Monday, 30 December 2013

Highlights of 2013

With just over 24 hours to go in 2013 my thoughts have turned all reflective. It’s time to look back on my highlights of the year.

How was my 2013? Well, pretty good. No, really good.

On the home front it started with gut-wrenching worry and awfulness with Aileen in hospital and ends with joy and wonder as Aileen stands (not for long these days!) thirty-three and a half weeks pregnant and looking and feeling amazing. We feel so blessed that we are on the verge of becoming parents for the first time. We are just holding our breath and keeping everything crossed for the next few weeks.

The wonderful Mrs J and I had a wonderful trip to the States in May, which I documented in nauseating detail earlier in the year on this blog. A memory that stands out above all other was the incredibly moving scene in Boston as we spent some time at the impromptu memorial built near Copley Square following the Boston Bombing. It was quite a year for Boston with an amazing last to first turnaround to win the World Series. I spent many a happy night and early morning glued to in 2013 watching the “Boston Strong” Red Sox bring much excitement and pride to that wonderful city and its adoring fans. I discovered that my allegiance to the Red Sox is something I share with Ed Milliband who ends the year much as he started- in the lead but not leading.

Whilst we’re on politics, it is worth noting again that the coalition still stands and the long game they have been playing on the economy looks like it is paying off. Will it pay off in time for a 2015 Tory outright victory/Lib Dem recovery in polls and holding of their seats only time will tell but things are looking up for them now..….especially if Mr Milliband continues his current level of performance.

The coalition also delivered on a key reform this year. I was very proud to see the Equal Marriage legislation pass if a little ashamed to see the behaviour of some of my party during its passage. I fear we will see more of the worse of the Tory party in 2014 as no doubt some believe the best way to outsmart UKIP in time for the European Elections is to out-sceptic them. This would not be in Britain’s interests. I just hope we get the referendum on Europe soon so that those of us who believe we need to be at the heart of a reformed Europe (not run by Europe) can put our positive message and we can put to bed the nonsense idea that we should leave the EU. We can then bid goodbye to Mr Farage and his friends.

On a personal political note, I stood down from the candidates list in 2013 to focus on becoming a Dad. I look forward to returning to more active politics in the future but I look forward to becoming a Dad more.

It was fantastic and very moving to hear that the Attorney General quashed the risible original Hillsborough inquests and order new ones, due now in 2014. It continues the process of vindication of so many, including the extraordinary Anne Williams, who lost her own fight against cancer in 2013 but not her fight against the British legal system and the injustice that had stood for too long.

A mention of the families takes my thoughts to Anfield and despite some awful behaviour from you know who- I try not to speak or type his name because although he is one of the best players in the world he doesn’t deserve to wear the red of my great club- we are making progress. I like what Brendan Rogers is doing and with the continued support of FSG and the fans the top four is in reach.

The sporting chat runs short there really. A summer of two halves in the Ashes and despite a brilliant Wimbledon- delighted for Andy Murray- the sporting year of 2013 was always going to be a come down after the highs of 2012. Personally my annual pilgrimage to the Cheltenham Gold Cup stands out as did a number of trips to the Royal Opera House and Coliseum for amazing drama of another kind. I will however point out one or two predictions I feel especially smug about now that I made in 2013 (often with the help of Paddy Power!). These include the sacking of AVB at Spurs, the Red Sox World Series Win, Liverpool being top of the league on Christmas Day (made in July), England winning the first Ashes 3-0 and Phil Taylor losing in the first two rounds of the world darts. I of course reserve the right not to mention all the other predictions!

We said goodbye to two political giants in Thatcher and Mandela this year and I can’t help but think it also marked the end of an era in how politics and big events are covered in the media. Both of these- and other big stuff during the year- were not done justice by our traditional- particularly- broadcast media. Coverage of both events lacked insightful analysis and fell back on lazy questioning of guests and cliche. Unforgivable really when discussing two such colossal figures and incredible lives. Btw, saying the death of 87 or 95 year old is “tragic” as some at the BBC would have us believe is the sort of laziness I mean! I have spent much of 2013 with three great defenders of high journalistic standards and brilliant use of technology: the FT, Times and New York Times. My daily iPad fix of all three has kept me sane in a world of sloppy news coverage and analysis in 2013.

We also said goodbye to Sir Alex Ferguson this year- goodbye from winning trophies that is, thankfully! If I was Mr Moyes I might have wished his goodbye would have been more permanent and him a little less visible with his book and regular appearances in the stands for matches but I guess that is the least of his worries.

2013 also saw the re-emergence of the Papacy as a force for good. Credit must be given to Pope Benedict for taking the extraordinary step of retiring but more to Pope Francis who has set a new positive tone for the church. As others have said, he is taking the church “out of the palace and into the streets”. His first nine months promise so much. Hello to real modernisation. Goodbye to the forces of deep conservatism that have been strangling the church for so long.

I end the year saying another type of goodbye; to the General Medical Council after great six years; and a big hello to PwC. A huge highlight in 2013 were my discussions with PwC, who I joined in a few days time. 2014 is shaping up to be a fantastic year of exciting challenges, opportunities and change.

So these are my (slightly random) reflections on 2013. But what about the marks I hear you ask? Nine out of ten for 2013! I’m hoping for a ten next year and some blogging about Junior Jones!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Goodbye GMC

On 31st December I will go to 350 Euston Road for the last time as an employee of the General Medical Council to hand in my laptop, blackberry and security pass. It brings to an end an eight and a half year journey- the first two and half mostly on secondment from KPMG- the last six as an employee.

It has been a fantastic experience- a period of incredible change and massive challenge. It has been a great privilege to play a small role in helping the organisation through those changes and to share in its success, especially working with my brilliant Strategy and Communication colleagues over the last few years.

It has also been a period of great learning for me. I reflected on this with my team earlier this week; If you want to trust people, you have to let them make mistakes. I've learnt to pick my battles more. I've learnt not to measure achievement in volume or activity, whether that's in numbers of projects or emails you send or receive at weekends! I walk slower than I did three years ago- realising I used to rush everywhere but not get there any quicker. And I have learnt that you often have more impact by doing less.

As well as reflecting on recent achievements, the enormous change the organisation has been through and my own personal journey and learning, I was able to thank my team for all they have done. They are a brilliant group of people. I am immensely proud to have shared in their recent success and delighted to have worked with them. It has been a blast.

In closing, I drew inspiration from a previous GMC leader, Sir Graeme Catto, who was fond of this quote from Hilaire Beloc.

From quiet homes and first beginning,
Out to the undiscovered ends,
There's nothing worth the wear of winning,
But laughter and the love of friends.

Great words from two great men as I close the page on a hugely rewarding chapter in my career.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Stepping down from the candidates list

I have stepped down from the Conservative Party's list of approved parliamentary candidates. I have included below the text of the letter I sent to Head of Candidates explaining my decision.

Dear Gareth

I would like to step down from the list of approved parliamentary candidates.

It has been a tremendous privilege to represent the party in this way over the last six years- and I hope to have the opportunity to do so again in the future - but I know that for the foreseeable future I will not be able to give the time and commitment it requires to be on the list and I do not want to take up a place on at the expense of others.

My wife and I are expecting our first child in February- something we are overjoyed about. Our life is about to change beyond all recognition at a time when I, like all candidates, would rightly be expected to be giving every possible minute to the upcoming general election campaign. At this time I will be giving every possible minute to being the best father and husband I can be- whilst working full-time.

I am proud of what the party is doing for our great country. I am proud too of the leadership shown by David Cameron, including in his sense of duty in entering a coalition in the national interest in 2010. I am proud of his leadership in helping put our economy back on its feet after the disaster we inherited from Labour and in extending Conservatives values into policy- from bringing greater choice into education to extending fairness and justice through his support of equal marriage. I will also never forget his powerful and much-valued apology to all of us deeply affected by Hillsborough and the sickening and disgraceful cover-ups that followed.

I have been a member of this party since 1992 and will continue to be a member and give it my fullest possible support between now, the election and beyond. But family must come before politics and I want to be honest and direct about my priorities. It is right therefore to step aside at this time but I do so with great pride in our party and safe in the knowledge that our country’s best days lie ahead.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve the party as a candidate.

Yours faithfully,

Ben Jones

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

MPs pay and reforming our politics; time for a real and fair debate

There is never a good time to propose increasing the pay of MPs. Not even a Lions and Andy Murray-fuelled feel good factor has enough power to move that issue from the political third rail to the safety of the mainstream. But I can't help but think that we are focusing on the wrong question.

I started to write this blog post yesterday when contemplating the recent discussion of the issue before Ed Milliband made his speech on the link between Labour and the Unions. Depending on your view he either bravely or cravenly touched on some of the wider issues in this debate- but these are issues that I think should concerns us all.

We should be asking ourselves not how much should MPs earn but how do we strengthen our democracy and the link between MPs and the people who employ them; us. One of the great missed opportunities of the last few years has been the collective failure of the political class to tackle issues of the health of our democracy. Long before the expenses scandal (or the dodgy looking events in Falkirk) trust in politics and politicians were on the slide- and very little has been done to arrest it. Let's put aside MPs pay for a moment and look at some other measures that we need to radically reform of our politics.

Instead of major reform we desperately needed we've had insipid electoral reform proposals- by the way I voted yes for AV not because I love AV but because we need to start changing our electoral system to make it fairer- and fixed term Parliaments. Yes, there has been a strengthening of the select committee role which has been welcome and a number of petitions have been used to trigger parliamentary debates- although the rules and procedures are too hard to follow and leave too much discretion in the hands of the government- but not enough has been done.

In no particular order and not trying to be exhaustive here are some issues we need to address: political funding reform is stuck in the mud (I am personally against state funding- I think the market should decide whether a party deserves support not the state) - this needs unsticking with clear limits and total transparency for all donations, loans and financial arrangements (including with trade unions). We need open primaries for all seats; a proper recall mechanism for MPs- the people choosing not MPs letting the people choose when to kick their MP- it works in the US; a fairer voting system with everyone's vote carrying the same weight; the House of Commons needs to look different- our MPs need to look like the rest of us (as a start I would drop the rule that means all men must wear ties but we also need a better diversity of people and people who have had real non-political jobs before entering the House- I would also redesign the shape and layout of the chamber to make it less confrontational) and change how votes in Parliament are counted- surely we should be using technology from the 21st not 18th century; the same is true of vote counting in parliamentary seats (speaks someone who has sat up unit 3am many times with lots of volunteers and bank staff earning extra money to hand count paper votes in a sports centre!); we need to end £30k golden goodbyes to MPs who lose their seats; boundary changes needs to be made to make all seats of equal size and population; and yes, we do need to look at the pay of MPs. We need a package of reform that covers all aspects of democracy from candidate selection to part funding; how our votes are cast and how they are counted. This current lamentable debate about MPs pay is trivialising the issue of real reform.

There is never a good time to look at MPs pay to be increased. That is why an independent body should- does- now look at this. Yet the politicians can't help but get involved again and try to force their view on the system. We need an honest debate about what we should pay people who work often 90 hours week, across seven days with massive sacrifices to home life and privacy. But I would rather we did that at the same time as tackling the wider issues of the health of our democracy. As with all things in life we need fairness. A fair electoral system. A fair way of parties financing themselves and choosing their candidates. A fair wage for MPs.

We need to start asking the right questions about how we strength our democracy and then perhaps we will get a full and fair answer. Whatever the motivation of Mr Milliband in raising some of these issues today and whatever the political outcome for him and his party we should welcome the opportunity to debate these issues in full.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

After Woolwich and Machynlleth my glass is still half full

You'd be forgiven for thinking that all is wrong with world after events of the last week or so. The horrendous murder (although I'm not sure that word really does it justice) of Lee Rigby and the conviction of paedaphile Mark Bridger are just two in a long list of shocking recent events which, if we are not careful, could completely undermine our faith in human nature and the world we live in. But I am choosing to see my glass half full. I am choosing to look beyond the grotesqueness of these events. How?

These events and others besides have brought out the very best in human nature. They have shown that there is such thing as society; that communities do exist and in many ways are as strong as ever. They showed us the kindness of strangers. The power of courage and integrity.

The very public and heartfelt reaction to Woolwich has been incredible, moving and inspiring. Complete strangers coming together in Woolwich; leaving flowers, paying their respects, writing in books of condolence, posting messages of support for his family and friends online, openly showing their emotions; sometimes anger, sometimes grief. As the unspeakable events unfolded passers-by- complete strangers to the victim and the aggressors- showed amazing courage in the face of the evil that confronted them. They stood up and were counted- seeking to protect Lee Rigby's body, haranguing the perpetrators and saying with one voice, we will not be terrorised. Extraordinary. These and other shows of support and courage- often given to complete strangers- is the best that human nature has to offer. A sense of solidarity. A sense of common purpose.

There have of course been some groups- we all know who I mean- that have sought to exploit Drummer Rigby's murder. Again, the reaction to this has been incredible. More strength under fire; more determination to hold true to our values; more unity than division. Like many people I know, I could not contain my emotions when watching Lee Rigby's family speak about him. Heartbreaking doesn't get near it. Yet there was something incredibly uplifting about their reaction. Proud. Passionate. Loving. I choose to be inspired by them.

In the case of April Jones, the people of Machynlleth showed the same extraordinary courage and support- this time to April's family. They came out in their numbers to lead one of the most amazing community movements of modern times to search for her when she was missing. After the awful reality of her death was realised, they turned their attention to comforting her grieving family and their community. And in the aftermath of last weeks verdict I sensed again that heartfelt sense of togetherness that said we will not let our way of life be destroyed by one evil man.

So here's the thing; this is still the greatest country in the world regardless of the awful things that people sometimes do within it. Yes we have bad things happen here but we also have complete strangers giving up their time and putting themselves in danger to help others, seeking nothing in return. We have complete strangers paying their heartfelt respects to the neighbours they may never have met. We have complete strangers saying you are my brother and sister and I stand with you. Complete strangers caring, loving, crying, grieving for one and other.

Even during the darkest day the sunrise is only just around the corner. After the last few darks days, I am choosing to be positive. I am choosing to be inspired. I am choosing to keep my glass half full.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

My letter from America- part three

Another flight, another blog post. And another pomposly-titled 'letter from America'.

I am a huge admirer of Alistair Cooke and his brilliant series on America so this mini series of mine was meant as a tribute from a fan not as a comparison! His work remains as fresh and incisive as ever- some of it over fifty years old.

I start my scratchings just a few minutes into our flight home (and can post them through the wonders of onboard Wi Fi)- after nine wonderful days in this wonderful country. I write just as our two fellow passengers in the row in front have fully reclined their seats as soon as humanely possible. I know this is a reasonable thing to do- especially as we contemplate an evening flight- but it still annoys me a little. Despite this setback, I will push on.

The last few days- the days we have been in Boston- have been glorious. Great weather. Great city. Great food and great times with my amazing wife. Our love for Boston grows with each visit. We have officially declared it today our favourite US city. This accolade sadly carries no trophy, monetary value, or great prestige but a firm place in our hearts.

Angelina Jolie's health news revealed in a well written piece in yesterday's New York Times has captured the headlines and it seems the hearts of the nation over the last day or so. There has been much talk of her using this "platform" to inspire women across America. This cliche was a little over-used on TV but the message resonates; one advantage of this world of celebrity we live in- and I can't think of too many- is that awareness can be raised around such issues by the mere fact of a famous person is associated with them. Let us hope this silver lining develops now and of course that her health remains good and her treatment works.

OJ Simpson is back in court and taking the stand- something the US networks appear to be fascinated by- as he appeals his 33-year sentence handed down four years ago. The networks could not help but point out the obvious- OJ has not been spending much time in the prison gym! His re-emergence- at least in my mind- prompted a rapid search on YouTube for clips of his most famous (infamous) moment, when acquitted of the murder of Nicole Browne Simpson in 1995. The first thing that struck me was how long ago that was- and how old it made me feel! I was also struck by the extraordinary passions the case stirred at the time, well beyond the facts of the case but touching on the very fabric of US society with questions raised about race, police corruption and the cult of celebrity. Looking back, I guess the idea of a black man being President within a decade or so would have been mostly unthinkable then.

We were not alone in Boston. The Prime Minister was there too- promoting British business- and paying his respects after the Boston Bombings. We too stopped in Boylston Street to take a look at the memorial that has developed. I was struck particularly by the simple tributes people had left- many of whom had clearly competed in the marathon. Many left their running shoes, vests or running numbers. Some had written messages. Some left hats, scarfs or other symbols from their home towns. Much of it was very simple. Much of it very moving.

Returning to the Prime Minister for a moment, it seems that my Party back home is going through one of its wobbly spells- trying it seems desperately to alienate the electorate- most of who give Europe no more than a passing thought- hand marginal seats to Labour and the Lib Dems via the protest vote of UKIP and throw away any chance of victory in the next General Election. We appear to be locked in a permanent abusive relationship with the European issue- one from which we are not able to escape. The only winner in the long run will be the Labour Party- certainly not the country.

There is no doubt that many Tory members and supporters, and many Tory MPs, feel strongly about Europe and have deeply held and principled views on our future with the EU. But I can't help but think that much of this current outbreak of self harming is driven more by strained relationships between the leadership of the Party and its backbenchers- it feels as much a question of trust and respect than one of policy. I fear that whatever the Prime Minister does on this issue he will continue to experience these bouts of unrest. It appears we have not learnt from the mistakes of the past and that he is unable to build the bridges necessary to have the whole Parliamentary team facing the same direction. A dangerous mix.

As our flight continued on its way back to the UK I became aware an entertainment phenomenon. Perhaps this is just me, but my boredom (mixed with occasional fear) levels are pretty high when flying, especially across the Atlantic. As a result I make use of the shuffle function on my iPod more in this setting than anywhere else. The spectacular smorkesboard provided so far by the big Apple in the sky have included Joni Mitchell, the Beatles (this is not that big a surprise given everything they have ever released is on it!), Richard Burton narrating part of the War of the Worlds, Oasis and Russell Watson! Diversity or what?!

One brief incident I have so far omitted to mention from our trip was a passing meeting with Sir Clive Woodward in New York. I say meeting, it was more of us both using a revolving door in a hotel at the same time. That said, it was Sir Clive and we were just yards apart. I'm counting it! This chance encounter- with a man who enjoyed incredible success with England peaking in that never to be forgotten moment as Johnny Wilkinson "drops for World Cup glory"- came the same week as another sporting Knight, Sir Alex Ferguson, announced his retirement. This got me thinking about great coaches/managers from different sports. Here's one or two more of my favourites to join them as I sign off (knowing that as subjective judgments go this is right up there!); Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley (obviously!), Brian Clough, Jose Mourhino, Jock Stein, Bobby Robson, Duncan Fletcher, Tony Jacklin and Aidan O'Brien (I know, not technically a coach or manager but it's my list!).

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Boston Strong

We went to Boylston Street today. I have included some photos below.

The image of the trainers is particularly poignant.

My letter from America part two

"I'm pleased to say there is no weather across the country today". The reassuring words of our Captain as we taxied to the runway at San Fransico Airport. What he meant in non-US aviation jargon was that the weather is clear- no storms, snow etc- all possible when flying from one end of this huge country to another!

We are halfway through the flight as I start to write and so far- with the exception of a few bumps as we joined some heavy cloud after two hours- he has been true to his word. But as the flying pessimist, I will only be content once back on terra firma. In my thirty-five years I have so far resisted the temptation to do a Pope John Paul when landing and bending down to kiss the Tarmac but I have thought about it many times. Perhaps one day.

This flight- United 788- fits more neatly with the stereotype of US domestic flights than our last; more bus travel than air travel. Packed to the gills, bags everywhere, an overpowering feeling of being a little closer to ones' neighbour and their armpit than is ideal and the equipment ('the plane' for those of you not fluent in aviation!) has seen better days. Anyway, enough ramblings about the journey. What do I have offer today by way of observations after five days on the US west coast?

Our time in San Fransico proved the point that every city has its own personality and the east and west coasts of the US are very different. Immediately upon arriving in the city by the bay it is hard not to feel a sense of calmness, a slightly slower pace than found out east and a willingness of strangers to engage in idle chatter with you. This is all of course from the box marked 'mass generalisations' but it is worth reflecting that the mania of a New York or DC we did not find in San Fran. There was a very tangible European feel about the architecture- obvious in the history of the city and its French designer- and a wonderful diversity about the city and its people- from ethnicity and the fragrant Chinatown to sexuality and the happy sight of so many same sex couples holding hands and kissing in public.

But our arrival in San Fransico sadly coincided with an awful event just across the bay; the tragic death of double British olympian Andrew Simpson in a sailing accident. It was amazing to be six thousand miles from home and yet be sharing in local, UK sadness. The words of his families, friends and fellow sailers left a real mark as his passing will have had on them.

The analysis- endless, endless analysis- of the Celevland and Arias cases has continued unabated. As every gory detail is revealed from the now widely named 'house of horrors' in Ohio- a name by the way which provokes very strong memories of the awful Gloucester case of Fred and Rose West- one feels more and more repulsed. The same is true of the Arias murder. Both cases are now prompting a fascinating debate about the death penalty in the US.

The debate has been blurring out from the TV in our hotel room, which looked out over Alcatraz- an eerie reminder of the brutality of the penal system. I am strongly anti-death penalty. I do not support it in any cases or for any offences. I do not believe the state- any state- should kill anyone except in war. But these cases are perfect case studies which challenge my views.

Arias. A more brutal murder it would be hard to find. Extreme violence, almost torture. No remorse. A life taken viciously and many others ruined. For her to spend one more day as a free woman would sicken me. Her punishment- I believe that punishment must play as much of a role as remediation- must hurt. Her life must end in prison but not at the hands of the prison. Life for her must mean life but I cannot think that the state killing her make any of this better or fix any of the wrongs that have been done.

Ok, that was easy. Now on to Mr Castro. Much more difficult.

Again I start from a simple principle. No to the death penalty. Yes to life behind bars. And by life, I mean life. But aren't his crimes so heinous, so extreme, so appalling, that his is the exception which requires a new rule? Maybe. The kidnapping and sexual assaults are enough to turn anyone's stomach but the details of the regime he imposed on these young women go so far beyond my comprehension that I am left challenging my own views. The cruelty. The brutality. The sick mind games. The mental torture. The abject existence with no hope of an end in sight he forced those women to live, and I fear we do not the half of it yet. On balance, I am clinging- just- to my anti death penalty view but I can't help but think that his death would be a good thing- but not at the hands of the state. Thinking that, let alone writing it, makes me very uncomfortable but not as uncomfortable as hearing about his vile crimes.

It will fascinating to see how those involved with these cases will resolve this dilemma. I will be watching very carefully.

On a brighter note, it was moving to see the spire installed on the new World Trade Centre- Freedom Tower- in New York. I never had the opportunity to climb the original but would hope to make it up this one. I will not rehearse my own version of that terrible day here for we all have our own experience of 9/11 which will stay with us. Suffice to say, that it was the day that life changed forever for so many. I still think of those people jumping from the towers. To jump- for that to feel like their best option- still strikes cold into my heart. Those images are images that will never go away.

My thoughts are now turning to Boston. To a city very close to my heart. It was here and then Cape Cod where my wife and I spent much of our honeymoon four years ago. It has been the scene of several repeat journeys since. Our visit last year to the incredible Fenway Park sealed the deal on my affection for baseball and the Red Sox in particular. I am trying hard hereto resist my Liverpool/Irish tendency towards sentimentality but it is certainly true that there is no other sporting arena like it in this country, perhaps the world. I am only hoping that the Sox can rediscover the early season form that has deserted them in recent weeks. They are 'on the road' whilst we are in town but I will be watching on NESN from the great bars and restaurants of Boston.

But my overriding thoughts as we wing our way to Boston is the humbling opportunity we are getting to show in a very small, unnoticed way, our solidarity with this great city and its great people. This has been a tough few weeks for Bostonians. We are here back precisely because the people and the city are amongst the best in the world.

More in a few days. In the meantime, LetsGoRedSox!

Friday, 10 May 2013

Sir Alex Ferguson; the end of an era.

My name is Ben and I am a Liverpool fan. There, I said it. Now, let's hear no more about it as I share my thoughts- as objectively as I can- on the end of the Ferguson era and the appointment of David Moyes as Manchester United manager. 

Yes, I am glad that at last the Ferguson 'perch-knocking off' era (read; United winning, Liverpool not winning!) is over and I am hoping that Mr Moyes does not continue this domination of English football. But Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement from management is not just the end of an incredible era of success- unrivalled in the history of our national game- but the end of an era of his type of management. 

Ferguson is 'old school. He ruled over his players (I use the word 'ruled' advisedly) in the style of a manager from another time. His is not the approach of more recent, mostly non-British managers. 

He was fiercely loyal in public (something we should all be with our teams in whatever industry we work) but not backward at coming forward to show his true feelings in private (yes, yes the hairdryer treatment- which in my view has been way overblown- pardon the pun); he commanded the respect of his players based on his outstanding playing career and subsequent extraordinary success as a manager- I rank his achievements at Aberdeen almost as amazing as his trophy haul in Manchester; his approach to man-management- getting the best out of a hugely diverse range of players; his eye for buying and selling players is second to none- in 26 years you can count on one hand the number of players he has sold that have gone on to do better after they have left him and on many, many hands the great buys he made and the players he helped make great; his knowledge of the game is outstanding; and his desire, no obsession, to succeed has provided a turbo-boosted drive to his club for 26 years. 

That drive manifests itself positively- goals in injury time more often that I have been able to stomach (cue Mr Tyldesley amongst others) and at times negatively- with a demanding approach towards match officials, mirrored sometime uglily by his players. In summary, he was a winner and his players and fans knew it and became winners too.  

Now to Mr Moyes. I have another confession to make. I have not been in the 'David Moyes is a brilliant manager' fan club down the last ten years. No, that is not just because he has been the Everton manager, but because I see an occasionally tactically naive manager; someone who waits too long before making changes when the game is  going against him; someone who too often sets his team out not to lose rather than to win; and, I know people will think this harsh, but in ten years managing a club with the history and reach of Everton- whatever the post-1992 view of football- they are still one of the biggest clubs in the game- he is trophy-less. During the same time, teams like Leicester, Birmingham, Swansea and Middlesborough have picked up silverware. Moyes has not been ambitious enough when it comes to winning- whether that is games or trophies. 

In the plus column, he has a lot going for him. He has bags of integrity. Cliche alert: he is cut from the same cloth as Ferguson. Strong values, a fierce work ethic, bags of passion, and an appreciation of the need to take his fans and his club seriously. He has shown loyalty to Everton and has played for one of the biggest and most passionate clubs in the world in Glasgow Celtic. He has a superb Premier League record, given the resources he has had at his disposal, and commands respect across the game. He has shown a great commitment and aptitude for developing young players- something coveted at United. He has in short, served his apprenticeship and deserves his opportunity to manage at the highest level of the European game. He must surely also have been given the Ferguson seal of approval to have been appointed. 

The decision United have faced in replacing Ferguson is near impossible. How can you replace the greatest manager of all time? Who can handle the pressure of following the unfollow-able? United have been here before and did not get it right after Mr Bubsy moved upstairs. In many ways this decision is even more difficult after a generation of success and continuity. 

What United have done with Moyes is both risky and risk adverse. I will explain.
The risks. This is a manager with no Champions League experience and limited European experience. He has not experienced the pressures of spending big money on big players, or in managing big star players (Mr Rooney aside- and we know what happened there).  He has not won a trophy in his managerial career. He has not managed somewhere where the expectations come anywhere near those he will experience in Manchester. He remains in my view slightly untested at this level. 

The risk aversion. United have appointed someone they hope will provide continuity. A safe bet. Someone they think can be the Alex Ferguson of the next 26 years by picking someone like him. But he cannot be. No-one can. Alex Ferguson is a one-off. No matter how similar Moyes is to Ferguson he cannot out-Ferguson, Ferguson. They have resisted a Mourhino-type appointment because it would be too much change, too much personality, too different from before. They have chosen Moyes hoping it will be steady as she goes and after all Mr Ferguson will be around, ready to help behind the scenes if needed. The first time United lose two or three games on the run, how long will it take for some fans to start calling for a second coming of the great man? In an attempt to go for a low risk, more of the same approach, I think they may have set Mr Moyes up for a fall. In an attempt to replace Ferguson with a younger but the same type of model, I think they will find he will come up short. 

I obviously don't want Moyes and Manchester United to succeed- my United friends would expect nothing less- but I am interested to see if they have got this right. Time will tell. I have my doubts. 

My letter from America* part one

*with apologies to Alastair Cooke

I write this at 36,000 feet making my way from New York to San Fransico aboard American flight 179. Despite a three hour delay due to bad weather, which was a little frustrating after an early alarm call and a bumpy enough journey so far (despite my best efforts, I remain a nervous flyer), I am writing this in good spirits. 

It is hard not to be when spending quality time (as holiday time invariably is) with my wonderful wife, but also when in the United States. It is hard to be precise but my trips to America are well into double figures. I love coming here, although this is my first venture as far west. Given my strong feelings for this great country it feels remiss that I have not recorded them anywhere. This post intends to start putting that right.

I considered the best way to do this and decided to reflect on what I have seen and heard since arriving a few days ago.

The first and very obvious observation is that- even with the delay aside- the flight I am currently taking is nearly as long as the one I took from London to cross the Atlantic. The vastness of the USA is mind-blowing. I regularly fly from London to Manchester- around 180 miles- and consider that to be a decent trek as part of my normal business. Many of my fellow JFK dwellers this morning were travelling five, ten, twenty times that distance as part of a routine commute or business routine. 

I am though- to borrow that offensive cliche bypassing much of the country- the "flyover states"-  by heading from east to west coast without stopping. What am I missing? Only a road trip could answer that. One for a future holiday! 

Since being in the States, several big news stories have broken. The biggest of all- attracting worldwide coverage- is the case of the three young women held captive in Cleveland for ten years and their escape this week. Enough has already been written about the monstrous acts of their captor, the bravery of the women (especially Amanda Berry), the starring role played by neighbour Mr Ramsey, and the questions being asked of the Cleveland police, the 911 responder and the FBI. What is my contribution to this story? 

Well, I have been most struck by the news coverage of the event and the way the people of Cleveland, including friends and families of those involved, have figured. There has been much use of sporting metaphors ("we have a slam dunk case"), a huge willingness of the families to be filmed living through this event (grandmother and Berry filmed having their first phone call together for a decade), an insatiable thirst to speculate and comment on speculation from the case (from the horrendous circumstances in which they were confined to what could have happened to them, including graphic discussion about the likelihood of sexual assault), and an incredible ability to fill hours and hours of coverage with very little actual news. 

The takeaway (as our American cousins like to say): despite the amazing nature of this story (which really speaks for itself) the US networks' coverage- this includes all the networks I saw which from ABC, Fox and CNN- resorted to trivia and half truth to fill time. There is clearly a mindset that repeating something- no matter how true or important- must be avoided in exchange for saying something else or the same thing differently. I am left asking, is this the fault of the networks who are trying to compete with each other with something new every five minutes minutes, or ours as the audience for demanding more and more intrusion and detail? I'm just not sure; probably a bit of both.

That takes me to a second big news story. The gruesome case of Jodi Arias, who was convicted this week of murder and now faces the possibility of the death penalty. Here I have two observations. The first, filming courtroom and the legal process is a good thing. I have long believed that giving the public information, unfiltered, raw, direct is the key to improving our democratic process and the choices we make. Parliament being televised has brought more accountability. If you don't like what you see, you are informed enough to do something about it at the next election. We need to extend this transparency dramatically into every corner of public life and public bodies. Local government discussions, meetings of public bodies, courtrooms should all be filmed and made available free to the public online if not on TV. There is nothing to fear from the public seeing how our laws are made, kept and discharged. There is nothing to fear in letting the customer see what s(he) is paying for. 

Both US cases, emphasised the important role the local mayor and police chief play in American public life. A clear, visible figure to answer the questions, learn the lessons, and when needed take the praise and criticism of the people who elect and pay them. We are catching up slowly with this approach- something I strongly support. 

Walking around New York it was clear to see how much building work is being done; how many hotels were being renovated, how many major projects were underway. My conclusion; this looks like evidence of the US economy in growth, something we had heard much about in recent months? If so, good news all round. I hope we catch our customary cold from the US sneezing soon! 

One last reflection for this post- more to follow after a few days on the west coast- contains the endless stream of adverts on TV for health remedies, drugs and treatments. The fact that they dominate the ad breaks is not news in a country fascinated by its health and wellbeing but the percentage of time the adverts spend on disclaimers rather than on the product itself is worthy of comment. 

Nothing speaks more powerfully to the litigious culture of this country that after the mere mention of a product and its intended benefits prompts a long list of possible side effects and the inevitable advice to speak with your physician if you have any doubts. Don't blame me if it doesn't work or you die after taking the pills is clearly the message. Lawyers 1, General Public 0.

The spectre of being sued hangs over so much here; hence why the pilot leaves the seatbelt signs on much longer than anywhere else I have flown or the detail given on menus for what you might or might not find in your food. 

That said, it is great to be here, in, or at least above, the land of the free. I now can't wait for this plane to land (or at least to stop moving around!) so we can enjoy the rest of our trip. 

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Technology and toilets

I called one of my closest friends this morning for a quick catch up. He answered the phone but immediately informed me that he couldn't talk as he was busy - he was sat on the toilet!

This got me thinking. Yes, thinking about things I wished I wasn't thinking about and thinking 'what was he doing answering the phone?!'. But it also got me thinking about technology and our instant communication culture.

Why did he feel the need to answer when the call could have waited? Why do we often feel pressured to answer emails almost before we have received them? Why do people feel the need to share their deepest feelings with the whole world through Twitter, Facebook and the like. It is too easy to blame technology when all those things require us to make a decision to take an action. But there is surely something about the instant nature of communication technology and the culture it helps to enable that drives our behaviour. We convince ourselves that we must respond straight away to any contact. Why? Because we can. This was not possible before when we used the phone after 6pm because it was cheaper. People sent each other letters, often in the second class post. And when people went travelling around Europe/the world- a friend told me that he did this recently- they used telegrams to reassure their parents back home that they were safe after three weeks of no contact!

I type this as a self-diagnosed iPhone, iPad and Twitter-addict and someone who have a thirst for constant news and sport updates. But I also say this as someone who as each year goes by realises that most things can wait, no-one should be so important that waiting a few minutes to speak to them won't be a problem and that we should we dictating our emails not allowing them to dictate to us. Even before coming to these conclusions, even my addiction to instant communication has not moved into the little boys' room!

New technology can be empowering but we should use it to make our lives easier and our communication quicker, not to be so intrusive as to follow us everywhere.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Manners at the dentist

I made that trip that fills most of us with dread today; I went to the dentist. This is my second visit in a week after a healthy (or unhealthy!) break we've been taking from each other.

I wanted to reflect briefly on the build up to today's reunion. In the hour before my appointment, I treated my teeth and gums to a thorough clean and floss. I'm not a dentist but I'm pretty sure that won't have been enough to take care of any problems he subsequently found. By the way, I need a crown!

So why did I do it? Guilt? Partly. But also a sense of politeness. Surely it is right that I present my mouth in the cleanest condition for the dentist who must see some pretty rotten things. That is just good manners. But it got me thinking. Where will this end?

Doing your hair before going to the hairdressers? Cleaning your car before its MOT? Hoovering the house before your cleaner arrives? Getting better before heading to the doctors? I hope you will agree, these are some of the great questions of our time!

In a week of unspeakable awfulness, especially in Boston, and in hearing that we lost one of the great campaigners and even better Mums in Anne Williams, writing these brief scratchings made me smile. I hope my dentist appreciate my smile too.

Monday, 15 April 2013

And the sun shines now

24 years ago today the lives of many changed forever. Ninety-six men, women and children went to a football match in Sheffield and did not return. Their deaths brought a darkness over their families, friends and many others in Merseyside and across the world. That darkness looked like it would never lift, as though it would hang over us all forever. But the families of the ninety-six never stopped fighting for justice, even though there must have been days they feared that a golden sun would never arrive. That changed this year. All changed. changed utterly.

There are so many incredible moments and images from this last year; seeing the smiling faces of the families as they left the safe space of Liverpool Cathedral on the day the world heard what they had always known about their loved ones; Everton's wonderful tribute at Goodison (hard to type that without spilling tears onto the keyboard); the humility of Margaret Aspinall as she collected an award for her courage and campaigning and dedicated it to everyone but her, and the quiet satisfaction of hearing people who doubted us for so long accept the truth in offices and cafes, pubs and on trains, in conversations up and down the country.

As has been said so many times this last year, the truth is now out. The time for justice has come. On that terrible day, the great BBC radio broadcaster, Peter Jones, tried to do the impossible and sum up the events he had witnessed. He ended his report with the words "and the sun shines now". For the first time since that day, he could be right.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Ladies first

My wife and I conducted an experiment this week. Not the most scientific one ever but nonetheless interesting.

We have recently noticed a disturbing trend when visiting restaurants. Whenever we go out for dinner and ask for the bill it is invariably given to me. When we leave a card on top of the bill, it is assumed it is my card and the pin machine is passed to me to complete the payment.

Now we know the clocks changed recently but we weren't aware we had gone back 50 years! For the record, my wife has a job, her own bank account, and oh yes a PhD! We are not sure if this trend is a gender thing or not but it is very strange.

We hit a new low last night. At the end of dinner we put the card on top of the bill and placed it right in front of my wife on the opposite side of the table from me to make it clear it was hers (the word "Mrs" which appears on the card also helps!). Yet, still the machine was given to me. We pointed out the error. My wife entered her PIN and completed the payment. The machine was then taken by the waiter and the transaction completed. He (btw this trend we have observed is not restricted to men) then handed the card back- yes you've guessed it- to me!

We have not completed our experiment yet- no conclusions to publish- but the results are emerging. We will keep you posted.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher

On my first birthday- 4th May 1979- Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. In the thirty-four years since, Britain has been shaped more by Mrs Thatcher than by anyone else in peacetime. For good or bad, Mrs Thatcher (she will always be 'Mrs' Thatcher for those of us who grew up in the '80s!) has dominated politics, public policy and public life.

There has been much written and said in the last day or so about Mrs Thatcher the leader, the woman, the bully of colleagues, the dominator of world leaders, the decimator of our industrial base or our mining communities, the Iron Lady. Whatever your view of her, you are likely to have had a view. She was a uniquely polarising politician or leader. There is very little sitting on the fence when it comes to Mrs T.

Before I offer my own reflections (minus the fence), I would like to mention- and it warrants no more than a mention- the vile behaviour we have seen by a small number who have 'celebrated' the death of an 87-year mother and grandmother. This behaviour is a stain on our country. It is disgusting. For those who have this hatred- and that is the only word that fits- it is worth remembering one thing; Mrs Thatcher was able to do what she did in government because she won three elections. She had a democratic mandate. She did not seize power in a military coup or have Jim Callaghan locked in the Tower. The people elected her. Celebrating another human being's death simply demeans those who do it. I will always defend their right to free speech but I also have the right to be appalled by their exercising of it.

So on to my reflections of Mrs Thatcher.

She did stuff. And not just easy stuff, like making speeches and having her picture taken (although she did plenty of that!) but she did important, difficult stuff. All politicians (or wannabe politicians like me!) say they want to 'make a difference'. No one could argue that Mrs Thatcher didn't do that. She made more of a difference than any single politician in our history. Our economy, our society, our political parties and our country have changed beyond recognition since she first walked into No 10. Trade union reform, re-establishing Britain's position in the world and pride in itself, reforming our economy, giving people the chance to break free of state control and own their own home, helping them buy shares and keep much more of the money they earned, totally reforming our failing state industry (her policy of privatisation was copied all over the world), gaining a huge rebate on Britain's contribution to the EU and shifting the argument about its future, retaking the Falkland Islands and helping end the Cold War which if not done could have led to the destruction of this world around us. This list only scratches the surface of her achievements. She has an 'ism' named after her and she built a political consensus which replaced that which followed the 1945 election and still lasts today. John Major, Tony Blair and David Cameron were elected Prime Minister because they positioned themselves as the heir to Thatcher. They owed their political success to the fact that they embraced and accepted her legacy.

She was a leader. Whether you agreed with her or not, you could not question her capacity to take a position- sometimes an unpopular position- and see it through. This courage is admirable in any leader but to see it in this leader who followed several Prime Ministers who had started off as radicals and then gradually retreated in the face of adversity is especially impressive. Mrs Thatcher stood her ground and delivered against the odds. She did not shirk the big calls. She had bottle. Never more so when she emerged from a near death experience in Brighton in 1984. Against advice, she said we would not be bowed. She led from the front, arriving on time and taking to the conference platform to deliver a speech that was every ounce about courage and leadership. It was business as usual. It was extraordinary.

She was respected around the world. The international reaction to Mrs Thatcher's death has been incredible. World leaders, former world leaders, opponents and supporters all have taken time out to pay tribute or reflect on her life and work. I have been reading newspapers from around the world over the last 48 hours and her death is huge news. Why? Because outside of her domestic impact she had huge impact on the world stage. Especially as a women- the most high profile, powerful woman of hers or frankly any other generation in memory. She was a major player in ending of the Cold War and the bringing together of the two greater superpowers (remember that word!). She was a colossal figure. Love or loathe her; from Russia to Rotterdam, you could not ignore her.

She was lucky in her enemies. She fought two of the most unelected Labour leaders of all time; a windbag and a donkey jacket. She was able to defeat the NUM as much because of the hideousness of Arthur Scargill than because of her own skill. The 'loony left' was so out there that it made her appear more reasonable. General Galtieri made the mistake of underestimating her. A mistake that cost our two countries many lives. Her political enemies so often destroyed themselves and played into her hands.

She was full of contrasts. This is a women with lots of grey areas; not always black and white. She was anti President Reagan's Star Wars in private but hugely supportive in public. Unionist in Ireland but signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, handing powers to Dublin. Hugely Euro-sceptic but a massive champion of the Single European Act and the enlargement of the Community. A women of principle (some would say dogma) but pragmatic to get stuff done. An advocate of 'sound money' but responsible for the biggest credit boom in history (until recently!). I spent the first 21 years of my life in Liverpool. I know first hand the damage that some of her policies did to my city. But she was the Prime Minister for the whole of the UK not one part of it and even though it hurt, it was necessary. She was what Britain needed. She was right for her time, not necesarily for all times. Too many previous governments had bottled the big choices because of the pain and political risk. Until her. By the way, the real and lasting damage to Liverpool and places like it were done by the Derek Hattons of this world not the Margaret Thatchers.

She will be remembered. This week, The New York Times ran the headline; 'Margaret Thatcher Dies; Remade Britain'. Britain was on its knees in 1979. The oft-quoted 'sick man of Europe'. But in truth the patient wasn't just sick but dying. Her prescription didn't always taste good but the patient needed it. Our recovery to full health, built on by governments since, was only possible because of her.

Her impact is and will continue to be massive. Her legacy- good and bad- will be with our country, our continent and our world for generations to come. This week, our great nation lost a great leader, our greatest in peacetime. She made a difference. She united. She divided. She won. She lost. She made big calls. She made mistakes. She remade Britain. She is gone now, but will never be forgotten.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

I was struck again last week- when reading about the problems at Standard Chartered with the forced apology of its Chairman- that the language of ‘sorry’ is so important. As with all things in life, for something to have impact, it has to appear authentic. That authenticity is about both the sentiment behind it and the words used.

Time and again, you hear someone ‘issuing an apology’ and yet it sounds the opposite of an apology. Why? It often has to do with the words they are using. An apology is meant to be something personal. It is meant to convey a personal sense of regret and often asking for pardon, forgiveness etc.

Using words like 'regret' and 'error' rarely work as they appear too formal and out of the textbook- not personal enough. Another oft-used and oft-failed trick is adding hyperbole. "I apologise sincerely" or "with deep regret". This merely highlights the formal word that is being used and so often it doesn't hit the spot. It sounds like the politicians non-apology apology- and we know how sincere politicians can appear to be.

"I am sorry this happened"....."I regret any offence caused" etc etc. What this really means is I am apologising but not really. I know I have to but I don't mean it! People see through it right away. The passive voice does not work- it has to sound like the person saying the words not a third person or a robot!

The secret to an authentic apology is a) to get the words right and b) most importantly to mean it! On the words, it has to be personal. It has to sound like the person apologising is actually apologising. Like most things in life, keeping it simple is the key; "I am sorry" is a good place to start.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Vince Cable; wise man or panderer?

In my eyes, Vince Cable has never been the wise sage of the economy that others portrayed him. This was apparent again recently when hearing his pronouncements on the need for "Plan A+"; slow down the deficit reduction effort and increase borrowing. This plan-a naked bit of political grandstanding in advance of his party's Spring conference- is not worthy of the name. It is simply pandering to his Party's worse instincts. These instincts are driven by the fear of what will happen in 2015 if the Government's tough medicine for the economy continues to give the public a sickly feeling. But, it remains the only show in town- something Mr Cable's Party leader understands- pay down the debt, clear up the mess left by the previous government and hold firm.

This long term strategy may pay off politically by 2015 but if it doesn't it will still have been the right thing to do. Mr Cable would do his standing with sceptics like me better if he put his country before his Party. For me, this recent episode supports the suspicion that Mr Cable appears happier opposing than governing. That he is better suited to commenting on, rather than shaping events. It also appears he is not fully versed in the conventions of collective Cabinet responsibility. This is the work of a political panderer not an economic wise man. And alongside that, it is very, very tedious.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Communicating directly with the people

The President is continuing his strategy of talking directly to the American people to make his case for key policies. He has done this on gun control, the economy and most recently on Friday on the so-called "sequester". This is a smart move but it carries risk.

He is of course a wonderful communicator and being able to get his message across to the people without it being filtered by the news networks and his opponents in Congress has merit. The downside comes when his actions do not match his fine words. The longer it goes with the President not delivering his agenda- frustrated by Congress- the more he becomes the lame duck that all second term Presidents fear. Every time he goes on TV to outmanoeuvre the Republicans, he makes it less likely he can deliver a deal with them. His approach is producing improved poll ratings but so far no big breakthroughs. If he wants policy as well as political success he must not over-play his hand.

Whose nation is it anyway?

Friday was St David's Day as one of my colleagues reminded me by bringing Welsh cakes into the office. It got me thinking about nationality and the labels we place on people.

I was born in Oxford Street, Liverpool (just like John Lennon- I fear the similarities end there!). Like many Scousers I have Irish grandparents and Irish family. I am married to a wonderful woman from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland, where we married before crossing the border into the South for our reception and the start of our honeymoon and married life together. Growing up, I spent many, many happy times visiting Scotland and Wales. I have lived in the United Kingdom throughout my life, working in Europe, seeing for myself how this country has become more integrated with its European neighbours and more European in its culture and outlook. I have travelled throughout the world, including spending a lot of time in the United States. Oh, yes and my surname is the most commonly-used in Wales!

What does all this mean? I would argue that it means that the world we live in is a small one and getting smaller by the year. That the old labels and boundaries we once imposed have become less obvious and less important. I would argue that one's nationality or sense of who we are is not as clear cut as it once was or was seen to be. That we are influenced by many, many things, not just where it says on our birth certificate we were born.

I am very comfortable with the following statements; I am extremely proud to be from Liverpool. I am extremely proud to be British (I believe that the United Kingdom is the best place in the world to live and grow up). I am extremely proud to be Irish (I support Ireland when they play England at Rugby- sorry Mr Tebbit!). I extremely proud to be a European. I am extremely proud to be an Atlanticist.

I do not see these statements as conflicting. I see them reflecting the many influences I have been fortunate to have had on my life. The richness of life. Putting people in boxes or placing labels on them may make us feel comfortable and give us some certainty but it does not reflect the complexity of modern life. This world is more grey than black and white. We should embrace that. We should celebrate the wonderful diversity of the these increible islands and this wonderful world.

So hapus Dydd Gŵyl Dewi to all my Welsh fellow British Europeans. I look forward to making similar toasts in 14 days, in Mid-April and in late November.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Pope's legacy

I'm nearly two weeks into my chocolate and biscuit free Lent. So far so good, with the occasional slice of Victoria Sponge to help me through. But my sugar-related abstinence is not the story of this pre-Easter period. Instead it is the abdication- I prefer this word as it gives it the historical significance it deserves- of the Pope. The Holy Father. The leader of over 1 billion Catholics around the world.

The is not an analysis of his Papacy or a discussion about where the church needs to go from here- although an end to celibacy, allowing Priests to marry and ending the sickening discrimination against our gay brothers and sisters would be a start- this is a brief reflection on his decision to stand down. A decision that I believe will be his lasting legacy to the Church.

I declare an interest first. I like Pope Benedict (not just because we sort of share a name). I have always viewed him as a quiet, humble and thoughtful man. No, I don't agree with every one of his thoughts but I respect him. He showed on his visit to Auschwitz and to the UK a gentle kindness which runs country to his cartoon-like media image. He seems to me like a man who cares about others' feelings.

Looking at his recent decision, it is surely inconceivable that watching the last Pope fading before his eyes didn't leave a deep mark on Benedict. To see the most active, well-travelled and charismatic Pope of all time reduced to a frail figurehead damaged the church and left it looking cruel. Making him endure the suffering of his illness in public with little dignity was an awful spectacle. The job- for that what's it is- of Pope is so demanding and requires amazing reserves of health, strength and stamina. I would argue that it has become even more the role of a major world as well as spiritual leader, with a constant need to show leadership and respond to social, economic and political challenges, let alone provide the spiritual leadership which the role demands. To do this in your eighties, with the inevitable fading of strength and health, is nearly impossible.

By stepping down this Pope has said loud and clear that the job of Holy Father needs to be done not just by someone chosen by God but someone who can work for more than a few hours a day. Someone who can fly around the world and not take a week to recover. Someone who can stand up and speak for more than a few minutes at a time. And someone who can provide the visible leadership and connect with people on issues such as child abuse, gay marriage and AIDS. Pope Benedict has said, I am not that person. He is also saying that whoever gets this job next, it is not their for life. He has enacted a major reform leading inevitably to informal term limits on Popes and a focus on his ability to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. It is not the big social reform of the Church many of us want. It is not an end to some of the worse attitudes of intolerance towards others we crave but it will prove to be a legacy that will make every Pope from here on it younger, fitter, more in touch with modern life, and more able to tackle those big issues that remain a millstone around the Church's neck.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Tory rebellions; time for some home truths

The last two Sunday Times have carried stories suggesting members of my Party have taken leave of their senses.

Talk of rebellions, stalking horses and votes of no confidence fill the air. Sadly, this is not the first time this has happened and it appears that some colleagues have not learnt the lessons of the past; divisions and infighting do not pay. Voters don't vote for divided parties.

I know that there are many people- impressive, sensible people- within the Parliamentary and voluntary Party who have strong reasons to feel disenchanted. They point to the so-called Notting Hill set running the Party at the exclusion of other voices (and accents); the lack of diversity at the top of the Party (not enough northerners, state school educated folk etc); the supposed aloofness of the Leader and his closest allies; and the apparent comfort the PM has for coalition over Tory rule. There is no doubt that from time to time these sensitivities could have better managed and one or two MPs/Ministers could and should have been treated better and there is room for improvement in how power in wielded in the party. But it feels like it's time for a dose of realism and some home truths.

- We did not win the 2010 General Election.
- We had no practical option but to go into coalition; not if we wanted, as we rightly pride ourselves on, to put our country before our Party. We did what was needed in forming a coalition.
- David Cameron is more popular than our Party. He remains a major asset to us in electoral terms. Despite the worst financial crisis in history and the constraining factor of being in coalition, limiting occasionally our policy ambition, Labour remain only around 8 or 10 points ahead in the polls. At this stage of the electoral cycle and with all the bad news around, they should be 20 points in front.
- Ed Milliband is untested as opposition leader and he remains best known for knifing his brother to get the leadership as opposed to anything he has done since claiming the labour crown. He is very, very beatable in 2015.
- Plotting against David Cameron, undermining him and the government and publicly exposing our disagreements will not help us.

Parties who deserve to win elections do their internal debating in private. They put their country before any party bickering and they keep their eyes on the big prize.

The 2015 election is in the balance. It can be won but what we need to do now is to hold our nerve. Stay the course. And stick together.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Gay marriage; a no brainer

This week could be one of the most significant in deciding the outcome of the next general election. The pivotal issue is not the economy, the NHS or Europe. The issue is gay marriage.

I am not going to set out here why I support gay marriage (although I do) or explain why the legislation deserves the support of all MPs and Peers, (although I believe it does) but instead to say what I think this issue says about our country and how the political case for reform is a no brainer.

I believe as strongly as I believe anything that the country of my birth is the greatest on earth and the best place to live and work. Despite the efforts of a few, this is a wonderfully open, free, fair and liberal country with fabulous, rich diversity; all different kinds of people, living all kinds of different lives. I love that about the United Kingdom; we unite around common values, a sense of fair play, a respect for each other.

If this Bill is defeated- which I don't believe it will be- it will undermine those things that make me proud of this country. Politically, those who vote no this week, will rue the day. They may not realise it as they cast their vote, but that decision will hang around their necks like a millstone. It will say that they believe the values of this country do not apply to all. It will say something about how fairly they think people should be treated. It will not be remembered as a vote of conscience but as a vote of injustice.

This vote is another milestone on our journey as a country to further social change and inclusion. In five or ten years, those no voters will look so out of touch with their fellow citizens they will not be recognisbale as representing them. It may not take five or ten years. Every candidate or MP who voted no, or would have voted no, will find that vote mentioned in every leaflet, attack advert and public meeting at the next election. They will be asked why their neighbour, their party's traditional supporter, or their campaign helper shouldn't be allowed to marry the person they love just because they are the same sex. The voters will just not buy it because this issue is about people and fairness and that is something the british people get. Given the choice, they will vote for fairness because they too have gay neighbours, relatives, friends and workmates and they want them to live in a country where they are treated fairly.

Forget the moral case for a yes vote for a moment- hard though that is. The political case speaks for itself.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Cold snap; more weather clichés

There is some inevitable about the laziness of the vocabulary in the coverage of the weather at this time of year. I'm sure there are cold weather bingo games out there on social media sites but just in case, here are my favourite cold weather clichés/phrases; cold snap, big freeze, blanket of snow, hazardous conditions, don't travel unless it's absolutely necessary, arctic conditions, since record began, severe weather warning, brrrrrrr, more on the way, braced for further snow, snow sweeping the country, biting cold, in the grip of, temperatures have plunged, travel disruption, and so on!

Savile; another blow to our trust in key institutions

There is clearly nothing worse about the Savile case than the unspeakable crimes he committed and the amount of lives he damaged. His depravity, his abuse of trust and the longevity of his crimes provoke feelings of nausea. But there is something else very disturbing about the case- the failure of so many public institutions to meet their most basic obligations to protect those they were meant to serve.

The Police, CPS, NHS, BBC, the prison service, the list goes on. They let down hundreds of people- many of them children- for six decades, including during the 2000s.
Criminals commit crimes and they often do it with ingenuity and stealth but rarely do they get so much help as Savile did.

Talk of "watershed moments" rings a little hollow after a year in which other issues have rocked our trust in bodies we should be able to rely on. Savile was clearly a predatory sex offender, preying on the most vulnerable. But he was only able to succeed and avoid justice for so long because of the failure of others. Their unwillingness- as that is what it must have been- to believe those who spoke out, and their willingness- as that is what it must have been- to turn a blind eye to criminality because they were putting themselves and the reputation of their organisations first is breath-taking.

Time and time again we see institutions close ranks and forget their oft-quoted values of public service, integrity, truth, respect etc for short term gain; avoiding scandal and damage to its brand.

You can often judge a country by its people and its institutions. This is the greatest country on earth to live in but as a little more shine came off these institutions over the last few weeks our country got a little less great.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Coalition mid term report; decent outcome, poor process

As I have said before, I think the PM and DPM are doing a decent job in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Not everything they had done has been good but there's far more good than bad. I would have preferred a Conservative majority government- obviously- but I still believe it was right to form the coalition and that it remains in the national interest for it to continue until 2015.

Those fellow Tories who complain about the coalition do need to remind themselves from time to time the public did not give us a majority. In those circumstances this was the best government possible for the country.

On the issue of handling of his week's mid term report. Verdict: must do better.

The press conference was fine- cheesy- but fine. The initial document was fine and a good bit of openness about progress so far and areas where more needs to be done. Less fine was the handling of the publication of the annex to the report. By moving its publication date and appearing unwilling to share it at the same time as the report and press conference made it look like there was something to hide or there was a row about its contents.

A classic process story followed which the media loves and distracts from the government's message. As we have seen before with communication from this government; good intentions but poor execution. It is tough to sell good news in such difficult times but not this tough!

TV election debates

As I suspected, the recent noises- apparently on behalf of the PM- about general election TV debates is really just positioning to get changes to the format/approach. David Cameron made his support for the debates and his intention to take part clear in his joint mid term press conference with the DPM earlier this week. He knows that the jeanie is out of the bottle- quite rightly- and that to return to being one of the few major democracies anywhere in world not giving the public a chance to see the men and women who want to run the country answering questioning and debating each other is not tenable.

It will be fascinating this time to see how much change is agreed; less debates (hopefully less shouting by Alistair Stewart!), just the leaders of the two main parties (unlikely), more audience involvement etc?

TV debates are a good thing. The more we see our leaders "unvarnished" (the word of the week) the better. It will also serve the PM well. He improved with each debate last time. I think the debates will help him gain ground on his opponents in what will be another very tight election.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Handing the most precious thing to you to total strangers

I do not normally write about health. I work for the General Medical Council and try to avoid talking about health to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest. But I am making an exception. I want to tell you about my recent experience and what it told me.

For the second time in two weeks, I handed over my wife- the love of my life and the most precious thing in the world to me- to a group of total strangers for several hours at a time. They took her away from me into a room I could not enter, put her to sleep and then took control over her body, doing things which if they went wrong carried risks which could last a lifetime. This story is the story of thousands of people a day in Britain and millions around the world. There is nothing special about our situation, except to us. We did what people do- we placed our complete trust in the people in the blue, green and white coats.

The trust we place in doctors is immense. Nothing in my experience of the last two weeks tell me that trust is not well-placed. In fact, the opposite. As well as being technical specialists of great skill, the doctors we have met have been compassionate, caring and supportive. They have been supported incredibly well by their nursing colleagues- a profession which has received a bad press in recent times- some of it deserved- some deeply unfair. Between them, these groups of professionals have made my wife better and held our hands through an emotional, confusing and frightening time.

But none of that experience of our NHS- GP, A&E and hospital specialists- hugely reassuring though it has been- takes away the gut wrenching awfulness of watching your loved one going into surgery or leaving them in hospital alone whilst you go home. This is not my first time leaving someone I love in hospital or waiting from news from a surgery but- perhaps as I have got older and my understanding of risk and loss have become more acute- this time it was the worst feeling of my life. I now know first-hand that there is something extraordinarily unbearably difficult about being involuntarily separated- albeit for a few hours- from the person you live for and want to spend every minute of every day with.

My recent experience has told me three things, reaffirming and underlining things I already knew but perhaps didn't fully understand. Firstly, doctors and nurses do the most amazing things and they do it under the most incredible pressure whilst dealing with unimaginable complexity; not just of the conditions of their patients, but in the environments they work. Secondly, no matter how often you look at your phone time does not move any faster. No matter how many times you press it on and off, it does not ring any faster. No matter how much you will a phone call to say everything is fine with your wife the phone call will only come when it comes. Thirdly, even though you think you already love someone completely, you realise how completely when the prospect of not seeing them again comes into your mind.

Our story is thankfully (and hopefully!) over and, except for a visit to thank the team at the Chelsea and Westminster hospital, we do not plan to return. At the end of it I am reflective (and v tired). They are definitely things that happen in hospitals that you think could be improved; communication between colleagues, handover between shifts and faster lifts in the hospital! But overall it is rewarding to feel that you get a good return on your investment of trust. That not every hospitals fits the media stereotype of "failing". But the most important thing is that you leave the hospital together to take your loved one home, safe and sound.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Hilary Clinton

After nearly four years of outstanding service as US Secretary of State it has been a worrying few days with Hilary Clinton being in hospital. I can't help but think we have been made to worry too much because of some poor early communications from the State Department and Team Clinton.

With an eye on 2016 and a desire to play down her recent illness they issued a vague early statement which begged more questions than answers. It led to speculation and a the adding of two and two and the inevitable double-digit result.

As so often, full disclosure on issues such as health is the best policy. Had we all known straight away exactly what was wrong with Mrs Clinton we would have been told it was a routine course of treatment, no lasting physical damage and (politically importantly) no risk to her possible run for the Presidency in 2016.

I hope the lesson is well-learned for the future by her team (the race for 2016 needs Hilary); always control your own bad news, get it our early and in full.

Racism in football; time for real action

Today's events at Pro Patria and Kevin-Prince Boateng's and Italian football's response were sickening and inspiring in equal measure.

The despicable behaviour of parts of the crowd today are sadly not isolated to Pro Patria or to Italy. Yes, these vermin are a small minority but they exist in too many places across Europe and have time and again stained the name of a sport that so many of us love.

No more about these low-lives; our breath is wasted on them. Let's talk about the response.

Kevin-Prince Boateng's (KPB) actions were brave and absolutely right. He is rightly being applauded on social media and across the world. But for too long the football powers that be (including Uefa president Michel Platini- who in June said that any players who walked off the pitch at Euro 2012 because of racist abuse would be booked- as the BBC reminded us today) have talked tough and acted weak.

KPB and AC Milan voting with their feet today brought this disgrace on the world's most popular sport to the attention of fans in living rooms across the world. The response of Italy's governing body deserves praise too. The strength of FIGC president Giancarlo Abete words, describing the incident as "unspeakable and intolerable" and going on to say "We must react with force and without silence to isolate the few criminals that transformed a friendly match into an uproar that offends all of Italian football." is spot on.

We now need good deeds to match these good words. Enough of the weak response we have seen to date (including to the shame brought on the game when England were in Slovakia over ten years ago). It is time to start throwing clubs and nations out of competitions and docking them points. Time to hit them where it hurts. Fines, being made to play games behind closed doors and suspended sentences have not worked. It is time for real action. Kicking racism out of football means kicking out the clubs and nations who harbour the racists. At least until they kick the racists out of the game.