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Sir Bertram Speaks (1 Viewer)


Honoured/Sadly Missed
Guarding The Guards

The recent spate of financial scandals emanating from some of the world’s largest companies has led to much concern as to what is to be done to assure investors that their money is not being frittered away by the deviousness of business leaders. This pressing matter was referred to that doughtiest of investigators, Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of Britain’s top universities and recently described as ‘The Fearsome Ferret’. Probably few would doubt that Sir Bertram’s advice on major topical issues has become almost indispensable. Happily, he was available to handle yet another hot potato. His comments are given below:

Though not of major importance, this question of how to deal with errant business leaders deserves some attention, concerning as it does the wellbeing of many people. Once more I am asked to address a supposed problem, the solution of which is, as they say, a walk in the park – literally so on this occasion.

In approaching the matter, I found myself indebted to the humorist George Ade, who referred to ‘a people so primitive that they did not know how to get money except by working for it’. One could hardly put it better. What are stock markets but casinos, with opportunists putting their snouts into the troughs, all wanting to make fortunes without doing a stroke of real work? Why? I suggest that they do this because certain city analysts, themselves strangers to genuine effort, demand ever-more sparkling results from what is usually mundane activity. Small wonder that those who actually work often look askance at share-price movements.

In one of my earlier commissions, I referred to the work of Karl Marx and I now draw upon him again, in that I believe he regarded capitalism as a step towards a truly socialist society. I endorse that view. ‘From each as he is able, to each as he requires’ is an attitude that will finally prevail. My apologies if this offends any feminist readers, but I am merely quoting. Anyway, the point is what are we to do about corporate misdeeds?

They say there is nothing new under the Sun and here again, past commentators on the social scenes of their times had much to say. I am mindful of a snippet I once saw in a book preface, to the effect that good is an enduring, unchanging force, while evil continually manifests itself in varying forms. I believe Zarathustra touched upon this two and a half millennia ago. The robber barons of yesterwhen are still with us, in different guises. An associated thought is that expressed by Juvenal, when he posed the question of who should police the police.

There was a time when one could read a company’s accounts, confident that the figures presented an accurate picture of the business concerned. I suggest that we get back to that position by rating auditors in the same way as we now assess those in other fields, such as sport. Many business houses yearn for a good credit rating from a top source. Why not extend this to the book-checkers? One could envisage a situation in which these firms were ranked according to their soundness. A sign-off from an auditor with a triple A rating would be the best available to a company, indicating that everything was tickety-boo. An endorsement from, say, a single A bean-counter might suggest something slightly iffy in the official record, while one from an unrated source would indicate that the accounts were not worth the paper they were printed on.

This raises the question of who would vet the rating agencies, who were supervising the auditors, who were monitoring the companies. These receding shades of overseeing resemble fractal geometry, bringing good old Mandelbrot to mind. I suggest that the final arbiter should be a disinterested member of the academic community. Far be it from me to offer any indication as to who might accept so onerous a duty. I have no more to say.

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Honoured/Sadly Missed
The Demographic Time Bomb

Much has been made of the problem posed by our rising age profile. How are we to make adequate provisions for our senior citizens? This thorny issue was referred to that distinguished thinker, Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of the UK’s leading universities. Long regarded as perhaps our most eminent observer in this field, Sir Bertram, senses honed by a short break spent in a public park opposite his home, accepted the commission and has delivered his views, couched in characteristically trenchant terms. They are given below:

I am happy to offer a solution to the supposed problem caused by our increasing longevity. This is a fairly simple matter and should have been dealt with below my level. Most of the furore surrounding the issue emanates from disproportionately vocal types, mostly business executives in early middle age, who wish to ensure post-retirement continuance of their extravagant lifestyles. These people should realise that they are already being rewarded far beyond their contributions to our common wellbeing. They have yet to learn the difference between need and greed. I believe Gandhi was credited with making the first reference to this distinction, though I had the same thought, possibly earlier than he did – our two lives overlapped by twenty-odd years.

I will not dwell upon the lower strata of society, as they comprise people whose working lives are mostly drab, and whose retirements will be similar. Still, those concerned are undoubtedly worthy and essential – they also serve who only stand and wait. That is just as well, since if everyone were to erupt simultaneously in a collective burst of creativity, the result would be intolerable.

What matters here is that the angst-ridden upper-echelon characters have no knowledge of how they will feel when they become OAPs. Let me remind them of the words of T. S. Eliot, viz: “In the last few years, everything I had done up to the age of sixty or so has seemed childish.” Not having his text to hand, I do not know whether he mentioned that by the time people reached what he clearly considered the age of wisdom, they no longer care much about anything. They are also aware that their thrusting juniors wish to see the last of them.

When the relative youngsters reach seniority in years, the wiser ones among them will grasp that their task is to contribute what they can, rather than seize what is available. They will understand that the coveted mansion or yacht they acquired will soon be owned by someone else, who will say: “Yes, this once belonged to an industrial or commercial bigwig. Can’t remember the name.” Is that to be your epitaph? The hot-shots I refer to should take a leaf from my book by slackening off, as they are too screwed up. Indeed, only last week a man I had hitherto considered an adversary was kind enough to compliment me on the looseness of my screws. I was mildly flattered and will send him a bottle of my dandelion wine.

Now, I am being paid to offer a solution, and am pleased to say that this is the easiest money I have ever earned. My proposal is that a Ministry of Demography be created, the person in charge to be of less than cabinet rank, reflecting the fact that the brief concerned will be of relatively minor importance.

It is interesting that when ageing people are asked what ambitions they have, many of them place travel before anything else. This is inexcusable, as it is bad enough that these respondents are no longer in the economic mainstream. If, in addition to this, they wish to ruin the environment with their globetrotting, there would seem to be little reason for their continued presence.

The job of the proposed ministry would be to arrange selective culling of the aged. Not being an uncaring man, I suggest that there should be a voluntary element. Those who wish to depart – a cohort the size of which will, I suspect, be much larger than most of our sociologists imagine – should get first go. Only after that clearance would compulsory arrangements be invoked. Naturally, those involved in creative work would be spared the axe, rather in the way that those in reserved occupations are exempted from the blood and guts part of warfare. I recall the unpleasantness of 1939-45, by the end of which event I filled a vital role in the corridors of Whitehall. Imagine the waste if I had been disembowelled while trying to gain a few feet of some Continental battlefield. Horses for courses is the phrase that comes to mind.

Should forced winnowing be necessary, it would be conducted in descending age groups, in which respect I urge older citizens to think of the benefits of calling it a day. No need to continue dealing with tiresomely bland meals, trying to don socks while standing on one foot, fiddling with plastic cards, or generally wondering how to make increasingly unwilling bodies do their minds’ bidding.

I advise those worried about a hereafter to consider that they will go to either (a) complete oblivion, which has its attractions, i.e., it offers neither good nor bad experiences, or (b) a plane higher than ours and detached from physical matters. There is no need to worry about going to Hell. We’re there now, as anyone with a modicum of sensitivity knows.

What I am proposing is a win-win situation, in which those oldsters who want to go will be accommodated, while those who are removed compulsorily need have no qualms. I submit this answer as the most reasonable one to what is, after all, a prosaic question.

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Honoured/Sadly Missed
To Jail Or Not To Jail

The problem of overcrowding in our prisons having become acute, it was decided that the matter should be examined by a respected independent party. The authorities felt that they could hardly do better than call upon that outspoken arbiter, Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of our leading universities. Fortunately, he made himself available and got to work at once. His findings are as follows:

Notwithstanding the fact that this matter clashed with my intensive course of bassoon lessons, I am obliged to the parties concerned for referring it to me. It is a bagatelle, but one takes what one can get. Incidentally, this gives me an opportunity to comment publicly on the hate mail I have received following some of my earlier exertions. I have been accused of casuistry, sophistry and speciousness. Rather than reply to the rabble in question on an individual basis, I hereby inform the authors of this scurrilous nonsense that their pratings are being treated with the contempt they deserve.

My answer to this prison question is two-pronged, being based upon consideration of the numbers incarcerated and the financial implications. The cost of keeping a person in jail has been put at figures ranging from £25,000 to £42,000 a year. I will accept the lower figure, which seems more than enough. If I lived alone, I could get by on far less than this, though of course I do not need a warder – a point that one of my above-mentioned castigators might care to note.

I understand that our prisons are full, having about 80,000 inmates. The first part of my solution is simple, as it involves only the crime of burglary. My information is that about 15% of prisoners are in this category. These people are confined in what I can perhaps best call colleges of criminality, where they are able to sharpen their existing skills and educate themselves in other nefarious practices. I recommend that we let these offenders go free and that we distribute to their victims most of the money saved by not jailing. The Home Office would be the appropriate conduit.

Some readers may consider this drastic, but I hope they will bear with me. I am reminded of a former colleague who lives in a suburb much affected by this type of crime. He recently caught a burglar in the act, though was unable to detain the culprit. That was the fifth time that my old friend had experienced this trauma, and I feel sure that he and his wife, both pragmatic, will accept my logic. As I shall demonstrate, they would have found it beneficial.

In this field, there could be a flourishing business, energising the wider economy, possibly to the extent that the ‘breaking-in’ element might wither away. There would have to be a firm tariff. Let us say that an initial offence would qualify for one year in jail, with persistent transgressors attracting longer sentences. The periods would be notional, as nobody would be imprisoned.

As it happened, the man almost apprehended by my ex-colleague was later arrested and proved to be a first-offender. Under my system, he would have been assessed as a candidate for one year in jail. If, for the sake of argument, we put the cost of proceedings against the wrongdoer at a quarter of that of a year’s imprisonment – and why should it be more? – the residue would have accrued to my friend and his wife, who would have been delighted to receive £18,750 in compensation. They could have replaced all losses – some with upgraded items – had their house redecorated, treated themselves to a new car and had an extravagant holiday.

Extended to a currently imprisoned number of about 12,000 burglars – even assuming them to be one-year types – the figures are impressive. The cost of incarcerating 12,000 people for one year at £25,000 a head would be £300million. By the method I suggest, about three-quarters of this sum would be injected into the economy almost immediately, instead of by the unreliable trickle-down effect with which we are faced at present.

One could imagine this idea becoming very popular, with commensurate social connotations. Retailers and tradespeople would experience a boom. The beauty is that the system would be self-perpetuating, miscreants always remaining free to conduct their normal business. In due course there would be a surfeit of desirable items, giving rise to an increased black market. Even this could be positive, as an export trade might develop, improving – albeit unofficially – the balance of payments position, in which the UK account is in the red. And let us not forget that what goes round, comes round. Having pocketed their ill-gotten gains, the thieves and spivs must be minded to spend them. How better than by indulging in the ‘shop till you drop’ mania? A boon to the economy. Here, I appeal to the criminal elements. Never mind the tax havens. If you get your loot in this country, plough it back into our economy.

There would be a downside, affecting mainly insurance companies and security organisations, since it would not be sensible for people to protect their house contents. I envisage a situation in which those who had not been burgled for a while might advertise the fact, perhaps with something like an estate agent’s sign, indicating that they had not been ‘done’ for several months, thus soliciting the attention of larcenists. The householders could go out for an evening, leaving doors and windows open, secure in the knowledge that they would return to a property stripped of valuables. I submit that if this proposal is accepted, it will result in significant economic gains.

The second part of my solution might be more controversial. I propose that all those not covered by my first recommendation be imprisoned according to the system currently prevailing, but that the sentences be nominal. Once jailed, the inmates would be released on an eeny, meeny, miny, moe basis, the prison governors periodically drawing lots to decide who would be freed. Laugh if you will, but consider that would-be petty felons might be discouraged by the thought that if they were to be caught, their original sentences, often light, could by pure chance be extended indefinitely. At the top end of the market, murderers and their like would perhaps take their chances, but they form a small minority of jail inmates. Anyone contemplating a little shoplifting or pocket-picking would, I suggest, think twice. I am inspired by the quasi-scriptural connotations of this idea. After all, it represents random punishment for what is to the victims random crime, thereby demonstrating that we are a single great entity and that what an evildoer does to one party affects all of us.

If my suggestions are adopted, our prison population will decrease rapidly. This could produce a situation in which we might see an advertising campaign, inviting people to spend a night or two as paying guests in one or other of our half-empty jails – full British breakfasts included – with a financial plus to the prison service and, by extension, to everyone.

Like the Chancellor with his budget, I commend these proposals to the House – in this case the forum of public opinion.

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Honoured/Sadly Missed
Comings And Goings

The debate about illegal immigration into the UK having led us into a seemingly impenetrable thicket, many people may be relieved to note that the matter was recently referred to that prince of puzzlers, Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of our top seats of learning. Not for the first time, the arch-arbiter interrupted one of his breaks from intense cerebration to deal with this pressing issue. He gave it short shrift, as his comments below confirm:

Let me start by addressing the feverish media speculation concerning the origin of my brief. The newshounds may make their guesses, but I am in the same position as certain other professionals, in that I must respect client confidentiality. What I can say is that the solution to this supposed problem is simplicity itself, the only complication being that the statistics are unclear. However, that is not important, as the principle is the same over a wide range.

My researchers tell me that estimates of unauthorised UK residents vary from a trivial level to the allegedly significant one of about 400,000. This is a side-issue, as the method I suggest would be valid for all practical purposes. I will take a middling figure of 200,000. After all, the government picks its numbers out of the air, so why shouldn’t I?

Despite the lamentable record of the Home Office in keeping track of such things, I am prepared to accept that that authority will manage to trace the shadowy types I have in mind. Then what? It’s simple. We need to corral these people by offering them an amnesty, conditional on their joining a new body. Draft dodgers would have to be caught and summarily expelled. Anyone who suspects that I have not thought this through might care to note the strictures I propose, which are as follows:

Those taking advantage of the scheme would be offered secure employment as overseers at our points of entry – not only harbours and airports, but all inlets around the coast – their work being to intercept unapproved incomers, for whom they would arrange immediate deportation. The main condition would be that any infractions by the officers would result in graduated punishments, on the ground of negligence. I envisage a quota system, under which those not nabbing a fair share would face their own expulsion. I advocate this way of encouraging compliance, as it rests on the ‘I’m all right, Jack’ mindset – usually a powerful incentive.

In order to avoid nepotistic ‘oversights’, members of the new force might need further inducement to do their work efficiently. There would be an economical answer to this. Still thinking of a strength of 200,000, I suggest that we pay each of them a basic £20,000 a year, plus bonuses for those showing the zeal necessary to apprehend numbers above a given level. The annual cost of rather over £4bn. would amount to less than half of one per cent of GDP – surely a fair price.

I mention in passing that our population is a little over 60 million. and that life expectancy here is around seventy-five years. Though I do not have our mortality figures to hand, it is no great feat to calculate that by natural attrition we lose annually about four times as many people as would be employed in the proposed service. Therefore, any possible increase in our number through unlawful immigration could not be significant.

This is all I have to say in answer to what is hardly a taxing question. However, I hope readers will not mind my stating that I received quite a lot of mail following my recent paper concerning the jailing of miscreants. Happily, and I venture to suggest predictably, the response was overwhelmingly supportive, but there were several letters containing adverse comments, including one which I would like to mention here. I will not reveal the writer’s identity – you know who you are, sir – but would say this: I shall write to you in detail, but please note now that you do not appear to grasp the difference between rebuttal and refutation.

Let me clarify that the former is simply a statement that a given proposition is wrong, while the latter proves it to be so. You have offered no proof, but merely what is commonly called a gut reaction. Well, you are about to receive a thirty-six-pounder just below the centre of your main yard arm, and we shall then see how you cope with a hundred feet of large-diameter timber athwart your beam and a ton or two of uncontrolled canvas flapping around your gunports. I hope the nautical analogy is not beyond you.

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Senior Member
I like the fact that this is an outspoken and honest summary of so many issues that face us, whether in the UK or here, or wherever.
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Honoured/Sadly Missed
Market Forces

Should the UK liberalise its laws relating to drugs? Argument about this has raged for many years. The members of two groups in particular have been conducting a fierce propaganda battle. One observer dubbed them Bigots and Spigots, the former because of their allegedly narrow-minded sense of moral rectitude, the latter because of their declared intention to ‘tap the drug barrel’. The matter was finally handed to that renowned analyst of social issues, Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of our top universities. He handled it in his usual forthright manner, as shown by his report below:

Though trifling, this question presents some points of interest. A research assistant has provided me with figures of government tax receipts for a recent twelve-month period. The total amount was well over £400 billion, of which close to ten per cent came from sales of alcohol and tobacco.

I have been given an estimate of the cost of medical care for those affected by illnesses supposedly caused by the two substances under review here. The amount was about £6billion. Obviously the people who pay taxes for alcohol and tobacco also contribute to general taxation in the same way as do their compatriots.

My recommendation is that all the drugs now proscribed be legalised and made available through new outlets, which would also become the only purveyors of alcoholic beverages and tobacco. All customers of these places would become registered users of drugs and the tax they pay for their addictions would be set aside for their use, individuals receiving benefits in direct proportion to what they spend on the various products. Any consequent shortfall in central government funds available to wider society for its range of needs would have to be made up by increases elsewhere in the taxation system.

Lest it should be felt that I have not been assiduous in my investigation, let me say that I have spoken with the Spigots’ leader, Mrs Lily Padd (79), a chain-smoking drunkard, who was euphoric. “It’s a wonderful idea,” she said. “We junkies would have our own sub-society, cared for hand and foot, with the best medical attention, including monthly check-ups, frequent spa treatments and so on. We reckon this will absorb no more than £15billion, so we shall have about twice as much as that left over to have a good time in other ways. We’ll all have lovely houses and cars and lots more goodies. Let the diehards look after themselves.”

I also interviewed the Bigots’ spokesman, jogging, iron-pumping Dan Bludgeon (36). “We’ll fight this,” he said. “If the Spigots get their extra billions, it will mean a huge rise in taxes for the rest of us. That would be ruinous. Also, the Spigots would monopolise many of the medical services, meaning a breakdown for other people. The prospect is horrifying.”

When I attempted to go into detail about the logic of my proposal, Mr Bludgeon was first extremely angry, then very abusive and finally incoherent. I must say that he lacked the intellectual rigour of his opposite number who, though profoundly inebriated, was lucid.

One cannot tackle issues as emotive as this one without raising some hackles. However, I am satisfied that I have been objective and I believe that my conclusions are sound.

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Honoured/Sadly Missed
Hotting Up?

Yet another of the great problems of our time was recently put before that consummate cogitator, Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of Britain’s most prestigious universities. On this occasion, he was asked to address the intertwining subjects of global warming and carbon dioxide levels. He has dealt with several weighty issues, offering solutions which, though perhaps intellectually incontestable, have usually been controversial. As ever, his report was eagerly awaited. It is given below, in his typically mordant prose:

I was quite pleased to be charged with this task, as it is one of the few worthy of my attention. When the matter was referred to me, I felt obligated to interrupt a sojourn at my local abattoir, where I was attempting to confirm the correctness of my conversion to vegetarianism, which took place some time ago. I will not expand on this, beyond saying that there will be no more Sir Loin for Sir Bertram – a little pun for those who maintain that I have no sense of humour.

We are currently bombarded with information concerning the allegedly intolerable consequences of our actions. Rubbish! This stuff comes a bunch of cry-babies who always purport to know what is wrong, but are never able to tell us what is right. It has been noted that the carbon dioxide content of our air has risen from 280 to 380 parts per million (ppm) over the last century and a half, and that we cannot survive a level of more than 450ppm. I accept the figures, but the conclusion is nonsense. Over the ages, we have made great progress and have changed as required. Why should we not continue to do so? Those who think that we are Nature’s last word will find no comfort here.

There is no reason why we should not adapt as circumstances demand. When all is said and done, we are not well fitted to our current environment. If you doubt this, take off your clothes and go outside every day for a while. Most of you will soon find that a temperature outside the range of about 15 to 35 degrees Celsius will leave you feeling uncomfortable.

The late great Carl Sagan suggested that we could make the planet Venus habitable by shooting into its atmosphere a mass of blue-green algae, which have a high tolerance of temperature variations. His idea was that these organisms would, by consuming Co2, cool the surface of our next-door planet from its present hell-hole state to something more acceptable to us. We need not go all the way, but could reduce the heat on Venus while coping with some warming of the Earth, thus gradually getting the two bodies into thermal equilibrium and paving the way for us to colonise our neighbour. For those not familiar with the concept, the Venusian operation is called terraforming.

As for the supposedly impending cessation of the Gulf Stream which keeps us in the North passably warm in winter, this should be good news for the worriers. If they are ever pleased by anything, they should rejoice at the prospect of the North Atlantic Drift switching off, since that event will cool us at the same time as human activity does the opposite, the overall effect being neutral.

I must mention atomic energy, as its use is a factor in terms of air quality. If we manage to produce nuclear fusion on a commercial scale, we shall have power with very little pollution. If we fail in that area, fission will remain available. Let me note here that the doomsayers among us are exaggerating the problem of waste from current atomic power generation. If we do not find a way to neutralise the nasties, we shall develop better rocket propulsion, which will enable us to bundle up anything we don’t want and shoot it at the Sun, which will swallow it without any trace of indigestion. After all, our star is a colossal nuclear reactor, at present shedding mass at the rate of four million tonnes a second. It will simply recycle our garbage.

Finally, I would say that none of the above points matters much because any millennium now there will be another great freeze which will bury most of Europe, including the UK, under a vast sheet of ice. I recommend that you do not start reading any long books – another witticism for the people who say that I cannot see the funny side of things. That is all.

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Honoured/Sadly Missed
Schooling : One Way Ahead

The state of our education has long occupied many minds, and was recently addressed by a leading think tank, the Institute for Profound Thought. On reaching the end of its tether, the IPT passed the matter to Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of Britain’s leading universities. Arguably the country’s most prestigious academician, the great gownsman is well known for taking little account of sensitivities and has frequently infringed the tenets of political correctness. Those of delicate disposition are reminded that some of Sir Bertram’s ideas are not for the squeamish – what better way of ensuring that you read on? His observations are given verbatim below:

This is one of the less difficult questions with which I have been presented, so I am able to be brief, which is a good thing for me, as I charge a flat fee for my reports, so the rate per word for shorties is gratifying. A little while ago, I heard one of my old sparring partners, Sir Percival Stropes – he now runs some ramshackle automotive outfit – indicate that he was complacent about our position. I do not agree. We shall continue to decline, so long as our main competitors produce scientists, engineers and tradespeople, while we turn out historians, media students and estate agents. We cannot sustain ourselves on the basis of studying the past and present, and selling each other houses at increasingly absurd prices.

Whenever I think of learning, I am reminded of two observations. The first, made by W.B. Yeats, was that education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. The second, by Mark Twain, was that he never let his schooling interfere with his education. I would like to add my small contribution, which is that society should not waste teaching resources on those who don’t want to learn. Anyone who wishes to join a sub-culture of ignoramuses should be allowed to do so. I have no more to say about that.

My solution to the overall problem will probably prove controversial. First, I propose that we abandon the idea of universal compulsory free education. I believe that the only legal requirement should be for parents or guardians to be interviewed by the head of their local school, who would point out the advantages on offer, while stressing that good behaviour must be a prerequisite, any significant offences being punishable by expulsion, a step which should be left to the discretion of the principal of the school concerned. Pastoral care should not be any part of the teachers’ duties, nor should they seek to arrogate to themselves any such role. Any child failing to toe the line would have to be submitted to the care of a body outside the mainstream system. This takes care of the primary and secondary stages.

Now to my proposal for the tertiary level. I suggest that we dismantle our university system. Cry ‘horror’ if you will, but note that the institutions concerned are not doing a good job. The premises they occupy could be converted into thousands of dwellings, in an operation that would do much to alleviate our housing problem – lateral thinking, you see. There is a double benefit here, in that a vast number of houses and flats currently occupied by students would be made available to the general population because those in third-level education would get tuition close to their homes, so would not need other accommodation.

How is this to be achieved? Quite easily. It is merely a question of extending the hot-desking now practised in commerce and industry, whereby people work at different times in the same places. It is well known that many university students lie abed until early afternoon and are not ripe for learning until they have taken some bodily nourishment. There is no sound reason why they should not occupy the spaces vacated by the primary and secondary pupils, who could start earlier than at present and move on to other activities after, say, 2.00 p.m. This is simple shift work. As for the tutors, they live largely in a dream world, so it should not matter to them whether they are on duty in the mornings, afternoons or evenings, so long as their ‘ker-ching’ factor is not impaired – and with the arrangements I envisage, they would not lose in this respect. Also, this second shift would finish in time for night school to start at about 7.00 p.m.

It has been suggested that 50% of secondary scholars should proceed to university. Does anyone know how many of them are capable of absorbing a genuine tertiary curriculum? If the bar is to be ever-lower, the figure could be 100%. When I was a university student, it was less than 5%. Of course we can get to 50% – or any other level – if we adjust the standards commensurately. What good will that do?

I recommend that third-stage tuition be provided free in the subjects requiring a reasonable degree of rigour. By this I mean the sciences, broadly considered but excluding economics – a virtually useless pseudo-discipline – plus perhaps languages. I have no objection to arty types pursuing other courses, so long as they do so without making demands on the public purse.

There can be little doubt that the implementation of my proposals would lead to a great improvement in our education. Being a broad-brush man, I have not covered every detail. Should a supplementary report be required, I would be happy to produce one – for a further charge.

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Honoured/Sadly Missed
On Longevity

Recent suggestions that the average human lifespan might be increased to at least 130 years sent various authorities scurrying to consult actuarial experts, and show other signs of concern. As seems almost inevitable in these confusing times, the question wound up on the desk of the man most widely thought able to give us sound advice. The decision-makers must have heaved a collective sigh of relief on learning that Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of our foremost towers of tutelage, had a window in his hectic schedule. He lost no time in dealing with the matter and reported as follows:

As I recently addressed the issue of our ageing population in another paper, this new commission was hardly a three-pipe problem – one fill of strong dark flake sufficed. Frankly, I fail to understand the excitement, especially as there is no question of a solution here, but rather one of appreciation. My first impression on receiving this brief was to recall an interview in a film I once saw, when an insurance salesman, endowed equally with enthusiasm and incompetence, was trying to sell a life policy to the notorious Jesse James. As I remember it, the bandit (or hero, according to your view) listened patiently, then said something like: “Let me get this straight. Are you saying you want me to bet on how long I’ll live, and you’re willing to take the rough end by guessing that I’ll be around for a long time?” If that isn’t succinct, I don’t know what is.

In my earlier report, I alluded briefly to the aspirations of older people, and I would like to expand on this theme. A recent radio phone-in filled me with gloom. Listeners were invited to offer their views on the revelation that an American team claimed to have found a method by which we could on average live nearly twice as long as we do now. If I remember rightly, there were twelve respondents, one of them a scientist, who had a detached interest. Of the others, only one – a woman of fifty-seven and in good health – had no wish to exceed the biblical span. The rest wanted to reach the age suggested in the US report, in each case expressing a desire to fulfil some humdrum personal ambition – tap-dancing, mandolin playing and so on. Of course, travel was in first place. Nobody wished to be involved in generally beneficial activities, such as producing clean renewable energy, a panacea for ills, improved housing, or any of the other things that are important to all of us.

I asked myself whether I would like to spend my later years in the company of people regaling me with accounts of their holidays in an ever-decreasing number of exotic locations, or telling me how they had learned to pole-vault at the age of eighty, or describing their elation at being among the first group of centenarians to cycle from Lands End to John o’ Groats. The answer was a resounding negative.

My pondering on the implications of living to 130 or more led me to think also of the time I spent in the commercial and industrial spheres. In those days, I frequently found myself surrounded by elderly men, all too often venal and obsessed with maintaining their positions of authority and privilege, notwithstanding that they were provided for in ways that should have detached them from such base considerations. It did not seem to occur to most of them that they were removed from material scrabbling in order that they might concentrate on the common good, rather than their further personal advancement. Imagine spending many decades clambering beyond your contemporaries, thrusting and kicking your way to the heights, then clinging like a limpet to a leading position in your hierarchy, lest someone – probably better than you – should be a threat. For goodness’ sake, you people at the top, take the fruits of your selfish toil and hand over to the young ones before they become too disillusioned to care. Remember that the interplay between change and continuity requires that the former must not wreck the latter and the latter not stifle the former. I realise that some readers may consider this paragraph something of an aside, but I might not get another chance to air these comments.

As indicated above, in this case I am not being paid for a solution but an appraisal. The task is an easy one. In my view there is a limit to the number and variety of experiences and impressions a human being can digest in one visit to this plane of existence, and if they have not been acquired in about seventy years, a further six decades are not likely to help much. My message to the obtuse is that they should leave us and try again in a later lifetime. Those who reject the advice are welcome to be condemned to plod on. Though still in demand, I have toiled long and hard and am profoundly relieved at the prospect of my earthly demise. Proceed if you wish. I shall watch your progress from another level.

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Honoured/Sadly Missed
Immobility For The Millions?

During the last couple of decades, there has been much ado about transport in the UK. So far, every proposal to alleviate the worrying situation seems to have attracted as much opprobrium as approbation. Perhaps few will be surprised to learn that this awkward question was recently referred to that icon of investigators, Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor at one of our finest academic institutes. Felicitously for everyone concerned, the Great Man returned from a holiday, spent largely in the reference library near his home, on the day he received this new commission. He cleared his desk at once and tackled the issue, reporting as follows:

What a coincidence that this matter should be referred to me only a couple of weeks after I had tinkered with one of its aspects. Heaven knows I am not a specialist in physics, though I believe I may qualify as one of the few genuine polymaths of our time. A former student of mine recently brought to my attention the parlous state of our railways. This induced me to devote a little time to that situation. I am not too proud to borrow from whatever sources are available, and in this case I leaned on US military advances, in particular the advent of the Stealth bomber, supposedly undetectable by defences. Harking back to my earlier interests, I addressed this issue for five hours, at the end of which I had devised a Stealth train, a conveyance which could pass through stations virtually unseen, thus reaching its destination on time. In due modesty, I must say that I did not get so far as to deal with the picking up of intermediate passengers at places between the two terminal points, but I shall deal with that in due course.

The above passage is merely an aside, included only because it demonstrates that my ability to grasp technological problems matches the intellectual rigour I apply when dealing with social ones. Now to the nub. Questions put before me normally meet at least one of two criteria, in that they are either urgent or important. Some have both characteristics. This matter is unusual, as it does not have either. I shall now explain why this is so.

The UK is among the most crowded countries in the world. Consequently it is a perfect place for reliable cheap public transport – so many potential customers in such limited space. But what do we have? I do not travel much, but am given to understand that we are obliged to contend with unsatisfactory and ridiculously expensive rail travel, crowded, sweaty bus stations and air services which, if we are to believe the protestations of their operators, constantly gallop a hairsbreadth ahead of gridlock. For those seeking independent solutions, we have hopelessly overburdened roads. What is to be done?

I hear that the government recently charged some old duffer with the responsibility for ‘blue sky’ thinking, and that his suggestion was that we should have even more motorways. What nonsense! This is a time for fundamental reconsideration. I do not have the exact figures to hand, but don’t need them, as it is obvious that most journeys undertaken are discretionary, frivolous or both. I remember my time in business, when I was often told that people needed to take long trips, as there was no substitute for eye-contact. Poppycock! We have telephones, text and fax machines, e-mail and remote conference arrangements. The people I have just referred to simply wished to get away from their normal workplaces, enjoy a little unsupervised activity and run up costs they would never have incurred had they been paying from their own pockets. Would you fork out £120 or more per person for one overnight stay with breakfast, knowing that you would not be reimbursed? No? Nor would I. Only a month ago, I had B&B in a pleasant boarding house for £25. Business expenses are a huge swindle.

We do not need more transport and accommodation facilities, but less mindless pressure upon those we already have. There is capacity enough for what we need, as distinct from what we want – not my first reference to this syndrome. I suggest that instead of trying to cater for apparently limitless demand, we curtail our gallivanting to what is necessary. How many Britons go abroad each year in search of the beer and fish and chips available on their own doorsteps? It is bad enough that these drunken people are often such terrible ambassadors, but even worse that their movements cause massive pollution. Aeroplanes may fly in thin air, but they do not fly on it.

As with so many supposedly large questions, this matter is basically trivial, requiring as it does only a change of attitude. If you don’t need to go anywhere, stay at home. You will find this less stressful than getting around and you will help to save the planet. I repeat my above assertion that this issue does not have either of the criteria I mentioned early, the reason being that if my advice is taken, any currently perceived element of urgency or importance will vanish as a consequence. That is all.

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Honoured/Sadly Missed
Generation Gap

There has been much talk lately about the supposedly privileged position of our older people, who it is often said are mortgaging the lives and prospects of their juniors. Particular concern has been expressed about the series of high budget deficits and the consequent increase in national debt, all to be paid off by younger people after their seniors have left this plane. Troubled authorities decided that such a Gordian knot needed the attention of a modern Alexander the Great. It can hardly surprise anyone that they turned to that incomparable unknotter, Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of our leading universities. He applied his usual intense concentration to the problem and reported as follows:

I was pleased to receive the buck in this matter, as I am tired of hearing ill-informed references to it. Let me start by saying that those now well into their seventies lived through a world war and its aftermath, enduring severe deprivations of many kinds, including rationing of food, clothing, fuel, etc. They also had to contend with frequent power cuts, water obtained from standpipes, and other miseries which need not be mentioned here. Notwithstanding all that, they toiled on, building up most of the wealth we all now enjoy. They had to adapt to a bewildering variety of social changes, not all for the better from their point of view. In millions of cases, they inherited little or nothing of material value from their forebears. I will not say any more about this.

With regard to budget deficits, I agree that we could have avoided them by living within our means. I also grasp that the shortfall between government spending and income is currently something like £150billion a year and that this adds to the national debt, thus placing a burden on future taxpayers. However, that is not the main point. What we have to consider is that those paying whatever is required to clear the overall debt, which I understand is about £900billion, include the older people who are still paying taxes. It is also noteworthy that most of the debt we have as a nation is owed to ourselves, because our institutions, among them pension funds, buy government securities on behalf of many of us.

Now to the postulation that younger people will have to pick up the total bill for our national profligacy. I have just indicated that they will not do so, as their seniors will pay some of it. As we are dealing with a gradual process and cannot establish a clear dividing line in terms of age, nobody can say who will pay what proportion. I have consulted a prominent actuary who is also distinguished in the field of financial analysis. He estimates that people now under fifty will probably pick up about two thirds of the current bill, meaning that they will fork out £600billion or so. Even if he is wrong and the whole burden falls upon the rising generations, what would their net position be after everything else is taken into account?

These younger people will inherit bank balances and other monies to a vastly greater extent than their older compatriots do or did. That is only a start. What about dwellings? Our housing stock is close to 70% owner-occupied, which means there are roughly 17million units in this category. Taking the average price as £150,000 or so, this sector currently has a value of £2.55trillion. Nearly all of this housing wealth will in due course be inherited by the now allegedly disadvantaged young people. In most cases, the properties will be wholly or largely free from mortgage debt and the recipients of this bounty will, generally speaking, have done little or nothing to earn it. They will therefore receive several times more than whatever they pay to help clear the national debt, and should think themselves fortunate in getting such a high return on so modest an investment.

It is significant that the high deficits which led to the national debt have done something to alleviate unemployment, so if we had not overspent as we have, many people, especially younger ones, would be in a worse position than they are. In making these observations, I am not favouring one age group relative to others, but in terms of simple logic, the figures speak for themselves.

Though it is not strictly within my remit, I would like to mention that our financial position has to some extent been created by what is often referred to as reckless lending by various bodies. This would not have been possible without equally irresponsible borrowing by members of the public. It takes two to tango.

It is high time for us to stop bickering about generational matters and deal with the question of egress from our plight. Therefore, I say we should put our backs to the wall, best feet forward, shoulders to the wheel and noses to the grindstone. If enough of us can still move after performing these contortions, we shall go forward and get out of the mess the same way we got into it – together!

I have no more to say on the subject addressed here, but will take this opportunity to respond publicly to a vicious letter I received last week from a man who accuses me of speaking from an ivory tower, and states that I must have been born with the proverbial silver spoon in my mouth. As this fellow is well known, I will not name and shame him, but would ask him to note that my parents spent their lives first in private rented accommodation, then in a council house, and that thirty years ago I was the sole heir to a fortune of £620. Humble enough, I think.

Note. In order to achieve the widest possible understanding of the above, I have used the words billion and trillion in their currently debased sense. The sooner we stop devaluing these terms and get back to correct usage, the better. There has long been a perfectly satisfactory word – milliard – for one thousand million. A true billion is a million million, and a true trillion is a million million million. If we had not trivialised our terminology in this respect, we might still have proper regard for large numbers.

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Jack of all trades

Senior Member
In my experience, the best way to work together is for both sides to step into the other's shoes and stroll along his path for a bit. Too often we want the other guy to see our perspective before we make any attempt to see his. So both sides just keep shouting without being heard. Sad, really. Both may even think he is listening, but only hears enough to form the next argument.

Someone has to take the chance and be the first to really listen to the other one. Who will it be? Will it be you?


Honoured/Sadly Missed
Whither Language?

It seems to have become almost a matter of course that any subject of general interest will sooner or later be referred to the man now widely known as the UK’s Wrangler-in-Chief, Sir Bertram Utterside, whose credentials surely do not need to be restated here. The latest conundrum dropped onto his forty square feet of oak – a big mind requires a big desk, he says – was that of the alleged mangling of our language, brought about by the current state of literacy, plus the transmission of messages in abbreviated form by texting. Readers are reminded that Sir Bertram is not averse to embroiling himself in controversy. His observations are given below:

By coincidence, this matter was presented to me at the same time as I was immersed in a study of Linears A and B, the supposedly near-lost early Minoan tongue and its successor. It is fortunate that I am something of a linguist, so the question of whether or not English usage is deteriorating reached the right address.

Before getting down to brass tacks, I would like to doff my hat – not a common occurrence – to those pioneers who made noble efforts in this field. I think in particular of the originators of the Oxford English Dictionary, who grasped the need for their work to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. This explains why we find alternative recommendations with respect to spelling and pronunciation. C. K. Ogden made a useful contribution with his Basic English, comprising only 850 words. I also offer a nod to Zamenhof, the founder of Esperanto, who in my view should be considered a ‘totem Pole’ – another of those little quips I offer now and then to people who still doubt my inclination to jocularity.

Languages are always changing and their strengths and weaknesses vary according to the purpose for which they are used – literary, rhetorical, poetic or merely communicative. With respect to the first three categories, English has no advantage over many other tongues. In the last it is dominant, not because it is outstandingly good, but because it happened to be in the right places at the right times.

As to further progress, I am bound to chuckle at the fossils who contend that, owing to falling standards, all is lost. This is nonsense. I have examined the supposedly deleterious effect of texting and have found that, contrary to the claims of a number of philological backwoodsmen, this phenomenon should be welcomed because it leads to original thinking. I am well-placed to comment on this, as I have produced a hybrid language, based upon a mix of the Roman alphabet, Arabic numbers, quasi-Oriental ideographs, mathematical symbols and direction indicators. My system has the familiar twenty-six letters, ten numerals, the four computer keyboard arrows and sixty icons of my own design, making a total of one hundred characters. I submit that until we master telepathy – I have no doubt that we shall do so – this could replace all other ways of conveying information.

Though I have compiled a guidebook, I do not claim that all English words are encompassed by my technique. For the time being, some will remain as they are. However, let me offer examples based only on the letters and numbers familiar to all of us. ‘Foresee’ and ‘four hundred’ are rendered by 4c and 4C respectively, the upper case indicating that a number is involved. Likewise ‘fork’ and ‘four thousand’ would become 4k and 4K, while ‘form’ and ‘four million’ would be 4m and 4M. Now for something even simpler, using only letters. ‘I see you are too wise’ would become i c u r yy.

Some much-used words are represented by simple symbols, for instance ‘the’ is a bisected circle. The senses of forwards, backwards, upwards and downwards and their connotations are given by the appropriate arrows, while mathematical signs for ‘more than’ and ‘less than’ are used. The proposed system precludes any possibility of misunderstanding. Admittedly, a single spread of a hundred items would be rather large, but any difficulty this presents could be overcome by alternative keyboards, accessed by a single stroke. Indeed, my own machine has a second array, which causes very little inconvenience. One simply has to get used to the idea.

Some filing away of rough edges is still required, but in the interest of giving readers a flavour of the advantages of the proposed method, I engaged a former student of mine to translate a novel from Standard English into my version, adjuring her to ensure that all nuances were preserved. The original book ran to 60,000 words, or about 340,000 characters. I was gratified to note that the young lady, using pencil and paper, did an excellent job in terms of impact and readability, and reduced the work’s volume by about a third. If that is not an improvement, I don’t know what is.

Some readers may think they detect possible flaws in the system outlined above. I assure everyone that I am well aware of all potential anomalies and shall soon file away any rough edges. You will then hear more of my innovation. For the time being, I have nothing further to say about it.

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Honoured/Sadly Missed
Imparting The Spin

As so much has been said about government departments putting their own slants on various matters, it was decided recently that the public should be offered a way of evaluating objectively what is said by politicians. How could this be done? In view of the prevailing high level of mistrust, a feeling emerged that a universally respected observer should be engaged. Perhaps nobody fills that role to perfection, but few would argue against the appointment of Sir Bertram Utterside, sometimes described as Britain’s Logician Laureate. The renowned nit-picker was given the job and his recommendation is given below:

I regret to say that my work on other and more substantial matters was interrupted by the request to deal with this commonplace one. However, I have given it the thought it deserves. There is no point in my going on at length, as the solution is obvious. We are dealing here with the question of political leaders purveying their ideas. Well, they have their axes to grind, but how are we to interpret what we hear?

It is clear that politicians are a necessary evil. An advanced society should not need them, as its members would be aware of their rights and responsibilities. For the time being, our country, like all others, needs people to look after the shop while most citizens go about their business.

We must think of the offices of prime minister, chancellor of the exchequer, foreign secretary and home secretary as the most influential ones, exercising control over lesser lights. Defence, education and health are bottomless pits, into which the whole national budget could be thrown, perhaps without significant improvement to the results produced. Clearly, they must be restrained by more senior departments.

At the highest levels, let us take the job of home secretary. The incumbent is on a hiding to nothing, being no more able to pander to the ‘string ‘em up’ lobby than to the high-minded liberal one. Such sympathy as I have with our leaders goes in no small part to the holder of this office.

With regard to the position of foreign secretary, it has been said that diplomats are people sent abroad to lie for their countries. If this is so, the head of foreign affairs must function as the chief dissimulator. Small wonder that the person concerned often seems to act like a cat on hot bricks, executing a delicate tap-dance around the truth.

The chancellor of the exchequer always has much to answer for. Whoever is in that position often recycles figures in ways that can be made to demonstrate almost anything, for example that we somehow manage to remain a global titan, active everywhere abroad while simultaneously achieving great improvements in our own public services. All this without any increase in taxes as a proportion of our gross domestic product. Some trick!

I will not dwell on the duties of the prime minister, who has to pull everything together and speak about whatever is topical. This is an onerous position, demanding that the holder has a view on each one of a vast range of subjects. And no allowance is made by the public for lack of awareness of anything on the PM’s part. The masses do not permit ignorance in those they believe should be omniscient.

What we need is a department charged with the duty of assessing the pronouncements emanating from other offices of state, in much the same way as I once suggested that auditors should be rated by an independent agency. My proposal is that we set up a Ministry of Credibility, the remit of its chief being to rank other ministers as to the soundness of their statements. The scale would be on the star basis, ranging from five for top performers to one for the duffers. Obviously this new body would be detached from political parties, not changing with their fluctuating fortunes. The credibility minister would have the job for a long period and would need to have unimpeachable credentials with regard to impartiality. It is not for me to suggest who might best fill the role for the first time.

Though the new ministry might well have the information it needed to bestow its ratings on those actually in office at any given time, the awarding of stars would be on a retrospective basis. The idea here is to encourage ministers to be as candid as possible while in parliament. They would then be sure of recognition of their good work, after the event, for example when they treat us to their memoirs – price £16.99 in hardback. A former holder of high office receiving a five-star accolade would be sure of peddling a large number of copies, while a one-star performer could hardly expect anything but a resounding failure.

To anyone who feels that I have been a little harsh on politicians, let me say I am profoundly glad that we have people willing to enter parliament. Some of them get saddled with tasks that most of us wouldn’t take on. Who would like to weigh the merits of, say, selling a vast quantity of arms to a dodgy foreign country against not doing so, the second option putting thousands of people here out of work? And what about the financial mess we are all in? The politicos may have allowed that to happen but they didn’t cause it, and it is small wonder that they have trouble dealing with it. The only people who might know how to get us out of this pickle are the money-jugglers who got us into it, and even if they do know, they won’t tell us, will they? I have no more to say on this subject.

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Honoured/Sadly Missed
A Question Of Nationality

Much has been said recently about national and regional identity. This issue is topical in the UK and elsewhere. So concerned have many people become that experts decided to solicit an independent opinion. Few will be surprised that they chose that intellectual giant Sir Bertram Utterside to offer it. Never one to pull his punches, the one-man think-tank tackled this matter in his familiar forthright way. His views are given below. Editor matter issue

When this task was handed to me, I was told that it was widely thought of as a Herculean one. Perhaps most people would have found it so but I have not. Indeed, I hardly needed to move from my study to reach an irrefutable conclusion. Still, I picked up a nice little earner here and we all have to eat.

A short while ago some fellow said to me that he was a Londoner, born and bred, and proud of it. I asked him why the pride and he seemed to be puzzled. I pointed out that he is a resident of our capital city as a result of his birth and I saw no reason why he should give himself airs on that ground.

I am a Yorkshireman but am neither proud nor ashamed of this. It is simply a fact. I am also an Englishman, to which the same comment applies, as it does to my being a European. Above all, I am citizen of the world, and I fail to see why I should have any particular emotion about that.

There is no contradiction concerned with being, say, a Glaswegian, who is a Scot, a Briton, a European and a dweller on the Earth, nor is there any reason for pride or shame in that identity. It simply happens to some people. Why should we take upon ourselves any aura attributable to where our forebears lived or what they did or did not do?

It is as well for us to remember that great minds have cropped up at random all over the world for many millennia. Why should I be proud because Isaac Newton was an Englishman? I had nothing to do with his achievements. And why should a friend of mine who is a native of Leipzig be proud because Newton’s contemporary Leibnitz came from that city, or another acquaintance in France rejoice in the fact that, say, Voltaire shared his nationality? Nonsense.

If there had been any human beings on the Earth many millions of years ago, they would at a certain point have been either Laurasians or Gondwanalanders, since there were only two continents and no countries. At another time, had humans been around, they would all have been Pangaeans, as there was just one great land mass.

Further tectonic shifts and continental drifting will make nonsense of the national borders we recognise at present. This comment leads me to an amusing thought. I have a Canadian colleague and am having a vision of him starting to read ‘War and Peace’ in Vancouver and finishing it in Vladivostok, without having moved from his chair. No doubt one could regard that as the ultimate in armchair travel. Just my little joke.

It is increasingly obvious that many people are reaching across the boundaries of nation states because they have more in common with those of like mind in other countries than they have with most of their own compatriots. In that respect, the English language has been as much a blessing to contemporary communicators as Latin once was to the most highly educated people in Europe and some other parts of the world. I am not suggesting that English is superior to other advanced languages. As a polyglot, I believe I may assert confidently that it isn’t. Despite its numerous absurdities, it has prevailed because of a mixture of geographical, economic and general cultural factors. Any other major modern tongue would serve us well enough.

If we are ever to have any peace in human society, nationalism is one of the three things we shall need to discard. Another is organised religion, which I would say has not much to do with genuine faith or belief and never did have, except perhaps in a tangential way at times. I am aware that this remark will upset some people. My response to anyone who finds it offensive is that I am not in the habit of offering anodyne comments when addressing potentially controversial subjects. I do not advocate banning religion because I am no great friend of proscription in general. In saying this, I am mindful of Ronald Reagan’s remark that one cannot roll tanks over an idea. However, I predict that religious indoctrination will wither away as people increasingly take responsibility for conducting their lives, instead of allowing preachers of whatever ilk to tell them how to behave.

The third thing we must abandon is too obvious to need much comment from me. It is the aggressive and confrontational mindset that has dominated virtually all of our recorded history. I will note merely that it is bad enough that we have to contend with what nature throws at us. We surely do not need to augment our troubles by slaughtering each other. I realise that it will take quite a while for the less evolved among us to grasp this point, so my advice is that they should start trying to do so now.

Returning to the main point of this report, national identity, I say do not be either happy or sad that you appeared in a particular part of the world at the time you did. After all, you might have been here in an earlier incarnation and may come again in another. If so, who knows what or where you were, or could be? Take me for example. It is quite possible that in contrast to my current eminence, I was in some previous existence a humble hod-carrier on life’s great building site.

This supposedly problematical issue is in fact very simple and I have no further observations to make about it.

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Honoured/Sadly Missed
If It Ain’t Broke . . .

The topic of subsidiarity has become so hot that the decision was taken to commission an authoritative report on this sometimes controversial subject. Who would be capable of tackling such a difficult theme? None other than Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of the UK’s most prestigious seats of learning, and recently dubbed the country’s Thinker-in-Chief. Fortunately he was available, so he cleared the decks and gave the task his full attention, reporting as follows:

This silly little matter is not worth much of my time, but dealing with it brings in some of the folding stuff, which is always welcome. I am almost tempted to present my conclusions without explaining the reasoning, much in the way that Sherlock Holmes initially offered his solutions. However, I recall that he did divulge his trains of thought, at least to Watson, so it would be remiss of me to deprive readers of similar courtesy.

It has taken a long time for our world to coalesce into the array of nation states we have today. Most of them are fairly stable, so it is interesting to note that there is in some quarters a desire to tamper with the present position. Doing this may have limited justification in a few cases, but there is no convincing argument for widespread upheaval, and I shall now indicate why that is so.

Subsidiarity, most often encountered in its political application, is a fancy way of expressing devolution, i.e. some affairs controlled centrally, others regionally. This has been much discussed, especially in the European Union. It is sometimes invoked by those who see the prospect of being big fish in small ponds. I would advise everyone to exercise caution when listening to these people because it is likely that if they reach positions of leadership, their practice will be in inverse proportion to their earlier preaching. In short, beware of dictatorial ambitions.

Let me go through this matter of ever-greater devolution. It will start with countries being split, the main consequence being that the resulting components will have, even in total, less influence in the world than the original entity had, i.e., the sum of the subsequent parts will amount to less than the previous whole. This is clearly contrary to common sense and is a very unsatisfactory outcome.

The next step would be splintering of the successor bodies, let us say to about the size of UK counties. Local bigwigs won’t stop there. The process would descend to cities and towns, then to areas no larger than the current British council wards, finally going down to single streets and in some cases large individual properties, such as mine. I will not divulge where that is, as I don’t wish to be besieged by admirers. Finally, every house, street, ward, town, city, county or whatever region would have its own prime minister, finance minister, etc. These people would have impressive titles, but no influence in the wider world. They may well be nominally similar to Pooh-Bah – The Lord High Everything Else in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado – but they might have a hard time matching that gentleman’s power.

Another development of the fragmenting might be that people in certain streets would emerge as more aggressive than those in neighbouring ones. It does not stretch the imagination to envisage the bellicose types preying on gentler folk, motivating the victims to band together to resist unwelcome attention. This idea would spread, leading to areas the size of whole wards making common cause against ruffians. Then it would go further, encompassing towns and cities. There could be only one logical culmination to this process. In the interests of security and of having a voice in the world, the once-devolved mini-states would form unions, taking us back to where we were before the dismantling began.

It has been noted many times throughout history that humankind has a tendency to make the right choices – after trying all the wrong ones. Need we experience this yet again? I think not. My conclusion is that subsidiarity is all very well, provided that it is it properly understood and implemented. By this I mean that decisions should be taken at appropriate levels – big ones by the authorities best placed to deal with them. And what are those bodies? The nation states we now have, of course.

I recommend that we leave things largely as they are, rather than take our administrations to pieces then rebuild them in what would most likely be ‘new improved versions’. We all know what that means. Many years ago, a perspicacious American fellow remarked: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I suggest that our current position is not in need of repair by indiscriminate decentralisation. Though not totally happy about having choices made for me by a government far from my home, I am not foolish enough to think that my own options would invariably be better than those selected on my behalf, and I am glad to be relieved of the necessity to make up my mind about an endless list of issues. That is all.

Sir Bertram is now taking a break.

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