Two Christmases ago, PD (Baroness) James gave the BBC's top management "what for" in a memorable Today programme interview with the director general, Mark Thompson. Now, listeners have a new baroness-heroine of similarly robust stamp. Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of the domestic security service, MI5, had the hardest of acts to follow as this year's joint Reith lecturer with the Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. But she has acquitted herself with aplomb – to the point where she has acquired a burgeoning appreciation society on Twitter, a medium into whose mysteries she cheerfully says her grandchildren will have to induct her.
Tweeting, though, does not seem quite the appropriate register for Manningham-Buller, who recorded her third and last lecture at the British Library on Monday evening. Once at the lectern, she reads her plain-English words in the sonorous and deliberate way she must once have presented reports on the nation's security. Before and after the serious set-piece, however, you glimpse a girlish, coquettish side reminiscent of a 16-year-old. She recalled a pre-lecture dream in which the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, instructed her to cancel it, lest she breach national security. She had divulged nothing secret, she said, indignantly. Did O'Donnell feature regularly in her dreams, the chairman asked. Only the once, she blushed.
What listeners find so refreshing about both baronesses, I imagine, is their willingness to tell it how it is in language we all understand, and with a consistency and firmness that says: that's where I stand; take it or leave it. In her lecture, Lady Manningham-Buller defended what in diplomatic shorthand is called "talking to terrorists" and noted sardonically that you couldn't spend your whole time talking to the Swiss.
In the question-and-answer session that followed, the former head of MI5 broke another few shibboleths. She questioned whether one of al-Qa'ida's demands before 9/11 – the removal of US bases from Saudi Arabia – was quite as out of the question as it had been seen. She was also asked to address the issue of torture. Already on record as opposing the use of torture, she was asked whether she opposed it even when it might save lives. Without any of the anguished prevarication liberals often evince when challenged with this standard counter-argument, she replied with a straight-down-the-line "Yes".
Perhaps not so digitally divided, after all
In a regrettable development, Westminster Council has shut down its one-stop shop for services at City Hall as part of its economy drive. In a way you could see it coming. When first introduced, the one-stop shop did actually make people's lives easier. A year or so ago, the quality of service declined. They'd had a grand refurbishment that entailed a swanky new office layout and exiled the library to the first floor. You can't really "drop in" upstairs, so the library is to close, and now the one-stop shop, too. A notice on the door (how old-fashioned!) says that most business can be transacted via forms downloaded from the internet. Oh yes?
The migration of public services to the internet is what central government is aiming for, too. It suggests that vast sums could be saved if even 30 per cent of operations were conducted online. Cue laments – from the Digital Tsar, Martha Lane Fox, and others – about the "digital divide" that supposedly means the very people who need such services most will be excluded because of their unfamiliarity with the web.
I'm not so sure about that. Remember the young rioters swapping battle logistics by BlackBerry? I submit that they could access their benefits, and their court appointments, the same way if required. Even the age divide is surmountable. Email and webcams and internet shopping are boons for the less mobile, and younger relatives will happily show them how, just as they once programmed the DVR.
But the pluses of internet communication need to be weighed against both convenience and human contact. If your particular inquiry isn't envisaged on the website, it's back to the phone, and the recorded messages, and the interminable waits. It may not be in my lifetime, but I'd lay a bet that the one-stop shop will be back.
New Europe settles back into an old groove
The countries of the former Soviet bloc have never really liked to be called "new Europe", and – with its undertones of parvenu – who can blame them? But if the term was ever justified, it is becoming less and less so. I've just spent an engaging couple of days in Krynica, a southern Polish spa town that aspires to be Central Europe's Davos – a sports resort and conference centre. And what struck me there was not only how distant the bad old days of communism seemed, but how the fragmentation of 20 years ago has been replaced by a new convergence.
Krynica is in the Carpathian mountains. Slovakia is only a few kilometres to the south, with the Czech Republic a bit further to the west; Hungary, Ukraine and Romania are not so far away. During the Cold War, these countries might have been part of the same trade and security system, but they were crossly corralled inside their own borders. With all but Ukraine now in the EU, distinct national identities flourish; so does cross-border trade and travel.
It's newly fashionable to argue that the world is not nearly as globalised – except in very specific ways – as is often believed. Even now, most people do not move or even travel very far. Regionalism is where the new world is at. And what's happening in this part of Europe bears that out: the revival of a common tradition and sense of belonging: the restoration of a 21st century Austro-Hungary before our very eyes.