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No time for comedy...

The economic crisis, the relentless attacks on Gaza and a very real threat to trainspotting. Jonatha

My first piece of the year. I have taken legal advice and understand what is required under the Columnists’ Act. So here they are, my humorous predictions for 2009...


Michael Martin agrees to resign as Speaker, but only if he is replaced by George Galloway!


Gordon Brown announces...
That will keep the Statesman’s lawyers happy for a while.

But really this is no time for comedy. The economy is collapsing, the Gaza Strip is being blitzed and there are unconfirmed reports of wolves being sighted at Cleobury Mortimer.

So let’s talk about something serious instead.


And I don’t mean the adventures of Begbie, Spud and Sickboy either.

As I said in my review for Steam Railway Quarterly, anyone who opens Irvine Welsh’s book in the hope of gaining an insight into the operation of Gresley’s A4 Pacifics on the LNER is likely to be sadly disappointed.


If I were not too worldly to have heroes, Norman Baker would be one of them. The Lib Dem MP once brought down Peter Mandelson with a single question. He has published a book investigating the death of Dr David Kelly. He champions Tibetan freedom and the reopening of the line between Uckfield to Lewes.

But this week Baker disappointed me. Revealing that the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2000 has been used to stop 62,584 people at railway stations and that another 87,000 travellers have been questioned under ‘stop and search’ legislation, he thought it necessary to say:

“The anti-terror laws allow officers to stop people for taking photographs and I know this has led to innocent trainspotters being stopped. This is an abuse of anti-terrorism powers and a worrying sign that we are sliding towards a police state.

"Trainspotting may be an activity of limited, and indeed questionable, appeal, but it is not a criminal offence and it is not a terrorist threat.”

When did this innocent activity become such anathema? Baker would not have felt a need to be condemnatory if he had been, say, defending sadomasochists against Jacqui Smith’s goons.

Trainspotting is now treated only half-jokingly as a symptom of a rather major social disorder, but it is not so long since boys were meant to be interested in railways.

For three decades after the Second World War working-class affluence gave them the money and the leisure to pursue the hobby. The Ian Allan Locospotters Club provided the ruthless organisation.

Nicholas Whittaker tells the story in his Platform Souls – a book that in a just world would have done for trainspotting what Fever Pitch did for football.

As he emphasises, trainspotting was not without controversy. Popular stations could be overrun with children in the holidays and questions were once asked in the House about a particularly notorious episode at Tamworth. When overzealous spotters were picked up wandering around locomotive depots, magistrates would call for the hobby to be banned.

But if nothing else, it taught them about geography. If modern youths want to get home they phone their parents and grunt.

So why all this “Place your notebook on the ground and walk away from it slowly” stuff from the authorities?

It’s nothing to do with terrorism: it is about enforcing conformity. If our young people were again to smell diesel fumes and taste chocolate from machines – for any former trainspotter these are the unforgettable flavours of first freedom – there would be no holding them.

But talking of conformity, we had better keep the lawyers sweet.

...announces David Cameron.
George Galloway agrees to resign as Speaker, but only if he is replaced by Cheryl Cole!!

Jonathan Calder has been a district councillor and contributed to speeches by Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. These days he prefers to poke gentle fun from the sidelines. He blogs at Liberal England
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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.