I wrote this piece for Comment Is Free yesterday. The immediate crisis has passed. But for how long?
"For all I know those impervious queuers who've been emptying the vaults of Northern Rock really are the bunch of lemmings both the bank and government's top brass think they are yet daren't say so. But I'm inclined to look on them more fondly. Would you sink a single penny into that company just now? The sound of on-message Andy Burnham, chief secretary to the Treasury, squirming away from just such a question on yesterday's PM programme has been a highlight of the Great Rock Crumble so far.
What its customers think they know, is that investors, City wiseguys, politicians and the rest know that no one is in full control of this credit crunch thing, and that the whole edifice of debt whose shadow we've been gorging in is wobbling. Listen again (from 0708) to those interviewed hours before dawn this morning and you'll see what I mean. It's sobering stuff. At the same time there's something horribly thrilling about catching the great god of global finance, if not in its birthday suit, then in surprisingly threadbare underwear. That goes too for the search for scapegoats. Perhaps it's a further measure of how amorphous is that mystic entity "the markets" - hallowed be their name - that no one can agree on what or who is to blame."
"Central Saint Martin's graduate, Danielle Scutt took the ancient gladiators of Rome - and the beasts they battled - as a reference for her tough, body-conscious dresses and catsuits in tiger and zebra-stripes embellished with black patent-leather bondage straps."
With the worst apparently over, Gordon finally popped up to say something soothing about Northern Rock. I heard it the radio earlier: the expected ooze about our strong economy withstanding the turbulence, and so on. I suppose the jury's still out on that one. And speaking of juries, the first "citizens" one on the NHS took place in Birmingham today, in a non blaze of publicity. For a flavour of how the future is going to be spun, read the following extract from this article on "consultation":
"With rising citizen expectations, the advance of new technologies and a much sharper understanding of the impact of lifestyle choices, the challenges that today's National Health Service faces are very different from those of 20 years ago. I believe we can only meet these challenges by remaining true to the values of the NHS - free at the point of use, open to all, rooted in the British belief in fairness and compassion - but I also know that no modern health service can afford to stand still."
Why do those words make my blood temperature fall? Well, there are these thoughts from GP Ann Robinson writing on Cif about primary care reform:
"I'm sure Sir [Ara] Darzi's a great knight and probably a wonderful doctor. But he's spent his life in hospitals, and primary care is a very different beast. He's apparently going to tell Gordon Brown that the answer to improving access to primary care is to let Boots, Virgin, or Tesco run the show."
OK, let's not dismiss such a notion out of hand. But then there's this news from the Mail:
"The entrepreneur who relaunched Pizza Express has been asked to run a chain of NHS cancer clinics. Luke Johnson is in talks with one of Britain's leading cancer specialists to set up a string of 'cancer express' centres that will offer patients every aspect of care from initial screening to chemotherapy."
Luke Johnson. Yep, he's the boss of Channel 4 who made such a pig's ear of handling the great Big Brother racism row. Put it this way: I don't mind eating Johnson's Sloppy Giuseppe, but I wouldn't want him inspecting me for tumours.
I like "hyper-local" blogs. Here's a bit of "hyper local" history.
"The town that the Blackpool Tower rises above was once nothing more than a tiny farming and fishing community set on marshy land along the Fylde coast of Lancashire. What transformed its fortunes, from the mid-18th century, was the craze for sea-bathing. Blessed with miles of broad, sandy beaches, it proved a natural magnet for those whose idea of a good time was to rush to the coast at the weekend and plunge into a bracingly cold sea. Before too long, enterprising locals were setting up small hotels and guest houses on the seafront to cater for the bathers. The thrill-seekers were only too happy to part with their money. An industry was born."
As I've yet to read The Political Class, the new book by conservative political commentator Peter Oborne - some say he's of the paleo variety - I won't be daft enough to offer a judgement on it. You can get the flavour, though, from this extract in today's Mail and a feature summarising of its thesis in The Spectator. The latter contains the following:
"Before the emergence of the Political Class, the conventional mode of leadership was based on a vestigial idea of gentlemanly conduct. The style had been laid down by the Duke of Wellington in the early 19th century, both as a leader of men on the battlefield and later as Prime Minister and national icon. It was based on understatement, sobriety both in personal conduct and in speech, self-sacrifice, restraint. Wellington eschewed displays of private emotion, downplayed his personal achievements, and showed a studied indifference to public opinion...Margaret Thatcher, in certain of her leadership techniques, such as the use of methods and personnel drawn from commercial advertising, marked a turning-point. Her successor John Major attempted to revert to an earlier style, and was not successful. Tony Blair, however, exchanged this old school of leadership for a Political Class methodology which favoured display, self-promotion, knowingness and ostentation."
So far, so good. But these days is it possible for any large political figure to be like Wellington? And, if not, is it all politicians' fault? Love or loathe Tony Blair - and Oborne loathes him even more than I - his political style and substance were defined largely in inevitable response to the relentless rubbishing of the Labour Party by the right-wing media, of which Peter Oborne has long been a part. But there again, I've yet to read the book...
Is it just me being contrary or there fewer and fewer reasons for a left-of-centre person not to reject Labour in favour of the party of Old Man Ming? I'm just asking: not that I haven't been "just asking" myself the same question at every general election since at least 1992 (I vote Labour locally but haven't at the Big One since 1987). Once you've dug down through the dreary media layers of leadership speculation and looked at the policies, how can your natural loyalties not be called into question? Let's see: they want to reduce the tax burden on the poorest in society and raise it on the richest; they're against identity cards; they're bolder on the environment...
Yes, yes, I know, lots of people like me keep "just asking" themselves the same question and sometimes switch to the party in yellow. But there's always the same problem: they've no chance of forming a government unless there's a change in the electoral system and there won't be a change in the electoral system unless they're in government. And even if they form a coalition with Labour after the next election, the change-maker won't stand for making that change. Plus they're a bit wacky, aren't they? All this underlines the big, recurring question - what are they actually for? Maybe Polly Toynbee has a point.
Here's where I met someone from the BBC today, just round the corner from Broadcasting House. With the world economy crumbling it was comforting to be in the company of the Corporation, still a solid and admirable national institution for all its recent follies. Mind you, these signboards don't inspire total confidence. Note the missing "e" and the disrespectful sticker calling our attention to some MySpace site. As for the plaque, click on the pic to read that it marks where stood the original location for the Proms, which have been broadcast by the BBC since 1927 - and that it was bombed flat 14 years later. Suddenly, even Auntie doesn't feel quite so safe any more.
"Incomprehension makes us the City's prisoners. We know what vacuum cleaner manufacturers do, and waiters and lawyers and doctors and even ministers. We are told that the activities of the City of London now account for a frighteningly large proportion of national economic activity. But as to what those activities are, who can tell? I have met lots of investment bankers, hedge fund managers, currency dealers. But I would struggle to describe on one side of a sheet of paper how they spend their days, beyond peering at screens. I bet you would, too. Financial management is the new witchcraft, an art that makes many of its practitioners absurdly rich, commands the grudging respect of millions, but relies upon skills and secrets that remain opaque to all outside the Magic Circle."
Does it mean something that Alistair Darling - he's the Chancellor, as you may not have noticed - was the one metaphorically sent out of Number 10 (he and Sibyl live upstairs there) as Northern Rock sank to demand old-fashioned banking and cry, "Don't panic" in vain? Until then it was Gordon who'd made the soothing noises when Bad Things happened: the car bombs, the floods, the foot-and-mouth. I recognise that money markets are Alistair's patch and all that, but isn't it a little odd that Gord has disappeared from sight since the squalid episode with Margaret Thatcher, except to utter warm words about Darfur?
Maybe the panic withdrawal of two billion quid - two billion! - doesn't qualify as a big enough crisis for the PM to call for calm. On the other hand, perhaps he anticipated that young Dave would try to pin it all on him and went into hiding accordingly. If so, his self-preservation instinct was sound. Yet Cameron's piece in today's Sunday Telegraph and George Osborne's remarks to the BBC have a wishful-thinking feeling about them. There will have to be worse things for Alistair to defend before enough people start blaming Gordon for them. But what if those things are on their way?