Category Archives: Responsibilities

Did you make your mark? And how?

I haven’t had much to say of late, but I have been listening.
That’s partly because I’ve been ill.
I was listening and trying to make sense of the cacophony of ideas and comment that filled cyberspace, the radio waves, television and our newspapers as we approached the UK’s general election.Big Ben
Believe me, it was hard. So much noise and so little clarity. With only a week or so to go, no one seemed to be able to predict the outcome.
Too close for comfort
Now it’s all over bar the shouting, at least until September, when The Labour Party has its conference and there’ll be plenty of noise about then.
That’s not so surprising when you think that, for years, it’s been nigh-on impossible to slip a cigarette paper between the two major parties’ policies or their leaders, whoever they may be.
Both leaders banged on before the election about reducing the budget deficit, blaming each other for its existence and the way it was handled. Yet neither seemed to have a credible solution.
Each one swore blind the NHS was safe in their hands while acknowledging it needs reform. But who knows where they might take it? Less than a month later it was deemed to be in trouble again.
And they both had our ageing population’s welfare and our children’s education right at the heart of their programmes. Where is it now?
“Vote for us from cradle to grave”, but what would we get?
Even if you turned to the minority parties, there wasn’t much on offer.
The Greens’ ideas seemed attractive, until you recalled their leader’s February “brain fade” and asked yourself if they’d be able to keep a grip on their day-to-day thinking, let alone the economy.
UKIP didn’t fare too well, unless you were a rabid anti-immigrationist or a simple-minded little Englander.
As for the Liberal Democrats, they seem to have completely lost their way since they were blinded by the bright lights of so-called power sharing as they went into coalition with the Conservatives. Their leader quit almost before he’d lost his seat.
Damaged goods
Aside from their policies, there was also the question of morality or, to be kinder, the whether of whether or not any of our currently serving MPs are fit for purpose.
Even now it’s hard to forget, and even harder to forgive, the business of MPs’ expenses. The infamous duck house enjoys legendary status. The second homes are an indelible memory.
More recently and nearer the election, we had accusations levelled at both Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw that they were willing to accept cash in hand in exchange for a word in various MPs’ ears.
Even the church, which delivered such a well-reasoned critique on the state of British politics early in the year, was accused of hypocrisy for demanding an increase in the minimum wage when it currently paid some of its people less than that.
And then there was the government’s relationship with big business. What were we to make of the half-Nelson administered – and still administered – by some of the huge corporations whose influence paralyses the politicians’ ability to effect change in almost any walk of life?
Could we, in short, have confidence in anyone or any party that entreated us for our vote?
The radical alternative
I don’t profess to have an absolute answer to any of your questions, but I do have a suggestion.
Between now and the next general election let’s try to get something on the ballot paper that allows us to express ourselves properly, rather than having to vote in a way that leaves us uncomfortable just because we’re trying to keep someone out, rather than vote as we feel.
I didn’t vote (because I was stuck in the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital, too late to register for a postal vote, and too ill to be allowed out to the polling station).
But had I been able to vote I probably would have spoiled my paper by writing something like NONE OF THE ABOVE ARE SUITABLE across it.
It would then have gone into the pile marked “Spoiled papers” and been forgotten.
Let’s, next time, have a place where you can put a tick next to NO CONFIDENCE.
That way we all be able to vote as we feel, not as we’re expected to.

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What choice for the UK’s floating voter?

One hundred days to go and counting.
It’s unlikely that, when election day dawns and the real counting begins, there’ll be a hundred names on your ballot paper. But the way things are going, it wouldn’t surprise me if there were.
And how then will the floating voter vote? Faced with so much choice, with the old political certainties sundering and political dissent gaining traction, what can he or she do to prevent his or her vote sinking without trace?
The negative vote
Yesterday morning I heard a man telling the world (or at least Radio 4 listeners) that, after voting for one or another of the major parties since the day he could vote at all, he’s planning to make his mark for UKIP.
He’s doing so because, he says, the major parties are now all the same as each other. When they get into power, they spend two or three years undoing what their predecessors have done and then promise things they ultimately can’t deliver.
So this time round he’s going to vote UKIP; to cast what even he admits is a protest vote.
Why must he be left with such a negative choice?
Probably because the only alternatives are to reject the election altogether and not vote at all, or to spoil his ballot paper. Which means that his ‘vote’, along with thousands of others, would simply drown in an ocean of spoiled papers.
What a waste. Especially when there could be an intelligent alternative.
The No Confidence vote
If there was a space on the ballot paper where voters could make a mark against No Confidence, our man would have a clear way of expressing his current dissatisfaction.
What’s more, at a time when a great deal has been said about the accountability of politicians, his vote would have clear and identifiable count-ability.
It could be totted up with those of likeminded folk and declared as an accurate percentage of the nation’s preference.
As a result, the politicians would know beyond all reasonable doubt that, let’s say, 56% of the population had no confidence in any of their parties, their policies or their candidates.
And that might wake them up; get them to engage with the people. Thumbs Up 2a
My hope is that, by giving people a sensible positive choice, they would be encouraged to take part in what will be a very important election.
For me, the choice should be either vote with confidence for whoever you have confidence in, or vote No Confidence.
Whatever the outcome, we would at least know who’d voted for what. And the politicians would know where the people’s confidence lay.

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Making democracy work

It’s been Democracy Day today and, quite properly, we’ve heard a lot about the way we vote and what we vote for.
All the discussions and debates I’ve heard have made sense.
I have to say, it would have been a shame if they hadn’t. We are, after all, a civilised society and democracy is a civilised way of choosing our governments.
Major points
There are two major points that have stuck with me throughout the day.
The first is that politicians of all parties should offer us clearly defined, coherent policies that they then adhere to.
The second is that the increasing professionalisation and splintering of politics means it’s inevitable we’ll be offered a plethora of parties to choose from – many of them with no experience of government – when we get to the polling booth. Ballot Paper Cross 1
Like children in a sweet shop, we’ll be faced with a bewildering array of tempting goodies, all of them enticing but none of them guaranteed to do us any good.
Indeed, some of them may even do us serous harm.
Sharper cures
Faced with such a wide choice, and increasingly dubious about the worth of anything we’re offered, it’s little wonder people are turning away from mainstream politics.
Rather than suffer a never-ending diet of sugar-coated placebos prescribed by smart-suited spin doctors, some of us are turning to sharper cures for our current ills.
Protest has become rife. Revolution is on the rise. The clamour to be heard is mounting.
For some of us, the question now is where to turn for the kind of government we crave; fair, open, honest, honourable and humane policies that provide a solid foundation for a sound society.
True, most of the parties offer a version of this.
The disappointment for many of us is that few, if any, deliver on their promises, which leaves us disillusioned.
The sour choice
As a result, fewer and fewer of us even bother to vote.
We don’t go to the sweet shop because what’s on offer makes us sick.
Even if we did go, we’re not really able adopt a suck-it-and-see approach because, instead of giving us a second choice immediately, the current parliamentary system saddles us with a government we can’t change for five years.
So, if we are feeling sour-faced and militant enough, we trot along to the polling station and spoil our ballot papers by writing something rude across them, which makes us feel better.
The savoury alternative
The tragedy of this approach is that our votes are disregarded completely; written off as “spoiled papers” and never properly accounted for.
It’s my belief there could be an alternative for those of us who want to vote responsibly. Ballot Paper Cross 2
We should be given a box on the ballot paper where we can put a cross, not against a name or a party, but against No Confidence.
In this way, we would be able to voice our disappointment – even our disillusionment – without running the risk of our vote being, quite literally, consigned to the dustbin of history.
Moreover, all our No Confidence votes could be counted, thus sending a clear message to the politicians that – if they want to win our votes – they must give us something we can have confidence in and therefore vote for.
It’s not rocket science. It’s just democracy at work.

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Vote, they say. But how?

Hardly a day goes by these days without us being asked or told how to vote for some cause or another.

Last month, the residents of Scotland were asked: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” To many people’s surprise, and many others’ disappointment, they turned out in force to narrowly vote “No”.

Last week, the people of Clacton were asked to vote for a new Member of Parliament, their previously incumbent Member having defected to the UK Independence Party. The original Member got his job back, albeit under a different banner.

The other day I was asked to vote for Time Out magazine’s awards for the best best local restaurants, cafés, pubs and shops in London.

And so it goes on. We are asked to vote on anything, from the best of an obscure category to the worst of some other mysterious grouping.

As for being told how to vote politically, even former Sex Pistol, Johnny Rotten, is in on the act! He believes we should all vote, no matter how apathetic we may be about British politics. “Stand up and be counted”, he says.”Make your voice heard.”

And I agree. We should all vote.

The trouble is, many of us either don’t know who to vote for, or see the whole process as a waste of time because none of the parties, or their candidates, offer anything we can relate to.

Much of this apathy is, no doubt, due to our disillusionment with Parliament and our MPs. The expenses scandal clearly undermined people’s trust in the establishment. The differences between the parties’ policies are so slim it’s impossible to slip a cigarette paper between them. The all-too-frequent bouts of incompetence do nothing for our confidence.

As a result, many of us see politics as a waste of time and don’t bother to vote at all. Which, as Johnny Rotten would no doubt agree, is a crying shame.

A new alternative

I believe voting in Britain should be compulsory.

“Pretty radical”, I hear you say.

Well, maybe. But look at it this way.

If we were all legally obliged to vote, we might all pay more attention to what’s on offer and, instead of abdicating our responsibilities for the way our society is governed, we might actually engage with politics more positively.

Some of us, of course, will never want to vote for any political party or movement.

At present, if that’s how we think, we can always go to the polling station and write whatever we choose all over the ballot paper. “None of these candidates are suitable” or “Bollocks!” or “I’d rather go to a hen party than vote for one of these dogs” are all candidates for this style of voting.

But this is not very productive.

Under the present system, the spoiled papers are set aside and described as such: “Spoiled Ballot Papers”. They’re not counted. No one knows how many there are. They’re just a pile of waste paper and a waste of time.

The confidence trick

My suggestion is that, as well as being obliged to vote, we’re offered a space on the ballot paper where we can put a cross against “No Confidence”.

This way, we could express our disaffection. All the “No Confidence” votes would be counted, just as if they were votes for an accredited political party, and the politicians would know exactly how many people, nationwide, had given Parliament the thumbs down.

As a result, people like David Cameron and George Osborne, David Milliband and Nick Clegg, will know beyond all reasonable doubt that XX% of the population have no confidence in any of them.

It’s my belief that this will make them think.

At the present time, they don’t have to. They can simply brush aside all the spoiled papers by telling themselves that people who do that kind of thing don’t matter. “Loonies”, as David Cameron might describe them.

But, faced with the certain knowledge that a percentage of the population – which could be as high as 50% or even 60% – were actively saying “We have no confidence in any of you”, the folk in the Westminster village would have to pay attention. They would have to ask themselves: “What are we doing wrong?”

Doing the right thing

Making voting compulsory and offering people a chance to express “No Confidence” is the right way forward.

It will make people understand that we all have a responsibility for our society and how it’s governed. It will give us all a chance to express what we feel about politics, just as it will continue to give us the opportunity to support the candidates and parties we favour.

And it will ensure a properly representative turnout out major elections.

That must be better than living in a country governed by people who sometimes represent fewer than 30% of the population.

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Is the search for civilisation becoming a lost cause?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on a project that’s caused me to look up the exact meaning of a variety of words.

Over the same time – and probably for even for longer – I’ve become aware of the number of doomsters who would have us believe society is going to hell in a handcart.

As a result, it occurred to me to check out the real meaning of ‘civilise’ and its partner, ‘civilisation’, and to wonder if – leave aside the doomsters – we really might have lost our way.

Not the meaning of life

My battered Chambers tells me ‘civilise’ means: “to reclaim from barbarism : to instruct in arts and refinements”. And that ‘civilisation’ means: “state of being civilised : culture : cultural condition or complex”.

Now I’m no expert, but it does seem to me that, for centuries, mankind has been trying to ‘civilise’ almost every aspect of what we’ve come to know as society: our way of life, our habitat, our behaviour, our environment, our laws and much more have all been subject to civilising forces.

And yet, when I look around – were you to look around – it’s hard not to conclude that we still have a long way to go before we can say we have reclaimed the world from barbarism.

True, we don’t still wear animal skins or live in caves. Well, not many of us do.

We are generally polite towards one another. Well, most of us are.

We are, by and large, mindful of our environment. I think.

And our laws do have the effect of controlling the wilder elements of society. Well, most of them.

But couldn’t we do more?

The search goes on

I’m not advocating a society in which everyone is so well behaved, so well housed, so well fed, so well dressed and so polite to each other that ugliness, non-conformity, eccentricity and individualism is never found anywhere.

That would be akin to living in a custard coloured world, with nothing to eat but custard and nothing to wear but custard-yellow clothes.

I’m sure no one wants that.

But wouldn’t it be nice to see a little more progress towards civilisation?

A little more grace and dignity here and there?

Not quite so much noise. Not quite so much of the isolationism borne of headphones and mobile phones and a little more of the interactive behaviour that’s often associated with more “civilised” times.

I’d like to think the search goes on, and that you’ll want to be a part of it.

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Remember this Obama speech

Barack Obama was a stand-out hit at Tuesday’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela.

Even sitting here in my study in London’s Earls Court, watching events on my Mac, I could feel the warmth and affection in the Soweto crowd’s welcoming cheer.

And, when he spoke, I could hear that he returned their emotion.

He asked us to remember Nelson Mandela as “a giant of history”, and thanked the people of South Africa for “sharing Nelson Mandela with us”.

Now, I wonder, how many of us will remember Barack Obama.

A man for his time

He has, for me, been a man both for and of his time.

He made history by becoming the first African American President of the Union.

But history will record that, as President of the Union, he failed to achieve his prime ambitions.

And remember, he cannot be a third term President, so he has no third chance for a second tilt at history.

Nevertheless, if we are wise, we will remember his words today.

Especially we should remember this passage from his address at Soweto:-

“There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.”

No easy answers

Obama went on to say that the questions we face today have no easy answers.

But, he said, “South Africa shows us we can change”, and that we can choose to live in a world “defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes”.

We must hope that, while Mandela’s legacy will surely be remembered, Obama’s words on this celebratory occasion will also be recalled long after he has left the White House and his people have chosen another President of their Union.

We should remember what he said. And the man who said it.

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Which United should we support?

For many people the answer is simple. It’s Manchester United.

Hungry for an identity that gives them sporting bragging rights, they want to align themselves with what they see as the most successful football club in the world.

Others may choose Newcastle United, Dundee United, or even Sheffield United, in the hope that – like their Manchester counterparts – they, too, will be able to walk tall, knowing their club is supremely successful.

For the politicians and leaders of the Western world, the choice is different. And maybe not so easy.

Just now, with their embroilment in Syria’s affairs – and none can fail to be embroiled, if only at a debating level – it’s either the United Nations or the United States of America.

On the one hand, we have an organisation whose stated purpose is to “maintain international peace and security” and – to that end – to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace”.

On the other we have the most politically and militarily powerful nation in the Western world.

We have an organisation that seems to have been cast as the world’s policeman and a nation that seems to want that role for itself.

We have a choice between what looks like the crippling impotence of the commitee-bound Nations or the terrible potency of the law-enforcement-minded States.

Tough decisions

So pity the politicians.

Unlike us, they cannot make their choice based on the colour or design of a football kit or the skill and athleticism of an individual player.

They must side with someone in the Syrian conflict – the peacemakers or the warmongers – or face the probability of being mere spectators as the situation worsens, the fighting escalates and the number of lives lost increases day-by-day.

In the meantime, the rest of us can only watch and wait, hoping that – in the light of the British Parliament’s brave decision to be guided by both the law and right-minded thinking – none of the principal players scores an own goal.

Were that to happen, we would all be losers. Even the football supporters.

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What’s so special about gas?

The international outrage expressed since Monday’s chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb, which – according to Médecins Sans Frontières – left the Syrians with 355 dead, has been understandable.

The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women, children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is, says US Secretary of State John Kerry, “a moral obscenity”.

And, he adds: “The international norm cannot be violated without consequences”.

And so the US and her allies move inexorably towards another confrontation in the Middle East which, like the one perpetrated against Saddam Hussein, may well be doomed to failure.

Whatever you think of the legality of such a move, one question remains unanswered.

Why has it taken so long?

Why have the US and the UK waited until now to rattle their sabres with such force when, in the three short years since President Assad started his crack-down on the so-called rebels, more than 100,000 people have died in Syria?

What is the difference between a life snuffed out by gas and a life blown to bits by a bomb or a missile?

The other unanswered question is: where will it end?

“The heir to Blair”

Reporting on the British Prime Minister’s return from holiday to recall Parliament, and his determination to destroy the Syrian regime’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, The Independent describes David Cameron as “the heir to Blair”.

They point out that, in echoing Tony Blair’s argument that there was a “moral case” for the war in Iraq even without a UN mandate, Cameron describes Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons as “morally indefensible”.

And yet, despite his moral stance, Blair is still vilified for taking Britain to war in Iraq.

If his experience is anything to go by, Cameron stands in danger of being remembered for taking Britain into a conflict that, according to some sources, would pitch the US and her allies into a proxy war with Iran, which is providing the Syrian government with its weaponry.

And can anyone see an end to a conflict of that kind?

Where is Blair?

The final, unresolved question of the day must be: where is Blair in all this?

He has backed intervention in Syria, which seems bizarre given his track record in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He has said he “understands every impulse to stay clear of the turmoil” and that “we have to understand the consequences of wringing our hands instead of putting them to work”, which all sounds fine until you begin to wonder if it’s all just hot air.

Given that Blair is supposed to be the EU’s advocate for peace in the Middle East, where riot and civil commotion are the norm almost everywhere, I cannot help but think his fine words are those of a gasbag.

I can only hope that, if that’s the case, there is something special about his brand of gas and that further death and destruction – by whatever means – will be averted.

If not, no matter how “proportionate” the West’s actions may be, they will not – as before – be in my name.

And Cameron will have that on his conscience.

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For PM read PR

“What is it about George Osborne?”, I asked a few weeks ago.

Now I’m minded to ask: “What is it about David Cameron?”

He seems to be everywhere, sounding off about everything.

Fracking: he thinks we ought to encourage it.

The Human Rights Act: he reckons it should go.

Jesus Christ: he’s in favour of Him.

The internet: it’s full of vile sites that parents – and the rest of us – ought to avoid like the plague.

Sunday mornings: he likes them because they give him time to cook pancakes with his kids.

Bruce Springsteen: he gets off on him when his wife’s not around.

Wayne Rooney: he wants us to know that his mum sat next to the great sulk at Wimbledon.

Badgers: they’ll have to culled, even though it’ll make the government unpopular.

Politics: he seems to have given that a miss.

Government: what’s that?

I know this is the silly season and that, over the years, we’ve learned to expect the media’s usual crop of daft stories in August.

The excuse might be that parliament’s on holiday and the PM and his senior ministers are supposed to be on vacation.

So, each year, we’re subjected to pictures of the Prime Minster of the day either lounging in a seaside deckchair/sunbathing on someone’s private yacht /wandering through a Tuscan village/hanging out with Silvio Berlusconi/eating ice cream on a pier or – in Cameron’s case this year – pointing meaninglessly at fish in a Portuguese market.

And so we foolishly think we can take a break from the great affairs if state and, instead, quietly attend to our own affairs or those of soap stars and celebrities.

Cameron, you’d think, might also want to have a period of similarly private domesticity.

But no. It seems he has to be to constantly in the news and – if not in the papers – trying to make the headlines.

Willing to say almost anything, he has to be noticed.

He’s like an over zealous PR man trying too hard to get his client in the news. Except that – in Cameron’s case – he’s his own client.

When will he learn that “PM” stands for “Prime Minister” and not the daily news and current affairs programme on Radio 4?

And when will he learn that, in his case, “PR” should stand for Public Responsibility not public relations.

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The passing of a life

In the strange short week since the announcement of Margaret Thatcher’s death, we still haven’t heard or seen anything like enough words about her or her works to fill the emptiness created by the many now-disused, Thatcher-closed coal mines scattered across England, Wales and Scotland.

Nor have we heard enough that will bring true life back to the many communities where hope lies cold, like dead ashes on the remains of once lively fires.

We have, of course, learned beyond all doubt that Mrs Thatcher remains in death as divisive a figure as she was in life.

For myself, I have one abiding memory of her impact on my own life and times.

In 1984, when the effects of Mrs Thatcher’s policies were at their rampant worst for people like me, I was working in an advertising agency just a few yards from Fleet Street.

On the day the striking miners’ protest march reached London, I was moved by a not-to-be-denied sense of sympathy for their cause and left my office to stand on the pavement as they passed down the street, which in those days was still lined with newspaper offices.

What I remember now is the quiet dignity of the men and women I saw pass by.

Not for them the contentiously raucous cries of “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, OUT, OUT, OUT” that I’d heard so many times before.

The almost silent nature of their moving protest gave it – and them – more power than any hand-held tannoy system could muster.

Quiet defiance

To see them – to be almost amongst them – was to experience something of the half-hidden desperation of their cause. Exhausted after days of marching, they were like warriors in a battle they long-since knew they could never win, no matter what their leaders may say.

Yet, defeated though they seemed, they were still quietly defiant.

Later that day, as I cycled home from work, I passed through Hyde Park, where many of the miners and their families had gathered to listen to music before dispersing to their communities, almost all of them threatened by the life-bleeding effects of pit closures and the heartbreak of mass unemployment.

Many years earlier, as a boy only lately out of short pants and attending an Eisteddfod , I had been thrilled by the sound of a Welsh brass band. And I had experienced that hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling as I stood surrounded by the rising, falling, echoing voices of a male voice choir.

But this was different.

This day the sound I heard seemed to be that of an entire people mourning the passing of a way of life; men, women and children united in one voice, chorusing their sadness as if its very singing would somehow soothe it out of existence.

Never had a trombone cried so piteously or summoned such emotion in me.

I had, after all, been down a coal mine as a boy. I had seen in the eyes of miners the blazing pride as they toiled like animals in their underground work, seemingly hewing their very lives from the coal-face far beneath their valley homes.Coal 4

I had, too, been to a valley steel works where leather-clad men, their eyes narrowed against the glaring heat, had puddled molten steel as it roiled in the roaring ovens.

And, as a teenager in the merchant navy, my ears had been rattled by the jack-hammer rat-a-tat-tat of riveting machines in a Jarrow shipyard on the Tyne.

I believed I had seen the places where men made the real, hard-earned wealth of the nation.

Now I was witnessing the squandering of that power and energy by a government led by a woman whose market forces mantra allowed no room for the sentimental preservation of industries that had been the bedrock of Britain’s standing in the world.

A hopeless cause

Only a few years earlier, we had been described as the sick man of Europe.

The Thatcher remedy seemed to be to cut out the perceived cause of the illness, in the hope that the wounded body would recover.

Tragically, in doing so, she cut the heart out of countless communities, leaving them directionless, workless and – for a generation and more – hopeless.

There are, of course, many who say that what had to be done had to be done.

That you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

But who’s to say that Britain even needed an omelette just then?

It’s true things had to change; that the country needed fresh ideas about how to sustain its place and make – and pay – its way in the world.

Perhaps a different diet would’ve achieved the same ends. Something more digestible might’ve served the patient better.

Certainly, a more ameliorative approach might’ve cured our ills without leaving us with the scars inflicted by a woman whose heavy handed methods spoke more of butchery than surgery.

As it is, we struggle on, still trying to shake off the worst effects of the disease that became known as Thatcherism.

May the self-appointed doctor rest in peace. And may we never see her like again.

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