Friday, 26 February 2016

Suit up!

Why does it matter how Jeremy Corbyn dresses?  Given all the many other things of which one can accuse the leader of the Labour Party, his somewhat scruffy attire is surely one of the least objectionable things about him?

Well, maybe so.  But the outrage of Corbyn's supporters over David Cameron's remarks in Parliament during Wednesday's Prime Minister's Questions is still opportunistic, hypocritical opprobrium of the highest order.

Those who say that politics should be about ideas and policies, not about appearance – and that Cameron should be engaging with Corbyn's arguments, rather than making snide remarks about how he dresses – might have a point if they hadn't spent the past six years taking every opportunity to bring up irrelevant personal issues such as which school the Prime Minister went to, along with endless tedious references to the Bullingdon Club, photos of the Prime Minister in formal white tie attire (which are evidently supposed to make us think badly of him, for some reason), and an endless stream of increasingly tiresome 'PigGate' 'jokes' on social media.

The left-wing journalist and commentator Steve Topple wrote in The Independent that Cameron's use of 'personal attacks' against Corbyn proved the Prime Minister had 'lost it'.  A quick check through Mr Topple's Twitter account reveals he's not above a few 'personal attacks' himself.  It takes a special sort of unscrupulous chain-puller to deploy those kind of tactics against someone for years, then get on your high horse the moment it is returned in kind.

But all of this rather misses the point.  Because actually, Corbyn's appearance does matter.

Maybe it doesn't matter very much.  Maybe it matters an awful lot less than Trident or Hamas or austerity or housing or anything like that.  But it does matter.

Partly, of course, because how you choose to present yourself to the world matters.  For anyone.  Your clothes, your hair, the way you speak, how you act – all of these things send an instant message to people about what kind of person you are.  In politics, where so much of the job is about communicating well, it is foolish to assume these things have no significance.  As in any job, if you want people to take you seriously, start by taking yourself seriously – and show up looking like you actually give a damn.

But also because, as Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn is lining himself up as a potential next Prime Minister himself.  He is asking an electorate to look at him, and choose him to be the person who represents Britain on a global stage.  That's not a trivial thing.

Polling has shown us that one of the reasons Labour lost last year's general election is because the public simply didn't see Ed Miliband as a Prime Minister-in-waiting – and nobody could say he wasn't trying.  In his ill-fitting, shabby brown jacket that looks like he picked it up in an Oxfam shop, voters don't see Jeremy Corbyn as someone who can go to the United Nations, or the G20, and make people take Great Britain seriously.  Facing David Cameron across that dispatch box is an audition to be more than just a backbench MP agitating for fringe causes – to be a statesman.  And Corbyn is not coming off well.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

What do we gain from #Brexit?

We know, now, the date of Britain's referendum on membership of the European Union – 23rd June.  Soon, the campaigning will begin in ernest, as politicians attempt to convince us either to 'Remain' a member, or 'Leave' the EU.

Personally, I am undecided on how I will vote.  I can see good arguments on both sides – and I can see wild hysteria and condescension on both sides too.  However, it's my view that the burden of proof is on those who wish to 'Leave'.

The lawyer and legal commentator David Allen Green writes on his blog Jack Of Kent that he is 'neutral' about 'Brexit', observing that the referendum's outcome will make little difference to law and policy, on a practical level.  Neutral, perhaps – but in reality this is a de facto argument to 'Remain'.  If things will be basically the same either way, why would we go through all the hassle of leaving, and all the tremendous upheaval that will entail?  Unless we can be fairly sure that getting out of the EU will tangibly improve life for most people in Britain, aren't we better off just staying as we are?

To my mind, 'Brexit' is not a matter of life-and-death.  The UK will basically be fine, whatever happens.  For all that the zealots on both sides of the argument would have us believe otherwise, neither result will truly be a catastrophe.  Maybe I will lose some friends by saying that – but friendship shouldn't be contingent on sharing a particular viewpoint on the European Union, should it?

But as I say, the onus is on the 'Leave' camp to make their case – and unless they can convince me of some very real benefits of leaving the EU (and I am still open to being persuaded), I shall end up as 'Remain' by default.

Maybe this seems uncaring, or half-hearted; a rather uninspiring way to make a decision about the future of the country.  But if it would be a touch unfair to say this is a vote about minutiae, it is at least a vote about something which few people really see as the crucial matter of our time.

For those of us who follow politics closely, it's a chance to spend a second year in a row geekishly obsessing over exit polls and sitting up all night eating takeaway food and watching David Dimbleby looking for something to say to fill in time – however, I think the wonks who inhabit the fringes of political society for whom Europe has always been a burning issue seriously overestimate the number of people who hold strong, passionate opinions about the EU.

To large amounts of people, the European Union matters vastly less than those who shout the loudest on either side of the debate could possibly comprehend.  Plenty of people are, like me, quite happy muddling along as we are – unless the case emerges that 'Brexit' would leave us decidedly better off.  Perhaps the initiative in this referendum campaign will ultimately be seized by whoever is the first to grasp this.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Eighteen awesomely quirky ways to show someone you love them this Valentine’s Day

Dinner and a movie?  Yawn.  A dozen red roses?  Snore.  Scented candles?  Oldest trick in the book.  These days, if you want to impress that special person in your life, you have to pull out all the stops and do something different.  Dating is hard, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to stand out from the crowd when it comes to making your feelings known.  My handy list of eighteen awesomely quirky ways to show someone you love them this Valentine’s Day should give you some ideas.

  1. Breakfast in the shower.
    Everyone serves breakfast in bed – surprise her with a plate of her favourite breakfast while she relaxes in the shower instead (toast not recommended).
  2. Hire a skywriter.
    Write her name across the skies in ten-foot-high letters of coloured smoke, for the ultimate grand gesture.  Or, better yet, her National Insurance Number – if you know that, that proves you really know her well.
  3. Valentines cards are so cliché!
    Instead, carve ‘I Love You!’ into the side of a courgette.
  4. Remember, love rewards originality.
    When you pick her up for your date in the evening, don’t go in the car – turn up on a Segway.
  5. Make journeys mean something!
    If you do take the car, reprogramming her SatNav so the names of all the towns are your name will remind her of how your love is everywhere.
  6. Get her a gift she’d never think to get herself…
    …something no one else has got – like her very own, working printing press.
  7. Subvert expectations.
    Everyone buys flowers.  Turn an old Valentine’s Day classic on its head by getting her wholemeal flour instead.
  8. Learn Flemish.
    Foreign languages are sexy.  Conduct the whole evening in Flemish.  She’ll be putty in your hands.
  9. Discover her an element.
    Give her something totally unique – a new element on the periodic table, named after her.
  10. Make her mayor of Walsall.
    Power is sexy.  Especially local government power in a borough in the West Midlands.
  11. Make yourself taller.
    Everyone wishes their partner were taller.  Yes, everyone.  This Valentine’s Day, why not make that wish come true?
  12. Plan your future together.
    Show her you’re in it for the long haul.  Hire actors who look like the two of you to enact scenes from your future together – your wedding; your children’s graduations; you crying at her funeral following her tragic and unexpected death while engaged in a top-secret government mission off the coast of Norway.
  13. Make memories that will last forever.
    What does everyone want to hang in their living room?  A framed selfie with Stoke City and England right-back Glen Johnson.  His agents are Stellar Football Ltd.
  14. Build her a treehouse.
    Tell her she is in charge of who is or isn’t allowed in.
  15. Do the gardening.
    Remember, it’s a short step from ‘weeding’ to ‘wedding’.
  16. Stare into the eyes of Persephone, Queen of The Underworld.
    Prove your bravery by meeting the baleful, unflinching gaze of the Greek goddess who carries into effect the curses of men upon the souls of the dead.
  17. Turn her flat into the ultimate playground.
    Install a roundabout in her kitchen and replace her sofa with a see-saw.  Everyone loves their partner to show their fun side every once-in-a-while.
  18. Clone her.
    What better way to say “I can’t get enough of you”…?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Should Norwich sack Alex Neil?


I suppose I could leave it there – and this will have been the most straightforward, stress-free thing I've ever written.  But I imagine most people are expecting me to go on and explain why we should keep faith with Alex Neil, despite a recent run of poor form which has seen us sink into the bottom three of the Premier League table…

Let's start with something that should be obvious, but oddly never seems to be: sacking the manager is not a 'silver bullet' that fixes everything instantly.  Of course, I have written about this before, but that doesn't make any difference; as soon as you lose a couple of games, people start murmuring about sacking the manager, as if that always cures everything – if that were the case, clubs would have twenty different managers every season.  They don't, because that would be absurd.  Knee-jerk sackings are not the answer – and if you're the sort of person who would see their team lose and immediately reach for the P45 at the final whistle, without a moment's thought, you maybe need to reevaluate how you make decisions.

This view is a bizarre extension of the 'Something must be done!' attitude which sadly pervades many areas of life at the moment.  Anything that happens is met with a chorus of demands to ban something, remove something, change something, legislate for something…  Because something must be done!  Regardless of what that 'something' is.  It is the response of a feeble mind – and it won't help our club.

But let's move on from there.  Let's assume that we've got past reflexive demands for action-for-action's-sake, and decided that a change of manager actually might be no bad thing, on its own merits.  Before we do anything, we need to have a replacement lined up who is better.  Not 'just as good' – and certainly not worse! – but a guaranteed step up in quality from the manager we currently have.  And we need to be sure that this person is not only a better calibre of manager than the incumbent, but is available to start immediately, and would be willing to take a job at Norwich (a relegation-threatened club with, in Premier League terms, a relatively small budget).

So who is there who fits that bill?  If no names spring alacritously to mind, I'm not too surprised.  I can think of top-level managers who are out-of-work – but would they want to come to Norwich?  I can think of managers whose services we probably could secure – but would they really be better than Alex Neil?  I'm not convinced.  And unless both of those stipulations are met, we're better off doing nothing at all.

Oh, how short are the memories of some football supporters…

But what of Alex Neil himself?  Even if a good manager is available, and happy to start work tomorrow…  Does Alex really deserve the sack?!  This is a manager who came into the club midway through the season last year, when our promotion challenge looked to be fading, and turned things around.  We all remember the euphoria of our Play-Off Final day out at Wembley, don't we?  He did that.

This is the manager who got us promoted to the Premier League.  This is the manager who got a point away to Liverpool; the manager who got a point at home to top four Arsenal; the manager who beat Manchester United on their own turf.  That deserves recognition.

Yes, he has made mistakes – he is only thirty-four years old, and he is still learning his craft while having to adapt to a level higher than any previous challenge he has encountered in his fledgling managerial career – but he has potential and ambition aplenty, and has never been under any illusions about how tough a league the Premier League is.  Comments like 'out of his depth' or 'lost the plot' are harsh, to say the least.

It is unreasonable not to permit a young manager still finding his feet to make errors.  How else does one learn?  Not only is it unreasonable, though, it is stupid.  It is illogical.  Those mistakes, more often than not, stem from inexperience.  How does one gain experience?  Not by being sacked.

At this rate, the 'sacking culture' in modern football will cut off far too much promising young coaching talent at the knees.  Where will the next generation of football managers come from?

In ten years' time, people will look at the Premier League and ask: "Why are there so few talented British coaches managing at the top level?  Why is there no new blood in management in this country?"  Because they were sacked after four games in charge by ruthless CEOs acceding to the demands of unforgiving fans who cared more about exacting their pounds of flesh than looking to the future of either their own club, or the sport of football as a whole.

Alex Neil is a young manager who deserves his chance.  Norwich City need to give it to him.  And – who knows? – there is opportunity yet for that faith to be repaid.  Time has not run out; panicking now solves nothing.

Addendum (added Monday, 8th February, following various discussions on the topic):

Those who would favour Alex Neil's immediate removal have cautioned me more than once about the dangers of the club "leaving it too late" to sack him.  It is an argument – and an expression – which I abhor.  Even leaving aside the arrogance of thinking you are the person who can tell with absolute certainty when the optimum time would be for the club to act, what baffles me about this line of argument is that that it seems to skip over the question of whether or not Alex Neil should be sacked; it assumes that it is self-evident that he should be, and that the only matter left to settle is when.  It is an assumption which speaks to the central conceit of this outlook – that sacking the manager is always the answer.

The mindset seems to be that a manager's sacking is inevitable; that the only question around the issue is not "if" he should be sacked, but "when" to do it; and that sooner is always better.  This cannot be good for the club, or for the sport.  That is not a healthy attitude to have, and the worry here is that we will creep inexorably towards a farcical scenario where it is standard procedure to sack the manager after every loss, most managers last only a few weeks in a job, and the pool of managerial talent dries up completely.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

No one can have principles except me

A curious trait of many who are politically active is the strange way they seem to think that they (and those who agree with them) alone have a monopoly on 'principles'.  This is, of course, an extension of their political outlook generally – these are people, after all, for whom politics is about 'belief' and fervour, not objectivism and reasoned discussion.  But it leads to a logical fallacy, which these people can only fail to see due to their commitment to 'the cause' consuming the rational part of their brain.

If it is possible to take a strong, principled stance in favour of something, then it stands to reason that it is possible to be equally strong and principled in opposing that same thing.  This is common sense.

It is, however, difficult – almost impossible, in fact – to get anyone (regardless of where on the political spectrum they might sit) who truly believes in their political cause to concede this self-evident fact.

Whether we're talking about hardline UKIP 'Brexit-eers', or committed Corbynites, the attitudes are always the same.

Yes.  The reason 'moderate' Labour MPs are criticising their party leader is because they are venal careerists and they are scared; in the mind of a Corbyn loyalist like McPartland, this is the only explanation there can possibly be – he simply cannot comprehend the idea that MPs might hold different ideas from Jeremy Corbyn for genuine reasons, and that they might believe them and fight for them just as passionately as Corbyn himself fights for his own ideals.

It's never occurred to Ian that these cabinet ministers might have weighed up the arguments on both sides very carefully and genuinely concluded that remaining in the European Union might actually be in 'the interests of Brits'.  I'm not saying they have, necessarily – maybe Ian is right that some ministers' reasons for not endorsing 'Brexit' owe more to expediency than conviction – but he can't be sure of that, and neither can I.  The possibility does exist that some ministers might have chosen not to campaign to leave the EU because they genuinely feel that staying in is the right choice, rather than because they are afraid to lose their salaries.

But fanatics like these cannot allow such impure thoughts to pollute their minds.  To admit that the enemy might actually be a relatively decent, normal guy who just happens to have a different outlook on certain issues – rather than an agent of evil itself whose dastardly propaganda racket must be smashed – is to admit defeat.

It is this demagoguery which allows activists to fight for their causes so passionately.  The single-minded belief that we are right because we have principles – whilst anyone who disagrees with us is necessarily a scurrilous, treacherous, two-faced, good-for-nothing hypocrite who's only looking out for himself – allows the movement (whatever it may be) to affect an air of moral superiority and rise above the petty objections of 'facts' and 'data'.

Most people, however, are (rightly) sceptical of zealots.  For the average person in the street – the very person, often, who needs to be convinced of one point-of-view or another – the ardour of anyone banging the drum too loudly, or too often, will actually be quite off-putting.  Such dogma – and such refusal to countenance the idea that the other side might, just occasionally, not be total schmucks – ends up being damaging to the cause.

But for an activist truly to dedicate him- or herself to a cause, he or she must completely believe that those who disagree are not just wrong, but malign.  These are people who have convinced themselves that they are fighting the good fight; that they, and they alone, are on the side of righteousness, justice, freedom and truth; and that it therefore follows that anyone opposed to their agenda has a sinister ulterior motive.

In short, they are deluded.  And they wonder why the rest of the population views them with such deep suspicion…?!