A council tax conundrum

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Part of me is delighted that the council tax set by the local authority I live in is one of the lowest in the country; for one of the bands, I understand it’s the lowest.  For non-UK readers, the ‘council tax’ is the payment made by a household to the local authority for local services, including road maintenance, libraries, parks and refuse collection.  The low council tax – which seems to be roughly half what friends in other authorities pay – doesn’t seem to affect provision of those services, although I suspect the money from parking charges, permits and fines helps to swell the coffers.

But the part of me that – possibly perversely – isn’t thrilled about the low charge is concerned about provision of social care.  I know from local doctors that they are facing increased calls on their time because they provide the back-stop service when social care is no longer there.  Cuts in social care services have been made across the country but it seems to me that there’s scope for doing something about this where I live.  A fairly small increase in council tax for residents could work wonders for social care (and there are other worthy causes too).  I know there’s a cap on the percentage increase in council tax but the increase this year has (again) been small and there’s even been a decrease at times in previous years.

Rather than proclaiming how low the council tax is, couldn’t the local authority look at ways to present and promote an increase directed at funding social care?  I’d find that a more palatable way of approaching the new council tax year and I’m sure many others would too.

JULIUS CAESAR MEETS FANNY AND ALEXANDER

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London’s streets were deserted last week.  Everyone seemed to be home, struggling to cope with the coldest spell we’ve had in years.  But theatregoers were still out and about, scuttling as quickly as frozen pavements would allow.  I could barely speak on the way back from the Bridge Theatre after a production of Julius Caesar but that was more from shivering than lack of things to say.

First, a confession:  I know this play well, having studied it at school.  In fact, I think I could have understudied most of the parts.  But this was a Julius Caesar with a difference.  It was performed at a cracking pace, coming in at a whisker over two hours.  Michael Grandage is well-known for insisting that a play – particularly Shakespeare – can’t hang around, but this would have left even him breathless.  Lack of an interval helped, but even so …

It worked, with one exception.  The famous Friends, Romans, countrymen … speech could have done with Mark Antony feeling his way a little more; there was a slight sense that he was working against the clock and taking the crowd’s reactions for granted as a result. He should be trying to win them over.  After the Donmar’s all-female cast, it felt more authentic to have women in some of the roles, notably Michelle Fairley as Cassius and a perfectly opinionated Casca.  Top marks go to Ben Whishaw for diverting from the usual cadences of his script to provide a thoughtful, flawed and natural Brutus and David Calder for creating the first credible Julius Caesar that I’ve seen.

If Julius Caesar was a scamper, Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic needed some serious paring.  I saw it at second preview so it might have had its much-needed trim by now.  The first act could have done with at least 15 minutes off it and I’d prescribe half-an-hour off the whole production.  Even then, it would come in at well over three hours.

It needs it because it’s flabby in places, but also to counteract some very unpalatable violence.  I shan’t say any more, but it’s a lesson in checking what you’re going to see before you’re in the middle of a row in the middle of the stalls.  One of our group left after the second act.  It’s challenging viewing.

So, two very different productions showing the breadth of theatre in London.  The Bridge Theatre is a new venue and I’m sufficiently impressed with what I’ve seen to want to go back.  Check it out.

SEVEN POINTS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY (or THE FOURTEEN POINTS 2.0)

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A century ago, President Woodrow Wilson set out fourteen points that were to form the basis of peace negotiations to end the First World War.  Although the world was back at war twenty years later, the Fourteen Points were the basis for many institutions of the international order, including the United Nations and its various bodies and offshoots.  They also pointed the way to establishment of a number of nation states that now exist in Europe.

But are the Fourteen Points still fit for purpose in a world where the United States is no longer the ascending power, where China and Russia expect to be listened to and have their own approaches to international affairs, where the UK and France are no longer colonial powers and their colonies are now nation states?  And how relevant are the Fourteen Points where the threats to peace are very different from those faced a hundred years ago and are increasing and are increasingly complex?

Against this backdrop, a workshop last week at Chatham House, in association with the Meridian International Center in Washington DC, came up with its own list of points for the twenty-first century.  There were seven points, rather than President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and there were some similarities – for instance, the references to arms control.  However, I was interested to see that the focus of the new list was on communication, equality, the environment and education, rather than carving up territory, recognition of nations and navigation routes.  But the Fourteen Points addressed problems of a colonial era and were designed to end a war that had engulfed too many around the world.  The seven points are designed to prevent another world war.

The seven points are:

1          We shall prioritise diplomacy as one of the most important ways to prevent conflict.  We shall ringfence public diplomacy spending in the way that we do for defence and international aid.

2          We shall establish global norms for tax structures so that every member of every country is subject to fair taxation and inequalities are reduced.

3          We shall re-double global efforts to address climate change and ensure that the Paris Agreement is implemented as fully as possible.

4          We shall re-order and re-frame the international system to be more representative.  Representation for sub-state groups and minority peoples will be included at all levels at the United Nations and its associated institutions.

5          We shall re-charge the United Nations Security Council to ensure that new mechanisms can be established for agreement and ensure that interventions can only take place with full agreement throughout the whole of the UN system.

6          We shall set up in place further measures to prevent conflict and curb military aggression, including increased emphasis on disarmament and arms reduction and controls, including controls on cyber weaponry.

7          We shall increase the international emphasis and commitment to sustainable development and education for all and we shall support good governance practices and funding for education particularly for girls.

 

YOUR BEST DATA SELF AND GETTING THE BEST DEALS

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You want to take out insurance – for your car, your house, your possessions – so what’s the insurance company interested in?  It used to be where you live, how old you are, the value of your car/house/possessions and there are probably a few questions about security.  There’ll be other factors too, but these are likely to be the key points that will determine risk and, therefore, pricing.  Within a few years, that’s likely to change.

Insurance companies now have access to a wealth of data and the ability to mine that to carry out a more granular risk assessment.  Hundreds (or even thousands) of points that are insignificant in themselves can be identified, assessed and packaged together to produce a more personalised risk assessment for the customer with the premium being priced accordingly.

A lot of this information is expected to come from customers, who will need to present their ‘best self’ to insurers to get the best deals.  And that will require sharing data with a prospective insurer; otherwise, you could lose out on the best offers.

I’ve used the example of insurance and an insurer, but it could have been a credit card issuer, an unsecured loan provider or a mortgage lender.  Data are, increasingly, in the hands of the customer and the trend is for customers to have control over their data, but it seems that sharing of data will be essential to get the best deals.

Towards the end of last year, I asked a senior executive at an insurer whether this will mean that someone who doesn’t want to share their data might not get as good a deal.  What was interesting was the way in which the question was answered.  It was as though I hadn’t been keeping up with the rest of the class:  of course those customers wouldn’t get as good a deal.

I don’t know exactly what data financial services companies will want to use, but the types I’ve heard about are:

  • Social media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like.
  • Health data from Fitbit and similar devices.
  • Information about other financial services products, current account information being the holy grail, closely followed by credit card account data; they show where the money goes.

Presenting your best digital self might spell the end of posting that it’s taken you only two hours to travel from Birmingham to Newcastle, which almost certainly means you drove above the speed limit.  And you might want to use cash to buy your daily coffee rather than having a lender passing judgement on the weekly spend that shows up on your credit card statement.  Access to medical data could provide a rich data source for financial services companies too, particularly insurers, but would you want to share all the (potentially irrelevant) details of your medical history with them?  It might make the best deals just that bit too pricy.

CONFLICTS TO WATCH IN 2018 (aka A RATHER DEPRESSING TOP-TEN)

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Last week, I was at Chatham House in London for International Crisis Group’s presentation of conflicts to watch in 2018.  I find it one of the more depressing top-ten lists and we seem to be a way off hitting a top-ten of crises and conflicts that have been avoided.

Which areas or countries made the list?  North Korea; US-Saudi-Iran rivalry; the Rohingya crisis encompassing Myanmar and Bangladesh; Yemen; Afghanistan; Syria; the Sahel region; Democratic Republic of Congo; Ukraine; and Venezuela.

Here are some points I took from the session.

1          The list could easily have been a lot longer, with the Israel-Palestinian conflict being cited as the eleventh item on the list in most years.  Other countries referred to were Libya, Pakistan and Cameroon.

2          There are no great surprises on the list, with the possible exception of the Sahel – the region that includes Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania – but that might be because it doesn’t receive as much coverage in the media.  From recollection, it made last year’s list too.

3          ICG’s representative made the point that politicians frequently overestimate the impact of military intervention and underestimate the influence that can be achieved through non-military measures.  Using just a bit more power generally won’t solve the problem and there are some obvious examples of this.  I can’t help thinking some history lessons wouldn’t go amiss for a few world leaders and their advisers to hammer this point home.

4          Creative thinking on the part of world leaders is in short supply.  It seems to me that creative solutions are essential in view of the number of conflicts across the globe and a large dose of patience is needed too.  It can take time to build trust and to achieve results.  Militarisation isn’t creative but there seems to be a trend in that direction, which is a shame because history shows it rarely works and is costly on all levels.

5          There are 18 elections across Africa in 2018, including in Cameroon, a country that those familiar with the region see as a potential conflict area.  As a result of colonial connections, France and the UK might be able to take (non-military) steps to make a difference and avert a crisis.  That’s likely to require creative thinking, a lot of patience and collaboration, but that would seem to me to be a price worth paying to stop a tinder box breaking out in flames.

Remarkable Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts

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My favourite Christmas present was Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, by Christopher de Hamel.  It’s about twelve fascinating manuscripts, the oldest of which dates from the late sixth century and the most recent of which was created in the days of the printing press.  There are religious works, as you’d expect, but there’s also a book of songs, the Canterbury Tales and a guide to warfare and military ventures.  Many of the manuscripts have other scraps of information written on blank pages, including genealogies and property records.  Later works have more refined pictures, works of art from a period when small-scale works are scarce and secular art was still rare.

But it’s Dr de Hamel’s approach that provides such a fabulous insight to the world of medieval manuscripts.  As the title of the book suggests, he takes the reader with him as he visits each of the manuscripts in their current homes.  These range from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles to the National Library in St Petersburg, with places across Europe and within the UK.  We meet the custodians of the manuscripts and the invigilators who keep watch over their charges.  Some of them are kind – step forward, the invigilator at the National Library in St Petersburg, who provided Dr de Hamel with chocolates during a warm afternoon; others are stricter – the staff at the Morgan Library in New York left me feeling battered and I wasn’t present.

The anecdotes are fun, particularly the stories about the pages of the Gospels of St Augustine wafting in the breeze and Dr de Hamel holding the Gospels while Pope Benedict XVI kissed them.  What I’ve enjoyed most, though, are the accounts of the detective work to try to establish a chain of ownership and work out how on earth each manuscript ended up where it sits today.  By piecing together snippets of information that have survived through the centuries, light is cast on trade and communication links between Norman England, France and other European countries, stocking of English cathedral libraries in the years after the Norman Conquest, the commissioning of manuscripts and the design process and the growing trade in books in the late Middle Ages.  And there’s a fabulous story about Danish kings learning their alphabet.

This is a good, thick book, the sort that’s bursting with information and delights, one that you’ll want to go back to again and again.  I can’t recommend it highly enough and I only hope that Dr de Hamel can be persuaded to write another book about even more remarkable manuscripts.

FAKE NEWS IN SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND

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Charles II is often associated with mistresses, the revival of London’s theatres and horse racing (the ‘sport of kings’).  But he also had to contend with restoration of the monarchy after England, Scotland and Ireland had been republics for more than a decade and the early part of his reign saw the devastation of the plague (1665) and the Great Fire of London (1666).  You might say that he was dealt a tricky hand.

I went to an exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery recently (the one at the back of Buckingham Palace) called Charles II:  Art & Power.  As the title suggests, the exhibits show how Charles II used art to consolidate his power.  There are the usual formal portraits – similar to the ones Tudor kings and queens used to good effect – showing the King in majesty.  But the exhibition also shows that prints allowed images of the new King to be circulated widely, fixing his image in the mind of his subjects, replacing that of his executed father and of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector.  The drawing made to provide the King’s image on coinage is tucked away in a side-room and the Financial Times’ review of the exhibition makes the point that the artist of the drawing was the artist who painted Oliver Cromwell warts and all.  That might have been to establish continuity or to set a tone of conciliation, but it’s unlikely to have been a coincidence; this was a King who meant to keep his throne and subliminal messaging was as good a tool as any others.

The last years of Charles II’s reign were dominated by the Popish Plot and its consequences.  The plot was a false tale of a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and (at the risk of extreme over-simplification) it gained credibility for two reasons in particular.  First, anti-Catholicism was a feature of politics, religion and society in seventeenth-century England.  That was fuelled by doubts about the religious persuasion of Charles II and the lack of a legitimate son as heir to the throne, leaving his Catholic brother – later, James II – as next in line to the throne.  Secondly, threats against the King were taken extremely seriously.  Charles II had regained the throne, but Stuart kings had faced assassination plots before (think of the Gunpowder Plot), his father had been removed from power (albeit by Protestant radicals) and the monarchy was no longer as unquestioningly secure as it was once perceived to be.

By the time the so-called plot was revealed as an invention, more than 20 innocent people had been executed.  Jumping at shadows cast by a plot that played on widespread fears within society, Catholic peers were put on trial, James II’s place in the succession was in doubt, houses of suspected Catholics were searched, Catholics were banned from London and the surrounding area and hysteria was widespread.  Fake news is not a new phenomenon.