The Continent in the Coffee

From my forthcoming collection “On Square Routes”:


The Continent in the Coffee

I pressed the plunger down that morning 

Into half a litre of diluted finest Italian ground beans  

Imported from Brazil, Asia…and Africa 

I felt the pressure alright 

And suddenly it appeared 

A dark continent surrounded by an ocean of froth 

A one-off big bang event, one in a million 

That not even a hundred men or more could ever do 

Primeval steam rising from the surface 

A dark liquid almost literally descending a mountain 

From Atlas to Table 

And ending up on my kitchen table 

From Algeria to Zimbabwe 

The continent where human life began enclosed within a cup 

I’ll bless the rains down there 





Hands grip the Leavers of power

Conspiring to derail a runaway gravy train

To a sign on a replacement bus service


A starry blue flag becomes a red rag

To a raging bulldog

The Belgian matador takes aim

To the sound of an electronic doorbell, an e-knock

Rancid roast beef swimming down rivers of blood


The balding lion who wanted to re-mane

Will roar no more, but stay rampant

The unicorn is de-horned

But still stabs the lion in the back


Man United take the Norwegian option

But still stay out of Europe

A hard boarder in a Category A prison

Aims at a shot at the screw

The mark of a distant and Far age

Which never actually existed


A mop-headed philanderer will bore us

At the barbers with short backstop and sides

Sides splitting at the thought


Black clouds over white cliffs

Blue birds fly low

Observed by a knuckle-tattooed ornithologist on the Strabane-Lifford road

A hard birder in Ireland


Erdgan goes cold Turkey but will never join

Yet Norman Wisdom’s still big in Albania


Fat cats in a disunited kingdom of Late Kitten and Other Island


A minster of religion, the Reverend Um

Preaches a sermon to converted flocks

Congreagation at mass tricked

Into another treaty


Wither the storm?

But if you don’t like duck

You can go to f………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

EU Referendum- The case for staying

With only a few days to go before the potentially historic EU referendum on whether the UK should leave or remain within the European Union, Dr Philip Larkin, an academic from the school of law at Brunel University in London argues the case for remaining.


With less than one week to go now until the upcoming referendum, I have been asked to set out my reasons why the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union. Despite all the hype in media over the past few days, I still believe that the UK electorate will vote (albeit not by a huge majority) to remain in the EU. The reason for this, as columnist Philip Collins [not the much-maligned former Genesis drummer and vocalist – in much the same way as the present author is not the deceased poet and librarian] has argued convincingly (and which I will examine further below), is that Brexit ultimately means an enormous lot of uncertainty for the UK, particularly in relation to the economy, and uncertainty is an ally of caution and conservatism. I also believe that this erring on the side of caution will intensify over the course of the next six days as the reality sinks in that the referendum is not a game of shadow boxing, or the equivalent of a by-election, but the real deal carrying grave consequences. This will require those of us who support remain to hold our collective nerve until next Thursday night. Although I very strongly believe that the UK should stay in the EU, I also believe that a person can passionately support Brexit without being either mad or bad. With few exceptions, the referendum campaign has been conducted in a moderate fashion, and this article will follow suit. The issues are too important to be obscured by personal mudslinging. The article will examine my reasons for wishing to remain, while rebutting the reasons put forward for Brexit, under a number of headings.

Parliamentary Sovereignty and the EU “Superstate”
One of the central arguments of the Brexit campaign (although it has been played down somewhat lately) is that leaving the EU would restore the Parliamentary sovereignty to the glory it had once enjoyed in the heady days of Imperial power, although this is not openly stated. I have selected this heading at the beginning because of all the Brexit arguments it is probably the most easily rebutted. To begin, as Professor Sir Elihu Lauterpacht stated, “Parliamentary Sovereignty ends where Britain’s international obligations begin.” In other words, the signing of any international treaty involving co-operation, be it on defence, trade, or intellectual property, entails some pooling of sovereignty, and has done so since the Anglo-Portugese Alliance ratified by the Treaty of Windsor in 1386. By signing a treaty, or joining an international organisation, the UK is effectively stating that, (in accordance with Dicey’s theory of sovereignty) although technically Parliament is free to make any law whatsoever, it will voluntarily restrain itself from legislating against the aims of the treaty. I have often asked my Constitutional Law students: “Can Parliament, under Dicey’s pure theory of Parliamentary Sovereignty, create an Act of Parliament banning smoking in the streets of Moscow/Paris/New York?” Some are genuinely surprised when informed that, in theory, Parliament can do this. My next question is:

“Why then, does Parliament not make such legislation?”

The answer, invariably, is that it would be ridiculous and pointless. Quite so:

Parliament has always been constrained by what it is politically expedient and acceptable. Leaving the EU will involve the UK having to sign a plethora of trade and other agreements with other countries and trading blocs, including the EU itself. These treaties will also limit Parliamentary Sovereignty. Even a successful immigration policy (on which more below), which the Brexit camp argue will be easier outside the EU, will necessitate the UK having to having to reach agreement with the remaining EU nations, again involving the pooling of sovereignty.

Related to this issue, stories about the eventual drift towards a federal European “superstate” amount to nothing more than a baseless canard. While it is true that some of the founders of what became the European Union may have had pretensions for an economically, politically, and socially united Europe, these aims did not take into account the great cultural differences between different European states. As Lord Denis Healey wrote, those nation states which form the EU have developed through singular historical and social processes. While federalism may have been a suitable form of government for scattered English speaking agricultural communities of largely British descent, as with the United States and Australia, it is totally inappropriate for a continent as culturally, linguistically, economically, and socially diverse as Europe. Healey also stated that France, with its traditions of independence, would actively prevent the creation of a superstate. The improbability of achieving a common European foreign policy in any other field except trade was underscored sharply by the second Gulf War in 2003, when the UK, the Netherlands, and many of the Central and Eastern EU states supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, while France and Germany stood resolutely against it. In my view a common European army remains a very far-off possibility, if, indeed, it even is a possibility.

Fears about a European superstate also grossly exaggerate how much of national life the EU actually has responsibility for. The EU itself, despite pretensions to more, remains very much a giant trading block, with product standards harmonised as far as possible to facilitate free movement of goods, persons, services and capital. There is no pressure on the UK to join the Eurozone, and many remain supporters would not welcome any move towards adopting the Euro even in the medium to long term, myself included. The recent Great Recession has demonstrated the benefit of a nation being able to control its own currency, and set its own interest rates. While there does remain quite a deal of democratic deficit within the EU institutions, with the unelected Commission perhaps wielding too much authority, surely these are problems which can be mended with time and nudging from nations like the UK, Sweden and others? For the future health and survival of the EU, it is vital that the UK remains a member.

It is not an exaggeration to state that enemies of the West and Enlightenment values would be delighted to see fragmentation of the EU, which represents many of the qualities which have long made the West economically prosperous, democratic, and respectful of human rights. It is said that Vladimir Putin was desperate to see Scotland leave the UK. He is equally anxious (if not more so) to see the UK depart from the EU, as are other unfriendly parties in the world. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump is a fan of Brexit.

The EU and the Economy
It is frequently argued by Brexit supporters that leaving the EU would somehow “liberate” the British economy from the stifling effects of a European continent currently experiencing stagnant levels of growth. The UK would then, in theory, be free to pursue even more beneficial trade deals with the remainder of the EU and the wider world, in particular the growing economies of the East. I realise that it is a cliché to say, but my gut feeling is that if something looks too good to be true, it usually is. Neither am I alone in believing this: in a recent poll by Ipsos MORI for the Observer, 90 per cent of economists said that they expected Brexit to damage the economy, with just four per cent believing it to be beneficial. That degree of unanimity on any poll of any group of people is almost without precedent. As Paul Johnson, director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, has asserted, in the short run Brexit would definitely create uncertainty. In the immediate aftermath the pound, and probably the stock market, would dive, making us all poorer. Even one of the few pro-Brexit economists, former Boris Johnson adviser Gerard Lyons, has accepted that short-term uncertainty would lead to reduced growth in the immediate future.

So what about the long term effects of Brexit? Would it be a case of suffering short-term pain for long-term gain? The simple answer is that no-one really knows, and no-one really can predict. Brexiteers tend to take the sanguine view that “the rest of the world, including the EU will still need to/want to trade with us, and we’ll soon be trading more than ever before.” There are serious reasons to doubt such optimism. Yes, it is true that the rest of the EU will still need to trade with the UK, and in time a working relationship will be arrived at. However, why on earth should anyone be impressed by having in the future what they already have now? As the Washington Post put it yesterday:

“Countries don’t knowingly commit economic suicide, but in Britain, millions seem ready to give it a try. On 23 June the United Kingdom will vote to decide whether to quit the European Union, the 28 nation economic bloc with a population of 508 million and a gross domestic product of almost $17 trillion. Let’s not be coy: Leaving the E.U. would be an act of national insanity.”

It is beyond my poor power of expression to put it any clearer than this passage. Some will ask “but we’ll still be a great trading nation if we leave the EU, won’t we?” My answer to that would be “maybe, but for goodness sake why take massive risks with the goodwill of our greatest trading partners, and leave the world’s largest trading area?” Why should it be imagined that Germany, with its great influence over EU policy, be disposed to make favourable trade agreements quickly with a non-EU UK, which, by leaving the EU had wounded, perhaps mortally, the institution which has long been central to German foreign and economic policy? Some people dismiss all too quickly as bluff statements from the European Commission, President Obama, and Hilary Clinton, that in the event of Brexit, the UK would be obliged to “go to the back of the queue” when it comes to trade agreements. To me it is perfectly logical that countries like the US and other EU states, to name but some, should be less than welcoming to a UK which had left the EU. To begin, one of the major attractions of the UK for foreign investors is not only that it is “a good place to do business”, but also it has access to such a huge market. This is why it has been a central plank of US foreign policy from the time of President Kennedy onwards that the UK should join, and remain, a member of a Common European Market. Leaving would cut us off from the greatest free market in the world, and probably damage our relations with the US also. Similarly, there has been mutterings from Japanese car manufacturing companies that in the event of Brexit, they would consider very seriously the relocation of their factories to other nations still within the EU. Again, this is a perfectly logical view to take from the perspective of foreign investors: why stick with a UK which has cut off its nose to spite its face when we could move our operations to Poland, where the people will be glad of the work, we can pay the workers less, and they still have access to the free market? It is often said that the secret of a happy life is being willing to give and take: it is no different in the life of nations, particularly a great trading nation like the UK. Established mutual goodwill counts for so much, even in today’s world of instant communication.

What about the argument that Brexit would make us freer to pursue ever greater trade with the emerging markets in the world? Well, my counter question to that is: what exactly is stopping us from doing more of that now? After many years, the realisation has dawned on British manufacturers and service providers that they now have to market their products fiercely and energetically throughout the world. This stands in some contrast to the 1970s, when Denis Healey as Chancellor of the Exchequer lamented that the UK was woefully far behind other European states when it came to marketing their products, a result, he believed, of having a captive imperial market for so long. Prime Minister Cameron has set the political pace for what UK firms should be doing aggressively, by his trade visits to India and elsewhere, and it also explains why planeloads of manufacturers like Scotch whisky distillers are heading out to places like China and Brazil to boost their sales. I struggle to understand how leaving the EU would make the task of finding new markets any easier. In addition, as the Economist has very eruditely pointed out, most of the factors hindering economic growth in the UK stem from long standing domestic economic and education policy, such as the problems of poor infrastructure, lack of new housing, low productivity, and, of course the ubiquitous skills gap. These are much bigger obstacles to growth than any mythical EU regulations.

Furthermore, the Brexit camp frequently take too little account of the changed fortunes of the UK since the time it joined the EEC back in 1973. At that time Britain was generally judged to have taken over Turkey’s mantle as “the Sick Man of Europe”, going through possibly the lowest point of post-Imperial decline in those years. This is not the case nowadays: by 2030 the UK is predicted to be the most populous state in the EU, and its economy looks set to overtake than of Germany, which will make it for a period the fourth largest economy in the world. With this eventuality as a backdrop, Brexit appears to me to be akin to walking abruptly out of a long, tough, business meeting, just when matters are turning decisively in our favour. Another important point to consider is that the UK is ideally placed to champion the successful completion of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), on which there is much misunderstanding, but which has the potential to add hugely to both the British and other EU economies, and which encapsulates much of the free-trade spirit of the great economist Adam Smith.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that even after 41 years since the last referendum on EU membership, the Leave campaign still appears to be very fragmented as to what sort of example a non-EU UK should emulate. Some cite the Norway as a case study in “having your cake and eating it”, with it not being an EU member yet still having access to EU markets through being included in the European Economic Area (EEA). Yet this overlooks certain key points. First, Norway has never been an EU member state, so there is no issue with them voting to leave a club that they have been in for over 40 years. Secondly, Norway still has to conform with all of the EU trade regulations and standards, and is almost completely powerless to influence EU trade policy. Other Brexiteers would cast us in the role of a northern European Singapore or Hong Kong should we leave the EU, forming a new free-trade area with states such as (per Michael Gove) Albania. This presupposes to some extent that the UK can somehow physically slip its geographical, historical, and cultural moorings and choose a completely different role in the world. Nations simply cannot choose roles like an actor may choose a part in a play. It has been asked of me in the past “why can’t we in the UK be more like Switzerland, not in the EU and still very wealthy, with minimal international alliances and commitments?” My reply is: “Why can’t an apple be more like an orange?” Sometimes an image says a thousand words. The varying examples cited above underscores the point that the Brexit camp is, in reality, hugely uncertain among themselves as to what Exit will actually mean for the UK, and, more importantly, as to where they wish to lead us. This is scarcely a sound basis for taking such a momentous risk with our future.

The control of immigration into the UK has been a central plank in the Brexit campaign. It is pointless to try to gloss over this very emotive topic, so I will try to address it here. It has already been stated above that even in the event of us leaving the EU, a successful immigration policy would require us to arrive at some sort of agreement with the remaining 27 member states, something which they may be less than generously willing to do. Related to this, the reality is that many migrants come from outside the EU: leaving the EU will not change this. From the perspective of London (where this author lives), immigration over the centuries has made the city perhaps the most cosmopolitan in the world, which also explains its great economic and cultural success. One need only think of the Flemish cloth merchants of the 14th Century, the influx of French Huguenot immigrants in the late 17th Century, the Jewish immigrants fleeing the Russian pogroms, and latterly, Poles, Latvians and Lithuanians; all of these have enriched both London but also the rest of the UK. In an open and free (and now growing) economy like that of Britain, there will always be a need for migrant workers, who, after all, contribute not only to the labour market, but also to the exchequer through their taxes, helping us to maintain infrastructure and public services. For those worried about EU migrant workers posing too much of a drain on UK social security benefits, the European Court of Justice this week have backed Britain’s right to refuse to pay family welfare benefits such as child benefit or child tax credit to unemployed EU migrants who have been in Britain for less than five years, dismissing claims by the European Commission that it would be discriminatory to do so. What this judgment means is that EU migrant workers and their families will have no other option but to engage with the labour market on their arrival into the UK as soon as possible.

It would be wrong to dismiss out of hand the concerns of those in various parts of the UK who claim that they no longer recognise their communities because of the vast influx of migrant workers, and are frustrated at having to compete for lower paid jobs in the labour market due to migrant worker competition. They may also be vexed by the fact that EU migrant workers, particularly from Poland and other such nations, very often possess a higher level of technical skill than UK school leavers, and are prepared to work longer hours at more competitive rates of pay. While empathising with these concerns, there are a number of points which can be made in reply. The first is that during the boom years migrant workers filled a much needed gap in the UK labour market, manning lower-paid posts which nationals were reluctant to take up. Secondly, the reality that migrant workers help to fill the skills shortage in the UK should be an alarm call to the political establishment to ensure that our own young people are provided with the necessary technical education and skills training to be able to make good the shortfall ourselves. To their credit, the Coalition Government and the present Conservative Government appear to realise this (as do many figures in opposition), and are currently attempting to rebalance the UK economy with a greater emphasis on technical apprenticeships and the creation of University Technical Colleges to train future generations for knowledge driven industry. However, this is only a beginning, and the British electorate should be steadfast in holding them to this task.

In the above passages I have attempted to demonstrate that exit from the EU is just too much of a bad risk for the UK to take. Whatever faults in may have (and for goodness sake nothing touched by the hand of man is ever perfect), the European Union represents one of the most successful and constructive international partnerships ever devised in the history of the world. As a people who pride themselves on being non-ideological and imminently pragmatic in their approach to life, politics and business, the British electorate should know when they are on to a good thing: I would be both surprised and disappointed in the event of Brexit. One issue which I have not dealt with above, but which merits a mention in conclusion, is that exit from the European Union could throw into jeopardy the long-term survival of an older and equally successful union: the unity of the United Kingdom itself. After seeing off the Scottish Independence campaign in September 2014, and despite SNP success in the 2015 general election, it is my view that Scottish nationalism will soon be demonstrably “on the ropes.” It would be a great pity to breathe life back into a movement which has peaked and is already entering into decline. I will end the article with that final thought.

Philip Larkin writes in a personal capacity. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Brunel University or of “The Dreaming Armadillo”.


The Partitioned Isle and the Potato

A few weeks ago I posted a poem on this blog about a divided island. Here’s another poem about a divided island:


Partitioned Island

There’s a border dividing north from south

Two tribes separated by faith and flag

British troops still haunt these shores

But the guns now silent, bombs drop no more

An uneasy peace of mind, a tired truce?

With a long sigh, Prus-sia lost its empire

All around was ire, land unfree and betrayed

But in the Med it’s raining…

Dark memories of ancient times

Up north the churches are no more

Down the south the mosques lie empty

O Greek and Turk where lies thy fate?

The lira or the euro

The church or the mosque

The crescent or the cross

The Efes or the Keo

The doner or the shish?

Icons of Ataturk and Makarios

Adorn dusty streets high on mountain passes and city centres

To what end?

When Aphrodite emerged from the waves

In the palm of Zeus

Hopes dashed on the rocks

Like a UN peace plan

This United Nations

Haunts a disunited nation

But now lobster red alpha males

Lounge by the pool sipping lukewarm beer

Reading yesterday’s Daily Mail

And digesting last night’s fish and chips

They ignore the pathos in Paphos

But go out on a limb in Limmasol

As the Russians invest in surreal estate

Lands long plundered

Now there’s nothing left to

Nick, oh see a ray on the horizon

Aye a ray it is

A glimmer of hope?

A spark?

An alphabet soup of conflict

The letter “E” – OK, “A” not so good

Spelling Grivas bodily harm (sic)

Long bearded priest with long memories

Wafts incense around gold leaf chandeliers

The olive groves and vineyards wither on the line

A green line on a map

Even the lemons are bitter

Aim a missile at a Greek, at a Turk

And they bleed the same shade of red
A book that’s been read a thousand times…

The School Window Cleaner who bore an uncanny resemblance to Manchester United’s 1980s Dutch centre forward Arnold Muhren


Here’s another extract from my forthcoming book “On Square Routes”.  “OSR” will be a collection of more memoirs in the tradition of “In Complete Circles”, but will also feature travel writing, short stories and poetry.

Below is a semi-fictionalised account of an incident from my primary school days back in the dark ’80s:

The School Window Cleaner who bore an uncanny resemblance to Manchester United’s 1980s Dutch centre forward Arnold Muhren

It was a dull spring day in 1983.  Our primary six teacher Mr Arthurs had set us an exercise in fractions, something my nine year old self had found particularly difficult.  He let us get on with the work, while he sat at his desk reading the paper.  Maths had never been one of my strengths at school.  Naturally I got distracted.  I looked out the window and began to daydream.

On the other side of the window a man was cleaning the pane and giving it considerable elbow grease.

Joe Gorman sitting at the desk behind mine pointed out that the window cleaner looked like Manchester United’s Dutch centre forward Arnold Muhren.  On closer inspection there was certainly a passing resemblance.  Though why a well-paid sports star with one of Europe’s top clubs would be cleaning windows at a primary school in Omagh was something of a mystery.  So I began to concoct a story in my head.

Maybe he’d had a row with his boss Ron Atkinson, left Old Trafford in disgrace, and was unable to move to another club for contractual reasons, then having fallen on hard times due to gambling and addiction brought on by the inevitable bout of depression he must have gone through, and unable to return and face the shame in his native Netherlands he’d ended up cleaning the windows of a primary school in Omagh.

To this day I wonder if this was really a normal pattern of thought for a nine year old.

In the next row of desks Mark Mullan caught my attention:

“Hey Wardy!” he called out in a loud whisper.

I looked up to see him giving the rude two-fingered sign to the window-cleaning Arnold Muhren lookalike.  This was a little ironic as young Mullan was actually a Manchester United supporter.  But I suspected his aim on this occasion was simply to try and make me laugh.  He certainly succeeded.

In fact I involuntarily laughed out loud and had to put my hand over my mouth to prevent a further uncontrollable fit of giggling.  This prompted a stern rebuke from Mr Arthurs.

A few days later the real Mr Muhren was in action against Brighton in the FA Cup final.  But somewhat fittingly we never saw that window cleaner again.

In the Land of Ire & Vice – a poem about an island

In the Land of Ire and Vice

It was all about buy to let

Invest in property to get rich quick

Sell a field

In the high risk “I risk” sea

And buy a nuclear power station with the profits


Pushing a trolley

Down the Emerald supermarket aisle

Dark horses gallop home to roost

A neigh shunned once again

A light knock to the shin

But the shin feigns injury

My head hits the ground, concussed

An array of light engulfs my vision

An “eye array” you might say

But they’ll deny it ever existed
Would you Adams and Eve it?

A man cuts the grass

With a broad black strimmer, and

On the other side of the cowshed

A small brown bird chirps out a song of indifference

The wren behind the byre

Meanwhile at the bar I order a coke and an orange

They just bring the coke

forgetting the orange order
I need to relieve myself outside

taking a leak up against the corner wall

Which turns out to be

The slash my father swore

Would get me into trouble.

A man in black approaches

“Do you pee?” he asks

Then continues

“Pee? Yes and I

Are, you see,

a policeman

Please come this way, you’re in eight

times more trouble than me”

So the police now have powers

To guard a sheer corner

And look after their own
Chucking our laws out the window
As clouds of steam from the east are rising

The German bankers say “Devalue Eire”

As he turns in his grave.

The headlines scream

The Queen sips tea – shock!

With the Taoiseach

You won’t find a finer foil

Out at sea,

A flat fish swims past

A ray? A plaice?

Aye, a ray

it is

But never was a ray

To Labour the point

A voter at a political conference

In the south of France

set himself on fire,

The ballot box and the arm alight

It was quite a conflagration

In the Ardèche

The shattered dreams of an ex-justice minister

Haunt the waves out at sea

a collision with a coalition

There’s a fish caught in a storm

a fin, a gale…turns the waters choppy

No fee nor foil

Can buy off a government

But playing dumb is simply

To feign a fool

With fingers fumbling in Greecey tills

Farmer doffs his CAP subsidy

Colours his sheep a shade of red

A cause worth dyeing for?

Meanwhile across the Irish Sea

A lone poet sits in exile

Tapping on a keyboard to the tune of a long forgotten song…

The Labour Leadership Contest: A view from an ordinary voter

Academic Philip Larkin (not the poet of the same name who died 30 years ago) discusses the contest for leadership of the UK Labour Party.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article do not neccessarily reflect the views of the Dreaming Armadillo blog.


Over the past month or so I have been encouraged to make a more positive contribution to the Labour leadership contest and to write in favour my preferred candidate. I would like to put the case for Liz Kendall, and will be explaining the reasons for my preference by way of comparison with the other candidates in the race, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Jeremy Corbyn. View from a Labour Voter While I was a member of the Labour Party as a postgrad student, my membership lapsed several years ago. This lapse was not down to the Second Gulf War, or criticisms of Tony Blair, but simply because I became too preoccupied with finishing my research, finding employment, and I moved around the UK due to work on a number of occasions. One friend who is closely involved with the Labour Party, and a supporter of Corbyn’s candidature, told me on Facebook that I should “move on”, that my criticisms amounted to mere negativity and were somehow of less value because I was not directly involved in the Party itself. I could not disagree more. As an ordinary voter I am exactly the sort of person whom Labour needs to persuade if they want to win elections; some people still nurse the subconscious belief that the Party exists for the benefit of its members alone, and are prone to “love-ins” in which they are insulated from the views of the wider electorate, in turn generating a trend of self-destructive wishful thinking. Many people at the last election who voted Conservative could easily, under different circumstances, have voted Labour. This friend also refuses point-blank to set out the reasons why he favours Corbyn as leader, a stance which I find baffling. Or perhaps it isn’t quite so baffling. Maybe it simply amounts to: “Corbyn is my hero/alter ego, and I will not countenance any criticism of him.”

Although I voted Labour in the recent election my main feeling on hearing the final result was guilty relief. Being totally honest, I wavered in the ballot box before putting a cross beside the Labour candidate in preference to Boris Johnson, now my MP. I did not wish to see any coalition led by Ed Miliband which included the SNP governing the country. In any event, Alex Salmond managed to frighten off centrist voters in England by declaring that he would be “writing the budget” in any Labour/SNP coalition, as did Nicola Sturgeon, who stated that she would “lock Cameron out of Downing Street.” I believe that this was part of a ploy on the part of the SNP to ensure a Tory victory, thus allowing them to stress how different Scotland is from England in political terms. I also think that Miliband would have made a very ineffectual leader of such a coalition.
I do not intend to spend very long discussing Corbyn’s candidature. When he received enough votes to enter the contest, I expressed my disappointment and extreme irritation on Facebook. Without making any comment about his personality, I think that his admission to the leadership ballot was disastrous for the future prospects of the Party. What he has to offer amounts to little more than re-heated Bennism, a section of the Party which was comprehensively defeated in the 1980s. His candidature has breathed life into this wing of Labour, and makes a statement to the electorate that the Party is still not sure whether Blair’s reforms and his realignment of the British left towards the centre were good for Labour, and shows that there is still nostalgia towards antiquated Marxist ideas no longer applicable in modern society. In addition, my hand would drop off if I voted for Party leader a man who calls Hamas and Hezbollah his friends (when challenged about this on Channel 4 News about this he became very nasty and defensive, and his attempted explanation was meaningless).

Some polls indicate that Corbyn can actually win the contest. If he wins, or even manages to come in any place other than last, I despair for the Party.  As a Labour voter, I would very much like to continue voting for the Party, with at least a moderate chance that it might actually win a general election.  In my view, Labour cannot be electorally successful in the medium term unless it comes to terms with the extent of its defeat in May, the worst since at least 1983. I also think that whoever becomes leader, this is going to be an extremely difficult Parliament for Labour. I will say more about this below.

This leads me on to reflect on some of the economic and educational reforms made by the recent Coalition Government, and how these relate to the other three candidates in the race. Towards a rebalancing of the economy In spite of all the stick which Cameron and Osborne received from many quarters about being posh private school boys,  they, along with Vince Cable, were much more energetic and visionary about the chronic need for technical education and skills training for manufacturing industries. Possibly the greatest disservice the Thatcher Governments did for the working population, and for school leavers in particular, was wilfully to neglect and run down the manufacturing base of the UK economy, and deliberately not provide the necessary technical education to rebuild it on new foundations. Instead, the preference was for service industries and the financial sector, which were supposed to be the wave of the future at that time. While it is not the purpose of this article to minimise the importance of the service and financial sectors (they are very important), the idea that we could all live by “cutting each other’s hair” or “taking in each other’s washing” was simply ridiculous, and pushed many young people into low-skilled, low-paid, dead-end jobs in which there were few prospects of improving one’s lot. School leavers were pushed on to YTS training programmes specialising in skills like hairdressing and shop work, and, although there is absolutely nothing wrong with such trades, there is a limit to how far one’s pay and prospects can improve in fields such as these. While others, mainly young men, received training in useful and difficult trades in the construction industry such as carpentry, plumbing and as electrics, thus providing much needed new accommodation (as well as allowing them to make a reasonable living in good times), it did little to revive the UK as a manufacturing nation. It must be said that earlier New Labour Governments perpetuated this mistake by expanding the numbers of school leavers entering higher education. While in principle this was a wonderful idea, and allowed the higher education sector to become very powerful and influential throughout the world, all too many young people ended up on pointless university courses in fields such as media or theatre studies which not only led them into a career blind alley but also obliged them to run up tens of thousands of pounds of debt in the process.

Now, after too many years, the penny finally appears to have dropped among the political classes that high level training for precision industries is a sound policy to adopt. This has been recognised across the spectrum: Lord Mandelson said well before the last election that there were too many social engineers in the country and not enough real engineers. Osborne as Chancellor openly said that the UK could not continue to base its future economic growth on debt-fuelled consumer spending on products largely made in China, expressed support for the German system of “mittlestand” (small and medium-sized enterprises), and proudly stated that Britain “is making things again.” He also stated that government had responsibility for providing the skills training necessary for manufacturing and export to grow. Neither has this all been empty rhetoric: to help bridge the technical skills gap in the long term a host of University Technical Colleges have been created, with more planned throughout England, offering this type of education to 15–19 year olds. I would assert that the vast majority of electors are delighted with this development, as is this author: in addition to technical subjects, there is also an emphasis on the sciences and mathematics, so there is a combination of both academic and technical education provided, permitting young people to take a variety of career paths – from skilled factory or laboratory technicians, to engineers, to medical doctors. The UK has been crying out for this for decades. In the short to medium term, hundreds of thousands of apprenticeships in a variety of fields have been created, with the Conservatives promising the introduction of three million more over the course of the next parliament. Cameron gave an interview from a factory floor after the election, where he said that the industrial jobs which his Government intended to create would be well paid, interesting, and have good prospects for advancement. These words could easily have fallen from the lips of a Labour Prime Minister.

Winston Churchill once said that society should be like a broad, strong ladder, which is easy to climb and with a stout safety net to catch those people who fall. Cameron’s words brought this statement back to mind for me.

Let us take the example of a boy or girl who cannot settle down in adolescence to academic education. They decide instead to transfer to a University Technical College at the age of 15, or decide to take up an apprenticeship at the age of 16 or 17 as, for instance, a skilled factory operative or laboratory technician. In their mid-20s/early 30s or even 40s they decide that they want to progress their career further by taking a university degree in, say, engineering or chemistry. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to allow them to do this by taking into account the portfolio of experience that they have acquired “on the job”, and accelerating the process by which they are awarded a degree while allowing them to earn at the same time? I know that this already happens, but it should happen more.

None of this, however, bodes well for Labour. By the simple fact of being in power as part of a Coalition and then a majority Government, the Conservatives have scored a decisive victory over Labour by allowing to claim the territory of these new economic developments as their own: the Tories have firmly planted their flag upon this hill, and, with policies such as a £9+ living wage by the end of the decade, they can convincingly portray themselves as the “Party of the workers.” This territory should have been occupied by Labour. Now the Tories can claim all credit for it.

It is true that Miliband did talk about the importance of technical education, and even vowed to exceed the number of apprenticeships promised by the Tories. But somehow it didn’t ring true: it always looked as if he was playing “catch-up”, and that his heart was not in it. Fundamentally, I believe that he could not conceive of any youngster wishing to do anything else with his/her life other than take up a place at a Russell Group university and embark on a white collar career, just like him. Furthermore, by focusing his election campaign so heavily on anti-austerity (while not providing any convincing alternative) and those on benefits, he left Labour open to the charge of being merely the “Party of the dispossessed.” It is laudable to feel sympathy and compassion for those who are dispossessed and have to have recourse to food banks, and wish to do something positive to help them, but the reality is that many of those who cast their vote for the Conservatives also feel sympathy for their fellow citizens suffering from poverty, and wish to help them (one fallacy that Labour Party members and supporters consistently fall for is that they have some sort of monopoly on compassion).

I stated above that this is going to be a difficult parliament for Labour – The Tories, by the mere fact of being in power with a majority, are now free to dip into Labour’s pre-election manifesto and help themselves to any ideas they choose, repackaging them in blue. This has already happened: the idea of a living wage, as with a minimum wage, was originally a Labour policy. Labour can now be attacked from the left flank as well as the right.

Burnham and Cooper

Given the situation set out above, whoever wins the leadership will have a very difficult task in preparing the Party for the next general election. But this task, in my view, is not impossible. Journalists from almost all the major papers have commented on how dull the leadership race has been and how colourless (Corbyn excepted) the candidates are. I totally disregard all this. I would rather have a capable and competent Party leader who can win the vast centre ground in British politics than a flash, voluble ideologue whose rhetoric is applauded at Glastonbury but turns middle-ground voters cold. I suspect that most British voters feel the same, even though they may be reticent about expressing it publicly.

Andy Burnham has been turned into a sort of joke in some sections of the media, which I think is both highly unfair and inaccurate. While still in his 30s he held the position of Chief Secretary to the Treasury (no easy role), and was a competent Secretary of State for Health in Brown’s Labour Government. He talks, and has written, fluently and convincingly about the need for technical education and with his northern background and accent could perhaps speak to those citizens who, disillusioned with Labour under Miliband, voted UKIP. However, I believe that there is some justice in the jibe that he is “Miliband with a northern accent”: his words on skills for industry and manufacturing still appear to be a feeble attempt to catch up with the Tories in a field where they already have a large head start. In addition, although he comes across as a very decent man, I fear that he would be too timid in terms of formulating bold policy, and too concerned with preserving Party unity to stand up to the excessively ideological wing who really do not care about winning elections. Finally, he made a severe tactical blunder when he stated on television that “the Labour Party always comes first”, leaving himself open to the charge of being someone incapable of winning over floating voters.

Yvette Cooper is also a highly intelligent and capable individual, who, by coincidence, also held the post of Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the Brown Government. While nothing exceptional as a public speaker, she seems to be relatively popular with the Parliamentary Party. However, she carries a lot of uncomfortable baggage with her. By the mere fact of serving in the last Labour Government, and refusing to at least acknowledge the possibility that it may have overspent, it permits accusations that she would adopt the same (now discredited) policy. Being labelled a “Brownite” does her no favours either: it carries echoes of a tired old political feud with little relevance to the ordinary contemporary voter.

Liz Kendall for Leader

Unlike Burnham and Cooper, Kendall has never held ministerial office, and only entered Parliament in 2010. This should not matter one iota, since it means that she is clear from historical baggage. It should also be remembered that neither Cameron nor Osborne came to office with ministerial experience. Kendall came to my attention early in the leadership race as being a clear and articulate speaker, although not an orator, and someone with the necessary inner steel to voice opinions which may not necessarily be well received on the left of the Party, and the candidate best able to face up to political and economic realities.

She has shown a keen willingness to think outside the political box, stating that wealth creation is at least as important as wealth distribution (dividing up a cake is the easy part, making it is far more difficult), and that the quality of education that children receive, whether it be in state academies or state comprehensives, is far more pertinent than ideological purity of the institution where it is delivered.

For me, the most important policy theme on which she spoke was the problem of low productivity in the UK economy. While the present Government talks with smugness about how the British economy is surging ahead of its continental rivals, unless we are careful this could amount to nothing more than a castle built on sand: recent research has demonstrated that French and German workers are in excess of 30 per cent more productive than British workers, while Italian workers are 10 per cent more productive. These are figures which should set alarm bells ringing in both major Parties. This is not a trend which happened overnight, but rather is a product of decades of low investment in technical skills and infrastructure, lack of proper spending by firms and government on research and development, and even just poor management technique. I firmly believe that this is the core issue which a revived Labour Party can make its own, while firmly holding the present Government to their promise of creating the 3 million apprenticeships, and ensuring that places are filled. And that the quality of training is of the highest possible standard.

While I firmly believe in the welfare state, and indeed gained my Master’s Degree in Welfare Law, I maintain that the best social safety net government can provide for citizens is a job, preferably a skilled post with prospects. There is nothing genuinely left-wing about allowing citizens to languish in benefit dependency.

It is my conviction that Kendall, who clearly recognises the importance of creating a business-friendly environment, and who talks the language of business with confidence and ease, is the best person to make this huge issue the territory of the Labour Party. She is habitually labelled a “Blairite”, as if this is some sort of insult: in my view that this is simply a pejorative term for a candidate who is actually capable of winning elections.


I would conclude that for the reasons I have set out, Liz Kendall is the best candidate to lead Labour into the 2020 election. If she is unsuccessful, I can foresee another leadership election taking place before 2020, as the reality of impending defeat looms up before more sensible MPs and Party members. I am not overly despondent about the Party at this moment in time: just look at the unsung talent that it possesses. I could hold up figures like Chukka Umuna and Dan Jarvis to name but a few. However, to be successful, talent must be marshalled and well led. Kendall can provide this for Labour.

A poem about the joys of cycling



I wanted to ride the Tour de France
Then one summer my dreams
Of yellow jerseys fell to pieces
On a downhill descent head over handlebars I flew
My chin scraping the hard tarmac.

Just another crash I thought, no harm done
Until I noticed my white t-shirt soaked in blood
front wheel badly buckled, bike now unrideable
walking towards home bike over my shoulder
a passing motorist picked me up

The doctor spent an hour taking grit from the wound
then one stitch after another
I still have the scar to prove it.

And I’ve never ridden a bike since that fateful day you may say
But some years later I was back in the saddle

Cycling along a shiny wet tarred surface
I glance down to see my reflection
As raindrops sting my face.

Poised like a lance, arms strong
As I grip the handlebars
Living the lie, the bigger they come the harder they fall.
But my only drug of choice is caffeine
in small roadside cafes where
town gives way to country.

An uphill climb
Lactic acid builds up
Thighs ready to die
Lungs take the brunt

Then the
in low gear
the cool
breeze in
my face…

It’s not the Alps or the Pyrenees

There’s no supporters urging me on

no painted message on the road
But this is one of life’s simple pleasures

Which no drug can manufacture

a multi-coloured carbon fibre and lycra parade.

woods and fields go whooshing by.
Endorphines pumping in

what psychologists call “the zone” –

That transient state of bliss where body meets mind.

Round in Circles

An article on my book “In Complete Circles” has appeared in the local magazine Omagh Today. Thanks to Claire Martin for the publicity.

“…In Complete Circles – an irreverent, laugh-out-loud, nostalgia-laden memoir/travelogue that takes a hilarious journey down memory lane…”

Please note: This is a quote from the article and not my own words!


In Complete Circles
is available from Amazon at a very reasonable price.