Notes From a Small Planet

3 Conversations

In sickness and in health

Lately, our relationship has been on the rocks. I'd felt taken for granted for a long time. Despite all our domestic problems, he was never at home, and it seemed as if promise after promise was being broken. All the shared hopes of years ago were being betrayed. I was unfaithful once, in London - I just couldn't resist a quick fling with Ken.

Afterwards, though, I loyally went home to him, despite his bad behaviour and the very unsavoury company he'd been keeping. But his behaviour just got worse, as he brazenly flaunted his 'special relationship' with his new friend. My own friends had started wondering out loud how I could possibly stay with him.

Eventually, I agreed. No way, I decided firmly, was I going to stand by Tony Blair any longer. I just couldn't bring myself to vote Labour again.

Blair had gone too far, with his submissive willingness to do whatever President Bush said. I was also sickened to see him cosying up to Italy's singularly sinister Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and supporting Berlusconi as he sought to erode the rights of European employees. The forthcoming local elections might have little connection to the national and international policies that so incensed me, but defiantly refusing to put my X next to the Labour rose would at least make me feel a little better as I watched the tanks roll into Iraq later this year.

But wouldn't you just know it? Just when I really was ready to walk out, he suddenly starts behaving better. Isn't that always the way in long-term relationships?

OK, so it's officially Chancellor Gordon Brown - 'the money god', as his Cabinet colleague David Blunkett has taken to calling him - who controls the UK government's financial policies. But given the ruthlessly centralised nature of the Blair administration, it's hard to believe that Blair didn't give some sort of approval to the general direction of the Budget announced this week.

And in terms of UK politics, that Budget's impact is immense, because it does what has been considered unthinkable here for over 20 years. It openly and unapologetically increases taxes in order to pay for better public services. Someone earning £20,000 a year will pay between £3 and £4 more per week in National Insurance, and that money will be spent (we're told) on the National Health Service, on education, and on increased tax breaks for the poorest families.

It's hardly revolutionary stuff, but it's the principle of the thing that makes me go a little misty-eyed. At long last, the idea that vast inequalities of income are wrong is respectable again. Brown speaks openly about how those who can afford to pay more to support social services should do so - and he's changing the law to try to ensure that the rich do indeed dip into their pockets just a little more.

Listening to Brown's words was hardly as exciting as striking or going out on to the streets to protest, as many Italians did this week to let Berlusconi know what they thought of his employment 'reforms' - but it was something. After long years of Tory rule followed by a New Labour regime that hardly looked any different, it all represents a very small step in the right direction.

Now, at last, there appears to be some sort of difference between Britain's two biggest political parties. The Conservatives have said that they'll oppose Brown's modest redistributive plans. Some senior Tories had also been openly admitting that they weren't sure that the National Health Service could continue for much longer in its present form. Brown's Budget seems to indicate a genuine determination on the part of the Blair administration to ensure that the NHS does, in fact, survive - and a willingness to back up that determination with cash, even if it might cost them a few votes here and there.

One should, of course, always treat apparently idealistic moves by politicians with the utmost scepticism. I'm quite sure that, in planning this Budget, the likely reaction of old-school liberal left types like me will have been considered. Voter turnouts in traditionally Labour areas have been very poor of late, as more and more party loyalists have been alienated by Blair's seemingly endless rightward drift. The government must have been anxious to find a way of getting that core Labour vote back on board, particularly with the local elections just around the corner. But whatever the motives behind it, the tone of Brown's latest rhetoric is encouraging.

And as for my rocky relationship - well, before the May 2 elections, I'll probably check to see who's most likely to defeat my local Tory candidate, and vote accordingly. If it turns out to be the Labour candidate, as I suspect it will, then perhaps now I'll be able to mark my X next to the rose symbol without having to use one hand to hold my nose as I do so.

Give me Moore

Meanwhile, I have been delighted to see one of my heroes at the centre of an astonishing success story. Michael Moore is a brilliant satirical film-maker and TV presenter, responsible for the much-acclaimed film Roger & Me and the TV series TV Nation and The Awful Truth. What's wonderful about him is that he manages to deliver lacerating criticisms of corporate and conservative America whilst always retaining a dark sense of humour.

Now he's got a smash hit book on his hands. Stupid White Men has raced to Number One on American best-seller lists - despite the fact that Moore's publishers were initially reluctant to release it. The book reportedly contains much strongly-worded criticism of the Bush administration, and in the wake of the September 11 tragedy, Moore's publishers felt that such criticism would seem insensitive and inappropriate.

They tried to get Moore to tone down his comments on Bush. He flatly refused. Eventually, after originally being scheduled for US release in October of last year, Stupid White Men made it into American bookshops in March - and sold like crazy. Far from causing outrage, as its publishers had feared, Moore's book found a huge and appreciative audience. Originally, as its subject matter was the state of the American nation, there had been no plans for a British release. But after its phenomenal US success, all that changed, and the book reached UK shops last week.

Is Stupid White Men really all that good? I'd love to be able to give you a personal view. The trouble is that when I went to the biggest bookshop in Bradford, they told me that they'd sold 20 copies in a day and were waiting for more supplies. I heard similar stories elsewhere, so I'm still waiting to get my hands on a copy.

But in the meantime, the runaway success of a book that (by all accounts) takes a robustly radical view of American politics, lambasting Democrats as well as Republicans, raises some interesting questions. Lots of people love Michael Moore in part because he is wonderfully, wickedly funny. But it also seems that a lot of people can relate to what he has to say.

And perhaps, despite Bush's sky-high approval ratings, dissent is more widespread than some people would have you believe. The huge response to Stupid White Men certainly suggests as much.

Smile - or else

Fans of Monty Python will probably remember their sketch about the kingdom where everyone was happy because unhappiness was illegal, and where those caught looking miserable were sentenced to be hanged by the neck until they cheered up. It was very funny, because of course it could never happen in reality... could it?

Don't be so sure. Janice Hathy, a stress management expert from Kalamazoo, Michigan, is trying to start something called the Great American Grump Out - an annual occasion on which grumpiness is banned. Ms Hathy wants people to be fined if caught frowning, and to be forced to wear special hats if seen being unhappy. She's named May 22 as the day of the first Grump Out.

She has explained that, in her view, grumpiness has become a 'national epidemic' in the US, adding that some of the worst culprits are sales assistants, drivers suffering road rage and stressed-out office workers.

Let's not mince words here. This woman is dangerous, and must be stopped. There is no phrase in the English language more maddening than 'Cheer up, it might never happen', and many's the time I've felt like punching someone who's said that or something similar to me. Humiliating someone just for looking sad or stressed, when they may have a perfectly valid reason for feeling that way, is downright sadistic. You can't force someone to be happy. You can only force them to pretend - and thus cause them further stress.

Anyway, American Researchers, you have been warned. And if you hear that there's been a record number of murders across the US on May 22, you'll know why.

Ormy's 'Notes' and Other Scribblings

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