Stoptober – just make it stop

Encouraging people to look after their health is a good thing. Eat less fat and sugar, take more exercise, don’t drink too much alcohol and don’t smoke – all good, solid advice dished out in large helpings by doctors the length and breadth of the country.

In the UK, the NHS is running a month-long ‘stop smoking’ campaign in October. It’s called Stoptober.

While making my way through the centre of Reading on Sunday 21 September, I witnessed the local launch of Stoptober.

It was dismal. And that’s the kindest word I can find for it.

The town’s two MPs were there, as were five or six journalists and photographers, and at maybe 10 organisers/helpers. At 11am there were kick-off speeches from one of the organisers and the two MPs. What else happens at 11am on Sunday in Reading? The shops open. If you want to experience the centre of one of the UK’s largest towns at its absolute quietest, get there around 11am on a Sunday. Parking’s a breeze and shopping’s an absolute joy because there’s hardly anyone there.

What’s that, there’s hardly anyone there? Yes, hardly anyone there.

Just to recap then – two MPs, a marquee, a PA system, loads of balloons, a dozen or so people handing out balloons and leaflets, all being paid for via the public purse, but hardly anyone there.

I saw (nay, I *counted*) three members of the public standing and listening to the launch of Stoptober in Reading.

Dismal.

Why on earth coincide a launch of a month-long, publicly-funded anti-smoking campaign with one of the quietest times in the shopping week?

I can only presume the answer to that is something like “because you don’t know what you’re doing.”

If that sounds harsh, it’s meant to be harsh.

Smoking and related illnesses are a blight on the UK. In addition to the misery they cause, there’s also the cost to the health service to consider. To squander the opportunity to make a big and positive launch for such a campaign, and thereby waste the money being spent on that launch, demonstrates a lack of professionalism and accountability.

After the lacklustre speeches had finished I went on my way, only to be stopped by one of the leaflet ‘n’ balloon folk. “Do you know anyone who smokes?” she asked me, almost apologetically. I just shook my head and kept walking.

Targetting is also beyond the grasp of the gang of spend thrifts who decided on this launch, it would appear.

I don’t doubt the supine local press will find positive things to say about the launch, grateful as they are for real events to cover. But they shouldn’t. They should ignore the MPs’ speeches and the colourful balloons and they question the manner in which the money was spent on this event and how its effectiveness will be measured.

You could argue, and many people do, that if people want to smoke let them smoke, plus taxes on tobacco raise huge sums of money for the government.

I might or indeed I might not agree with that viewpoint. That’s not my point here. Once the decision has been taken to embark on a publicly-funded anti-smoking campaign paid for by smokers and non-smokers alike there is a responsibility to ensure that money is spent properly.

Not wasted, which it clearly was this morning.

Stoptober
Stoptober: make it stop

 

If you want information on stopping smoking, click here for the Stoptober website.

 

Syria: many shades of black

What follows is merely one man’s opinion – mine.

I find it desperately sad that the situation in Syria has been reduced to a series polarised caricatures. Good vs bad is such an appealing way to look at the world, and consequently we are presented with Assad vs democracy as one example, and (here in the UK) military intervention vs inaction as another.

I’m opposed to military action, as things stand. I’ve heard too many arguments from Syrians calling for the west to stay out of this, and I’m not at all convinced military intervention won’t actually make things worse. Much of that is, I freely admit, based on seeing the devastation left in the wake of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve also heard just enough voices of doubt on the origins of the recent chemical attack to make me think we need to work the evidence, and the associated intelligence, far harder before committing to acts of war.

I freely acknowledge it is entirely possible that my position on not intervening militarily may change. But any attack by the West is almost guaranteed to claim the lives of yet more innocent Syrians, and risks handing the Assad regime a substantial propaganda advantage.

But choosing not to intervene militarily should not become synonymous with doing nothing at all. I fear that’s precisely the line our current government will take, though.

Instead, I would like to see the UK now at the forefront of a vigorous non-violent interventionist strategy – freezing the financial assets of Assad and his associates, applying real pressure to stem the flow of arms into Syria from neighbouring countries, doing deals to circumvent the existing circles of international influence, whatever it takes.

Having decided we aren’t sending in bullets and bombs, now is precisely the time for the UK to redouble its efforts to end the war in Syria.

It isn’t good enough to claim a diplomatic solution is unrealistic. Ultimately there will be a diplomatic solution – history teaches us that every conflict resolves itself eventually and all wars end with ceasefires, treaties and negotiations.

There will be a ceasefire. There will be a diplomatic solution. This is inevitable.

So why not, Mr Cameron, be the person who pushes the hardest to see that happen sooner rather than later, rather than someone who opted to launch cruise missiles, or do nothing?

Why Cameron could learn from Papandreou

Two weeks ago there was a rebellion by some Conservative MPs against David Cameron in a vote in the House of Commons.

The vote concerned a motion that called for referendum on whether the UK should exit the European Union, renegotiate the terms of its membership, or leave things as they are. The motion was put before the House by David Nuttall, a Conservative MP. There was also an e-petition on the matter, which gathered the support of over 100,000 UK citizens.

David Cameron called upon all his MPs to vote against it, and the Tory party whips went into action – cajoling and coercing Members to do just that.

When 81 Tory MPs voted counter to the wishes of their leader (two others abstained) this was the biggest ever rebellion by Conservatives in the House of Commons over the thorny issue of the UK’s relationship with the EU.

The motion was still comfortably defeated though, by 483 votes to 111. That outcome was never in any doubt. Had the unthinkable happened, and the motion had been passed, the result would not have been binding on the government anyway.

The only significant outcome there could ever reasonably have been was the one that happened – a number of Tories voted with their conscience as opposed to toeing the line. Some stated they were voting in accordance with the wishes of their constituents.

By making such a big deal out of insisting his MPs did as he told them, Cameron ended up suffering from the biggest rebellion etc etc etc.

What was he thinking? He should have publicly said that he was happy to see all MPs vote however they saw fit – safe in the knowledge nothing bad could ever happen. But instead of being big enough to relinquish control he allowed himself to appear defeated in a fight that mattered far less than the issue of whether the Prime Minister has the full backing of all of his party.

Meanwhile, this week in Greece saw Prime Minister Papandreou accept a Franco-German orchestrated bailout, only to turn round and say he wanted the Greek people to be able to vote in a referendum on whether they were happy with its terms. The French were not happy (plus ça change). Likewise, the Germans were less than thrilled.

Ultimately, Papandreou’s call for a referendum has been shelved.

So what? How likely is it that he ever thought he would succeed?

Maybe something else was behind this move. Perhaps, knowing he was returning home to ask the people of Greece to swallow a very bitter pill that had been designed by France and Germany, and would see years of hardship and austerity, Papandreou sought a way of deflecting the bad news.

Under the circumstances, he has managed to underline the fact that there was nothing further he could have done. Even when he wanted to use democratic means to enable the Greek people to feel they had a say, that their opinions might be heard, the dark hand of Europe’s pay-masters was seen to be shutting him up.

Well played George.

Everyone suspects your domestic political career won’t last much longer. But once you’re looking for something new to keep yourself busy, you should consider a visit to Downing Street where a bloke called Dave could really do with someone explaining to him how politics really works.

Footnote:

David Nuttall’s motion was a massive red herring anyway. The UK cannot unilaterally renegotiate the terms of its EU membership and there is absolutely no motivation for the EU to agree to any new terms the UK puts forward. Withdrawing from the EU is crazy talk – we all know that. So the only viable option from the three contained within the motion was the one where everything stays the same.

 

Further reading:
EU referendum: Rebels lose vote in Commons
Papandreou scraps Greek referendum as open warfare erupts in his party

 

 

The countdown to a federal Europe has begun

The European single market has been a good thing. It has enabled the free flow of labour across the continent (well, most of it), which has brought about innumerable economic and social benefits.

The European single currency, aka the Euro, has of late revealed itself as a flawed project.

A great deal of attention has been focussed on some of its more obvious problems:

  • the collapse of the Greek economy
  • the size of the bailouts required by Athens
  • the threat of economic contagion (hello Italy, sorry… maybe I mean goodbye Italy)
  • the growing influence of Germany, blah, blah, blah…..

But there is one thing that has been happening behind the scenes which I cannot help but feel is being allowed to go unnoticed.

By most measures, the Euro is in a mess.

Yet one of the long-lasting consequences of this will be the increasing influence of the European Central Bank.  In effect, a completely undemocratic institution will soon be making decisions that will impact very directly on the everyday lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people in Europe.

How has this come about? Chiefly because of a collective failure on the part of the major European leaders. A failure to get to the heart of the Euro crisis, to take difficult/unpopular decisions and see them through to the end. Instead they have fallen into one of the old and familiar habits of the bureaucratic mind – allowing institutional influence a freer hand to deal with problems which existing instituions have already failed to deal with effectively.

I can’t think of many other walks of life when failure to deliver X means you have carte blanche to press on with X + 1.

Only in high finance.

Only in European politics.

Well, I’m only a simple soul, clearly. I’m sure there are very good reasons for this.

But as someone who has always been a supporter of the European project (although not of political and fiscal union) to see the gradual shift of democratically-elected powers from Europe’s capitals to the institution of Europe itself does little to bolster my sense of bon homie.

I’m not sure it’s for me to say whether there ought to be a federal Europe or not. I am sure there are excellent arguments both for and against. But should that day come, I would hope that it is something that the citizens of Europe’s many and varied nations get the chance to have their say on and not something that slips in unannounced while we are all distracted.

Signs of the times

Nothing new here. Feel free to move along.

I got to thinking recently (and not for the first time) about the smoking ban in the UK.

This was prompted by something I’d heard on that curate’s egg of a radio station, BBC Radio 4.

The programme in question reported that in spite of what is often thought of as a European-wide, EU-derived ban on smoking in public places, it is still OK to smoke in public in Belgium. Oh the irony of being able to spark up in a bar just around the corner from the EU parliament.

The same item went on to describe how the owners of two bars in Berlin had gone to court to attempt to over-turn the smoking ban on the grounds it had damaged their business.

They won!

They now have the legal right to have a separate smoking room in their bars – with the proviso that no food may be served there.

This seems like a welcome outbreak of common sense to me. I wonder if we’ll see the same thing in the UK. Somehow I doubt it.

At various times in my life I have been a smoker and a non-smoker. I’ve never felt that I needed government intervention where that choice was concerned. Like the overwhelming majority of people who have smoked in this country, I knew the ins and outs of the health implications before I chose to start.

I think it’s a very good idea for separate spaces in pubs and bars for those who wish to smoke and those who do not. Then people can make choices. By and large, most people are capable of making choices.

But where the UK smoking ban and I really fall out was the requirement for all buildings members of the public may occasionally enter to display the same no smoking sign. Just to remind us that the law that had banned smoking in public buildings in the UK applied to public buildings in the UK.

Never before had I wished I owned a business that printed signs, but the government spent millions of taxpayers’ money printing these ridiculous signs and one can only assume that someone somewhere with a sign making business did very well out of it.

What next though? If we need a sign on every public building to say smoking is against the law, how about one that says breaking & entering is against the law? You know, for the avoidance of any doubt – just in case potential burglars might need reminding.

Then we could all get a t-shirt printed that has something written on it like “NO MURDERING – killing people, such as the wearer of this garment, is against the law.”

Sound absurd? No more so though, surely, than the epidemic of no smoking signs.

Can we fix it?

I’m sure I’m not the only person who came down with Barack Obama fatigue last week, although it’s deeply unfashionable to admit such a thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I think he is very impressive and there is something reassuring about knowing there’s an intellectual in charge of the US. Of course, he’s got a loooong way to go before he’s as funny as the last guy. But that’s not such a bad thing, I guess.

During the G20 palaver there was a great deal of attention paid not just to what was said, but to the way in which Obama says things. For me, the fatigue began to take its toll thanks to the seemingly never-ending stream of pundits on Radio 4 talking about him. How is he different, why is he different, etc etc.

One thing’s for sure, I don’t need to hear another reprise of his famous “Yes We Can” speech. My oldest son was the right age to get into Bob The Builder a few years ago. Let me tell you, I’ve heard the phrase “yes we can” so often it just doesn’t do it for me anymore.

Mind you, part of me would like to know what things would be like if the new US administration was left in the hands of a claymation builder with a gang of talking steam rollers, cement mixers, cranes and so on. At least they could have played an active part in rebuilding those bits of the world the Bush administration had broken.