Douglas Alexander's Democratic Convention diary

On stage, Obama spoke truth from power - the essential task of a political leader.

How to win friends....

I arrive on Wednesday afternoon by direct flight from Gatwick to Douglas International Airport (honestly, that's its name!) in Charlotte, NC, just as Air Force One lands at the nearby Air National Guard Base.

In the sweltering line for a taxi - it's 86 degrees - I hear that all flights out of Charlotte have been delayed to allow the President's plane to land ... I guess that's all part of the plan for building broader support in this vital swing state!

The Come Back Kid returns.

One man who is famous for making friends in the Democratic Party - or anywhere - is Bill Clinton. Back in 2000, I sat with Ed Miliband high in the Staples Centre in Los Angeles as Clinton transfixed the crowd at what was supposed to be Al Gore's Convention. He hasn't lost his touch and his speech on Wednesday night once again had the delegates in raptures.

Its central theme - "We're all in this together" - was not unfamiliar to British ears, so the next morning I sought out the man with whom I first associated with those words - Frank Luntz. Frank is now a commentator for both CBS and Fox News, but you might also remember him from the focus groups he ran for Newsnight. Back in the spring of 2008, he gave a presentation to Republican Congressional Candidates that recommended the use of the line "We're all in this together".

Over breakfast in a downtown grill, he tells me he arrived at the phrase after much testing when his research showed hard pressed voters didn't welcome a politician talking about sacrifice...as they felt they were already making enough sacrifices, thank you very much. Luntz is genuinely effusive in his praise of Clinton's performance the night before: "It's the most effective political deconstruction I have ever seen. And it will matter," he tells me."It's given every Democrat their talking points for the next 8 weeks." He goes on, "It wasn't really an endorsement of Barack Obama, but an incredible indictment of Mitt Romney. Bill Clinton's a one man war room."

E Pluribus Unum

It's to one of the veterans of the original War Room in Little Rock that I turn next. Simon Rosenberg is an old friend who runs the Washington based centre-left think-tank The New Democratic Network. He's also a leading expert on the demographic shifts transforming American politics.

The contrast between the all-white crowd in Tampa last week and the hugely diverse delegations here in Charlotte tells a powerful story. In a bar crowded with delegates, donors, lobbyists, and journalists, Simon shouts his explanation for this, "Barack Obama whose slogan is 'Forward' is the first President of the new emerging demographics of the twenty first century. He's a symbol of transition from a country dominated by white Europeans to a country that'll be majority non-white within 30 years."

And this matters deeply to US politics. As Simon goes on to explain, in the 1960s, America was 90% white and 10% black. Today, it is 65% white and 35% people of colour, and it's on track to be majority non-white by 2040. "Not only did America's economy become globalised in recent decades, but so did its people," shouts my ever hoarser friend. Little wonder the growing diversity of the Democratic Party is on such glorious display on the Convention stage - and the Convention floor.

Following in Family Footsteps

Talking about the 1960s reminds me that while it's my first visit to North Carolina, it turns out I'm following in family footsteps. Back in Easter 1960, my mum and dad, then fresh out of Glasgow University and studying for a year in New York, also made the journey south to attend a special conference. There they queued to hear a young Baptist - and were spat at by white passersby for their trouble. The conference was a gathering of the Southern Christian Leadership, bringing civil rights protesters together, and the young Baptist preacher was Martin Luther King.

Little could my parents have imagined that, fifty years later, their son would return to North Carolina to hear another young African American .... who also just happens to be the 44th President of the United States.

My Kingdom for a Pass

By Thursday afternoon, all minds are turning to the finale of the Convention, the President's acceptance of the party's nomination. All has not gone smoothly for the campaign officials planning the event. The speech was due to be made at the Bank of America Stadium - which is outdoor and has a capacity of over 70,000 - but on Wednesday the venue is suddenly changed to the Time Warner Cable Centre, where the rest of the Convention has been taking place. The explanation that's given is the risk of rain, but nobody seems very sure why the decision has changed when apparently the forecast hasn't.

Anyway, 70,000 just doesn't go in to 20,000, so it suddenly seems like everyone is cajoling, begging and pleading for a pass to get in for the big speech. Donna Brazille proves my saviour and I get there early. David Miliband is delayed at a dinner, and so has to queue during one of the temporary lock downs, which the Daily Mail gleefully show in a photo apparently taken on someone's mobile. Quite why anyone would care is beyond me.

In the hall, John Kerry tears into the Republicans on foreign policy. The biggest cheers he get from delegates - given the difficulty Democrats have had since Tampa in answering Ronald Reagan's old question - is when he asks "Is Osama Bin Laden better off than he was 4 years ago?"

Earlier in the day, I'd grabbed a cup of coffee with Madeleine Albright - Clinton's Secretary of State - and still well connected and wise in the arena of foreign policy. What she tells me convinces me that the new Secretary of State, if Obama wins (a contest widely thought, here in Charlotte, to be between John Kerry and UN Ambassador Susan Rice), will not have an empty inbox on day one.

Speaking to America

Obama takes to the stage timed precisely around the networks' coverage. There are 20,000 of us packed into the hall, but his real audience are the TV viewers scattered across battleground states like Iowa, Colorado, Ohio and Virginia. It is undecided voters in these states that will ultimately decide the outcome of a race that's been tight ever since Romney secured the Republican nomination in April

During the day, I'd chatted with Philip Kent, the chairman and chief executive of Turner Broadcasting, who own CNN. He's the man who brought Piers Morgan to the states and he tells me that the Convention should boost ratings for the network. For as well as the dial metering and the instant polling the other number the campaign staff will be studying anxiously will be the TV viewing figures.

Those figures weren't good for Romney and the Republicans last week in Tampa as his speech was watched by only 30.3million over eleven TV networks.....down from the 40milion over seven TV networks that watched John McCain deliver his acceptance speech four years ago.

A Speech....

In retrospect, it's clear that there was a powerful logic and a clear plan behind the main speeches here in Charlotte. Michelle's task was to defend Obama's character. Clinton's task was to defend Obama's record. And Obama's task was to set out his plan for America's future.

And that's exactly what he did. On stage, he wasn't just Commander-in-Chief; he was Educator-In-Chief, as he set out his vision for America's future success. It was a different and more sober speech than his acceptance address four years ago in a vast Denver Stadium - when his soaring rhetoric matched the mood of hope that would carry him all the way to the White House.

The main theme of the President's powerful speech was an effort to turn the focus of his re-election bid on the rebuilding of the economy. At a time of massive challenge for western economies and societies, he spoke truth from power - the essential task of a political leader.

By any measure, it has proved a strong Convention for the Democrats here in North Carolina. The speeches were strong and their messages clear. Today, as the delegates started their long trek home, they are, in the phrase Obama made famous four years ago, "Fired Up. Ready to Go!"

And a Taxi Ride...

When I look back on this week in Charlotte, however, I'll remember more than just the speeches and the schmaltz. I'll also remember Ephron, the taxi driver who gave me a ride back to my motel late one night after the speeches had finished. His family came originally from Ethiopia. He's 36 and has two kids almost the same age as mine. He works all week driving the cab, but he last saw a doctor three years ago. That's because he doesn't have any health insurance. And with quiet determination he told me "That's why I'm voting for Barack Obama".

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary.

Barack Obama with Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina. Photograph: Getty Images.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

Getty
Show Hide image

Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.