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Remembering an assassination

Sixty years ago today, President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. I had yet to be born, but the occasion of the anniversary brings to mind my visit to Dallas five years ago.

I wrote at the time about how my mental picture of the area in which the assassination occurred differed markedly from reality, despite having seen it on screen countless times. I think about that from time to time, especially in those disorientating moments when my perception of a situation suddenly shifts.

I also often find myself thinking about the memorial, and in particular, how the emptiness and absence was the thing that made it so remarkably effective. A blank space can be more powerful than words. Silence can be more powerful than speech.

In my post at the time, I also wrote:

Would anybody really want such a focus on their death as opposed to their life? Why would anyone want to be remembered as the victim of their own murder, as opposed to being remembered for their lifetime of achievements?

And that, perhaps, is the strongest sentiment I associate with this anniversary. I think my loved ones know that I don’t mind what happens to me after I die, and that they should do whatever brings them the most comfort. What with being dead and all, I won’t really mind. But I have a strong aversion to being remembered for my death, or my death being marked in preference to my life.

This makes this post a bit hypocritical, I realise, but I hope that no one marks the 60th anniversary of my death. I mean, it’s hardly a problem I expect to have, I’m sure I’ll be long-forgotten. But I’d much rather be remembered in the context of my life than of my death.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Post-a-day 2023, , .

Who’s counting?

In December 2019, the Conservative Party won the UK General Election with a minority of the vote: 43.6% of voters supported them or—if you prefer—29.3% of the electorate.

In the former Home Secretary’s second letter of resignation from that position, published yesterday, she claimed:

I have always striven to give voice to the quiet majority that supported us in 2019.

The majority—56.4% of voters—supported candidates other than Conservatives.

Perhaps political maths isn’t Braverman’s strong suit.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, Post-a-day 2023, .

All change, please

Forty-one days ago, Rishi Sunak declared in his party conference speech:

Politics doesn’t work the way it should. We’ve had thirty years of a political system which incentivises the easy decision, not the right one. Thirty years of vested interests standing in the way of change. Thirty years of rhetorical ambition which achieves little more than a short-term headline.

You either think this country needs to change or you don’t.

Yesterday, the man who led the Conservative Party for more than a third of those thirty failing years was appointed by Sunak as our Foreign Secretary.

It seems that Sunak is placing himself in the ‘don’t’ category.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, Post-a-day 2023, , .

United in befuddlement

Just occasionally, a line in a newspaper editorial captures something so succinctly that I can’t help but smile. This line about Suella Braverman, from Clare Morrison in The Independent this weekend, is a great example:

She somehow managed to get the entirety of Northern Ireland, regardless of background, to come together and say in one voice: “What is she going on about?”

Surely we’ll have a new Home Secretary by this time next week.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

Human failings

Three news stories have played on my mind recently:

All three of these stories are similar: they are presented as though the problem is with computers when it is actually with management. In all three cases, managers knew about concerns with the computer systems, yet the organisations involved did not take timely corrective action.

I don’t know the inside story behind any of these incidents, but I’m willing to bet that all involved managers saying something like ‘I’m not good with computers’—and failing to engage as a result. In some organisations, it’s a daily occurrence to hear senior leaders say things like, ‘Ooh, I’m not sure how to share my slides; is it working?’ That discomfort writ large means that they subject IT processes to less scrutiny.1

The irony is that the consequences of all three failings were in the real world, not inside a computer. In all three cases, it seems likely that a reasonable and non-technical workaround would have been to stop using the computer system until it was fixed. The real-life resolution required no knowledge of how the systems worked.

One can’t imagine the same managerial non-response to a problem if, say, the underlying issue was secretaries who weren’t bothering to type letters or an accountancy team consistently failing to produce reports.

And therein lies the issue. Even in the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is still acceptable in many organisations for senior leaders to freeze up over any problem involving computers. Nobody expects them to be IT experts, but they ought to be experts in leadership and management and not simply give up when the situation involves a computer.

The greater development of artificial intelligence means that ever more processes will be completed in an automated fashion in the coming years. This will result in progressively less oversight of day-to-day work within organisations whose senior staff seize up over this stuff. For them, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

  1. Unfamiliarity with the tools required for daily work is, in itself, deeply problematic. It ought to be no more acceptable to playfully boast about one’s lack of ability to use basic computer functions than to boast about being unable to chair a meeting or manage people. It’s your job!

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Post-a-day 2023, Technology.

Mysterious ways

Sixteen years ago, Nadine Dorries—who has a book out today—told the world:

I am not an MP for any reason other than because God wants me to be. I constantly try to do what Jesus would do.

I’m an atheist and therefore ill-placed to comment on whether Jesus would publish a book containing ‘many colourful claims and lurid allegations about figures cloaked in anonymity.’

I wouldn’t like to speculate on whether Jesus would resign from Parliament after being denied a peerage.

The Bible is full of violence; it’s not for me to say whether Jesus would threaten to ‘nail your balls to the floor using your own front teeth’.

Jesus lived in less enlightened times, so we shouldn’t speculate on whether he’d have blocked cross-party talks to establish mental health support for NHS staff during the pandemic.

Perhaps Dorries explores the link between her faith and her actions in her new book. I’m certain that I won’t find out either way.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, .


Rishi Sunak claimed yesterday:

This King’s Speech delivers change. Change in our economy. Change in our society. Change in our communities.

It doesn’t, though, does it?

The only thing ‘delivered’ was a speech, once in a ceremonial pouch and once verbally from a throne.

There was precisely no difference in our economy, society or communities after the speech compared to before it. We can argue all day about whether the speech discussed meaningful change in those areas, but nobody—nobody—can credibly claim that it delivered any change whatsoever.

Rishi Sunak appears to use ‘deliver’ as a synonym for ‘talk about.’

Once this is understood, a whole load of puzzling pronouncements suddenly make sense. Take this from the Government’s briefing on the King’s speech:

Integrity, professionalism, accountability. That’s what I promised when I stood on the steps of Downing Street just over a year ago – and that’s what we have delivered.

Read ‘talked about’ for ‘delivered’, and this is a far less disorienting description. It’s a similar story for this section of his recent conference speech:

I have seen up close the quality of our Armed Forces and intelligence services. Truly, the finest in the world. The debt of gratitude we owe them is why we are making this the best place to be a veteran.  I know we will deliver because we have a minister for veterans affairs sitting in Cabinet.

We ought to parse this as ‘I know we will talk about this because I’ve appointed someone to talk about it.’

It’s maybe churlish to point out that the Government’s own guidance says that the word ‘deliver’ ought to be avoided as insufficiently clear:

Use ‘make’, ‘create’, ‘provide’ or a more specific term (pizzas, post and services are delivered – not abstract concepts like improvements)

But at least the Prime Minister has helped us understand his idiosyncratic use of the word.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, Post-a-day 2023, .

Bold new timidity

It’s the State Opening of Parliament today.

Wendy and I have been speculating for weeks on who might lead the BBC’s television coverage in the absence of Huw Edwards—there’s never a dull moment in our house. We’d guessed Kirsty Young, but the job has gone to Wheel of Fortune and radio phone-in host Nicky Campbell.

It may turn out to be today’s boldest decision. Rishi Sunak appears to be pursuing a slightly weird strategy of promising boldness while delivering abject timidity. His bold new plan for HS2 was not to build half of it. His conference ‘rabbit’ was to ask Parliament to have a little think about banning smoking, but not to ask his MPs to actually vote for it. His solution to overcrowded prisons is not to reform criminal justice nor build more cells, but to rent some rooms overseas. His approach to meeting targets on net zero is to water them down. He’s exercised about tinkering with the guidance for local Councils on speed limits. The King’s Speech will announce a bill to ban some leaseholds, but not the tricky ones such as flats.

I’m no fan of the majority of policies pursued by this Government, not of its approach to governing, so I ought to be thrilled that Sunak has set his sights so low. Yet the overriding impression is of bathetic smallness and inadequacy.

Surely the country can do better than this?

According to YouGov, 77% of adults in Great Britain think Sunak’s government has achieved ‘not very much’ or ‘not much at all.’ It doesn’t feel like this approach is a great way to tackle that perception.

The picture at the top is my own from a few years ago. I like the unusual opportunity to see Parliament with all the ugly security barriers removed during the State Opening. I also used it in 2014 for a post reflecting on the legislative harm associated with the State Opening.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

Calmness, resource and power

There’s a line in Cecil Woodham-Smith’s biography of Florence Nightingale that I was reminded of this morning:

Her calmness, her resource, her power to take action raised her to the position of a goddess.

Woodham-Smith writes this in his account of Nightingale’s time in a field hospital during the Crimean War. ‘Resource’ refers to her personal qualities, especially her formidable intelligence and work ethic. ‘Power’ refers to both the senior position to which she’d effectively had herself appointed and the soft power and influence she had built up.

The ‘calmness’ in this triad stands out to me. Woodham-Smith also quotes a letter which reflects on Nightingale’s character:

She has attained a most wonderful calm. No irritation of temper, no hurry or confusion of manner ever appears for a moment.

Watching the COVID inquiry in recent days, it strikes me that ‘calmness’ was under-appreciated as a necessary attribute in government. Indeed, I can’t think of any leader at that time who possessed calmness, resource and power: the few with the first two rarely seem to have been granted the third.

I, too, could learn from Nightingale’s example. When I reflect on my attempts to demonstrate ‘calmness’ in my professional life during COVID, two examples spring to mind.

On one occasion, an organisation’s internal plan was missing a critical aspect. I distinctly remember feeling a sense of almost zen-like calm settling over me as I repeatedly attempted to get the issue recognised and rectified on a national teleconference. I must have asked the same question four or five times in succession, preceded by statements like ‘I’m very sorry, but I don’t think you’d quite answered my question’. It worked.

On a different occasion, I felt that a senior leader of an organisation was being dismissive of wellbeing concerns raised by staff members. This pushed my buttons, and I remember feeling my anger swell. I contributed politely, though firmly. However, this didn’t work: my contribution wasn’t well articulated, and I think the point was missed.

The latter experience taught me to follow Florence Nightingale. Speaking in anger is rarely as effective as communicating calmly, with ‘no irritation of temper, no hurry or confusion of manner’.

I should learn to take a breath.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Post-a-day 2023, , .

The shit list 2023

The latest issue of The New European includes ‘the shit list 2023,’ described as ‘fifty people the UK could definitely do without.’

I read this on publication a week or so ago, and I’ve felt a little discomforted by it ever since. It hasn’t been easy to figure out exactly why I dislike it so much: after all, it’s surely just a bit of fun.

Yet, the more I think about it, the more it feels like there’s a streak of nastiness. Saying that the UK could ‘do without’ someone doesn’t feel a million miles from saying that people should ‘fuck off back to France.’

It also doesn’t help that in a listicle of this type, the justifications for inclusion are necessarily brief. One inclusion is justified with these two sentences:

Embodies pretty much everything that’s wrong with modern Britain. If anyone knows of a good reason for this 30-year-old to be in the Lords on £342 a day for life, please email us.

I’m confident it isn’t the intention, but this reads as awfully ageist.

I recognise the irony of raising this in an essentially critical blog post, but it would be lovely to see less of this sort of thing across the board. We should engage with issues, not people, and find things to celebrate rather than making criticism the focus. A little positivity goes a long way, especially when it comes to changing people’s minds.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Post-a-day 2023, .

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