In an increasingly uncertain world shoddy deals rule

Harold Wilson

I have always had more than a passing interest in politics in spite of my life’s experience that the pursuit of it never seems to amount to very much. Political heroes sooner or later reveal themselves to have feet of clay. Certainties are invariably proved false, and at the end of every rainbow alliance there is a crock of disappointment.

It is often said we get the politicians we deserve. Really? There is something to be said for automatically disqualifying from office those putting themselves forward for election. No right-thinking person would do such a thing.

Some of my best friends are politicians (I don’t have many friends) but it must be said, the transition from ordinary citizen to elected representative seems to bring out the worst in people.

Inside most of us there is a narcissist struggling to get out. The political class appears to have no difficulty restraining its inner narcissist. It is said that a civil servant, witnessing the descent to earth in a helicopter of NIO minister Dr Brian Mawhinney, remarked: “The ego has landed.” It was a good joke then, and fitted its intended victim. But it could just as easily have been said of any politician using that form of transport.

Until I was eight I lived in Birmingham where I was the child of immigrant parents. With impeccable news judgment, my mother decided 1968 was the right time to return to Lurgan. I was a fan then of Harold Wilson – an Oxford don who hid his sophistication behind a northern accent and a fog of tobacco smoke.

In the 1969 Northern Ireland Parliament election, I remember naively arguing in my Catholic primary school playground that people should vote for the party that had the best policies – a notion deemed nonsensical then. Curiously such an attitude is still regarded as avant garde here 50 years on.

Over the years I must have voted for every party going (even the DUP, given the PR system allowed me to identify their candidates as the ones I least wanted to see elected). I even voted tactically for David Trimble to see off a DUP challenge. I think I was the only tactical voter in North Armagh, and I failed miserably, as did he.

When I was 50 and living in Scotland I had the opportunity, for the first time in my adult life, to vote for a party capable of forming the Government. Again I backed the wrong horse. The Tories got in.

Writing now, a little before publication, I am reluctant to comment too much on the current political situation. Things are changing so fast. By the time you read this, the Queen may have sacked her hapless PM and taken the reins of power herself.

As things stand, Theresa May has proved herself incapable of commanding the respect even of her colleagues; the Tories have abdicated their position as the ‘natural party of government’; and a quirk of arithmetic has handed the fate of the country to a party that cannot be trusted to manage a minor green energy scheme. Brexit negotiations opened yesterday without the British side having a clue what it wanted – no agreed government position, no briefing papers, no mandate.

You have to respect the choice of voters, and Sinn Fein’s principled decision not to swear an oath of loyalty to the Queen. But if the SDLP had managed to hold onto it seats, how different things would be.

Now all I can do is rant and rave powerlessly on Twitter. Apart from the crippling RSI in my right arm I have discovered a few things about myself.

Firstly, the more frustrated I get, the more left wing I become. They say if you are not a socialist in your youth you do not have a heart, and if you are not a conservative in maturity you do not have a brain. By that analyse I should be complacently moderate at this stage in my life. But now I am somewhat to the left of John McDonnell who is somewhat to the left of Trotsky.

Secondly, the more I contemplate the rise in the DUP’s political fortunes, the more republican I become. Intellectually, you cannot dispute the DUP’s right to extract as much out of the British government (if government is the right term for this shambolic collective); but emotionally it seems so wrong that once again political opportunism is rewarded, and the future safety and security of this part of the world is put at risk because of a shoddy deal in Westminster.


Public Service broadcasting under threat


God save the… BBC another British institution under threat. The Queen interrupts the news, is her Government is planning to interrupt the BBC


We have America to thanks for the BBC. When broadcasting was in its infancy, the British government looked across the Atlantic at what was happening in the United States, and it didn’t like what it saw.

Lack of regulation combined with competition saw broadcasters going for the lowest common denominator in search of ratings and advertising revenues. In its wisdom, the British government decided to broadcasters would have to apply for a licence, and to ensure Britain remained free of crass commercialism, it issued only one.

The British Broadcasting Company, later the British Broadcasting Corporation was born and, with a dour Scot – John Reith – on charge so too was the principle of public service broadcasting. Reith articulated the BBC’s mission – its purpose in life was to inform, educate and entertain.

By and large it has served Britain well through challenging times, as well as those years when “we never had it so good”. Such has been the BBC’s influence on broadcasting, that the concept of ‘public service’ is embedded even in those channels with a commercial remit (though Channel 5 stretches the boundaries somewhat, it must be said).

Like many institutions, the BBC has its detractors – not least in government (parties of all political persuasions); and over the years it has been subjected to sniping, whispered threats and the occasional full-frontal assault. On occasion the attacks are justified. Even its friends recognise the BBC has the capacity to shoot itself in the foot. More often than not, however, the criticisms are politically motivated.

Although the BBC is an independent body, established by Royal Charter, the government keeps the corporation on a short leash. Its governing body – currently the BBC Trust – is appointed by ministers, and its Charter is up for renewal every 10 years. With this sword of Damocles hanging over its head, the BBC is constantly on its guard.

We are going into a Charter renewal period now, and this time the long grass surrounding Broadcasting House is filled with enemies waiting to pounce. A newly-elected and hubristic government has just released a Green Paper ahead of Charter renewal which questions the role of the BBC in a new digital landscape.

The future of the licence fee is one line of attack, the second is the type of programming the BBC should be focusing its energies on.

Should it be running popular radio stations such as Radio One and Two? Should it be competing with Independent Television in prime time with crowd-pleasers such as Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice? Should it be ploughing public money into soap operas, daytime television and online services?

We have been here before. The BBC has few friends in the national press and they have led the charge – the Murdoch papers, the Daily Mail, the Express – all have their own commercial reasons for wishing to see the BBC cut down to size.

But the truth of the matter is that the BBC is the grit in the commercial oyster. If it did not exist, Independent Television would be much the poorer. Strictly keeps the X-Factor on its toes, EastEnders keeps Coronation Street focused on producing compelling drama; BBC News is a spur to ITN’s newsgathering.

But more important still is the importance of ensuring the principle of ‘public service’ underscores popular programming as well as so-called serious broadcasting.

Radio One is more than just the latest pop. There is no comparison between its non-music output and that available on commercial rivals. The type of informed debate and intelligent news you get on Newsbeat has been driven off other music channels because it is not “commercially viable”. Its output reaches an audience untouched by other media.

If we have learned anything from the last decade, it is that the market alone cannot be trusted to operate for the public good. The Green Paper threatens to do for broadcasting what deregulation did for the banks and the City.

This Charter renewal process threatens an institution that, for all its faults, is an important bedrock of society and a pillar of our cultural life – serious and popular. It should be the last Charter renewal to be managed by politicians. We need to take the future of the BBC out of the hands of people who feel most threatened by its all-seeing eye.