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The Booker column

Posted by Richard Sunday, January 02, 2005

This week, in his column, Booker excels himself with a timely piece headed: "Do you recognise your rulers?"

With his peice accompanied by a photograph of the EU commission, he asks "How many of these faces of our government can you identify?", suggesting that a New Year resolution for 2005 might be for us all to recognise just where the government of our country now lies.

"If government is measured by who has the power to put forward the laws which rule our lives," he writes, "then to a great extent our rulers are not Tony Blair and John Prescott but the 25 commissioners of the European Union."

This really must be the theme for 2005 for, as our domestic politicians posture and prance, while the increasingly vapid media indulges in soap-opera politics, for want of addressing the real issues, power drains away to Brussels and the only response of that stupid, ignorant man Blair is to try and give away more powers through the EU constitution.

It is quite apposite, therefore, that Booker’s second story is about the long-running saga of the Shropshire firm run by Dr Per Lindstrand, the celebrated Swedish balloonist.

Until 15 months ago, Booker writes, Lindstrand Technologies in Oswestry was the world's leading manufacturer of aerostats, giant helium balloons, costing £500,000 each, which carry up to 30 people 500 feet into the air on a fixed wire.

In September 2003, when the right to certify aircraft was handed over to the EU's new European Aviation Safety Agency, it became illegal, thanks to a quirk in British law, for Dr Lindstrand's aerostats to be sold anywhere in the EU, including Britain. This handed over a monopoly of the market to Lindstrand's only rival, Aerophile, run by its French founder, Matthieu Gobbi, who publicly boasted that EASA had "decided to adopt as the European standard many of the regulations that I helped develop".

Unless Dr Lindstrand's aerostats could quickly be certified by the UK's Civil Aviation Authority, now little more than a front-office for EASA, he would be forced to lay off much of his 90-strong workforce, or even move his operations abroad. When this absurd situation was first publicised by his MP, Owen Paterson, and through this column, the chairman of the CAA, Sir Roy McNulty, promised that the problem would be resolved by Christmas 2003.

After a whole year of Kafkaesque prevarication by the CAA, during which Dr Lindstrand lost millions of pounds in potential orders while Aerophile mopped up the market, Mr Paterson and I again challenged this scandalous victimisation. We were promised, both by the CAA and by transport minister, Charlotte Atkins, that action would be taken.

Dr Lindstrand has now been informed that this month he will have a visit from officials of the CAA's Flight Test Department. As he points out in a letter to Sir Roy McNulty, "this is laughable as there is no flight test to be carried out". His aerostats don't even have a pilot, because they simply rise and fall on a fixed wire. What irks him even more, as he loses hundreds of thousands of pounds a month, is that Sir Roy recently made a speech accusing the EASA of being unable to "get their act together", because they lack sufficient technical expertise.

"In all my 28 years as a lighter-than-air manufacturer," says Dr Lindstrand, "I have never been treated so badly". Meanwhile his rival Aerophile continues to enjoy its lucrative monopoly – thanks to the EASA, whose regulations its managing director is proud "to have helped develop".

This, dear readers, is utter madness. In fact it is worse than madness. Here, demonstrated for all to see, it is the way power has drained away from our ministers so, when they are confronted with an outrage of this nature, all they can do is bleat from the sidelines while nothing at all happens.

It is instances like these that illustrate so well exactly what membership of the European Union means – that our ministers are eunochs and that any idea of democracy and accountability is a hollow charade.

Booker then moves on to a pertinent comment about the contrast brought out by reporting of the tsunami disaster. He notes that there have been two quite different ways by which people now try to convey the scale of such a terrifying phenomenon.

Those viewing it from a distance, such as seismologists, have all spoken solemnly of walls of water "six metres high" roaring "up to a kilometre" inland. However, those directly caught up in this awful experience have almost without exception talked of the sea "withdrawing several hundred yards", followed by "a wave 20 feet high", which filled rooms "to within a foot of the ceiling".

It is as if, he writes, that we now speak in two different languages: the language of ordinary folk, and that of the ruling elite, abetted by politically correct BBC hacks (although, initially, even one or two of these, in the excitement of the moment, forgot to observe the orthodoxies).

This is something which is ever more pervasive in our lives – something I was hinting at in my New Year piece, when I wrote that never more had I felt so out of tune with our government. There is a terrifying gap building up between "us" and "them", to the extent that we no longer even share the same language. That distance is dangerous. In might breed apathy and indifference in the short-term but the next stage is resentment and from there comes anger.

At least, however, we have a way of identifying the "enemy" – by their accursed metres and kilogrammes. Far from getting used to the metric system (or, at least the bastardised version in current use) I now regard it as the language of the occupying power.

For his final story, Booker picks up on a point raised earlier in this Blog, where we observed that while the response to the tsunami disaster was turning into some sort of obscene beauty parade, about who could be the most generous donor, the much-vilified US was getting stuck in with the most practical form of assistance – a carrier group and a fleet of amphibious assault ships.

As we watch our television sets today, we see stories of aid logjams, and stores piling up at the airports, with no means of delivery, while the people in real need are being succoured by local charities and – of all things – by US military helicopters.

The impression I am getting is that, as the NGOs and the relief agencies grind to a halt, the serious work is being progressively taken on by the militaries of the different countries, and by local governments and ordinary people.

When the immediate furore has died down, there must be a serious accounting of the way relief has been organised (about which my colleague will have more to say) but, for the moment, the point which seems to be emerging is that, for all the high-flown rhetoric of the "tranzies", when the chips are down, it is ordinary people and nation states which get things done.