The moment of truth!

The sharp overnight frost reminded us that winter is far from over, but already the daffodils are showing their tips and birds are beginning to perform their seemingly hostile courtship routines. We codgers are less naive – no courtships and no one has so much as considered dispensing with their thermals. Apart from caring for the hens our main activity on the allotments takes place in the large heated greenhouses and the early propagation of plants that will be ahead of the game when transplanted in late March.

Outside the plots look empty and forlorn, but every vacant one has been taken and come Easter the allotments will be a hive of activity. For us the exciting fact is that many of the new owners are young people, a sign perhaps that the age of austerity has its positive aspects.

Meantime the greatest pleasure we codgers derive from our daily routine is the sense of togetherness as we gather around the shed stove for our daily brew. This morning’s conversation was focussed on the EU, a subject that regularly rears its head. Today it was Viviane Reding, the EU’s vice-president, that triggered indignation. Yesterday she made it clear that free movement of EU citizens is “non-negotiable”, and went on to say that : “We need a true political union….a United States of Europe with the Commission as government, and two chambers – the European Parliament and a ‘Senate’ of Member States”. Never has the fear that haunts so many Brits been set out so clearly! And we are not alone, according to the Commission’s own polling agency, 60 per cent of European citizens “tend not to trust the EU” – up from 32 per cent five years ago.

At almost the same time as Ms Reding was spelling out her dream, over one hundred Conservative MPs released a copy of a letter that they have delivered to our dear leader. They represent more than half of Cameron’s backbenchers and claim to speak for the mainstream of the modern Tory party. They support the promise of a referendum on EU membership, but see it as so much hot air if the leadership fails to spell out exactly what reforms are required to justify a recommendation to vote yes.

Amongst other things they demand that free movement be modified to read “qualified right” to enable individual countries to control their population growth. They point to recent polls showing that 72 per cent of the people are in favour of restrictions on immigration, and even more support the idea of benefits being withheld for two years in the case of those admitted.

Most significant of all is the demand that Westminster has a veto on any new law introduced by Brussels. In other words they are for the first time tabling the issue of sovereignty, of who governs Britain. It fits well with the statement by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, who recently said that “parliamentary sovereignty must not be exported”. It almost certainly fits well too with what most British people feel, be they Conservative, Labour. Lib Dem, Ukip or none of the above.

We codgers are guilty of many things but being right-wing is not one of them. But it seems to us that the letter is to be welcomed. So far only Ukip and the Lib Dems have made clear their stance on EU membership with the former favouring withdrawal and the latter supporting membership whatever the cost. Labour seems to support the status quo and the Conservatives are vague about the conditions to be renegotiated. The people seek a clear choice based on the best terms available, and if these do not include border controls and the sovereignty of the British parliament it is not difficult to predict the verdict.

For David Cameron the moment of truth has arrived. Can he ignore the demands of the majority of his bankbenchers whose views broadly reflect the national mood? He can, but in doing so he will torpedo any hope his party has of thwarting the Ukip threat or of establishing clear water between its policy and those if the other major parties!

The quarrel that so many have with the EU does not centre solely on borders or sovereignty. Membership involves a huge financial contribution at a time when just about every public service is suffering death by a thousand cuts, and the extravagance and waste of the Brussels crowd is breathtaking. Today we learn that the decision to stage debates in Strasbourg for four days each month is costing millions each month. The cost of chartering two express trains from Brussels to Strasbourg costs £200,000 and the cost of travel and expenses for freelance interpreters, based in Brussels, to go to Strasbourg is £2.5 million. The EU admits that the travelling circus will cost £928 million over its budget cycle.

I can scarcely believe that I am saying this, but we are all in debt to the Conservative MPs. The issues of immigration, sovereignty and cost must come to a head. The chance of that happening has suddenly improved!

OOOOOOOOOciation of my native land in the usual way of getting out of it as soon as I possibly could!”…George Bernard Shaw

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Albert claims that his dog is more efficient than the rest of us. Here is his proof positive:
Albert's dog


Politicians have destroyed our NHS!

The ears of the Prince of Darkness, alias Lord Mandelson, may well have been burning this morning. Several of my fellow chicken-keepers had read his comments during yesterday’s Referendum debate in the Lords and they were somewhat miffed. He compared the idea of a referendum with a “lottery” in which “we have no idea what factors will affect the outcome”. The Marquess of Lothian, a Conservative peer, felt moved by this and added that “there are people who believe that Europe is too important and complex an issue to trust the British people to decide”.

How some of the unelected members of the Lords came to be there is one of life’s mysteries. But one thing is clear, many of them are living in a fantasy world reminiscent of the dark ages when all wisdom was believed to rest in the nobility. And the smarmy Mandelson’s fantasy has gone one stage further – he believes that he is king, lord and the fount of all knowledge, an unholy trinity.

My own view of the Lords is perhaps less acerbic. They seem to me a total irrelevance, an ever-increasing group who pocket £300 each time they turn up to impart their wisdom, which the government can totally ignore if to do so suits their political agenda.

To me the dangerous people are their elected neighbours, or to be more precise the members of the cabinet who are happy to mislead both us and the mass of backbenchers. Right now they are busy destroying the NHS, an action that will affect every family in the land with the exception of those able to buy expensive private treatment. In effect they are travelling at high speed in the direction of a two-tier service of the very kind that President Obama is desperately trying to make redundant.

Yesterday brought the latest clash between Rupert Murdoch’s pal Jeremy Hunt and Andy Burnham. The latter seized on the latest statistics showing that waiting times are lengthening, and that the proposed free-trade agreement will give every US healthcare provider the right to bid for NHS services. He pledged to revoke the Health and Social Care Act should Labour form the next government. There is an irony here since it was Patricia Hewitt who set privatisation on its way, but in any case he is too late. Professor Chris Ham, the well respected head of The King’s Fund, commented yesterday that the Lansley reforms have already triggered the need to put services out to tender and have triggered wholesale “fragmentation”. We have already passed the point at which care for older patients or those with complex needs can be integrated.

Hunt’s reply was predictable. Labour failed to protect patients at Stafford and other hospitals. Regular readers will recall the mass of responses we had to a piece asking if we had been misled about Stafford. How could it be, we asked, that over 50,000 Staffordians marched in support of their hospital and drove its chief critic, Julie Bailey, from town. If you check back amongst the comments on this site you will find many detailed claims that the reports issued by ministers via the media were false and misleading.

One of the comments came from Shaun Lucas, a nurse at Stafford for more than 25 years. He suggests that Ms Bailey’s recollections were “questionable”. She made “many ill-informed, speculatory and inflammatory” statements. Not least amongst them was the claim that patients were drinking from flower vases. In his report Sir Robert Francis concluded that there was no evidence that it ever happened. In fact there were no vases in the hospital.

The nurse concluded that the public has been misled by an underhand government agenda, and the highly subjective viewpoint of one person that both government and media were “far too willing” to promote as fact. The New Year honours list included one Julie Bailey!

It is tempting to call, as 38 Degrees does, for a mass public reaction. Tempting but futile for those of who know the NHS well realise that it is too late. The service is in freefall and privatisation is already well under way. This is exactly what the Conservatives always intended. The guiltiest politicians of all are the Lib Dems who allowed it to happen.

They do seem to be waking up to the fact that the electorate now regards them as stoogies. Last night they exposed the fact that Downing Street has suppressed a secret report recommending that two new cities be built in southern England to meet the demand for housing created by rocketing immigration. If only they had shown the same willingness to expose Lansley’s madness!

We read that Nigel Farage plans to target the North in the coming European and General elections. If our mood is any indication he will enjoy rich pickings!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys!”…..P J O’Rourke

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Portrayal of the poor – the big lie!

Back in the long gone days of Lloyd George the poor were categorised into deserving and undeserving. Viewed from now it sounds horrific, a version of Orwell’s 1984 in which citizens were labelled and segregated into punishment and reward sectors. In reality it was an early recognition that being poor is not in itself evidence that people are lazy and unwilling to help themselves. Today even that crude differential has been washed away in a sea of propaganda that portrays everyone needing support from the state as a ‘scrounger’.

As we cleaned out the hens this morning we codgers were mulling this over, a conversation triggered by our growing awareness of some local families who are struggling to cope financially. In every case the parents have struggled to find work and have had to settle for low-paid part time employment. Most have small children and we all know just how expensive parenthood has become. Clothing and food are the priorities, but once these have been attended to there is little cash left to meet the ever-increasing heating bills, council tax and the rest. Misfortunes such as a boiler breakdown can only be covered by a payday loan, and they serve to increase debt to unmanageable levels.

We know a number of families who, through no fault of themselves, would be unable to exist without supplementary help. The austerity measures have served only to destroy the pride of many good, hard working people. And the last straw has been the concerted campaign by government and media alike to link any form of benefits payment to indolence and lack of effort.

For some time we have wondered if our local patch is unrepresentative, if the portrayal of the poor by programmes such as Channel 4’s ‘Benefits Street’ is the accurate one. We now realise that the show is the result of television producers hunt for unsympathetic examples of unemployed people, a group they portray in the worst possible light. Similar treatment has been meted out in BBC3’s ‘People Like Us’, one slammed by the BBC Trust for breaching impartiality and accuracy. One local council worker, Richard Searle, has claimed that his daughter was given alcohol before filming the story of people in poverty wasting taxpayers money on booze.

It is certainly true that examples of scrounging can be found but research has told us that, like many others, we have been subjected to ‘brainwashing’. We have come to believe what Osborne and sensation-seeking tabloids and TV producers constantly tell us – that people are poor only because they can’t be bothered to fend for themselves.

Polls show that people on average estimate that 27 per cent of social security payments are lost to fraud. The real figure is just 0.7 per cent. In the case of unemployment the public estimate was that 41 per cent goes to people out of work. The real figure is just 3 per cent. The public seems totally unaware that most social security spending, rightly, goes to pensioners who have paid in all their lives.

We had come to see the portrayal of large families as typical – what is there to support in the case of one lady recently featured who has ten children and cannot support them? In fact of the 1.35 million claiming out-of-work benefits there are only 190 families of this kind.

It is the low-paid workers struggling along on in-work benefits and falling wages who make up the bulk of Britain’s poor. Many of them constantly seek full-time work, sending out CV after CV and not even getting a reply. We hear much about fraud but its total cost of £1.2 billion is swamped by the £16 billion unclaimed each year.

The story seldom covered is the one featuring wealthy tax-dodgers who deprive the Exchequer of £25 billion each year, and the bankers who created this mess yet still pocket fortunes. It is the privileged who are commissioning the shows that are airbrushing out the reality of modern Britain, aided and abetted by politicians and ideologically driven newspapers.

The national deficit will never be reduced unless politicians of all persuasions accept that the scope for further savings on social security is limited, and must be matched with an entirely new approach to tax avoidance.

Over the past few nights we have watched the brilliant BBC series on ‘Stargazing’. Listening to astronauts describing looking down on the round ball we call earth was thought-provoking. Is anything here quite as important as we imagine?. Is there really any point in politicians in one small near-invisible island devoting themselves to demonising one small social group?

Professor Brian Cox talked of the possibility of life on the stars. If it takes a form we can identify with one hopes that it follows a better and fairer way of running things than we do!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; Q ” What is the difference between English batsmen and a Formula 1 car at high speed?” A “Nothing. If you blink you will miss them both”. 

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Police in the dock!

Do you trust the police? There was a good deal of debate on this as we codgers cleaned out the hens this morning. I for one found the answer from the majority very worrying. Law and order is a key issue for any society and it is very dependent on public trust in, and co-operation with, its administrators. The police cannot operate in a vacuum, they have to be able to rely on support and information from those they supposedly protect. Yesterday the widespread reaction to the verdict of the inquest jury in the case of Mark Duggan was ominous. Commentators and journalists lined up to condemn the police despite the jury having found that the marksman’s decision to open fire was lawful.

Of course the reaction of the victim’s family was predictable, but the fact that no one seemed prepared to give the police the benefit of the doubt was revealing. For our part we believe that justice was done. Faced with someone who was in possession of a gun the marksman had only a split second to react and we would have reacted in the way that he did. Yet even normally objective and law-abiding people seemed unable to bring themselves to support the police who have so often suffered grievous loss in the execution of their duties.

It points to one thing, rightly or wrongly the police have lost the trust of those they serve. Perception is all and events such as Hillsborough, the so-called plebgate affair, the corruption involving the Murdoch press and continual examples of unethical behaviour have damaged public confidence. It is probably grossly unfair on thousands of dedicated officers but we have entered dangerous waters. A reasonable analogy would be the referee in a top Premiership football match. Mistakes are inevitable and, with the exception of mad managers, are accepted as such. But imagine a situation where the official is clearly anything but unbiased and demeans players that he dislikes and you a have a breakdown in control leading to chaos.

For almost as long as I can remember she-who-must-be-obeyed has given me at Christmas the latest thriller novel by Dick Francis (now penned by his son Felix). The stories are invariably centred around corruption in the world of horse racing. For me the main fascination is the social background, which over the years has changed in line with public attitudes. Once upon a time the police were portrayed as honest but plodding Dixon-like friends of their flocks. Move on a decade or so and they became more remote and more incisive, the ultimate impartial solvers of crime. This year in ‘Refusal’ they have become corrupt, bullying and the sort of people that even the most law abiding avoid like the plague. It may not be accurate but it tells us a great deal about how people think.

In searching for a solution it is hard to avoid the conclusion that poor leadership is the central truth. Officers in the armed forces are still regarded as examples of integrity and fairness. The impression we gain of their opposite numbers in the police is a very different one. And junior ranks take their lead from the top. The old recipe of chief constables who once trod the beat is an outdated one, the time has surely come for direct officer entry based on intelligence and commitment to justice for all.

In fairness there are other factors. Cuts in manpower have led to the elimination of most officers from our streets and a vital form of communication has been lost. As with its treatment of other institutions, such as the NHS and BBC, the media is now eager to highlight and sensationalise problems and failures. The politically-correct brigade constantly bang on about discrimination to the extent that any stop-and-search of a black youth is racist. Given the slightest excuse dishonest politicians head for the nearest reporter to castigate the police.

If we are ever to trust the police again they need leaders capable of speaking out in the manner of army Generals, men or women who are clearly above reproach and whose instruction to their teams is do as I do or leave.

Even such leaders will find today’s 24/7 news coverage daunting. The need for constant ‘news’ leads to a lack of perspective, a trend illustrated by this morning’s headlines about Thomas Hitzlsperger. The former footballer – never a star as described – has announced that he is homosexual. Nothing wrong with that but where is the sensation? As football fans we have not the slightest interest in a player’s sexuality. What next – perhaps banner headlines telling us that John Terry is heterosexual?

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “I don’t want to know what the law is, I want to know who the judge is!”….Roy M Cohn

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Never mind the deaths, it’s drinks all round!

When we open the hen-coop doors the horde of chickens run out in the manner of Manchester United. On wet mornings they quickly head back in, but it was dry this morning so we codgers had no need to serve eviction orders before cleaning out. On the whole we enjoy a good relationship with the chucks, but we have never managed to follow the regular advice to amateurs to “get to know them”. Sadly to us they all look alike, and we often wonder if the reverse is true. Maybe, but the fact that we vary so much in size and appearance surely makes that unlikely.

Either way we have over the years developed an affinity with chickens and none of us can ever contemplate eating them. And we never kill ours, the reasoning being that we owe them something after five years or so of egg-laying. The resulting problem is that from time to time the elderly comprise a large proportion of the total, and the ‘retirement’ runs are as crowded as Southampton after the latest influx of migrants. But we like to believe that the old ‘uns enjoy a better life than their human equivalents when they spend their final years in the care of Serco or G4S.

Not that the Government’s beloved private sector are only responsible for elderly care. We still find it strange that one by one every public service is being ‘privatised’. Prisons were an early target, and one only has to look at the experiences of those convicted in the troubled 1,600-place Oakwood jail, which was the scene of a serious disturbance on Sunday. We have it on good authority that this was but one of many outbreaks of disorder in the G4S-run establishment. The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, has said that he regards the £13,200 average cost of a prisoner as a model given that the cost is well below that incurred when management lies with the state.

This doesn’t surprise us given the private sector pays very low wages, and asks no questions about previous employment or qualifications. If you pay peanuts you get monkeys and if you employ such you can forget all thought of re-education or reform.

But there is much about the coalition’s relationship with private business that merits closer examination, not least the extremely odd affair of the U-turn on minimum pricing for alcohol. In March 2012, our dear leader committed his signature to a Government paper outlining plans to introduce a minimum unit price. A minimum of 40p per unit would drive up prices on high-strength booze and lead to 50,000 fewer crimes and thousands  of fewer deaths amongst young people who buy from supermarkets. David Cameron added that the “proposals won’t be universally popular, but the responsibility of being in government isn’t always about doing the popular thing”.

Really? Barely more than a year later the Home Office minister Jeremy Browne announced that the policy would not be going ahead. Why?

The British Medical Journal has provided the answer. Following Cameron’s announcement ministers met representatives from large drinks firms and supermarkets on 130 occasions, even after the formal consultations had closed. Prominent amongst them were significant party donors. The investigation also reveals that a draft report from the University of Sheffield, which outlined the benefits of minimum pricing, was in the hands of ministers for five months before the decision not to proceed was announced. Sheffield University has confirmed that it was instructed by Downing Street not to release the report to MPs until after the Commons vote.

The country’s most senior doctors condemned the “high level access” to ministers granted to that alcohol industry. They concluded that “big business is trumping health concerns”. Binge drinking kills but party donations must be maintained!

Are we surprised at yet more evidence of links between ministers and lobbyists? Hardly, since every day brings yet more disturbing evidence. Today’s snippet? The chairman of the Commons Select Committee, James Arbuthnot, is to retire at the next election. He is expected to take a job in the arms trade in June 2015!

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QUOTE OF THE DAY; ” I’m open to offers…it depends on the part. A nice sitting down job, or playing the Invisible Man would be ideal!”…..Sir Roger Moore, 86.

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Time to think the unthinkable!

NHS hospitals provide good, excellent, even outstanding care. Not my words but those of Sir Mike Richards, the new head of the Care Quality Commission, who has completed his first inspection tour of NHS hospitals.The man dubbed England’s “whistle-blower in chief” said yesterday that his first months in the job had shown him “fantastic care” and confirmation that  compassion in the NHS is “alive and well”.

The report came as a breath of fresh air to us codgers as we cleaned out the hens this morning. Since Jeremy Hunt and the rest of the point-scoring politicians were a party to the promotion of the former cancer tsar is it too much to hope that they will now drop their constant scurrilous attacks on our hospitals? Sir Mike reports on seeing “absolutely committed doctors and nurses and allied health professionals, everywhere we’ve gone, even in some of the trusts that are struggling most”.

That accords absolutely with our own experiences gained both as NHS employees and patients. Even the claims made by both Hunt and our dear leader in respect of Stafford Hospital have proved to be gross exaggerations, the invention of spin-doctors hell-bent on undermining the reputation of thousands of dedicated professionals as justification for outsourcing services to the likes of Serco and G4S. Now a real doctor has delivered his verdict and the campaign of character assassination has been exposed for what it is. I know Mike Richards and can confirm that he is not someone given to wearing rose-tinted spectacles. He will expose poor care if he encounters it, but he will maintain a sense of perspective. From now on politicians should keep out of any debate about the NHS, and for good measure should refrain from lies such as the one claiming that funding has not been cut!

Of course the chance of that happening is akin to my opening the batting for England, perhaps not the best analogy since Dicken’s literary man with a wooden leg would do no worse than the present performers. For yesterday marked the launch of the general election campaign, a sobering thought since that moment if truth is still some fifteen months away.

We members of the grey hair fraternity can expect promised gifts by the sack-load given that we are the ones regarded as most likely to cast a vote. Predictably our dear leader was first out of the blocks. Every pensioner is guaranteed a full inflation-indexed state pension. Since, despite all the hype about economic recovery, the national debt has not been reduced one iota the promise can only be regarded as but one of the apple-pie variety, easily made and easily broken.

The truth is that many pensioners are in receipt of generous private pensions secured in the days when they were not at the mercy of untrustworthy insurance companies. For those who, like several of us, regard the state pension as a bonus the greater priority is to protect benefits and services for young families. The same sentiment applies to winter fuel allowances and free TV licences.

In our humble opinion any older person seeking help in the form of either pension or add-ons should be asked to apply for them enclosing income detail in the same way that they are obliged to do when completing tax self-assessments. Of course many must qualify, but for the rest the needs of others must be paramount. Yes it would be unfair in that every retired worker will have contributed to the national ‘pot’ over many years, but leaving young struggling people in penury is even less fair.

Of course an even better option is legislation aimed at eliminating tax avoidance but that is not going to happen under a Conservative administration. And, if the reports of the fortune being amassed by Tony Blair are any indication, it is unlikely that Labour will be too receptive to the idea either.

With a population including an ever increasing number of retired people we cannot go on believing that in some mysterious way the shrinking workforce can provide sufficient revenue.

It is time to think the unthinkable!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “An Englishman’s mind works best when it is almost too late!”….Lord D’Abernon.

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Who can we trust? Not the Insurance companies for one!

Wet underfoot, dry overhead  sums up the allotments this morning. But the sky has a sullen look and, if the forecasts are right, we can expect bucket-loads of the wet stuff later. However we have no right to complain given the havoc caused elsewhere. Our hope is that January and February will bring some frosts, for another two months of this perpetual dampness will see our gardening season bedevilled by slugs and snails which are probably already looking forward to lettuce for tea on a daily basis. The only consolation right now is the increased chance of the birds surviving the long dark nights.

This morning we cleaned out all eight hen-houses and spread liberal amounts of grit over the muddier patches in the runs. Then it was time to collect the eggs and process them through the wash process, which involves Albert rubbing them clean under a running tap. Presumably people with several hundred birds use a rather more sophisticated method but we are not regarded locally as Luddites for no reason. It was whilst he was in mid-rub that Albert triggered an interesting discussion. You can’t trust the weather led us quickly, over our warming brew, to listing the things that we can trust in this fast-moving age.

The list was not a long one. Politicians, bankers, spin-doctors, senior police officers, advertisements, newspapers and railway timetables scarcely merited a moments thought. In fact by the time we wearied of our analysis only our families, the BBC, teachers and most nurses and doctors had gained our trust-mark. I’m sure you can come up with a longer list for ours is probably heavily influenced with unwarranted cynicism, but the fact remains that many of the professions and institutions that we once trusted implicitly seem to us codgers to be now about as trustworthy as Fagin.

With one exception our list surprised me not. But I was taken aback by the absence of the insurance companies. Some years ago the weekly visit by the man from the ‘Pru’ was a fixed part of every working-class family’s life. This chap represented the ultimate in security and integrity, a belief vindicated when he called to make payment for anything from a burnt hearthrug to a bereavement. Sadly it seems that any trust placed in insurers is now an act of folly.

Worrying about the security of our pensions was never part of our psyche. In those long-gone days company schemes came into play when one retired and from that day on monthly payment was assured and index-linked. Now retired workers usually have to use their pension savings to buy an annuity which theoretically pay an annual income for the rest of their lives. This has put the insurers in a uniquely powerful position, particularly since there is no right to switch annuities once one has signed up. And that position has been abused to an appalling extent.

A report just issued by regulators reveals that pension firms are making excessive profits, and plunging annuity rates have  trapped many people in poor-value schemes that have destroyed the value of their lifetime savings. The annuities market stands accused of exploiting people’s confusion about the complicated arrangements and of putting people off “shopping around” for the best deal when they retire – a decision that cannot be reversed.

Yesterday Steve Webb, the pensions minister, accused insurance companies of engaging in “murky” prcatices when selling annuities to retiring workers. He spoke of “odd percentages going in funny places for no good reason”. He added that this is a “complicated transaction for many people. The industry understands this stuff, the public don’t”. The word used by the minister to sum things up says it all. It is, he said, a total “lottery in which the outcome at retirement can differ by 20 per cent or more just because of who you go to”.

Webb proposes to change the law to allow retired workers to switch to better-paying pensions. If he succeeds they will be able to switch whenever they choose in the same way that home owners can change their mortgage deals if they choose to do so. Without doubt this is an example of  competition working in the interest of the customer. It could improve the quality of life of millions.

So we who seldom find a good word for politicians must on this occasion offer two cheers, with a third to come if Mr Webb actually does what he has publicly promised. Of course he has to get his bill though parliament and one can only hope that MPs will put aside points-scoring and act in the common interest.

If it happens it will be a feather in the cap for the Lib Dems. And judging by today’s poll showing them trailing Ukip by eight points they badly need it”! Mind you, even they are in a better position than the England cricketers who today lost their fifth Test in a row to the team we all labelled the worst to come out of OZ for decades!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “There is nothing like a solemn oath. People always think you mean it!”…..Norman Douglas

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Now know-all Gove is rewriting history!

It is not often that the every-rising energy prices are the subject of humour as we codgers clean out the hens, but this morning proved an exception to the rule. First Utility, Britain’s biggest independent energy firm, which hiked bills by 18 per cent last year, has issued a list of suggestions aimed at cutting the amount its unfortunate customers pour into its coffers, and we are all tempted to adopt at least some of them.

The real jaw-dropper is the suggestion that customers should “shower together”. It does add the rider that one should “ask permission from the other person first”, but that did not deter Albert from describing aloud a scene involving him and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Given that they are both in their eighties the likelihood is that the most dramatic outcome would be a search for the soap, and it would probably be a less than erotic event albeit more pleasurable than their other suggestions. These include cutting down on tea and coffee, microwaving in bulk, and replacing TV viewing with games of Monopoly. Politicians are not renowned for a sense of humour and Shadow Energy minister Tom Greatex was quick to condemn what he called an “insult to millions struggling to pay their bills”.

We tend to the view that it was the output of a First Utility executive having opened his latest bonus statement. They might as well laugh as cry, he may well have exclaimed as he reached for his word processor. If so he should perhaps lend a hand to the weathermen who, day after wet day, warn us of havoc-wrecking storms. Perhaps they should try telling us that we have only ourselves to blame for missing out on trips down under to watch the Ashes Tests. Then again given the apparent inability of the England batsmen to spot the ball it may be that the light in Oz is not what it should be.

There are many traits that can be attributed to the stereo-typical Brit – among them afternoon tea, a stiff upper lip and a love of queuing, but discussing the weather tops the lot. Oscar Wilde famously described this topic of conversation as the “last refuge of the unimaginative”. Bit harsh given what we have endured of late. But living in a temperate climate, we should expect most types of weather; cold, wet and windy in the winter, hot dry and sunny in the summer. Why is then that the moment any of these predictable states becomes exaggerated we are always woefully unprepared?

Yes we’re good at short-term solutions with sandbags and pumps, but more permanent answers seem beyond us. Mark Twain was spot on when he said that “Everybody talks abut the weather, but nobody ever does anything about dealing with it”. As if to confirm that, the government has cut the relevant budgets and the Environment Agency has warned that from now on its efforts will be reduced. Bizaare since just a fraction of the money being poured into high-speed rail would fund zillions of sea defences.

But historians a century from now will probably record that we worked wonders as the floods pounded our front doors. I say that because the ultimate know-all, Michael Gove, has taken to not only dictating to schools which historical eras should be taught but also to reinterpreting the facts. Right now he is busy re-writing the story of World War 1. This week he has condemned historians who talk of “donkeys led by lions”. He wishes us to believe that the Generals were heroes, the tactics superb and the men were happily dying for “democracy and liberal values”.

However he conveniently ignores the reality that thousands were slaughtered for the gain of a few yards, and trenches became homes. As for the democracy and liberal values bit, Mr Gove seems to have forgotten that the main ally was Tsarist Russia, a despotism that put Germany in the shade. And unlike Germany, where male suffrage was universal, 40 per cent of the British troops did not have the vote.

The constant outpourings of Mr Gove may appear trivial by comparison with our national problems. But re-writing history is an appalling occupation. Do we really want tomorrow’s world to be told that Iraq was a justifiable and glorious mission, that QE was a superb financial strategy, that honours were reserved for heroes, that action to cope with adverse weather was always ahead of its arrival? And, of course, that Mr Gove was a God who for a time dwelt amongst us!

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QUOTE FOR TODAY; “After you’ve heard two eyewitness accounts of an accident, it makes you wonder about history!”…..Dave Barry.

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Not the best of days!

Like most of our trains I am running somewhat late today. As excuses go mine is a reasonable one, having spent several hours at our local A & E department. One of my allotments pals developed unexplained pains during this morning’s hen-cleaning and Albert and I quickly conveyed him to the service that Jeremy Hunt is so anxious to close. I am delighted to report that it all proved nothing to worry about.

One only has to spend a while in the waiting area to realise just how important this service is. Whilst we were there two ambulances arrived and the staff responded instantly, calmly and compassionately. There may or may not be truth in the claim that centralised emergency centres would be more cost effective, but the extra time taken to reach them could well represent the difference between life and death. It is surely time for every family in the land to tell politicians in no uncertain terms that they have no moral right to endanger life by playing idiotic political games.

Whilst waiting for what proved to be excellent news, we thumbed through the dailies. The latest report from Iraq did little to restore any faith we once had in politicians.The nation was taken to war on the basis of a barefaced lie and many lives have been sacrificed. We tend to forget that, with the honourable exception of the Lib Dems, the vast majority of Westminster MPs nodded through the Bush/Blair madness. Since then successive ministers have told us that the new Iraq is a better place as a result of the bloodshed.

Really? Last week al-Qaeda fighters seized control in Iraqi cities. The strength of the fighting showed the extent of al-Qaeda’s resurgence across western Iraq over the past year. The militant’s reappearance has terrified local residents many of whom remember the beheadings and brutal punishments that took place when al-Qaeda last had control. The death rate has returned to more than 1,000 per month and there are clear indications that the Nato-trained Iraqi forces are in deep trouble.

Mr Blair is busy making millions these das. Many believe that he should charged with war crimes. But he was only able to do what he did with the tacit support of the majority of the political parties. They will never be forgiven by grieving families.

Of lesser moment, but revealing all the same, are the 1984  cabinet papers released to the National Archives yesterday. They tell us that there were moments during the government’s bitter year-long struggle when the nation “stared into the abyss” and contemplated the use of troops as violence reached its peak.

Here we had a power-mad Prime Minister locked in near mortal combat with a power-mad union leader. Both had hidden agendas, the former wished to destroy the unions, the latter sought insurrection. In reality no one won for the coal industry was totally destroyed and the cause of legitimate union membership likewise.

In their different ways Iraq and the coal dispute provide us with one important lesson. We are ill advised to unquestioningly accept what the likes of Blair, Thatcher and Scargill tell us.

The emergence of powerful protest organisations such as 38 Degrees is surely to be welcomed and supported. Millions have supported them in their demand for openness on issues such as the NHS. In them, not in Westminster, lies the best prospect for real democracy!

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How would we survive without experts?

Albert has let it be known that I have ‘men’s flu’. So, despite a night of coughing for England, I felt obliged to turn out for this morning’s hen-cleaning. It only required Gareth Malone to harmonise my coughing with the hen’s squawking to have the codger’s choir gracing the Albert Hall. Lest I sound as brave and robust as Eric Pickles I have to admit that it was a mild and sunny morning!

Despite that I was somewhat relieved to sink into a chair in the allotments shed. As usual a pile of the morning papers was on the table and one headline in particular caught my attention. The front page of the Daily Express, once the preserve of Princess Di stories, is devoted to “Simple Steps to Living Longer”. It sounded just the recipe for an old cougher, and I was somewhat disappointed to read that experts at the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence have, after years of research, settled for giving up drink and smoking, regular exercise and slimming.

Just how expert did they need to be to repeat parrot-fashion the stuff pumped out since Adam was a lad by overpaid health promotion wizards just out of their teens. At 81 I am the youngest of our codger’s gang. None of us have ever signed up to the keep-fit pledge and we tend to the view that a little of what you fancy does you good. As for the small print urging us all to attend a gym on a daily basis, we can only assume that  the ‘experts’ have overlooked the fact that such attendance is anything but free!

However it is reassuring to learn that the ‘experts’ are no more expert than the rest of us. Which realisation takes me on to the Daily Mail. Today it has paused from its regular abuse of the NHS to highlight pictures of Keith Vaz, the greatest living expert on immigration, welcoming the first of the expected wave of Romanians. Having treated Victor Spirescu to coffee, Mr Vaz announced his support for a referendum, a conclusion perhaps influenced not so much by expertise as the fact that yesterday’s poll showed that 85% of the electorate feel so inclined. Meantime Mr Spirescu announced that he doesn’t wish to settle here, although we don’t know whether this was the result of being welcomed by Mr Vaz.

The Guardian is preoccupied with other matters. It seems that the big-six energy companies have been overpaid to the extent of £4billion. Caroline Flint, the shadow energy minister, says that it now looks like they “could have deliberately inflated prices to boost profits from their power stations”n This is scarcely more surprising that the recipe for long life.

The Guardian also covers the termination of a £466m helicopter order with the British-Italian company AgustaWestland by India. The Indian government talks darkly of a “breach of the pre-contract integrity pact and the agreement by AWIL”. Not being experts we can only conclude that someone is being accused of fraud. Given the enormous impact on the economy it would be reassuring to know that someone somewhere has a vague idea as to what has happened.

The Telegraph shows no inclination to tell us, it’s lead story concerns a plan to introduce 100-year sentences for murder as a way of circumventing the EU ban on whole-life terms. Presumably judges will merely urge the convicted to do as much as he can?

The Independent sets out to cheer up all those whose existence involves using our rail system. Apparently fares have risen by 50% over the past ten years, and a further three is added today. But all is not doom and gloom, in 25 years time HS2 will ease congestion!

Of all the stories we have read today the one that most intrigues us is also to be found in the Telegraph. It seems that a study has established that the average woman will kiss 15 men, have two long-term relationships and suffer a broken heart twice befiore she meets “The One”. She will also have four one-night stands, experience the same number of “disaster” dates, and be stood up once before she settles down.

The average man will suffer in a similar way with the exception of one-night stands which will total six.

Now this does appear to be the work of experts, since it is not a la Basil’s statement if the bleedin’ obvious. But can it be true, have we really missed out to such an extent? Galling, particularly since we have never had the consolation of being greeted by Keith Vaz!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; ” I personally stay away from natural foods. At my age, I need all the preservatives I can get!”…..George Burns

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Happy New Year!

The number of hen-cleaners available this morning was somewhat limited. Several codgers, including yours truly, are coughing for England, others are simply hung-over. But Tom, Bill and Al did the business and, so far as I know, my hens are still alive and well, even if they are now in conditions better suited to ducks. Bert the God of weather has clearly decided that a day of torrential rain is the perfect way to kick off the New Year.

Today is of course one for resolutions. I particularly liked the one suggested by the leaders of all the key NHS organisations. In a published open letter they have called for an end to the bash-the-NHS culture. Chris Hopson, chief executive of the Foundation Trust Network, accuses ministers and the heads of NHS England, the Care Quality Commission, Monitor and the NHS Trust Development Authority of peddling a constant flow of generalised criticism of NHS staff.

Dr Mark Porter, chairman of the BMA, accuses ministers of unfairly besmirching the reputations of GPs and hospital doctors. All of the signatories to the letter subscribe to the view that morale in the NHS is now at rock bottom and urge Jeremy Hunt and the rest to recognise that the vast majority of those clinicians  who serve are doing an excellent job under increasingly difficult circumstances.

Regular readers will recall the many comments we received in defence of Stafford Hospital, flick back to those and you will realise just how exaggerated the reports have been. Yes, there have been occasional problems during 2013, but most patients were well served.

Of course the Hunt agenda is centred on privatisation, and slamming existing services is the perfect way of quietening public opposition. In reality mixing life or death work with profit making is dangerous and, as we have seen, Serco and G4S have already proved incapable of handling such a conflict.

So here’s hoping that politicians will heed the call to be more honest in what they say this year about the NHS and everything else.

Little hope of that perhaps, but let us start the year with our own wish list. Loads of sunshine, a winning England Test squad, easy access to GPs, real border controls, a slim-line Eric Pickles… that’ll do for starters.

Happy New Year everyone!

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Honours all round on New Year’s Eve!

If an England coughing team existed I would be in it. I spent the night giving wolf impersonations and simply couldn’t conjure up sufficient energy to attend the last hen-cleaning ritual of 2013. Albert called round later to bring some eggs plus a jar of goose-grease with which he urged me to liberally coat my wheezing chest. After a brief chat, during which he maintained a noticeable distance, he headed off to deliver gifts to his regular housebound ‘customers’, something he does every single day.

The rest of the allotments gang once toyed with the idea of nominating him for some sort of recognition. His reaction to that killed the idea at birth, he truly believes that good deeds become selfish ones when honours are sought. It still seems sad that unsung heroes remain unsung for there are many in all walks of life who go far beyond the tasks for which they are paid.

The thought prompts me to once again wallow in scepticism about the New Years honours list. Yes there are undoubtedly some well-merited selections, but how does anyone believe that someone like the former deputy governor of the Bank of England merits a knighthood for doing the job he was paid to do? In Paul Tucker’s case there is the additional issue of his being hauled before the Treasury select committee to answer claims that he encouraged Barclays to manipulate rates.

Of course Mr Tucker is not alone this morning in qualifying for a tap on the shoulder for doing what he was paid to do. Ian Cheshire, chief executive of B&Q collected £2.6 million last year for his solid performance. Alan Parker, the founder and chairman of PR and lobbying firm Brunswick is also knighted. And there is a long list of honours handed to business executives, including leading figures from water companies, Apple, Virgin Money, Equity firms and suchlike. Many of those named are said to be “close to David Cameron”, so that’s all right then.

Cronyism comes to mind but at least we are spared the sight of the leaders of the electricity distribution company that left thousands without power over Christmas kneeling before the Queen. UK Power Networks Holdings Ltd, part of the business empire of Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing has made a massive increase in profits this year. The chief executive, Basil Scarsella. who trousers £1.4 million plus £270,000 in bonus payments, admitted yesterday that he had failed customers by allowing too many staff to take annual leave. According to some observers, he was a late deletion from the honours scroll.

The credibility of the whole top honours system is becoming as thin as a Virgin Rail sandwich. Yesterday Tony Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, said that it is “clearly true” that your chances of a gong are “greatly enhanced by donating to a political party”. The former Lib Dem fundraiser, Lord Razzall, said that most people could have no idea of the number of people who offer a large donation in exchange for a peerage.

True, but we can name a few. Businessman Paul Ruddock donated almost £500,000 to the Tory party. Former Aston Villa chairman Doug Ellis gave £90,000. Entrepreneur Michael Heller gave £100,ooo. Banker James Lupton gave £105,000 … the list is a very long one!

Of course the corruption is not new, Lloyd George was an expert in the art. But the difference now is that the givers and receivers openly discuss what happens.

How it all fits within the “all in this together” contention is somewhat puzzling!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; POWER SUPPLIERS “Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, bought UKPN from EDF Energy in 2010 for £5.8billion. He took a £135m dividend from UKPN in 2012 and such money is funnelled into his legal offshore tax havens.”

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Even the CBI thinks bosses greedy!

There is a hell and we are in it. At least that was the sentiment expressed by various codgers as we battled the elements this morning. Cleaning out the hens suddenly seemed as tough as Jack Hawkin’s role in ‘The Cruel Sea’. The rain didn’t merely fall, it came by the bucket-load. By the time we escaped to the allotments hut we were perfect candidates for the role of drowned rats in the local panto.

As we steamed, our attention was drawn to the annual report from John Cridland, director-general of the CBI, the powerful lobby for big business. In an unprecedented attack on the firms he represents he accuses many of  keeping “far too many people stuck in minimum-wage jobs”. He tells senior executives – who in the FTSE 100 are paid 136 times the national average – that they must ensure that all citizens benefit from the recovery.

This is to say the least an astonishing development. The quantitative easing stimulus programme has been printing money for top executives, most of whom have seen their bonuses rise by 58% as a result of the booming stock market. Greed stalks the corridors of our big companies and the need to increase the wages of the lowest paid will have been seen as undesirable. Cridland is right to suggest that the sight of a hundred or so bosses drowning in cash whilst the 890,000 people they employ are paid peanuts is obscene, and certain to block recovery on the high street.

The need for such a statement by the bosses ‘union’ is a sad reflection on the government. But maybe ministers are preoccupied with other issues. The former Blue Peter presenter turned Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, certainly will be. As part of the last minute panic over the possible arrival of rather a large number of Romanians he has announced that should anyone of that ilk arrive at an A& E department they will be obliged to prove their right to be there otherwise charges will be presented .

How in heaven’s name is this supposed to work? The hard pressed clinical staff can hardly be expected to carry out identity checks, and the only lay-staff are receptionists who would baulk at the idea of constant confrontations. And when the visitors fail to pay who does the debt collection? And who will check out all visitors to A&E each day – appearance is no guide to entitlement. The truth is that this is a half-baked scheme which is unworkable.

The sudden fad for treating the symptoms rather than the disease (excessive immigration) is potentially chaotic. Today over 90 Conservative MPs have issued an ultimatum to our dear leader. He must either defy them or announce a block on further arrivals. Silly supposed deterrents are not the answer.

Meantime the dashing Jeremy is under attack from Uncle Vince Cable. He has suddenly realised that the state-owned blood plasma service has been privatised and is now under American control. Is it dangerous, he asks. Anyone with any experience of the NHS could explain in words of one syllable just how dangerous this is. Life or death decisions cannot safely be taken against a background of profitability!

All of which leaves one wondering whether having a government is other than a handicap!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “Professor Holland and Dr Reynolds put to me the view that, with the involvement of a profit company, there will now be increased risk of plasma contamination. They fear this is a scandal waiting to happen and that it is NHS patients who will suffer in this worst of all possible outcomes”….Letter from Cable to Hunt 27/12/2013

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The tree of misgivings!

When we locked up the hens last night we failed to notice that some were missing. When we codgers arrived at the allotments this morning those that had participated in the great escape were perched in the apple tree. They looked down on our recriminations with equanimity but showed no inclination to join their released sisters, so it was time for one of Albert’s demonstrations in the art of climbing whilst carrying a large net. A hundred avian squawks and even more human curses and the escapees were back on terra firma. One can only assume that they subscribe to the Chris Packham fantasy about foxes being friendlier than Aunt Ethel’s cat.

All of which delayed our brew. When we eventually sat around the hut fire we were pleased to hear that Tom’s granddaughter has had her baby. Tom was full of praise for the care provided at our local NHS maternity unit, but he did have a rather astonishing story to tell. Two of the other beds were occupied by ladies who had flown in to the UK just days ago, and who are planning to return to West Africa within the next fortnight. presumably they are what the media refers to as ‘maternity tourists’. One of the visitors was returning for the third time!

Airlines typically do not carry women more than 36 weeks pregnant, but one of the ladies revealed that forged doctors’ notes are easily obtained in Lagos and the like. It is a clever trick. Pregnant mums arrive secure in the knowledge that they will not be put on a plane to whence they came because in reality their pregnancies are too advance. Care in the NHS is in effect free since bills tendered are ignored. Apparently Guy’s and St Thomas’ Trust was last year owed £8.1 million in unpaid bills of this nature.

By chance Tom’s story came on the day that the latest ICM survey on immigration is published. no fewer that 72 per cent demand that the cutrrent restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians be kept in place. The poll doesn’t cover non-EU residents but it seems reasonable to assume that the vast majority is equally opposed to the growing tendency to use the NHS as a free drop-in service. So when politicians of all political persuasions back away from any confrontation with Brussels who are they actually representing?

The same can be said of their constant homage to the European court of Human Rights (ECHR). Yesterday our appropriately named former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Justice, warned that 2activism” by European judges was creating a “very serious problem”, and emphasised that Westminster shpiuld have “ultimate sovereignty”. He said that the ERCHR in its present form was “not answerable to anyone”. No judges, he insisted should have “that sort of power”.

Lord Judge believes that parliamentary sovereignty is now under threat and no nation should cede authority to an unelected body. He went on to reveal that about half of the Strasbourg judges had no judicial experience before joining the ECHR. This fact, he said, explains why they continually “go off on judicial frolics of their own”.

Yesterday Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, said that the European commission should stop “trying to create a European justice system, and should let member states get on with solving the “real challenges we face”.

So we have our leading judge, minister and 70 per cent of the public demanding action over aspects of our EU relationship. Which makes the attitude of the Libn Dem and, to an extent, the Labour party very puzzling indeed!

It all inclines me toward living in an apple tree!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “This poll is clear evidence of the strength of public feeling. We may find that there is a choice between gaining control over our borders and remaining in the EU. That has not happened yet , but it seems to be looming on the horizon”…. Sir Andrew Green, chairman of MigrationWatch UK

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Honours – we need a new catagory for sport!

The wind has departed but this morning we were reluctant to begin the task of restoring the allotment’s mountain of roof panels, fencing, and flower pots to their proper place. Lethargy? No, we had noticed that the forecasts are predicting more of the same for next week. The antis in the global warming debate increasingly looks like wishful thinking for we codgers have never previously experienced the like of this.

For once we felt sorry for our dear leader. Yesterday he visited some of the most ravaged areas, and received a good deal of abuse from people who have now been without power since Christmas Eve. It is not really his fault, we have to remember that the energy suppliers are not under government control. As Mrs Biggins fron the pie shop tore into him even David Cameron must have wondered if privatisation is all that it is cracked up to be.

This morning we noticed that a great hoo-hah is building about the exclusion of Andy Murray from the New Year honours list. Many are not unreasonably asking why winning Wimbledon for the first time in 70 years is considered less worthy that the cycling feat of Sir Bradley Wiggins. Both men won Olympic Gold so it comes down to a straight comparison between sports.

We codgers believe that the introduction of ‘Sports Knights’ would be popular. It would separate our sporting heroes from those who buy honours or receive them for political reasons. An award would preferably be on retirement after a glittering career, and selection could be conducted by a panel of sporting officials after the execution of a public poll.

It sounds a tad too revolutionary for the stuffy establishment but it would rule out the impossible task of choosing between business or political figureheads and people who have thrilled us by the outcome of tremendous commitment. That apart, knighthoods and peerages have becoming discredited amongst a public fed a daily diet of scandals. And sporting prowess is easily measured. Is winning Wimbledon more meritorious than running a baked beans manufacturer? It is impossible to decide.

But today’s Daily Mail has done its best to remind us that we have more important things to worry about than gongs. It has produced statistics showing that UK population growth is now so rapid that soon, four times as many people will be crammed into our island as in France with twice as many as in Germany. By 2046, an estimated 494 people will be squeezed into every square kilometre of England compared with 411 now and 374 when Tony Blair entered Downing Street. The equivalent figure for France will be just 115 and for Germany 204.

The Migrationwatch think tank yesterday put the blame squarely on Labour’s mass immigration of nearly four million in 13 years. It predicts that we will need to build 200 houses a day for the next 20 years and predicts the tocal collapse of our hospitals and schools.

Last week Uncle Vince Cable suggested that those calling for closed borders are disciples of Enoch Powell. He couldn’t be wider of the mark. Over 70 per cent of people polled demand controls, and they include many second-generation migrants. We simply cannot cope with a further influx.

It has to be said that with the exception of France and Germany we will receive no backing for tighter controls. If the only way of achieving them is to leave the EU, that is a better option that condemning tomorrow’s generation to living in an overcrowded and chaotic society!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “We estimate that 43% of the future population increase will be a direct result of numbers of people coming in to the UK, and when migrant birthrates are counted in, immigration will contribute 60% of population increase”…..Office of National Statistics.

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Honesty is a virtue!

Debris littered the allotments when we arrived this morning. Since the wind was still near gale-force we decided against a clear-up, settling instead for a curse in the direction of Bert the weather God who has clearly concluded that Christmas is a perfect time to demonstrate that the weather patterns are changing. To add to our woes our unshakable conviction that one can drink away a cold has added a hangover to runny noses and sore throats. But despite it all we were cheered by the news that the England cricketers still have backbones.

We codgers wouldn’t survive without our calor-gas fire and we lost no time in gathering round it for a brew as the wind howled around the allotments hut. We noted with interest the pictures of Tory MPs clad in red jackets at yesterday’s hunts,  it is perhaps reassuring to know that they are not devoting their holiday to worrying about issues we would tend to regard as rather more pressing than blowing horns.

But should they have read this morning’s papers they may well have concluded that they are becoming increasingly isolated, and not merely because of their John Peel tendency. The latest poll from Guardian/ICM reveals that the gulf between politicians and the people has widened to an extraordinary extent. Asked to come up with the word that best shows “how or what you feel about the political class”, no fewer than 47% came up with “angry”. Throw in the 25% who said “bored” and you have the remarkable fact that almost three-quarters of the population no longer identify with their elected representatives.

Clearly some of the divisive policies pursued by the Coalition are partly to blame, but one suspects that the fundamental dishonesty of politicians of all persuasions has played a part. Yesterday we highlighted a minister defending the withdrawal of rail services on Boxing Day, a happening that just three years ago he condemned Labour for. It illustrated perfectly the current approach to politics, believe in nothing and accept responsibility for nothing. And automatically oppose anything that your opponents propose.

The most significant feature of the poll that is that amongst the young ennui is more marked. A massive 68% indicated that the are unlikely to vote at an election. At the last election 76% of over-65s were still voting with 46% of people aged 18-24 going to the ballot box. That represented a big fall from the days when three-quarters of all ages voted. But 2015 will almost certainly herald a new low.

All of which is bad news for democracy. But it can only be reversed if today’s leaders resolve to change their ways. Cameron and Clegg clearly regard any admission of having erred to be out of the question. On the rare occasions that Miliband has ventured to admit that the last government made mistakes he is immediately abused. To err is human and our dear leader would be surprised at the reaction from the public to a demonstration of honesty.

There are of course other factors. David Cameron’s links with the Murdoch clan, MP’s expenses, Lansley’s lunacy over the NHS, honours for money, the gulf between the people and politicians over Europe… the list is a long one. And one can add the lack of conviction for no one any longer understands what the parties stand for. There was no such dilemma in the days of the likes of Thatcher, Attlee or Wilson. One might not like their ideology but one knew what it was. Thatcher was “not for turning”, today’s leaders spin like tops.

Perhaps they will take note of this year-end poll and resolve to change. Probably not but change, however unlikely, is always possible. If you doubt that take a look at the TV viewing figures for Christmas Day. The long established favourite EastEnders was in fourth place with a  record low of 7.8 million.

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “October is a funny kind of month. For the really keen cricket fan, it’s when you realise that your wife left you in May!”…..Denis Norden

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After the Lord Mayor’s show!

Most of the allotments gang were back on hen-cleaning duty this morning. The outcome of a heavy overnight frost prompted Albert to break into a rendition of ‘White Christmas’, but Bing he is not. But at least he seemed alive, an outcome perhaps of Mrs Albert hiding the booze in retaliation for his gifts of  B & Q vouchers and a second-hand wheelbarrow. The rest of us seemed less than alive, in fact my head felt as if it had been struck by a Dennis Lillee bouncer.

Given our fragile state and the icy paths, cleaning out seemed the equivalent of attempting to deal with a sneeze while holding a scalding cup of tea in a surface-free area. But being Brits we pretended otherwise and such eggs that were dropped were immediately covered with sand. It reminded me of my general tendency to conceal embarrassment, a classic example of which is feeling it is the right moment to attempt a cheeky wink, regretting it immediately and trying to pretend that I have something in my eye .

It may be different for you but I have noticed a tendency here to downgrade Boxing Day, to regard it as the dustcart that follows the Lord Mayor’s Show. Perhaps the long build up to Christmas Day has psychologically reduced the festive season to just one day. It seems a pity, since a decade ago we regarded today as the second big one, and many families operated their parties on a home and away basis. Now many of us devote the Feast of St Stephen to clearing up yesterday’s mess before heading off to queue at the sales.

But there are some benefits, not least amongst them will be my resting in peace to watch my recording of yesterday’s Dr Who reincarnation. There is just a chance that on second viewing I may understand it!

It was of course inevitable that going anywhere today would be a challenge. Most of the trains in this region have been cancelled because of ice, staff shortages, management inertia or engineering works. Interestingly in 2008 one Stephen Hammond issued a statement; “Boxing Day is a traditional sporting fixture across the country for many sports, not just football. Given the lack of trains people have no option to getting out their cars”. In 2009 Hammond was again on his soapbox when he attacked Labour for forcing people on to our clogged-up motorways. “Labour”, he added, “seem incapable of understanding just how important the railways are to people at Christmas-time”.

Today, on this fourth Boxing Day since the Conservatives took office, there are no trains. The transport minister is Stephen Hammond! Yesterday he said that it was a matter for independent train companies to decide if it was in their interests to run services.

All of which proves what we already knew – that poiliticians are the pits of the world and masters of the blaming-others game. But at least we will be spared the sight of passengers at Euston rushing to be the first at the departure gate, despite booking a specific seat five months previously!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “Reflection on Christmas Day; Spending an entire meal debating whether to tell someone they have food on their face!”

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Happy Christmas everyone!

Someone up there has taken pity on us this Christmas morning. We were spared wind and rain alike when we arrived at the allotments, and to add to our delight a frost had provided an appropriate white background for our endeavours. Even the horde of chickens seemed relaxed, perhaps they realised that millions of their sisters are about to have their wishbones separated, but no such fate awaits them, in fact they received a double helping of lettuce and tomatoes.

In reality that was our way of avoiding the necessity of returning at lunchtime. And since Albert and I live closest to the allotments we will lock up tonight, meaning that all the other codgers can enjoy their celebrations. There is in reality a real possibility that I will be performing a solo act, given that last year Albert was incapable of leaving his armchair come 6.00pm.

We all forsook our usual brew and gossip this morning and returned to our homes to attend the inquests on our presents selection. Since Albert gave his wife B & Q vouchers he may face the fiercest reception!

For the rest of us Christmas Day has always been a happy one, albeit one tinged with memories of those no longer with us. But the new generation is the one that matters now and our job is to help to make their day a special one. If in doing so we end up capable of outweighing Eric Pickles so be it! One positive aspect of being in ones eighties is that the prattle of the health promotion brigade can be dismissed with a shrug.

We do realise that many are not as fortunate as us. Action for Children has said that the nation has already reverted to the poverty of the 1940s, and can’t go back to the scenes of desperation described so vividly by Dickens. The hope must be that in 2014 the government will apply its austerity in a more even manner.

But for now we codgers are set on goodwill for all men and we wish you all a very happy Christmas!

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THOUGHT  FOR TODAY ; Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow..who knows?

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QUOTES “I’m sure they play cricket in heaven. Wouldn’t be heaven otherwise, would it?”….. Patrick Moore   “I don’t go as far as that on my holidays!”…Bowler commenting on Bob Willis’s run-up

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The magic of Christmas Eve!

It is said that the older you are the faster time flies. It certainly feels that way. Is it really twelve months since the last Christmas Eve? Either way I am not complaining since today is for me the most magical of them all. That is in part because, like most children posing as adults, I still have memories of days long gone when I draped my pillowcase over the bed-end and fought sleep as I listened and drowsily listened.

It is in part due to an elderly lady that I used to visit at a local nursing home. Whenever I called I noticed a doll sitting on the bedside cabinet. Eventually my curiosity overcame me and I asked if the immaculately dressed companion had been with her for a long time. My friend Joyce laid back and told me of a Christmas Eve some eighty or so years ago.

Joyce believed she was seven at the time. Those were days when presents were modest in the extreme, but there was, she told me, magic in the air on that frosty night. Her mum sat on the edge of the bed and read ”The night before Christmas’, before turning off the light and urging her to listen for the sound of sleigh bells. A racing heart delays sleep but some time later Joyce heard a faint jingling of bells out in the cold midnight air.

When, a few hours later, she awoke a beautiful golden-haired doll was resting at the foot of the bed. Little did she know at the time that she was embracing ‘Wendy’ who was destined to watch over her as she slept in many countries, and in both happy and sad times.

Sadly my friend Joyce has left us now, but I shall always remember her reminding me that Christmas Eve is a day of magic accessible only to small children. There are sleigh bells out there, she said, but only the truly innocent can hear them. She believed that every adult has a sacred duty to set the scene. Every child has but a limited time to record an experience that will last a lifetime, one enhanced by a gift, however modest, that even on the darkest days will remind them of a magical night when dreams were made.

I implore you dear reader, if there are young children within your reach,  to cast aside cynicism, worry and indulgence tonight to cast magical dust, to remember that tonight is a unique opportunity to create an experience that will be remembered for ever.

In this age of noise, instant communication and controversy innocence dies early, and the door to magic remains open for only a short time. Depending on the age of your children this may be the last chance you have before it closes for ever.

A very happy and peaceful Christmas to you and yours!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. “I haven’t missed it . The Spirits have done it all in one magical night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Merry Christmas everyone!” …….A Christmas Carol  by Charles Dickens

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Uncle’s double act for Christmas!

Stop the world, we codgers wish to alight. Cleaning out the hens this morning was not a calming experience. The high wind and driving rain made a mockery of our illuminated Santa hats which are now somewhere in outer space, and the temptation to postpone the work until later was thwarted by warnings of far worse to come. Prior to that Albert and I had visited Tesco in the belief that we would beat he crowds. We were wrong.

It seemed that everyone else had heeded the advice to stay indoors after lunchtime, and the queue for the car park was but a prelude for the battle of the laden trolleys. Even the staff wore a resigned  countenance as a sense of Armageddon overwhelmed frantic Brussels-hunters. The canned lyrics about ‘I wish it could be Christmas every day’ won few plaudits.

In the wake of this less-than festive background we were all a little tetchy when we gathered in the hut for our latest attempt to outgrow Eric Pickles. It was inevitable that today’s headliner, Uncle Vince Cable, would  be viewed in a sceptical light. Here was the man we codgers have so often lauded as the only truly honest member of the cabinet putting on a Christmas double act.

On a number of occasions he has prevented a Lib Dem rebellion, and a fall of the government, by openly supporting coalition policies. Indeed he has been instrumental in shaping many of them. Now we are expected to believe that he is totally opposed to them. At a stroke he has lost credibility and destroyed his own prospects of assuming Lib Dem leadership when Clegg falls, as he surely will.

Speaking on yesterday’s Andrew Marr show Cable likened the concern about the impending arrival of Romanians and Bulgarians to Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech. Apart from panicking Conservatives, the nation was totally relaxed about the prospect, declared our former role model. He went on to express doubts about the government’s macroeconomics policy which is leading to public services being “seriously affected”. For good measure he warned that policy is leading to a “raging housing boom in London and the south-east”.

It so happens that we codgers agree with a good deal of what Cable said, but he was a leading part of the team that created the policies. That apart he is surely wrong about the Enoch Powell nonsense. It seems to us that there is widespread concern about a further influx of east-Europeans. This is not racism, it is a recognition that our public services are close to breaking point!

For once the spokesman for Downing Street spoke for us all. He remarked that “Vince is a member of the government and has supported government policy”, and added that the words he chooses to utter in public are “up to him!”. Spot on!

Apart from destroying his personal credibility, Mr Cable has merely given succour to Ukip. On this at least he is not alone within the cabinet. Yesterday another guest of Andrew Marr chose to describe Nigel Farage as looking as if someone “has put their finger up his bottom and he is enjoying it”. Very statesmanlike by defence minister Anna Soubry, who has managed to cover today’s papers with pictures of the Ukip leader. With opponents such as Cable and Soubry the Ukip leader must believe that his Christmas gifts are arriving in pairs.

So Uncle Vince is off our list of stars. Mind you he was already in danger, given that local girl Abbey Clancy triumphed in Strictly, despite being married to Peter Crouch.

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “The young have aspirations that never come to pass, the old have reminiscences of what never happened!”….Saki (Hector Hugh Munro), 1870-1916, British writer.

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Thoughts from a motorway car park!

I would love to tell you that, like Neville Chamberlain in 1939, I am speaking to you from my study in 10 Downing Street. Sadly my location is somewhat humbler, we are travelling to North Wales in a minibus and, having tired of the M55 traffic jam have decided to rest a while at a service station where finding a space is celebrated in the manner usually reserved for a lottery win. As the computer expert – amongst the codgers that merely means knowing how to switch the thing on – I have been assigned the rear table with a view to updating you.

Not that there is much to report so far. We spent the best part of an hour stranded behind a young lady who was plucking her eyebrows with the help of the rear view mirror. It almost triggered a New Year resolution since several of us, being ancient, have developed brows comparable with those of Denis Healey. But we lack the obvious patience required and who looks at us anyway? Perhaps the girl had merely tired of looking at the truck in front of her which bore the slogan “We never stop when giving service”?

At moments such as this my mind tends to wonder yet again about the vexed question of EU migrants. If this morning’s experience is any indication this small island is nearing capacity and , being rebels, we tend to wish for leadership prepared to give Churchillian salutes to the Brussels bureaucrats.

But I quickly move on to other considerations given that Messrs Clegg and Miliband  seem to regard the prospect of a zillion Romanians with equanimity. Just what our dear leader believes is hard to fathom, but he does at least seem to recognise that the prospect of a life of queuing, be it on the motorway or at the hospital, is not a vote winner.

That too is not a subject calculated to wile away an hour or so in the equivalent of an internment camp, and I begin to ponder the practice of blogging which I indulge in each day. This site now regularly attracts a lot of readers. But who are they, where are they? Being unable to afford a sophisticated hit-analyser we have no idea. Apart from a bloke in Bacup, who regularly tells us that we should be certified, our feedback is minimal. If you are out there it would be great to hear from you!

Perhaps our dailies have the same feelings. Yes they do receive some comments, but as a percentage of the circulation they are hardly of Eric Pickles proportions. For example the Daily Telegraph recently devoted a good deal of column inches to a Pippa Middleton feature aimed at helping us prepare for Christmas. It contained such gems as “Don’t forget lemons for drinks, breakfast foods and essentials such as candles, lavatory paper, Sellotape and batteries”. Did the Telegraph get a postbag bulging with thankful letters praising the intellectual capacity of the sister of our future Queen?

Mind you the article did make a sort of sense. Which is more than can be said for one from the Evening Standard cricket correspondent, Tom Collomosse. In his report from Perth he commented that the fast bowlers will tire in temperatures exceeding 100c, and the England batsmen should exercise patience. Not only would they tire, they would probably die in the equivalent of 212 degrees F. Feedback? Perhaps it was the heat that prompted spinner Swann’s ill-timed and sudden retirement?

I must end now, Tom and Albert are climbing in and the latter is taking over the wheel. When he is thus employed I feel a compulsion to stare at the road ahead. Call me yellow if you must, but I do want to enjoy Christmas in one piece!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “The optimist proclaims we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true!”…..James Cabell (1879 – 1958) Novelist and Journalist.

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Christmas spirit all round!

Compo joined us for hen-cleaning this morning, and he was wearing a Santa hat complete with flashing lights. It was Albert, who is now in his annual Christmas fever. I can’t claim to have ever been gripped by frenzied excitement as December 25 nears, and I confess to envying those for whom it sweeps aside worries and routine. Albert is a self-confessed grump, but not for the next few days when his dormant inner child emerges. We went to Tesco this morning and, whilst I was less than keen at the crashing trollies and jammed car park, he was rubbing his hands in glee. I kept my distance less the men in white coats arrived with a large net.

When we all gathered in the shed for a brew, and some of the doughnuts purchased by Compo-born -again, I found myself wondering if the festive spirit has drawn the mighty into its warm embrace. Possibly not given this morning’s revelations about large Christmas trees. Scientists have discovered that 25,000 bugs may be hiding in the size of tree to be found at those infamous parties in Chipping Norton. Researchers found lice, mites, moths, springtails and spiders sharing the branches with the baubles. They hibernate for the winter but reawaken when the tree is brought into the warmth of the hall or living room. Mind you, it is less than likely that our dear leader will this year join Rebekah and the rest for an infestation!

It is hard to imagine that the latest head of the Care Quality Commission is focussed on the sound of sleigh bells. David Prior will probably spend his break dreaming not of a white Christmas but of another bout of NHS bashing. He is planning “Ofsted-style” ratings for all hospitals, with a similar system for GPs come 2015. Yesterday he gleefully announced that “about 30% will receive the lowest rating”. The king of know-alls is just what the beleaguered service needs. With every hospital struggling to cope with draconian ‘efficiency savings’ and an ever increasing number of elderly patients, more targets and the resulting more forms to fill in is just what it needed for Christmas.

It is equally hard to imagine Nigella donning a fancy hat. Yesterday her two former assistants were acquitted by a jury of fraudulently spending £685,000 of her money. Justice may well have been done but the trial was disturbing for those who believe that witnesses should not be treated as criminals. The TV star was vilified by allegations to such an extent that the real reason for the trial was all but forgotten, and the witness was in effect the one accused. Having said that we were surprised to note that Britain’s most senior policeman, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, was quick to rule out a police investigation. Would he have said the same had the assistants made a similar admission?

It may well be that our dear leader is also less than full of festive cheer. With his backbenchers growing ever more inclined to look in the direction of Santa Farage, he is pouring forth solutions to the growing possibility that the entire population of Albania will soon be joining us. In one week he has announced new rules aimed at reducing our appeal, yesterday he made it known that he will veto the addition of Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine to the EU open-doors club. Sadly it won’t work for the EU train is rolling on, and we either have to disembark or put up with the dining-car menu.

But if any group or body can be assumed to be in the grip of festive delight it is surely the BBC, if its nightly trailers for Christmas Specials (made in August) is any indication. But we presume to question its sanity. Yesterday morning it sent a chauffer to collect Anjem Choudary, and proceeded to allow him 12 minutes of airtime on Radio 4’s flagship ‘Today’ programme. The extremist preacher repeatedly ignored calls to condemn the murder of Lee Rigby. Not surprising given that he indoctrinated the creatures that carried it out.

The Muslim Council of Britain spoke for us all when it said that “Mr Choudary is a self-serving publicity seeker and the BBC was unwise to give him so much airtime, unchallenged”. This was not an example of free speech, it was lunacy.

But there are undoubtedly millions of folk out there who, like Albert, are now so imbued with the magic of Christmas that they have lost all awareness of everything else. If only the spirit could be bottled! I would join the queue immediately!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “To govern is to educate. A statesman is that person who tells people what people need to know. A politician is that person who tells people what people want to hear!”….Oscar Arias Sanchez, Nobel Prize for PEACE, 1987.

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We all betrayed Lee Rigby!

We codgers found it difficult to understand why it was necessary for the state to fund lawyers to mount a plea of not guilty on behalf of two brutal murderers whose barbarism was filmed and witnessed by millions. But justice must be seen to be done, and one can only hope that we still recognise that when the sentence on Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale is announced. Lee Rigby will never walk our streets again, neither should those who butchered him.

The many tributes paid to Lee tell us a good deal about the young soldier. He was much loved and respected and, whilst he accepted the dangers of serving in Afghanistan, he could never have imagined that he could be brutally attacked in the country he served with so much pride.

In many ways we all failed him. For too long we have allowed the politically correct brigade to prattle on about racism and to create fear in the heart of every police officer. Their instincts to carry out stop and search have been restricted, and the need to consult so called community leaders have made their task almost impossible. We now know that both MI5 and the police have known of the two murderers fior eight years, indeed approaches were made to one of them with a view to his becoming an informer.

Lee Rigby was the victim of institutional failure which was tolerated by us all. Over the past 15 to 20 years, it was not out-of-control intelligence agencies but the reluctance of a traditionally tolerant society such as ours to understand the particular threat posed by the jihadists and deal forcefully with it. A case in point is that Adebolajo was radicalised through his association with al-Muhajiroun, a now-banned extremist organisation that was allowed to openly spread its poison into the Muslim community for years.

Its founder, Anjem Choudary, even regularly appeared on radio and TV, interviewed as though he were simply a spokesman for a bona fida political movement rather than the leader of what was recently branded “the single biggest gateway to terrorism in British history”. Madness. Yes of course we are right to treasure freedom of speech but that must never again be regarded as including the preaching of violence and hate.

Politicians have said all the right things about this outrage, but words are not enough. We are told that the security agencies are aware of several thousand extremists who may well be preparing more atrocities in the name of a vengeful God. During the trial the defendents made much of the claim that they are fighting a war. During world War 2 Churchill didn’t hesitate to intern enemies within.

Internment camps would be totally unacceptable to all who value justice and freedom but what is the alternative? Do more families have to suffer as that of Lee Rigby are suffering? Are we really prepared to accept that British servicemen or women are not safe on the streets of our capital city?  Do we really believe that human rights are the exclusive preserve of fanatics?

If this all sounds like an incoherent rant we can only say in mitigation that everyone who came to the allotments this morning is outraged at what happened to a young man walking along a busy street. We recognise the perils of granting the security agencies carte blanche in regard to detention, but nothing can ever be as appalling as the scene witnessed by everyone of us.

It was our tolerance that betrayed Lee Rigby. If we codgers are any indication that tolerance has been exhausted!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run over!”……Aneurin Bevan, 1897-1960.

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No Christmas card for the taxmen!

We codgers spend a great deal of time and money replacing roof panels which provide the hens with shelter from the monsoons, and this morning saw us in action again. When we arrived at the allotments there was no trace of nine panels which were presumably carried in the direction of Manchester Airport by last night’s gale. Fortunately the hens were locked up before the umpteenth destroyer arrived so we are at least spared a TV programme featuring Chris Packham talking about evidence that, like their geese cousins, chickens can fly in packs.

The result of yet more evidence that our weather patterns are changing was a great deal of hammering, and very unseasonable cursing, followed by the inevitable when Albert bashed the nails on his right hand rather than the ones on the roof. The result of that was first aid accompanied by even more language guaranteed to eliminate us from Santa’s list.

By the time we retired to the hut there was little inclination to take a jaundiced eye to the latest news. As is their habit several of my pals has watched the weekly Prime Minister’s Question Time which provided the usual collection of insults hurled by our dear leader, amongst them his taunting of Ed Balls the “useless Turkey”. But most of us have lost interest in Chief Red Face exploding alongside the nodding Clegg.

Some of the ex servicemen amongst us were also nodding, having spotted headlines featuring a warning from Gen Sir Nicholas Houghton, head of the Defence Staff, that the policy of buying sophisticated weaponry to keep our manufacturers in business is at odds with the one involving halving headcount numbers. Our military is in danger of becoming a “hollow force”, according to its boss.

But even that lunacy cannot match today’s Baldrick award winner. The Public Accounts Committee has released a report confirming that HMRC, is “holding back” from using legal sanctions to recover money from large companies which use aggressive schemes to minimise their tax bills. As a result, the Committee claims, the public at large is being forced to “shoulder more of the burden of paying for public services”. The taxman collected less tax in real terms last year and the tax gap between what HMRC estimated it was owed and what it received climbed to a massive £35 billion.

For good measure the angry  MPs slammed the taxmen for overestimating by £2.5 billion the amount of money it expected to collect from the much lauded Osborne deal with the Swiss authorities to tackle offshore tax evasion. The ever vigilant Margaret Hodge said that her committee was “astonished to learn that HMRC could not provide an explanation”.

Whilst all this hoo-hah was taking place it was revealed that for the third year in a row Vodaphone has paid no corporate tax whatsoever. Their explanation bore a remarkable resemblance to that of Amazon, Google and many other large companies that enjoy huge profits on sales to the British public.

Mrs Hodge’s view is that HMRC pursues relentlessly tax owed by smaller businesses but “loses its nerve” when it comes to mounting prosecutions against multinational corporations. Given that they have close friends in very high places that is understandable. But the fact remains that so long as the present degree of clemency is shown the Chancellor’s only hope of balancing the books is to cut public services and to make the life of every taxpayer a good deal harder than it need be.

Mrs Hodge will not be getting a peerage any time soon but she and her colleagues are performing a valuable service to the public. The practice of operating one rule for the masses and another for the big boys is a disgraceful betrayal.

Ed Balls may be a “turkey” but even he has worked this out!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the bible and we had the land. They said “Let is pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the bible and they had the land!”……Desmond Tutu Nobel Prize for Peace, 1984

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Ian Watkins could be ‘most dangerous sex offender I have ever seen’ – officer

Senior detective says the 'committed, organised paedophile' has shown no remorse for his crimes

The psychology of Ian Watkins makes him potentially the most dangerous sex offender ever encountered, according to a senior detective.

The former Lostprophets lead singer was on Wednesday sentenced to 35 years in jail for a string of sex offences including the attempted rape of a baby.

Continue reading...

Bank staff are, like us, the victims of bankers!

British weather is often grim, but it is never boring in that no two days are the same. Yesterday we skated on thin ice during our morning hen-cleaning, today we switched to mud-wrestling. I consoled myself by remembering my time in Africa when every day was a hot blue-sky day and in due course I yearned for variation. I didn’t mention this to my pals who probably dream about a life of endless sun plus, in Albert’s case, the presence of Lady Gaga dressed only in coconut shells.

In my view a year divided up into seasons is wonderful, always provided that the weather responds appropriately. Sadly the gulf stream plays tricks and there is very indication that Christmas will be anything but white, crisp and even. Both the Met Office and Albert’s seaweed predict torrential rain and howling gales, which prompts the thought that in casting around like a netted fish for ideas to deter the whole of Bulgaria and Romania arriving here in January, our dear leader should perhaps send them videos of Slough at its darkest.

David Cameron sudden announcement of a block on EU migrants’ access to benefits from New Year’s Day certainly suggests that knee-jerking is alive and well in Westminster. Given that we have known for years that the gates open wide as 2014 dawns it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the government is at sixes and sevens over immigration. It knows that even those who have settled here believe that our island is dangerously overcrowded, yet lives in fear at the reactions of Brussels and its Lib Dem pals to any crackdown.

Yesterday’s BBC programme featuring senior officers from the Metropolitan Police touring Romania to calculate the best response to an importation of crime was less than reassuring, and if they continue to dither all three of our major political parties must expect Ukip to be breathing down their necks at the European elections. Many people have lost faith in them and are nearing a state of rebellion over the madness of open borders.

What is about to happen is unfair to all those who have already moved to Britain, and have made positive contributions to our economy and society. In their frustration the indigenous population is now beginning to talk of ‘them’. And whenever society begins to mistakenly apply generalisations injustice follows.

To find an example of this you only have to look at the Banks. Deluged by stories of obscenely high salaries, bonuses, and unethical behaviour people are increasingly turning their anger on everyone working in our once trusted institutions. In reality we need to recognise that the Bank employees we meet on a daily basis are also victims. If you doubt that take a look at the revelations about Lloyds, which was last week fined £28 million for flogging £2billion-worth of ISAs and insurance to customers who didn’t want them. That is merely the latest mis-selling scandal to follow on from others about endowments, payment protection insurance, interest rate swaps, and credit card cover.

Bank of England grandees and City bigwigs blame lax management, but none talk of the treatment of our retail-banking staff. Their lot is akin to the Hunger Games. According to Unite, salaries for the lowest grade staff at Lloyds begin at £13,000, the next grade up starts at £17,000 and the median salary is £27,000. The first two bands account for 45% of all Lloyds employees. 40% of staff in those two bands say they rely on overtime or a second income to make ends meet. Around 12% say they have had to use payday loans in the past year and some reportedly use food banks.

In 2012 the boss of Lloyds, Antonio Horta-Osorio, took home £3.4 million in cash, pension and benefits. Last month he was lined up for a further £2million bonus in shares. Meantime his staff are being laid off if they fail to turn predatory on their customers. Their only shot at getting bonuses, payrises or keeping their jobs is to flog customers financial rubbish. An example came from the watchdogs last week. They cited the Lloyds ‘adviser’ who sold himself, his wife and a colleague a product none wanted just to get his numbers up.

A former employee at the Lloyds-TSB call centre has revealed that a manager listened in to her calls and when a women rang in to report that her husband had died, proceeded to threaten her because she failed to take the opportunity to offer an extra overdraft to cover the cost of the funeral. There are many such stories including those of noticeboards listing those who succeed in exploiting customer contact and those who fail.

In the same way that it is grossly unfair to apply one label all migrants it is equally so to do that with Banks. At the top are people who pocket more in a year than junior staff can hope to receive in a lifetime. They are greedy and corrupt and force staff to act against their consciences to make a living wage.

In most flocks of sheep there are a few black ones. If a sense of justice is to survive we must learn to direct our venom at the bad guys!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “Banking staff have been coerced into turning predatory and we are their feedstock!”  …..Aditya Chakrabortty

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Mission accomplished but what was the mission?

The King of all grumps, Geoffrey Boycott, is probably gnashing his teeth this morning. Some of his disciples on the allotments were inclined to do the same at the news that the all-conquering England cricketers are conquering no more, but their choppers were already engaged in chattering on a very cold morning. But we had no complaints on that score for there are few pleasanter experiences than the sound of an icy crust scrunching like a crème-brulee as one steps out under a blue sky. Whether the chickens see it that way is another matter for suddenly the worms have beak-proof protection.

Many of the morning papers have provided our dear leader with the coverage he sought in return for travelling to Afghanistan. Unfortunately for him they have chosen a somewhat negative interpretation. We believe that he was right to be positive about the role of our troops who have done their brave best in an impossible situation. But he was ill advised to echo the infamous words of George W Bush who, on May 1st 2003, posed whilst wearing a flight suit against a background of a huge sign declaring ‘Mission Accomplished’. That preceded ten years of bloodshed in Iraq culminating in a humiliating withdrawal.

Even the most optimistic believe other than that Afghanistan will suffer the same fate. Many families both in the UK and Afghanistan are in mourning and having heard the Cameron claim must this morning be asking themselves what the mission actually was. If it was to crush the Taliban and to install a Western style democracy by force of arms, the mission has been a failure. The only consolation is that our armed forces have been emasculated to the point where future intervention in any state bigger than the Isle of Wight will be beyond us.

Perhaps we codgers simply failed to understand what Bush and his pal Blair were actually hoping to achieve when they declared their intention to obliterate the forces of evil. That wouldn’t be too surprising since we regularly incur headaches as we try to understand the utterances of politicians. Every day that passes brings another mystery. Today we try in vain to fathom out the announcement by Jeremy Hunt about the NHS introducing 24/7 working.

No one can possibly disagree with the aim. The present arrangement of weekends managed by junior doctors, of overwhelmed A and E departments and GPs who have given low profile a whole new meaning is inadequate. But without substantial additional investment in doctors and nurses how can this possibly be achieved? Our local hospitals are amongst the best in the land but right now, given the massive ‘efficiency savings’ applied, they are unable to afford sufficient consultants to just about cover five days. Hunt’s threat to impose “massive fines” if they fail to man up to provide round-the-clock cover is ridiculous. Such penalties would be charged to already reduced funding and would merely serve to make the situation even worse.

At the core of the supposed plan is the promise to make GPs available at all times. My practice involves two doctors who already hold the maximum number of clinics throughout the week and, given the rocketing number of elderly patients, appointments involve significant delays. Consultations are not infinite, for any doctor whose prime task is diagnosis any increase above the present levels would be dangerous, tired doctors can easily lose their concentration. We are not talking here about stacking shelves in Tesco. One mistake and a patient could die.

Without doubt an increase in GPs and practice nurses would transform things. With appointments available at all times far fewer peo;le would feel the need to resort to A & E. In the case of my practice additional funding for an extra doctor plus two nurses and two receptionists would transform the patient experience but that would cost around an additional £300,000 a year. And there are a vast number of practices across the UK.

Unless the government is prepared to tackle the issue of tax avoidance by almost all of our big companies, plus the effective subsidy of almost £40 billion provided to Barclays, RBS, HSBC and Lloyds, there is no possibility of sufficient money becoming available. And we can forget the option of privatisation, having seen the debacle of services transferred to Serco.

As with Afghanistan this mission is one that will never be accomplished so spare us the words of spin-doctors. Only huge investment in real ones will prevent this scary winter being merely the forerunner of  even worse ones to come!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “Old age is wonderful…A pity it ends so badly!”….Francois Mauriac, Nobel Prize for Literature, 1952.

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The present can learn from the past!

It was sherry all round this morning when we codgers retired to the allotments ‘hut’ after cleaning out the hens. We had decided that Bill’s 90th birthday merited something stronger than tea, and for once our kindly and quiet spoken pal was the centre of attention. He dismissed theories about healthy living in just two words – sheer luck. Life, according to Bill, is a lottery. He endured the London blitz of 1940 and just five years later was fighting in Europe “hell-bent on revenge”. But Bill will have no truck with today’s nostalgic talk of a community united when the bombs rained down, he remembers vividly the looting of demolished houses and the widespread stealing of jewellery from corpses. He insists that the inherent nature of people is unchanging, there are always “good guys and bad ones”.

Albert asked our hero for the day if his political beliefs have changed over so many years, a subject that he never mentions. It seems that he grew up a “red-hot Liberal”, a faithful disciple of Clement Davies and Jo Grimond. And now? The honest, committed politicians have “long gone” and he doesn’t vote. It seems that Messrs Cameron, Clegg, Miliband and all their spin-doctors cut no ice with Bill. Apparently he had toyed with the idea of backing Ed but his latest pronouncements about local authorities being given the right to compulsorily purchase any land that takes their fancy for a spot of building was the last straw.

I suspect that like many old soldiers the treatment of our armed forces by successive governments was for Bill, in reality, the last straw. But he did make another point. He believes that the public has been mesmerised into believing that the working poor are the bad guys. Wages lag behind the cost of living, zero-hour contracts abound and the number of unwilling part-timers rockets. Yet scarcely a voice is raised as Osborne imposes more stealthy assaults on those rendered poor. Contrast that with this morning’s news that Bankers expect their bonuses to soar 44 per cent this year on the back of rising share prices.

Bill has been around for a long time, but claims to have never seen the nation so divided in its attitude to the haves and have-nots. It may be this view that puts him at odds with the majority of his generation over membership of the EU. A poll out today shows over 60% of pensioners are determined to vote for an exit in the unlikely event that a referendum takes place. Bill stands four-square with the majority of under-25s who want to stay in. He shares their view that opportunities for tomorrow’s generation will be too limited in this small island. But he has a but.

In common with most people, both here and in the other major EU states, Bill believes passionately that individual countries must have the power to control their population to one that their infrastructures can cope with. He recalls with pleasure the benefits derived from the wave of immigrants of the fifties and sixties. They filled job vanancies and integrated into our culture seamlessly. Those days are gone, he contends, and a further influx now will lead to overcrowding, resentment and social disorder.

When our dear leader dismissed Dennis Skinner as “past his sell-by date” he revealed his feelings about the views of older people. It is a mistake. Of course tomorrow’s world is about young people, but those who have already travelled the journey are worth listening to. Sometimes the university of life provides lessons that even Eton and Oxbridge cannot supply!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “An intellectual is a man who doesn’t know how to park a bike!”…..Spiro Agnew, US politician.

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Wrongly jailed Victor Nealon spends first night as free man on streets

The former postman who was wrongly imprisoned for nearly 17 years, spent his first night on the streets after being discharged

Victor Nealon, the former postman who was wrongly imprisoned for nearly 17 years, spent his first night of freedom on the streets after being discharged from Wakefield prison on Friday with £46 and nowhere to stay.

Nealon was given a discretionary life sentence in January 1997 for the attempted rape of a woman leaving a nightclub. But when DNA evidence was finally examined on the urging of appeal lawyers, it pointed to another unknown man as the perpetrator.

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HS2 report suppressed – why?

Many a bird of the feathered variety visit the allotments and we codgers take very seriously the many reports showing that a number of our native species are in danger of extinction. Even those of us who regard ornithology as uninteresting admit that life without birds would be a diminished one, and know that in this age of pesticides and bulldozers the only hope is for every garden owner to invest in a bird table.

We have over a dozen which are regularly topped up, but the potential diners often join the hens at feeding time. For reasons that escape us chickens will fight each other over corn but take no exception to feeding alongside blackbirds, sparrows and the rest. The only arrival from above that triggers hostility is the magpie. The moment their rat-a-tat call is heard a Neil Warnock like shindig breaks out. The superstitious amongst us behave in the same way given that the appearance of  three is said to trigger ill fortune, and having Albert as a workmate means we have more than enough of that as it is.

Anyway it was a pleasant enough morning with little wind and no rain so we codgers were in a relaxed frame of mind when we retired to the hut for a brew and a helping of Tesco doughnuts, staple fare for all who aspire to match Eric Pickles. Two subjects attracted our attention, the first of these was the leak revealing that the government is going to unprecedented lengths to suppress a report by the Cabinet Office into HS2.

It seems that the report gave HS2 an amber-red status – meaning that its success is “in doubt”. It contends that the timetable is unreasonably short, the project is lacking in coordination, the people in charge lack the necessary skills, and insufficient work has been done to arrive at accurate costs. The justification for the project is seen as dubious at best.

Ministers are fighting to prevent publication and have pursued an emergency prime-ministerial veto to keep it suppressed. They justify this extremely unusual action on the grounds that disclosure would create “political and presentational difficulties at a crucial point”. In other words, it might inflame public opinion and hinder parliamentary approval!

To say that this is strange is an understatement. All three major parties seem committed to the £50 billion project and the only objections are to be found amongst the general public which centre around the need to improve the existing rail network, environmental implications and the fact that the sole benefit of reducing travel time on a small island is minimal.

It seems to us a classic example of politician’s arrogance. They know best and the less chance given to the plebs the better. They are usually quick to call for public inquiries when it suits them, yet a massive commitment such as this will, if they have their way, be nodded through on the basis that none of them will be in power when the twenty-odd years colossus is built, and they therefore are free of the risk of being hung, drawn and quartered when the outcome is apparent.

The other story that caught our attention this morning concerned the growth of food banks. Ten years ago there were very few, there are now over 400 and new ones are opening every couple of days. Sadly politicians are turning them into a political issue. The coalition chooses to pretend that they scarcely exist, the opposition claim that they demonstrate the affect of welfare reforms.

We believe the latter, but venture to suggest that a greater reality is being missed in the argument. In a welcome gesture of openness, Tesco last month admitted that in the first six months of 2013, the company threw away nearly 30,000 tons of food. There is no legal requirement for firms to publish this kind of data, but you can bet your Lady Gaga calendar that the other big retailers do no better.

In Oxford a food bank is using a sustainable model. Fresh food – bread, fruit, vegetables, and dairy produce is collected daily from local wholesalers and retailers and then distributed to charities in the city and surrounding towns. All of the food is fit for human consumption, all of it previously found its way into landfill tips.

No blame lies with Tesco and the rest, customers will not pay for items labelled with yesterday’s date. But to simply scrap rather than pass on to people in need is scandalous. It shouldn’t be necessary for voluntary organisations to attempt to solve this, if politicians were to drop their points-scoring they could easily devise a national scheme that would benefit millions, not to mention the environment. And costs could be covered by minimal charges.

So just two of today’s stories prove once again that those that purport to lead the country are guilty of both deception and lack of initiative. Come to think about it, they are not unlike the England cricketers now in Perth. They talk a good game but are somewhat lacking when it comes to performing!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “The statistics for waste are an affront to common sense and human decency!”……Robin Aitken

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Energy market competition fizzles out!

If my fellow allotments codgers are any indication most people are not focussed on what the media and politicians imagine are today’s burning issues. As we cleaned out the hens this morning I heard no mention of North Korea, Heathrow, immigration, high speed trains or privatisation. The sole topic of conversation was the latest injury suffered by Robin Van Persie. Even the news of the enforced closure of one of Michael Gove’s new dream schools couldn’t match the interest in the Dutchman’s hamstring. It is often said that a revolution in Britain would attract no attention should Manchester United be featuring on the TV, and this morning seemed to confirm the theory.

For my own part I did feel that the growing row about the impending arrival of zillions of Romanians and Bulgarians merited a passing interest. This morning we learn that over seventy Conservative MPs are planning a revolt and it seems that only the massed ranks of Lib Drem and Labour MPs can save our dear leader from defeat. Why he is so fearful of further offence to the unelected Laszlo Andor, the Hungarian EU Commissioner, is a mystery. Andor this week suggested that David Cameron is weakening the “European spirit” by announcing that immigrants must be able to speak English, so heaven knows what he would say if we stopped them from coming altogether.

Yet the point about language seems what Basil Fawlty described as bleedin’ obvious. If I decided to exercise my right to live in Hungary I would regard learning the lingo as essential. But language is a side-issue, the simple truth is that this small island is already overcrowded and its infrastructure is in danger of collapse. This has nothing to do with racism, some of our allotmenteers are Polish but they share the view that right now we simply cannot accommodate more migrants. Some of the parliamentary rebels are asking just what Brussels can actually do if we defy the EU open borders directive. Good question, particularly since Germany and France have already done so. David Cameron’s stance is puzzling for one devoted to political sound bites. Were he to have the courage to announce a ban the odds are that his party would no longer be trailing in the polls!

But an even greater mystery is his reluctance to go head-to-head with the energy companies. Few now believe the talk about competition driving prices down and quality of service up. The extent of the failure of the UK’s energy market is exposed by new research published by consultants Vaasaett. It shows that competition between the “Big Six” firms has fallen to a record low. The proportion of households switching suppliers has almost halved in seven years – making it easier for gas and electricity suplliers to hike their prices in a stale market.

The fact that only 11 per cent have made the attempt to change suppliers fuels suspicions that the Big Six, which have all hiked their prices significantly above inflation in recent weks, are taking advantage of the problems people experience in changing providers. An even greater factor is the fact – not mere suspicion – that all the tariffs are similar. The cartel has us in its grip, this is in reality a cartel.

On this issue, as on immigration, our dear leader seems out of touch with public opinion. Dynamic action on both would transform his election prospects but he dithers on. Perhaps he too is totally preoccupied with Van Persie’s leg?

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “Democratic principles do not flourish on empty stomachs!”….George C Marshall, Nobel Prize for Peace, 1953.

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No cheers for the private sector!

I missed the hen-cleaning this morning, having been summoned for a post-op review of my left eye. The NHS clinic was spotlessly clean, the staff were friendly and I was seen on time. The lady next to me in the waiting area was reading the Daily Mail which had banner headlines about the “National Health Shambles”, and for the zillionth time I wondered why the Rothermere press is so intent on the destruction of  morale in our hospitals. Yes there are inevitably problems in so vast an undertaking, but I cannot recall the Mail ever reporting a success story. Presumably their aim is to urge on the right-wing privatisation devotees.

If so it should perhaps keep an eye on the private companies being awarded responsibility for taking over public services. G4S and Serco landed substantial contracts and are presumably seen as perfect examples of efficiency and top-class customer service. Both are under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office over their Ministry of Justice contracts and allegations regarding the way they have charged the government. Both were yesterday stripped of their contracts and another of the Whitehall favourites, Capita, have been invited to take over. Presumably the government is working to a plan involving handing public services to a succession of companies in the belief that if enough are tried one will eventually prove honest and reliable. Meantime the taxpayer continues to incur greater costs than applied when the state provided essential services.

Being a man of narrow vision our dear leader has probably missed such scandals. Yesterday he incurred the wrath of Judge Robin Johnson, having declared himself to be “on Team Nigella”  at a time when his friend was involved in a crown court trial. We can only hope that his string-pullers are warning him against sounding off about another of his close friends at present spending her time in court!

It feels good to contrast all this with some positive news. Those of us who  constantly pray for a eureka moment for cancer researchers are over the moon at the discovery made in regard to the drug anastrozole. A study, funded by Cancer Research UK and led by Queen Mary University of London, tracked 4,000 postmenopausal women at high risk of breast cancer and found that those who took anastrozole for five years were less likely to develop the disease. It may not be eureka but the news demonstrates that there are real possibilities of breakthroughs. Everyone who has ever donated can walk tall today!

Of course we still have the mystery as to why research into such a scourge is so fragmented and David Cameron was right to suggest to other world leaders that on cancer, Alzheimer’s and other horrors there must be a case for closer co-operation. As things stand there must be a distinct possibility that right now any number of research groups are working on the self same study.

But for now Cancer Research and Queen Mary University have earned three cheers. Four perhaps since the much vaunted private sector are not even worthy of one!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “The world could get along very well without literature; it could get along even better without men!”…..Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize for Literature, 1964.

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First impressions can be very misleading!

Old King Cole would have been a less than jolly old soul had he joined us for hen-cleaning this morning. Dark clouds and constant rain are not conducive to a party spirit, and there was little evidence of goodwill to all men as we codgers slithered about in our wellies. As ever on a Thursday morning the conversation centred around Prime Minister’s Question Time which usually satisfies our appetite for abuse, proving that it isn’t directed at us.

But even that weekly treat failed to live up to expectations yesterday. Ed declared himself appalled at the proposed Christmas stocking pay award for MPs and Dave agreed with him. Both hinted at plans to take the watchdog Ipsa, created in the wake of the moat houses revelations, to a dark alley and threaten its family. The usual baying mob was strangely silent, the result perhaps of the fact that they are not married to heiresses or high-end lawyers like Dave, Ed or Nick. And when Peter Lilley suggested that the cost be funded by reducing the number of MPs one could have heard a paper-clip drop.

It was of course a trick question. Everyone knew that Dave was hell-bent on introducing a boundaries plan to cut 50 MPs from the present establishment, they also knew that it was Nick that thwarted him in retaliation for his U-turn over Lords reform. But Dave once again showed his ability to spot a trap. It was, he declared, all the fault of the last Labour government. The possibility of a Dave/Ed coalition vanished as quickly as Eric Pickles when the Westminster tuck shop opens.

Of course we all realise that our leaders are not what they seem, not the sincere people’s champions of our first impressions. Those of us who tend to make such snap judgements will have been reminded of the folly of so doing if we watched the coverage of the Nelson Mandela tribute event. Every speaker was accompanied by a seemingly smart geezer providing an interpretation in sign language. In reality he was simply waving his arms about. And judging by the pictures of Dave, Barack and Kinnock’s daughter-in-law fooling around taking ‘selfies’ some of the supposedly mourning celebs were also displaying a false face.

But they at least are harmless fools and Mandela would have enjoyed the funny aspects. Right now there is a far more dangerous false-front merchant to worry about. Jeremy Hunt, the replacement for the hapless Lansley as health secretary, is on face value as sincere and open as any of the Blue Peter presenters that he adores. In reality, as was proved during the Murdoch affair, he is a skilled proponent in the art of deception.

Today he stands accused by 38 Degrees, the national protest giants, of tacking small print to the NHS bill, due to debated on Monday, giving him unchallengeable powers to close hospitals, an activity denied him by the High Court when he attempted to do just that to Lewisham hospital. 38 Degrees, which successfully challenged him then, has spotted the manoeuvre and a visit to its website will show that another massive petition is underway. If you feel, as we do, that such drastic steps should be open to public consultation you would be well advised to add your name. Routine parliamentary debates are poorly attended and MPs need to be made aware of the significance of what they are nodding through.

In the light of evidence that the Stafford Hospital crisis was largely an invention of ministers we would suggest that it is in every family’s interest to keep a close eye on everything that the seemingly transparent health secretary is doing. His previously exposed plan to privatise the BBC is as nothing compared to what he is planning for the NHS. Yesterday a senior hospital consultant told me that the result of the replacement of Primary Care Trusts by so-called commissioning teams is chaos, and the result of the massive ‘efficiency savings’ is far fewer nurses and doctors. His Trust, previously one of the top graded in the country, now has ambulances queuing at A & E, and has breached its 18 week rule for responding to GP referrals.

Deception in the interest of misguided ideology is dangerous enough, but it is compounded by a complete lack of detailed understanding of priorities on the part of the Department of Health and its regulators. This morning we have a perfect example in the shape of a report from the new Care Quality Commission . The headlines tell us that one-third of GP surgeries are failing tests for patient safety and quality. The evidence for this is based on a lack of cleanliness and privacy. Whilst these are important, they are of far less importance than the diagnostic skills of GPs.

They provide a perfect example of the danger of first impressions. As a chairman in the NHS I visited practices regularly. One doctor that I came to know was, on first impressions, scruffy and his surgery had a weary run-down appearance. But when I checked with the consultants to whom he made his referrals I found that his diagnoses were always spot-on. By contrast some other doctors working in prestigious premises frequently missed telling symptoms.

Yes, GPs should be regularly checked out but diagnostic skills and keeping abreast of new clinical developments are the first priority. Any worried patient wants above all else to be assured that he or she are being assessed by an expert. Having the consultation in smart surroundings comes second if you fear the significance of mysterious pain.

The fake interpreter will have done us all a favour if we recognise from this day forth that first impressions should be confined to movie stars!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; ” Governments need enemies to frighten their people with, frightened people being more easy to lead!”…..Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, Nobel Prize for Medicine, 1937.

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Stop the world, we want to get off!

We codgers are determined to enjoy Christmas 2013, even if it kills us. For many years now we have chuntered on about the ones we used to know, times of magic and goodwill to all men. We have contrasted them with what has become a period of stressful debt-accumulation whipped up by a non-stop barrage of advertising which inevitably leads to a sense of anti-climax when December 25th finally dawns.

It is of course a situation entirely of our own making. No one compels us to take part, our sense of a frenzied winter break is down to our own lunacy. If anything this year promises to be even worse, given that retailers see this as a unique opportunity to balance their books at the end of a tough trading year. The wealthy will be even more inclined to celebrate their luck, the rest will take out loans in a desperate bid to brighten their darkness.

We will do neither. We will revert to the old times of presents that we can afford, and a few days of rest and celebration with our families. We will try to wallow in the Christmas story which is, whatever your beliefs, surely the most magical ever told. Somewhere deep within us lies a yearning for a peaceful winter scene in which even the cruellest become kind and goodwill echoes across a frosty air. Fantasy? Maybe, but it is worth a try.

One prerequisite is that we declare the festive period a politics-free zone. The antics of our leaders hardly merit attention at any time, and dwelling on them is hardly likely to assist our resolve to move into a peaceful bubble. This morning we are expected to believe that our MPs very much regret the decision of Ipsa to award them a whopping pay rise, but are powerless to prevent it. Rubbish. If they really felt the need to share the hardship of their constituents they could simply refuse en masse to accept any increase until such times as it appears reasonable in the light of the overall economic climate.

But their real attitude was summed up by leading Conservative Charles Walker who remarked that he has never turned down a pay rise and has no intention of breaking the habit. At least the man is honest.

We must also banish all thought of the privatised utilities. We totally support the idea of competition driving down prices and upping quality of service, but in reality politicians have handed control of services we have to buy to a small number of monopolists working in cahoots to maximise their profits. It is not unreasonable to include BT in their number.

Their latest wheeze is to cut off any customer who happens to be a few days late in paying their bill, without so much as a reminder. BT then offers reconnection and charges £7.50 for the privilege. No provider in a genuinely competitive market would dare to behave like this!

Come to think about it there are many irritants we must ban if Christmas is to once again become a twinkling light in a glaringly mad world. Politicians. press barons, corrupt sportsmen, banks, unethical policemen, mad Jihadists, loan sharks, racists, Nick Clegg, Lansley…the list is a long one.

In fact the truth is dawning. If peaceful sanity and a sense of wonder is to be restored this year we will have to stop discussing, or even thinking about, almost everything that we normally bang on about.

It sounds like a good idea. But already the resolve is crumbling at the edges. Albert spent ages this morning describing the B & Q vouchers he has bought for Mrs Albert, and followed it up with a rant about the latest evidence that Michael Gove is making a “pigs ear” of our schools!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “Governments never learn. Only people learn!”….Milton Friedman Nobel Prize for Economics, 1976.

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Blue lights turning red!

‘Tis the season to be jolly but there was a marked reluctance to follow the old carol’s urging this morning as we codgers cleaned out the hens. Yesterday a friend of Bob in the Midlands suffered what at the time appeared to be a heart attack, and the prompt arrival of blue lights was a welcome sight for his wife. The ambulance set off with blaring sirens and was outside of the nearby A & E department within minutes. And there it stood for over an hour as a sense of panic engulfed her.

It seems that such delays are rapidly becoming the norm, indeed there have been many instances over the past few weeks of delays of up to four hours. It goes without saying that patient’s lives are being put at risk, and the distress that is triggered is the stuff of nightmares. The reason for this disastrous deterioration in emergency services is easily identified. Andrew Lansley was allowed to play theoretical management games with the NHS, and he not only created organisational chaos but imposed £20 billion of ‘efficiency cuts’ at the same time.

The result is that right across the country the number of consultants and nurses in A & E have been slashed and, at peak times, the arrival of more than one ambulance triggers a long queue. Forget political spin and talk of austerity, this is a national disgrace. Our dear leader did fire Lansley but it was too late. Everyone should be concerned at the possibility of being parked awaiting treatment when an emergency strikes. As a nation we should bow our heads in shame for tolerating this, the ultimate failure.

And it seems that there is also cause for shame in other directions. Britain has a proud record of giving to charities which represent hope for people who see no light at the end of their tunnels. Tonight Panorama will reveal that many of our largest fund-raisers are not what we imagine them to be. A former employee at Save the Children reveals that a public condemnation of gas price rises was spiked “bnecause, I was told, I would upset British Gas who were major donors”. Comic Relief, we learn, has invested in funds that bought shares in the alcohol, arms and tobacco industries. And, worst of all, we learn of big salaries and bonuses more in keeping with the banks than organisations that talk of every penny counting.

Many of those who work tirelessly for charities will be feeling disillusioned and cheated. We codgers do our bit but this morning we feel vindicated in supporting small local charities where what happens is exactly what it says on the tin!

Come to think about it almost everything that heightens our sense of injustice relates to cost-cutting. It wouldn’t feel quite so bad if we could believe that so much sacrifice was really leading to the economic miracle described so vividly last week by Gorgeous George Osborne. But a poll out today shows that most families are seeing no improvement, whilst figures from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors show that house prices are set to rise by 35% over the next six years with private rents rising by 39%.

We are, say the pundits, facing the prospect of an entire generation being tenants for life, with taxpayers facing the need to pay billions in housing benefit for workers who can’t afford to pay the rent. Meantime the tax-avoidance industry continues to flourish.

There must be some good news to match this morning’s blue skies but it is hard to find in a trawl of the news media. Insurers and brokers are said to be “burgling” pensioners through excessive fees on retirement plans. Cancer services are said to be a lottery with some areas failing to remotely match the guidelines calling for 10-day urgent appointments. More than 500 eminent leading world authors, including five Nobel prize winners, have called for action to tackle the scale of state surveillance revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Savers are reported to be closing savings accounts at the fastest rate for 40 years, whilst 2.5 million are planning to borrow from PayDay loan companies to heat their homes over Christmas.

Never mind, we have the annual Sportsperson of the Year awards to come at the weekend. Hopefully footballers will be conspicuous by their absence given the emerging evidence that some of them might announce the results of next weeks matches!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “God help us if our sense of fair play is not the strongest of all our feelings!”……Bjornstjerne Bjornson, Nobel Prize for Literature, 1957

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Time for a reality check!

Although no one in our allotments gang is now capable of anything more strenuous than Monopoly, sport continues to play an important part in our lives. We codgers have always believed that games are unique in bringing nations together and in channelling aggression into non-violent action, a belief fully justified by last year’s Olympics. But suddenly we are worried, for their are clear signs that sportsmanship is under threat from corruption, greed, loutishness and cheating.

As we cleaned out the hens this morning we were in shock at the revelations produced by the Sun on Sunday. It seems clear that our belief that British football is, unlike our cycling, incorruptible was ill-judged. A secretly filmed video suggests that betting rings have found willing participants in incident- fixing amongst top football clubs. Suddenly we begin to wonder just how real what we watch week in and week out really is. Unless drastic action is taken there is suddenly a risk that the millions of people who hand over hard-earned cash to watch millionaires kick a ball around may think again. At the very least every player found wanting must be banned for life, there is no time to lose.

In cricket we have already endured the shock of convictions in respect of Test Match players. No one has yet pointed a finger at the England team but the loutish behaviour in the current Ashes series down under does suggest that the standards for which cricket has always been renowned are under stress. Suddenly we find ourselves thinking the unthinkable – how can a talented team have become so inept overnight?

It has all come as a severe embarrassment to we codgers who for so long have compared our sporting heroes with the country’s leaders. But sadly we can rely on them to remind us regularly of their feet of clay. This morning the three party leaders have rushed to tell us that they abhor the idea of MPs enjoying a massive 11 per cent pay rise at a time when so many people are queuing at food banks.

In fairness we do recognise that the award has been made by Ipsa, the new regulatory body created at the time of the expenses scandal. But that is beside the point since the real issue here is the rocketing cost of the legislature. At the time of the election the Coalition pledged to reduce the number of MPs and to cut the House of Lords down to size. Neither has happened.

In fact all parties have continued to appoint cronies and donors to the Lords and the total number of legislators now stands at 1,400, most of whom are little more than overpaid voting fodder.

Ministers constantly lecture us on the merits of the private sector. It is perhaps time they took a leaf from its book. There needs to be a budget target for total MP and Lords costs, and any pay increases should be funded by reduced expenditure. It is no longer good enough for politicians to say do what we tell you, not what we do.

The suggestion that we are all in the mess together is nonsense. And until that is seen to be the case politicians will continue to be despised. They are living in cloud cuckoo land, one in which they imagine that the nation is enthralled by what Osborne and Balls screamed at each other in the House.

Outside of Westminster no one gives a hoot! The time for a reality check has arrived!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “When a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares it is his duty!”…George Bernard Shaw 1925

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Princess Di theories refuse to die!

If our ‘mailbag’ is any indication we codgers are not alone in believing that our troops are being turned into the fall-guys for the fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this mornings news of a long series of human rights investigations into alleged violations in Iraq have heightened our paranoia. As we cleaned out the hens this morning, we began  to wonder if any day now we will learn that the Taliban is to sue our commanders for infringing its human right to cut opponents into small pieces. But maybe it will hold back for fear of slowing down the talks aimed at restoring its right to resume control.

In fact it increasingly appears that the only people on earth to benefit from the wars born of political lies are the politicians. Of course we all hold Tony Blair responsible but we tend to forget that, with the honourable exception of the Lib Dems, almost the enture House of Commons supported his madness. Many of those MPs are still in office and they are about to receive a pay increase of 11 per cent. If it were not for their counterparts on the EU gravy-train we would think them somewhat greedy.

But their avarice pales by comparison with the EU’s foreign diplomatic service which, we learn today, is spending hundreds of millions of pounds on a vast empire of overseas offices staffed by bureaucrats many of whom pocket salaries and benefits totalling more than £150,000 a year. They are part of what is known as the European External Action Service which employs 3,417 staff, whose work duplicates the existing diplomatic service operated by member states.

In reality this is but the first step along the road to Brussels assuming control of foreign policy. But that is only the beginning of the next stage of the growing Superstate. RAF planes and other military assets are shortly to be handed over to European Union countries under plans for a “Euro Army”. Many Conservatives fear that our dear leader is on the verge of committing Britain to deeper military involvement with the EU and they fear that the step will be an irreversible one. They are probably right, the text issued from Brussels yesterday makes clear that member states must “improve the availability of required civilian and military capabilities”.

Bernard Jenkins, the chairman of the Commons public administration committee, says that “any Tory prime minister should be wholely opposed to what is clearly intended. To sign the UK up to this programme is not just another blow to the UK’s beleaguered defence industries but is another step towards a euro army”. Perhaps he should have a word with Nick Clegg?

But all this was somewhat overshadowed this morning when we learned of the launch of yet another police inquiry into claims that Princess Diana was murdered by an SAS hit squad. We knew that Scotland Yard had checked out claims published by Soldier N, a former Special Forces sniper. Now a new French probe is to be led by Sabine Kheris, a respected judge who has overseen many high-profile cases with international and political links. In other words the French are taking seriously the new allegations of blinding lights being shone into driver Henri Paul’s eyes.

We codgers have never believed the endless conspiracy chatter. But like an undiagnosed pain it goes on and on and we begin to worry. The implications for the establishment are too horrendous to contemplate and we prefer not to even consider it. But sometimes long-term pain cannot be simply wished away!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; ” Building democracy as an imposition from abroad is a form of imperialism!”….Lech Walesa Nobel Peace Prize, 1983.

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Sentence on Sgt Blackman is a terrible betrayal!

Some readers have told me that their interest in the England cricket team is akin to their interest in Eric Pickle’s underpants, so I will refrain from chapter and verse on all that was said as we codgers cleaned out the hens this morning. Suffice to say that the allotments version of the Barmy Army is in shock. For many weeks we have been regaled with assurances that Alastair Cook et al merely had to turn up down under to be guaranteed the easiest of victories against “the worst Australian side in living memory”. Now they are facing their second thrashing and my pals are remarking that they had failed to take in account the fact that our batsmen do not like it up ’em!

But such trivia was forgotten by the time we retired to our ‘hut’ for a brew. We have a number of ex-servicemen amongst us, and for some time they have been very angry at what they see as armchair politicians sending our young men and women to fight in an unwinnable war triggered by a Prime Minister prepared to lie in pursuit of personal glory. This has been compounded by inadequate manpower levels and equipment plus, recently, the issuing of redundancy notices timed to rob veterans of their pension entitlement.

All that pent up rage has exploded at the news of the sentence handed down to Sgt Alexander Blackman, the Marine who killed a badly wounded Taliban insurgent. No one condones what he did but my pals who, unlike posing ministers, have experienced at first hand the experience of living with death in battle, believe passionately that the judgement failed to take account of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the tragic event.

And they are not alone. A former commander of British troops in Afghanistan has questioned the sentence – life in prison with a minimum of 10 years – saying that the offence was not comparable to murders at home. He is surely right.

The military court heard that superiors considered Blackman a “quality act” who had been in line for promotion to company sergeant major. His commanding officer, LtCol Simon Chapman, said he was “a caring and devoted family man” who had a bright future, but like many of his fellow soldiers he was under enormous strain. Parts of their comrades had been hung in trees in order to goad the troops and there was the knowledge that if one of them was captured by the Taliban, they would meet a horrible end, possibly being “skinned alive and beheaded”. The outnumbered marines had become mentally drained during their “hellish” tour of Helmand province at the time of the incident.

A psychiatrist concluded that Blackman had suffered fatigue, poor sleep, grief from the recent death of his father and “the feeling, though unspoken, of paranoia that he was there to be shot at every time he went out on patrol, an event that was repeated continually”.

Of course every one of us sitting in our armchairs automatically shuddered at the fact that a smart member of our armed firces had failed to honour the Geneva Convention. But the reality was different. An outnumbered, isolated and exhausted team was attempting to contain an invisible enemy which rejoiced in atrocities. Throw in the knowledge that the authorities were preparing to negotiate with the leadership of the murderous madmen and you have the inevitability that someone will crack.

Col Richard Kemp, a former commander in Afghanistan, said that this situation is not comparable with a domestic murder. “We are talking about a very different situation. The Government sent Blackman out to Afghanistan and put him in a situation where he was under immense pressure”, he said yesterday. “More weight should have been given by the court for his mitigation, for the immense strain he was under”.

Amen to that. But given the disgraceful disregard for the welfare of our troops it will be of little surprise if no concern is shown in Whitehall. David Cameron, we are told, has taken delivery of a stock of Christmas cards featuring a picture of his family. Perhaps he should sent one to the family of Sgt Blackman.

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “We must learn to live together as brothers, or we shall perish together as fools!”….Martin Luther King, Nobel Peace Award, 1964

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The world has lost its greatest role model!

Had yesterday ended at the time we locked up the hens this morning’s conversation on the allotments would undoubtedly have focussed on the storms that drove thousands from their homes, and the latest nonsense poured forth from our so-called political leaders. But neither earned attention as we absorbed the news of the passing of a man we never met yet who inspired us more than any other has ever done.

Some time ago we reflected on the most remarkable story we had ever read. The Long Walk to Freedom deserves to become the modern Bible, the life story of a unique man, one who never wavered in his fight for justice, someone who emerged from an incarceration that would have broken most men and embittered the rest. Yet when he was eventually released his every action was aimed solely at forgiveness and a determination to unite all the people of South Africa. The past was irrelevant, all men prepared to come together to create a better society were, in his eyes, truly equal.

Nelson Mandela provided a guiding light not only for his beloved South Africa but for the world at large. At a time like this it is tempting to imagine how different the world would be if every leader was cast in the same mould of honesty, modesty and love of his fellow beings. He had no desire for fancy titles or status symbols, and no time for madmen intent on destroying others in the name of imaginary Gods. No one ever doubted his word or questioned his motives, if Christ ever walked this earth again he did it through this man. Such a remark applied to any other leader would be blasphemy.

I worked in South Africa when apartheid was at its peak. Viewed close up it was even more appalling than its reputation. In the factory black workers were obliged to use segregated entries and toilets. Outside of it they were treated as inferior beings by strutting bigots and the sort of violent degradation and oppression that only the politics of the extreme right can produce. I used to imagine that the day of reckoning would come for these repulsive ‘masters’, but I reckoned without a man who believed in the power of love.

Our record as leaders of a vast empire is in many ways a shameful one, but in the Britain of today we are spared the presence of the sub-human creatures that for so long stained the reputation of South Africa. But there are still lessons to be learned from the life of Nelson Mandela.

Of course there will always be political debate, but does it really need to accompanied by venom. There will always be competition at the top but does it really have to be based on lies and deception? Does leadership really need to involve always blaming someone else? Should ideology really justify causing undue suffering to the vulnerable and the further enrichment of the wealthy and powerful? Some will describe such questions as socialist propaganda yet Nelson Mandela achieved miracles of leadership by simple virtue, compassion and unquestionable integrity.

We are saying goodbye to a remarkable human being. Centuries from now historians will speak of him and ask why none of those who on December 5th 2013 rushed to pay tribute to him felt unable to follow his examples. They will reflect that had they done so the day would have proved to be a turning point in the history of man!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; “The time for the healing if the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us!” ……Nelson Mandela (Inaugural Address as President of South Africa, 10th May 1994)

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Do you love your country? Stupid question!

The howling gale of which we were warned a few weeks ago arrived this morning. Perhaps the former British Rail controllers are in control in the weather department up yonder. Either way we arrived at the allotments to find a scene of total devastation. As we searched the surrounding area for missing roof panels, we reflected ruefully on this morning’s hoo-hah about people eventually having to work until their three score year and ten. We eighty plus codgers find it hard to muster sympathy.

In reality today’s ‘announcement’ by Gorgeous George Osborne is what Basil Fawlty liked to call a statement of the bleedin’ obvious. Given increasing longevity it is impossible to maintain the present retirement age. To do so would be a guarantee that the state pension system would collapse. The number of pensioners would eventually exceed the number of contributors. Any actuary could have explained this without fear of contradiction, but the moment that a politician chooses to deliver the lecture all hell is let loose, particularly since the Westminster crowd have a built in well-paid rest home in the shape of the House of Lords. And did you know that whilst a member of the armed forces has to serve 20 years to earn a 50 per cent pension, our hard-working parliamentarians receive 100 per cent after just one term?

But today provides a reminder that the real power wihin the Colaition lies not with our dear leader, who is busy playing table tennis with the proposed saviours of HS2, but with the Chancellor. When I toured a hospital with David Cameron I quickly realised that he lacks the intellect to be a second Machiavelli. Osborne is another matter, a master of political intrigue and persuasion.

When today he talks of saving £500 billion over the next 50 years he is underlining the importance of re-electing the Conservative Party, the only people on earth capable of long-term planning. He knows full well that any plan for so long a period is not worth the paper it is printed on. Many things can happen and nothing is predictable over such a span, bar the fact that Sunderland will not win the Premiership.

It was the manipulative behaviour of such as he that led to a raising of our ancient eyebrows when Keith Vaz, the magisterial leader of the parliamentary home affairs select committee, asked Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger if he loved his country. Whether his motive was intended to menace or support the editor’s stance over the publication of the Edward Snowden leaks was unclear but either way it was a creepy, stupid question.

No one can love everything about something as complex and contradictory as Britain. Patriotism is often subverted and manipulated by those with wealth and power. Loving your country, in their book, means being subservient to the Establishment. Make the ruling class and the country interchangeable concepts, then those challenging the powerful can simply be swept aside as near-treasonous fifth columnists. To be open and honest in debate with those who disagree with the elite means legitimising their criticisms. Far easier to discredit them instead, as those who despise the nation and whose motives are to do it harm.

Questionning patriotism is a long-standing technique to crush dissent. Backed by its right-wing masters the Daily Mail recently smeared the socialist Ralph Miliband as “the man who hated Britain”. The absurdity of a newspaper that backed Hitler’s genocidal regime smearing a Jewish immigrant who fought the Nazis was clear, but of greater interest was the ‘evidence’ produced. The Mail deputy editor reeled off a list of “great British institutions that the left-wing academic had criticised; the Royal Family, the Church, the military leaders, our ‘great newspapers’.

Does anyone seriously believe that anyone daring to question such is a traitor? Presumably the thing that Miliband senior loved most about Britain was our hard-won freedom of expression.

It is equally easy to reel off “great British institutions” that those on the right froth about. Like the NHS, the BBC, the public sector and the trades unions. They may be right, they may be wrong, but to label them unpatriotic is absurd.

In our different ways most of us, deep down, love our country. But whatever Britain is, it is certainly not synonymous with those who rule it. And those who attempt to hold on to power by describing dissenters as un-British need to be faced down. We owe it to our British ancestors who, in the teeth of other privileged and often tyrannical Brits, built this democracy, at such a cost and with such sacrifice.

We codgers deplore today’s breed of politicians, their lack of compassion and their constant attempt to distort the truth. That doesn’t mean that we have no love for our country!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; ” The human worker will go the way of the horse!”…Wassily Leontief Nobel Prize ECONOMICS 1973.

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