Blaming the wrinklies…enemies of the state, bleeding the country dry

CABINET ministers are said to ‘aaargh’ in exasperation when they receive a communication, written in trademark spidery scrawl and green ink, which is the imprimatur of Prince Charles with a fresh bee in his crown.

To many, the 64-year-old heir to the throne and famed tree-hugger appears a quirky, if not pernickety man, who punches far above his intellectual weight and has a penchant for sounding off despite convention dictating Royals stays above the political fray.

It probably irks his mum, a paragon of monarchy, no end, but The Queen probably long ago gave up the ghost of trying to rein in her gobby son.

At least, Charles normally restricts his meddling to matters rural and aesthetic.

He’s a huge fan of organic farming and would happily re-introduce Victorian values into British agriculture as he has tried to do throughout the dukedom of Cornwall.

Famed for its Duchy brand of foodstuff, not for nothing is Chas dubbed ‘The Prince of Biscuits’, giving Huntley & Palmers a good run for their Ginger Nuts.

Another hobbyhorse ridden by the man who would be king – even if he’ll be the oldest ascendant to the throne – is his contempt for modern architecture, best illustrated by his description of a then proposed extension to the National Gallery, in London, as a ‘monstrous carbuncle’.

However, in an uncharacteristic break with traditional fuming, PoW (Prince of Wales), as the Royal Protection officers codename him, recently took up the worthy cause of chastising pension fund managers for their ‘short-termism’ and appalling returns they deliver on investors’ £2-trillion of savings.

PENSIONERS'S CHAMPION: Prince Charles rapped pension funds for their poor performance

PENSIONERS’ CHAMPION: Prince Charles rapped pension funds for their poor performance

In a pre-recorded speech to the National Association of Pension Funds recent, annual conference, Chas, a newcomer to grandparenthood, griped the industry was ‘unfit for purpose’ and, if left unchanged, ‘your grandchildren – and mine for that matter – will be consigned to an exceptionally miserable future.’

Barring a revolution, I think PoW was overegging the hyperbole, since I can’t foresee a time when little Prince George – baptised last Tuesday – will suffer many deprivations, or, for that matter, any future scions of Chez Windsor.

But he’s bang on in the nailing private pension providers who, to put it mildly, have had it off with clients’ cash for too long, made some monumentally iffy judgement calls, yet consistently rack up high management fees on the basis of heads we win, tails you lose.

With only 45 per cent of UK retirees enjoying private pensions and 56 per cent in company schemes – in both instances, returns are often meagre – the fate of senior citizens has become one of the hot political potatoes in the run-up to Britain’s 2015 General Election.

However, there is a growing public perception that pensioners are frankly too feather-bedded, sitting in big houses they no longer need, propped up with winter fuel payments, free TV licences and gratis bus travel.

Far from being the generation on whose sweat and nous was built a vibrant economy – one frittered away by greedy City slickers and political vandals (i.e. G. Brown) – in some quarters the drift is towards a view that the elderly are an expensive drain on the nation’s squeezed resources.

What’s more they’re living far, too long, the thoughtless blighters!

NEVER HAD IT SO BAD: 1.2M pensioners are living in misery, under the poverty line

NEVER HAD IT SO BAD: 1.2M pensioners are living in misery, under the poverty line

Hence, the government’s plan to introduce a flat-rate, single-tier state pension worth £144 a week in 2016 has only fanned flames of resentment.

So, with students forking up to £9,000-a-year for degrees, high unemployment, an untold number of workers on ‘zero-hours’ contracts and wages pretty well stagnant, the hard-pressed can easily be lulled into believing that wrinklies are alright and far from living in plight.

Underscoring this, Coalition social mobility czar, Alan Milburn, claims older people could bankrupt the welfare state, because they’ve been spared the impact of austerity.

Benefits for the elderly need reviewing in order to make life easier for the young, says the former Labour Health Minister, who wants better-off pensioners stripped of their winter fuel allowances and subsidised telly-viewing.

Meanwhile, Norman Lamb, the misnamed Care Minister, absurdly implies pensioners with savings of over £23,250 were ‘quite wealthy’ and should run down their nest-eggs before being eligible for a scheme designed to prevent people from having to sell their homes to pay for nursing in their twilight years.

Fraser Nelson, a Daily Telegraph columnist, joins the OAP bashers, tarring Britain is a gerontocracy: a country run for the benefit of the aged, because they cast four in every 10 votes and have the power to decide an election.

NEVER HAD IT SO GOOD: Some critics think pensioner benefits are too generous

NEVER HAD IT SO GOOD: Some critics think silver surfer benefits are far too generous

So the vision of a lonely OAP, fending off the cold with layers of woollies, sipping Horlicks in front of a one-bar electric fire, is a fast fading, despite 1.2M of them languishing well below the poverty line.

What the naysayers forget, though, are statistics such as: out of the UK’s £718bn budget for 2014 – which includes a provision of £12bn for overseas aid – pensions will account for £144bn (approximately 20%) to cover one in six of the population now over 65.

Meanwhile, a high proportion of these wicked wrinklies still pay tax on auxiliary income – which, coupled with state pensions, takes them above the £10K Inland Revenue threshold – while some, working full or part-time to alleviate their penury, continue to fund the Exchequer.

Others, like stay-at-home mums and carers, don’t receive full state pensions if they haven’t kept up National Insurance (NI) contributions, regardless of the role they’ve played in relieving the state of added burdens.

And let’s not overlook the most glaring stat that an overwhelming majority of pensioners were in regular, full-time employment throughout their working years, paying tax and NI on their earnings, bringing up families, saving where they could and acting as responsible citizens.

Their repayment was supposed to be an inflation-linked pension they believed was a return on their investment from monies they’d paid the state, not some charity hand-out to be kicked around as a social or political football.

So let’s hear it for the pensioners…you might be one someday, if you aren’t already.

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The Queen is still the ace in Britain’s Royal pack

QUEEN ELIZABETH: Riding on the crest of a wave of positive publicity

QUEEN ELIZABETH: At 87, she’s riding on the crest of a wave of positive publicity

Over the years I’ve heard many impassioned pleas by republicans to axe royalty – not literarily, I assume, though I wouldn’t put it past some of the raving firebrands.

Predictably, they trot out the usual verbiage, like that voiced by a strident anti-monarchist in a BBC Newsnight debate last Monday, amid the euphoria celebrating the birth of Prince George of Cambridge, new, third man in the House of Windsor pecking order.

In summary, the woman – a Guardian columnist (surprise, surprise!) – insisted the monarchy was an anachronism; nobody was entitled to have a silver spoon thrust into their mouth from Day #1; most countries opted for a president; and it was all ‘yah-boo unfair.’

Ah, such is life. Because if fairness prevailed, I’d have won last week’s British Open Golf championship or be banking €350,000 a week, like Neymar, Barcelona’s new, Brazilian wunderkind, just for playing keepy-uppy with a spherical object.

Alas, alack or otherwise, some are born into privilege and a rare few become kings.

Meanwhile, having a good president – especially with executive powers, which British monarchs long since lost – is pretty much a lottery of deciding who the most plausible snake-oil salesman is.

And when presidents come to mind, so does the spectre of Richard Nixon and the slogan that immortalised his Tricky Dicky image: ‘Would you buy a used car from this man?’

Personally, I prefer a constitutional monarchy and, over the 61 years of her reign, The Queen has done an impeccable job, which is more than can be said for some of her kith and kin.

Even at 87, the gait now plodding, she exhibits wholehearted commitment to the cause of country, commonwealth and empire, albeit now reduced to a melange of sometimes contentious dependencies.

Ma’am suffered trials and tribulations, of course, none more than in her ‘annus horribilis’, 1992: Charles’ separation from Princess Di erupted into a public slanging match, Ann divorced and the tabloids had a right, royal photo fest with snaps of Andrew’s ex, Fergie, having her toes sucked by her ‘financial adviser.’

To cap it all, Windsor Castle caught fire and a priceless art collection was damaged.

Five years on, the Palace gaffed monumentally, utterly misjudging the national mood following Diana’s death. Against protocol, Prime Minister Tony Blair practically ordered the entire bunch back to London from Balmoral and drop the Buck House flag to half-mast, because the people demanded it.

TRICKY DICKY NIXON: 'Would you buy a used car from this man?'

PRESIDENT NIXON: ‘Would you buy a used car from this man?’ was the rhetorical question used to tar him with a Tricky Dicky image

Never before was the British monarchy’s stock so depleted and resurrecting it so costly. The Queen and Charles agreed to pay income tax, Buckingham Palace was opened to the hoi polloi to raise funds to repair Windsor and HM’s exes ( a.k.a. the Civil List) was slashed.

However, what resuscitated Royal fortunes was the advent of the Princes Charming, Wills and Harry – the heir thoughtful and sensitive, the ‘spare’, an endearing jack-the-lad.

William’s marriage to commoner Kate captivated the nation and now the birth of a son and future king has catapulted the British crown’s popularity to a new zenith (and how many kings will be able to claim their gran was a BA trolley-dolly and great-great granddad a coal miner?)

Still, the Guardianista-republican is right: the monarchy is an anachronism and probably the world’s juiciest, real-life soap opera – an everyday story of Royal folk – to boot.

That, though, is the way we like it. Because forensic analysis of Britain would inevitably conclude the country is an anachronism, too, miraculously and creakingly evolving like no place on earth.

Steeped in the trappings of centuries-old tradition and inclined to be socially conservative, Brits are mainly tolerant as a nation, though resentful of foreign interference and stoic in repulsing invaders. Hence, ruffling our plumage comes with a health warning.

Meanwhile, we’re obsessed with bemoaning the weather – hot or cold – and inventing games with rules so arcane only a handful of former colonies understand them (e.g. have you ever tried explaining cricket to a Spaniard?)

And, despite losing an empire on which once the sun never set, Britain continues to punch above its weight on the international stage, Perfidious Albion one moment, honest broker the next.

Unlike almost everywhere, we have no written constitution yet constantly defer to one; we also have an affinity for democracy, even if our politicians are often more quantity than quality.

Then there’s our relationship with Europe, best summarised by a 1930’s Times headline that pronounced, with telling understatement, ‘Fog in Channel – Continent cut off.’

But, then, we do inverted superiority rather subtly, which probably accounts for Britain’s semi-detachment from the EU and retention of the £ (no bad idea, in retrospect, given the Eurozone’s abject failings).

KATE AND WILLIAM: Now with baby George, they've given Britain's Royalty

KATE AND WILLIAM: Now with baby George, they’ve helped resuscitated the British Royal Family flagging fortunes

Meanwhile, underscoring our distinctiveness, we drive on the wrong side, have a taste for warm beer, don’t dress as foppishly as Italians, our national dishes are invariably fried and, in the publicly-funded BBC, we possess a self-appointed, liberally illiberal arbiter of the national conscience.

I could go on, but you get the drift.

So finally, let’s return to the Monarchy. And note the capital M this time, since there are countless kings and queens sprinkling the planet, but only one Monarchy the world sits up and really notices – the British one.

Others come and go almost unheralded, as Holland’s Queen Beatrix, 75, did in April, standing aside for her son, now King Willem-Alexander. And earlier this month, 79-year-old Albert II vacated the Belgium throne, replaced by his son, Phillippe.

Neither abdication caused much of a ripple and it would have been thus had Harald V of Norway, Sweden’s King Carl Gustav XVI or Queen Margrethe II of Denmark asked for their marching orders.

Meanwhile, King Juan Carlos – once feted for leading his country out of the dark age of dictatorship – must be eying Britain’s monarchy with undisguised envy, as a slew scandals rock Spanish royalty.

To those hankering for Britain to be a presidential republic, then, here’s a tip: visit Zimbabwe.

Ticketing shambles shames the Games

So far, so…er, iffy. Though die-hard loyalists will doubtless disagree, that’s probably a balanced, overall appraisal of the 2012 Olympics to date, with ticketing issues coming in for withering criticism, despite Seb Coe huffily dismissing all naysayers.

Team GB might have notched up only two medals in as many days (a silver and bronze, which leaves us trailing at 16th, behind Georgia, North Korea and Hungary), but it’s early doors and we’ll improve.

However, whatever the medal final tally, few will forget Danny Boyle’s quirky and uber-imaginative opening ceremony, which, on its own, was worthy of a stack of golds.

Crowns off, too, to The Queen, whose cameo role in it deserves a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for allowing herself to be quite literally ‘sent up’ (and I was particularly amused by Rod Liddle’s Sunday Times column, which carried a photo of a beaming Prince Charles with the quote-bubble, ‘Getting Mummy to jump out of a helicopter at 1,000 ft was my idea.’)

My main gripe (see previous post) is that far from being the People’s Games, this is turning into a corporate junket, spawning yet another ticketing fiasco and casting a shadow on the International Olympic Committee’s thin-skinned, heavy-handed insensitivity.

That the IOC has become so ultra-protectionist over its logo a humble donut/bagel seller was rapped for displaying five, interlocking, coloured rings in his shop window speaks volumes about how money-driven the governing body is.

And try using an ATM in the Games park with a credit card that isn’t a certain sponsor’s brand. ‘Proud to accept only Visa’ say signs over every cash dispenser, much to the ire of holders of other plastic.

Yes, I know, the IOC needs cash to exist, but it’s hardly a charity case. And it will cash in handsomely on the London extravaganza – to the tune of £700M, if reports are correct – and, so long as its copyright isn’t being cynically ripped off, a little light-touch policing of it that recognises the British public’s enthusiasm for the Games and patriotism wouldn’t go amiss.

The arch cynicism, in fact, mainly stems from sponsors and delegates of the ‘Olympic Family’ (or, to re-use Roy Keane’s famous euphemism: the ‘prawn sandwich’ brigade), whose no-shows are making a mockery of some competitions.

SPOT THE CROWD: A smattering of spectators at one Olympic venue – photo: http://www.morethanthegames.co.uk

Hence we see great, gaping gaps in the grandstands for events like the swimming – where the public have to pay up to £400 for the privilege of a seat – so a rent-a-crowd of uniformed squaddies, teachers and students needs to be drafted in to fill them.

One way or another, ticketing has been a serial blight on these Games and whatever Coe contends, the public will rightly demand an inquest on LOCOG, the London organising committee’s handling of the seats-for-sale shambles.

Why, for instance, did the ticketing website list the opening archery event at Lord’s Cricket Ground as ‘ticketless’?  Hundreds turned up, expecting free entry, only to be told ‘ticketless’ meant it was closed to spectators.

Meanwhile, though no fan of The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, I sympathise with her incredulity when she reported that seats for herself and her grandson at the opening ceremony would have set her back over £1,800.

Even the families of competitors are being snubbed at half-empty venues. As the Daily Mail reported this morning:-

Parents and friends of swimmers are said to have been refused entry to the aquatics centre, while relatives of tennis players have been unable to see matches at Wimbledon.

Similar problems have been reported at Eton Dorney for the rowing and the ExCel boxing venue, where parents have only been allowed entry after drawn-out negotiations.

Details of the mix-up emerged as organisers began handing school children front-row seats in a desperate bid to fill venues.

Organisers LOCOG revealed today that it had also taken some 3,000 Olympics tickets from international sporting federations and put them ‘back in the pot’ to be bought by members of the public.

London Mayor Boris Johnson says there had been discussion on ‘how to crack the ticketing problem’ when ministers met in the Cabinet Office this morning.

After the G4S security cock-up and the pre-Games ticket sales folly, the IOC and LOCOG appear barely credible chatelaines of their own Games if, once again, it falls to government to sort out an Olympic crisis.