Sunday, February 12

The infinite beauty of the impossibly real.

I am trying to imagine what it must be like to be intelligent and kind-natured and living in Russia, born and bred there - a good person who somehow manages to discover and be aware of the facts as to what is happening in Ukraine and how the world at large is viewing developments.

Let's call her Tanya. She has her own apartment in Rostov-on-Don, close enough to the border to be quite badly affected by any nuclear dust if the wind were blowing in the wrong direction at the time of any explosion in Ukraine. Probably close enough to see tanks and troops going West and not seeing any coming back for the past year. Her TV and radio tell her that her country is conducting a special military operation to remove Nazis from Ukraine. I am not sure whether she was also told it was to bring that country under Russian control but that seems to have been implied as, indeed, that the vast majority of Ukrainian people actually want that anyway.

It's no big deal in February 2022 when the Russian troops and tanks roll over the border and head for Kyiv. No great public announcements, life carries on pretty much as normal at first. After a few weeks, however, she starts to hear about the howls of protest not just from Ukraine but from every European country, except Hungary, Transnistria and Kaliningrad, and particularly loud anger and astonishment from the United Kingdom and the United States as well as all the rest of the British Commonwealth from Canada to New Zealand. Suddenly she's not permitted to leave the country. Even if she could take a flight somewhere the plane would have to be Aeroflot and would only be permitted to fly over a limited number of territories, no other airline now serving Russian airports and most countries banning Russian flights from entering their airspace, never mind landing. 

She wonders why there is a huge exodus of women and children from Ukraine, mostly to Poland and Finland but many also to England where the British government is paying families £600 a month to help provide a room for a Ukrainian woman, more if they have children too. What is so fearful that so many people left homes and husbands in such a hurry? It does seem quite strange.

Putin appears on TV and at various other places to tell everyone how this special military operation is just a small necessary action to rescue Russian people in Ukraine and remove the Nazis that he says are controlling things and how it is necessary to protect Russia and its people from the advance of NATO with US and European troops and armour expected to be building up on the border because of Ukraine's developing friendship with the West. Many of Tanya's neighbours and colleagues believe what they see and hear on Russian TV and Radio and in the state-controlled newspapers. They see Putin as a strong protector of all that they love about Russia. She can hardly argue with them. That would not only make day-to-day life difficult and tense for her and other members of her family but could also get her sent to jail, following new legislation which bans anyone referring to the special military operation as a war or invasion or anything except a helpful move by nice Russian troops to remove nasty people making trouble somewhere in Ukraine.

And anyway, she does have some respect for President Putin. He had made Russia a lot stronger and restored national pride after what many Russians had seen as loss of identity and influence when the Soviet Union was broken up in the 1990s. Generally, things had been going quite well. Some dissidents had disappeared and leaders of any opposition parties struggled to get the same airtime or, for that matter, any votes in elections, but the Russian Federation was a nation that we could do business with, travel to and it had McDonalds restaurants. She was quite pleased he had 'got Crimea back' although she had not really liked the way it had happened. But not many people died and the whole business about which nation should run Crimea had always been a bit dodgy. This latest action, though, worried her.

She started to read what was actually happening. It wasn't just the clear evidence emerging that this was a genuine invasion and that innocent civilians were being killed when missiles and bombs blew up apartment blocks and city centres but that Russian troops were suffering very badly. Things were not going as planned. They completely failed to reach Kyiv and almost the entire batch of tanks and equipment in the north had been lost, as well as almost all the soldiers inside them. No Nazis were being killed as far as she could make out, only people who had been threatening nobody, just going about their daily lives or, in the case of Ukrainian troops, trying to defend their towns and villages and actually doing it remarkably well. About 120,000 Russian soldiers have died in this year according to the internationally-respected organisation counting them on the ground. The true figure is likely to be double that when untreated injuries of another 300,000 are taken into account.

She learns that this was not just luck but countries like Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, Finland and Britain had immediately provided a lot of very valuable resources to Ukraine which had enabled them to maintain a strong defence. She watched as international verified sources confirmed that wave after wave of her country's troops were being sent in to replace those dying and how, over time, the sheer number of Russian troops made progress possible. But that 'progress' was the most abominable treatment of women and children in towns like Bucha, where hundreds have been found shot or beaten with their hands tied, women abused in the streets and left to die there in other towns. Populations, or those hundreds that remained, in some other southern or eastern towns were forced on trains and removed to Russia. News is still today awaited by their families as to where they are and whether they're even still alive. Talk of Nazis - who was it that used trains to remove and kill vast numbers efficiently? Tanya tries hard to think objectively and base her feelings and conclusions on facts but she does start to wonder just how her country could be doing these things to people who, until a few months earlier, now a year earlier, happily co-existed for the most part.

Then she starts to read about just who is actually doing the killing and now commanding operations in Ukraine. It is essentially a business. The Wagner Group, employing prisoners and almost anyone they can find in nations far and wide, including Syria and Iran, that wants to fight and have a chance of earning good money and their release, are very much in control of what happens on the ground. They have mostly made up for the early mistakes of ill-informed and very ill-equipped Russian troops and have demolished almost all the towns of any importance in the East and South. Just Odesa remains which, oddly, they have left for now. Huge battles have been necessary, real war, real invasion, real atrocities to achieve what is now a sort of status quo. Russia, or shall we say some paid individuals, control much of the Donbas and Luhansk region as well as a swathe of territory across the south. But that's all. The rest of the country is pretty free from fighting. There is little power and air raid sirens warn that missiles are still a threat every night but few land anywhere near their targets.

Tanya wonders what will happen next. Her news tells her nothing she can really believe any more. People are not talking as much as they did at the start. There is a feeling that all is not well. Britain and the United States, even the EU are regarded now as enemies. Reports say that they are about to attack Russia. She can scarcely believe that this could be true. What she can read reassures her a little but there are also many Western writers who feel that only by other countries actually getting involved will Putin and his advisers see that they need to negotiate sooner rather than later.

She doesn't think about the nuclear option. No-one does really. It's so terrible and is something no-one can actually appreciate unless they happened to have been around Hiroshima or Nagasaki in the 1940s. We may have a fear of nuclear war but we don't really have a clue. Tanya is much like all of us across the whole world - we close our minds to the possibility and seek only to consider what else can be done.

With more and more access to reports of what is happening she can only feel more sad. There is no obvious answer. At least the state-controlled media there tell her everything will be OK, that Russia is winning the . . . oh, no hang on, nearly said 'war', nearly completing the special military operation. It's almost better to turn off all the news and try to concentrate on a good book or watch a film, make dinner.

Tanya asks a friend in the West for more information about how he thinks it will all end. He runs through scenarios which she's already read or worked out for herself. Basically, whatever happens will not happen quickly. Very few countries will feel like forgiving Russia for what they've done and, indeed, there will be a demand for massive reparations before any trade can restart other with rogue nations like Iran, parts of corrupted India and North Korea. Even sympathetic Hungary won't be allowed to deal with Russia. Russians themselves are not to blame but they will get blamed. Despite her outward-looking nature and kindness, Tanya will suffer by not being able to travel for years, from not being able to participate actively in what much of the rest of the world is doing. Fun things like Eurovision, Olympics, sport generally, festivals, opera, ballet, the Arts as a whole will be self-contained for years with little external involvement. Children will grow up with a very jaundiced and rather inaccurately guessed view of the rest of the world.

She will carry on probably much as she did before, just wondering always what might have been and what is really going on across the border. She knows that they're not Nazis in Ukraine and that many good people will be busy there rebuilding towns and cities and factories and schools. Her English friend will be there too. She'll wonder what he looks like now but knows she'll not see him again as she's not normally the sort to risk what the new Russian regime would do to anyone caught trying to escape the country. But maybe now she's not 'normal' any more and has heard that the Finnish people can be very helpful if you can get to Vybourg. . . 

Or, if you think about it, this would be a good time for Tanya to move to Crimea. The area could get some sort of special status, under shared administration and much less dominated by Soviet state controls for a few years, during which movement of people across borders may be much less problematic.

Sunday, February 5

There will be trouble ahead . . .

That's the question many people are asking and, quite honestly, no-one knows. Some excellent writers who really do seem to know what they're talking about in The Spectator see a kind of stalemate developing. Much as we had been optimistic following the recent progress and just the fact that Ukraine had halted much of Russia's advance and had even started to take back some areas, some fear has crept in that there will be trouble ahead. It looks very much like Russia has built up considerable troop presence and is stretching Ukraine's defence preparations in two, if not three directions. The next wave of attacks is likely to come from troops trying to make progress from the South East to secure Donbas and Luhansk regions once and for all and prohibit much Ukraine advance in the direction of Crimea. By sheer force of numbers one would expect Russia to have some chance of success and then to be able to call for a ceasefire with the intention of holding those Eastern areas as a condition of withdrawal elsewhere.

It is highly unlikely that Ukraine will agree to any loss of land and will insist on withdrawal to the pre-February 24 positions and, indeed, will not simply give up the desire to bring back Crimea to its internationally recognised placing as part of Ukraine.

Russia will not agree to that, nor will they cease their demands for Donbas and Luhansk and the international community may wish to take their side on that just to get this war finished, as they will see it. The problem is that these areas, like Crimea, are now almost completely populated with people who prefer to be under Russian control. This may seem odd if they have been watching anything other than Russian TV but most probably haven't, everyone who in any way supported being part of Ukraine having left long ago. Crimea is almost completely 'Russian' in that respect with those residents who remained and do support Ukraine making very little signs of this for fear of being carted off somewhere and disposed of. They live quietly in hope as I guess several families in the East still do. But the vast majority of 'residents' in these disputed areas will vote to stay Russian in any poll, however independently that poll may be organised.

This, coupled with the difficulty that would inevitably be associated with any attempt by Ukraine to take full peaceful control of these places, with their populations as they stand today, being virtually impossible, with much resentment building up and that makes its way into the minds of those helping to decide things elsewhere. Even here in very supportive England, I can imagine much less enthusiasm being expressed for Ukraine to continue to fight when a peace deal is offered. They will almost be obliged to take it. I doubt that they will, however, and they'll simply fight on.

Russia will have no choice but to keep piling in more and more troops and my guess is that if that's all they do then that stalemate will be the result. A little movement here, a little movement there. A lot of Russian lives will be lost, far more than Ukrainian and it will be Ukraine's hope that the numbers become so vast that they really start to have an impact upon what the Russian public believe is happening. In all this unresolved mess I see mistakes being made and sooner or later a town other than in Ukraine gets hit and the huge risk of other countries being dragged into the war becomes reality. At that point, maybe, there will be some last ditch attempts to get some form of agreement as Russia really would then have to expect a lot more support, if not direct action in, Ukraine.

In the absence of a mistake or bombs being dropped somewhere in Europe or some dirty nuclear attack to bring this to a close, I can only see two outcomes that might work and allow both sides to stop. One is where some agreement is made that the disputed areas will get some sort of independent government. They're not ceded to Russian control, nor are they left solely under Ukraine administration but run by some independent entity that also represents both sides as well as the interests of those living or desiring to return to live there. For some considerable time this will need to run so that the population of the areas can settle into whatever natural grouping it would have done had 2014 or this war never happened. 

It has to be wrong that Russia simply walks away with Crimea as a prize, with the international community agreeing that it's all Russian from here on. Similarly, it would be wrong for any area to be so regarded at the outset. Maybe after some years, some rearrangement of borders does take place as these areas are not going to function as completely independent nations and will need to be part of one of the other. That new border has to be right and fair and to work or all this will just happen again one day.

As this stands, if I were to suggest that Ukraine might lose a single square inch of its land then I would be shouted down and told that simply can't happen as it would be seen as allowing Russia to have bullied them and having somehow won, especially with all the destruction to homes, lives, livelihoods and the economy generally. So Russia will have to suffer considerably more financially in order that they pay for the damage done and this, too, needs to be part of any agreement, however and whenever it is reached. Anything less simply will not be accepted. 

Refusal to agree to any peace deal will see international support ebb away and maybe Russia has already worked that out and is banking on Ukraine just being worn down over the years. Russia can keep finding troops to die even if there is no significant advance. They'll win eventually on that basis.

The second outcome is that we all get involved. NATO or, at the very least a few strong nations, join Ukraine in the fight and call Russia's bluff. Indeed, if they're effective enough they could cause Russia to withdraw very quickly and then it would be Russia who would be likely to lose the support of any international minds should they start firing missiles at anyone else. That's when they lose. And they lose all of the land in Ukraine, including Crimea. Perhaps even a new administration is ordered for Russia itself, much like Germany had to be controlled after World War 2's defeat.

Because Russia is a nuclear power and does have a lot of weapons, this would be dangerous and messy but I believe showing Russia that we are united and strong in hating this dreadful business that they started in 2014 and now wish to continue will convince them that their best policy is to stop. That way maybe they can say they don't lose and some face is even saved by people in charge there. Be that as it may. Providing tanks will help but I still want to see real help on the ground and in the air and, indeed, in Russia too where smart technology and highly secret attacks on key infrastructure could stop the threat of those weapons ever going anywhere.

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 convalescence. 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.