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Forthcoming Talks

4th June 2024

George Orwell

Club member Peter Holt will discuss George Orwell’s life, times and continuing relevance.

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18th June 2024

Art Matters: Creating a new Chesterfield Arts Centre

Guest speaker, Jonathan Francis, Artistic Director of Rose Hill Arts Centre, will tell the story of his life in theatre and music and how he and an enthusiastic group of volunteers are breathing new life into a redundant church in Chesterfield town centre, and repurposing it as a vibrant new cultural centre for the arts in North East Derbyshire.

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2nd July 2024

What options are available for solving the housing crisis other than building new?

Club member Tony Crook will explain that building more new homes is not the only thing we need to do to solve the housing crisis.

— Last updated 14 April 2024 —
7 MayHugh Wright
21 MayDerrick Willmot
4 June Peter Holt
18 JuneJohn Robinson
2 July Tony Crook
16 July Kim Rainsford
6 August (to be arranged)
20 August Tony Fry
3 September Chris Shepley
17 September John Hayes
1 OctoberPeter Donaldson
15 October (to be arranged)
5 November (to be arranged)
19 November (to be arranged)
3 December(to be arranged)

Recent Talks

(Most recent first. Click on the titles for fuller descriptions).

7th May 2024

 

These days, it seems that any major building or infrastructure project almost invariably costs considerably more and takes much longer to complete than originally envisaged. Even before construction can start, the time taken from inception can be months or even years, while a whole series of procedures are followed. The design and planning of the job are just two basic aspects. Added to these are other considerations such as the need for public consultation, planning consent, environmental impact assessments and archaeological surveys. In contrast, our Victorian ancestors, being supremely confident and enterprising, had a very different way of doing things. This was illustrated at today’s meeting when member, Hugh Wright, told the story of the making of the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851.

 

Hugh explained that a number of European cities had already held exhibitions to promote their industries and to encourage trade. Not to be outdone, at a meeting in June 1849 the British, led by Prince Albert, proposed a similar project to stimulate British design and manufacture but one that was also open to exhibits ‘from all Nations’. The date set for this Great Exhibition to open to the public was 1st May 1851 – less than two years ahead.

 

After some initial negotiations with a potential contractor it was decided, in January 1850, that a Royal Commission should be responsible for organising the event. Two months later, a competition brief for the Commission’s requirements was published. Among other conditions, this stipulated that this was to be a temporary building in a section of Hyde Park and that it was to have a covered floor space of 700,000 sq. ft. (65,000 sq. m. – the size of nine football pitches). Entrants to this competition were allowed less than four weeks to submit their designs. In the event, after a number of proposals had been discussed by the Commission, Joseph Paxton suggested a design, based on prefabricated iron and glass (such as the greenhouses at Chatsworth already built by him). This proposal proved acceptable to the Commission, and work started on site at the end of July 1850, leaving a mere 39 weeks before the planned opening date.

 

The speaker continued by describing, in detail, the building itself and the remarkable speed and efficiency with which its component parts (ironwork and glass) were manufactured in Birmingham, transported to site in London, and erected in Hyde Park. Amazingly, it was completed in time for its public opening on 1st May 1851. The Exhibition was staged for 24 weeks, during which time it attracted six million visitors (equivalent to a third of the entire population of Britain at the time). Yet another triumph for Victorian entrepreneurship!

 

Hugh Wright and Ron Enock

16th April 2024

 

Of all the privatisations of the nationalised British industries, one of the more contentious at the time was that of British Rail. It was during the later years of the Conservative government (1979 – 1997) that the policy of transferring the ownership and operation of the railways to private ventures was put into effect. Begun in 1994, the process was largely completed by 1997, by which time ownership of the infrastructure, including the larger stations, had passed to the new privately owned company, Railtrack, and the rolling stock (i.e. the trains themselves) to a variety of other private operators.

 

Today, club member Tom Johnstone (who, in his working life, had been the Finance Director of one of these businesses, Unipart) asked the question, “Was the privatisation of British Rail a success?”. In addressing this question, he provided much evidence to demonstrate the growth in rail usage since privatisation which, although a financial benefit to the system, brought its own problems of congestion on a very crowded network. The way in which the railway was privatised into over a hundred different businesses created an extremely complex structure of management and financing. On the positive side, privatisation brought much needed investment in new trains and the infrastructure on which to run them.

 

In his presentation, Tom showed several tables and graphs which illustrated how the Covid pandemic had seriously affected the railways. Clearly there was a huge decline in the numbers of passengers using the network, especially during periods of ‘lock-down’. Consequently, because the trains were kept running even when almost empty, the costs incurred in so doing were enormous. This required considerable financial support from the government which, in turn, changed government attitudes towards the railways. Back in 2001, with the collapse of Railtrack, the railway infrastructure was, in effect, re-nationalised through the creation of Network Rail. Now, post-Covid, the train-operating companies have become far more tightly controlled by government. Since 2021 there have been moves to simplify the overall rail structure by the creation of a single body, Great Britain Railways, but this has not yet been established.

 

The speaker, at the end of his talk, answered his own question by saying that, on balance, he believed the privatisation of the railways to have been a success. But, in the general discussion afterwards, the views of his audience were generally more ambivalent.

 

Tom Johnstone and Ron Enock

2nd April 2024

 

For several years, we have held an annual springtime debate among our members. On this occasion, the motion was ‘Our National Health Service should embrace the Private Sector’. Leading the discussions were club members Stefan Andrejczuk who supported the proposition and Kim Rainsford who opposed it, with Chairman Ron Enock overseeing the proceedings. A preliminary vote among those present indicated a clear majority for the motion, with 23 in favour, compared with 9 against and 2 abstentions.

 

In his opening arguments, Stefan (whose former career had been in senior management of a private healthcare business) reminded his audience that a basic tenet of the NHS when it was founded in 1948 (and, indeed, still holds true) is that it should be free at the point of use and funded through general taxation. However, from the earliest days, in effect there was involvement from the private sector in that, due to resistance by the General Medical Council, GP’s services – along with dentistry, ophthalmology and pharmacy – have been contracted out to individual practices. In more recent years, increasing numbers of treatments have been carried out by private healthcare companies, thereby easing some of the pressures on the NHS. From a commercial point of view, this development is also beneficial to the NHS as it costs no more to employ private companies than to carry out the treatment using its own resources. One of the reasons why the private sector can be competitive is that it is far more efficient than the NHS, mainly by being better managed and, significantly, relatively free of political interference.

 

In opposition to the motion, Kim Rainsford (who is Emeritus Professor of Biomedical Sciences at Sheffield Hallam University) stressed that his arguments were based on his personal and professional experiences during his long career in biomedical research. As he pointed out, we, the taxpayers, are paying huge amounts for our health service but we are not getting value for our money. Involving the private healthcare companies is not the best way to tackle this problem; rather, the root cause is disorganisation and inefficiency in the system, together with misuse and wastage of the NHS’s resources by the general public. Being unique in the world by offering free treatment, the NHS differs from other counties whose funding of their health services involves contributions from both state and insurance sources. In general, this leads to a more efficient organisation.

 

In spite of taking opposing views on the use of private health providers, both Stefan and Kim agreed on the need for NHS reform, to improve its efficiency and to be freed from continuous interference by politicians. A consensus between the political parties on how to carry out this reform would make a huge impact on stabilising the situation. These were very much the points agreed by members of the audience during the general discussion following the formal submissions. At the close of proceedings, a second vote was taken with the result that, although there remained a majority in favour of the motion (17), this was a reduced number with several members now opting to abstain.

 

Ron Enock, Kim Rainsford and Stefan Andrejczuk

19th March 2024

 

Here in landlocked Derbyshire it can easily be forgotten that we live in a maritime nation, and therefore, at this meeting we were pleased to welcome Rod Shiers, a guest speaker arranged by club member Duncan Gordon. Rod’s talk was about his experiences as a yachtsman over three decades.

 

His early life was spent in Leigh-on-Sea on the Essex coast where he learned to sail and was a member of the local Sea Scout troop. At the age of seventeen, he joined the crew of one of the two RNLI lifeboats stationed at Southend. This was a ‘D’ class inflatable boat, designed to operate close to shore in shallower waters. Here he was involved in much of the action of this, one of the busiest lifeboat stations in the country.

 

Later, having qualified as a solicitor, he moved to Chesterfield and it seemed that his sailing days, if not over completely, would nevertheless be severely curtailed. Ogston reservoir provided the opportunity for dinghy sailing but he felt the need for something more adventurous. Hence, in 1984 he bought his first of a succession of sea-going yachts which he based at an anchorage in the Dart Estuary in Devon. Over the years he, with his growing family, undertook increasingly ambitious voyages, eventually reaching the Mediterranean Sea where, amongst many other places, they explored the Balkan coasts of Croatia and Montenegro as well as Venice and Malta.

 

Having retired in 2012, Rod now had the time to put into action a long-standing wish, which was to buy an old boat, restore it, and sail around the coast of Britain. In this he was successful but the circumnavigation of our island was far from uneventful, being subjected to storms and several very long and arduous passages between ports and anchorages. The whole trip amounted to 2,400 miles and took 80 days to accomplish. Rod relates the story of this voyage in his book ‘All Aboard!’; he donates the royalties to the RNLI.

 

From being a volunteer crewman in his youth, throughout his life Rod (who is now the Chairman of the Matlock and Bakewell Fundraising Branch) has been a supporter of the RNLI. This year, 2024, marks the 200th anniversary of this much-respected and admired organisation which deserves everyone’s support, even as far from the sea as here in Derbyshire.

 

Rod Shiers and Duncan Gordon

5th March 2024

 

For the past two years, Ukraine has rarely been out of the news but, before the Russian invasion of that country in February 2022, it had been one of those far-away places about which many of us knew almost nothing. Similarly we, in common with much of the rest of the world, had been ignorant of a disaster suffered by the Ukrainian people during 1932/33. This was a man-made famine, ‘The Holodomor’, and it was the subject of this talk by Club member David Webb.

 

As David explained, throughout its history Ukraine has been very much influenced by its large and powerful neighbour, Russia, although during the Middle Ages it was Ukraine that was the centre of East Slavic culture. However, its geographical location on the borders of Europe and Asia, and the ease with which any invading force could sweep across its predominantly low-lying terrain made it vulnerable to attack. Consequently, it lost its independence to a succession of external powers culminating in its absorption into the Russian Empire during the eighteenth century.

 

In spite of this annexation, Ukraine was granted a degree of autonomy whereby its people retained their culture and language, but the remaining bonds between the two countries meant that the Russian Revolution of 1917 spilled over into Ukraine. For the next few years there was chaos and civil war resulting in Ukraine becoming a constituent republic within the Soviet Union in 1922. Two years later, Joseph Stalin became leader of the USSR and thereafter pursued a policy of agricultural collectivisation and rapid industrialisation which proved catastrophic. By appropriating Ukraine’s production of grain for consumption throughout the Soviet Union, this policy deprived Ukraine’s peasantry of its staple food and famine was the result, with an estimated 4 million deaths in 1932/33.

 

The speaker continued by discussing the way that news of this disaster was suppressed at the time, not only by the Soviet authorities themselves but also by foreign apologists for that regime. A lone voice, attempting to draw the world’s attention to this famine was that of Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones who, first-hand, witnessed its horrors. His efforts were recognised when he was posthumously awarded the Ukrainian Order of Merit in 2008.

 

David Webb and Ron Enock

20th February 2024

 

For the nervous airline passenger, one thing that should give reassurance is the sight of the famous interlocking “R/R” on an aircraft’s engines. The name, Rolls Royce, has long been associated with the highest standards of quality and reliability – firstly cars and, later, aero engines. It was the story of one of the founders of this company, Henry Royce, who was the subject of today’s talk by club member Brian Holland.

 

Brian opened his presentation with a description of Royce’s early life. Born in 1863, the youngest of five children, Henry had little formal education. His father ran a flour mill near Peterborough but the business failed and the family had to move to London where, in 1872 his father died and Henry had to go out to work selling newspapers and delivering telegrams. At the age of fourteen, thanks to the financial help of an aunt, he started an apprenticeship in Peterborough and later moved to Leeds, followed by another move, this time back to London where he worked for the Electric Light and Power Company as an electrical engineer.

 

In 1884, now twenty-one years old, he formed his own business, F. H. Royce and Company, making domestic electrical fittings – bells, lamp holders, etc. – in a workshop in Manchester. Over the next few years, the company expanded into the manufacture of electric motors and dynamos, cranes and dockside equipment, all the while developing new products for which 90 patents were registered. Royce even decided to make a car of his own in a corner of his workshop.

 

Then, as the speaker continued his narrative, came Royce’s introduction to Charles Rolls, an aristocrat whose background was Eton and Cambridge and who had a car showroom in London. This was in 1904, and Rolls is reported to have said of Royce, “I have found the greatest engineer in the world”. Two years later, despite their different social upbringings, they formed a partnership, Rolls Royce Limited, with Royce providing the technical expertise and Rolls the financial backing and business acumen. The partnership lasted until 1910 when Rolls was killed in an air crash but Royce continued developing the Rolls Royce business, not only in the manufacture of prestige cars but also famous aero engines, beginning with the Eagle in 1914. Having its origins in the successful Silver Ghost automobile, this engine distinguished itself as a reliable engine in the WW1 conflict. The derivatives of the Eagle culminated in the iconic Merlin which was conceived by Royce shortly before his death. Technology from the Eagle was fed back into the range of Rolls Royce cars that were introduced during the inter-war years.

 

Henry Royce was known as a workaholic and suffered much ill-health up to his death in 1933 but, of course, his legacy lives on, in the names attached to one of our county’s most famous products, the aero engines made in Derby.

 

Brian Holland

13th February 2024

 

The 2008 financial crisis in banking and its repercussions became associated with greed, incompetence and fraud but, by this time, the whole nature of banking had changed from the staid and generally well-respected image which the banks and their employees had presented for generations. At this meeting our speaker was club member, Malcolm Cameron. On an earlier occasion Malcolm, who had spent his career as a banker, had described his experiences of the banking business before the events of 2008 (by which time he had been retired for several years). He now picked up his narrative at the point which he had reached previously.

 

In an entertaining talk full of anecdotes about the many people whom he had known as work colleagues or clients, Malcolm described how, almost by accident, he had entered the profession that was to provide him with a living for the whole of his working life, culminating in a senior position in the NatWest Bank. On leaving school, his intention had been to pursue a career based on his interest in chemistry. Accordingly, he applied for a job with Boots in Nottingham but, even while waiting for a response to this application, his father had been speaking to the local bank manager who suggested that Malcolm should consider banking, initially for a probationary six-month trial period. The outcome was satisfactory for all concerned and so, in August 1959, Malcolm’s career was launched, albeit at a very junior level.

 

He then described how his career progressed, from being a clerk, through promotion to increasingly responsible positions, each of which seemed to involve a move from location to location, starting in his home town of Belper, successively to Derby, Sheffield, Nottingham, Hull, Birmingham and, finally, London. During this time, the Westminster Bank, his original employer, merged with the National Provincial to create the ‘National Westminster’ (NatWest) in 1970. Throughout this career he developed a working knowledge of many industries and dealt with numerous major customers. He was involved in some unusual projects, including The Eden Project in Cornwall and the Media Centre at Lord’s cricket ground in London. In addition, he developed a particular skill in leading the Management Buyouts on major projects and he was instrumental in setting up the first telephone banking centre. Throughout all these dealings he learned the value of face to face contact with his customers and a detailed understanding of their business.

 

Malcolm’s career saw many changes in banking, including the introduction of credit cards and computerisation, developments that were almost revolutionary at the time, but which are now taken for granted, of course. However, as he was happy to report, he played no part in the hazardous investment side of banking which led to such disastrous results fifteen years ago.

 

Malcolm Cameron

23rd January 2024

 

The tragic events that have been unfolding in Israel and Gaza, and which have dominated world news since early October 2023 are yet another episode in a conflict whose roots are often taken to be the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 but, as described by today’s speaker, can actually be traced back thousands of years. In his talk, club member Roger Truscott gave a brilliantly clear and objective account of the history of the Jewish people and their relationship to the rest of the world, especially their Palestinian neighbours.

 

Roger opened his talk by discussing the geography of the area, known as the Levant which, situated at the Eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, lies at the centre of the ‘Old World’, at the meeting point of Europe, Asia and Africa. It was in this region that, around 2000 BC, a tribe – the Hebrews – settled in the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Uniquely, in a world dominated by peoples believing in a multitude of gods, the Hebrews worshipped ‘one true God’ and saw themselves as a ‘chosen people’ to whom this God had given the land of Canaan (modern day Israel and parts of neighbouring countries). Over the following centuries, there were only relatively short periods when the Hebrews (Jews) were in control of this area. At various other times the land was controlled by the Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Romans. Rebellions against Roman rule starting in 66AD led to the persecution and displacement (diaspora) of the Jewish population, mainly to other parts of the Roman Empire.

 

The speaker continued by explaining that, in spite of being scattered throughout Europe and even as far as Central Asia and Ethiopia, the Jews never lost their sense of identity which was reinforced by their strong family ties and communal activities. Throughout history, from the first century AD, they were seen as being a race apart and were often persecuted by Christians and Muslims alike, with the most horrific of these events being the Holocaust of World War II when 6 million were killed in Nazi-occupied Europe.

 

Meanwhile, in spite of much of the Jewish population emigrating from Palestine, the remaining native Jewish population came under the control at various times of invading Arabs, Christian crusaders and, for several centuries, the Ottoman Turks. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the region (Palestine, Jordan and Iraq) was mandated by the League of Nations to Britain, with responsibility for the administration of these territories until 1948. By this time, a movement, Zionism – founded in the 1890s – had been pressing for the establishment in Palestine of a homeland for the Jewish people. Accordingly, on the expiry of the Palestine Mandate in 1948 the United Nations proposed that land be partitioned between Arab and Jewish states. This resulted in the formation of the state of Israel which involved the displacement – mostly to the West Bank and Gaza – of 750,000 Arabs (known in the Arab world as ‘Nakba’ – The Catastrophe) in the ensuing civil war.

 

Since then, there have been numerous conflicts in the region between an increasingly assertive Israel (with the unflinching support of the USA) and Israel’s Arab neighbours. So far, all attempts to reach a settlement of this seemingly endless state of mutual hostility have failed. The speaker outlined the ways in which a resolution could possibly be reached but, in view of the current situation in Gaza, the prospects of any of these succeeding has to be remote in the extreme.

 

Ron Enock and Roger Truscott

2nd January 2024

 

In the far northwest of Zambia, close to that country’s borders with Congo and Angola there is an apparently unremarkable sandstone ridge, Kalene Hill. Unremarkable, that is, until it is realised that it marks the source of one of Africa’s longest rivers, the Zambezi. From this point, the river flows for almost 2,600 km (1,600 miles) through Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia (again), Zimbabwe and Mozambique to its delta on the Indian Ocean. En route, it creates one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, known locally as ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’ (translated as ‘The Smoke that Thunders’, describing the effect, from a distance, of the spray rising above it). These are the Victoria Falls, so named – in honour of his Queen – by the first European recorded to have viewed them, the missionary and explorer David Livingstone.

 

The river and the engineering structures with which it is associated were the subject of today’s talk by club member, Alan Grant. One of the most famous of these structures described by Alan was the Victoria Falls Bridge, a steel arch across the gorge of the Zambesi immediately below the Falls where, according to the wishes of its instigator, Cecil Rhodes, “the trains, as they pass, will catch the spray of the Falls”. The original bridge was completed in 1905 but has subsequently been strengthened and adapted to include a road as well as the railway line. It is an important and busy crossing point between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

 

A much more recently built bridge is a combined road and rail structure, linking Zambia and Botswana at the site of a former ferry at Kazungula. This bridge, inaugurated in 2021, is notable for being curved in plan. It was designed on this alignment to avoid the nearby borders of Namibia and Zimbabwe.

 

Having discussed these two civil engineering features of the Zambesi, the speaker turned to another major structure, the Kariba Dam. Started in 1955 and completed four years later, this dam is 579m (1,900 ft) long, 128m (420 ft) high and has created the huge Lake Kariba upstream. Extending for 280km (170 miles) this is one of the world’s largest man-made lakes and provides the water needed for the two hydro-electric power stations incorporated in the dam. Unfortunately, the whole scheme is now suffering from a number of problems including the effects of drought on the availability of water to power the turbines in the power stations, aging machinery and equipment, and the danger of the dam itself becoming unstable through erosion of its foundations. Clearly, if the dam were to fail, the consequences downstream would be catastrophic but, thanks to the efforts of the international community, a project to strengthen these foundations, the Kariba Dam Rehabilitation Project (KDRP), is now under way and is scheduled to finish in 2025, no doubt to the relief of all concerned.

 

Alan Grant

5th December 2023

 

Deafness is a disability borne by a great number of people and, although it is usually associated with the elderly, it can often affect children and younger adults. Being an unseen condition, its sufferers can easily be ignored by the general public or even find themselves the subject of unsympathetic attempted humour.

 

Today’s speaker was club member Hugh Wright who described his own experience of lifelong deafness. From birth – and in spite of using a succession of hearing aids throughout his life – his condition deteriorated to the extent that he now relies on a cochlear implant. This is a small surgically implanted electronic device that bypasses acoustic hearing by direct electrical stimulation of the auditory nerve and can provide a sense of sound to people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. (On the attached photo, the external part of this device can be seen on the side of Hugh’s head, above and behind his ear).

 

The speaker opened his talk by describing the causes of hearing loss of which there are two main types – sensorineural (damage to the inner ear or hearing nerve, or both) and conductive (when a blockage, such as ear wax, stops sound passing from the outer ear to the inner ear). Age-related damage to the inner ear is the single biggest cause of hearing loss, which is mainly caused by the gradual wear and tear to the tiny sensory cells known as ‘hair cells’ in the cochlea. This is the hearing organ in the inner ear. Hugh continued by examining the ways in which the disability has been mitigated by the use of various types of hearing aids. The earliest devices were shaped like a trumpet which served to amplify the incoming sounds. These were of limited effectiveness but, in the late 19th century with the invention of the telephone, there was a move to the use of hearing aids whereby sounds were electronically boosted in volume to improve their ‘hearability’. With the later development of transistor and digital technology and the miniaturisation of electronic components in general, hearing aids have now become lighter and can be worn more discreetly, even within the ear itself.

 

As though to demonstrate that profound hearing loss need not necessarily prevent great achievements being accomplished, the speaker drew attention to a number of high-profile examples, such as the redoubtable MP, Jack Ashley, who fought tirelessly in Parliament on behalf of disabled people. In the world of music, Beethoven began losing his hearing in his mid-20s but, despite his increasing deafness, went on to compose some of his most celebrated works. And, in more recent times, we have witnessed how the percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, and the actress Rose Ayling-Ellis have overcome their disabilities in spectacular fashion.

Hugh Wright and Ron Enock

21st November 2023

 

This was the title of a today’s talk which was by Club member Ian Johnston, who had been a Director General in the Civil Service.

 

Ian explained that the label “mandarin” was originally applied 3,000 years ago, to members of the Chinese imperial administration, who were selected on merit, irrespective of class or connections.

 

Similarly, in 1854 the UK introduced selection by examination to a permanent politically neutral Civil Service, theoretically attracting the brightest and best from Oxbridge (mostly graduates in classics or PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economics]). By 1969, this was no longer seen to be appropriate, and admission was widened to include scientists and engineers, and to other universities. But sadly, even today, only 10% of mandarin recruits have studied “STEM” [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] subjects.

 

Ian, an atomic scientist, was one of the first to apply, choosing the Ministry of Labour, and specialising in industrial relations, then switching to policy on vocational education at the Manpower Services Commission. He recounted how Mandarins become experts in their subject areas, their many duties including drafting speeches for ministers, and answers to parliamentary questions. It was challenging but fun, with unsocial hours, sometimes not finishing in Parliament until after midnight. Most challenging was being grilled by Parliamentary Select Committees while broadcast live.  “Yes Minister” had exaggerated only slightly.

 

In the 1970’s the task was to advise Ministers who took the decisions, and were accountable for them; we had cabinet government and Parliament was supreme. Ian deeply regretted that this clear, relatively uncorruptible system had been seriously undermined by all political parties in recent years. The rot started when Mrs Thatcher introduced a presidential style Chief of Staff at No 10 as a political appointment. (No-one present could name the current post holder).  She also allowed some senior ministers to have Special political Advisers, (“SpAds”), often young Party enthusiasts, not appointed on merit. They can add a political slant to decisions that mandarins would not, and they can be a serious barrier to mandarin advice even reaching the Minister. SpAds can also insert their own advice, without the subject experience and expertise held by the mandarins in their Department of State. Mr Blair gave executive power to his Chief of Staff and to his spin doctor Alistair Campbell. Lord Cameron increased the number of SpAds, and today there are about 146 in Whitehall.

 

Ministers often know very little about their subject when appointed (as do their SpAds) and are frequently reshuffled. For example, there have been seventeen energy ministers in the last twenty years. Ministers sometimes head complex Departments with no prior experience of running anything, so their leadership can be very poor.

 

The Covid Inquiry is revealing that confusion seems to reign in a post-truth Westminster. SpAds, WhatsApp and sofa government are replacing cabinet government, and it is a priority not to be held accountable. Ministers’ focus is on ambitious easy announcements for short-term political gain, while the strategic problems facing the country are ignored. “Permanent” secretaries are sacked at will, and the media are speculating that the Government may make the top three grades of mandarin explicitly political appointments.

 

The speaker regretted all of this profoundly, and missed the values-based Whitehall of which he had previously been so proud, where evidence-based policy, objectivity, and impartiality had been prized.

 

Ron Enock and Ian Johnston

7th November 2023

 

Today’s speaker was one of our members, Kim Rainsford, who is Emeritus Professor of Biomedical Sciences at Sheffield Hallam University and is an internationally recognized expert in the field of analgesic and anti-inflammatory drugs. Throughout his career (which now spans more than 50 years) Kim has been involved in researching the safety and efficacy of these drugs and their side-effects. It has been in communicating his findings to fellow professionals and, correspondingly, learning about the discoveries of other scientists that he has become very much involved in the process of disseminating such information through the media of printed scientific journals and the internet. In particular, he has held the position of editor of a number of these publications, one of which goes by the seemingly complicated, but appropriately descriptive title of InflammoPharmocology – an aspect of medical science of special interest to Kim.

 

Over the course of his long career, the speaker has witnessed many changes affecting scientific publications. The advances in technologies have generally been of benefit, but more malign influences have started to appear, especially in the past two or three decades. Among these has been the increase in the amount of interference by some authorities and organisations eager to promote their own interests at the expense of accurate and serious research. Commercial pressures by publishers have tended to distort the balance of the articles and papers published. And the development of the internet has created many more opportunities for unscrupulous authors to plagiarise the work of others.

 

It is to tackle these challenges that editors, such as Kim, (and their colleagues) have to expend much time, effort and money in checking the integrity of the manuscripts submitted to them – a task that will only increase with the development of so-called artificial intelligence.

 

Ron Enock and Kim Rainsford