A radio programme I caught here today has set me musing: what domestic policy decision has had the most profound change on the fabric of British life, say over the last quarter of a century?
Could it be privatisation? The closing down of the mines? The growth of the European Union?
All of these are candidates, but my first suggestion for one of the most far-reaching things to emerge from Whitehall since the 1970s is a decision taken, I think, by the then Environment Secretary, John Gummer, to allow out-of-town shopping centres to be developed.
The impact of this change on individuals' lives has been dramatic.
Instead of buying little and often, shopping patterns now require one huge weekly shop. As a result, fresh foods become less convenient, frozen and processed foods more so. Cars become a necessity, walking is less feasible. Those without transport are marginalised.
Shop opening hours are extended so people can get to these places after work, meaning they get home later (and shop workers later still). Town centre shops close, depressing local economies and individual tradespeople suffer at the expense of more anonymous chains.
Egged on by cash-starved local councils, gastropubs move in to fill the gaps left in town centres, driving out small traditional pubs and encouraging binge drinking. Increasingly often, this leads to violence. Local services and police resources are put under strain, and ordinary people are discouraged from going into town centres. Hence the cycle continues.
I admit that this is all a bit impressionistic (and I've only focused on the negatives), but it does show how a small and largely unremarked administrative change in the way planning consent was given can cause huge upheavals in the rhythms of life for an average British town.
Anyone care to come up with other suggestions for policy changes that have really transformed everyday life?
Is it because they are now so woolly and New Labour-ish that there is no point voting for them?
Or is it because they are so foaming-at-the-mouth loony right-wing that no-one sane wants to vote for them?
How this question is answered within the Tory party after the election is key to its future.
My thoughts? The British political psyche is deeply rooted in the pragmatic (or soggily unprincipled) centre ground. Any party that departs from this (1980s Labour, large swaths of current Tory party) is doomed. Whether this is a good thing is another matter altogether.
Last month, I considered the scary possibility that British blogging was a right-wing affair and that left-wing voices were rare. Not everyone agreed with me (thank goodness), but it seems clear that the Tories believe that they are onto a good thing with blogs.
Hence their launch of a new site, conservativehome.com, a semi-official site for conservative thought. It's still being built up, so it is perhaps too early to reach a complete view of it. But I do like the fact that it is at pains to stress that conservatives are victims too.
Yes, the most successful party in the democratic world, the party that has ruled Britain more than any other over the last 100 years is in reality a quivering victim deserving of our tears and sympathy. They are victims of 'de-mon-bate'-ing, where their evil opponents challenge their views. Diddums. Has the party of Margaret Thatcher really lost all its backbone so that it has to portray itself as somehow a marginalised minority to be pitied?
Other than that, the site for the time being seems to follow that age-old right-wing view: Britain is a dreadful country, the US is unimaginably superior. Personally, I find this kind of self-abasement combined with hero-worship really quite embarrassing. But it is part and parcel of how the UK right now sees itself and its country. Curious.
I look forward to more stuff appearing on this new site. Looks like it could be fun.
UPDATE: I now note it comes with its own blog, which can be found here.
The last few days have been momentous on both sides of the Atlantic for television devotees. In the UK, we have the return of Doctor Who. Much to my chagrin, it is not yet available here. By all accounts though, it seems to have been a success. Nick Barlow gives it the thumbs up, and the Times' critic is no less impressed.
And here in the US, the last few days have seen the broadcast of the first episode of the local version of that BBC mega-hit The Office.
Is it any good? I have to say that it is very good indeed. Sorry to disappoint. It is not as good as the UK version - it does seem a little bit more 'acted', rather than being apparently totally real, but it has maintained all the strong points of the original. There is no canned laughter, no music, and the camera lingers excruciatingly on individuals' expressions. Slough has been transformed into the equally melodious-sounding Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Wernham Hogg becomes Dunder Mifflin. But the look of the set is almost identical, the lines almost the same.
This being US network television, there is no swearing and the thirty-minute duration is interrupted three times (yes, three!) for adverts, which repeatedly destroys the illusion of reality. And the offensiveness of some of the jokes has been toned down. But, nevertheless, I give this adaptation a resounding cheer. It remains to be seen whether the American public will take the same view.
I have already written at some length (see here and here) about the Terri Schiavo case. A little over an hour ago the US Supreme Court again found no reason to reinstate the feeding tube. It looks like Schiavo will now be allowed to die: this seems to me quite clearly the correct moral path.
In this posting, I want to concentrate more on the rather remarkable political repercussions of this tragic case, and how the political situation has been transformed over the past week.
Last weekend, the political consensus could be summed up rather crudely as follows:
George Bush was re-elected in 2004 to a significant extent because of his appeal to 'moral values'. Since his election, his actions in this area seemed a bit thin (care to name a few?). Then along came this awful situation where the liberal establishment was trying to end the life of a sick woman while her parents pleaded tearfully for her to be saved. Here was a clear case. Congress should be reconvened. Legislation would be passed. Bush would sign it in the early hours. Schiavo's life would be saved, and a blow would be struck for what was repeatedly called 'a culture of life'. Democrats were, with a very few exceptions, cowed into saying nothing to oppose the move, so convinced were they that the Republicans had a direct line to the American consciousness on morality.
That's where we stood on Monday morning. Then some strange things started happening, and the script seemed to fall apart.
Firstly, the courts refused to play ball. Again and again, they found in favour of Schiavo's right to have her wishes respected.
Secondly, and more strikingly, the Republicans seem to have totally misjudged the national mood. Polls began to appear showing that the majority of Americans were opposed to the Republicans' attempts to intervene on the issue. The more the week progressed, the more pronounced this opposition came. The latest poll shows a full 82 per cent take this view. Eighty-two percent! Is there any other issue on which Americans are so united? Over 70 percent thought that Congress was motivated by politics in the action it took.
The whole political establishment here seems somewhat gobsmacked by the
Republican Party's complete failure to read where the American people
was standing on this issue (and the rest of the estabilshment's failure to realise this). So dominant has the perceived Republican hegemony on
morals been that the Democrats have been, shamefully, too craven to
It's too soon, of course, to say whether this episode marks a turning point in the way moral issues are debated here. But it's not too fanciful to suggest that the Republicans' dominance in this area, once unquestioned, has now suffered a serious dent.
No, I don't mean the weather. New York is still covered in snow, with another good few inches falling yesterday.
I do mean my rehabilitation from my foot injury. So last night, having spent a mammoth $40 for two standing tickets, I and significant other prepared ourselves for the four-and-a-half-hour marathon that is Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera. The fickle nature of the New York audience played into our hands again, as at the second interval the usher who looks after the standing area, and whom for obvious reasons I have come to know reasonably well, handed me two prime tickets in the second row of the stalls. Worth nearly $400. Ours for nothing. I just love people who can't stick opera till the bitter end...
The performance was a gem. No one singer stood out particularly; it was a genuine ensemble piece, beautifully judged. Angela Denoke, the German soprano in the delicious role of the Marschallin, the woman who has to give up her young lover, was extremely moving, playing the role with more vulnerability and doubt than I have ever seen before. The concluding trio for the three sopranos was a knock-out, particularly as we were sitting not ten metres away from the singers.
The production, need I say, was totally traditional. But in Der Rosenkavalier that is not necessarily a bad thing (although the Edwardian reworking of it at ENO has some great moments).
One last question for any opera goers out there who insist on talking during the performance. Do you realise that you can stay at home to talk, and it's absolutely free? Amazing. No need to fork out the best part of $200 for your chat. Another thing - if you sit in front of me again, I may well have to kill you.
It's 7.30am in New York, and I learn that yet another federal court has found that Terri Schiavo's feeding tube should not be reinserted (for details on the background, see below).
The debate here rages on, although it's becoming increasingly clear that the American public, to the surprise of many on both right and left, seems overwhelmingly in favour of letting Schiavo die. According to ABC, 63 per cent support Terri Schiavo's husband and the courts, 28 per cent oppose. Even more strikingly, among that core ultra-conservative group, evangelical protestants, a narrow majority (46 per cent to 44 per cent) are of the same opinion. It is also notable that 67 per cent believe that Congress acted out of concern for political advantage rather than out of concern for Schiavo or for the principles involved. For a very different take on public opinion, see Laban Tall's posting on the issue.
Of course, public opinion is interesting, but has no direct bearing on the rights and wrongs of this case, although it does make clear that, despite what some on the right seem to want to claim, this is not an issue of the left desperately wanting to see an innocent woman die.
But neither is it, as I said below, about the sanctity of life or about euthanasia. It is about people's rights to decide what medical treatment they want. And, when they are unable to make that decision themselves, for their guardian to act on their behalf. Why did Congress not pass a bill explicitly putting the feeding tube back? Because it would run a coach and horses through Americans' rights as individuals to decide how they should be treated, and as such would almost certainly be against the constitution.
Those who think that Terri Schiavo is being actively killed, that her death is in effect murder, need to consider carefully the implications of this position. No-one would ever again be able to refuse any medical treatment, however contrary to their wishes it was.
Courts have consistently found over more than a decade that the withdrawal of treatment is what Terri Schiavo would have wanted. As far as I can find, her parents have not won a single case to say the opposite. This morning's court ruling from Atlanta, from what seems to be a conservative bench, again finds that they have no case.
There is no happy outcome. A human death is always to be mourned. But I have yet to see or hear anything to persuade me that Terri Schiavo should be forcibly provided with treatment that more than a decade of legal hearings have repeatedly shown is against her wishes.