“Presidents & Prime Ministers: What Makes Great Leaders In Times Of Crisis?”

September 16th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

This was the title of a talk given this week by Mark Malcolmson, Principal of the City Literary Institute in London, which I was able to attend online. Mark structured his address around three principles of leadership.

  • Having a clear sense of what is right

He cited as examples of this Gerald Ford’s pardoning of Richard Nixon to heal the US post-Watergate, John Kennedy’s acceptance of blame for the Bay of Pigs fiasco which was Eisenhower’s plan, JFK’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis which took the world to the edge of nuclear war, Truman’s sacking of General McArthur when he overreached in the Korean War, and Eisenhower’s opposition to the British and French invasion of Suez.

  • Having a clear vision of the future

Here he gave as case studies the sustained opposition to the Soviet empire of President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher, Lyndon Johnson’s promotion of civil rights and the Great Society, and Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with China.

  • Capturing the zeitgeist

Instances of this were Ronald Reagan’s response to the explosion of the “Challenger”, Tony Blair”s reaction to the death of Princess Diana, and George W Bush’s visit to New York City immediately after 9/11.

Mark acknowledged that some of his choices would be contested or controversial, but I enjoy discussions of history that cut across time and place.

Incidentally, if leadership generally is of interest to you, you might like to check out my advice of “How To Be A Good Leader”.

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What are the most popular baby names in Britain?

September 10th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Of course, names change in popularity. According to the data compiled annually by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and published each September, the most popular names for children born in England & Wales during 2019 were as follows:


There are some patterns here. 

First of all, astonishingly the most popular boys’ name and the most popular girls’ name are essentially the same (Oliver and Olivia) – what is technically known as cognates – and these names have been in the top two for their gender for the last 11 years. Is this the case in any other nation?

Second, it is striking how traditional most of the names are for both boys and girls, although for the boys it is interesting that the familiar form of names rather than the original version is often preferred – Harry instead of Harold, Jack instead of John, Charlie instead of Charles.

Third, in the case of girls, eight of the top 10 names end with the letter ‘a’ and five contain the letter ‘l’. 

On the other hand, the name John (my father’s name), which was the most popular boys’ name until the end of the Second World War and is still the most common male name in Britain for the poulation as a whole, is nowhere in the top 100 names in the 2019 listings, while David – which is the second most common name in Britain – slipped out of the top 50 of names chosen for baby boys born in 2004 and is still only 56th.

Similarly Margaret – the most common female name in the population as a whole – does not even appear in the top 100 names chosen for girls these days, while Susan – the second most common name in Britain – is not even in the top 100 either. 

These observations underline how much fashion shapes the popularity of different names. Fashion is a stronger influence with girls’ names than those of boys.

So, for example, in the last decade or so Ivy has soared to number 12, while Elsie has jumped to 21. Arthur has surged into the top 10 boys’ names for the first time since the 1920s (it is now 4th), and Ada has jumped into the girls’ top 100 for the first time in a century too (it is now 47th), both perhaps inspired by characters in the BBC television drama “Peaky Blinders”. By contrast, in 2019 for the first time since 1984, Emily was in the top 10.

It should be noted that the Office of National Statistics (ONS) produces its ranking of the popularity of names using the exact spelling of the name given at birth registration. If one combines the numbers for names with very similar spellings, a very different picture is revealed.

For boys, combining the occurrence of Mohammed, Muhammad, Mohammad & Muhammed plus eight other spellings of the names would put it in first place – a reflection of the changing ethnicity of the British population and the powerful trend for Muslim families to name their son after the Prophet.

Similarly, if one combines the occurrence of Isabella, Isabelle, Isabel and Isobel, one would find the name top of the girls’ list and, if one took Lily and Lilly together, the name would come fifth, while Darcie, Darcey and Darcy would boost that name’s ranking. 

Also it is interesting to note that names are becoming more diverse: less than half (45%) of babies had a name within the top 100 lists in 2019, down from two thirds (67%) in 1996.

Names and naming practices vary massively around the world – as you can discover from this informative essay.

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A review of the novel “The Friends Of Harry Perkins” by Chris Mullin

September 9th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Mullin – then a political journalist – wrote the best-selling novel “A Very British Coup” which was published in 1982. It told the story of a Left-winger who became Prime Minister but was countered by the nefarious forces of the establishment. I found it very readable, but I thought the the characters were caricatures and the action limited. It worked better when it was subsequently turned into a television series.

Mullin went on to be a Member of Parliament from 1987 until 2010 which included three ministerial positions. In 2019, he published this sequel to “A Very British Coup” in a work whose title evoked the memory of the heroic failure of the radical premier. The new story centres on Frederick Thompson who had served as Perkins’ Press Secretary. His politics are much more pragmatic than those of his mentor, so does he stand a better chance of forming a reformist Labour Government?

Although the sequel is set a mere 10 years after the original, the context is the near future in a post-Brexit Britain and, in a preface, Mullin acknowledges that “a slight leap of imagination is required”. It is a bleak environment in which “there has been no great Armageddon, just a slow decline into insularity and irrelevance” and a continuing focus on immigration and a rise in nasty nationalism, while abroad America has just declared war on China. Again the novel is readable but hardly impressive.

I call it a novel, but really it is a novella, since it only runs to 180 pages, and it is followed by two short stories (which are rather good).

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America’s size is its strength – and its weakness

September 8th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

We often forget just how big the United States is. It is the fourth largest nation on earth by area after Russia, Canada, and China. It is the third most populous country on the planet after China and India.

As a result, the USA has enormous strengths. It is the world’s largest economy and such a large domestic market makes it an incubator for so many new products and services. The country accounts for approximately a quarter of global domestic product and almost 30% of total wealth in the world. It is the foremost military power in the world making up more than a third of global military spending.

But size carries a price and the USA has many weaknesses that stem from that size.

To govern a country of this size in a democratic fashion, there needs to be a federal system of government with power shared between the national level and 50 states. Each state has an executive, a legislature and a judiciary. In current circumstances, this makes any meaningful change to the two centuries old American constitution effectively impossible because, as well as a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress, three-quarters of the state legislatures have to ratify the proposed change. Even the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) failed to meet that threshold.

In recent months, this federal system has contributed significantly to the failure of such an advanced country as the USA to handle the coronavirus crisis because there is no nation-wide programme of action. Indeed the country has one of the worst records on earth in combatting the virus. And this is not just because of Donald Trump but because there are so many states with different approaches.

Or take the issue of police reform which has been highlighted as a urgent need by the Black Lives Matter movement. Such is the size of the country, there are no less than 18,000 police agencies to be reformed. There needs to be judicial and prison reform too but there are 50 judicial systems and 50 penal systems.

In terms of the American psyche, the impact of the size of the country is that most Americans have never left the country; indeed a significant proportion rarely leave their state. Only 40% of Americans even have a passport and most of them only use it to travel to adjoining Canada and Mexico. So, although we think of the USA as a melting pot of nations, most of its citizens have no comprehension of life outside their own country and mistakenly think that the American way is self-evidently the best way, not least on health care or gun control.

Posted in American current affairs | Comments (0)

A review of the 2017 film “Molly’s Game”

September 6th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

When you’re about to see a movie written and directed by Aaron Sorkin – creator of the wonderful television series “The West Wing” – you know what to expect: lots of fact-laiden dialogue delivered in snappy style and rapid cutting betweeen multifarious characters. There is plenty of these trademark features in “Molly’s Game” but also a cracking story and fine acting.

The titular character is real life Molly Bloom who hosted elite poker games in Los Angeles until the FBI came knocking. She is portrayed by Jessica Chastain who never gives anything but a strong performance (think “Zero Dark Thirty”), but there is an excellent support cast too, including Kevin Costner as Molly’s psychologist father and Idris Elba as her reluctant lawyer.

Sorkin’s film is based on Bloom’s memoir which reveals few actual names. If ever she decided to reveal all … 

Link: Wikipedia page on Molly Bloom click here

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In both the USA and Britain, fair elections are under threat

September 2nd, 2020 by Roger Darlington

In the United States, the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) was formed in 1974 after the Watergate scandal to enforce the country’s new election spending laws and the campaign finance abuses of the presidential race two years earlier. The bipartisan, independent agency was designed to investigate potential cases of illegal campaign spending, issue advisory opinions where the law is unclear, administer public funding for presidential campaigns and disclose campaign finance data to the public.

The establishing statute calls for six commissioners – no more than three from the same party – who are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate for six-year terms. But incredibly the FEC currently has only three members and a quorum of four is needed to have meetings and make decisions. It is unlikely that the Senate will confirm a fourth member before the November election (the president’s last nominee waited nearly three years for a Senate vote).

More information here.

In Britain, the Electoral Commission – established in 2001 –  regulates party and election finance and sets standards for how elections should be run. Among other things, it regulates political donations, spending and other areas, and has the power to undertake its own investigations, and fine parties and officials for breaches of the rules. The government’s advisory body the Committee on Standards in Public Life is currently holding a review of electoral regulation.

In a submission to the process, the Conservative Party has said the Commission should not be given new powers of prosecution, saying this would bring “too many conflicts of interest”. Instead the Party’s co-chair has argued that the body should accept more outside scrutiny or be disbanded: “If the Electoral Commission fails to make these changes and do the job it was set up to do then the only option would be to abolish it.”

More information here.

Too many people, think of democracy in bipolar terms: either a country is democratic or it is not. In fact, nations sit on a spectrum from totally democratic to totally authoritarian and frequently move along that spectrum. Both the USA and the UK are democracies but flawed ones and, in each case, recent developments have seen them become less democratic.

I have written an essay on “How To Critique a Political System”.

Posted in American current affairs, British current affairs | Comments (0)

So how is Trump’s wall doing and who is paying for it?

September 1st, 2020 by Roger Darlington

When Donald Trump first ran for the US presidency, one of his biggest – in every sense of the world – promises was that he would build a wall along the whole of the country’s southern border and that he would ensure that Mexico paid for it. So, now that he’s been in the White House for almost four years and he’s seeking re-election, how is that promise working out?

In his speech to the Republican National Convention, Trump asserted: “We have already built 300 miles of border wall”.

A total of 245 miles of wall has been built in place of old barriers. But only 30 miles of new wall has actually been built.  Most of this (25 miles) is what is called “secondary wall”, which is constructed to reinforce the primary border barrier.

Now the total length of the continental border is 1,954 miles. That means that Trump has added 1.5 % to the existing wall in his four years in office.

While running for president, Trump claimed that the wall would cost $8 to $12 billion and that he could force Mexico to pay for it. Serious cost estimates of the proposed wall vary widely. In early 2017, shortly after Trump took office, the Department of Homeland Security estimated the cost at $22 billion.

So far, Mexico has contributed nothing. If you prefer a percentage figure, that’s 0%.

Posted in American current affairs | Comments (0)

Donald Trump – the greatest president of all time

August 31st, 2020 by Roger Darlington

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A review of the new blockbuster movie “Tenet”

August 29th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

“Tenet” is Christopher Nolan’s 11th film and I have viewed and admired all his previous work except his very first film which I’ve never seen. Of the movies that – like “Tenet” – Nolan wrote as well as directed, I was immensely impressed with “Memento” and “Inception” but struggled with the second half of “Interstellar”.

This is his biggest and boldest movie with a budget reputed to be around $200M and a plot whose ambition is overwhelming. Additionally this is the first major new film since five months of lockdown as a result of the coronavirus global pandemic, so both Nolan’s reputation and the revival of cinema-going are at stake. I made sure that I saw it within a couple of days of release and that I viewed it in IMAX.

From the get-go, the movie is attention-grabbing and, for the next two and a half hours, one is never less than gripped. The locations – Estonia, India, Italy, Denmark, Norway – are terrific and the action sequences – car chase, plane crash, catamaran ride, military attacks, and lots of unarmed combat – are exciting.

There’s an enjoyable cast list too, including John David Washington as The Protagonist, Robert Pattinson as his side-kick, Kenneth Branagh as the Russian villain and 6′ 3″ Elizabeth Debicki as the bad guy’s’s wife. It’s all very evocative of the Bond movies and, if you’ve ever wondered what a black 007 would look like, Washington provides one answer. 

The problem is the fiendishly complex plot which seems to be a threat to the whole of humankind as result of an issue with time called “inversion” which can only be solved with “temporal pincer movements” and a nine-part algorithm. At various points, someone does try to explain what’s going on, but the dialogue is often muffled and anyway it’s all nonsense.

Of course, Nolan has made a thing of playing with time in the films that he has written and, even with an historical event like “Dunkirk”, it has usually worked well. But I think it’s time for Nolan to give up on the time thing and try something different.

“Tenet” will do well: Nolan’s reputation and a thirst for new cinematic material will ensure that. But the movie will divide opinion – three reviewers in one newspaper have given it two, three and five stars. And I’m sure that I’ll see it again …

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Let’s hear it for friendship – and then let’s tackle inequality

August 27th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

“Relationships matter so much because other people can be our best sources of security, comfort and cooperation or our worst rivals. Just as bad relationships are highly stressful, friendship is relaxing and restorative. We have evolved an extraordinary sensitivity to relationships, because getting them right has always been crucial to our survival.”

This is an extract from an article in today’s “Guardian” newspaper which you can read here. The writer is Richard Wilkinson who is a researcher in social inequalities in health and emeritus professor of public health at the University of Nottingham.

A decade ago, Professor Wilkinson co-authored a seminal book entitle “The Spirit Level” which I reviewed here.

Both the article and the book argue that reducing inequality is the best way to improve economic and social outcomes for all, not just those at the bottom of the class scale. The article makes clear that recent experience – including the coronavirus pandemic – has underlined the validity of this argument.

Time to build back better.

Posted in British current affairs, Social policy, World current affairs | Comments (0)