Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The Budget

Every time there is a budget the BBC releases a useful budget calculator to work out the effect any changes announced will have on your wallet. I usually fill it in, finding that my consumption of alcohol is the only part of my lifestyle to cost me money. This time the freezing of duty on alcohol leaves my wallet untouched, but the point is that until I start earning an income, the budget has little effect on me personally. It may be selfish, but this prevents me from really poring over the detail of the budget document and coming up with a coherent argument on the key points. Instead I'll offer some basic observations:

  • The VAT rise, the headline-maker, is disappointing, being both regressive and coming without any kind of mandate. The Lib Dems especially will take a bit of a kicking on this, and is another clear indicator of the drawbacks for them of the coalition agreement
  • Some of the changes in benefits and tax credits- though popular with the right-wing press- seem particularly harsh. Examples here and here
  • The public sector would inevitably take a hit with the British economy in the situation it is. Whilst Labour would obviously prefer to be in office, it suits their narrative of 'nasty Tories' that the pay freeze for those earning over £21,000 and the pension review comes under the Tories' watch
  • The budget was worryingly sparse on green issues. As Caroline Lucas said, it 'nails the lie to any idea that if you vote blue you get green'. It's disappointing the lack of criticism the it has received on this front
Whilst many commentators declared yesterday as the defining moment of this parliament, we will not know quite how defining it is until we start to witness its effects. Balancing the books by the next election is an ambitious target, and one that, should it go wrong, could leave George Osborne looking foolish. For the moment he has the support of the majority of the press, and it is down to him and his Liberal Democrat counterparts to persuade the majority of voters that the measures taken in this budget are unavoidable.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Labour Leadership Race- The Newsnight Debate

Assuming they avoid Iain Duncan-Smith levels of ineptitude, one of the five candidates for the Labour Leadership on show on the Newsnight debate last night, will be the Labour leader going into the next general election. It was my first glimpse of the five together and what follows are my thoughts on each's performance:

Andy Burnham

Despite being first to make his pitch to the assembled audience it wasn't until about halfway through the debate that I really took any notice of the former health secretary. For too long it seemed like he was simply an ambitious backbencher who had stumbled into the big-boys group, only to be quickly shouldered out to the edge of the crowd. He distanced himself from the others with the strongest defence of the Iraq war and a defence of New Labour's stance on civil liberties, but he was singing off last week's hymn sheet. He lacked dynamism and verve and stands a long way from making an impact on the leadership contest, let alone the post itself.

Ed Miliband

Before Gordon Brown was even making the humiliating last walk away from Downing Street and into political obscurity, I held a personal fancy for the younger of the Miliband brothers to be his successor. This was mainly due to his exposure as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and his performance last night, though not clinical, is yet to shake me off the scent. His diagnosis of Labour's failure as being seen as the 'managers and technocrats of society' was acute and he was also clear in his support for the 50p tax rate for the highest earners remaining permanent. Presentation wise he was slightly suspect- each point he was made propelled toward the viewer with the force of some particularly violent hand gesticulations- and I can understand him being seen as not 'heavyweight' enough for the job. But if I had a vote in the leadership election- which I don't- it would be going his way.

Diane Abbott

I'm glad that Diane Abbott made it onto the ballot, and with some murmurings of her making a surprise surge in the race, last night will certainly have gee'd the horses up. Abbott took her presentational lead from Nick Clegg's performance in the first election debate, taking full advantage of her central position, and speaking directly down the camera. At one point, with a growing racket of the other four candidates speaking over each other, she cut through to make her point in an almost stunned silence, like a diminutive teacher asserting her authority over a group of rowdy, testosterone-filled teenagers. The substance matched the style as she put forward both her positions and her differences from the other candidates strongly, no more so than in her criticism of Labour's record on civil liberties towards the end. This provided a good ending to the night that she completed with her choice of John Smith as the Labour leader she most admired. All in all it was a good evening for Labour's left-field, left-wing candidate.

David Miliband

David Miliband is favourite to be the next Labour Leader and last night you could see why. He comes across as the most statesmanlike and provided solid, though not exactly inspiring, responses to the questions posed. At times the camera was searching for him but at one point towards the end, having landed on the senior Miliband blurred, the shot gradually came into focus. This seems to mirror Miliband's campaign as he has gradually shrugged off the criticisms of his failure to challenge Gordon Brown for the leadership, to become the clear frontrunner. Though I prefer Ed, I can't deny that David Miliband would make an effective leader of the Labour party.

Ed Balls

Ed Balls was the most willing of the candidates to address the reasons why Labour lost the 2010 general election and for that he must be commended. However, he seems to think that Labour lost because they did not listen to people like Mrs Duffy, nor speak their language. The former is a fair point, the latter a farce. Labour should not be speaking the language of Mrs Duffy, but listening to people like her and telling her why their approach is better nationally. Balls performed better than I expected, but came across as the most reactionary of the five and, in my opinion, the least principled. Though I am not a fan, I can understand the benefits of having Ed Balls in a front bench position. But leader, no.

Whilst the debate was engaging and informative there was too little mention of the deficit. The coalition will attempt to justify all measures they take in this parliament with reference to the more than shoddy condition the nation's finances were in when they took the reigns. Any Labour leader must be able to defend, to an extent, why the deficit is so large, and how they intend to cut it. They must win back the trust of the British people in the Labour party's handling of the economy. For Labour to choose a leader without proper reference to these issues would be like choosing the winner of a football game with no reference to who scored the most goals.

Monday, 7 June 2010

On Drinking

Or rather Christopher Hitchens on drinking. The intellectual behemoth has recently published a memoir, 'Hitch-22', from which Slate are currently providing excerpts. Today's 'A Short Footnote on the Grape and the Grain' finishes with a must-read paragraph for all future alcoholics:

"Hitch: making rules about drinking can be the sign of an alcoholic," as Martin Amis once teasingly said to me. (Adorno would have savored that, as well.) Of course, watching the clock for the start-time is probably a bad sign, but here are some simple pieces of advice for the young. Don't drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food. Don't drink if you have the blues: it's a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood. Cheap booze is a false economy. It's not true that you shouldn't drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain. Hangovers are another bad sign, and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can't properly remember last night. (If you really don't remember, that's an even worse sign.) Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed—​as are the grape and the grain—​to enliven company. Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won't be easily available. Never even think about driving a car if you have taken a drop. It's much worse to see a woman drunk than a man: I don't know quite why this is true but it just is. Don't ever be responsible for it.

I'll raise my bottle of Budvar to that.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Up Hill and Down Dale

Every year, during the week of the May bank holiday half-term, my Dad and three friends go on a walking holiday. This year was to be their fifth as a group, and the Dales Way, running from Ilkley in North Yorkshire to Bowness by Lake Windermere, was the route selected. Unfortunately, with a month to go and accommodation booked, one of them was forced to pull out leaving a space. Thus, earlier this week I caught a train up into the Yorkshire Dales to join them for a couple of days of their week long journey.

Tuesday 1st June

The first day of the British Summer was one of steady rain, landing me in somewhat of a predicament as I searched in vain for my waterproof. Obviously before returning to York for the summer term I had dismissed the waterproof as surplus to requirements, meaning as I set off on my journey I was also setting off on an examination of the rain-resilience of a recently purchase
d tennis top. I'm happy to report that it did its job.

I caught the 13.58 train from York changing at Leeds onto the train heading for Carlisle. The train stopped at several industrial satellite towns, places like Shipley, Keighley and Shipton, before coming to Settle. Here, the transition from the urban, post-industrial settlements of Yorkshire to its idyllic rurality, was marked by the boarding of, amongst others, one man and his dog. The smell of the dog's damp coat permeated the carriage, letting the nose know what the eyes were already witnessing, the start of the Dales.

Settle marks the start of the Settle-Carlisle railway, a hugely impressive stretch of line both historically and scenically. It may sound slightly geeky to rave about the merits of a rail line but for someone all-to-used to trips up and down the East Coast mainline, Settle-Carlisle was something special. Field upon field stretched out away from the window, each a lush green, separated by the great divider of the countryside, the dry stone wall. Cattle sat, resigned to the soaking they were being subjected to, whilst occasionally one could spy a group of walkers tramping undeterred through fields and over stiles. The landscape would roll away gently from the train window, before gradually ramping up to a far-off horizon, the hills striving upwards as the clouds descended, both seemingly attempting, and in some cases able to, make contact.

I alighted at Dent Station about halfway al
ong the route at 4.15. Eerily I was the only one to leave the train and was greeted by the only two souls on the platform, my Dad and Dave, a fellow member of the walking group. At an altitude of 1,150 feet Dent is the highest station on the National Rail network and a clue to the lack of other passengers joining me in disembarking there is the fact that it lies a good four and a half miles from the village of Dent itself.

Rejoining the Dales Way, and with the rain, after a temporary intermission, rejoining us, we
made our way through damp meadows and cleared woodlands, arriving in Dent at 6.30. Though small, the dire conditions meant that little time was spared in exploring the village as we headed straight to our accommodation, The Sun Inn. The Inn was an established local pub with a few standard bedrooms upstairs that shared bathroom facilities. Though the sign outside promising 'the best ale under the sun' proved to be a predictably hyperbolic claim, the food was good quality pub cuisine and the atmosphere was warm, a happy balance of regulars and passing walkers. The day's activity had been but a gentle warm-up, but having caught up with the news and who had and hadn't made it into Capello's squad, bed was a welcome conclusion.

Wednesday 2 June

Wednesday was scheduled to be a short day, so before setting off for Sedbergh we were able to have a quick look round Dent. This did not take very long as the village is made up of mainly just one cobbled road that curves through the centre, the independent local amenities of a village shop, a couple of tea shops and three pubs, creating a pleasant country atmosphere. On the main road there is erected a large granite memorial stone for Dent's most famous son, Adam Sedgwick. Sedgwick, born in 1785, was the son of the then Vicar of Dent. He studied locally before attending Cambridge University, and then in 1818, despite no prior knowledge of the subject, was made Woodwardian Professor of Geology. He preceded to more than brush up his knowledge of all things rocks, and is now recognised as a founder of modern Geology. During his time in Cambridge he also guided a young Charles Darwin, though in later years was to strongly
oppose Darwin's theory of evolution. His legacy lives on in the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, on Downing Street in Cambridge.

The walk from Dent to Sedbergh was just six miles and with the fine weather we were able to make good progress. Despite only leaving after 11, by lunchtime we were sitting on a hill side overlooking our destination. Sedbergh sits like an untied shoelace at the foot of the Howgills and as we ate lunch, on the hills above the town the shadow of the clouds dotted across the sky crept slowly over the hills like a slide show. We made our way into the town passing the many cricket pitches of the prestigious boarding school, Sedbergh School, before reaching the centre that consisted of a narrow main street walled with pubs, tea shops and book shops.

Since 2006, Sedbergh has been the Book Town for England, official recognition for its diverse
selection of second-hand bookshops. There's a bookshop for those interested in textiles, for those
interested in topography and for those interested in transport. For those just generally interested in books, Westwood Books provides the best selection of subjects, though the claim of coffee and a seating area is in reality a coffee machine with a single seat next to it.

In the evening we ate at The Bull Hotel where we learned of the day's tragic events just to the west of us in Cumbria. When we returned to the B&B we sat in stunned silence watching the 10 o'clock news, an activity normally only undertaken on these walking trips for the weather forecast that follows it. Whilst the whole country would have been shocked by what happened, over the next day or so it was noticeable how the people of Cumbria were particularly affected by the events occurring so close to them. The next day, a farmer who had been following the massacre unfold online mentioned how he had feared for walkers as the gunman's whereabouts had briefly become unknown. We had been completely oblivious to what was going on, as would anyone else who was out on the hills, but for those who had been aware of events as they preceded, the angst remained etched on their usually cheerful faces into Thursday and likely beyond.

Thursday 3 June

Thursday involved a 17 mile journey from Sedbergh to Burneside, a village just outside of Kendal, so an early start was made, setting off at 9.15. The morning consisted of three 90 minute bursts, during which we passed some grand unused viaducts, relics of the now disused west coast rail line, as well as crossing the M6 and the new West Coast Mainline, the two modern arteries of North-West England. We lunched after about 9 miles before setting out into the now sweltering afternoon heat for the last 8.

Just after three we passed a farmer who, on hearing of our destination, commented in the soft, jolly, northern fashion specific to Cumbria: 'Burneside. That'll take ye another four hours. S'only five minutes by car.' Despite the obvious jest in his tone, his point resonated somewhat with me. I'm no great fan of car travel, indeed I've never even been in control of one, but when travelling day-to-day from place-to-place, I prefer something a bit more time-efficient. It's just a bit depressing that in a day of seven hours of walking you cover the same amount of distance through your own power on a bike in two. You may be restricted to the route dictated by the roads, but you still move slowly enough to take in the scenery but fast enough to feel like you're actually getting somewhere.

Despite my quibble, I'm not going to deny there was a decent sense of achievement when we reached our accommodation. The Gateway Inn lies a mile up the hill out the other side of Burneside from the Dales Way, but to be honest it didn't look like we were missing out on much from not being down in the village. The evening's food was excellent, and the beer, though I stuck to the safe option of lager this time, was relished.

Friday 4 June

On Friday, as the rest of the group set off on the last leg of their trip up to Bowness, I caught the train back to York. Burneside has a tiny train station, to the extent that it is a request stop. This meant that as the train approached from Windemere, myself and the other guy on the platform were required to step out to the edge of the platform to hail the train down the way you would a taxi. The train took me down to Preston where I changed to head across the Pennines back To York. The journey provided mixed scenery, passing some impressive scenery basking in the summer sun, as well as some of the more grim Lancashire industrial towns.

I arrived back into York at about 2.30 in the afternoon. The two days away had proven welcome relief from the growing monotony of post-exam uni life, especially as a lot of people are only just finishing in the next few days, meaning last week I'd have been pretty secluded. For someone who hadn't been to the Dales before I was very impressed. The landscape is a lot more gentle than the more mountainous Lake District, and thus retains more of a rural serenity. This is also aided by the fact that the places we passed through were not yet buzzing with tourists to the extent places like Windermere and Ambleside are. The legs I walked toook us from the very north of Yorkshire into the South Lakes. In future, as I gradually grow to consider myself a part-time Yorkshireman, I intend to explore the Dales further south into the county.