January is a depressing month. The days are short, so you go to work and come home in the dark (at least in the northern hemisphere). You go back to work after the Christmas break realising that the enormous backlog of work hasn’t gone away (indeed, despite trying to clear some of it during the break it seems larger than ever). If you are an editor of a journal you get a flood of new papers, as everyone used the break to complete that long delayed manuscript, and you then have to make too many heartbreaking decisions not to take them because your journal has far too many papers for the pages available. But this January has been especially depressing. Exceptionally, I have spent 5 weeks almost without getting on a plane (there was a brief skiing trip but I don’t count the very rare recreational flight). This meant a long period of uninterrupted exposure to the words and deeds of our esteemed political leaders. Not an edifying experience.
Where to begin? Maybe with the agonies of our prime minister, who when confronted by video evidence of what bore all the hallmarks of a lynching by a bunch of gangsters, as Saddam Hussein went to his death taunted by onlookers shouting sectarian slogans, could not bring himself to condemn the events that took place. OK, he did eventually, after several of his ministers, who were clearly departing from the script, had allowed their underlying humanity to be exposed. Even George W Bush managed to get his condemnation in first. Still, Mr Blair is a man who can say no more about Guantanamo Bay than that it is “an anomaly”. I wonder if he has yet managed to see the newly released Dutch film Black Book in which Nazis refer to Dutch resistance fighters as terrorists and those resistance fighters/”terrorists” have their heads forced under water until they feel they are about to drown, an experience reported by many of those who have been guests of the US government recently (and dismissed by Vice President Cheney as “a dunk in water” which he does not consider to be torture).
Then there have been the travails of our health minister, struggling to work out how to present the NHS reforms as being in some way coherent, while those who have to manage the system struggle to make her totally incoherent reforms work. It can takes someone from outside to point out what we should all be able to see – unfortunately there are still too many policy wonks in the UK who seem to believe the reforms do make some sort of sense, rather like those people in ancient Greece who sat around the oracle at Delphi trying to make some sense of what was often complete nonsense, or the sages who seek to interpret the quatrains of Nostradamus to show how he anticipated some contemporary event. In this case it was Nick Manning, head of public sector management and performance at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, speaking at a conference in London. He pointed out that British ministers "tinker a lot and trumpet a lot" when it comes to reforming public services and he accused them of "mindless promotion of change" despite little proof that what they proposed would actually work.
Then there is our minister for culture, media and sports, who has the misfortune to be responsible for the budget for the 2012 Olympics, where bills are escalating rapidly. One reason was that the government forgot that it would have to pay VAT!
However, any commentary on political events in the UK would be incomplete without mention of our Home Secretary (interior Minister). This is a man who has held many senior governments posts (albeit briefly), invariably moving on to another post before the effects of his policies become apparent. In this way he has been able to maintain that, whatever was happening on his watch, it was not his fault. This argument is increasingly untenable. Over the past few months we has woken each morning to yet another fiasco in the department he is responsible for, a department that, when he took it over, her described as “not fit for purpose” and promised to reform it. Unfortunately, his ability to dream up new initiatives that will grab the newspaper headlines (an ability that is not in question) is not matched by his ability to run a government department. Prisoners have gone missing, records of offenders are not transferred from one part of his department to another, his senior adviser on youth justice resigns because ministers do not listen to him, and most recently, when faced with the reality that English jails were completely full (a direct consequence of policies introduced by him and his predecessors to jail more people and keep them there longer) he advises judges to jail only the most dangerous offenders, advice they take by not jailing several sex offenders that would, in any other circumstances, have been locked up. For me, however, this misses the point. This daily torrent of scandals simply draws attention away from his greatest mistakes, those he made when he was responsible for the Department of Health, which are now giving his successor so many problems.
Now I can’t finish a blog without some mention of my travelling experience this month. As I said above, only one return flight, but sadly it involved Heathrow’s increasingly dysfunctional terminal 4. This time our luggage was only an hour late. But at least it arrived. There were piles of unclaimed bags against the walls of the baggage hall. Eventually, we found someone to ask what was happening – apparently they were still struggling to clear the backlog after a conveyor belt broke. But at least we got our bags. The man who told me about the conveyor belt also said that they had so many lost bags (from the problems with fog and the conveyor belt) that they were now just disposing of them and paying compensation to those who had lost them, as it was easier and cheaper. I can’t know whether what he said was true, but then I can’t see why he would have lied to me.
Amid this gloom and despondency there have been few things to raise ones spirits. A rare exception was an excellent television drama set in the future, when our prime minister has at last stepped down, only to find himself charged with war crimes. If you haven’t seen “The trial of Tony Blair”, you should. Yet at the end, I began to feel slightly sympathetic for him. I must be going soft!