Hilary Mantel for President!

This Monday, in my column in the Independent- which you can read online and is reproduced on my website with some additions- I asked why if Ed Milliband wants a mansion tax, a policy that I agree with, why not a palace tax? In these hardest of times the Royals keep expecting and getting more and more. Child poverty is up, suicide rates among men too and young people are losing hope as unemployment goes up. We are told to do our bit but not the Royal family, with its inherited privileges. The Queen got a 16% increase in her income in 2012; Prince William got a 10 million pound birthday present too and his dad is getting a specially protective BMW worth £300,000. Yet most Britons won’t hear a thing against them.

Well, you can imagine the fury that followed my column- always does. You are not free to question this institution or clan even though we know all that is wrong with it and them. Now the redoubtable Hilary Mantel, novelist and winner of two Booker prizes and other accolades finds herself in hot water, burning hot water, for a speech she made at a London Review of Books event. Hers was an intelligent, feminist critique of Kate, a young woman whose job is to smile, look like a perfect doll and make babies for the voracious nation. They say we have freedom of speech, but not when it comes to the monarch and her large, often ill behaved extended family. They say we are a democracy and yet we must succumb to the Royals and behave like devotees of some dark cult. Ms Mantel has spoken truths which may enrage the nation but are still truths. What a terrific President she would make. If only.

Why Not a Palace Tax Too?


Last week Ed Milliband audaciously promised a mansion tax on homes worth over two million pounds and was rightly praised. In the end though, he was too pusillanimous and timid to take the final, logical step, a palace tax. So the policy would make, say, the CEO of Marks and Spencer pay the tax and not the Queen who ‘resides’ in eight or so palaces, or Prince Charles who occupies many fine abodes, and all those other princes and princesses and sundry living in royal mansions. Yes, mansions. Unlike the poor, the spoilt Royals won’t pay bedroom taxes either. OK, these opulent residences, even if properly taxed, would not swell the national revenues much. But it is the principle. Why should this clan be, and expect to be, excused from all laws trying to make the country fairer and more equitable? They could themselves volunteer inclusion, but don’t, because they know their subjects, from left to right, the poorest and most wretched, to those with money and power, are happy to indulge and adore them. Which is why millions were generously spent on the Jubilee during the recession and Monarch showed off her diamonds in a special, and especially crass exhibition. Punters queued up, paid up and gawped at the sparkling gems, a Queen’s best friends.

This in a country where last week, senior academics and children’s charities warned that child poverty was increasing rapidly and asked the government to urgently review its approach to this crisis. Week after week we hear of businesses collapsing and layoffs. The young, our future, have no jobs to go to or dream of. Suicide rates, especially among middle-aged men have risen by 15% since 2007 and some experts link that to the recession. I see many more homeless people on our streets and hopelessness on the faces of people living in tough neighbourhoods.

Incredibly, in these hardest of times, the adulation and glorification of royals is reaching new heights or depths, more accurately. Last week, BBC Radio4’s Woman’s Hour- one of my favourite programmes- broadcast their list of the nation’s most powerful women. The Queen, who inherited her position and is apparently just a figurehead, came top. OK, she deserves some respect because she’s been around a long time, performed her duties and lived through some major historical changes. However, the judges simply endorsed their own, un-examined royalist sympathies and that of the BBC which rarely gives republicanism a fair hearing. The choice also exposes that the big Establishment lie that the monarch has no clout. She does, and uses it when necessary and without accountability. In January, we learnt that the Queen and Charles were given powers to veto legislation thirty nine times and that she blocked parliament debating air strikes on Iraq. Prince Charles is getting a specially designed, protective BMW worth £300,000  and his mum, God bless her, had her state income hiked up 16% last year. Prince William, meanwhile was handed 10 million pounds on his birthday, from us, you and me and all the rest of his future subjects.    As for political neutrality, it’s a joke. These are natural born old Tories with no empathy at all for the other parties.

The Audience, a new play, by Peter Morgan opens next month. It’s about the Queen and her ‘frank’ views of successive Prime Ministers and yes, She is played by Helen Mirren. Audiences will love it for sure, her Royal self humbling elected and accountable leaders who worked and fought for their positions.

The population is so brainwashed now that they can’t think clearly and rationally about the institution or its dysfunctional family. It is, as the theatre director Richard Eyre says, a cult which denies ‘the light of reason’, an alter, before which the people metaphorically cross themselves, ‘crook the neck..bend the spine, bob and curtsey’. More disheartening still is that the liberal intelligentsia, arty types, serious writers, even scientists, who claim to be smart atheists, succumb to this cult.

Recently, at Madame Tussauds, female visitors voted on the man they most fancy. George Clooney came first and Prince Harry second. And all because they believe the Kate and William fairy tale.  More seriously ( and embarrassingly), the Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, daughters of Prince Andrew, girls who wear funny hats, have been appointed British trade emissaries, now that Andrew himself has been grounded because of his dubious mates and  dealings. Just why and how this decision was made, has not been explained. It’s that blue blood again. As the inimitable Will Self wrote in Prospect Magazine: ‘The monarchy infantilizes the public and squats like a fat toad atop the still-existent hierarchy of class in British society.’

That hideous tradition of obsequiousness has allowed the Royals to keep their financial affairs secret for too long. Now the Public Accounts Committee headed by the formidable Margaret Hodge is about to unlock their guarded safes and to scrutinise their tax affairs. The Queen’s accounts will be audited for the first time and Prince Charles, who regards his Duchy of Cornwall ( 53, 000 hectares) as his private, economic fiefdom, may pay more tax, maybe lose some of those valets and button his own shirts. Hodge is performing her public duty and honourably, though she is going where angels fear to tread.

Britons now understand that hereditary Lords are an anachronism and iniquity, but refuse to see the same applies to the state funded Royals. They won’t abandon their blind faith or imagine the alternatives. No system is forever. There is a better, fairer way to run a country. At least let yourself think about it.


Lazy Blogger

So I made myself a promise- come 2013, I would blog lots, try at least and catch up with all those ceaseless, tireless tweeters and sleepless bloggers like my Tory mate Iain Dale who always looks as fresh as a newly picked, pink apple and has interesting views on everything, views I rarely share but do note. February already and I still have to keep that promise. I like silence and sleep too much and anyway was ill and have been wretched and enervated. Dale asked me to present an award to the polemicist of the year at the glitzy  Political Book Awards. It went to Nick Cohen, the Observer columnist who drives me to distraction with some of his hard line comments on Muslims, western liberalism and of course why the war on Iraq was necessary. But that is what they do, good polemicists. They annoy, infuriate, provoke, are stubborn and brave, especially in these times when internet drone attacks target writers. The award was about him, not me. A number of presenters seemed to forget that and spent too many words on their own books and good selves. Tedious and rude. Oh and Anne Widdicombe wore leopard skin tights and skittishly waved her blonde locks. Strange but true.


More news…The book I have been writing on England is finally done and with the publishers. I feel the same anxiety I did when waiting for results. Some things don’t change. It is a love story. That’s all I can say at present.

And finally, am off to India next month to make a radio programme about two legendary playback singers, Lata and Asha, who between them have sold more records than the Stones and Beatles put together. They’ve been going for decades and are popular in South America, Russia, the Middle East, most of Africa. Shame that most westerners are clueless about them. I hear though that Hollywood, chasing after Bollywood success is tuning into these Hindi songs. At long last.

Wait for the next ramble. Coming soon.

Euthanizing The National Health Service


Euthanizing the NHS

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Listeners welled up when the Labour MP Ann Clwyd described on BBC Radio4 how her beloved husband, Owen Roberts, had caught pneumonia, was treated in a Welsh hospital like a ‘battery hen’, neglected, left to breathe through an oxygen mask which cut into his face,  died in a bed which was too small for him. The nurses didn’t give a damn, according to the grieving MP. Since the broadcast in December Clwyd has had ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of letters and emails from people sharing their similar or worse stories. Now she claims ‘normalisation of cruelty’ is widespread on wards, denounces the entire NHS and wants radical action. And she does so in an avowedly right-wing Sunday newspaper.

I  can understand her passions and truly sympathise with her family and others. No medical professional should behave with the callousness she witnessed and experienced, and too many do. We have probably all come across uncaring and scary nurses and doctors. But I say gently, Clwyd’s high emotions are leading her to declare another unwise war and a little caution and restraint needs to be injected into the discourse she is stirring up. I remember her genuine distress about Iraq’s Marsh Arabs and others oppressed by the Saddam regime. And her intense, sometimes hyperbolic interventions supporting Blair and the Neo-Con case for going to war on Iraq. That catastrophic conflict killed and maimed countless Iraqis. This campaign of hers, I fear, is again, impelled by much feeling and inadequate reflection and at a time when the NHS, its founding mission and future, are seriously at risk, more gravely than at any point in its history. To speak of ‘normalisation of cruelty’ in the service is plain unfair though very helpful to Tory ideologues. They, who are hell-bent on disabling the institution to justify and facilitate privatization and profiteering by businessmen and women waiting in the wings, and health professionals too who know they can make personal fortunes if the service is further ‘liberalised’.

LibDem activist Dr Evan Davies has been campaigning against these plans, many of them surreptitiously pushed through across the country. Citizens too have been protesting against closures of A&E departments, labour and paediatric wards and other key facilities. I will be joining a vigil in Ealing this Saturday of people against the closure of our hospital’s A&E unit, a demo which will, as usual, be disdained by the government. Consultant radiologist Jacky Davis has warned repeatedly that an integrated, accountable NHS is being replaced by a fragmented, ‘rag bag of competing providers’. Even the most informed of us know little about how fast the ‘reform’ is being imposed. Dining with some friends on New Year’s eve, I sat next to Dr Guy Bailey who told me what was happening. Bailey, with Davis and others has formed the National Health Action ( NHA) Party which aims to contest seats in the next election to try and save what’s left of the NHS.

Now, this is not a good week to be defending the NHS. The final Francis Inquiry report is expected to be published and will severely criticize staff and the leadership at the mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust for poor leadership and a culture of indifference to patient safety which led to the unnecessary deaths of between 400 and 1,200 patients, many of whom were treated far worse than are sick and needy animals. What happened at Stafford Hospital is still happening elsewhere. I know because I am part of  an Imperial College/ NHS Trust project investigating and committed to improving patient safety across the NHS. These flaws and foul-ups cause untold anguish and dishonour the founding mission of our healthcare provision. But it is at these times of utter disillusionment that we most need to champion the best of the NHS.

A young uni student, a relative, nearly died last year because of dreadful mistakes made by a reputable hospital. One evening while out with friends, her drink was spiked. She went into a coma. Nurses took blood for tests, but without checking results, sent her home in a taxi once she had recovered a little. She was still in and out of consciousness. Twelve hours later they looked at the tests, apologised and told her she had the right to sue. She refused to do so: ‘They cocked up badly, shouldn’t have. It’s my NHS. Why should I take money from them? How many times have I had brill treatment?.’ Wise words from the mouth of a teen. We both have chronic problems. Good doctors and nurses keep her and me alive. But will we get that in the years to come?

Heed  the judicious words of Peter Walsh, chief executive of the Action Against Medical Accidents: ‘We now see ‘perfect storm’ conditions for further ‘Staffords’ to happen with not only pressures on resources but increased demand, fragmentation, low morale and chaos brought by reorganisation’ He links bad practice to low staff numbers, a message the government will ignore. Clwyd’s emotive crusade and the Francis Report may, sadly, help the government’s organised disintegration of the NHS, an unintentional consequence. We will only realise what we have lost and how we lost it when it is too late. It may be too late already.

The Independent, 4th February 2013