A poodle is one thing, but we shouldn’t be anyone’s lap-dog

I am pleasantly surprised to record that my faith in British politics and politicians has been somewhat restored in recent weeks.

First MPs shocked us all when the Government was defeated in the House of Commons in a vote over the possibility of military intervention in Syria.

Appalled as we all are at the thought of anyone using chemical weapons, I have to say I felt hugely uncomfortable at the prospect of the UK rushing into another Middle East conflict it can ill afford and which our over-stretched Armed Forces can certainly do without.

Thus I was encouraged that Parliamentarians seemed to have learned from past mistakes and, in particular, the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ and exercised a degree of restraint.

Some were even prepared to vote against their own parties rather than galloping towards another endless war in a country most of us would struggle to pinpoint on a map.

No nation should ever go to war lightly but it helps when the public at least understands the reasons why its leaders may choose to do so and are sympathetic to the cause.

In the case of Syria, at the time when the Prime Minister called for the vote there were simply too many unanswered questions and a majority of MPs quite rightly, in my opinion, said no.

They had correctly judged the mood of the nation and certainly, at the time, there was simply no appetite for more ‘world policing’.

To his credit, the Prime Minister took the defeat on the chin as his right honourable friends on the opposition benches revelled in the moment.
David Cameron then, quite unexpectedly, did something I haven’t seen a British PM do for about 20 years.

Reacting to remarks allegedly made by a Russian diplomat who had described Britain as ‘a little island nobody listens to’, our Dave actually went and stood up for us.

The Prime Minister gave what I thought was a rather charming, indignant, Love Actually-esque defence of our Sceptered Isle.

He threw in Shakespeare, the abolition of slavery, great inventions. Oh and The Beatles.

I have to admit I almost cheered to hear it – so used am I to our glorious leaders being pathetically wet and insipid when it comes to international affairs.

Who can forget, for instance, the way in which that towering intellect George W Bush treated our then PM Tony Blair.

We may be a poodle on the world stage when compared to the U.S. and Russia but it is nice, just occasionally, to not be portrayed as some other country’s lap dog.
Of course, most people’s reactions to the Prime Minister’s defence of Britain was coloured by their political affiliations – with those on the left steadfastly refusing to give any credit.

‘A nice bit of myopic jingoism’ was how one of my Twitter followers described it – which I thought was a tad harsh.

I like to think, naively perhaps, that David Cameron stuck up for Britain, its traditions and values, because he believes in them.

It’s the kind of thing I’d expect any Prime Minister worth his or her salt to do but the sad truth is that, in recent years at leas, there has been nothing in the way of Statesmanship from the those living at Number 10.

It may just have been window dressing against the background of a summit at which precious little was actually achieved, but I was heartened – nonetheless – by the PM’s language and the sentiment.

The Britain of 2013 is a far cry from the global superpower it once was but it is clearly still important enough for the Americans to view us as a key ally – at least in terms of public perception, if not militarily.

I’d like to think that, going forward, any Prime Minister – from whichever party – understands that the British electorate deserves to be represented proudly in international affairs. If that means being unpopular, then so be it.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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RIP Maggie: She must have been doing something right

A lady not for turning: Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

A lady not for turning: Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.


I was at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery a couple of years ago for the 25th anniversary debate on the Miners’ Strike.

Despite the best efforts of the organisers and the chairman of the panel on stage, it felt rather more like an ambush than a genuine debate.

Understandably, a good number of people in the room were from mining communities and the bile and vitriol reserved for a former Conservative Minister was there for all to see.

Suffice to say, Edwina Currie – a woman who doesn’t need me to defend her – deserved the utmost respect for turning up to be shot at here in a solid Labour, working class city.

My overwhelming thought as I left the lecture theatre was ‘thank goodness it wasn’t Margaret Thatcher’.

Thatcher ‘the milk snatcher’; Thatcher: Who came up with the Poll Tax; Thatcher: Whose government oversaw the closure of 150 coalmines which devastated communities across the UK; Thatcher: Who crushed the trade unions; Thatcher: Whose belief in the free-market economy and privatisation promoted greed and selfishness on a scale never seen before.

You’ll read all of the above and more in the coming days as the country comes to terms with the loss of a towering political figure.

In my opinion, this is a very selective and simplistic version of the Margaret Thatcher story – and a markedly biased one which panders to left-wing rhetoric.

Since the news of Baroness Thatcher’s death broke yesterday we have witnessed the unedifying spectacle of people actually celebrating her passing.

‘Bing bong’ posted people on Facebook and Twitter – quoting ‘the witch is dead’ line from The Wizard of Oz.

I’m not sure which is worse – the fact that people are dancing on someone’s grave or that they can’t find a decent thing to say about one of only two leaders of note this country has seen since Churchill.

It was Tony Benn no less, that most respected of Labour heavyweights, who often held Margaret Thatcher up as an example of how a great political party should be led.

She came to power in 1979 as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister and, in doing so, sent shockwaves through the old boys’ club that was the Houses of Parliament.

Surely that ticks a box with everyone? Go on, admit it.

Let’s also not forget that Mrs Thatcher inherited a country in turmoil, paralysed by industrial unrest and half as productive and prosperous as it could have been.

Trade unions were trotting in and out of Downing Street with their demands, rubbish littered the streets, the dead lay un-buried and the IMF was banging on Britain’s door because ‘the sick man of Europe’ was bankrupt.

She set about transforming Britain’s economy – something she did at questionable social cost – and was vilified for her crusade against the very unions who had held previous Labour administrations to ransom.

Mrs Thatcher will be forever remembered as the Prime Minister who destroyed the UK’s mining industry. Few, however, are brave enough to concede that large parts of the industry were loss-making and that coal mines were also closing all over Europe.

Maggie’s government introduced the Right To Buy scheme for council homes – one of the most important pieces of empowering social legislation this country has ever seen.

She was despised by the IRA for her hard-line stance on terrorism and almost paid for it with her life. Even that didn’t cow her.

It was Mrs Thatcher’s deep-held sense of belief in standing up to aggressors and defending Britain, forged during the dark days of the Second World War, which shaped her response to the Falklands Crisis.

The resulting improbable victory was spectacular and owed much to Maggie’s unshakeable belief in the importance of defending ‘her people’.

The woman dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’ by her enemies in Moscow needed no spin doctors – unlike those who have succeeded her at Number 10. She was talked-about, respected and, crucially, listened to on the world stage and was certainly the equal of any statesman across the globe.

I dare say George W. Bush wouldn’t have got away with talking to Maggie the way he did the political poodle that was Tony Blair.

The very fact that she was the first Prime Minister to win three elections in a row tells me that Margaret Thatcher must have being doing something right in the eyes of the majority of those who could be bothered to vote.

Stafford Hospital inquiry: A wake-up call for all who care about the NHS

Stafford Hospital.

Stafford Hospital.

Unless you have been touched personally by this awful story, it is impossible to imagine what victims of the Stafford Hospital scandal have gone through and how they must feel.
It is estimated that up to 1,200 patients may have died needlessly – many in appalling conditions – between 2005 and 2009 in an environment which should have been the very safest and most reassuring.
The 139-day inquiry into failings at Stafford Hospital made for harrowing reading as anguished relatives of the deceased gave deeply disturbing personal accounts.
They told of frail and elderly patients left ignored, without pain relief, medication or even basic sustenance.
Witnesses exposed human failings on an epic scale which turned a National Health Service institution into a place of danger and neglect – unworthy of the name ‘hospital’.
Although the Stafford Hospital inquiry’s chairman Robert Francis QC’s report has yet to be published, his findings and recommendations have been heavily trailed in the national media.
His investigation may focus on Stafford Hospital but it clearly embraces themes universal to healthcare in the UK and should be viewed as a huge wake-up call for anyone who cares about the NHS.
At some point during the last two decades Whitehall meddling has undermined those working within the healthcare system to such an extent that patients have suffered and are suffering.
The testimonies of those who gave evidence to the Stafford Hospital inquiry is clear evidence of this.
The Labour Government, under Tony Blair, introduced targets which were intended to monitor performance and give patients a better deal.
But you don’t need to work in the health service or be an expert on it to see that in the rush to meet these, at times, arbitrary goals, hospitals and health centres have been forced to forsake the fundamentals.
There is a fine line between wanting a public service to deliver value for money for taxpayers and preventing it from fulfilling its raison d’être.
At Stafford Hospital the picture that has been painted is one of managers desperately trying to attain the coveted ‘Foundation’ status for the hospital while patient care went to the dogs.
As is usually the way with the public sector, however, these same managers somehow escaped censure – with none of the hospital’s executives being disciplined despite the seemingly obvious failings of leadership.
In my opinion it is high time that this ‘touchy-feely’ approach to discipline within the public sector was kicked into touch and that those who are ultimately responsible for failures are properly punished.
But surely the most important lesson to be learned from the publication of this damning report will be along the lines of: ‘There, but for the grace of God, go all of us.’
In other words, every hospital within the country – indeed, every NHS trust and institution – is at risk of following Stafford Hospital down the route of neglect in the rabid pursuit of targets.
I’m just a patient and the majority of my experiences in hospital in recent years, involving myself or relatives, have been positive. But not all of them.
Writing a piece like this you feel duty-bound to extol the virtues of the vast majority of staff within the health service.
Yes, we’ve all got stories of wonderful, caring NHS doctors and nurses and auxiliary staff who couldn’t do enough to make our stay in hospital more comfortable.
Anyone who reads The Sentinel’s letters pages regularly will see the praise heaped on staff of ward such-and-such.
But by the same token many of us have less complimentary tales to tell of miserable and unhelpful NHS staff for whom patients seem fairly low down on their list of priorities.
Maybe some are harassed, over-worked or poorly trained – as has been suggested by evidence given to the Stafford Hospital inquiry.
Whatever the reasons, there is something inherently wrong with the system when a receptionist, nurse or doctor can’t summon a smile, some sympathy or a little understanding for one’s personal predicament.
The vast majority of patients and relatives who show up at A&E, walk-in centres, hospitals and GP surgeries do so presumably because they are, or believe they are, ill.
In doing so they expect and deserve to be treated with concern, respect and dignity by the professionals in whom they place their absolute faith and trust.
This leads me to wonder how much emphasis is placed on empathy when healthcare staff go through their training and how often this is refreshed and reinforced.
You see, there are some things you just can’t measure with league tables and performance targets.
We can blame systems and the culture at Stafford Hospital all we want but, ultimately, surely this scandal boils down to a lack of compassion on a very basic, human level.
It is a failing which poses some very troubling questions for the NHS as we look forward.

New superhospital puts an end to a local healthcare scandal

Truly we are living through historic times: Days that many of us doubted we would ever see.
For decades the people of North Staffordshire have waited, moaned, campaigned and then waited some more for two major regeneration projects.
The first is the demolition of the great carbuncle that is Hanley bus station.
Well, many of us may have no time for the name City Sentral but what is surely more important is that a developer has finally committed to spending hundreds of millions of pounds creating a new shopping complex which will transform the city centre.
The second project was a new hospital, fit for the 21st Century, to replace the horrible hotch-potch of antiquated buildings which made up the Royal Infirmary and City General sites.
It is not over-egging the pudding to say that, for generations, the people of Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle-under-Lyme and the Staffordshire Moorlands have been the poor relations to NHS patients in other areas with regard to hospital treatment.
For as much as the care offered by staff up at Hartshill may have been first class, the outdated buildings which they have been forced to operate from and the very nature of the sprawling sites means that they have, effectively, being toiling with one hand tied behind their backs.
Ignored by successive Tory administrations and often overlooked by their Labour counterparts, the people of the Potteries have for too long been forced to put up with a second-rate hospital.
I distinctly recall the day – January 3, 2001 – when The Sentinel’s then Editor and a little lad by the name of Jacob Bradbury went down to 10 Downing Street to present a petition calling for a new hospital.
Yours truly was on the Newsdesk at the time and I remember how we chose smiley, five-year-old Jacob to become the poster boy for our Caring For Tomorrow campaign.
The little lad, from Madeley, was one of those who had suffered as a result of inefficiencies up at the Hartshill complex – waiting years for treatment on his deformed jaw.
Thus it was Jacob who delivered the 19,000-plus petition of Sentinel readers, demanding a new hospital, to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair.
We deliberately timed the visit for maximum impact – just four months before the General Election.
Looking back now, it seems scandalous that the people of North Staffordshire had to ‘campaign’ at all for the same kind of hospital facilities that other towns and cities simply take for granted.
Hospitals are sacred places to us all. Places where we are born and often where we and our loved ones die. Places where we experience the whole range of human emotions – hope, fear, relief, sorrow.
They are simply too important to be neglected which is why the scandal of North Staffordshire’s wait for a hospital which is fit for purpose reflects so poorly on politicians of all colours.
Thankfully, this Saturday the long wait will be over when the first 80 patients move into our new superhospital.
Let us not forget the long and rocky road which we have travelled.
There were many setbacks and times, with costs spiralling out of control, when it seemed that the dream of ultra-modern hospital care was again to be denied to the people of the Potteries.
Therefore, we should not underestimate the significance of the hospital’s doors opening for the first time this weekend or the effect this building will have on North Staffordshire’s psyche.
Round here we often have to settle for second best, to make-do and mend and to live with half-finished projects and promises broken.
However, the unveiling of the new superhospital genuinely gives us a state-of-the-art building to be proud of as opposed to facilities to be embarrassed about which wouldn’t look out of place in a Victorian novel.
There will be teething troubles, no doubt, as with any major building project of a scale such as this.
For me, the proof of the pudding will be in whether or not community facilities can cope in the coming years in the light of our new ‘cathedral to healing’ having 290 fewer beds than its predecessors.
But, for now, let us celebrate this long overdue milestone in local healthcare.