...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Day 3706: Chap With Wings


Somewhere, somewhen, there is a TARDIS by a graveside, and the inscription on the headstone just reads:

"He saved the world."

I met Nicholas Courtney in late 2005 in the BBC shop off Regent Street. I was buying a Dalek.

I addressed him as "Brigadier" and said the new series wouldn't be complete until he was in it, a sentiment he approved. And now he won't be. And that is sad.

To fans of Doctor Who, Nicholas Courtney was the Brigadier: Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart KBE, originally a Colonel, latterly a General, but always, forever, just "the Brigadier".

As everyone always says, he first appeared as Bret Vyon, the slightly sinister Space Special Security Service agent in the first Doctor epic "The Daleks' Master Plan". But it was as the head of UNIT (British division) that he became central to the second incarnation of Doctor Who, when it regenerated into a colour action-adventure series with Jon Pertwee in 1970.

The Brigadier, much more than the Master, is the Doctor's equal and opposite. A military man, an establishment figure, a human with no Gallifreyan superpowers or Time Lord cosmic knowledge, but with simple courage and belief in doing the right thing Lethbridge-Stewart stood up to be counted as Earth's first and often only line of defence.

He definitively Saves the World™ in "Battlefield", but doesn't claim to be the World's finest. "I just do the best I can," he says. And then shoots the monster dead.

Like the Doctor himself, the Brigadier's character changes from era to era.

The Brigadier that we remember, the crack shot, lead-from-the-front, stiff-upper-lip, not phased by anything sort of a guy, who founds UNIT and recruits Liz Shaw – who commits genocide against the Silurians, don't forget, but who also stops the xenophobic General Carrington – is actually the second take on the character, after the Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart who breaks down upon getting his troops massacred by Yeti. This, second, Lethbridge-Stewart, who greets the second Doctor as an old friend in "The Invasion" and in turn is greeted by the third in "Spearhead from Space", is smart and wily – watch how in "Terror of the Autons" he foists Jo Grant on the Doctor knowing that the Time Lord won't have the heart to tell her she's sacked, and knowing that Jo Jo is exactly the assistant his scientific advisor needs – and exactly the one who will keep him here working for UNIT.

He evolves again into the more comic, bumbling, "Scooby Doo" version of the character that we see in the later Pertwee stories, infamously "The Three Doctors", though it's less of a stretch than you might think from "Five Rounds Rapid" to "I'm almost sure that's Cromer". And he still retains a kind of dignity that rises above any mockery the script – or the Doctor – might throw at him. By "Terror of the Zygons", the fourth Doctor story that is really the end of the UNIT era (no, "The Android Invasion" and "The Seeds of Doom" don't really count as UNIT stories) he's able to wear his clan tartan and look like he means it.

In the Eighties, in notorious continuity-cruncher "Mawdryn Undead", we meet a later Brigadier, a retired Brigadier, who is somehow more fragile and more real. He becomes an icon of nostalgia, but also an exploration of how things are so much less simple than they used to be. Ironically, given that he was a late replacement for the character of Ian Chesterton, the Brigadier is perfect for this role because the Brigadier was never quite as simple as good guys/bad guys – again, see "…and the Silurians" but also the even-less-subtle (than "Mawdryn Undead") contrasts of "Inferno".

The audio adventures "The Spectre of Lanyon Moor", with the Sixth Doctor, and "Minuet in Hell" with the Eighth, develop the retired Brigadier further, making him a UN ambassador and occasional off-the-payroll assistant to UNIT – a role recognised in the new series with a nod in "The Sontaran Stratagem". (There are also a couple of extremely wonderful "Unbound" adventures – "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Masters of War" – with the incomparable David Warner as an alternative third Doctor – well worth a listen.)

The books go further still, particularly Paul Cornell's "Happy Endings" and "Shadows of Avalon", while many of the New Adventures make reference to the Brigadier leaving a legacy of "Zen Warriors", using Buddhist techniques along with the things he learned from the Doctor to train a better defence for Earth in a gentle blending of the TV Brig with the second biggest contributor to the Brigadier's character: the late soldier-turned-Buddhist, producer Barry Letts (though Barry was, in reality, a Navy man).

It's a testament to Nick Courtney as an actor that he played all of these Brigadiers with humour and dignity and made them all recognisably facets of the same man: hero, killer, friend, saviour. Splendid chaps, all of them.

In a way, it is astonishing that Russell, with his reverence for all things Pertwee-era, never managed to find a place for the Brigadier in the revived series. Yet, in a way, he did – not so much with that throwaway reference in "The Sontaran Stratagem" or an oh-so-welcome guest appearance in the Sarah Jane Adventure "Enemy of the Bane", but I now realise in the character of Wilfred Mott, the old soldier. The scene in "The End of Time" where Wilf offers the Doctor his old service revolver and urges him to kill the Master first: it's pure Brigadier.

Dr David would have loved it – he'd appeared with the Brig in a couple of those Big Finish adventures, although playing Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood rather than the Doctor. Yet somehow it seems that Lethbridge-Stewart would have fitted better with Tennant's successor. The childlike crazy erratic Eleventh Doctor would have been perfect with the stalwart, dependable Brig of later years. And there's always the risk that the Brigadier would have taken one look at the "Time Lord Triumphant" and said "Doctor, you've gone bonkers" before shooting him dead.

The television series "The Web of Fear" somehow neglects to include the iconic first meeting of the Doctor and the Brigadier. Terrance Dicks, of course Terrance Dicks, corrects this oversight in his Target novelisation of the story, and Alex gave it to me to read this morning. If… no, when we see "The Web of Fear" re-animated – and dammit I will win the lottery and pay for it myself if I have to – shouldn't it be outrageously bowdlerised by having that scene "reinstated".

Or perhaps not. There's something poetic in the idea that we will never see the Brigadier's first meeting with the Doctor and we'll never see the Brigadier's last meeting with the Doctor.

Nicholas Courtney, rest in peace. The Brigadier is forever now.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Day 3705: Aaron Porter – Be Careful What You Wish For…


Mr Aaron Porter is, depending on interpretation, "resigning", "standing down" or "choosing not to stand for re-election" as President of the National Union of Students.

Mr Porter is famous for shouting BETRAYAL at the Liberal Democrats because, when we were not given enough votes to put an end to TUITION FEES, we COMPROMISED to make the system more PROGRESSIVE and get the best deal for students.

IRONICALLY, Mr Porter appears to have been ousted following the revelation that he thought the Coalition's system was, er, PROGRESSIVE and that the NUS should try to get the best deal for students.

Still, I will not shed any TEARS for him; HE chose to try to ride the TIGER-monster… and now it has EATEN him.

Or as Mr Jesus might have put it: He who lives by the rhetoric of "betrayal" will die by the rhetoric of "betrayal".

Unsurprisingly, he's been given a column in the Grauniad to air his self-justification. No doubt he can look forward to many more when he receives the usual reward for being a grovelling quisling an NUS President: a safe Hard Labour seat.

Equally unsurprisingly, it makes NO SENSE at all.

I précis:

"I've done tremendously well bringing people together and leading the fight against the nasty horrid Coalition and so now I'm standing down in the interest of unity."

Er, riiiiight.

He talks about "the politics of personal attacks" which is IRONIC for a man who himself attacks Captain Clegg and Mr Dr Vince for "disgraceful behaviour", (way to play the men not the ball there, Aaron) and rather OVERLOOKS that the "attacks" that have brought him down are coming from, er, the very STUDENTS he claims that he represents.

And after all, why would the students attack him when he's been showing ONE FACE to them – one of solidarity with the campaign against tuition fees – while showing a SECOND FACE to the Universities and the Government – making the frankly OUTRAGEOUS suggestion that student fees could be kept down by cutting grants to the less well off, as well as the recent revelation that it turns out the NUS think the Coalition proposals are progressive after all!

He goes on to say: "Young people have proved that they can hold entrenched interests and uncaring governments to account"

Well, HALF right: "Young people have proved that they can hold entrenched interests."

It is CLEAR that the entrenched vested interest here is… the NUS itself!

The NUS has been acting (and always HAD acted) in the interest of careerist Hard Labour proto-drones who want face-time on the tellybox and column inches in the Grauniad when it SHOULD have been acting in the interest of the STUDENTS.

For CYNICAL and SELFISH reasons, the NUS leadership have fanned the flames of student anger over the Coalition's plans for tuition fees having kept pretty quiet when Hard Labour INTRODUCED tuition fees and pretty quiet when Hard Labour TRIPLED tuition fees and while still keeping pretty quiet about the fact that THEIR OWN PROPOSALS for a graduate tax are, fundamentally, PRETTY SIMILAR to the scheme we've ended up with.

If a graduate tax is acceptable, then the loan scheme with its higher starting point for repayments and cut-off point is ALSO acceptable; and if the loan scheme is NOT acceptable, then NEITHER is a graduate tax.

There is something frankly DISHONEST about making young people upset, afraid and angry over this when you are promising them EXACTLY the same deal under a different name.

Now I think that there is a WORD for making promises to people and then going behind their backs to break those promises… but it eludes me for the moment.

Does this mean that we will get a better representative for the students elected?

Well, as things are we shall probably get an angry young socialist called Mr Mark Bergfeld whose manifesto is:

"The fight goes on – No fees, no cuts, save EMA"

So, no change in the rhetoric, then.

(And after all, after the poison of Porter, who's likely to even THINK of standing on a platform of "let's try and make the best deal that we can get"?)

Is it better to face someone like Mr Porter who rails against you but will compromise in secret, or Mr Bergfeld who rails against you and WON'T compromise ever? And, more importantly, who is better for the STUDENTS?

Maybe, if he gets elected, Mr Bergfeld will – like the Liberal Democrats – make the UNPLEASANT discovery that you CAN'T keep all your promises all the time when you are in a position of political weakness. Or maybe he will just go on hating us.

In the end, that was Mr Porter's REAL fault. He was TOO LIKE the Liberal Democrats: spoke out against the tuition fees and then found that he couldn't actually get rid of them so tried to make things less bad.

Though at least we've shut up about abolishing tuition fees (for the duration of the Coalition) since we found we can't (for the duration of the Coalition). Mr Porter tried to have his cake AND fling it in our faces.

Declaration of Interest

Yes, yes, okay, I DID have a LITTLE bit of a controversial opinion about Mr Aaron Porter's policies… and then he resigned.

And there was that time I had a LITTLE bit of a tussle with Mr Aaron Murin-Heath… and then HE resigned.

Look, I don't JUST have it in for people called "Aaron"… it's just, if you're working your way through the ALPHABET, you have to start SOMEWHERE!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Day 3702: An Interest in Inflation


Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

This week, we learned that the headline rate of inflation is 4% (with the rate including mortgage costs an even higher 5.1%) and we were warned that higher interest rates are on the way, pinching our purses even tighter.

For lots of people, particularly those on public sector pay freezes, this is VERY BAD NEWS. Inflation turns a pay FREEZE into a pay CUT: you get the same money, but it doesn't go as far. In fact, inflation does this even if you do have a pay rise.

So why risk the EXTRA pain of higher mortgage repayments now?

Well, for starters, interest rates are like exoplanets – you really want to find them in the GOLDILOCKS ZONE.

(No, that's NOT like Dr Woo's "Medusa Cascade"; it means not too hot and not too cold but just right.)

It's fairly obvious what the problems are if your interest rates are too HOT or rather too high: anyone with any borrowing – which is most businesses, on top of everyone one who bought a house using a mortgage – they get squished flat under the cost of repayments.

If all your money is going in interest repayments then you have no extra cash to put into savings or to employ new workers.

So, HIGH interest rates are HARMFUL to prospects for GROWTH.

BUT, there are problems if your interest rates are too LOW as well.

Although it is much cheaper for businesses to borrow, it's much harder to find anyone to borrow FROM, because almost no one wants to lend money when the rate they'll get back is so low.

Think about this as a SAVER: people who have money in the bank are seeing it LOSE value at the moment because the interest rate is LESS than the inflation rate.

If I had £100 today, I could buy £100 worth of sticky buns with it. But put it in the bank and in a year I might have £100 and 50p, but to buy the same number of sticky buns would cost me £104!

Or to put it another way: I could buy sticky buns today for £96.63; in a year's time those buns will cost £96.63 PLUS £96.63 x 4% inflation, which is £96.63 PLUS £3.87 or £100.50, which is what I get from putting my imaginary £100 in a bank.

So what we call the "REAL" value of putting £100 in the bank is that it LOSES £3.37 (or 3.37%) in value!

(Of course real savers can get better interest than the ½% base rate, but it makes the point.)

So for starters, very low interest rates discourage saving, which is a bad thing anyway. But more than that, they mean banks have no reason lend money out, even if there were any savers putting it in, which perpetuates the CREDIT CRUNCH.

So, LOW interest rates are actually HARMFUL to prospects for GROWTH too.

SAVERS want to make a PROFIT on their savings, so they need higher interest rates to encourage them to put their money into banks.

BANKS – and this is going to be unpopular – need to make a profit too. So THEY need higher interest rates both to tempt in savers AND to make money when they loan it out to businesses.

BUSINESSES need more lending, so that they can buy new machines or factories to grow their businesses and take on more workers who in turn will then have money to save.

Okay, but I'm sure you can spot the problem at once. You don't need to be a genius to work out that you DO need to be a genius to know WHERE the Goldilocks Zone IS.

A rise in interest rates will inevitably (and in fact AUTOMATICALLY) cause a rise in that measure of inflation that includes the cost of mortgages. (It's called the "RPI" if you want the technical language.)

Put up interest rates and you MIGHT stimulate growth – but you WILL stimulate inflation, which cuts into people's budgets and makes it harder for them to save or invest… which might REDUCE growth.

Worse still, an increase in the interest cost that businesses have to pay might stop them from expanding or, worst of all, mean they can't cover their other costs and put them out of business altogether!

(And you very well KNOW that just as SOON as interest rates start to go up Hard Labour will be putting on their sad puppy faces and saying how AWFUL it is that Coalition policies are making things WORSE for "hard pressed" families with mortgages and business with borrowings.

Which is a bit like someone who's just driven a TRUCK through the front of your HOUSE saying how AWFUL it is that the builders are going to have to knock down your garden wall to get it back out again.)

Sticky, isn't it. And not in a bun way.

So, you might very well ask, if low interest rates are so BAD, how come the Bank of England let them get this low in the first place?

Well, the Bank lowered interest rates during the recession in order to protect EXISTING BORROWERS. By reducing the amount that people and businesses had to spend on interest, the Bank gave them more to spend on other things, reducing the effect of higher prices and protecting jobs.

As I explained above, low interest rates DON'T help savers and they DON'T help NEW borrowers (because there's nothing for them to borrow). So it's hard to invest in new projects. But in a recession, the economy is shrinking and defending what you have is prioritised over starting new stuff.

You DO have to start investing in new stuff EVENTUALLY. (Real investment, I mean: people starting or growing businesses; not Hard Labour's idea of more public spending.) But WHEN you start investing is a whole 'nother sticky bun!

Anyway, when dead low interest rates didn't look like working, the Bank went one step further and started printing money, so-called Quantum of Easing, which meant that there was more actual money washing about in the economy.

The low interest rates contained the problem of the huge debts that Hard Labour had run up; printing money allowed them to go on spending like there was no tomorrow. And as it happened, for Mr Frown's government there WAS no tomorrow.

One way of looking at this is to say that the extra money soaked up the effects of inflation, allowing the economy to keep going through the downturn.

But the flip side is to suggest that the extra money actually CAUSED the inflation because it meant that prices COULD rise, stuff could cost MORE, even though there was LESS economic activity because of the recession.

Monetarists will tell you that if there is more money about and the same amount of stuff to buy, then the price of the stuff will go up to match the available money. If you believe that – and I'm not entirely sure that I do – then RAISING interest rates will REDUCE the amount of money in the economy and so reduce inflation.

What I do believe is that by printing money we have undermined the value of the POUND. Printing new pound notes does NOT magically create new VALUE out of nowhere. It takes the EXISTING value and just spreads it out a bit more thinly.

So, low interest rates means there is little return for FOREIGN investors to put their money into Great Britain, and printing money means that they think (correctly) that our pounds are now worth LESS than they used to be. So our pounds can buy less of their goods.

In other words, the pound goes DOWN and imports become MORE EXPENSIVE, which is INFLATION.

Raising the interest rates – and, possibly even more importantly, starting to reverse the Quantitative Easing – will strengthen the pound and ease the inflationary pressures of higher import costs.

I only say EASE, not ELIMINATE, because there are GENUINE reasons beyond the weakness of the currency that mean imports are getting more expensive. And will KEEP ON getting more expensive.

In fact, looking back I see that I already wrote a diary about this… back in 2007!

Yes, it is a bit SCARY to think that the economic crisis has been going on for MORE THAN THREE YEARS!

And those forces have not gone away. The pressures on food and energy resources will continue to grow as China and India and Brazil and all the others continue to expand their economies and populations.

In spite of this, it has been clear for quite a while – from signs like the weak pound and the rising inflation rate – that interest rates are definitely too LOW at the moment. A carefully planned and MODERATE increase (or rather a gentle series of cautious increases) might provide some comfort to savers and maybe, just maybe, do better than Project Merlin in convincing the banks to start lending again.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Day 3700: William Hague Announces: "I should Never have been Tory Leader"


GOOD NEWS: the AXIS of DINOSAURS in the House of Lords have been defeated and REAL people will now decide how THEIR representatives are elected.

Responding to the news, Mr William Vague, Folliclely Challenged Foreign Secretary of "Save the Pound" fame*, has rushed out a statement to supporters of the No2AV campaign saying:
"AV doesn't work. Rather than the candidate with the most votes winning, the person who finishes third could be declared the winner."

Um, you do realise YOU weren't the candidate with most votes when you won the Conservatory Leadership Contest in 1997, don't you Mr Vague?

Other Conservatories who should never have been leader include:

Mr Major Minor – shouldn't even have stood since Mr Heselswine was beaten by Queen Maggie on first preferences in 1990;

Mr Ian Drunken-Swerve – beaten by Mr Michael Portaloo on first preferences. And second preferences. And by Fatty Clarke on third preferences.

Oh, and the current bloke.

Mr Vague, have you really thought this No2AV thing through?

*Mr Vague's famously disastrous "Save the Pound"/"Save My Job" election campaign in 2001 means that he is EMINENTLY SUITED to the job of letting Captain Clegg talk to all of those nice people in Europe for him.

My legal people remind me that as part of the Coalition agreement I have agreed NOT to refer to Mr Vague as a twit, nincompoop, buffoon or ninny. Thankfully, a lot of half-witted Europhobic gibberish got dropped by the Conservatories in return.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Day 3695: What's WRONG With a Big Society?


Well, obviously it's the wrong idea at the wrong time and it's got a silly name.

The SAD thing is that with a bit more THINKING, and a bit more PATIENCE, Mr Balloon's big idea might be quite a GOOD THING.

This Parliament HAS to be about fixing the economy. That means CUTS and PAIN and lots of UNHAPPINESS. But those cuts, you see, are a result of – and done by! – BIG GOVERNMENT.

THAT is the message we should be putting over: BIG GOVERNMENT BAD!

NONE of it should have ANYTHING to do with the "Big Society".

So why is the Prime Monster banging on about it so much?

Well, clearly, Mr Balloon wants to be seen as a Prime Monster with political BOTTOM. He wants to have a PHILOSOPHY in the same way that Queen Maggie had a philosophy (you remember: it was called "the SITH"). He wants people to think that his policies come FROM somewhere rather than being cobbled together by Oliver Leftwing and Auntie Maude on the back of an old manifesto with the words "Are You Thinking What We're Thinking" hastily scribbled out.

So they rolled out the "Big Society" last April in their "Invitation to Join the Government" to universal cries of "Huh?"

But the ROOT of the idea is, to put it optimistically, a trust that people are ABLE to make their own decisions about the important things that affect their lives, whether that is running a jumble sale for the local cubs or organising a street party for the Olympics OR (and this is where it gets radical and scary) setting up a new free school, choosing your own treatments from the NHS, or running the local library.

Hard Labour HOARDED power, and tried to convince people that they were POWERLESS, that they had to RELY on the almighty State for handouts and services and tax-credits and rights. Typical "we know best" Socialist thinking. This at least is trying to hand power BACK, to tell people: actually YOU have the power, not us. And that's GOOD.

Where this has all gone wrong is that it should be about ALLOWING people to do these things, but in the age of austerity it comes across as REQUIRING people to do these things.

That's why Mr Balloon's "Big Society" is so easily TRADUCED as a cover for spending cuts: the allegation that the Coalition want volunteers to do for free what the Government won't pay for.

Really, the "Big Society" should have been put, well not on hold, but kept out of the limelight for the duration of this Parliament.

It would have been far better for the Conservatories to keep their proverbial powder dry: work away quietly at encouraging people to do more of what they want to; chip away at the unhealthy idea that you HAVE to get support from the State if you ever going to do anything; reawaken those British virtues of self-reliance, invention even eccentricity.

And then at the NEXT election, go to the electorate with a proposal that says: look at what you've achieved for YOURSELVES; you don't need the Government to organise street play or community gardening – YOU'VE done it and you can be PROUD of what you've done. Now, here's how it forms a COHERENT part of our policy, and here (now that we've fixed the finances) is how we can offer support where you might choose to take it.

Obviously the NAME really does not help. Conservatory thinking has evolved (from primordial slime) in response to and in direct opposition to Hard Labour's nanny state "Big Government"; hence the "Big" in "Big Society".

Which is FINE, but you'd be better off by defining what your idea IS (and why it's GOOD) than by what it's AGAINST!

And you can't help thinking that the "Society" in "Big Society" is in there as part of the Prime Monster's patented, brand-detoxifying formula: look, look, we're NOT like we used to be; we DO believe in such a thing as "Society" now!

It's a pity, because put the two words together and they're just horribly CLUMSY. Society covers all the people that are around, the idea that it might come in "big" and presumably "small" versions is obviously daft. And it doesn't even SOUND pleasing, instead being the sort of clunking management-speak that only a committee suffering from focus-groupthink would end up with.

The fact that it sounds silly is actually quite important; an idea has no chance if people won't give it serious attention because they've already dismissed it.

Lord Blairimort was a dab hand at coining a convincing sound bite; this inaptitude on Mr Balloon's part is one of the few areas where he is no "heir to Blair".


Apologies for diaries being a bit thin on the ground; Daddy's work has been heavy going for the end of year accounts and he's been doing a weekly trip to Basingstoke to see his Mum too.