Nervous passengers beware

The challenges of travelling in the Caribean

My regular holiday sojourns in the Caribbean make modern travel seem so easy, almost effortless. Even in the depths of emotional despair, following my sister's death, Mrs Howe and I were able to change tickets from one company to the next without fuss or fanfare.

I had to write off my Virgin airline ticket to get me to Trinidad instead of Barbados, as we had planned. We booked a ticket with British Airways to Trinidad, and from Trinidad to Barbados we were placed on Liat, the Caribbean airline. I would meet up with Mrs Howe in Barbados for our two-week holiday.

A telephone call from London warned me that there would be all manner of shenanigans getting from Trinidad to Barbados. Departure time from Trinidad was 6am. Knowledgeable Trinidadians warned me to get to the airport at 4am, if not I would be bounced off the flight. The verb (to bounce) involves every shady activity imaginable.

I arrived on time, made my way to the ticket counter, only to be told that my British Airways ticket, bought and paid for, was not appearing on Liat's computer system. No one could say why this was so, only the statement delivered hesitatingly that my ticket had somehow disappeared into thin air.

I was furious. I huffed and puffed and confrontation seemed inevitable. Failing to meet Mrs Howe in Barbados was not an option. I tried to purchase another ticket, and such was my determination to get out of Trinidad that the Liat staff finally caved in - not before charging me for a single piece of hand luggage, a suit in a holdall.

I called my friend in London on my way to the departure lounge, and he suggested that all I had needed to do was slip the Liat staff a couple of blue notes (TT$200) and the problem would have been solved.

I had no intention of ever doing any such thing; I told him that I would prefer to develop wings and fly.

I met Mrs Howe at Grantley Adams airport in Barbados on time. We hugged and kissed. She was as warm as a Caribbean afternoon. We travelled to our destination in the parish of St Philip. On arrival, as she unpacked, she suddenly screamed that her suitcases had been tampered with.

Tags on the handles indicated that her luggage had been searched after check-in and without her presence. One tag gave the reason: the passenger was nervous. And the suitcases were not simply searched - they were ransacked as she relaxed in the departure lounge. The staff of the security company who went through her luggage had re-packed the suitcases, moving around her belongings from one bag to another.

We have travelled through the Caribbean for more than 30 years, to almost every island state. We have been to Africa and to Turkey. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

I questioned Mrs Howe closely and all she can remember saying was that she wanted to travel at the front of the plane because she feels uncomfortable at the back. This simple request made her a terrorist suspected of carrying a bomb in her suitcase.

She had brought with her a copy of the New Statesman, which carried a flier advertising a book about "fascist Britain". I do not agree with this bold claim, but a creeping authoritarianism is certainly upon us. A ticket-counter clerk, with no training in psychology, made the decision to violate my wife's possessions without any reasonable cause whatsoever.

Whatever happened to the slogan, Power to the People? It has been supplanted by another, Power to the Counter Clerk.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide