The material world moves online

Shoppers reach for television sets as they compete to purchase retail items on Black Friday at a store in Sao Paulo, Brazil, November 24, 2016. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Any colour as long as it’s black

My son does not do shopping. The sight of a shopping centre is enough to send him into a slough of despond and, to be fair, there’s not much there to keep him occupied.

He has grown out of toy shops, his obsession with Game has gone now that games software has moved online, and he doesn’t do fashion. Like my late father, he doesn’t see the point in having multiples of the same thing. One T-shirt and pair of jeans is enough for any man.

On the face of it, this is a welcome rejection of materialism. But the world has changed – and nowhere more than retail. Away from the high street, there’s a whole new world of consumerism along the superhighway. And that’s were he shops.

On Black Friday, the digital high street comes into its own. Why have a fist-fight in Tesco for a shoddy mass-produced television set, when you can buy one online.

On the web you can spend money without being aware of it. You don’t even have to pull your wallet out of your pocket. One-click shopping liberates cash from your account at the push of a button.

My heir, Mr Convenience, has adapted to this new world with ease. His computer – built from parts delivered by white van man – is powerful enough to take a rocket to the other end of the solar system. Captain Kirk would be envious of the kit.

I am old-fashioned enough to still think Amazon is a river running through rainforests, and to envisage Amazonians as a ruthless band of female warriors.

But times have moved on. It is the source of steady stream of brown paper packages rivering through our letterbox: computer parts; exotic Japanese manga; and stuff that passes these days for entertainment – hi-tech toys and electronics.

Being of a certain age, and unsympathetic to the virtual world, I usually raise an eyebrow and grunt indifferently when a package arrives for him.

When a particularly large parcel arrives I give off about the material world. (Though truth be told, hypocritical me is just as materialistic – it’s just that my materialism tends to come in the form of books, black vinyl and Mozart operas on DVD.)

My son has developed a way of ignoring me: it’s the noise-cancelling headphones that screen me out. If only I’d had them when I was his age.

I could have done with a set when my dad was delivering his weekly Saturday night, post-pub, lecture.

About a month ago a particularly large box arrived. It sat in the hall until he came home from college. I ignored it the way a cartoon character ignores a ticking bomb.

Like many modern families we live in our own little bubbles: my daughter in Facebook-land, my wife absorbed in monster TV franchises on her tablet, and my son in that no-go area known a teenager’s bedroom.

Only I live in the real world (or so I claim). So it took time for news to reach me that the box contained a state-of-the-art virtual reality headset – not one of those £10 jobs you put your phone in.

It’s reassuring to know that his student loan is going to good use. My frugal wife was apoplectic. I took the news in my stride. He is studying applied computing after all, so it could be regarded as a legitimate expense.

But my inner snob surfaced. Disdainfully I resisted the temptation to go and look at it.

Last weekend I relented and tried the damn thing on. His home ‘screen’ opens in a bedroom by Van Vogh – you want walk around it. I did not know my son was into the impressionists.

Then he took me to the outer edge of the earth to witness a solar eclipse, I was able to fly over Africa, and then drop into the heart of Florence beside the Duomo, rendered in 3D. I could walk to the café where we had cappuccino on the last evening of our visit there in July.

And then we headed to the shores of Lough Neagh – Lurgan is not yet rendered in 3D (was it ever?), but I was able to hover over Kilwilkie, and see the North Circular Road stretch round to the high school.

When I caught sight of St Colman’s cemetery where my parents are buried, I was home again, with a flood of memories – happy and sad – and my eyes welling up.

There’s nothing virtual in that: just a new way to tap into precious memories. Black Friday. Where’s the Amazon link to those headsets?

  • The article first appeared in The Irish News on November 25 2016

Trump’s hostile takeover of America succeeds


President-elect Trump routs the liberal establishment

White van man is on the march. Trump’s victory in the United States presidential race is a victory for disaffected white men – opinionated, racist misogynists – who have decided to give the establishment a kicking.

One thing is for sure, 2016 will go down in history as a watershed year. First Brexit and now Trump, reactionary forces are in the ascendant. The liberal consensus – that has dominated post-war politics – is broken.

Mrs Clinton was a flawed candidate. She carried baggage, was too close to corporate America and failed to connect with the voters. But she was the standard-bearer for liberal values and should have won. Her victory would have secured President Obama’s legacy – so he is a big loser too.

The FBI did Clinton no favours, but its intervention over her private emails only confirmed unease already there.

Like Brexit, the campaign bombed in part because those who had most to lose did not get out and vote. The working class, African Americans, millennials and women failed to give Clinton the backing she needed, and deserved.

But this was not the only reason for Trump’s triumph. He successfully mobilised voters who previously did not function as a group. Older white males gravitated to him. With his leering and hubristic bar-room campaign, he became their standard bearer.

There have been suggestions that Trump the president will be different from Trump the candidate.

But there is no reason to believe that this leopard, who scapegoated vulnerable groups to win the White House, will change his spots. Hubris, and his enormous ego, will always rise to the surface. Trump cannot help himself, he behaves like the spoilt reality TV celebrity he is.

He put on a show to win the White House; and he will ensure the show goes on. Trump will govern using the script of The Apprentice.

America has made its choice, and has a right to pick who it wants as president – even a complete amateur who has never been tested by high office. But this election is not just about America. What happens in the only remaining superpower resonates around the globe.

The world is now a more dangerous place. Volatility is the enemy of peace and security; and the leadership of the free world will soon be in the hands of an unstable demagogue.

And Trump has his doppelgänger. In Russia’s President Putin, the leadership of the unfree world is also controlled by a man who cannot be trusted – a man who believes self-preservation is the same as the national interest.

So where from here? It’s hard to see how the genie can be put back in the bottle.

Those who voted Trump and Brexit imagine there are simple solutions to complex problems. But there are no easy answers, it will take time for that to sink in. Trump will disappoint.

In the meantime, the left must find its voice again. It must find a way of reconnecting with the electorate. And it must find a champion who has a vision of a world that is positive and inclusive.

The hard right has successfully crafted a narrative that presents liberals as an out-of-touch elite. It has demonised migrants. And it has tapped into the nasty underbelly of petty nationalism.

The last time these forces were abroad, Adolf Hitler rose to power.

Trump is no Hitler. But as the rising tide of violent racism in post-Brexit Britain has demonstrated, there are risks that the demons that destroyed Weimar Germany will be unleashed. 

I hope I am wrong. But on this morning after the night before, it is difficult to dispel pessimism.

President Obama was elected with “Hope” as his one-word slogan. With Donald Trump’s election, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” has become the catchphrase of modern America.

Stop the world I want to get off


It’s a sad state when unelected and unaccountable judges step up to defend Parliamentary sovereignty

You couldn’t make it up. The loony right successfully outmanoeuvres a weak and spineless prime minister to secure a vote on Britain’s future membership of the European Union.

It wins with a promise that the electorate will be able to ‘take back control’ from faceless bureaucrats. The EU referendum is all about sovereignty, they claim.

But Theresa May’s definition of sovereignty is any act that bypasses parliament – using instead the royal prerogative to impose her will.

May’s determination to ignore MPs – denying them the right to vote on triggering Article 50 to leave the EU – was anti-democratic in the extreme. The leader of a tin pot dictatorship would have been embarrassed to try that trick.

Enter the judiciary – robed and bewigged – to stop her in her tracks.

It says something about the state of democracy in the UK that it takes three unelected high court judges to leap to its defence.

And then the loony right turns on them. Incandescent with rage, Nigel Farage said: “I worry that betrayal may be near at hand.”

Let us hope so.

The Government says it will appeal to the Supreme Court. If it looses there it can always try the European Court I suppose.

The Brexit vote was an act of madness. The consequences are already making themselves manifest. Even the price of Marmite is on the rise as a result.

I respect the vote in June. But there’s nothing that says stupid decisions cannot be re-examined and overturned. Pro-Europeans have every right to use whatever tools are at their disposal to ensure Britain stays in Europe.

I’d like to preface my next observation by saying that some of my best friends are political journalists. I don’t know what the collective noun for them is. I suspect it is something like ‘A Conspiracy…’

They are always putting two and two together and making five. And I have the suspicion that often they are writing for one-another. (I am sure I do them an injustice.)

For some reason, right-wing journos are always more entertaining than those on the left. Comrades are not allowed to laugh. The New Statesman, for example, with its socialist roots, is deathly dull. The Spectator, on the other hand, once edited by Boris Johnson, is invariably good for a laugh.

This week it held its annual parliamentarian of the year awards. Gone are the days when Northern Ireland members were in contention. I’m sure their day will come.

This year May picked up the top award. But it was Boris Johnson who inadvertently let the cat out of the Brexit bag with a Freudian slip of monstrous proportions.

Accepting the award for Comeback of the Year he said he was sure the Brexit negotiations would be “a Titanic success”. Cue Celine Dion. May buried her head in her hands as guests screamed out: “It sank.”

Talking of awards, it’s good to see Glamour magazine fighting the good fight for equality with its Women of the Year awards. And well done Bono – a worthy recipient. Bono is “grateful” for the recognition. What next? A reality TV star as President of the United States? Don’t be so silly.

I was once at an opera production where, when the lights went up, a patron was found dead in his seat having passed away in the final act.

I’d love to go out like that, slipping away quietly while the soprano spends 10 minutes telling us she is just about the draw her last breath.

But I’d have been pretty hacked off if I’d been at the matinee performance last weekend of Rossini’s William Tell at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The building was evacuated at the interval when the orchestra received a light dusting of white powder. Dandruff always looks worse on a black jacket. In this day and age, we always expect the worse, and instead of calling for the Head and Shoulders, Homeland Security was brought in instead.

The opera was cancelled, as was that evening’s performance of the Italian Girl in Algiers.

The cause was not an opera-loving IS terrorist wielding anthrax, but mild-mannered Dallas music lover Roger Kaiser. Kaiser was fulfilling the wishes of a much-loved friend who had asked for his ashes to be scattered at the Met and other opera houses.

I was reminded of the late Sir Paddy Mayhew’s ill-judged remarks on arriving at Castleward Opera to be told there had been a grenade attack in Belfast. “Well, nobody is dead,” he said. “At the end of this opera, everybody is dead.” Now it’s a case of it ain’t all over until the fat lady is incinerated.

And finally, on Tuesday it’s the US Presidential election. Aided by the ever-suspect FBI, Trump is making a comeback. Let us pray.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on November 5 2016

May: an illegitimate prime minister with no plan


May speaking before she enters Downing Street as PM

I really can’t be having Theresa May. By one of those quirks of history she has been handed the keys to No.10 Downing Street – by accident almost – and is now the unelected author of our misfortunes.

She makes much of her “Brexit is Brexit” mandate. But she has no such mandate. She may not have been that obvious in the referendum campaign, but she was still on the losing side. A remainer, she lost the vote, she has no mandate from the referendum.

But then there’s the general election win.

In normal circumstances Mrs May could point to the Conservative Party’s victory in the 2015 poll for proof of her legitimacy. In the UK people vote for parties, not prime ministers, and Tories won.

Although elections are becoming increasingly presidential in nature, there’s much to be said for party politics. As the United States’ presidential race has shown, personality politics is an open invitation to egomaniacs.

We have a few head-bangers and egomaniacs on this side of the Atlantic, but nothing on the scale of Donald Trump.

Anyway, back to May and that corrupted mandate. Since replacing David Cameron she has done everything possible to renege on the pledges made on the manifesto he took to the country.

Economic policy has been turned on its head and she has broken with the consensus that selection has no place in children’s education. Across Whitehall May’s ministers are ripping up policies her party ‘sold’ to the country as its agenda for the next five years.

So May has no electoral mandate. Honeymoon apart, and she is enjoying a bit of a honeymoon, history suggests she will not be able to sustain herself in office when things start getting tough.

Alec Douglas Home’s premiership lasted barely a year; Jim Callaghan left office with the stench of unburied bodies and uncollected rubbish in his nostrils; and Gordon Brown was destroyed by his own demons and his association with boom and bust economics.

None of these three had a mandate, and they paid the price.

But, I hear you say, May was at least crowned leader of the ruling party and that gives her the aura of legitimacy. However she wasn’t elected. The way was cleared for her.

Theresa May’s path to power was unimpeded – in the same way a mafia don walks uninterrupted through a crowded square in Sicily, she walked up Downing Street and into her grace and favour apartment.

The warning bells started ringing for me with her grotesque speech on the steps of Downing Street where she spoke of the plight of working men and women who had been let down by society.

She spoke of the “burning injustice” of the poor who die nine years earlier than the rest of society; black people ill-treated by the criminal justice system; white working class boys and pupils in state schools denied a decent education; and women earning less than men.

I don’t know about you, but I am fed up of listening to Conservative politicians and multi-millionaires speaking on behalf of working people.

When the voice of the people is articulated by the likes of former stock-broker Nigel Farage, Eton-educated buffoon Boris Johnson, and property developer Donald Trump, the world is turned on its head.

This past week May has been in Europe, rubbing her partner leaders up the wrong way. Her arrogance will secure for Britain the worst deal imaginable.

British prime ministers treating European leaders a thing or two at Euro-summits is one thing. There’s form there. “No, No, No,” said Maggie Thatcher.

But it is a different thing altogether when they show contempt for the electorate.

Unelected and without legitimacy, Mrs May is set on pushing for the hardest of hard exits from the European Union – without allowing parliament a vote on Britain’s negotiating position.

The truth is that the Brexiteers’ slogan “taking back control” means by-passing a so-called sovereign parliament and giving control of the future destiny of some 60 million people to Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson.

And it means giving an unelected prime minister a free hand to alter the course of people’s lives without any electoral legitimacy.

The phrase “elective dictatorship” describes well the inadequacies of the first past the post system and the power it bestows on majority governments.

In a country said to house the ‘mother of parliaments’, I had thought there was little worse. Yet now, in this second decade of the twenty-first century, we have been cursed with an ‘unelective dictatorship’ of the most pernicious kind.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News

Whatever the question, Trump is not the answer



Donald Trump infiltrating the Republican Party

The American sociologist Robert King Merton is not a household name. But he is one of the founding fathers of modern sociology. An unassuming professor at Columbia University, Merton, who died in 2003, pioneered the scientific study of human society.

He is perhaps most famous for his exploration of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Each of us will have experienced its effects. We do something for the right reasons, but the outcomes are often different to those we expect.

A classic example of the law in action can be seen in the current state of the British Labour Party. Those who signed nomination papers for Jeremy Corbyn, to ensure a full range of voices were heard in the leadership debates, never believed this would result in his election.

Much the same thing is happening in the United States where Donald Trump has taken over the Republican Party and is in the process of destroying it from within.

Whatever you think of their politics, the Republicans are one of the great political parties of western democracy. Among their presidents they number Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and the greatest of them all, Abraham Lincoln.

Richard Nixon (although a crook) transformed the west’s dysfunctional relationship with China, and Ronald Reagan (by no means a towering intellectual) presided over the collapse of communism and the end of the cold war.

A President Trump would make the most recent Republican incumbent of the Oval Office – George W Bush – look like a master craftsman of the democratic arts.

Trump should have been taken down in the US Primary elections. These are designed to weed out the rubbish from the field of candidates. No-one imagined he had a chance. Then the Law of Unintended Consequences kicked in. Much the same thing happened in the Brexit referendum.

David Cameron – recently branded one of the worst prime ministers in British history in a poll of politics academics – never believed the vote would be won by a bunch of right-wing conspiracy theorists with an inferiority complex about Britain’s relationship with Europe. But it was.

Trump’s brand of negative, misogynistic politics is tailor-made for the Twitter age. It’s easy to lie in 140 characters – Tweets, sound-bites and slogans strip away the detail, the context and the facts.

And they play to an audience that is looking for simple answers to complex problems; that believes nobody is listening to their voices, and which sees the elite getting away with murder.

Lost on them is the nonsense of a multi-millionaire property developer portraying himself as an anti-elitist man of the people.

Trump is on the ballot because people have exercised their democratic right to put him there. It cannot be contested that the exercise of democracy is a good thing. Yet the unintended consequence of giving people a voice is that they may misuse it. Or worse, their legitimate fears and worries might be exploited.

History is filled with those who exercised power through the exploitation of democracy. In the last century Adolf Hitler rose to power by taking over and then undermining the democratic process.

It is instructive to look at the Merton’s analysis of why actions and motivations that are inherently good can lead to unintended consequences: ignorance, making it difficult to predict outcomes; failing to analyse problems properly; putting short-term interests ahead of long-term goals; making decisions to address problems that don’t really exist; and making decisions on the basis of outmoded value systems.

That final one is the most dangerous. It is what is fuelling Trump’s cry of “make America great again”, and it was the underpinning basis of the xenophobic, anti-European, Little Englander campaign that it taking us out of Europe,

For those of us looking on (in horror it must be said), the consequences of a Trump presidency are all too apparent. If he governs the country the way he has governed himself over this past 18 months, God help the free world.

His core vote – and he has one – has been sold a vision of a resurgent America on the side of the little people against the forces of global capitalism. If they buy into his dream, their vote will have the same unintended consequence of those who claimed Brexit would make Britain great again: a currency in free-fall, an economy unfit to meet the needs of working people, a society riven by racial hatred and abuse.

Having given us candidate Trump, the US electorate appears to be the only force capable of stopping him. Let’s hope they do.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News