Friday, January 20

To my German friend . . .

My friend in Germany wrote to me wondering whether his country should agree to send tanks to Ukraine, believing that it would simply lead to even more deaths and he was scared that a result might also be Putin, on the verge of defeat, pressing the big red button. I had to respond in quite forceful terms!

Regarding Ukraine, without support Russia will simply take over the country. The Ukraine people will fight hard with whatever they have but they will eventually lose just by the fact that Russia can continue to send more and more troops in the old-fashioned style of war in which no-one cares about the lives lost as long as they win. So, in very simple terms, whoever has the most troops wins. And Russia would, after losing many thousands of more men, take over what was left.

If that is the outcome that some people prefer then don't give Ukraine any more assistance.

Personally, this seems wrong to me for two reasons: (1) It was wrong for Russia to invade in February (and, indeed, in 2014) in all interpretations of international law and in how their troops have behaved since in many instances of torture, rape and more crimes, and (2) because Ukraine people will still try to defend their homes and families until the bitter end there will be a huge loss of Russian and Ukrainian lives in such an ending.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that all of the European countries plus the whole of the British Commonwealth plus the Americas plus Japan at least should demonstrate their support for Ukraine and how bad they believe Russia's actions have been. They have mostly done this in words and a good number have backed up their words with actions to provide real military assistance of one sort or another.

The logic is simple. Russia's terrible actions must not be allowed to succeed or there will be little to prevent Russia or another country doing something similar again. There is a solid international majority that says this is wrong and has to stop. Unfortunately, the leaders of most international countries have been less strong in their actions and that has enabled Russia to make some progress and to feel confident that they can eventually win, albeit slowly.

The introduction of tanks and armoured vehicles as well as an increased availability of missiles and ammunition generally will make a massive difference to the next few months, according to every military intelligence assessment that I read. It allows Ukraine troops to advance. At present they cannot do so across open ground which is easy to cover with bombs and missiles which simply stop ground troops and prevent any advance. With armoured tanks and similar vehicles Ukraine would have a significant advantage and would be able to retake all the land taken by Russia at the beginning and also to advance to Crimea. Russia has plenty of men but very few vehicles left now as so many were destroyed. They are also running low on missiles and no-one is really sure how quickly Iran or North Korea can supply more, The drones are also running out or being more effectively taken down by new defence action supplied by the west.

Once Russia has been pushed back to the original borders then Ukraine will not seek to advance further so no-one is threatening any Russian in their own territory. This has to be the preferred outcome, followed by compulsory funding by Russia to assist rebuilding all the damaged cities, towns and villages they destroyed. No, of course, this is not what the Kremlin and whoever is in charge will be happy to see and no doubt there will be no agreement but there will be a de facto defeat of Russia in this action. By making it very clear at that point that Ukraine is then part of NATO, or an area that the international community at large will protect in future, Russia will have to recognise that any further attempt to enlarge its territory will result in war with more than just Ukraine. That is a war they will understand cannot be won and the Russian people will also be aware that they have been badly misled by their leaders. That may even lead to a change of leadership in Russia but, on that subject, I am not so sure at this time.

The only threat that remains is the nuclear one. This has been much debated recently. Some people believe that Putin would press the button. The majority, by far, of intelligence analysts say that this would not happen. No-one has threatened Russian territory so the main reason to fire at you or me or another country does not apply. It would have to be some crazy act, like a child lashing out at a parent in a bad mood, or someone banging a desk in anger or frustration. Putin is not crazy. He knows that any nuclear explosion would cause just as much damage for his troops as for Ukraine and the likelihood of wind blowing radiation dust back across Russia is very high. Indeed, that could result in more problems than the explosion itself. He also knows that this would be crossing a red line that the US and some other nations have defined. One nuclear missile fired into Ukraine would result in an almost instant massive increase in traditional weapons and, I believe, other nations' forces on the ground and, importantly, in the air over Ukraine.

There would be considerable devastation but a quick end to the war would occur with so many more countries actually involved. Without any actual attack on Russian land Putin would not risk any weapons being fired at another country. I do not believe another nation would fire a nuclear weapon in response and WW3 is not imminent.

There is also the real question as to the state of Russia's nuclear arsenal. Much of it is ancient now and many suspect that only a small proportion are serviceable but even those may not actually be able to be fired successfully. There is a large risk of some of these weapons actually exploding on Russian land and not reaching another nation or, possibly worse in terms of the next stage, one or two fail to be correctly guided and land on a NATO town. Putin is, as I said, not crazy. He knows this. The nuclear threat is a threat that can not be relied upon. 

So, in summary, this is not a matter where it makes sense to call for peace and be worried about huge escalation or Eilum or Astcote being obliterated. It is not 1960. There is a way to stop Russia and prevent any more loss of life. That is to stand up to the bully and show him that we can make Ukraine far stronger than he is. We have already shown that Ukraine is Russia's equal! Now we need to finish the job and force Russia back to where they started. If Putin has any sense he will quietly retire and let someone else take over and pretend to the Russian public that everything is good. "We punished some bad people in Ukraine and now the Special Military Operation is complete" is what Russian TV programmes and newspapers will announce. End of story.

So your government really must stop the stupid delay and get on with doing whatever it possibly can to support the rest of us. Tanks, vehicles, ammunition, technical workers, whatever you can give to this cause, please give it now. Staying quiet and hiding away, hoping that no-one drops a bomb will not help anyone. Indeed, it will simply encourage someone like North Korea or Iran to use theirs as their leaders are crazy and will see Europe as a bunch of weak nations scared to do anything to help another.

1. Promised support delivered quickly will save a huge number of lives by producing a quick end
2. Actual delivery shows Russia that we all mean what we say. 'Support' is something we do, not just something we say.
3. Neither Putin nor any current Kremlin leader will fire a nuclear missile at a NATO nation
4. They recognise the huge risk for themselves of any detonation in Ukraine
5. In any threatening situation there will be people who are scared. That is understandable. But there will also be people who are strong and brave and smart enough to protect those who are scared. Sometimes it is necessary to say that something is very wrong and to take action to prevent it. That action may entail risk of disaster but without action there is certainty of disaster.

Wednesday, January 4

Maths and the NHS

 I don't know who is now advising Rishi Sunak. James Forsyth has recently transferred from The Spectator to his political team and I had previously been impressed with his writing and argument when discussing the government's actions so I would be surprised that the latest releases are his responsibility. Whoever suggested, however, that it would be a good idea to say that students should continue to study maths until they're 18 needs their own head examined.

Firstly, I should make it clear that I am something of a mathematician. I love numbers and have Pure Maths and Applied Maths A Levels and really do enjoy solving quadratic equations and wondering aloud about topology, doing sudoku and various other games involving numbers. But I am slightly bonkers. It would not expect the population at large to be like that. I would expect them to be able to do some simple sums without needing a calculator and to be able to recognise that some numbers are simply either too big or too small to be sensible answers to a question that might arise in daily life. That's all. And these are numeracy skills which are around Level 1 or 2 at most and are currently pretty much unavoidable at schools and colleges as things stand.

I was under the impression that almost every student does pass some basic numeracy test before leaving and those that don't get another go at College if necessary. Numeracy NVQs at Level 1 as I recall had virtually 100% pass rates even at Dunstable College where neither the standard of teaching nor the standard of student behaviour or English comprehension was particularly great at the best of times. You had to be pretty thick not to pass or to suffer from some other problem which meant you probably shouldn't have been put in for it in the first place without some extra guidance and support.

The sort of maths that comes later is the more awkward stuff, maybe involving triangles or the terrifying matrices. I can't imagine integration being on the agenda for all 17 year-olds. "Differentiation is a science; integration is an art," my St. Albans School Maths master used to say. There's no way any student should be made to study either unwillingly.

So I am very much concerned at what Rishi Sunak is getting at, or what he hopes to achieve with this announcement. Yes, by all means, let's have a more numerate group of students entering the workplace but there is already sufficient testing. Perhaps the teaching and type of testing could be improved but that's about it and I certainly don't think we should spend too much political capital losing votes by forcing everyone to 'do maths' every week. It would be better that 'Social Studies' or 'Black history lessons' or 'White privilege / diversity training', however, now I think of it. Bit I can just see Labour lining up a series of advertisments featuring attractive modern schoolgirls looking bored at their desks in a 70s-style classroom with a boring-looking teacher covering a blackboard with white chalk equations and symbols in 2024.

Think again, Rishi. And sack James if this is his first idea in post!

What has got everyone's attention recently is the NHS. Or, rather, the lack of S in the NH. Labour, of course, see this as a free ticket to government and there will be cries of how badly the Tories have done with all the crises being reported within and all around the National Health Service. Christ, even the nurses are on strike and junior doctors are regularly searching for posts in Australia. It is so easy to stick this one of the Tories, as Labour will continue to do, probably dragging the Brexit £350 million for the NHS bus poster out again too.

Secretly, however, I suspect that Labour are thanking their lucky stars that they're not in government at the moment as they wouldn't be able to do much about it either. 

The problem is not of the government's making. It is simply the case that the National Health service is incredibly badly run now. It's vast, it's hugely complex and collapsing under its own weight. As we all get older and live longer we demand more treatment for ailments and cost a lot more money as both the time spent under care and on drugs to help us soar ever upwards. Unless the funding for the NHS is similarly linked and increases vastly ever year in line with the need then something is going to break. I don't hear anyone willing to give that commitment as the implications for us tax-wise, would be too high.

It is necessary to separate the service from the administration and management as far as possible. The former does need the continued expansion in one form or another but the latter should not. That may then lead to a more acceptable element of funding year to year. Non-service costs really could be frozen in total, if not reduced. I suspect that there is a huge amount of waste from a lack of joined-up thinking, centralised purchasing can be a double-edged sword too, without sufficient thought given in negotiations on prices payable and quality receivable. Management and middle management salaries seem very high in comparison to equivalent job roles in other employment. Many staff are being paid  substantially more than MPs or company general managers with considerably more responsibility. My guess is that a massive amount could be saved by cutting swathes of NHS Management posts without anyone actually noticing.

This still is unlikely to be enough in the long term, though. I just can't see how we can continue to provide a free service to everyone. Times have changed. We could offer a free service for day-to-day care and advice and for hospital treatment to treat serious illness and injury to everyone as before but with some differences. Non-essential treatments should be chargeable in most circumstances. So someone who wants bigger boobs shouldn't be able to get them installed on the NHS unless there was some genuine psychological support for the spend. Basically, much more limited cosmetic work for free. 

Develop lots of local centres where people can get some treatment and care and advice without having to go to a big town hospital. I am sure many of the simpler, less invasive and more general treatments can be delivered this way without the need for main ward services.

Help people that have to go to hospital get out quicker by using more recovery areas, like what used too be called ??????. This needn't be on the East Coast as many seemed to be in the old days but might even be incorporated in the local centres too.

Incorporate care in the home and Care Homes in the service so that there is some continuity in everything.

Now for the big change: provide all this free but require anyone in employment or self-employment to have private health insurance in addition to their normal NI payments. All treatment and care is costed and debited to our NI accounts. That's for everyone and a charge is made for those with insurance. Private medical care also remains available so if the person has used alternative facilities there would be no NHS charge in such a case, or maybe just a partial charge for initial investigation or consultation perhaps.

Everyone continues to get treated and no-one is turned away through lack of funds or given less good service. It is simply that there will be a bill for everyone in future and those who can afford to pay more will do so. Their insurance premiums will rise as they age and earn more. It is almost an extension of National Insurance but does not just gather more money to go into a bottomless pit. the funds are directed to pay the bills arising.

The administration and management side of the NHS should be mostly a fixed cost and calculable so that the required amount can be drawn from the normal payments made by everyone through National Insurance. These might be included in the 'bills' to be provided for each interaction with the NHS too but I need to think about that a bit more as there is an element of the cost that needs to be billed to everyone and I can't figure out yet whether that can be covered by the basic NI contributions alone. If it can be then I'd say that it needn't be featured in the 'bills' for interaction, that would be only for the occasions when the person used the service. 

No-one would actually pay these bills but they would be valuable reminders and aid accounting for the NHS generally, making it much more like a business that can compare income with expense. Insurance funds would meet many of the bills, of course. I cam also imagine a scheme whereby someone who goes through life with very little use of the NHS will benefit, possibly by a credit in older age or an entitlement to free or subsidised home or Care Home care.

Perhaps there might be  a scheme whereby some of the unpaid 'bills' accumulated by someone are deducted from one's estate on death, subject to all sorts of caveats to ensure fairness, continuity of spouse entitlements etc. I don't know about that but, again, there is a sense of payment for health care by those who can afford it which, whilst frowned upon and shouted at by left-wing politicians, may not actually be so bad an idea after all.

One thing is certain. The government should resist any more payment increases for any NHS staff at this time. It is now time for the NHS management to try and do the job they are very nicely paid to do - run the service. They need to decide what their priorities are. At the moment I fear that they are more about causing trouble for the Tories than helping people who fall ill.

Nurses need to think more about this aspect and stop believing all that they read and are told by their trades union representatives. If their lives are hard and the work is tough then is it really the government that is to blame? Who is really determining what they do and when each shift? Who is being paid a whole lot more than them for taking no personal risk or doing no long hours or night shifts at all? Who could set about recruiting more staff?

NHS managers.

Sunday, January 1

Who will rescue Britain from the Woke Brigade?

 Here are in 2023 and it's time to put this country to rights now. The Conservative government have really let us down, in my view, over the last few years. And I am normally a pretty passionate supporter. Well, I was a supporter of David Cameron and Boris and I have a lot of respect for Rishi Sunak. The less said about May and Truss the better, although I do not blame them for the things that have gone wrong at all. It's society that has changed and the attitude to a key group of unknowns in positions of influence in organisations which effectively control our lives.

The main things that have gone wrong for me all tend to be concerned with freedom, freedom to say what we like, write what we like and, for that matter believe for what like. There's also the freedom to drive a car running on petrol in a city and the freedom to decide for myself whether I need a mask or can meet more than three and half people on a Tuesday morning in Tescos and the freedom to fly somewhere without a portfolio of paperwork and worrying about the contents of my bag being in the wrong size of plastic bag.

I had always thought that it would be socialists who would be more inclined to take away these freedoms, to want to control me more with the Nanny State imperatives but all that has annoyed and frustrated me has occurred under a Conservative government.

The main loss of freedom has been the advent of 'woke' in our daily lives. I am not going to list all the examples of what I find wrong or just plain bad nowadays. It's actually the whole concept that's wrong. There have always been charities, NGOs and CICs who get money from government for their activities to champion 'minority' causes, be they in regard to sexual preference, gender, ethnic background, disability or whatever. We've tended to leave them to their own devices. We might not particularly wish to support some organisation that speaks for left-handed Tamils with one leg but we don't make a fuss as for every one we don't particularly agree with.  

These organisations have mostly existed in a sort of grey, little-visited world in the past, with one or two notable exceptions and no-one has really paid them a great deal of attention. Lottery money and our tax has funded many of them and they've provided a large number of well-paid jobs for groups of people with a passion for the causes. Slowly, however, with a great deal of help from some top class legal advice and the Equalities Act 1970, many have found ways to influence staff in HR offices across the country and convince middle managers and boards or controlling bodies in councils, hospitals, public employers generally, academic institutions and more that policies need to be updated to comply with legislation. Now, no-one wanted to be seen not to be doing their bit as regards diversity, equality of whatever in the early 2000s but now it has been taken to a whole new level.

The 'woke' thing really stook off a few years ago when almost every organisation wanted to show how they supported minorities and wanted it made bright and clear so that no protesters would damage their buildings or directors' cars. The big 'minority issues' have been race and gender, with sexual preference getting a close third as far as I can determine. These have dominated discussion and all the organisations dealing with them have had a surge of funds and interest and support in so far as all those organisations and institutions have needed reassurance that they're behaving as they should be, whatever that may mean. And there's the rub. 'Whatever that may mean' is how the legislation has been interpreted and given rise to even someone saying something which offends someone else being seen as a crime. For all I know, I may already have a string of Hate Crime Incidents reported against me for the things I have written or said over the years. I know that I take my life in my hands if I criticise the dreadful Black Lives Matter people and say how embarrassing I find the whole business of taking the knee can be with some colleagues at work. I am white and, apparently, privileged and usually get a ten-minute lecture should I dissent from some woke idea when mentioned.  I tell you, objecting to anything woke is hard work.

Organisations are now very fearful of being on the wrong side of the argument (or even the law, as it stands) and the risk of being sued by a member of staff or a student or a client adds to that fear to such an extent that they feel they need protection. Along comes one of those charities, NGOs or CICs - think Stonewall for it is they who are more than anyone else responsible for this disaster - and gets someone appointed as Diversity Manager or Lived Experience Director, or even good old-fashioned Personnel Manager will do and they arrange lots of training sessions at huge expense. Who provides the training? Oh, people arranged by Stonewall or one of the others, of course! Even more money flows into the coffers and these groups are now seriously well-managed and well-funded in the vast majority of cases, with government keen to ensure they get what they need. Even government departments are now getting this new training and staff being told how they need to re-examine their attitudes to black people, or whatever minority or shade of gender is the flavour of the day! So once government staff themselves get either indoctrinated by the message or genuinely get convinced that it's all good stuff then so too do the Ministers they advise who decide what you and I need to do to keep out of trouble.

Before we know it Stonewall has effectively robbed us of so many freedoms - especially the one to criticise Stonewall - that we're not just dumbfounded but simply dumb. We dare not speak out or we'll be shot down in flames by some clever activist who has rehearsed answers to almost every question we might wish to raise or idea we may wish object to. It's not that there might not be alternative views it's just that we're not allowed to express them as someone may be offended and sue the company who own the room where it happened.

It's not only Stonewall but they're the one we hear about. The training has been going on for some time now and seems to have started after some black chap in America died when he refused to accompany the police quietly to the local station and they didn't treat him very well. After that the world went mad and many of the so-called black minority organisations were on a roll and could do no wrong.

Now staff are being told that as well as their grandparents being responsible for slavery or something they also need to specify their pronouns, whatever that means, and by no means should they twitch or raise an eyebrow should someone walk into the room with a large penis poking out from under a flowing dress and say his name is Keith/Miss/Their. That's a microaggression, apparently Very bad. Don't let any facial expressions upset someone. Better wait until Keith has left the room and then join the rest of the crowd and burst out laughing.

Some staff in a government office had been fired because they refused to go along with the pronoun thing. Since when was that a condition of employment? What happened to having to agree to a change of contract terms? I give up. Well, I nearly do. But I hold out some faint hope that there are enough people out there who really do agree that enough is enough and the whole woke business needs to be cut out of our society. Completely. I totally want to respect every minority and treat them nicely and I don't care what colour you are or whether you like to dress up on Fridays. I don't even care if you want to wear a BLM badge and go down on one knee at football matches or when meeting the boss. It's your choice and you're entitled to your choice. Just as I am entitled not to want to do those things. And if I want to say something rude about some prophet in private at home then I would consider it unreasonable if my kids were to report me and I find myself with a criminal record in Scotland. 

It can be done. The government could amend legislation to make a lot of this 'training' unnecessary or even desirable from a legal point of view. They should immediately ban such training across the board and review the funding of every body getting taxpayer or lottery money above a certain level, looking at exactly where the funds go and whittling out some causes which don't merit any public funds by virtue of being essentially plotting to change Britain or remove sections of British society from history.

Academic freedom of staff to express their views and students to do so too must be restored, if necessary by amending the basis on which institutions get our money. No more cancelling speakers because someone doesn't like what they may say. No more getting away without being arrested for damaging property or statues just because the property of statue might have been associated with some disagreeable action in Britain's past. No more National Trust lectures on how bad we white people are or were when the properties they're responsible for looking after were built. No more museums deciding that this or that artefact must be put out of sight or have a message attached explaining how bad the white man was who dug it up or how we shouldn't have been in that place anyway.

By all means let people write about whatever Britons may have done wrong in the past but where we are providing information to the public, let this be an even-handed and fair account showing several viewpoints or sides to the history involved. This, finally, brings me to the BBC and much of television's output these days. There, too, the HR departments and production and writing committees have been taken over by the Woke Brigade, giving rise to tediously biased stories every night in soap opera discussions and casting as many ethnic minority people as possible in new series, lambasting government and business in documentaries at every turn so that a casual observer of Auntie's output would think the country is one third BAME, one third LGBTOOQ+ and the other third can't be bothered to object.

Well I do object. I find a lot of mainstream television now almost offensive in how so much more time is given to opinions and causes which I don't believe need such highlighting, if, indeed, they're relevant at all. Dr. Who had really awful story lines a few years ago. Now it seems to be compulsory that there is a non-white face in every news bulletin and ITV don't escape criticism with the laughably 'correct' group of black, brown and olive people replacing the whites in adverts. I understand that some departments now have to write a report justifying why they recruit a white person for a post but this is not required for a non-white recruit. That's mad and, like the concept of positive discrimination, which we heard of a decade or so back, absolutely stupid! The Spectator magazine managers have a wonderful way to recruit new interns; a team of people strip the applications of anything that might identify the age, gender, background, locality of the applicants and they're all asked to complete an aptitude test. The people deciding who should be interviewed have no idea about whose material they're looking at and the decisions as to who gets an interview are based purely on the scores given to the tasks and tests. Brilliantly simple, inexpensive to set up, takes a bit of organisation but totally fair and meets every criteria for whichever flavour of diversity or equality or opportunity you like best.

Put that sort of thing in place across businesses and organisations throughout the country and give the job to the people best qualified or suited to the job in every case. Argue against that if you can.

Finally, there was a YouGov poll conducted recently which should be more widely circulated as it really does put into perspective what has gone wrong and may explain why the government have been so stupid recently. In every case listed the perception of the proportion of the population who were in a particular minority was hugely over-estimated. Not by a small amount, but hugely so. There are about one half of one percent of the population that is transgender. Just over one in a hundred say they're gay or lesbian. A fraction more are bisexual. But when asked, people's average estimates were around ten times as many! They thought that 20% of the British population was black. It's a mere three in every hundred, that's all. Watching the BBC, you get the impression that their people casting the presenters for their programmes were the survey's responders.

The Nuclear Elephant in the Room

So that's the end of 2022!

What a year. At the beginning of the year I was in Ukraine. I remember walking back in -20°C temperatures after an evening of celebration with friends who lived in Zhytomyr and asking them what they thought about the stories of Russian forces accumulating on the Eastern border. They either didn't believe there would be an invasion or, if they did, were not very bothered about it.

A few months later we were sending them money to repair their house after missiles had damaged it. Their wives and daughters had gone to Finland. Finland and Sweden had applied to join NATO, although everyone seemed a bit relieved that Ukraine wasn't a member. That meant we could all sit and watch and say how terrible it all was but not actually do a great deal to prevent Russian troops doing whatever they wanted in Ukraine.

The United States, United Kingdom and a few other countries did eventually send some weapons and useful equipment but it has only ever been enough to prevent Russia taking much by way of territory. It did not prevent dreadful killing in towns that will become famous when war crime trials begin in years to come, not the devastation of huge swathes of Ukraine in the south and east. There is now a sense of deadlock and all Russia seems able to do is fire increasingly ancient missiles at key infrastructure targets so damaging electricity supplies and water provision. 

Experts' views as to what will happen in 2023 vary from the optimistic one of Ukraine slowly pushing Russian troops back to the original borders, some even suggesting they might take back 2014's loss of Crimea, to those who expect to see little change, an advance or two here, a setback there with Russia unwilling to settle for anything less than achieving what they intended at the start, the domination of the whole of Ukraine and being content to keep throwing whatever troops or missiles were necessary to do so. Ukraine gets continued equipment-only support from the West which is sufficient to allow people to cope but there's no let-up in fighting in the disputed areas.

No-one has predicted, however, the other outcome. The one where Russia wins. The one where they use a modest but effective nuclear device and blast a complete town away, kill a million people and suggest that tomorrow it'll be another town unless Zelensky surrenders. Enola Gay above Vinnitsa but with a Z insignia instead of the girl.

We would all hold our hands up and say how wrong it was and how terrible we feel about it but, seriously, would we actually do anything even then?

Those of us who have friends and relatives in Ukraine would say, without a doubt, "Yes, it's time to get involved. The bullies have to be stopped. We're going in, maybe even starting by taking out some of Russia's missile bases and being offensive at the start rather than messing around on the defensive only. Putin needs to know we're not going to take any more. The line's been crossed."

There are, however, rather greater majorities everywhere of people who don't know anyone in Ukraine and, whilst, yes, it's a bit sad that they're getting nuked and it's all bad stuff, their view is that if their country gets involved then they're putting their friends at risk. "If we go in and kill Russians then they'll fire stuff at us and bye bye Birmingham," I can imagine someone saying. OK, I've never liked Birmingham but I still wouldn't want it nuked or even blasted by non-nuclear devices. Governments simply are not going to respond in kind, whatever Joe Biden might have said.

Things will be appallingly messy. Zelensky may well not give in but, with what would inevitably be more equipment, maybe even some air support at last because we all feel so bad about what has happened, feels that he has to fight on and take the loss. The Ukrainian people won't give in, even if Russia carries on and flattens every town. Those that survive will hide and wait for a chance to regroup and fight back in small pockets of resistance here and there but their country will largely have ceased to exist. There will be little for all those who left to go back to. Eventually, it would have to be accepted that Ukraine will be a land of much toxic soil and for a decade or two something of a wasteland. Russia will claim it as Russian territory but no international bodies will recognise that and Russia becomes regarded and treated much as North Korea is, mostly ignored and regarded as irrelevant to any future trade or development by anyone other than North Korea and, no doubt, some Africa states of dubious decency.

We'll be talking about it for years to come, debating how we might have avoided it, what we should have done next and so forth. Someone may try and take out Putin or he just gets removed quietly by others who, whilst supporting the initial plan, are not particularly happy about their newfound position of little value or influence in the international community. Even if he just dies naturally there'll be another to take his place and there's not going to be any big change there for a while.

I'm quite glad no-one has predicted that one. It is, though, the Elephant in the Room, isn't it? We know that it has been recommended as action by some of the more impatient and uncaring of Putin's advisers. Provided that he doesn't cause any collateral damage to a NATO member then we will not respond in kind. So Putin can throw more or less what he likes at Ukraine and no-one, no-one is going to hit him back.

Except, that is Ukraine. And that brings me to suggest my own idea of how this could turn out: we rapidly provide Ukraine with a whole load of long-range missiles of all shapes and sizes, and the facilities to fire them and manage them effectively, which Russia would have to admit could cause some serious damage to some of their towns and cities. This might just, possibly only just but it's worth a try, stop the bully as it would mean, for the first time, he might get seriously wounded rather than just losing old equipment and idiot backwater town recruits should he attempt to make such a move. Indeed, I would advocate that Ukraine would be perfectly justified in demolishing Rostov-on-Don now as they've already had Mariupol and several other towns flattened anyway. I hope they don't as I have friends who live there but I can totally accept that, after holding back from killing Russian civilians for a year whilst Russia gaily murders and rapes Ukrainian men, women and kids, there are limits to such restraint. One more bad move by Putin could break that resolve of the Ukrainian military leaders to stay 'good'. And we should give them whatever they need now.

That ought to ensure Putin does not go nuclear or throw his toys out of the pram and devastate even more of Ukraine by some other means.

It's not an ending but I believe it would accelerate a change of attitude in Russia, even amongst the people there who might finally get to know the real truth of what's been done in their name. Indeed, I would strongly advocate that we also use all our technical expertise to get the truth out to the Russians. Can't we take over their broadcasts or hack into their internet and provide free access to the world's sites so they can see what everyone else is saying outside China and North Korea and those few states in Africa.

Perhaps some will even be able to read this and appreciate the frustration of many of us here in Britain at how even reasonably intelligent Russians appear to be so easily controlled.

Wednesday, October 19

Help. Let's have more HI. Less AI.

Help. A little assistance with a query about a service or product. It doesn't seem much to ask but try getting someone to respond in any meaningful way to a problem these days. In recent weeks I have tried to get help from several banks, a hospital, an insurance company an on-line sales organisation and Google and in every single case I have got nowhere. I have not even got nowhere fast - it's been a slow, tedious and very annoying process every time.

On the occasion when I have finally found a human to speak to I have suggested that they try their own system and relate at their next management or training session to the boss their own experience, if not mine. Many people do seem to be sympathetic and yet nothing ever changes. I can only guess that the middle managers who have put these systems in place have no desire to admit that they may have made a mistake and so their bosses don't get any direct evidence of the failure and any statistics which might reveal some dissatisfaction are either hidden or, if shown, regarded as something now which applies across the board and so there becomes a sort of feeling that if everyone in the same industry is suffering the same way there is not a great deal they need to do about it.

It all starts with the telephone system or an on-line page which asks you to select the area for your query. Often you may not actually know which of the many choices offered are the most appropriate. On the phone, you select one and hope for the best, only to be told, usually several steps down the line, that there is a 63½ minute waiting time or, horrors, there is no-one available to take your call and please try again later. Brrrrrrr. All this is, of course, interrupted every minute or so by a voice claiming that their website has all the answers you need and just go there and you'll not need to phone anyway.

On the web page you might have a list of possible questions that they think you were going to ask. None match what you had in mind. Others, a little more advanced they believe, try to second guess your query from the freestyle text you can enter. This works even less well for me. You search all over an organisation's page for a phone number, email address or some other way to get help. Cleverly, all help and contact links seem to bring you back to the same place. Very occasionally you might reach a page where there are some more options. One might be to have an online chat. You type in your question and hope. No, it's not a person but the same search engine as you encountered before which tries to second guess your query based on what you type and gets it quite wrong.

Once or twice I did find a human at the other end of the chat line. But all the human was able to do was the same as the telephone choice system elsewhere - refer to some sort of flowchart. She asks the questions and, depending on my answers, is guided through the chart until she reaches a conclusion - I need to speak to a representative. Yes, I knew that. Thanks. Just tell me how.

My questions are not Masters degree level challenges. I might need to make a transfer of funds which cannot be done by one of my banks online for some reason I don't understand. I have a problem to resolve with a customer of the online trading company. I want to change an appointment. I have a website built with Google tools and want to get Google to promote it so that people using Google can find it more easily. You'd think that would be the sort of thing Google would love to help me with. They even have AI systems now for lots of their services. Their telephone staff seem to lack even human intelligence, though, as the first encounter I had was almost robotic as the girl struggled to work through her flowchart of responses and actions to be recommended to the caller.

The nice chap in the States that I did finally get to speak to was human and did have a little more intelligence but all he could do was sell me some advertising. He did understand my query and that I would not buy any advertising until I had made some charges to the website to make it work better with Google but was still unable either to tell me who I should talk to or to head me in the direction of someone who could actually help. He finished up emailing me a link which I had hoped would be to an individual who might be in a senior enough position to straddle both Google's technical and advertising departments and advise me accordingly. The link just went to a page where I had started several days ago. The 'type a word and we'll try and find out where you need to be directed' sort of page. AI that is more artificial than intelligent regrettably.

One thing that seems evident to me is the standard of competence of the individuals that we interact with in these conversations. It is very poor. We are often dealing with one of the lowest levels of staff in the organisation who follow a sort of script or the flowchart type thing I've referred to before. They're not doing anything more than a computer program would do. They seldom have much of a clue as to the problem you have or your own situation or any experience of your business or activity. I might not expect that from the first person I deal with but I do think we should get to speak to some more senior people at a much earlier stage. 

There is a lot to be said for putting smart, knowledgeable people on the enquiry lines for part of their day. They would minimise the time that it takes to deal with queries and also be better placed to make changes in an organisation where the level of customer enquiries merited this. 

The stupid phone choice systems and on-line help flowcharts need to go as I doubt they help anyone very much at all. Give everyone a phone number and an email address. Employ extra staff - there are plenty of people available - to answer those calls and make more senior staff time available to take calls referred to them. Get teams to check emails and pass them to the right people and make sure they're actually dealt with in a reasonable time. If things go crazy and there really are times when the phones go mad then have a system where people call you back. This is so much better than making us wait. And the music . . . what is that! No-one I have ever heard from has any desire whatsoever to listen to that 'holding music' which is nearly always of terrible quality and at an uncomfortable volume to boot. Mad. Don't tell us to consult a website. We're calling because we want to talk to someone. Let us talk to someone. And let that someone be human and intelligent, please.

It this really too much to ask? The whole nation seems to have been totally conned and taken for a ride by idiot middle managers who think a program some organisation has flogged them to 'manage' calls will answer all their queries and ours too. I know of none, anywhere, that has been in any way a success.

Some organisations which have got it right are First Direct Bank, PayPal (once you find their number!) and UK2.Net domain management. The customer service from these three has been remarkably good in my experience. In every case I have had access to a comparatively senior, intelligent member of staff who gets what I need, understands what I say and knows what to do to respond and retain my business.

Saturday, October 15

Green And Pleasant Land Matters

A few years ago this was a happy place with amusing articles and pictures of life in the village. I am so sorry that it has turned into my series of log-winded moans about what is happening in the world but, to be honest, there really isn't much happening in the village. In 2020 COVID-19 sent the vast majority of its residents scampering for the safety of their homes, bolting the doors, refusing to see visitors and getting food delivered from Tesco or Ocado vans. They're an obedient lot. The Government said they had to be locked down and so they did. A few of us needed to keep a business going and I made one or two trips each week to the Post Office in a nearby village where I could also buy an 'essential item' or two in case my trip was queried by some officials. I genuinely did expect to be stopped by Police from time to time. We had seen reports of people walking in Derbyshire in a way that was apparently illegal and so this seemed just as ridiculously feasible at the time.

To be quite honest, my life and activity didn't change a great deal throughout the COVID period now that I can look back and see what happened. I was able to make many trips to Ukraine which must have relieved the boredom and, by good fortune, this area escaped the high level lockdown too for almost all the time. I do believe that we should all have been left to make our own decisions about our activities and health and that the mass of Government regulation and expenses was largely wasted. Having said that, it is easy to write in hindsight but I really have never supported the way the State was able to rule our lives or restrict our activities. Obviously, the remarkably successful development of a vaccine was marvellous and many people did many good things but I was very glad to be able to burn sacrificially those horrid masks we were forced to wear a little while ago. Some people are still wearing them - looking like Chinese tourists in London. The Chinese always seemed to have them, presumably believing that our cities are as bad as theirs for pollution, although why they didn't just visit some more pleasant, beautiful and definitely pollution-free places in this country and discard the masks I do not know.

All this regulation stuff was what did for Boris. I rather think that his views on lockdown were similar to mine but he seemed to forget that, whereas no-one was too bothered about what I was doing from day to day, the eyes of many disgruntled people or downright enemies of the chap and his Party were very much focussed on the parties, cake and whatever may have been in the glasses at various occasions. He was totally screwed and probably could not believe how it became not just headline news but stayed on the front pages of newspapers for weeks on end. A very, very effective campaign by people who disliked Boris and the Conservatives generally was able to gather support not just from obvious sources like the baying Labour voices and almost everyone in the North who hate 'Tories' anyway, especially posh-speaking ones, but also from much of his hitherto solid Conservative rank and file membership who had been so keen to follow the rules and do as they were told who were quite upset that they were effectively being told to do as the boss says not as the boss does. That didn't sit well with that section of society either.

I really had no objection to the parties, cake or whatever but I did feel that Boris handled things poorly. He may well still be Prime Minister had he opened up the nation at the very start and said "Sorry, chaps." 

I really do wish he were still Prime Minister as Liz Truss is frankly a huge embarrassment. I can imagine how many Americans must have felt when Donald Trump was holding forth on this and that and generally making a fool of himself. We pitied the States then, and yet we recognised something in the Trump style which did work. He did seem to know what he was doing ninety-nine percent of the time and he did have balls, personality and was the guy that you'd want on your side in a fight. Mrs Truss has so far shown no personality, no determination or cohesion of policy and has also made seemingly illogical decisions and made no attempt to explain herself in words of one syllable. She strikes me as a little dim and way, way out of her depth. I voted for her, believing that she was the most likely to continue to support, and, indeed, beef up, support for Ukraine and reckoned that she might eventually become more of a leader in time.

Now, I would like the Conservative Party to arrange a replacement as soon as possible so that we can, hopefully, all get behind one individual who has some talent and can engender respect across the world as well as appeal to voters in Britain. I do not believe there is any great likelihood of a massive Labour victory in 2024. Voters have seen nothing much of interest in anything that Labour is proposing and are unlikely to trust them any more, especially if things have started to get better by then. What could be more concerning would be the rise of the Liberals as the natural go-to party for disillusioned Conservatives. No-one has any idea of what they stand for nowadays and any coalition with Labour could be scary with Stonewall, Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil type of organisations' supporters taking charge.

As it is we are seeing the country run in many places by Stonewall, Pride and people who believe everything pushed out by Black Lives Matter, and a whole raft of organisations that have sprung up to bring sex and gender into mainstream debate and communications. We have a situation now whereby some universities and colleges, many government-funded bodies too, are obliging their staff to do crazy things like add their preferred pronouns to signatures, include the Black Lives Matter logo, and the Pride one and others to communications. Although one particular organisation has since said that its 'instruction' to do so was intended as a 'please think about doing' so the damage is done. Many people will have felt they had to do so to avoid being sacked or accused of not supporting the trans community. How many people are there in this community? Are they all supporters of BLM and Stonewall, and Pride? Do they all agree that everyone should now be calling themselves Alice, He, His or whatever now? I doubt it. There are a million minorities in this country and each deserves respect but we can do that by being human, kind and polite. We do not need regulations and we most certainly do not need Black Lives Matter or Stonewall, each awful organisations that have erupted in our HR departments midst since some bloke died resisting arrest in America. 

I do not want any institution or firm or body or organisation that is in receipt of taxes I pay to be in any way associated with BLM or Stonewall. Or a whole raft of others who will no doubt be getting massive funding from Councils across the country anxious to show that they are doing the right thing in this wacky woke world in which we now exist.

I am trying to recall when I first heard or read the word woke. It is an odd word and would have stood out like a sore thumb but I can't tell. It just seems to have grown and become more common over the years. I am thinking that I had not heard the word before 2018. It was after BLM too, so that dates it to May 2020 at the earliest. I dislike the word a lot but I am not sure why. I think it is because it is the past participle of wake and so a part of a verb in my usage. I woke up at 8am. It seems to be similar to the woke in 'I woke up to what was happening". But "to be woke" makes no sense to me. I can be awoken, maybe even, at a pinch woken but I cannot be woke. At least that's what I thought. It seems that I can and the dictionary does define woke as an adjective, first appearing in 2017 and meaning awake to sensitive social issues. So I could be woke after all if that means aware of. I feel that awake to implies some essence of agreement that something has to change so the jury's out on that.

So far, I have disliked and genuinely oppose just about all that I read and see being done in the name of woke. How has this come to pass? It appears that organisations like Stonewall and Pride really have managed to get a shoe-in to so many of our institutions and so persuaded umpteen thousand of those counties' middle managers and executives in HR posts that we desperately must use their services, running courses and something akin to re-education camps for some, to show us white people how terrible we all are. In 2020 the Government said that they would be cancelling all Race Bias Training in the Civil Service and, I understood, all Ministries including the NHS, arguing that it was effectively useless. However I see many training websites still offering Race Bias Training, including some that are run by the Government themselves as quangos!

I remember something called Black History Month back in the late 1990s at college. Lecturers were obliged to include material relating to this history of black people or their countries, as I recall. More often than not this involved some nice curry in the canteen and posters in classrooms where cut out shapes of Jamaica or Fiji were stuck on sugar paper. They stayed up a long time and often were brought back for Inspection when the glue had dried out on some of the fallen cut-outs leaving the original bright colour of the sugar paper standing vibrant in the otherwise very faded purple, blue or magenta colours that sugar paper always was. I didn't do much by way of posters or celebration of Black History myself. It seemed a bit odd. Why did we never have a Yellow History Month, Brown History month or even a more polite Asian History Month perhaps? My college in Dunstable, Bedfordshire had a massive number of Pakistani students, mostly doing IT or Business Studies as a way to maintain income benefits for their families for a few years more rather than their attendance, such as it was, being, for all but one or two, any real attempt to complete sufficient BTEC assignments to have a chance at university entrance. I can remember maybe four students that I would call black. But they came from countries as different as Uganda and somewhere in America. They didn't see the point of Black History Month either as they and their parents had been here for a long time and, whilst they might have some interest in their parents' or grandparents' roots, the posters and menu were not of much significance to them. And the Asians, as a whole, were pretty much ignored completely until Ramadan or maybe some Festival of Lights came along for a day or two. Then we'd have a few posters again but nothing like Black History Month. Month, for heaven's sake!

At about the same time I remember the Academic Board being presented with a draft document which was proposed by some very serious woman as our Equal Opportunities Policy. At least I think that it was Equal Opportunities that came first. Equality and Diversity came later. Probably some variations in between. Let's say it was Equal Opportunities. I have regaled readers of another blog on education matters about this particular event in the past and how my suggestion that we merely say we will treat everyone the same fell on deaf, if not somewhat stunned and, one set of amused ears. I mean, why say more? Where does that take us? By attempting to specify who might be needed to be treated equally one is almost implying that they're not in the first place. By attempting to list all the minority groups you're almost bound to miss out one and they'll have something to complain about. Then you have to think about what activities are to be dealt with in this policy - from how we handle admission enquiries at the outset to telling people they've failed their exams at the other end? And all that comes between.

We finished up with a 96-page document which no-one ever read and I was branded something close to but not quite, obviously, racist. All I had wanted to do was to put respect for all people, including majorities as well as minorities, as a fundamental duty which we should all not even have to sign up to but was simply the right thing to do. If there were instances where our paperwork or a procedure might offend someone from some minority or another then we should fix them. The time wasted drafting those 96 pages, and probably another 96 for each of the subsequent new policies required, could have been considerably better spent. If we'd been asked to dig into our pockets and pay for that time then the whole thing might have been different - but time paid for by our taxes doesn't feel as if it is a cost coming directly out of our earnings.

I am probably very fortunate not to be involved directly in such matters now. Because I would have refused to add any BLM or Stonewall or Pride logos to my correspondence and not wished to have Hill, He His on my name badge, suggested that instead of Black History Month we have White History Week for a change; because I would have slapped some students on the back either to congratulate them or wake them up from time to time, refused to attend training sessions designed to correct my attitude to white supremacy or whatever similar bollocks was on the menu or, more likely, did attend and tried to argue a few points with the tutor doing the PowerPoint show; because of all this I would have been in trouble most, if not all, days and, at best, encouraged to retire gracefully. At worst, I would be visited by the Police investigating a 'hate crime incident' as no doubt one or more the things I had done could have triggered someone to say how upset they were that I'd said they were only there because their parents told them to be there.

There was just one trans person in the classes I taught that I was aware of. I did get a shock when someone who had worn a suit and looked definitely masculine one week walked in in a bright blue dress and wig the next. I couldn't help but stutter in whatever Level 3 Business Studies lecture I was giving that day but I regained my composure and made no big thing of it at all. This was at Vauxhall Motors' premises in Luton where we ran an outreach course for employees to gain more qualifications and the students were all in their 20s or 30s. At Dunstable there were none. A few professed to be gay but no-one disputed whether they were male or female. Every single one was, in 2010, happy to be one or the other. No-one wanted or needed a Don't Know or Unspecified box to tick. Even the chap, er, sorry, student, at Vauxhall signed on as a bloke. I do accept that I was temporarily troubled by what to call him, er, them, no, that's rotten grammar, I give up, the person. I managed to avoid needing any hes or shes, though, throughout the 30-week course and we got on fine.

So I can accept that we need some help in how we address trans people but they are so few and far between that I do feel we can take care of that without special training and expensive organisations instructing us for fear of a visit from Mr Plod. I would simple chat to them and agree what to do. End of story. I also refuse to accept that there has been a sudden massive splurge of people who have become trans or declaring some other variant between or outside the confines of male and female. Nor has there been any requirement for me or any of my colleagues or students to know anything at all about our colleagues' or students' sexual preferences. Indeed I would be surprised if many of the staff I knew would admit to any! "Sex, old boy? No idea. Can't remember!" So I couldn't give a toss about anything to do with the LBGTQOO+ community or whatever it is called these days. And why don't they call it the NLBGTQOO+ community and let us Normals in. By Normal I mean men or women who don't give much of a toss about all this and get on with their lives as men or women, probably having relationships with the opposite sex if they're lucky or just remembering old times. Now by calling myself Normal I could be implying that everyone else in the group is abnormal. Insofar as 94% of the population in 2020 defined themselves as heterosexual or what I've loosely called normal then that seems fairly clear. The others are all minorities, some minute minorities and certainly not what one might encounter normally. As individuals they're not abnormal but their preferences are. It is not meant as an insult, it's just a way to emphasise the point. We're spending an awful lot of time pulling our hair out and defending dismissals or statements, re-educating grandad and making sure that we don't upset university students by allowing someone to speak their mind about something or we try to warn them that the content of an old film might have a reference to Tranny or Poofter. A horror film might even have a shock at some point. Oh dear.

The National Education Union, Britain’s largest teaching union have a resolution to develop a definition of transphobia, passed at the last annual NEU conference in the spring, and now looks likely to be adopted.

The proposal suggests that anyone who expects trans people “to participate in discussion or debate about their rights and/or identities” is transphobic, and cites “propagating ideas, concepts and misinformation harmful to trans people and which erase and ignore trans history” as examples of transphobic behaviour (while neither outlining what is meant by “trans history” nor what “ideas, concepts and misinformation” would be considered harmful). It further defines transphobia as a “rejection of trans identity and a refusal to acknowledge that those identities are real or valid” or the “incorrect use of pronouns”.

While protecting trans pupils, trans teachers and trans support staff from harassment is a worthy aim, it’s clear that this proposal goes way beyond legal compliance and would have the effect of rendering any challenge to gender critical ideology or the agenda of transrights activists as a form of extrajudicial hate crime.

That’s problematic because, statistically, it’s inevitable that in a mass membership organisation like the NEU many members will reject the central tenet of gender identity ideology, namely, that sex is a social construct, and instead believe that sex is binary and immutable. Is the NEU effectively saying to all its fee-paying members that don’t want to go along with gender identity ideology that it regards them as ‘transphobic’ and no longer wants to represent them or defend their rights? As member relations campaigns go, it’s certainly daring.

And what about the policy’s effect on staffrooms up and down the country – will it have a chilling effect on free speech? If this definition is accepted, anyone who says: "You can’t logically self-identify as the opposite sex", will be a transphobe. How many teachers will be too scared to speak up in schools and they will just go along with the NEU policy? It becomes something you can be dismissed for. Just like that.

All this is happening in Great Britain today. I look around and these topics of racism and diversity, Pride and BLM feature increasingly in news reports and those delivered by the BBC, as well as many new series produced by them, seem to feel that we all need to be educated, with a dreadful Dr Who series from 2019 or thereabouts and even the presenters or teams of people sat on chairs to debate matters seem to have to obey some rule of one from each minority wherever possible. I can almost hear the Programme Manager at a W1A-type meeting shouting " . . . OK, if there's only one make it a black woman first choice. Asian woman second, then black bloke. Gay white next. But no old white bloke on his own . . ." You may grin or grimace but I have no doubt whatsoever that they is a list of preferred minorities! Nothing to do with knowledge or ability.

Basically the Conservative government has been well and truly set-up and I suspect there is not a great deal anyone can do now. These things all happened under the radar. It was so difficult to refuse to take the knee at the time. Rather than risk offence many of our leaders and stars of field and screen did so. The police did and the BLM movement must have thought it was Christmas with all the money that poured in. Never to be seen again, but that's another story.

I have been reading the Spectator recently and have been particularly taken by Rod Liddle's articles and occasional ramblings in the magazine or on-line. So far, I have not disagreed with a single word that he's said. That's unusual for me but we seem to be of a like mind. He is a member of the SDP. I presume that is the Social Democratic Party which I really had thought had died out some years ago. I recall the two Davids, a bustling woman and a few others launching it but had no idea it still existed. I have just read some of their aims and policies and there's nothing in there I would disagree with. Might I suggest that Rod and I see what we can do to persuade a few of the more intelligent Conservative and Labour MPs to switch allegiance? Something has to change. 

I expect to see the Online Safety Bill redrafted to refer purely to the safety of children and a campaign to prove just how preposterous much of this woke training is, together with effectively removing any publicly funded associations by organisations with Pride, Stonewall and BLM and others. No-one denies their right to exist but I believe many would prefer they raise funds directly without taxpayers' support. The same applies to a vast array of organisations set up to garner charity, lottery or similar funding but which have objectives which need rather closer examination. 

This is a green and pleasant land, in places. It certainly remains so here in Astcote but I do fear for some other parts. The Conservative Government need to start running this country again. At the moment it seems effectively to be in the hands of assorted Socialist HR and local government personnel who, with their cronies in much of the media now, are having by far the greatest impact on this pleasant land. We need a Green And Pleasant Land History Year.

Saturday, October 8

Keep taking those iodine tablets . . .


There was something very satisfying about the news of a bridge being blown up today. It was also quite surprising and I am pretty sure it has taken many people by surprise, even those who claim to know what is going on in Ukraine rather better than I do.

The bridge is the Kerch Bridge which was built by Russia following their annexation of the Crimea region in 2014. The Russians need that bridge to enable support to reach their front quickly. Now they'll need to take a longer route and it does seem to be a most significant gain by Ukraine. Ukraine has, since I last wrote, made remarkable advances and retaken a large amount of land and some key towns in the North East, with Russian troops pushed back, in some cases we're told they're scampering back, to the 2014 line. Even in the South, Ukraine troops are making advances around Kherson and there has been a lot of positive news about the places returning to Ukraine control.

At the same time Putin has enforced residents of the areas that Russia have been controlling to vote for their towns and villages to become part of 'Russia'. People really have had no choice - anyone seen to vote (and it seems that their voting intentions are seen) against becoming part of Russia is regarded as some sort of Ukrainian agent or generally undesirable and likely to end up in prison or carried away on some excuse or another. There may be one or two people who genuinely do prefer the apparent peace that they believe might stabilise in their town, and the money and employment offered by new town governors, but I doubt they number more than 5% at most. The other 95% will have voted the way they did merely to stay alive and well and living in what they hope will become 'Ukraine' again. 

I am actually surprised that the votes we have been told about were not 99% in favour in every place. The same tactic was adopted in 2014 to justify the takeover in Crimea and some less definitive Russian control of towns in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. We didn't believe it then and we don't believe it now. No way have Ukrainians voted to be Russian after all that they have seen happening in their streets and fields.

So I have been fully expecting great efforts to be made to pull those areas back and it is encouraging that, even as Russia attempts to set up some administrative systems in some places, they are being driven out by Ukraine's advance. What I had not expected was any effort to retake Crimea. I had tended to think that there might have been some historical anomalies in how the borders were drawn whenever the whole area was divided up by whoever did the negotiations back in the 1950s. My knowledge is poor on this but I have heard quite strong arguments asserting that the Crimea region might not have been so obviously a part of Ukraine. That doesn't mean that it was necessarily a part of Russia either and certainly these doubts were no justification for the 2014 invasion. It does mean that, at that time, I felt there might be a good reason for both sides, and international advisers, to look again at the map and thrash out something and, of course, consult properly the population there. Forcibly taking it and conducting a dodgy poll in 2015, however, did more to damage Russia's interests in the Crimea than help them in my view. 

I had rather thought that suggestions that Ukraine might want Russia to withdraw not only to their 2014 positions but also from Crimea were extremely optimistic, whilst laudable aims. Now I am beginning to believe that they could actually do it and that would most definitely not go down well in Russia. I can imagine the population at large in Russia not paying a great deal of attention to the 'special military operation' ending more or less with the Russian troops where they started and no great change to any borders - and neither the extraordinary amount of damage to Ukraine's cities and towns nor the great loss of Russian lives and equipment would be broadcast to them and they'll look the other way to a large degree if they do happen across any real data that shows Russia in a bad light anyway. To lose Crimea would be another story. And that's why there is going to be some massive escalation in due course.

Putin simply cannot let the Ukraine advance continue and, whilst the bridge being damaged doesn't exactly make it much easier for Ukraine to retake Crimea, and there is still a huge amount of work to do in the South, it has become something that more and more people now see as feasible. Before it was a sort of dream and no-one I knew considered it part of the current plan.

My guess is that there has been a significant amount of support from other countries under no national flag, maybe UK, maybe Lithuania, pretty definitely Poland and Estonia and there are people there on the ground making a difference. Ukrainian troops are getting some better weapons and lots of training too and they seem to be applying all this new-found knowledge and ability to most impressive use. If this is, indeed, to be a tipping point in this war then now is the time that whatever we can do needs to be done as it will have the best chance of success while Russia is clearly on the back foot. Before they can regroup, rearm and generally figure out the next move we should make ours. Throw whatever we can in to help Ukraine and get every European country to join in. USA too, and Canada and Australia and whoever else we can get on board. Leaders like to be on the winning side and they can be now.

The one question remains, of course: will Putin hit the nuclear button? I think it is likely that he will, with a small but nasty missile hitting some infrastructure or town in Ukraine as a threat to show what he can do if we don't cease the assistance. That will alienate a lot of support within his own country, though, and start a major divide between the Russian population who will be unable to avoid the publicity of such action. No 'special military operation' now. This will not be what they thought they could ignore and look the other way about. They managed to ignore Bucha, children being hit, massive civilian causalities and other ghastly crimes committed in their name but nuclear war they'll not be able to let pass as if it hadn't happened.

If they're lucky the wind will not blow any radioactive dust their way. But there will be a response from the West and several weapons bases will be hit almost straightaway and no military commander will risk going along with Putin's next steps, whatever they may be. The writing will be clearly on the wall for Russia as a whole at that point. However mad or bad his colleagues may be, they'll not risk escalation in full knowledge that more will come their way, however many missiles they may have. No-one except Putin signed up for that sort of conflict. We need to call their bluff and soon we will have a great opportunity to do so.

There's a long way yet to go but I am finally feeling positive about Ukraine's chances of not just regaining control of its territory but settling this on Ukraine's terms, not those of some committee.
But my friends may need to keep taking those iodine tablets.