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4 may 2013, on being defensive

At every board meeting of the healthcare trust I am a (non executive) director of, we drag in a patient to come and talk to us about the care and service they received. The idea is for someone to tell us something that has gone wrong in a way that would never quite percolate upwards from staff, who at every level, very naturally paint the worst in the best light. The totemic "vasegate" incident, which is at the centre of a convulsive questioning of how good care really is in the nhs, shows how hard it is at the top to know what's going on at the bottom. It also shows the true value, however hard it is, of seeking and examining criticism. I am quite sceptical about how self-critical people can really be, and have seen any number of situations where people of all types fall so easily into a defensive posture when challenged about something they have done or that happened on their watch. We are currently doing appraisals (at my other job), and I have gone out of my way to urge colleagues to get critical feedback to play in, as everyone (especially me) makes mistakes. There is an incredible amount to be learnt from those mistakes, but only if we are able to admit them and set ourselves to putting right whatever was the thought or process that led to them. The challenge of others is crucial to this, and such challenge is quite hard to create and to sustain, not least because whoever is giving it is likely to be seen as tiresome and probably unhelpful. They are not, but are a crucial, strengthening part of any system; what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Mid staffs (where patients drank water from a vase in thirsty desperation) shows the corollary, that if we're not made stronger, it might just kill us.

27 april 2013, china in my pocket

Quite a major event, as finally launched the manchester-china forum yesterday, with no less than the british finance minister, george osborne, who endorsed it enthusiastically and will now be a helpful contact government-side, even though the construction is to sit alongside rather than within the main uk efforts to improve economic links with china; oh, and the consul-general. Generated a fair amount of publicity too. I've been banging on about the crucial nature of this for literally years, so it was great to take a big step in the right direction, and to see strong evidence (of what economic growth needs) leading policy and politics rather than, as often, the other way around. China is neither an easy nor a comfortable place to do business, but it is an absolutely essential one, and I have to admit to feeling good to have orchestrated something that really ought to help make it somewhat easier, and done so in a way that means we are in it for the long term; as the chinese are on all fronts.



20 april 2013, upside down

Whilst preaching that english people need to look again at whether home ownership for everyone is the right model, we are nevertheless forging ahead with improving our own little castle, and have moved out for a few weeks while the builders moved in. Things then are rather upside down, as we split ourselves between two places and try to carry on life as usual, even though everything we want is always in the wrong place. There's suddenly a whole new set of big decisions to make too, all rather rapidly and all on things we are not terribly familiar with - what size radiator, a door where, put how many on the window ? I'm learning a lot about water pressure and the differences a millimetre can make. It's all very exciting though, as we see a big thing unfolding before us and coming together, so far at least, pretty well. Whilst have hardly at all missed having a television, no internet is a real bind and a reason to sneak back to the house sometimes, and of course for a peek at the latest hour's progress, as we see how our romantic vision is actually looking in the real world we'll soon be back living in.

10 april 2013, this blessed plot

I remember vividly being woken quite rudely after a late night by a boisterous flatmate, to be told that maggie was gone, and just lying there rubbing my eyes and trying to understand. Like london was its capital, so margaret thatcher was britain's prime minister. A whole generation of us, thatcher's children like it or not, had grown up knowing nothing else, and at that moment couldn't really imagine it. I vaguely remember seeing david steel on some staircase after the 1979 election and conflating the sparse crowd greeting him with his 11 mps. As we came of age, it was thatcher and only thatcher that actually won general elections, the falklands, regular fights with the trades unions and pretty much everything else eventually, until she didn't, when incredibly suddenly she was gone. There have been so many obituaries and commentaries these last days that there's little that can be added, except to marvel at her durability and the incontestable fact that whether she did right or wrong, she certainly did things, and an awful lot of them. Which is not something, to a degree as a result of the blessed margaret, that too many politicians since can say. The global economic consensus she helped create is now the populist centre that most crowd to occupy, but without the polarised opinion she also brought, the winners and losers, the reverence and the loathing. Her most lasting legacies are probably that economic consensus, and britain's attitude to europe, which since her mounting of the barricades at bruges has been a remorseless one way street, across all parties. Setting the uk, or its english rump, on the path out of the union may yet be her most lasting memorial.

29 march 2013, the garden shed

Things were hard when I was a kid. We had an old run-down garage, which had absolutely everything stuffed inside, and also housed our old car, making driving it in every day a highly-specialised manoeuvre, and getting out afterwards all but impossible without knocking down stepladders, paint pots or bamboo canes. The garden was just as unruly, although something my dad always wanted, but could never quite afford, was a garden shed. I must have been about 10 when bernard, a friend of ours who my parents helped out (there were a lot of those), moved into heathlands old age people's home, and told us we could have his. He lived just a few hundred metres away on sheepfoot lane, which was much more well-to-do. Having somehow roped in our wonderful - and very handy - neighbour, leo, up the road we marched one day, tools in hand, and started disassembling it. No sooner were a few nails out than hard on our heels came my breathless sister with an urgent message from the estate agent to say no, leave it alone. Sighs of disappointment, and back we trudged, no shed ever to grace the corner that will forever be remembered as the most fertile compost heap in the world never to be used. And today, I am trying to rope my own kids into starting the gargantuan task of tidying out my own garage. We never put the car in it, but rather use it for everything under the sun we're not brave enough to pass on or throw away. Not for much longer though, as we're having it converted into a new room. And what of the bikes and the tools I salvaged from my own dad's garage collection, and still can't pass on ? Well, tomorrow sees the arrival of a most magnificent garden shed...


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23 march 2013, what in the world is going on ?

The markets remain calm, and a million cypriots seem half a world away, but what's going on there is an absolute breakdown, with a root cause of an oversized banking sector, like iceland, ireland and, yes, the uk. Though a year in the making, and with many deadlines past, the crystalisation of the crisis this week seemed a surprise, not least to the cypriot body politic, which rejected the deal its leaders made to secure the bail-out they asked for. Russia spurned their advances, thrusting them back to their european reality, and the ecb, rather precipitously, if legally, brought about a final climax by threatening to turn the taps off on monday. They can't now back down, hence cyprus passing extraordinary laws on friday night, with a final component, of the banking levy, needed saturday. This should be enough to persuade the eurogroup on sunday to send ten billion euros down the tubes to save the island. Though an astounding shock to the system, the levy on bank accounts is just a tax, designed as everyone knows to raise some of the necessary cash from russians parking large amounts of money offshore. It was the cypriots who tried to make it all encompassing in order to not be seen to be singling out the russians and so try and keep some of those deposits that are now the anchor of their main (tax haven) industry. The cost of that has been a wider erosion, across europe, of the basic idea that banks are not just any company we lend our money ("savings") to, but are tightly-regulated so even if they go bust our money will somehow flow back to us intact. For the euro, it is yet another major hurdle suddenly to be overcome, and although it will endure, its reputation and dynamics will take yet longer to recover. In "german" voters again facing down "southern" spendthrifts, and living to tell the tale, it is another dose of reality that makes the euro less a dream and more the sort of bitter battle and roller coaster that any currency must go through as a rights of passage, and all the stronger for it on the other side. For the broader eu, those effects are trickier, as the union was always built more on the dream element than hard core everyday governance, and that is looking ever more altered, especially for the "new" member states of 2004 like cyprus, and especially for the broader group of smaller states as the bigs, albeit reluctantly, take more steely control. Europe is ever less now about dreamy ideas and statements and ever more the real business of economy and finance that needs proper management and is inevitably less flexible in a crisis to sensitivities. Whatever doesn't kill you though, makes you stronger.

16 march 2013, and so it came to pass

It's nice to be right sometimes, and that seems the case (see 23 january 2013) as bibi finally forms a coalition with the two new forces in israeli politics and, more importantly, without the ultra orthodox parties. The two have boxed clever, and together, to make sure the coming revolution against the deeply-entrenched settlement the haredi have won for themselves over decades is finally reversed. OK, tzipi first was a nice touch, but won't change the fact that she is a don quixote fig leaf who will duly do her job for the next few years, tilting at the windmill of peace to keep the rest of the world just about off israel's back while the government's real business, of fighting back the ultra-orthodox, takes place; and a big battle it will really be. However, with the main opposition labour as much in the camp on this as the government, the chances of success, amazingly, are high. Less so for the peace process, and once again my old comrade-in-arms jonny freedland - sigh - has beat me to it and written the article I wanted to write, with the excellent (if unpithy) headline "you're not a tourist, obama. Go to israel with a message". 46 years of occupation has corroded the soul of the nation he concludes, drawing not on the left, but from the hardest of israel's hard men, the former heads of the security service (the gatekeepers). He also highlights another oscar nominee, 5 broken cameras. Like me, most people I know are strong supporters of the "two state solution", an option that on our watch is tragically slipping away. One of those two states is palestine, and there will never be a secure, jewish and democratic state of israel without a state of palestine. If that sticks in the throat, spent a little time to consider the alternatives.

13 march 2013, not the papal elections

I was chairing a meeting the other day when a well-spoken elder reeled off what he thought were the 3 occasions he could vote - "and the european elections" I added. The fact that the european parliament is just an afterthought (if that) for most europeans (and especially british) belies its importance, as over 75% of domestic laws now originate at eu level, which has consistently grown with each treaty. Despite its oddities (see 12 february 2011) the parliament is now co-legislator of almost all european activity, and although it won't block the budget, it has on occasion put its foot down, like making the whole commission resign in 1999. I have written before (see the quiet road to 2009) how while most elections tell a story, the "european" elections tell 27, as they are correctly, if unfortunately, characterised as second-rate national elections, each with their own electoral systems, voting patterns and national issues. For all that the turnout is dismal though, it's still higher than US congressional elections. Now comes another initiative to boost turnout and mobilise the european demos, as the commission, yet again, tries to make the next election, in may 2014, a more singular event. The main proposals are for each party to use its european name (for example the british labour party is the party of european socialists and the liberal democrats are the alliance of liberals and democrats) and for each party to nominate a commission president. The voting would be all on the same day and feature tv debates. There is little new here, and this earnest attempt to start to bridge the eu's "democratic deficit" will fail, because for all that the member states bemoan it, too many still claim the unique right to a national demos and don't want to see further moves towards encouraging a european one. Oh, and my cousin has composed some music

1 march 2012, che confusione

This has been brewing on my computer for some days now, but the economist beat me to it, and, I must admit, with a better headline. As they note, a quarter of voters didn't in this week's italian elction, and of those that did almost third % voted for silvio berlusconi, the most clownish premier since baron bomburst; and a further quarter voted for a real clown. Meanwhile, marvellous mr monti (10 november 2011) got just 10%. And so, just when we were beginning to think it was safe to get back in the water, up pops the unfortunately irrepressible jack in the box that is berlusconi to throw everyone right back under a bus. You can't blame him for trying though, so of course it's the italian electorate that will have to shoulder the blame for this unhappy drop off the cliff, although there's an important point about the ability of both winners (and indeed others around europe) to exploit anti-euro/pean sentiment in troubled times, and the perecption of democratic deficit. Clearly the soothing balm of monti medicine that restored credibility and sustainability was less attractive than the cod letter sent by the maestro offering everyone their money back if only they'd vote for him. So who is going to form the stable and sensible government that italy, and the euro, desperately need ? No wonder the markets dived, and will no doubt remain in roller coaster mode until there is a government, or the inevitable next election, be it 2 months or 2 years away. What a shame.

23 february 2013, zzz

So, my prediction of doom (6 january 2010), that the uk will lose its aaa rating, has finally come to pass. However, it is just one agency, one notch and many years on, and so more like a rap on the knuckles than a hanging at dawn. Worth recalling too that in the intervening period no less an economic powerhouse than the usa also lost its - we must always say "prized" - aaa status; and walls have not come crashing down just yet. Sterling though, not being the dollar, will certainly take a big hit on this though, especially after taking one last week after it emerged that the bank of england is moving in the direction of printing yet more money. For domestic politics, it will be a big stink as the opposition make hay. Early in his tenure the finance minister (a local mp here, george osborne) put quite a lot of the justification for fiscal consolidation on keeping the aaa rating, and so that will rebound now on an already-damaged politician, and there's probably another helping to come if we discover soon we are in a triple dip recession, which is as likely as not. With even the likes of moodys and the imf hedging their bets in saying too much pain, the pressure will be on more than ever this budget season, but as there's really no turning back now, economically or politically, that may just set up a "no turning back" moment, as osborne's party were always going to stand or fall on whether the economy is perceived as having sufficiency turned around by the next election (7 may 2015) or not, and this is just really doubling down, as I think the latest americanism to get broad acceptance on these shores has it. We shall see.

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