Maximum efficiency at maintaining professional standards

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

The computer screen is swimming in front of my eyes. I pull together every fibre of mental strength to finish my sentence: “. . . streamlining the governance structures of the organisation for maximum . . .” For maximum what? Accountability? Efficiency? Cabbage? Impact! Impact. Phew.

This is my first attempt to work since baby Moe was born. Isla, a former colleague who now has a high-up job in the arts, has asked me to help write an annual report. I get a decent day rate and I can do it from home. If I don’t mess it up, there may be more work forthcoming.

This is a cheering prospect, as we are crazily broke. My clothes are actually threadbare: the other day, I was chatting to some rather stylish mothers outside Larry’s nursery and only realised when I got home that my jeans had ripped right across the arse – and not in an on-trend way. Also, the fateful day on which we will have to renew the car insurance is looming. So I am definitely not in a position to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The problem is that baby Moe is still not sleeping properly. For a reason I have not yet managed to identify, he wakes up several times a night and often howls for more than an hour before, equally inexplicably, popping his thumb into his mouth and drifting off again. I have ruled out hunger, illness and teething. Cuddles work but only temporarily. Even Calpol seems to be losing its magic.

I am trying to implement a draconian sleep-training regime but it is difficult when you are so exhausted that you would gladly pawn your own grandmother for an unbroken four hours. Last night was particularly bad. At one point, I found myself semiconscious on the floor, with Moe draped across my face.

Anyway, here I am, a Writing and Editing Professional. I’m still in my pyjamas, yes, and smeared with porridge, maybe, but I’m nevertheless the Solution To All Your Editorial Needs.

“Er, I think he needs a feed.” Curly pokes his head around the door. He has been trying to keep Moe quiet in the other room so I can concentrate. I stagger across the room, crashland on the sofa and take Moe in my arms. As he suckles away, a delicious wave of relaxation sweeps over me. I lean my head back and close my eyes, just for a moment, until . . . “Babe, I’m sorry, I’ve gotta go.” Curly has his hand on my shoulder. I wrench my head from the cushions and stare at him uncomprehendingly. Go? But his course doesn’t start until seven. And I’ve only got to page three of the report. And the deadline is tomorrow. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to wake you up.”

He strokes my head. Moe, who after this marathon nap will definitely be awake all night, nuzzles innocently into my armpit. “Perhaps you should tell them you can’t do this work. You’re not ready.”

“I can’t pull out now!” I disentangle myself and run wildly back to my desk, my hair a mess. “I’ve committed . . . my reputation . . . have some standards . . . I’m a professional!”.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Richard Dawkins: We need a new party - the European Party

I was unqualified to vote in the EU referendum. So at least now we should hear from experts. 

It is just conceivable that Brexit will eventually turn out to be a good thing. I gravely doubt it, but I’m not qualified to judge. And that is the point. I wasn’t qualified to vote in the referendum. Nor were you, unless you have a PhD in economics or are an expert in a relevant field such as history. It’s grotesque that David Cameron, with the squalidly parochial aim of silencing the Ukip-leaning wing of his party, gambled away our future and handed it over to a rabble of ignorant voters like me.

I voted – under protest, because I never should have been asked to vote, but I did. In line with the precautionary principle, I knew enough to understand that such a significant, complex and intricate change as Brexit would drive a clumsy bull through hundreds of delicate china shops painstakingly stocked up over decades of European co-operation: financial agreements, manufacturing partnerships, international scholarships, research grants, cultural and edu­cational exchanges.

I voted Remain, too, because, though ­ignorant of the details, I could at least spot that the Leave arguments were visceral, emotional and often downright xenophobic. And I could see that the Remain arguments were predominantly rational and ­evidence-based. They were derided as “Project Fear”, but fear can be rational. The fear of a man stalked by a hungry polar bear is entirely different from the fear of a man who thinks that he has seen a ghost. The trick is to distinguish justified fear from irrational fear. Those who scorned Project Fear made not the slightest attempt to do so.

The single most shocking message conveyed during the referendum campaign was: “Don’t trust experts.” The British people are fed up with them, we were told. You, the voter, are the expert here. Despicable though the sentiment was, it unfortunately was true. Cameron made it true. By his unspeakable folly in calling the referendum, he promoted everyone to the rank of expert. You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land on.

Scientists are experts only in their own limited field. I can’t judge the details of physics papers in the journal Nature, but I know that they’ve been refereed rigorously by experts chosen by an expert editor. Scientists who lie about their research results (and regrettably there are a few) face the likelihood that they’ll be rumbled when their experiments are repeated. In the world of science, faking your data is the cardinal sin. Do so and you’ll be drummed out of the profession without mercy and for ever.

A politician who lies will theoretically get payback at the next election. The trouble with Brexit is that there is no next election. Brexit is for keeps. Everyone now knows that the £350m slogan on the Brexit bus was a barefaced lie, but it’s too late. Even if the liars lose their seats at the next election (and they probably won’t), Brexit still means Brexit, and Brexit is irreversible. Long after the old people who voted Leave are dead and forgotten, the young who couldn’t be bothered to vote and now regret it will be reaping the consequences.

A slender majority of the British people, on one particular day in June last year when the polls had been going up and down like a Yo-Yo, gave their ill-informed and actively misled opinion. They were not asked what they wanted to get into, only what they wanted to get out of. They might have thought “Take back control” meant “Give control back to our sovereign parliament, which will decide the details”. Yes, well, look how that’s working out!

“The British people have spoken” has become an article of zealous faith. Even to suggest that parliament should have a little bitty say in the details is hysterically condemned as heresy, defying “the people”. British politics has become toxic. There is poison in the air. We thought that we had grown out of xenophobic bigotry and nationalistic jingoism. Or, at least, we thought it had been tamed, shamed into shutting its oafish mouth. The Brexit vote signalled an immediate rise in attacks on decent, hard-working Poles and others. Bigots have been handed a new licence. Senior judges who upheld the law were damned as “enemies of the people” and physically threatened.

Am I being elitist? Of course. What’s wrong with that? We want elite surgeons who know their anatomy, elite pilots who know how to fly, elite engineers to build safe bridges, elite athletes to win at the Olympics for Team GB, elite architects to design beautiful buildings, elite teachers and professors to educate the next generation and help them join the elite. In the same way, to decide the affairs of state, as we live in a representative democracy, we can at least hope to elect elite parliamentarians, guided and advised by elite, highly educated civil servants. Not politicians who abdicate their democratic responsibility and hand important decisions over to people like me.

What is to be done? Labour, the so-called opposition, has caved in to the doctrine of “the British people have spoken”. Only the Lib Dems and SNP are left standing. Unfortunately, the Lib Dem brand is tarnished by association with Cameron in the coalition.

Any good PR expert would prescribe a big makeover, a change of name. The “Euro­pean Party” would attract Labour voters and Labour MPs disillusioned with Jeremy Corbyn. The European Party would attract Europhile Tory MPs – and there are plenty of them. The European Party would attract a high proportion of the 48 per cent of us who voted Remain. The European Party would attract big donations. The European Party might not win the next election, but it would stand a better chance than Labour or the Lib Dems under their present name. And it would provide the proper opposition that we so sorely need.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition