Saturday 31 December 2016

2016 A Year in Review

Well it's New Year's Eve and I thought I'd better write a few thoughts on 2016. It's been a dramatic year both globally and for me personally.

When I reflect on 2016, I immediately think of political upheaval and celebrity deaths. It's a strange combination but when you consider the biggest news stories have been the likes of Brexit, Donald Trump becoming US President alongside the endless list of musicians, actors, sports stars and writers who have died this year, I can't think of any other stories that have dominated the year.

As we approach 2017 I don't think I've felt a greater level of uncertainty about the world I'm living in. As a history graduate I know certain years have a lasting historical importance. 1848 a year of political revolutions across Europe, 1914 and the outbreak of World War One, 1945 the end of the Second World War, 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Will 2016 have the same historical relevance?

What's clear is that political, economic, social and cultural forces have been evolving for a number of years and the fallout from these forces has been evident throughout 2016.

When you look at Brexit and the success of Donald Trump it's been widely interpreted as a 'peoples revolt' against the elite, the establishment and the negative consequences of globalisation.

As someone who voted Remain and was against Trump's Presidential bid, I have no interest in voting for this supposed revolt. I understand many people are unhappy about the status quo which for a lot of people is no longer working for them. But I'm sceptical that this rise in anti establishment populism will some how solve many of the issues and challenges that we currently face.

Phrases like 'take back control' and 'lets make America great again' ultimately mean nothing. I never thought of myself as being an establishment sort but given the alternative that's being presented I'd rather be part of the establishment.

The world is a complex and difficult place and easy rhetoric and slogans are unlikely to solve many the big issues that we face in the 21st Century. I have a feeling that many of the people who were happy to give their respective establishments a kicking will find themselves being disappointed by the populist response in the forthcoming years.

Celebrity deaths

Famous people and celebrities die every year just like ordinary people but there's been something different about 2016 and the number of so many significant figures.

I found myself surprised by my level of feelings for certain celebrities. In January we said goodbye to David Bowie. Out of all this year's celebrity deaths I would say Bowie's had the biggest impression on me. When you think about Britain's biggest and most iconic rock and pop stars from the 1960s and 70s, David Bowie was my favourite artist.

You simply can't imagine the history of British pop and rock without him. As is the way in these situations you start to look back on an artist's back catalogue. I decided to download two of Bowie's 70s albums Young Americans (his blue eyed soul era) and Low, part of the famous Berlin trilogy.

If Bowie is one of my favourite British artists, than Prince is one of my favourite American artists. I always have and always will love the versatility of Prince. Rock, pop, soul, funk, jazz, he could do it all. Another artist whose music defines my musical upbringing.

Finally I was shocked and saddened George Michael's sudden death last week. Another artist whose music defined an era for those of use who grew up in the 80s. An incredibly talented artist who know that he's gone, I'm reminded of what a talented singer and song writer he was. I downloaded his 1996 album Older in memory. A great album.

In sport we lost Muhammad Ali and Johan Cruff. Ali is the most iconic and I think the most significant sports star of the 20th century. His achievements as a boxer and sportsman stand alone but his greatness comes also from the kind of person he was and his impact and influence on the public's consciousness.

As for Cruyff, how can any true football fan not love Cruyff the player and his managerial legacy that lives on with Barcelona. The true legend of the game.

Those are just some of the celebrities whose passing had an impact on me. I'm sure you and everyone else will have your own personal memories for people whose career had some influence and relevance to your life.

It doesn't matter whether we personally knew these people, their deaths remind us of the influence of popular culture. As our societies become more fragmented and individualist. TV, film, music and sport provide us with forms of art that we can experience and consume on a collective basis.

The music we listen to, the sports, films, and tv we watch help define who we are as people and when those individuals who have helped create the cultural experience die it naturally has an effect on us.

2016: My own personal experience

2016 has been the most significant year of my life due to the fact that my Dad passed away on the 15 February.

The sense of sadness that overwhelms me just by typing the last sentence is huge. My Dad had been ill for 12 months and had spent 2 and half months in hospital in 2015 as he was treated for kidney failure and blood cancer.

At the beginning of 2016 I knew it was unlikely that he would survive the year. On the day he died I remember sitting in his hospital room with him lying lifeless on the bed next to me. I remember thinking 'how have we reached this point so quickly?' Life passes by so quickly as you get older.

I'm grateful and happy that my Dad was in my life from day one and that I never went more than two months without seeing him. I think about him everyday.

Sunday 13 November 2016

Donald Trump: A great leap into the unknown

For the second time this year, I went to bed quietly expecting a national vote to go one way only to wake up the next morning and discover it went the opposite way to what I hoped for.

Although I'm shocked and disappointed by Donald Trump's election victory it doesn't compare to how upset I felt after the Brexit result.

I understand and recognise that many of the same forces that led to Brexit are behind Donald Trump's election win. My main feelings over the last couple of days have been one of general uncertainty.

What does the future hold for America and the world with Donald Trump as President? It's this uncertainty that I find uncomfortable to deal with.

I've written about this before in earlier blogs and what's clear is that there is a growing movement and revolt against establishment politicians and global elites. Donald Trump becoming President is the biggest reaction against this.

We constantly hear about those people who feel left behind by the effects of globalisation, the disappearance of well paying manufacturing jobs in places like the American Mid-West and the North of England. People who feel the elites and establishments in London, and the East and West Coasts of the US don't understand or are interested in their lives.

Many people quite rightly feel that the system is no longer working for them anymore. I get this I just don't believe that Trump will have the answers to many of the problems and frustrations many people feel.

I know I'm not the only person who assumed his leadership bid would simply run out of steam, that it was a bad joke that wound eventually stop being funny but it's no longer a joke, Donald Trump will be the next President.

In terms of him implementing many of his policies, I'm convinced that when faced with the day to day realities of government some of his policy statements will either be abandoned or severely limited. The Wall along the Mexican border - surely that cannot happen?

I might be overly optimistic in saying I don't think Trump's Presidency will be quite the nightmare that many of us think it will be but at the same time it's not going to be great.

His election victory says a number of things about how America sees itself, both at home and abroad but also how we in the West choose to deal with many of the social and political challenges that lie ahead.

The outcome of Brexit and the US Presidential election tell me that the forces of reactionary right wing populism are on the rise. That in dealing with our challenges means that we become a nations more insular, fearful or hostile to others. That we're happy not to try and change the system to make things better but instead we'll smash the system up completely regardless of the consequences.

I feel deeply uncomfortable with the way things are going? What worries me is that Brexit and President elect Trump is simply the start of a domino process. We have elections coming up in the next 18 months in France, Germany and Italy.

Are we going to see a similar anti establishment backlash in those countries? Certainly in France the political climate appears ripe for Marie Le Pen's National Front to make major gains.

I feel that in historical terms we're coming to the end of an era in history. Since the end of the Second World War. We've seen countries come to together both economically, politically and militarily to ensure future peace and prosperity. The problem is that this consensus of free trade, the movement of goods people and capital around the world. Political and economic unions like NATO and the EU are in danger of breaking up as a result of these anti establishment forces.

After reading and listening to all the analyse on Donald Trump, part of me feels it can't be as bad as we think it's going to be but what I am concerned about is the future of international relations and the prevailing thoughts and values that are emerging.

Eight years ago Barack Obama was elected the first African American President. Rarely have I felt so much optimism, even though expectations on Obama were ridiculously high. After this week's Trump victory never have I felt so much pessimism.

Saturday 5 November 2016

Finally, a moment of sanity

This week's ruling on Article 50 by the High Court seemed to be a moment of sanity that us Remain voters had been crying out for since the Brexit result.

The decision by the three senior judges means that the Prime Minister, Theresa May cannot trigger Article 50 without approval from parliament.

This would seem a perfectly sensible and reasonable thing to do, before we go ahead with such a crucial decision. We should at least have some idea of the kind of Brexit we're going to get as a country and it's only right that Parliament has a say on such a significant matter.

This however is not the thoughts of your Brexit fundamentalists and the right-wing press. This week's decision for them was a case of unelected, out of touch judges blocking the will of the British people.

The reaction of the Daily Mail and The Express was ridiculous as they descended into a collective melt down. Not only was it totally predictable but I couldn't help but quietly laugh to myself. Brexit was never going to be an easy straight forward affair and so it's proving.

First things first, the UK will still be leaving the EU. Even as a Remainer I accept that decision. What's now important is the kind of Brexit we're going to have.

What annoys me is that Brexiteers think that because they won the referendum, those of us who voted to stay in the EU must now shut up. It's as if we're not allowed to debate or question the terms of Brexit.

What seems to have been completely overlooked is the vote for Brexit was only 52%. It's a majority but not a huge majority. A significant number of people in this country did not vote to the leave the EU and those thoughts and feelings have to be taken into account.

When I think about Brexit and those who most advocated the UK leaving the EU, I'm reminded of a chant commonly sung by football fans around the country.

Fans will be familiar with moments in matches when the referee makes a series of wrong and strange decisions in a short space of time that gives the impression that he's lost control of the game, a familiar chant of: 'You don't know what you're doing' rings out from fans of the team on the wrong end of these decisions.

I think about that chant in relation to Brexiteers and feel compounded to shout 'You don't know what you're doing' every time someone tells me that Remainers should shut up and that Brexit will prove to be a brilliant success.

It's quite clear that within the Brexiteer vote there are different visions of what a post EU world will look like for the UK; there's no clear consensus on what Brexit will mean.

Last week's High Court decision on Article 50 is about implementing the necessary checks and balances needed in this process. Applying appropriate scrutiny and ensuring that over the next 6 months we get some clarification on what the long term plan is.

If this country is now going to leave the EU then I'd like to leave in a way that I think is best for Britain. If you asked people who voted for Brexit you will find a whole range of different reasons for their vote. Immigration, more money for the EU, an end to EU red tape and regulation.

It's quite clear there is no clear consensus or idea on what a post Brexit world should look like for this country. Brexiteers and the right-wing press might want to remember this before they accuse Remainers of being enemies of the people.

Friday 30 September 2016

Jeremy Corbyn: Leading Labour into the abyss

I've spent the last couple of weeks enjoying a great holiday on the Caribbean island of St Kitts.

I returned just in time to witness the response to Jeremy Corbyn's re-election as Labour Party leader. The result was of no surprise and Corbyn even increased the size of his vote. Regardless of what Corbyn supporters might say his victory is bad for the Labour Party and bad for democracy in the UK.

As a member of the GMB Union I voted in both this month's leadership election voting for Owen Smith, and in last year's election when I voted for Liz Kendall. I didn't think Jeremy Corbyn would be the right leader for the Labour Party in 2015 and the last 12 months have only confirmed my feelings that he is essentially killing the Labour Party.

I understand Corbyn's appeal, and I recognise that a lot of people in the country, particularly on the left are looking for something different in politics. It's not something unique to Britain. We've seen the rise in anti-establishment politics around the world. Donald Trump and Bennie Sanders are examples of this in America.

In Europe you have Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy, France's National Front and in Greece the far left party of Syriza are now in government. Corbyn is part of this protest movement.

The problem is that this protest movement should not and cannot be in charge a mainstream party like the Labour Party. The purpose of the Labour Party is to win power on behalf of working people. It is not a protest party which is what Labour has and will continue to be under Corbyn.

Labour: A party to please itself

I have to admit, I thought Corbyn gave a good speech at this week's Party Conference in Liverpool. It was well delivered and you can see that he has certainly grown into the role of Labour leader. But ultimately there was nothing in the speech or the conference as a whole to suggest anything other than a huge defeat for Labour at the next General Election.

If I have learnt anything about the success and popularity of the Jeremy Corbyn it's this. Labour has become a party that is run by and for the interests of its growing membership.

It's quite revealing that those members of the party pre 2015 voted in favour of Owen Smith - those who joined the party post 2015 voted overwhelmingly in favour of Corbyn. In some ways this reveals a certain level of entryism as it's new members with no longstanding affiliation to the party who are mainly in support of Corbyn.

The problem Labour have had for years is the tension that exists in the party between the demands of pragmatism and winning power to enable change and that of principles and values and not wanting to compromise. This partly explains why Tony Blair's 3 election wins are not celebrated.

I'm a pragmatist and support the views of Labour moderates and MPs who understand that you cannot do anything without first achieving power.

Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party is all about party members wrapping themselves up in a warm comfort blanket, feeling comfortable in their comfort zone. They don't want to do compromise and put forward policies and statements that reflect where many of the electorate actually are.

Politics is hard but by sticking to principles and never getting elected means principles are never put on the line. Tough decisions and compromises never have to be made. This might make people feel good but part of me thinks it's a bit gutless.

If the party is serious about winning the next election then it needs to reconnect with its traditional Northern working-class base, but the truth is Labour are culturally out of step with many of these people. This was reflected in Corbyn's announcement about immigration controls.

Secondly, Labour will have to win votes from some voters who voted Conservative in 2015 and 2010 but the sad and deluded fact is that some party members and activists don't want these votes. That's fine but you cannot win elections without appealing to some of these floating voters.

Does Corbyn's Labour Party even care? I don't think so!

My own personal problem with Corbyn's Labour Party and the hard left

Politics isn't just about policies and leadership or the ability to make the right decisions; it's also about gut feeling and instinct.

When it comes to the political spectrum I consider myself very much center-left. In that context the Labour Party is my natural political home, however my gut feeling tells me that under no circumstances can I ever vote for the Labour Party while Corbyn remains leader.

From a policy point of view, this week's conference has made clear that Labour are an unashamedly Socialist Party. I know this makes members feel good about themselves but I am a Social Democrat. I'm considered too right-wing for most Labour Party members who will most likely call me 'Tory lite' or a Blairite'. That's fine by me they shouldn't expect my vote.

But it goes much further than this. Do you remember last year when Corbyn was elected, promising a new kind of politics? A gentler politics?

I'm always sceptical when people put forward claims of a 'new politics.' Corbyn is presenting an updated version of traditional socialism. There's nothing new about socialism, I'm perfectly aware of it. It's been around since the 19th Century. Nationalising the railways for example is not radical new politics it's been done before.

Labour and the hard left like to consider themselves as progressives in their political objectives but in many cases they're incredibly conservative. They're conservative in the sense that they want to turn the clock back to a period (most likely before Margret Thatcher's election in 1979) to an imagined better age. In this sense they're simply a left-wing version of UKIP.

As for a kinder, gentler politics. That wish didn't last very long. I cannot remember a time when there has been so much bitterness and hatred exposed in politics but then anyone familiar with the hard left will know that such politics can be incredibly abusive, aggressive, bigoted and at times downright nasty. It's been made worse with social media. Anyone who disagrees with Corbyn and groups like Momentum are immediately denounced as Tories, Blairites, defenders of the Neo-Liberal consensus. It's so boring and pathetic.

There's been a marked increase in complaints of anti-semitism within the Labour Party but these complaints have been addressed only half hardheartedly and are generally considered to be part of a wider conspiracy against Corbyn. It's ridiculous.

I agree with the sentiment that Labour under Corbyn is at worst a personality cult! This is someone who has spent 30 years on the back benches. This is not someone who could be considered a political or intellectual heavyweight during that time, but here we are being led to believe by some that he will change the world whilst walking on water!

If we've learnt anything from the last week is that Jeremy Corbyn will almost certainly lead Labour into the next election. I won't be voting for him and to be honest I'm not sure I will vote for anyone. Labour under Corbyn represents a party and a form of left-wing politics that I'm uncomfortable with and is out of step with your average Briton.

Intellectually it has little to say to me or shows signs of wanting to address and deal with some of the big challenges we currently face (Brexit anyone). In truth I'm bored of Labour, Jeremy Corbyn and the hard left in this country. Labour will be led off a cliff at the next election, it's debatable whether they will recover.

Tuesday 23 August 2016

Rio Olympics: When did Team GB become a sporting giant?

When I first started watching the Olympics in the 80s and early 90s If Britain won 5 Gold medals that was usually considered a success. By the time I watched my fourth Olympics in Atlanta in 96 Britain finished 36th in the medals table and only one gold medal.

To see Great Britain re-invent itself as a sporting powerhouse over the last 3 Olympics still takes a little getting use to but don’t worry I’m not complaining about it, I’m loving it!

At the start of this summer’s Olympics I thought realistically the best we could hope for was to finish third behind the USA and China. To beat China into second place is incredible!

What’s been really great to see, is that we’ve continued to win medals in our strongest events like cycling, rowing and sailing but we’ve now become successful in sports like gymnastics where Max Whitlock won 2 gold medals. For most of my life I simply accepted that Britain couldn’t do gymnastics.

So the question everyone is asking is how have we become world beaters? From the nadir of 1996 it’s clear that lottery funding has transformed British sport. But it’s not just the money that’s being spent it’s how it is allocated that’s been crucial.

Every sport has its Olympic target in terms of medals they should be winning. Those sports that meet and exceed their targets like cycling get an increase in lottery funding, those that fail see a decrease. Success is rewarded and failure is punished. This may be harsh but after London 2012 Britain’s swimming team has their funding reduced after failing to meet their targets but this time in Rio they’ve had one of their most successful ever Olympics.

What’s really changed in the last 10 – 15 years is that there has been better funding for our Olympic sports and structures have been put in place that create, nurture and sustain successful athletes.

Britain has always been a sporting nation but in previous Olympics our culture seemed to be one of ‘it’s the taking part that counts’. We had too much of the old amateur ethos.

We didn’t have the attitude of the old Soviet Union or today’s China who view sport as a way of showcasing national power and prestige. We occasionally won individual gold medals but that was a result of individual athletes succeeding on their own terms.

Today, in sports such as cycling, our athletes succeed not only because they have the talent, ability and desire to win but because they are part of a much bigger system that generates success. This is the key difference for me.

I certainly don’t miss the days of Team GB winning a handful of medals at Olympics, I always thought we underachieved, now we’re punching above our weight and it feels good. It’s inspiring to see athletes from all different backgrounds and all walks of life succeed in a variety of sports.

We don’t need to win to prove a point to the rest of the world. We can win because we want to be the best that we can be and this is what I love about our Olympic athletes.

Saturday 13 August 2016

The cost of the Olympics pose awkward questions for the future

It's been quite a low key start to this year's Olympics.

There hasn't been the same level of buzz and excitement in the lead up to Rio's Games. I think there's a couple of reasons for this.

Firstly after our own London Games in 2012 it was always going to be difficult to have the same level of excitement. Secondly, within Brazil itself the Games seem to have arrived at just the wrong time with the country mired in economic and political problems.

Rio's opening ceremony costs and production were scaled back and made simpler in response to the economic situation inside the country. Just like with our London Games, the situation in Brazil has raised questions on the purpose and supposed benefits that having the Olympics can bring to a city and country.

I think this debate is more pertinent in a country like Brazil when you consider the extreme levels of inequality that exist. It becomes increasingly difficult to support holding an event like the Olympics when so many of the local inhabitants are living in poverty.

The beach front on Ipenema and leblon

This got me thinking about the debate of hosting not just the Olympics but also World Cups. They are the two biggest and most prestigious sporting events in the world. But as we found with our own Olympics, when countries are asked to spend billions hosting these events on behalf of the IOC and FIFA there are legitimate questions on what the benefits will be for the host city and country in the short and long-term.

On a personal level, I visited Rio in 2013. I took a tour of the city's most famous Favela, Rochina. To say the experience was an eye opener would be an understatement. After spending my first few days in the affluent beach districts of Leblon and Ipenema, visiting Rochina (20 minutes away) was like travelling to a different country. I remember asking my tour guide whether the 2014 World Cup and Rio Olympics would really make a difference to communities like Rochina.

There have been improvements and after decades of neglect, the Brazilian government has made more of an effort to address the problems of Brazil's poor. However, with the economy in Brazil now struggling, justifying the Olympics in a city like Rio is quite difficult.

View of Rochina, Rio's biggest Favela

The IOC and FIFA are now at a point where there are only so many countries in the world that have the resources and infrastructure to hold these events. In Western democracies, governments simply can't spend billions on these events without justifying them to their electorate. The problem for the likes of the IOC are that more countries are looking at the cost of the Olympics and deciding they can do without them.

For the 2018 Winter Olympics the IOC were faced with the embarrassing situation of potential host cities failing to get enough backing from their public during the bid process.

Apparently the IOC had their hearts set on Oslo, Norway. They wanted a Winter Olympics back in Europe and in a country with a tradition of winter sports. Unfortunately, Norway had different ideas.

Local news out-lets got hold of the IOC's outlandish demands for their elite committee members. Once this became public, the Norwegian people said thanks but no thanks and decided they didn't want the Olympic Games.

In the end the 2018 Winter Olympics were awarded to China, but China isn't a democracy and the Chinese Communist Party can do what they like without having to be held accountable to the Chinese people.

How many cities and countries realistically want to host the Olympic Games, have the resources and infrastructure and the backing of their own populations?

I think we're getting to a point where there's a small number of countries and cities that can hold the Olympics. A thought I have is that perhaps we should look at selecting a group of cities around the world, perhaps 10 and say you will hold the Olympics over the course of the next 50 years and rotate the Olympics between these chosen cities.

London would definitely be a member of that group, elsewhere in Europe you could include Paris who seem an obvious European choice but after Tokyo's turn in 2020 where does the Olympics go next? Who wants and can realistically host it?

These are legitimate questions that need to be asked. As much as I love sport and the Olympics, it simply isn't appropriate to hold such lavish and vast sporting events if they do not have the backing of the host population; and if they don't provide any long term tangible benefits and for those people.

Monday 11 July 2016

The Conservative Party Leadership: What a drama

After last month's Brexit referendum result and David Cameron's decision to resign it was assumed that we'd now be in the midst of the Conservative Party leadership election with Boris Johnson odds on favourite to become the country's new Prime Minister.

If a week is a long time in politics then last month's referendum now feels like a life time ago. Rather then the Boris Johnson coronation many expected we instead have Theresa May as our new Prime Minister.

Everything is moving so fast at the moment in British politics I can't ever remember a time like it.

Boris Johnson's campaign crashed and burned within a week of the Brexit result and it many ways it was hardly surprising. After successfully convincing over 50% of referendum voters to vote for Brexit it quickly became obvious that Boris and his Brexit colleagues didn't have any immediate plan on what would happen next. Despite this, nobody really expected Michael Gove to politically stab Boris in the back by launching his own bid for Tory leader, and thereby derail Boris' long term political ambition.

As brutal as it all seems, I don't have much sympathy for Boris or any other politician when this sort of thing happens. This is the life they chose, a bit like mafia mob bosses who end up getting 'whacked'. It's an occupational hazard.

Besides, I'm very much in agreement with Ken Clarke when I say the idea of Boris as Prime Minister is ridiculous. It always baffled me as to why Boris had so much support amongst some Tories. Boris is clearly a very clever and able person but he's also someone who has blagged and winged his way through his career.

When you look at some of his gaffes and his personal and professional behavior over the last 20 years, it's incredible that he was even in the running to become Prime Minister. Boris has always been a unique one-off. If it was anyone else their career would have been finished years ago.

If the appeal of Boris Johnson has always baffled some, it doesn't quite compare to the extraordinary rise of Andrea Leadsom.

I'd never heard of her 4 weeks ago, yet somehow she made it to the last two for Tory Party members to decide who should be our PM. Thankfully and quite rightly, she's now withdrawn following the ridiculous interview she gave to the Times, where she insinuated that because she has children and Theresa May doesn't she has a 'tangible stake' in society.

When I first heard that I thought' 'Are you really going to go there?' As part of her humiliating climb down she then accused the Paper of gutter journalism despite the fact that the paper simply quoted exactly what she had said.

When it comes to Andrea Leadsom, the country has dodged a bullet. She was far too inexperienced for the role and far too right wing for my liking. She would have been a disaster.

So here we are with a new Prime Minister. You have to have a certain amount of respect for the way the Tory Party ruthlessly operates when it comes to getting rid of and electing their leaders. You can't help but think: Are you watching Labour, when you consider the shambles of Labour MPs in their attempts to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn.

I'm glad it's Theresa May has been elected. As a non Tory voter I can live with her. It's good to have another female PM and it's also good that she's slightly older. In the last few decades there's been a preference for younger leaders but with so many difficult and pressing issues facing world leaders I think it's good that we again look at older politicians with more experience.

There's no doubt that we're entering a new era in British politics and history and it's going to be fascinating to see how Theresa May and this new Conservative government will tackle Brexit.

Saturday 9 July 2016

The Chilcot Report

Another dramatic week in British politics with the long awaited publication of the Chilcot report into the Iraq War.

It was a pretty damning indictment of Tony Blair's decision to take the country into war and his reputation now lays in tatters.

When I considered many of the main findings it confirmed to many people what we already knew or suspected about the decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein.

Back in 2002/2003 in the run up to the Iraq War, at no point did I ever believe that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. If he did possess them I certainly didn't believe he posed any kind of threat to the UK. The Chilcot Report confirms much of this.

What was clear between 2001 - 2003 was that a decision had been made by President George Bush and his Neo-Con allies that Saddam Hussein had to be removed from power. This decision was made in the aftermath of 9/11.

The United States were always going to invade Iraq and there was little that Britain could have said or done to stop this from happening. The question for this country was whether it was right for Tony Blair to ally himself so closely with America in this decision to go to war.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and it's clear that Tony Blair and those who supported the decision to go to war got it wrong. History has judged this decision even more harshly when you consider the utter chaos consumed Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam.

What is perhaps most damning and shameful is the total lack of planning on how Iraq would be governed following regime change. You tend to find that countries that have been ruled for decades by dictators maintain a certain level of stability. However once those leaders are removed the power vacuum that emerges unleashes a whole number of political, cultural and ethnic forces that can be uncontrollable.

This is exactly what we've seen in Iraq. Perhaps if there had been better planning on how Iraq might look after Saddam's removal and the sectarian violence kept under control, we might be looking back on the decision to go to war in a different light.

One thing I did agree with Tony Blair on is that we can't say with 100% how Iraq would look had we not removed Saddam Hussein.

In 2011 we witnessed a number of uprising across the Middle East which was called the 'Arab Spring'. Government and leaders such as Colonel Gaddafi were removed from power. The uprising in Syria has resulted in the prolonged civil war which continues to this day.

Are we meant to believe that Saddam Hussein and Iraq would have been immune from this uprising across the region? It's perfectly conceivable that Iraq could have turned into another Syria. We will never know but it's a distinct possibility.

The decision to go to war in Iraq was a mistake, and its repercussions have and continue to influence the level of trust we have in politicians and the country's foreign policy.

In terms of Tony Blair, it's not fashionable to say but I always thought he was quite a good leader and there were a lot of things that he and New Labour achieved that were of benefit to the country. Many will disagree but what's sad is that his reputation now lies in tatters and he will always be associated with Iraq.

Tuesday 28 June 2016

Brexit:The aftermath

To say that I'm gutted by the decision to leave the EU would be an understatement.

I went to bed last Thursday night quietly confident that the Remain vote would scrape a narrow victory. How wrong I was. I don't think I've ever been so disappointed by an election result in my life.

I'm not going to pretend that I'm happy with the result and it annoys me when people who voted Leave keep telling me that we all need to accept the result and unite for the good of the country.

Sorry I'm not interested. This is the problem with having referendums. They're divisive, splitting family, friends and partners.

I'm firmly of the view that the country has made a massive mistake and I resent the attitude of: 'We're Britain, we'll be alright, we can do this'

Really? The country is in chaos! The Prime Minister has resigned, the opposition in disarray and it's clear that the leaders of the Leave Campaign,
Boris Johnson and Michael Gove don't have a plan for what happens next.

It's clear that they didn't really think they were going to win, where the hell did Boris disappear to over the weekend? A total lack of leadership.

What annoys me the most about the referendum and it's something I mentioned in my last post is that it was a mistake to have a referendum. The problem with referendums is that people make their choice based on a whole range of different factors.

Immigration was the defining issue for a lot of voters but the question of whether you think there are too many immigrants coming into the country is too simplistic when considering all the pros and cons of maintaining EU membership.

What really annoyed me is the likes of Michael Gove encouraging an anti establishment, anti intellectual approach to the vote, telling voters you can't always believe and trust experts and elites. It's a bit rich coming from someone who is part of the establishment.

I don't know enough about the issues so of course I'm going to listen to experts in economics or from business who can help inform me. But sadly what's clear is that sometimes you can give people all the facts and it will make no difference.

The vote has shown a kind of anti establishment backlash from a lot of working class voters. The so called 'left behind'. Those who are frustrated with the status quo, who feel rightly or wrongly that their identity is being eroded. These are all valid points but they don't necessarily relate directly to the question of EU membership.

What's really been worrying is the rise of the racism and hate crimes against Eastern Europeans and British Black and Asian people. As someone who's roots are in the Caribbean and who's family have lived here for over 60 years it makes me angry that this vote seems to have given some idiots the right to openly express bigoted and racist abuse at people.

At the moment I feel the country is in meltdown and I'm angry with our political leaders for putting the country in this position. It didn't have happen. We may be leaving the EU but I still want to have as close a relationship with Europe and the EU in the future.

Wednesday 22 June 2016

My mind hasn’t changed, I’m still voting to remain in the EU

How are you feeling about the EU referendum? Do you know what you’re doing tomorrow? Have you had enough of the endless claims and counter claims from both sides?

Tomorrow I'll be voting to remain in the EU - it's never been in doubt for me. I'm one of those people who have always known their feelings towards the European Union. We could have had a referendum last year, 5 or 10 years ago and I will still have voted to remain in the EU. There was never anything the Brexit camp could say to change my mind.

I'm glad the vote is finally upon us. I've had enough of the debate. A few weeks ago I was really beginning to get fed up of the whole thing. Firstly because I've always known how I was going to vote but secondly because I was getting fed up of the nature and rhetoric of the debate.

At various points during the campaign I really feel as if both sides have insulted my intelligence. Comments such as the one made by House of Commons leader, Chris Grayling in which he said Brexit would help young people get on housing ladder!

Really! Surely building more houses might make a difference?

Then you have the NHS. We've had to listen to how leaving the EU could free up more money for the NHS? Or how staying in the EU is a threat to the NHS.

When it was announced that we would be having a referendum on EU membership I thought it was a good idea but now that we're at the end of the campaign I think holding a referendum has been a mistake.

Debating the merits of EU membership covers a whole number of different issues in regards to British jobs and the economy, national sovereignty, EU Laws and regulation, immigration, EU subsidies.

For those of us who follow politics and current affairs, understanding all the complexities of the issues and getting to the facts isn't easy and is arguably more difficult for those people that don't normally follow politics.

After reading this article in the Birmingham Post today: Opinion: Lets not have anymore referendums

I've come to the conclusion that having referendums aren't a good idea. Let our elected Members of Parliament make these decision on our behalf. That is the role of Parliamentary democracy and the reason why we elect MPs.

What we've seen is the debate reduced to simplistic soundbites like 'lets take our country back' or project fear from the Remain campaign. The one issue that has totally dominated the debate is that of immigration and even that isn't debated properly in an objective manner.

What I thought could be a really great exercise in democracy has for me been a bit of a disappointment. The Remain campaign have at times presented a vision of Armageddon should we leave the EU, while the Brexit camp have presented a vision of a glorious utopia ahead for the country should we finally cut ourselves free from the EU which for too long has held us back and forcing their laws on us.

The EU vote represents many different things for different people.

One thing that has really stood out for me about this referendum is that the way people feel and decide how to vote is very much a reflection on how they see and experience living in the UK. It's also about what type of you country you think the UK is and should be in the future.

I'm quite happy to admit that my vote to remain in the EU perfectly reflects my demographic background. I've lived and worked in London for the last 15 years. London and Scotland have the biggest support for remaining in the EU. I'm university educated, in fact I also have a post graduate degree. I'm reasonably well traveled and have visited many countries in Europe.

In terms of my job and annual salary I'm pretty much Middle Class. Although I certainly don't consider myself wealthy I earn an above average salary and in many ways I'm quite comfortable. All of these things point towards someone who would naturally vote towards remaining in the EU.

However, I've begun to realise that the country is incredibly divided. What's been really interesting is seeing how many traditional working class Labour supporters in the North and the Midlands are keen to leave the EU. There views and experiences of life in the UK are very different.

If you're in low paid insecure work, you live in communities which have received high levels of immigration from Eastern Europe, if you feel that mainstream politics has little to say to you or even understand your life you're more likely to want to leave the EU. Not necessarily because the EU is the cause of these things but because the EU referendum is an chance to express those feelings of unhappiness about the status quo.

During the last few weeks I've been watching a series of short films by the Guardian journalist John Harris. He's been travelling to towns and cities across the UK to discuss people's feelings about the EU referendum and how they feel about the state of things in the country.

I've found it fascinating to watch. In his latest film which you can click on below, he talks about a divided and angry Britain and the referendum campaign has highlighted this split.

From my own personal point of view, I don't share some of these concerns or frustrations but I understand and recognise that there are a lot of people in parts of the country which aren't thriving, where job opportunities aren't great, who feel threatened by EU migration and they want to make their feelings heard.

Leaving the EU won't solve these problems

As someone who believes it's better for Britain to remain inside the EU, the argument I would make to those people who feel fed and disillusioned is to say that voting to leave the EU won't solve many of the problems and concerns they have. It's as if voting out of the EU is a way of giving the establishment and the elites a bloody nose.

This would be all well and good if it somehow made a positive difference but I don't think it will. Even if we leave the EU, there will still be some form of immigration. There will be some downturn in the economy which many business leaders and economists believe will happen and many of the problems and frustrations people are feeling will remain.

Many of the problems people are protesting about are of the result of globalisation and economic policies of the last 35 years and what could be described as the crumbling of the neo-liberal economic consensus.

Admittedly it's up to individual people how they vote and their reasons for doing so; but I feel that some of the frustrations people feel shouldn't be directed solely at the European Union.

Why I want to remain in the UK

I've had a think of some of the reasons why I want to remain the in the EU. Here's a selection:

  • I want the UK to play a major role in the European Union, I don't want us to be outsiders. I think we will have more influence on a global stage by staying in the EU

  • The EU needs reforming and I want the UK to be part of and shaping those reforms

  • Economically we'll be worse off

  • Leaving the EU could lead to the eventual breakup of the EU

  • Part of me feels European

  • THe EU has given us rights and protections that many us benefit from even though we may struggle to recognise or identify these benefits

  • leaving the EU will probably mean a change of leadership in the Tory Party. I'm not interested in seeing Boris Johnson as PM

  • Tomorrow's vote is going to be close. I can't see either side winning more than 55% of the vote but I'm quietly confident that by Friday morning, those of us on the Remain side will have won.

    Friday 17 June 2016

    The death of Labour MP Jo Fox

    I feel incredibly sad and shocked at the murder of Labour MP Jo Fox yesterday.

    It feels like such a senseless and pointless act on someone who became an MP to make a difference to people's lives.

    I have to admit until yesterday I'd never heard of Jo Fox, she was only elected to Parliament in 2015 but she had been involved in Labour Party politics for the last 20 years.

    I've heard and read some amazing and heartfelt tributes to her both in terms of her personal and professional qualities and achievements. What stands out is that she was someone who was incredibly intelligent, committed and passionate about the causes she believed in and representing the people of her constituency in the area where she was born and brought up.

    It made me think that we live in such cynical times that when we think about politicians there is an almost default reaction that says all politicians are out of touch, career politicians, only interested in themselves. They're all the same, untrustworthy and will say anything to win votes or to further their own careers.

    In the last 12 months or so I've started to reconsider this type of cynical and at times lazy stereotype. It's not easy to become an MP and like a lot of careers it takes a huge amount of hard work, commitment, sacrifice, intelligence, passion and luck to get elected and to make a positive contribution to the constituencies and people they are elected to represent.

    With almost perfect timing, I came across this article in today's Times by Phillip Collins. He wrote:

    "I am tired beyond words of the cynical nonsense spouted every day by professional pundits (as well as amateur ones) that politicians are just in it for themselves, want nothing other than glory or the opportunity to fiddle bath plugs on their parliamentary expenses. Attention must be paid. Most MPs, of all parties, are decent people doing a tough job as well as they can."

    I thought this one point sums up perfectly how I feel.

    Jo Fox was someone who became an MP after she turned 40, yes she had a life and career outside what we call the 'Westminster bubble' and she didn't have to go into politics. There a many like her. MPs from all sides of the political spectrum, many who were elected in 2010 and 2015 who have gone into politics later on in life not for personal self interest but because they want to dedicate some of their lives to public service. Jo Fox did this and lost her life for it.

    I know that in the coming days and weeks we will look back on her death and ask what lessons we can learn about how we discuss and do politics in this country. I hope one lesson we can learn is to remember some of the genuine reasons and sacrifices our MPs make to represent us.

    Monday 6 June 2016

    Muhammad Ali: Without doubt the greatest

    What a year 2016 is turning out to be with the loss of so many influential, visionary and legendary figures in music, sport and entertainment.

    This weekend we said goodbye to Muhammad Ali, quite easily the greatest sportsman the world has ever seen.

    For those people who aren't interested in sport, such a statement might seem hyperbolic and over the top but I'm in absolute agreement with all the tributes and reflections on Ali's life and career.

    What made Muhammad Ali so special?

    Looking at his career in sporting terms, he is arguably one the greatest boxers to have ever lived and probably the best heavyweight champion of the world. He won the heavyweight championship 3 times in an era that is regarded as the golden age of heavyweight boxing.

    To be a true sporting great you have to transcend your sport and very few people can do this. This is what I think makes Ali so special. He became not just a sporting icon, but also a political, and cultural icon for millions of people around the world.

    It's important to look back on the type of world the 1960s were when Ali first burst onto the scene. In America it was the time of the Civil Rights movement with African Americans asserting their rights to be treated equally and with dignity in America.

    Ali emerged during that time as a talented, charismatic, funny, handsome, arrogant, loudmouth who wasn't afraid to tell the world how great he was. At the time Ali or Cassius Clay as he was still known, represented everything that White America feared and hated most about black men. His attitude, confidence, and outspokenness was a threat - particularly during a time of heightened racial tension.

    When he beat Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight crown in 1964, nobody gave him a chance against the brutish Liston. But that fight announced him to the world and it feels incredibly sad to know that he's no longer here.

    Converting to Islam and following the teachings of the Nation of Islam again showed that here was someone who was ready to stand up for his beliefs and values regardless of whether they upset or threatened the establishment.

    The one thing that always stood out for me about Ali's greatness and influence was his decision in 1967 to refuse to fight in the Vietnam War. It's hard to imagine today any sports star deciding not to participate in say a World Cup or an Olympics based on a point of principle.

    Ali refused to fight in Vietnam as he said he had no problem with the Vietcong. What I always found ironic about his decision was that there were many in America who accused him of being a traitor to his country, yet America continued to treat African Americans as second class citizens but still expected them to fight in foreign wars to protect freedom and oppose Communism.

    That decision resulted in Ali being banned from boxing for 3 years and he essentially sacrificed some of the best years of his career. Just that act makes Ali a true hero in my eyes.

    The comeback

    When Ali returned to boxing in 1970 there was no guarantee that he would become heavyweight champion again. Some of the speed and grace he had in his earlier career was gone but he adapted. It was something he had to do if he was to take on the likes Joe Frazier and George Foreman. His fights against Frazier and Foreman are legendary, especially the 'Rumble in the Jungle' against Foreman in 1974.

    With all great life stories there is triumph and tragedy and the tragedy about Muhammad Ali is that he continued to fight for too long into the late 70s. He really should have retired after his brutal fight against Frazier 'The Thriller in Manilla' in 1975.

    Over the weekend I've watched clips of some of his famous interviews with Michael Parkinson. What's really sad is in his final interview in the early 80s you can see the physical and mental deterioration in Ali. The spark, and the wit was just not there, he was a shadow of the man he had been. All those blows to head in the ring had sadly taken their toll.

    His subsequent battle with Parkinson's disease almost adds to the mystique and respect you have for Ali. You could say it was a tragic way to spend the second half of his life but his first 40 years were so eventful so colourful and packed with drama that he'd done more in 20 years than most of us achieve in a lifetime.

    My own personal story

    I actually got to see Muhammad Ali as a small child growing up in Birmingham. He came to the city in 1983 to open a Community Centre called the Muhammad Ali centre in Hockley Birmingham.

    My Dad took me along and he was a huge boxing fan. As a child I always knew who Ali was as he was the most famous boxer in the world. I remember the day he came to Birmingham quite clearly as I could sense there was this huge feeling of anticipation amongst the crowd as everyone waited for Ali to appear.

    When I look back I feel proud to be able to say that I saw Muhammad Ali.

    The icon

    The tributes and accolades given to Ali over the weekend demonstrate that his greatness was a lot more than just being a talented and successful athlete. It's about who he was as a parson and what he represented. He was equally a political activist, poet and entertainer who challenged people.

    We could never have another Muhammad Ali today. Our society is completely different and no sports star could emerge and be so outspoken, so charismatic and challenging as Ali was.

    When we look for heroes in our lives and in our society I look at someone like Ali as someone who could do the things you can't do, say the things you would like or can't say. Be the person that you would like to be. At various times Ali was all of those things to me. There will never be anyone like him again.

    Monday 9 May 2016

    Last week's elections

    Last week saw the most significant set of elections since the general election of 2015. If we learnt anything it's that the old certainties of the two party system are cracking and fragmenting.

    I didn't vote myself. There were no local elections in High Wycombe which is where I now live after moving out of London at the end of last year. I thought about whether or not I would have voted in the London mayoral elections.

    I'm quite pleased that Sadiq Khan won the mayoral elections and there are many reasons why I would have been happy to vote for him but the fact remains I wouldn't have as I'm sticking to my vow that I will not vote Labour while Jeremy Corbyn is in charge.

    We've already seen a number of Corbyn supporters claiming that Sadiq's victory in London is an endorsement of Corbyn. It isn't and it's telling that throughout the campaign Khan made a clear effort to distance himself from Corbyn.

    What does appeal to me about Sadiq Khan is that he's always given the impression that he really wants to be London Mayor something that can't be said about his Conservative opponent Zac Goldsmith.

    Zac Goldsmith: Always the wrong candidate

    Why an earth did the Tory Party choose Zac Goldsmith? I know why. He's always been seen as an independent minded Liberal Conservative, passionate about environmental causes and it was assumed that he would be the kind of Tory that could be a success in London. Unfortunately he was no Boris!

    I keep hearing about how London is a Labour city and I do agree with this view. It means that you have to be a certain type of Tory to stand any chance of winning in London. Boris was that type of Tory. He's a one off and has a certain charisma and X Factor that transcends party politics. That partly explains why he was able to win two terms as London Mayor.

    It was always going to be difficult for Zac but as many commentators noted. Was Zac even that bothered about being Mayor of London? This was his fatal flaw. If I had the chance to speak to Zac the first question I'd ask him is 'Why do you want to be Mayor of London?'.

    Zac came across as your classic Tory who simply stood for election because that's what someone of his background and upbringing is meant to do. There was no passion what so ever with his campaign.

    Knowing how difficult it would be to win in Labour leaning London he then resorted to what critics called a 'dog whistle' racist campaign against Sadiq Khan, trying to link Khan to Muslim extremist groups and sympathisers.

    It totally backfired on Zac, and such an attack was ill suited to a city like London. It was divisive and tried to play on people's prejudices and fears but to some extent it's part of politics to highlight the past associations of your opponent. Those on the left may as usual try and claim the moral high-ground over Zac's campaign but judging on Labour's recent problems with anti-Semitism they perhaps need to get their own house in order.

    Zac was simply a poor candidate. If the Tories want to succeed in London it might help if they found someone who wasn't an Old Etonian and the son of a billionaire. We've already got an Old Etonian PM, the last Mayor was an Old Etonian is it asking too much for the Tories to find someone from a more normal and modest background?

    Corbyn's Labour Party going nowhere

    Jeremy Corbyn's supporters can spin things as much as they like but last week's election results were pretty poor for Labour. Okay, so they managed to maintain most of the councils in the UK already under their control but if they were going to present evidence that they are on course to win the 2020 General Election the party failed miserably.

    If I was a Tory I really would laughing. The Tories should be in turmoil. The party is in the midst of a civil war over Europe and the EU referendum vote. Unpopular in the country as people get fed up with cuts and austerity but despite all of this Labour under Jeremy Corbyn still can't make the Tories suffer!

    Labour's failings don't surprise me. For all of the euphoria of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership victory, those Labour members who voted for him are not representative of the wider UK electorate.

    There is so much I could say about where the Labour Party is going under Jeremy Corbyn all I do know is that he isn't going to end up at number 10. What annoys me the most about Corbyn and his supporters is that despite the party's poor results none of it will be down to him or the party's policies.

    As usual with many elements of the hard left and supporters of Jeremy Corbyn; all of Labour's failings can be and will be blamed on bitter 'Blairites' the right wing media, the biased BBC, the stupid ignorant electorate.

    Labour under Jeremy Corbyn are a party dominated by middle class, London liberal Guardian reading types( I say this as someone who reads the Guardian) I wonder just how in touch some of these people are with the rest of the UK.

    The problem for Labour is that the party has done just well enough for Corbyn to continue as leader but not well enough to give any indication that they are the next government in waiting.

    The Scottish question

    The situation in Scotland fascinates me.

    Last week's elections confirm that the SNP remain the dominate force in Scottish politics despite not winning an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament.

    What's really interesting is that the Conservatives under the leadership of Ruth Davidson are now the official opposition party in Scotland, replacing Labour. How did this happen? Weren't Scottish Conservatives a dying breed facing extinction?

    The Scottish election results were a total disaster of the Labour Party and it raises some very difficult questions not just for the present day but also for the future.

    We were told by many Jeremy Corbyn supporters that the reason the SNP crushed the Labour Party at the last General Election was that they were a genuinely more left wing alternative to Labour. it was thought that all Labour needed to do was turn more to the left and they would regain many of those lost Labour voters from the SNP.

    Last week's election showed what total rubbish that idea was. Scottish Labour under the leadership of Kezia Dugdale put forward a distinctly left wing manifesto to the Scottish electorate and they still came third behind the SNP and the Conservatives.

    What Labour fail to understand is that in Scotland they have been the establishment party for generations and part of the appeal of the SNP is that they were and are seen as being an anti establishment party that puts the interests of Scotland first.

    In Scotland the success of the SNP is very much about being seen to put Scotland's interests first. Labour don't appear to understand this sense of identity and cultural politics. They've chosen to make the mistake in believing it's all about who is more left wing or not.

    The Conservatives under Ruth Davidson have done a great job a re-positioning themselves. They've created an identity that's separate to the London and English Tory Party and positioned themselves as the Unionist party ready to hold the SNP to account.

    It's worked brilliantly and what's interesting to note is that there appears to be some sort of realignment taking place in Scotland. The Labour Party are being squeezed and they're finding it difficult to position themselves in a unique way to the Scottish electorate.

    If Labour cannot win parliamentary seats in Scotland then it's highly unlikely the will ever form a majority government within the UK unless something drastic happens and they start winning more seats in the south of England.

    The situation in Scotland tells me the Labour Party have some serious issues to worry about.

    So a mixed and strange set of results in last week's elections. The conventional narrative should be of the government suffering huge loses after six years in power but the reality is that it's the opposition of the Labour Party that have so many questions to ask themselves.

    Wednesday 4 May 2016

    Leicester City: Premier League Champions

    The improbable became a reality last night when Leicester City became Premier League champions.

    Just writing such a sentence seems ridiculous, bizarre and incredible in equal measures but it's a fact and over the last 12 months they have been without question the best team in England.

    What I love about this story is that it transcends sport and football. It's a significant news story and this explains why its been the lead story on each news bulletin throughout the day. It's also a world wide story that's been covered across Europe, Asia and America.

    I wrote a few weeks ago that Leicester winning the League would be the biggest achievement in English football and that remains the case. I identify with Leicester City as they are a similar club to my own team Birmingham City.

    Like Birmingham Leicester have spent most of their history bobbing up and down between the two top divisions. Always too good for the old Second Division always struggling in the top flight.

    For most of their fans winning the league was never a serious consideration and in the Premier League era it was something that all football fans accepted couldn't happen but we've all been proved wrong.

    With stories like this you start thinking about the wider lessons Leicester's success can teach us. It gives people hope. In a football sense there are so many clubs of a similar size to Leicester who may now believe that can achieve more than they imagined.

    There are bigger clubs like Everton, Newcastle, Villa and Sunderland who may be asking themselves that they should be doing much better but I think one thing Leicester's victory has shown is that things can change.

    We've all just accepted that the same select group of super rich clubs will continue to keep winning the league and occupying the top places in the league but their own failings and complacency has shown their monopoly can be broken.

    Perhaps I'm reading too much into things but in our society we see an elite super rich getting richer, we sometimes feel that nothing can change as the odds are stacked against us to change anything or overturn the 'natural' order but Leicester have shown that nothing is set in stone.

    Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic and reading too much into things. It's quite possible that next season Leicester will finish mid table or in the bottom half of the league. But so what, they've achieved something that will be difficult to ever repeat. They've created history, put their unfashionable Midlands city on the map, given a shot in arm to football in England and across the world.

    All I can say is, well done Leicester and thank you!

    Monday 25 April 2016

    Goodbye Prince

    The death of Prince is another legendary figure that we've lost in the world of music this year. What is it about 2016?

    I love Prince. He's another artist whose music defined my childhood. His records says a lot about what I'm all about in terms of my own music taste.

    When I was growing up, what I loved about Prince was that he was a proper pop star. He wasn't like ordinary people.

    There was the glamour, the otherness and of course the music. I loved 1999 which was the first Prince record I remember. I loved the video and the lyrics that spoke about partying like it was 1999. As a 7 year old I imaged we'd be flying in space ships by the time 1999 came round.

    As I grew up through the 80s and 90s what I admired most about Prince was that he could do everything. He could play rock, pop, soul, funk and jazz, he could do it all. His versatility was amazing.

    Like David Bowie I think I like artists that can tread that fine line between commercial success and artistic integrity. People that are hugely talented but always looking to push the boundaries in terms of their art.

    From the reports it sounds like there are hundreds of tracks recorded by Prince that were left in the vaults and never released. Prince may be gone but his music remains and I'm looking forward to hearing his old 'new' material.

    A friend on Facebook posted this video which highlights what an incredible guitarist Prince was.

    Sunday 10 April 2016

    Come on Leicester

    Unless you're a Nottingham Forest or Spurs fan you're probably hoping that Leicester City pull off the impossible by winning this season's Premier League.

    This is looking more likely following Leicester's 2-0 win today away at Sunderland which leaves them 7 points clear of Tottenham with only 6 games of the season left.

    If Leicester win the Premier League it will be the greatest achievement in modern English football history! There's simply no precedent for it. A team that in the space of 18 months have been transformed from relegation certainties to virtual Premier League Champions.

    What makes Leicester's story so remarkable is that this simply wasn't meant to happen. The advent of the Premier League followed by the growth of the Champions League meant that mid ranking provincial clubs like Leicester could never compete with the big clubs.

    If you want to find the nearest comparison to what Leicester are potentially about to achieve, you have to go back to the 1970s.

    Unfashionable Derby County won the league for the first time in 1972 under Brian Clough and again in 1975 under Dave Mackay. In 1978 Nottingham Forest (managed again by Clough) won the league in their first season after gaining promotion from the old Second Division.

    The difference between the 70s and now is that there wasn't as much money in the game. The traditional big city clubs couldn't dominate in the way they have done during the Premier League era.

    So how do you explain Leicester's success?

    The money in the Premier League has created a more level playing field

    When the Premier League was created it was partly to ensure that the big clubs could maximise revenues generated from the game. The increased revenue from TV rights allowed big clubs like Man Utd, Arsenal, Chelsea, to dominate the league consistently which is what they've done for the last 25 years.

    This season things have started to change. The improved television deals have now meant that mid ranking and smaller clubs now have enough money to buy top players from bigger European clubs and compete with the Premier League's traditional powers. They also are no longer under pressure to sell their better players to raise cash.

    In the Premier League, the likes of Stoke, Southampton, Swansea, and Watford can pay bigger salaries than genuine big European clubs such as Marseilles in France or the big clubs in Italy or Spain. There's a limit to how many players any one club can have.

    The very best players in the world play for Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. England's big clubs now face a new challenge of mid ranking clubs buying players who in previous eras would have been playing for big European clubs.

    It's ended up leveling the playing field which is possibly an unintended consequence of more tv money coming into the Premier League.

    The complacency of the big clubs

    Leicester's achievement this season is a big wake-up call for the big clubs. For too long they assumed that the so called natural order could never be disturbed. Their wealth and continued presence in the Champions League meant that they never had to think that smaller clubs could ever threaten them.

    What Leicester have done and other clubs like West Ham, Watford and Bournemouth have shown that money can only take you so far. Creating a winning and successful team is about recruitment, picking the right type of players, team work and tactics.

    Leicester's recruitment in recent years has been superb. How many clubs would have taken a chance on a player like Jamie Vardy who until a few years ago was still playing non league or Riyad Mahrez, plucked from French football obscurity!

    Manchester United's Chief Executive summed up the thinking of the big clubs when he said in response to questions on why Leicester were performing so well on such a small budget:

    "where there is a bit more pressure perhaps on some of the bigger clubs to bring in players that are going to be hitting the ground running and top players verging on world class almost immediately"

    There's nothing stopping clubs like Man Utd buying unheralded players and developing talent but there's this idea that they have to buy players at the very peak or coming close to it immediately. Why?

    Leicester's success proves you can pick up unheard of players and developing them into star players. The attitude of big clubs is one where they don't want to do this. One exception is Barcelona and their youth policy but look at Chelsea. Their youth teams continually win trophies but none of their young players ever seem to get the chance to progress into the first team.

    On a separate note, earlier this week, I was looking through some of my old Birmingham City programmes and came across the Leicester City Programme from the game I went to at Leicester in March 2012. It's amazing to see names like Wes Morgan and Danny Drinkwater in Leicester's squad.

    Leicester missed out on the playoffs that season but those type of players have progressed and improved and that team spirit has been vital to Leicester's success.

    Will Leicester be a one off?

    Quite possibly. Leicester may finish mid-table next season but I don't think it matters. What Leicester have done is give hope and inspiration to about 97% of clubs in the country.

    They are reminding us that success in football doesn't just have to be about how much you pay in transfer fees and player wages. You don't necessarily need billions to compete.

    Forgotten virtues like team spirit, clever recruitment, mixed in with tactics that get the best out of the players available reminds us that there's a chance for all us and that's why everyone so wants Leicester to win the league.

    Come on Leicester!

    Sunday 27 March 2016

    Johan Cruyff 1947 - 2016

    Football lost one of its all time greats this week with the death of Johan Cruyff.

    I knew he was battling against cancer but following his announcement earlier this year that he was '2-0 up' against cancer I assumed he was on the road to recovery.

    All the major footballing nations of Europe and South America have their own footballing culture and identity. I would describe Cruyff as being the godfather of Dutch football.

    What makes Cruyff an all time great of football is not only how he played the game and what he achieved on the pitch. It's also his legacy off the pitch in terms of his coaching, club management and how he viewed and spoke about the game.

    All football fans who know their history know about the great Ajax and Dutch national teams of the late 60s and early 70s. They introduced the world to 'Total football' A style where players where equally comfortable understanding and playing in different parts of the pitch. Cruyff was the leader of that Ajax and Dutch team and in 1974 he lead them to the World Cup final against West Germany.

    I wasn't around for the 1974 World Cup but Holland were the team of the tournament and Cruyff the star player but sport doesn't always follow the romantic script and Holland lost in the final to West Germany when everyone expected and hoped they'd win.

    Having watched documentaries on the 74 World Cup and read the book Brilliant Orange Perhaps it was a mixture of Dutch arrogance and overconfidence that they thought they would naturally beat a very good West Germany team.

    In club football, Cruyff left Ajax after winning 3 European Cups in a row (1971-73) to join Spanish giants Barcelona. It's hard to believe now but when Cruyff joined Barcelona they hadn't won the league since 1960. By the end of his first season in Barcelona they had won the league. When he left Barcelona to go and play in America he was a hero in Catalonia.

    By the time I started watching football in the mid 80s Cruyff had recently retired and had become manager of Ajax. My earliest memories of Cruyff was as manager where he was in charge of Barcelona and where he led them to an unprecedented 4 consecutive league titles from 1991 - 1994 and the club's first European Cup in 1992.

    When I look back it's his time at Barcelona that you begin to see the legacy of Cruyff. When he returned to the club Barcelona had only won one league title since Cruyff left. That was in 1985 under Terry Venables.

    Since the early 90s Barcelona have arguably been the most successful football club in the world in terms of winning trophies, developing youth players and playing a game that is loved by football fans across the world. Johan Cruyff started all of this and his influence can be seen today with the way Barcelona play the game now and you can see the roots and origins of their football if you go all the way back to the glory days of Dutch football at the start of the 1970s. That's what you call a legacy.

    One of the great things I've discovered as a football fan in recent years is Youtube. You can now watch old clips of games and players who you may previously have only seen a few familiar clips.

    In the past I've watched highlights of Cruyff particularly towards the end of his career in the early 80s when he returned to Ajax and more controversially to Ajax's biggest rivals Feyenoord of Rotterdam. What stands out is how stylish and elegant he was as a player even in his mid 30s. Some of his goals are just beautiful to watch.

    Players like Johan Cruyff don't come around very often but when they do they remind you why you love the game of football so much.

    Saturday 26 March 2016

    The Brussels terrorist attacks

    Following this week's bombings in Brussels, I've been thinking what I could possibly say that wasn't already said after last year's attacks in Paris.

    The bombings are both shocking but not surprising and raises the question of which European capital will be next. Knowing that in all likelihood there will be another major attack is one of the most depressing aspects of this story.

    We've had the show of solidarity for the Brussels victims, the calls for how we must not let the terrorists alter our way of life but after all of this what comes next?

    It would appear that the Belgium counter-terrorist authorities have proved a weak link in Western Europe's overall strategy against Islamic terrorism. From what I can tell the Belgium authorities simply don't have the same level of experience of dealing with terrorist groups in comparison to say Britain with our history of dealing with the IRA.

    Britain's security forces have been fairly successful in preventing terrorist plots which explains why we haven't had a major attack since 7/7. But as the old saying goes, the terrorists only have to be lucky once while the security forces need to get it right every single time.

    Europe will need to improve its overall joint strategy in tackling ISIS and Islamic terrorism. Europe needs to develop its own counter-terrorism network to confront the network of ISIS.

    The next issue involves a long-term challenge of tackling Islamic extremism at its roots and targeting those communities in Brussels, Paris and in cities across Britain where young Muslim men turn to violence and extremism.

    This will be a slow and long process and if I'm honest I don't know the causes or the answers as to why so many young Muslim men of second and third generation immigrants in their country of birth decide to reject the values of their home country for a violent and destructive ideology of ISIS.

    Friday 18 March 2016

    A weekend in Berlin

    Last weekend I spent a few days in the German capital Berlin.

    It was the first time I'd been to Berlin since spending a day there in 1995. At the time I was inter-railing across Europe. I wasn't there long enough to get a real feel for the city. My lasting memory was the feeling of amazement that only 6 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall I was actually in the city itself standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate!

    I remembered looking over towards East Berlin and seeing what looked like a massive building site. I always thought it would be great to come back again one day once all the rebuilding had finished.

    Brandenburg Gate

    Berlin has a reputation of being a kind of cool hipster capital of Europe, similar to London's Shoreditch and Hoxton. I have to admit it does have that vibe about it. I was surprised at just how chilled and laid back Berlin was for a capital city.

    Cities like London, Paris and New York have that feel of places that say to you: 'this is where it's at' They are cities that have the confidence to say we are the biggest and the best. Certainly with London, Paris and even Rome, you also have that European grandeur.

    Even though Berlin is an historic capital I get the feeling that it doesn't have those kind of pretensions, it feels like a city that doesn't take itself too seriously which is something I quite liked.

    What Berlin does have is a heavy sense of 20th century history hanging over it. No city in the world represented the division between the Capitalist West and Communist East than the Berlin Wall. I remember when the Wall came down in 1989 and realising that I was watching a truly historical event.

    Other historical sites include the government parliament the Reichstag which was famously burnt down by the Nazis in 1933, Checkpoint Charlie and The Topography of Terror, both an in and outdoor museum on the site of the ruins of the old Gestapo and SS headquarters.

    Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

    I wasn't aware of the memorial until my friend pointed it out to me. It was designed by the architect Peter Eisenman and inaugurated in 2005. The memorial is made up of hundreds a grey blocks which have been formed into a grid system which once inside feels like you're in a maze. The slabs are of varying sizes and when you walk inside, can feel quite disorientating.

    Berlin isn't all about the darker side of European and World history. Berlin is also famed for its nightlife. I have to admit I found Berlin's nightlife a bit confusing to begin with. The city is very quiet and doesn't have what you could call a traditional city centre, there are different neighborhoods. When you go out in the evening you didn't really come across a row of bars or clubs in the way you might do on a UK high-street.

    Berlin's bars and clubs all appear to be quite discreet, its as if you have to stumble across them or know exactly where you are going to find a place. What I liked was that when you do find somewhere there are some really nice intimate chilled out bars to discover. Busy enough to create a good atmosphere but not overly crowded to make the experience tiring. a couple of the bars and clubs we went to had a bell you had to ring to get in before being confronted by a curtain. It was like you were being allowed into an exclusive venue that once inside was pretty chilled and very inclusive.

    I realised that's what Berlin is all about, nice bars and cool clubs that you need to hunt down or keep your eye out for. There's no need to dress up, nobody seems to care what you look like and this is what I quite liked about Berlin.

    It's definitely a cool place to spend a weekend.

    Hertha v Schalke: Hertha Ultras

    One of the main reasons for visiting Germany was for the chance to watch a Bundersliga football match. The Premier League may be the richest and most popular league in the world, but Germany's Bundersliga has a growing reputation were fans can watch affordable games in some of the best stadiums in the world and where the fan culture and support is second to none.

    Watching Hertha v Schalke was a great experience. Hertha aren't really one of the most glamourous or famous names in German football but they're having an exceptional season. Before the start of the match they stood in 3rd place in the league behind Bayern and Dortmund. They have a great chance of qualifiing for next season's Champions League.

    This was an important match as Schalke were one place behind them in fourth; if Hertha could win it would help cement their position in third. It was an good match, fairly even in the first half with Hertha taking the lead just before half time. The second half Hertha were very much the better team and deservedly doubled their lead in the middle of the second half. They had chances to make it three which they failed to take but overall they deserved their win.

    Apart from the football what really stood out were the fans. Hertha's ultra supporters behind the goal were superb. They never stopped singing and chanting. It was an impressive sight to see thousands of fans all jumping up and down in unison. I should also give credit to Schalke who also brought some numbers with them as well and contributed to the atmosphere.

    One of the things I loved most about Berlin is the graffiti and street art you see on buildings all over the city. I know you find graffiti in many cities but Berlin seems to have taken it to another level and forms part of the city's look and identity.

    The legacy of the Wall

    In various districts of the city you can find parts of the Wall that still remain. They form part of a memorial to those people who risked and lost their lives trying to cross from East to West Berlin. It's very poignant to see and it's good that they've kept bits of the Wall up, if only to remind people of the destructive nature of building barriers between people.

    Wednesday 16 March 2016

    The EU Referendum: Are you in or out?

    It's been a few weeks since the date of the EU referendum was announced. Those of you that follow me on Twitter will know that I've already made it clear which way I'll be voting and that's to stay in.

    They might as well hold the referendum next week as I know my views aren't going to change but for the next 4 months we're all going to be subjected to endless debate on the merits of staying in or coming out.

    Despite my initial feelings I've still been following the debate which I think is important as the public has a rare chance to think about and make a decision on the type of country we want to be in the 21st century.

    So far we're being presented with two narratives on Europe to choose from. The first comes from the stay campaign led by the Prime Minister David Cameron and the Chancellor George Osborne. They're pushing forwards the fear and uncertainty argument. One that says it is too much of a risk for the UK to leave the European Union. They may not have great affection for the EU but the risks of coming out of the EU are to great to consider.

    The argument put forward by the out campaign arguably presents a more positive message. One that says the UK can prosper and thrive by going it alone and leaving the EU; saying goodbye to its intrusive laws, regulations and struggling economy.

    Personally I've always considered myself to generally be pro European and I instinctively feel that Britain should remain in the EU and be a prominent player inside it.

    I certainly don't believe the EU is perfect. I'm all for closer political and economic ties with our European neighbours but there is a limit to how far you can go towards greater integration. I don't want to live in a centralised European super-state, I think it's incredibly undemocratic. You only have to look at the situation in Greece where despite the Greek people electing a government opposed to more austerity, they've ultimately had to follow the orders of Germany and the EU.

    The European Union needs reforming but I'd rather try and reform it from the inside rather than leaving the EU altogether. Those who want to leave the EU will never truly convince me. I think in a globalised world I don't believe that Britain will maintain the same power and influence it has by leaving the EU.

    The out campaign talk about how we are a country who can trade with the world, which is true but we are still geographically part of Europe, our history and future will always be tied to the Continent regardless of whether some people dislike that fact.

    The debate so far is all about our role and future in the world which is understandable but there's the other side of the argument. What would a Brexit mean for Europe?

    Europe needs and wants us to stay. It would be a complete disaster for the European project if Britain was to leave. It would potentially be the beginning of the end for the European Union. That might sound dramatic but it certainly conceivable. If one of the biggest countries decided to leave what would prevent other countries from deciding to do the same thing.

    Europe is facing a number of difficult challenges at present: Slow economic growth, high youth unemployment, the increasing migrant crisis, and Islamic terrorism. Europe needs to be unified and strong to deal with these issues. A Europe without Britain will be weaker and one person you know wants to see a weakened, fragmented Europe is Russia's Vladimir Putin.

    The EU will never be something that this country will truly love but the consequences of Brexit will have far reaching consequences across Europe and the world for years to come.