full colour, the international edition has colour only on the outside of the front and back pages of the main section. Everything else is in black and white. Since the Berliner format is commonplace on the continent, there seems no reason why printing on the continent in this format should present any barrier to full colour.

As for the G2 section turning into a "full-colour, stapled, news magazine", all that the readers of the international edition got on Monday was a monochrome G2, loose-leaf and only 16 pages. One result was that, in Monday's Steve Bell If... cartoon, the punchline (a joke relying on the use of colour) fell flat in black and white. And the international version of G2 has also lost its TV and radio listings for no obvious reason.

The international edition of the Guardian has always been slimmer than the UK version but then I have never begrudged the loss of the 80-page job sections or the dreary features on social work. That is one Nordic forest that doesn't need chopping down.

However, if the Guardian is going to charge its continental readers more than three times the UK cover price for something that is printed only up the road in Lille, it can do better than this.

PS: Tuesday's international edition has the TV and radio listings restored, now in the main section. Otherwise, my criticisms stand.

Sunday, September 11, 2005


Those people don't count

Yesterday I suggested you read Actually Existing's analysis of the Katrina disaster.

Now Phil Edwards has written a
follow-up. I cannot recommend it highly enough - the quote from Alasdair Gray's novel 1982 Janine is worth the price of admission alone.

Saturday, September 10, 2005


And if you don't like sport...

Hands up anyone who remembers Les Kellet.

Last year, Jonathan Calder
reminded us that the popularity of sports can go down as well as up. He cited speedway and show jumping as examples of sports that once commanded the nation's attention but no longer do so.

One sport that Jonathan didn't mention, but to which his argument applies, is wrestling (the 'all-in' variety with Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, rather than the American WWF version). Few British sports can have suffered such a precipitous decline - it was once compulsory viewing at 4pm every Saturday in most British households, but is now forgotten.

All-in wrestling's sudden death was brought about by Greg Dyke's decision in 1988 to cut off ITV's television coverage. Dyke, then chairman of ITV Sport, declared, "We had to get rid of the symbolic things that we held in the past."

I was reminded of this by an
article in today's Guardian commemorating World of Sport, ITV's Saturday afternoon rival to the BBC's Grandstand, which ran from 1965 until it was axed in 1985. Wrestling occupied the 4pm slot on the show every week, immediately before the final scores.

There were widespread doubts whether ITV's all-in wrestling was really a sport - it was no secret that the bouts were fixed. But then some of the other 'sports' on World of Sport stretched credulity still further - cliff-diving from Acapulco, hovercraft racing, the world log sawing championships, and barrel jumping from Connecticut.

Nostalgia buffs can relive the heyday of World of Sport in a special TV programme next Tuesday, presented by the original host Dickie Davies from a mocked-up studio set (ITV1, Tuesday 13th September at 9.45pm).

The Guardian article reveals that World of Sport was even more of a low budget production than most viewers imagined.

· The spinning "S" symbol was made of cardboard and was spun by hand while a camera zoomed in.

· The football results were on a wooden cube - while division one was being read out, staff were still sticking on the numbers for divisions three and four on the other sides.
The article does get one fact wrong, however. As any fule kno, the name of ITV's wrestling commentator was Kent Walton (not "Ken").


Bullying Manner

A forgotten figure of post-war British politics is Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, Tory Attorney-General from 1954 to 1962, then (as Lord Dilhorne) Lord Chancellor from 1962 to 1964. He was a notoriously aggressive prosecutor of Official Secrets cases - the satirist Bernard Levin nicknamed him "Sir Reginald Bullying-Manner" (and later "Lord Stillborn").

His daughter, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, is now head of MI5 and turns out to have inherited her father's repressive and illiberal streak. In a speech delivered on 1st September (and yesterday disclosed
online by MI5), she said that our civil liberties may need to be "eroded" to protect us against terrorism (see reports today from the BBC and the Guardian).

Miss Bullying-Manner is repeating the fallacy parroted endlessly by New Labour's ministers; that public security and civil liberties exist in inverse proportion and that, if we want to protect one, we must sacrifice the other. As I said in an
earlier posting, this notion of a trade-off recalls that infamous declaration, "In order to save the village, it was necessary to destroy it."

There are two other fallacies at work; that our basic liberties are the gift of the government, to be granted or withdrawn at will, and that whenever terrorists attack, the first thing we need is more laws. The usual motive behind such demands for new repressive legislation is either administrative convenience or a desire to create a bogus impression of action, and often both.

No-one has made a convincing case that our existing liberties make us more vulnerable or that "eroding" them will solve the problem of terrorism. All that such eroding would do is hand victory to the terrorists on a plate. Our civil liberties are not some expendable ornament bolted-on to our society; they are our society.

On this morning's BBC Radio 4
Today programme, the Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords, Tom McNally, passed on some wise advice about Britain's spymasters:

Ever since I've heard Dame Eliza's speech or reports of it, I've been thinking of a comment that Jim Callaghan once made to me. ... we sat in on a briefing by the security services, and when they left, Jim turned to me and he said, "Always listen to what they say, but never suspend your own political judgement." And that's my advice to the government as well. There's always a pressure - we're on now I think under this government either our fifth or sixth anti-terrorism bill - and I do think that it's important that ministers retain their political judgement and understand that parliament has a role when the executive, when the security services ask for greater powers.
(You can listen to the whole interview here).

Miss Bullying-Manner, like any other civil servant, has no business attempting to set the political agenda or to tell us what liberties we may or may not have. She is out of order and should be sacked.

I have not yet heard the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman issue a public repudiation of Miss Bullying-Manner's views but, like every other Liberal Democrat, I am sure that he agrees with Tom McNally and me, and that he will get round to it in due course.


A dysfunctional state

Everyone in the USA from the President downwards seems to agree that the response to the Katrina disaster was, at best, inadequate. Disagreement is about the "why" and the "who", and that debate seems to be taking a predictably partisan course. Needless to say, the White House and Fox TV are leading the smear campaigns.

For a more intelligent analysis, read this
Actually Existing posting. Phil Edwards argues we are seeing a combination of big government incompetence reminiscent of the Soviet system, and the worst of the 'free market', being forced into areas where it is not appropriate. The whole mess is capped by a "consultant culture".

A system doesn't work if the people running it don't believe in it.

PS: In all the excitement about Hurricane Katrina, it may have escaped your attention that parts of southern France suffered severe flooding last week. The worst-hit area was around the city of Nîmes (full details - in French - in a special report in the regional daily Midi Libre; the only English-language news report I can find online is in, of all places, Pravda). There are local arguments going on about the system of flood alerts and whether the evacuation could have been better organised. But there are no bodies floating down the streets - indeed, no reports of casualties at all - so not a word in the British media.

Friday, September 09, 2005


Biting the hand...

Some conservative bloggers and media in the USA (such as this ignoramus) have been criticising foreigners for not offering to help after Hurricane Katrina, and for failing to return past favours.

Well, excuse me. I think they'll find the facts don't fit their prejudices. A more liberal American blogger debunks some myths
here. Meanwhile, Euractiv.com reports that any reluctance to provide help was in Washington rather than abroad:

Initial reluctance from the American President to accept foreign aid subsided once the extent of the destruction became apparent. A week after Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the American Gulf Coast the Bush administration placed an official request for emergency assistance from the European Union and NATO. On 4 September a list from the US government was distributed to EU capitals detailing vitally-needed aid material such as generators, water pumps, ready-meals and tents.

According to Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, the EU has been ready to contribute to the US efforts aimed at alleviating the humanitarian crisis in New Orleans, yet the request for help only arrived after several days of "informal contacts and preparatory activities".

Offers of emergency relief have been flowing into Washington from foreign governments since the sheer scale of the tragedy became clear. The failure of the US government to react swiftly or take control of the situation has led to scathing attacks from various media.

According to some European observers, channeling the emergency aid through NATO and the European Union spares the Bush administration from the possible embarrassment of having to accept relief from individual governments and leaders to which it would rather not be indebted.

The EU's aid coordination office in Brussels will manage the aid from member countries that have pledged relief supplies. Emergency aid from the EU includes a crisis intervention team from the Austrian Red Cross; water purification units from Denmark and Sweden and 50,000 pre-prepared meals along with medical experts and disaster management specialists from the UK. Germany has offered to send airlift, vaccination, water-purification, medical-supply and pumping services, while France has agreed to donate 600 tents, 1,000 camp beds, 60 generators and three portable water-treatment plants as well as a 60-strong disaster relief team, two planes, two naval vessels and a hospital ship.

Statements from US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff implying that the depleted number of local authorities was largely at fault for the delayed response angered state officials who complained that federal authorities had failed to deliver urgent help on time and had even blocked some aid efforts.
I get the impression that, while the USA may suffer from a shortage of aid, there is no shortage of finger-pointing. Rival Americans are playing this blame game mainly at each other's expense and the rest of the world is simply being hit by some of the crossfire.


Hurricanes: a scientist writes...

Q. Was Hurricane Katrina cause by global warming?
A. Probably not.

Global warming presents probably the greatest threat to the future welfare of mankind. People in the developed world must be persuaded to change their behaviour to avert a catastrophe and it sometimes seems that the only way to do this is by shocking people with dramatic events. But unsubstantiated claims don't help the cause.

Inevitably, some commentators were quick to blame climate change for Hurricane Katrina. There appears no evidence to support this view.

essay by Robert L Korty dispels many myths. The number and frequency of hurricanes has remained remarkably stable since records began. There is a theoretical risk that global warming may cause a modest increase in the intensity of individual storms, although this is far less important than other, demographic factors.

Irresponsible behaviour by mankind is making hurricanes more dangerous, but in a different way:

These [climate] changes are dwarfed by many more immediate, largely demographic factors, which leave us susceptible to increasing damage. We have been witnessing a huge increase in insured losses in the United States, and most or all of this is due to the rapid rise in population and property development along the coast from Texas to Maine, in regions prone to hurricanes. A return to a more active period in the Atlantic means losses are certain to increase further in the years to come. Other human-instigated changes have consequences too, and Katrina illuminated several obvious examples that had a devastating impact. Draining bayous (which causes the silt left behind to compact), eliminating sand dunes, or deforesting mountains (which leaves towns at the base vulnerable to mud slides) leave coastal populations devoid of natural protections. All this remains true regardless of how much the planet warms. We remain unprepared for these storms and their aftermath at our peril.
We should be sceptical of those politicians and activists who leapt to quick conclusions after Katrina. But that is no reason to support the anti-environmentalist 'contrarians' who argue we can carry on regardless.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


Europe uncovered

Given the tendency of British parliamentary media coverage to focus on Westminster and neglect other places, you may be unaware of a significant achievement this week by a British Liberal Democrat MEP.

Chris Davies, leader of the British Lib Dem group in the European Parliament, has
succeeded in getting all five British group leaders to put their signatures on a call for greater transparency in the EU's Council of Ministers. Their letter to the Times was published on Tuesday.

This is not only a remarkable display of unity, but draws attention to the fact that the Council is the only legislature in the world (apart from those in Havana and Pyongyang) to make some of its decisions in secret. While the EU takes a lot of flak in the British media, it is worth pointing out that this state of affairs is entirely the fault of the member state governments that comprise the Council, not the European Commission or Parliament (background

Apart from the
Times, the only national media coverage for this story was in Tuesday's Guardian and BBC News Online.

The limited press coverage for Chris's initiative may in part be due to the fact that the British media found the activities of one his fellow Lib Dem MEPs much more interesting. Liz Lynne has been making a big fuss about
an altogether different form of exposure.


Land of the free?

It's funny how fashions in economic dogma change.

Not long ago, we were taught to look up to the German economic system as a model. Now, to read some commentators, you'd think that this very same system is a basket case (despite the fact that, last year, Germany overtook the USA as the world's largest exporter).

Next, it was the so-called 'tiger economies' of the Far East that we were expected to worship. Then a big recession hit Japan, from which it has still not recovered, and no-one talks about the 'tiger economies' any more.

The current economic mode du jour is the USA. Behind the impressive growth rates, however, lurk some less impressive statistics.

Paychecks that rose with productivity gains through the middle decades of the 20th century no longer do so. Since the early 1970's, national product per person has grown more than 75 percent, but the median wage of male workers has risen barely two cents, adjusted for inflation, from $15.24 in 1973 to just $15.26 last year. Family incomes are up only because wives have gone into paid work and everyone's putting in more hours. Job loss often means loss of health insurance and a tax-advantaged pension.
(Robert B Reich, New York Times, 3 September 2005).

The U.S. Census Bureau reported a few days ago that the poverty rate rose again last year, with 1.1 million more Americans living in poverty in 2004 than a year earlier. After declining sharply under Bill Clinton, the number of poor people has now risen 17 percent under Mr. Bush.

If it's shameful that we have bloated corpses on New Orleans streets, it's even more disgraceful that the infant mortality rate in America's capital is twice as high as in China's capital. That's right - the number of babies who died before their first birthdays amounted to 11.5 per thousand live births in 2002 in Washington, compared with 4.6 in Beijing.

Indeed, according to the United Nations Development Program, an African-American baby in Washington has less chance of surviving its first year than a baby born in urban parts of the state of Kerala in India.

Under Mr. Bush, the national infant mortality rate has risen for the first time since 1958. The U.S. ranks 43rd in the world in infant mortality, according to the C.I.A.'s World Factbook; if we could reach the level of Singapore, ranked No. 1, we would save 18,900 children's lives each year.

So in some ways the poor children evacuated from New Orleans are the lucky ones because they may now get checkups and vaccinations. Nationally, 29 percent of children had no health insurance at some point in the last 12 months, and many get neither checkups nor vaccinations. On immunizations, the U.S. ranks 84th for measles and 89th for polio.
(Nicholas D Kristof, New York Times, 6 September 2005).

Well at least President Bush says he "feels their pain". I wonder, do the people in Britain who advocate copying his neo-liberal economic policies feel anything at all?


Born Abroad

Immigration is one of those political topics that always seem to generate more heat than light. So it was interesting to see some data rather than bigotry for a change. This Wednesday, the BBC published a report it had commissioned from the IPPR, based on data from the 2001 census, which examined the foreign-born population (whether naturalised or not) resident in the UK.

One's attitudes to immigration tend to be governed by whether one is a
drawbridge up or drawbridge down person. If you prefer not to see some cherished myths demolished, look away now.

Among the findings in the BBC's Born Abroad survey are some interesting factoids:

There is much more data for you to explore on the BBC's Born Abroad site, including detailed geographical breakdowns.

We know from the work of Prof Richard Florida on the '
creative class' that towns and cities that embrace an ethnically diverse population tend to perform better economically. We also know that more cosmopolitan cultures are politically more (small 'l') liberal.

If I were a budding Liberal Democrat candidate, I would be scrutinising the detailed district-by-district figures, together with data on where graduates and undergraduates live, for some clues about the future good prospects for parliamentary gains over the next few years.

Sunday, September 04, 2005


Warning: contains strong language

You want to hear a strong case for devolution of power?

Spare five minutes to listen to
this interview with the Mayor of New Orleans (originally broadcast live last Thursday). I swear you will never before have heard an interview with a politician quite like this.

PS: A partial transcript of the interview is here.

Saturday, September 03, 2005


The end of civilisation

The unfolding Hurricane Katrina disaster in the USA's southern states is exerting an unusual hold on audiences throughout the western world. It is because it has brought to life possibly our worst nightmare - the complete breakdown of civil society. Images from New Orleans remind us of things we had previously seen only in post-apocalyptic movies such as the Mad Max series.

New Orleans may be an extraordinarily quirky city but it is (or was) a modern western metropolis. "There but for the grace of God..." is our private fear.

It is not so much the breakdown of law and order, bad though that is. It is the sudden and complete loss of basic amenities that the developed world takes for granted: food, water, power, sanitation and healthcare.

A clearly angry journalist, Paul Mason, reported from Baton Rouge in Louisiana on last night's BBC2's
Newsnight. He explained that the violent lawlessness in New Orleans was the work of a small minority and that the remarkable thing was that most people were acting responsibly with a strong community spirit. He was reflecting the anger of local people outraged that their problems are being depicted to the outside world in a somewhat different light.

Many media, politicians and government officials have chosen to portray the disaster in racist terms. In today's Guardian, novelist
Darryl Pinckney unpicks this agenda, showing not only how poor black people have been left to fend for themselves, but also how they are now being positioned as the chief culprits.

The images of black people emerging from broken glass fronts with armloads of clothes or cigarettes bring to mind the LA riots, as if to say: this is what black people do at the first breakdown of public order.
No-one could have prevented the hurricane, but its effects could have been mitigated to a much greater extent. If there are culprits, they are the politicians who cut back on investment in flood prevention and disaster preparations, despite clear warnings. The Bush administration has taken a lot of flak this week (which gets stronger the closer you get to the scene of the disaster). It is hardly surprising that the administration should respond by launching a PR operation to shift the blame elsewhere.

More generally, this disaster has demonstrated both our complete dependence on communal infrastructure and people's strength when they act in community. It brings into sharp relief the interdependence of people in the modern world and ought to serve as a salutary lesson to advocates of an atomised individualism.

PS: According to one demented source, the disaster isn't the fault of the blacks but of the gays.


The Perils of PowerPoint

In our working lives, most of us have endured more turgid PowerPoint presentations than we care to remember. But how worse would it have been if PowerPoint had been available in previous eras?

Here is President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address modernised -
The Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation (via Leading by the Rainbow).

And here is the real thing.

Friday, September 02, 2005


When the levee breaks...

... it's not just New Orleans that gets washed out but also much neo-conservative dogma. The neglect of infrastructure and organisation by an arrogant and ideologically-driven government has made the consequences of a natural catastrophe much worse than they need have been.

As the week has progressed, more and more stories of warnings ignored and fundamental incompetence have emerged. Scenes on the TV news have resembled more a war-torn African country than the richest nation on Earth.

The best analysis of the situation I have read so far is Paul Krugman's
column in today's New York Times (which I'll quote in full for the benefit of those not registered):


Before 9/11 the Federal Emergency Management Agency listed the three most likely catastrophic disasters facing America: a terrorist attack on New York, a major earthquake in San Francisco and a hurricane strike on New Orleans. "The New Orleans hurricane scenario," The Houston Chronicle wrote in December 2001, "may be the deadliest of all." It described a potential catastrophe very much like the one now happening.

So why were New Orleans and the nation so unprepared? After 9/11, hard questions were deferred in the name of national unity, then buried under a thick coat of whitewash. This time, we need accountability.

First question: Why have aid and security taken so long to arrive? Katrina hit five days ago - and it was already clear by last Friday that Katrina could do immense damage along the Gulf Coast. Yet the response you'd expect from an advanced country never happened. Thousands of Americans are dead or dying, not because they refused to evacuate, but because they were too poor or too sick to get out without help - and help wasn't provided. Many have yet to receive any help at all.

There will and should be many questions about the response of state and local governments; in particular, couldn't they have done more to help the poor and sick escape? But the evidence points, above all, to a stunning lack of both preparation and urgency in the federal government's response.

Even military resources in the right place weren't ordered into action. "On Wednesday," said an editorial in The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., "reporters listening to horrific stories of death and survival at the Biloxi Junior High School shelter looked north across Irish Hill Road and saw Air Force personnel playing basketball and performing calisthenics. Playing basketball and performing calisthenics!"

Maybe administration officials believed that the local National Guard could keep order and deliver relief. But many members of the National Guard and much of its equipment - including high-water vehicles - are in Iraq. "The National Guard needs that equipment back home to support the homeland security mission," a Louisiana Guard officer told reporters several weeks ago.

Second question: Why wasn't more preventive action taken? After 2003 the Army Corps of Engineers sharply slowed its flood-control work, including work on sinking levees. "The corps," an Editor and Publisher article says, citing a series of articles in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, "never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security - coming at the same time as federal tax cuts - was the reason for the strain."

In 2002 the corps' chief resigned, reportedly under threat of being fired, after he criticized the administration's proposed cuts in the corps' budget, including flood-control spending.

Third question: Did the Bush administration destroy FEMA's effectiveness? The administration has, by all accounts, treated the emergency management agency like an unwanted stepchild, leading to a mass exodus of experienced professionals.

Last year James Lee Witt, who won bipartisan praise for his leadership of the agency during the Clinton years, said at a Congressional hearing: "I am extremely concerned that the ability of our nation to prepare for and respond to disasters has been sharply eroded. I hear from emergency managers, local and state leaders, and first responders nearly every day that the FEMA they knew and worked well with has now disappeared."

I don't think this is a simple tale of incompetence. The reason the military wasn't rushed in to help along the Gulf Coast is, I believe, the same reason nothing was done to stop looting after the fall of Baghdad. Flood control was neglected for the same reason our troops in Iraq didn't get adequate armor.

At a fundamental level, I'd argue, our current leaders just aren't serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don't like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures. And they never, ever ask for shared sacrifice.

Yesterday Mr. Bush made an utterly fantastic claim: that nobody expected the breach of the levees. In fact, there had been repeated warnings about exactly that risk.

So America, once famous for its can-do attitude, now has a can't-do government that makes excuses instead of doing its job. And while it makes those excuses, Americans are dying.
Many assumed that Iraq would be the undoing of the Bush administration but few suspected it would happen in quite this tragic way.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


Come back Pukka Pies, all is forgiven

Not dead yet. Posted by Picasa

When I were a lad, pub food was very simple. Crisps, salted peanuts, pork scratchings and, if you were lucky, Pukka Pies. They sat in a heated display unit on top of the bar all evening until the pie fillings reached a similar temperature to the centre of the sun.

You will have gathered from the existence of a hyperlink to Pukka Pies that they are still in business. I thought they went out with Whitbread Trophy, red formica tables and old blokes playing cribbage, but a quick Google search proved me wrong.

They've modernised the product range since the 1970s, mind. I don't recall peering into a Pukka Pie display unit in those days and seeing 'Luxury Halal Chicken Balti Pies'.

Times have changed. The average British pub nowadays offers a much more elaborate menu. A beef and onion pie won't do (and neither will a chicken balti pie, 'luxury' or not). The punters can choose chargrilled chicken with mango salsa or Thai ginger fish brochettes. And why not? Our palates have become more sophisticated and pubs must raise their gastronomic game.

But there are two problems with this development, and both are to do with honesty.

If you watched Rick Stein's two recent
Food Heroes series on BBC2, you may recall his frequent rants about the difficulty of finding traditional dishes or local produce in most British pubs and restaurants. In one programme, he arrived in Lancashire.

"I couldn't find a hotpot in any pub, any restaurant, any hotel, anymore. You just think... what is wrong with this country!"
While many pubs are anxious to promote locally-produced real ales in an effort to meet the modern craving for 'authenticity', their food rarely has any connection to the locality. Indeed, it lacks any sense of place (local or otherwise) but instead trades on a sort of free-floating faux-exoticism invented by pretentious marketing men. This ersatz cosmopolitan pub food also exploits the popular fallacy that, the longer the menu, the better. It's not that pub customers should be forced to eat local food, rather that they rarely have the option.

The second form of dishonesty is less immediately obvious but is the likely cause of the first. The writer and critic Jonathan Meades once pointed out that, if you wanted to discover the British catering industry's dirty secret, all you had to do was look in the pages of its trade press. Most of the advertisements in these magazines are not placed by suppliers of fresh food but by suppliers of assorted ready-made culinary short cuts.

Joanna Blythman's
article in Wednesday's Guardian G2 supplement revealed the strong likelihood that your 'gastronomic' pub meal has come out of a packet. Most customers are oblivious and purchase their meals in good faith, on the reasonable assumption that the food on their plates is the result of some culinary skill applied to fresh ingredients in the kitchen.

Pubs that re-heat industrially-produced processed food and present it as if it were freshly cooked aren't telling their customers downright lies (which would be illegal). But, by serving bought-in food that is essentially no different to what you could find in a supermarket chiller cabinet, they are being less than honest.

And let's not assume that everyone wants freshly-prepared food. I can imagine there may be some customers who actually prefer a boil-in-the-bag dish, on the grounds that there is less a pub's chef can do to ruin it. Either way, people can make a real choice only if it is an informed choice.

One of the assumptions behind classical economic theory is that, to achieve a perfect market, one must have 'perfect knowledge'. In other words, for the free market to function effectively, amongst other things, customers must be in full possession of the facts.

When it comes to dining out, the simplest way to achieve this would be to oblige pubs and restaurants to declare on their menus whether the food is fresh or comes out of a packet (a task no more onerous than applying the widely-used vegetarian 'V' symbol), enabling consumers to make more informed choices. Such honesty would oil the wheels of the 'free market', surely?

Ah, say the laissez-faire purists, but you can't do that because regulation is interference with the free market. Perhaps one of them could explain how many angels can dance on this particular pinhead?

Meanwhile, say what you like about Pukka Pies, but at least the cellophane wrapping is removed from the product in front of the customer.

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