As the European elections campaign creaks to a close, one familiar figure has been missing from the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall, Brussels and Strasbourg. In 2006 David Butler, grand old man of British psephology, decided to hang up his pen. Butler, Emeritus Fellow of Politics at Nuffield College, Oxford, and for long a familiar face on election night television specials, has been associated with ‘Nuffield Studies’ of British elections since 1945 and has been the author or co-author of each one since 1951. After writing the 1951 and 1955 studies alone, Butler fell into the tradition of co-authorship; with Richard Rose (1959), Anthony King (1964, 1966), Michael Pinto-Duschinsky (1970) and, most enduring authorial relationship of all, with Dennis Kavanagh (1974 onwards and through till 2005). Each of these studies had been ‘Butler and …’ but, in 2005, in a symbolic recognition of the changing weight of responsibilities, it became ‘Kavanagh and Butler’, and from now on it will be ‘Kavanagh and Cowley’ (as in Philip Cowley, of Nottingham University). (more…)
Over the past couple of weeks I have whitewashed a bedroom, touched up the woodwork at our Brussels house and, today, helped de-reed a pond. The pond in question is at my father-in-law’s garden on the border between the Belgian Famenne and the Ardennes. It was a simply glorious day. This region can be austere and harsh in the winter (a season that has its own beauty), but on a spring day like today, with swallows soaring high in the sky and the trees and meadows in full leaf, it is an earthly paradise. Some of our favourite nephews and nieces were there, which added to our pleasure. After a late breakfast, everybody got to work on clearing up the pond. My job was to don a chest-high pair of waders and start de-reeding (pulling up fist loads of reeds where they encroached on the open water). I always feel virtuous after such physical labour, and in a way that you don’t (or I don’t) after more intellectual or administrative endeavours. But the fact is that, unlike the previous day’s running, such labour leaves the mind to think about and work on other things. So I didn’t just get the whitewashing and the touching-up and the de-reeding done; I also wrote quite a lot of stuff in my mind and thought through quite a few problems at work. The rest of this week is going to be very tough, so I was grateful for these ‘Zen’ interludes, and I am sure I’ll return to the peace they gave me as the week hots up.
At my school there were beaters; male teachers – and it was only male teachers – who had to use the cane to keep discipline. The more sadistic among them would announce your punishment then keep you waiting for anything up to a week, so that as an errant pupil you had plenty of time to imagine the pain you were going to experience. As I read the Sunday newspapers I reflected that the Labour Government and the Labour Party must feel much like an errant pupil awaiting a pre-announced beating as the European and local elections speed into view. This is going to be bad, very bad, and I don’t feel any the better for having more-or-less predicted it five years ago. Indeed, from Labour’s point of view it is – pardon the cliché – the perfect storm. But Labour will not be the only sufferers. I have friends in all of the mainstream parties and none of them – with the exception of the Greens – is remotely happy.
I have done an awful lot of ‘eating for Europe’ since the beginning of my mandate and inevitably have put on a few kilos – well, quite a few, truth be told. It’s not that I eat so much (I stick to fish, fruit and vegetables as much as possible, anyway); it’s also because I haven’t been getting enough exercise in. This is not a state I like at all and a small voice has been chipping away inside my mind saying ‘once you start to get a little bit of time for exercise then you must get this situation under control.’ There was a time, in my squash-playing heyday, when I was pretty fit. We played competitive matches on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays (in various leagues) and trained pretty intensively on Monday lunchtimes and Sunday mornings. Recurring injuries put an end to that level of fitness and, in the end, to squash. Though I hated it, I took up jogging, but after a few years I was warned off of that by a doctor because of the state of my knees.
This was about the time the job took off – the directorship, and then the post of SG and, well, my waistline has never looked back. Well, never until recently. In March, I mentioned to a colleague, Marc, who does a lot of running that I needed an objective and was thinking of doing the 20 kilometres of Brussels, perhaps with my (14 year-old) daughter. By what magical means I do not know, but in a twinkling Marc had got me two places (they are like gold dust) for the race, and then I knew the time had come and I had better get serious about it… (more…)
On the Sunday morning the dog took me for my usual walk after I had dropped off my son at WezWa for footie. I got back in time to see said son score an excellent goal – was this a good omen for the afternoon, I wondered (and so it proved)? I watched my fellow-speaker from last Thursday lunchtime (see post), Simon Taylor, doubling up brilliantly as an enthusiastic coach for one of the youngest age groups (WezWa is, commendably, run by volunteers). But looking at other matches and age groups, I could see the poisonous legacy of Ronaldo. I know, I know; you can show me documentaries of Ronaldo getting hacked to pieces by cynical defenders, like Maradonna (for example) before him. But I don’t think you’ll easily find such self-justifying documentaries about Messi (for example – by chance, also a small player like Maradonna), and I certainly don’t think you’d be able to compile a video of Messi diving frequently in expectation of a free kick or a penalty. In sorrow, I watched so many young footballers – playing at a ‘fun’ club, after all – diving, exaggerating their falls and their injuries after tackles and pleading to the referees. This is, ironically, probably the greatest legacy of Ronaldo, undoubtedly one of the greatest footballers of all time – that and the step-over which so many of the kids have now mastered. The saddest thing of all is that, certainly as long as his speed and strength continue, he really doesn’t need any of that.
At lunchtime today I spoke at a seminar, together with Simon Taylor, a senior journalist at the European Voice, on the Lisbon Treaty. The seminar was organised by the Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP), and was held at the headquarters of Interel Cabinet Stewart, a Brussels-based European Affairs consultancy. It was an enjoyable occasion. First of all, the teamwork, between a journalist and an official, worked very well. Second, there were a number of old friends and acquaintances. Third, the audience was not only appreciative but asked very pertinent questions. I have always believed that officials should get ‘out there’ and discuss what they do with stakeholders of various kinds. But occasional ’reality checks’ of this sort are particularly important when, as is currently my case, you start to spend quite so much of your time in the ‘day job’.
At lunchtime today I went to the Centre, to a UACES seminar, to listen to my friend David Earnshaw giving a frank analysis of what the next European Parliament is likely to look and feel like. David’s analysis was not so much on overall composition, since despite lower overall turnout this is likely to remain roughly the same, but on topics such as the internal Group dynamics, the consequences of the recently-adopted rule changes and other reforms, on the trends within the codecision procedure, the arcane but important issue of ‘comitology’, the Committee structures and the consequences of any eventual implementation of the Lisbon Treaty. All good stuff. David’s most important argument is that, whatever the composition of the Parliament and however much legitimacy might be affected by lower turnout, the trend towards a further parliamentarisation of the EU is set to continue, and all democrats must applaud that.
Next door to the museum is the yachting equivalent of the Scuderia Ferrari; Lillia. We were treated to a guided tour of the ship yard by its owners, Domenico Lillia and his son, Stefano (another privilege!). A poster for 2006 I happened to spot on the wall listed the following main victories: the world first, second, third and fourth places; the European first and second places; the North American first and third places; and the South American first, second and third places. Not even Ferrari could rival that! Domenico explained that the top sailors decide on the position of every piece of tackle down to the nearest milimetre. He also demonstrated quite clearly why you need to be a top athlete to be a top sailor. In fact, the illustration shows why you need to have extremely strong stomach muscles alone. Quite a day.
The highlight of this short holiday week was a visit to an extraordinary museum on the banks of the Lago di Como housing a large collection of all the sorts of boats that have sailed on the lake over several centuries. Our host and guide was Gianalberto Zanoletti, the man who created the museum and gathered its collection together. Our fellow guests were the mayors of many of the commune from around the lake and the surrounding mountains. Through the kindness of a neighbour, we were able to tag onto their visit. The sad fact is that the museum is currently closed, permanently. Zanoletti bought up an old silk factory on the lakeside (a huge old mulberry bush in the courtyard bears testament to that period) and gradually extended the collection and display through the buildings. But as Europe’s health and safety and fire regulations became more advanced, Zanoletti was unable to keep pace and regretfully found himself obliged to close the museum. To re-open it would require a massive investment – hence the visiting mayors, for Zanoletti hopes to convince them, collectively, that they should save this priceless piece of their common cultural heritage. A few facts and figures about the collection should give you the idea: almost 200 punts and gondolas, including the oldest surviving intact Venetian gondola (built on the lake); some fifty fishing and hunting boats; smugglers’ boats (once very common on the lake and now extremely rare); over one hundred outboard motorboats, including the ‘Lesco’, that once in the 1960s held the world water speed record; twenty vaporetti, including two from the lake of St Moritz; almost 100 tourism speedboats, including the largest historical collection of ‘Riva’; forty onboard speedboats, including ‘Laura’, that, incredibly, set the world speed record at 226 kph in 1953 already; eighty yachts, including the Star Merope, that won the Olympic gold medal in Helsinki in 1952; transport and steamboats; and so on, and on, and on. It is extraordinary to think that all of this was created through the passion of one man but, as Zanoletti warned, once he was gone the museum and its collection could so very easily be dispersed.
This week, on Monday, a fire broke out in the Berlaymont building, the European Commission’s headquarters, and managed to spread through a service shaft to the roof. Thankfully, the fire was brought under control (though this took four hours) and all of the staff evacuated safely. President Barroso was himself evacuated down an emergency staircase. The fire was a quintessential black swan – perhaps all the more surprising for the fact that it occurred in a state-of-the-art building that had only just been refurbished. The Commission’s business continuity plan then kicked into action, so that urgent or essential tasks continued to be carried out. The EESC is currently enhancing its own business continuity plan. Like Taleb himself, the lesson I glean from The Black Swan is not fatalistic. Just because you cannot know doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t prepare. Indeed, an important part of a good business continuity plan is imagining black swans and then thinking through how you would deal with their consequences. Taleb goes further. Black swans, he argues, can lead to great opportunities, and you have to be ready to sieze them when they occur.