It was just after the Tory Party Conference last year that I met Alex Salmond. Not alone, obviously, but as one of a group of about 25 people. The group contained quite a few dignitaries, some of them Scottish, so he gave us the full court press. Lunch at his official residence, preceded by a 45-minute reception. The First Minister was there for the duration, ladling out the charm like heather honey.
I’ve met a few senior politicians in my time, including the last three British Prime Ministers, and Salmond was easily the most impressive. It’s customary on these sorts of occasions for the politician to work the room, spending a few moments with each person. It’s a well-established routine – you’re introduced by an assistant, eye contact is established, your hand is shaken, you’re asked a few questions that are supposed to indicate that the politician knows exactly who you are (they’ve usually just been briefed by the intermediary), and they end by saying “Nice to see you” (never “Nice to meet you” in case you’ve met before). (To read more, click here.)
Oh dear. I think I may have inadvertently contributed to the dissolution of Great Britain. I’m not claiming sole responsibility. In due course, when the blame game begins, I’ll play second fiddle to the party leaders, Gordon Brown, Eddie Izzard and successive generations of carpet-bagging aristocrats. Nevertheless, when the rise and fall of the British Isles is written, I’ll be deserving of a minor footnote. I’m talking, of course, about the imminent cessation of Wales from the United Kingdom.
I say “imminent”, but it’s contingent upon a “Yes” vote in next week’s Scottish referendum which isn’t a foregone conclusion – not quite. But I don’t see how a referendum on the future of Wales can be avoided if the Scots secede, shortly followed by a Northern Irish referendum, a Cornish referendum, a Black Country referendum and a referendum on the Isle of Sheppey. Some people have speculated about an English referendum, but at this rate there won’t be anywhere left to secede from. On the contrary, we’ll be reduced to trawling the dregs of the former Soviet empire looking for impoverished countries willing to accept our generous welfare subsidies in return for adding their colours to our flag. Mind you, that might be dangerous given that Putin will have his nuclear submarines parked in the Clyde at that point. (To read more, click here.)
Frances O'Grady, the leader of the TUC, is right to be concerned that Britain is "becoming like Downton Abbey", something she flagged up in her speech to the TUC's annual congress this morning. That was certainly beginning to happen under the last government. But, thankfully, the Conservative-led coalition has done quite a lot to put that right.
There's no question that under Labour the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, partly because Labour was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich", to quote Peter Mandelson. The UK's Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, increased from 0.33 in 1996-97 to 0.36 in 2008-09. But is O'Grady right to claim "the gap has got worse" in the past four years? (To read more, click here.)
Panic has broken out in Westminster at the prospect of Scotland seceding from the United Kingdom. A referendum on the question is due to take place on Sept. 18 and, until this week, the "Better Together" campaign was on course for victory. But in the latest polls, the gap between the two sides has narrowed to just six points and the "Yes Scotland" campaign is gathering momentum. In less than a fortnight, a political union that has endured for 307 years could be broken up.
So far, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has stayed out of the debate because the party he leads is so unpopular in Scotland. In the past three general elections, the Tories have only won a single parliamentary seat in the region and Mr. Cameron's fear is that if he campaigns too energetically for the unionist cause it would make it easier for Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, to frame the argument as a left-right issue and galvanise anti-Conservative support. Mr. Salmond is a fleet-footed political operator whose party has come first in the past two regional elections in Scotland, forcing the British government to allow a referendum to take place. Mr. Cameron reasoned that it would be more prudent to allow Alistair Darling, a prominent Scottish Labour MP, to lead the cross-party, "Better Together" campaign, but the prime minister may have miscalculated. (To read more, click here.)
It was nice of President Obama to urge Americans to visit Wales, but I'd like to sound a note of caution: the Welsh are very, very chippy. If a visitor does or says anything that could be construed as an insult, however unintended, the natives are likely to take offence. Indeed, several Welshmen will probably take umbrage at that last sentence, accusing me of indulging in a grotesque caricature, and thereby confirming that it's true.
I speak from experience. Back in 2001, when I was promoting How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, I had an unfortunate experience in Bangor. I was heading towards the local BBC studio for a radio interview, but got lost on the way and called the studio manager.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“I’m standing outside somewhere called Garsof Station so I think I’m in a town called Garsof,” I replied.
“Oh no, Mr Young, Garsof is the Welsh word for station. You’re in the right place. Wait there and I’ll come and fetch you.”
During the broadcast I retold this story, pointing out how ridiculous it was that all road signs in Wales are in Welsh and English when only a small percentage of the population actually speaks Welsh. Obviously, saying such a thing on BBC Radio Wales was a colossal blunder, but I didn't realise quite how much of a mistake it was until afterwards. (To read more, click here.)
I had an interesting discussion with my friend Aidan Hartley earlier this week about whether the young men fighting for the Islamic State are psychopaths. (This was before the news broke of Steven Sotloff’s beheading.) Aidan is better placed than most to answer this question, having worked as a war correspondent for many years and written a classic book on the subject called The Zanzibar Chest.
His view is that the Islamic radicals attracted to IS are not run-of-the-mill Jihadis, but a particularly nasty sub-species. Without in any way trying to defend the activities of terrorist groups like al-Shabaab, whose handiwork he’s witnessed close up, he thinks of them as being more like the IRA. That is, their adherents are motivated by a toxic cocktail of political and religious ideology which sanctions the murder of innocent civilians as a means to an end. The members of IS, by contrast, aren’t ideological fanatics, so much as bloodthirsty savages. They’ve travelled from places like Sydney and Manchester to Iraq purely because they want to chop people’s heads off. Their talk about wanting to reverse the Sykes-Picot agreement and create a caliphate joining Iraq and Syria is just so much rhetoric. In reality, they’re evil predators who’ve flocked to the killing fields so they can indulge their sick, sadistic fantasies. (To read more, click here.)
I first locked horns with Michael Rosen, the former Children’s Laureate, on Sky News about four years ago. We were debating the merits of trying to teach all children the best that’s been thought and said and quickly got on to the subject of whether the grammar school education we’d received would be appropriate for everyone, or just those who passed the eleven plus. My view, then and now, is that it would. His view, if I remember it correctly, is that grammar schools aren’t suitable for anyone, gifted or otherwise. He had only survived his by the skin of his teeth.
Since then we’ve clashed a few times. He’s been an energetic critic of the Coalition’s education reforms, writing a monthly column in the Guardian entitled ‘Dear Mr Gove’. I’ve always found it slightly irksome that he’s introduced as an expert on primary education when, in fact, his reason for opposing the government is because he’s a militant socialist. Not just a Guardianista, but a regular contributor to Socialist Worker. But to be fair, he doesn’t make any attempt to disguise his radical politics. In every debate he participates in, it’s only a matter of time before the bug-eyed, left-wing zealot emerges from beneath the woolly-jumpered, kids TV presenter exterior.
Coincidentally, we’ve both just written books on the same subject – what parents can do to help educate their children. Mine is called ‘What Every Parent Needs to Know’ (co-written with Miranda Thomas), while his is called ‘Good Ideas’. What’s remarkable about the two books, given that we’re at opposite ends of the political spectrum, is how similar they are. (To read more, click here.)
I wouldn’t describe myself as a veteran of the summer festival circuit, but I’ve been to enough to have a theory about them. Or, rather, discuss someone else’s – in this case the theory of Matthew Taylor, the head of the RSA.
For those readers who’ve never been to a festival, I will begin with a short primer. They usually take place in a muddy field over a long weekend, often in the grounds of a stately home or similar, and cost upwards of £200 to attend. There is nearly always an adjoining campsite, where many of the festivalgoers stay for the duration, although the sanitary arrangements are invariably poor. The festivals usually feature second-tier rock-and-roll bands and a random collection of authors and journalists – these are the “performers” you’re paying to see, although many of them are people you’d cross the street to avoid. Towards the end of the evening, disc jockeys take over and play loud, repetitive music until 4am, making it impossible to sleep. Perhaps for that reason, a large number of festivalgoers will stay up and dance all night, even though the very same people have often brought their children with them. The upshot is that nearly every festival features a “lost and found” tent that fills up with abandoned toddlers after Midnight. (To read more, click here.)