Sha La La La La La La La

Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la

When the day is dawnin’
On a Durham Sunday mornin’
How I long to be there
With Mary who’s not drivin’ me there
We drove from the City to be near my dad
Ain’t it just a pity down there things are bad?

Is this the way to Barnard Castle?
My eyes are poor and I’m such an arsehole
Foggy dreams of Barnard Castle
And I can’t see what waits for me.
Show me the way to Barnard Castle
I made my name bein’ such a rascal
Dyin’ to see Barnard Castle
And I can’t see what waits for me.

Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
And I can’t see what waits for me.

Rules are just for peasants
And today it’s opening presents
For the sweet Mary here
As for me, I can hardly see her!
So let’s hit the highway
Mind that open drain!
Always do it my way
Time and time again…

Is this the way to Barnard Castle?
It’s Mary’s treat: I forgot her parcel
It’s thirty miles to Barnard Castle
And I can’t see what waits for me.
Show me the way to Barnard Castle
The rest of you can kiss my arsehole
Lyin’ over Barnard Castle
And I can’t see what waits for me

Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
And I can’t see what waits for me.

Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
And I can’t see what waits for me.

Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la
And I can’t see what waits for me.

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Tories’ Triple Betrayal

75 years after the end of World War II in Europe, the Johnson government is inviting the people of Britain to “celebrate” the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany. So, what kind of “victory” has that turned out to be?

I quote just one statistic at this point, coronavirus deaths (as of yesterday): Germany 7277; UK 30,076. For comparison, population sizes are Germany 80 million, UK 66 million. So, per capita, the death rate differences are even larger. And Germany’s pandemic started a couple of weeks earlier than the UK’s.

So, if our Government had managed the outbreak as well as the Germans’, pro rata, we would have 24,000 fewer deaths. So, who is to blame? I will argue below, the answer is Tories, Tories and Tories.

Three Waves

Spanish Flu 1918-19

The Spanish Flu pandemic (which, incidentally, wasn’t Spanish) occurred in three distinct waves with the second worse than the first. The graph above clearly illustrates this point. (NB: the figures along the lower axis are dates: shown, rather confusingly, in US “semi arse about face” month/day format.) It is mainly because Wave 2 was biggest, reinforced by current epidemiologists’ modelling, that the Government is being cautious about lifting the current lockdown restrictions.

I argue below that, similarly, our present predicament comes about as a result of Tory Governments’ mismanagement and bad policy making, also in three distinct waves. As a result, the country was far less prepared than it could – or should, in my view – have been.

Wave One: 1980s and Thatcher

My wife has just delivered a load of face masks and headbands she has sewn for use by frontline staff in the fight against the pandemic. This is all too reminiscent of the pre-Industrial Revolution period in the late 18th and early 19th century. People spinning and weaving cloth in their own cottages. So, what accounts for our apparent regression?

Wave One and the first betrayal were started forty years ago by Margaret Thatcher.  She may be remembered for a number of things. For now, I will concentrate on three: monetarism, anti-Trade Union legislation and the City Big Bang deregulation.

The graph below shows the trend during the 18 years of Thatcher and Major Government. The steep drop in the period 1979 to 1982 is mainly associated with the Tories’ flirtation with monetarism. For a period, this was treated almost like a religious belief within Tory ranks and was responsible for the needless destruction of many jobs, particularly in manufacturing. The second steep drop around 1990-91 was at the time Thatcher was ousted and replaced by John Major. Although the primary causes of this recession were global, civil unrest and rioting occurred in such diverse places as Birmingham, Oxford, Tyneside, Cardiff and Bristol.

Manufacturing jobs decline

The second factor was the anti-Trade Union legislation passed during the Thatcher period. A fairly neutral account is found here. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that this started a long period of change from relatively secure and well-paid manufacturing jobs to the insecure zero hours and sham self-employment we see today. The people in this insecure workforce are really at the sharp end of current lockdown policies. The “treat them like shit” attitude, too prevalent in today’s employment practices, was an inevitable result of weakening the countervailing power of the Trade Unions.

The third factor was the so-called Big Bang. In the prevailing orthodoxy of the time – still largely present in today’s Johnson cabal of True Believers – the financial centre in the City was “liberated” from the old-fashioned practices of yore. As a result, financial services grew in parasitic fashion into the monster we see today, with its abuse of power and prevailing attitude of personal greed. I covered this topic in more detail in my 2015 post The City: Paragon or Parasite? Its general thesis is that what’s good for the City is generally bad for the rest of us. “The rest of us” includes those trying to make a living from manufacturing.

The upshot of all this is our over-reliance on imported goods (such as panic-bought substandard PPE flown in from Turkey by the RAF). A weakened manufacturing base has left us dangerously vulnerable in times of need on items such as ventilators, PPE, testing kits: all the things that the government is still playing catch-up on, 2 to 3 months after they should have been aware of the seriousness of the threat from coronavirus.

This constitutes the Tories’ first betrayal of the people of Britain: the 40-year weakening of our capacity to make the things we need in times of crisis. (A possibly similar argument could be made about the food we eat, but that’s another story.)

Wave Two: Decade of Austerity 2010-2020

Wave Two and the second betrayal cover the last 10 years of Tory-led government and the Osborne-led religion of austerity. A nation was persuaded to believe that the New Labour government was responsible for the 2008 global recession and the solution was austerity. Translated this means punishing the weakest and poorest in society whilst letting those responsible – organised finance – to escape scot free. Despite some eye-watering spending announcements by Rishi Sunak, many of the tenets of austerity are still in place in the mind set of Johnson and his gang.

What concerns us here is the cumulative effect of austerity over the last 10 cruel years: the graph below shows the trend. The overall figures disguise the fact that local government has been squeezed even harder (by 40%) than public spending overall. And, of course, apart from the last few desperate weeks, NHS spending was frozen (in real terms) for much of the decade.

Decline in public sector

In the 2010s, the government split Public Health from the NHS and then (as I said above) squeezed local government very hard. Casualties would be care homes, public health resources and support services for vulnerable and disabled people. Cuts in benefits, including for those with disabilities, have weakened our collective resilience further.

A new and shocking example has emerged with the past 24 hours. During the years of austerity, Channel 4 News has revealed that 45% of PPE stock was allowed to get out-of-date. This includes 80% of respirators. In 2009, following an outbreak of swine flu, £500m was spent building up a national pandemic stockpile. Channel 4 “has also obtained evidence suggesting the stockpile had shrunk significantly over the last ten years, while the UK’s population continued to grow.” In short, we were less prepared for pandemic than at the end of the last Labour government.

To make matters worse, the government was forewarned. In 2016, Exercise Cygnus simulated an influenza-type pandemic and predicted that the health service would collapse through a lack of resources. The Daily Telegraph reported one government source as saying that the results of the simulation were “too terrifying” to be revealed. Eventually, the Guardian leaked the findings (redacted to exclude sensitive personal information) on 7 May this year.

In summary, Tory led government policy decisions weakened the UK’s preparedness for a corona-type pandemic systematically and repeatedly over the last 10 years under the cover of austerity. Income and health inequality widened over the same period, leaving the most vulnerable even more so.

This is the Tories second betrayal of its people.

Wave Three: Johnsonian Dogma 2020

And so we turn to the recent past with Johnson as Prime Minister. The story doesn’t get any better.

All but the most stupid and the most ideologically zealous supporters of Government policy – the two groups are not mutually exclusive – have noticed by now that the government was asleep at the wheel in the weeks before the pandemic took off. World Health Organisation warnings as early as January were ignored. WHO advice to do “testing, testing, testing” was similarly dismissed by a government that was riding on a wave of hubris following the UK’s “departure” from the EU on 31st January.

Despite Ministers’ untruthful denials, it was UK Government policy right up to 20:00 on 23rd March that “herd immunity” was the best approach, making the UK an outlier in Governments’ approach to the pandemic around the world. Then we had the “screeching U-turn” and lockdown. By this time, of course, it was too late. It has been a game of catch-up ever since. Oh, and repeated instances of over-promise and under-deliver: on PPE, testing, contact tracing, whatever.

Conservative dogma had led to an over-reliance on the private sector and the bypassing of expertise in local government and other local arms of the public sector. A good, i.e. bad, example was last Thursday when Health Secretary Matt Hancock crowed that his “100,000 tests” target had been met. This was only achieved if you count test kits posted out (but clearly not yet used) on that day. Also the army was called in to set up “mobile testing centres”. In one instance for which I have an impeccable source, the local authority had not been forewarned of the army’s arrival and “caused chaos”. It seems that at one point, random people were approached in the street and offered at test. And all to meet a politically motivated target. Following the science, my arse! And, as we well know, in the days since, on at least 5 occasions, the number of actual daily tests have fallen well below 100,000.

Other countries have done better, and more consistently, than the UK. And another thing. Local GPs and Public Health officials around the country have NOT been given geographically-based test results numbers, essential for the next phase of tracking clusters and tracing contacts. Perhaps this is because the government handed the contract for manging testing to Deloittes – yes, that Deloittes, one of the accountancy and consultancy big four who have repeatedly failed, big time, to spot companies on the brink of going bust. The system for getting feedback from Deloittes to key local expertise doesn’t exist yet.

This illustrates a continuing weakness in the Government’s approach: too much is attempted to be run from the centre and/or by private companies with no relevant experience, rather than use expertise in local authorities. So, even as I write, the Government continues to screw things up, avoidably.

The third wave of government betrayal continues, unquestioned by a loyal and sycophantic press (with the honourable exception of the Guardian).

 Celebrate?

And so to today’s bread and circuses. We are invited by those who govern us to celebrate an event which happened before 99% of us were born. By inference, even to applaud our government’s “success” as Johnson called it on Monday. Try telling that to the grieving families of the 24,000 individuals, disproportionately black, brown and poor, who have died too soon thanks to Conservative government failures over the past half a century.

Citizens of Britain: you reap what you sow.

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Behind the Shield

Day 33 of shielding. Here’s a collection of pandemic-related thoughts.

shield

Good Deeds, Bad Deeds

Politically speaking, Boris Johnson has only ever committed one good deed. That was to catch a moderately severe case of coronavirus, and recover. When Johnson is fit to return to work – and he is fully entitled to a period of recuperation in line with medical advice – perhaps, just perhaps, we may all benefit from his experience. We can only hope that he has learnt to be a little less cavalier with the nation’s health, having been close-ish* to death himself. The idea of Johnson being a voice for caution is truly bizarre, but then stranger things have happened in these past few weeks.
(* We may not know for a long time just how close he was. The idea that anything that may emerge from Number Ten’s spokesperson bears any resemblance to the truth is just plain fanciful.)

In all other respects, Johnson has been a disaster in all phases of his adult life.

  1. As a journalist, Johnson’s utter indifference to the difference between truth and lies has caused real and lasting harm. His spell as the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent in the 1990s is an obvious case in point. Almost single-handedly, he invented a whole series of myths (lies, in plain speaking) about the EU and its workings. This laid the foundation for the disaster of the 2016 referendum result. Under his editorship of The Spectator, a thousand far-right poisonous columns were encouraged, further polluting the political discourse in the UK.
  2. As London mayor, he first took the glory for all the hard work done by his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, in the 2012 London Olympics. As mayor, he was lazy, never on top of the detail and despised by the majority of GLA staff – information from a former GLA staffer. His tenure was all photo-opportunities (see, for example, Turd On the Wire), no substance (except for a legacy of failed vanity projects: Boris Island, Garden Bridge, etc.).
  3. So is it any surprise, then, that these same deep personality traits have been repeated during his months as Prime Minister? Missing five Cobra meetings is unprecedented – to use a much-overworked word in these times. So add “holidays” to “photo-opportunities” to the previous paragraph.

So, no. I can’t think of a single thing to add to the “good” pile apart from falling ill.

Clowns and Pygmies

And don’t get me started on the sick, sick, joke laughingly called the UK’s Cabinet.

I have to keep pinching myself to remember that the de facto acting Prime Minister is one Dominic Raab. Raab: a man so far out of his depth that even the Mariana Trench doesn’t cut it as a metaphor. Raab: a man so useless he didn’t make it into the last round of voting for Tory leader last year. And the rest of the Cabinet, too rubbish to be worth remembering their names, are just a ragbag of zealots and yes-men (and a smattering of women).

We should never forget that Johnson chose his team on the basis of loyalty to the cause of Br*xit: courtiers and sycophants at the Court of the Man Who Would Be World King. Not one single member of the Cabinet was chosen on the basis of their knowledge, skills or even basic competence to do the job.

One Grownup in the Chamber

Which brings us to the one grownup in the room. Or at least in the chamber of the House of Commons. I cannot begin to describe my relief that, at long last, we have an effective, intelligent and capable Leader of the Opposition. By all accounts Kier Starmer wiped the floor with Raab at PMQs in the Commons last week. He struck just the right tone and balance between supporting the Government’s efforts to combat the pandemic and forensic examination of their many errors. It’s reasonable to expect those who govern us to be held to account, not least because (with honourable exceptions) the media are doing such a piss poor job of it.

To be fair to the BBC, critical and intelligent analysis does get airtime, even in the BBC’s news bulletins and high marks to Emily Maitlis and Newsnight for some sharp reporting. I look forward as various members of the Shadow Cabinet – not least David Lammy, of whom I’m a big fan – get more fully to grips with their briefs. Good decision making and competent governance depend upon good Opposition.

(Non-) Testing Times

The woeful lack of Government preparedness and lack of attention to warnings in the January to early March period is now becoming clearer. The lies, cover-ups and attempts to shift goalposts and rewrite history undermine our trust in those in whom we must perforce place it. Ten years of austerity has left the public realm in a weakened state – but some of the catching up has been quite impressive. The problem is that it is the heroic efforts of thousands, possibly millions of ordinary workers – many low paid – which are putting right the policy failures of years of Tory rule.

The worst fears of ventilator shortages and hospital ICUs becoming overwhelmed seem to have passed – for now. But the continuing struggle for PPE remains a national disgrace and an international laughing stock. Ministers and senior officials have given at least four versions of the reasons behind the UK failing to participate in joint EU purchasing schemes. So we know that at least three of them are lies. A recurrent theme of over-promising and under-delivering is wearing thin the nation’s patience.

As a member of the “shielding” fraternity, I await evidence of any Government thinking on an exit strategy. Do I really have to stay at home until there’s a vaccine or effective treatment?

Worshippers at the Shrine of Science

The UK Government’s repeated mantra of “following The Science” obfuscates the glaring fact of the UK repeatedly not following WHO advice. Rules for the wearing of PPE change depending on the level of supply shortages, so, in this aspect at least, “following The Science” is a lie. The secrecy surrounding the membership of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) committee and the revelation that the mad zealot SPAD Cummings has made several appearances further undermines the Government mantra. And as anyone with any insight into things scientific knows, “The Science” is always uncertain, tentative, confusing and sometimes contradictory.

So WHOSE science Ministers are influenced by is of utmost importance. The screeching U-turn on 23rd March when “herd immunity” was dropped in favour of lockdown is the most obvious example so far. This was the day when one lot of scientists were so alarmed at government policy that they actually shouted loud enough to be heard over the siren songs of the behavioural scientists who had hitherto held the Prime Minister’s (short-spanned) attention.

Public Health Announcement

Finally, talk of short attention spans brings me inevitably to the one country which is making a bigger mess of this than the UK: the United States of America. So, in the best traditions of Public Health Announcements, here’s my contribution.

Want to cure yourself of the coronavirus? Just follow these easy steps.

  1. (a) Procure yourself a sun-bed or (b) travel to one of your own resorts or golf courses in a hot, sunny part of your country.
  2. If (b), find a lounger in a sunny spot.
  3. Pour yourself a long, cool glass of bleach or household disinfectant. (As you are American, try not to put too many ice cubes in your glass, as this will dilute the beneficial effects.)
  4. Ask a minion to get you a powerful light source: an industrial strength laser is ideal.
  5. Settle comfortably on the sunbed or lounger.
  6. Shine the light source directly onto your oversized abdomen (ignore any burning smells).
  7. Drink the contents of the glass in one go.
  8. Lie back and relax, contented with how much joy you have just brought to the world.

Health warning: do NOT attempt this at home, unless your name is Donald Trump.

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Gove in the Time of Corona

And so it has come to this.

Last Monday, Michael Gove stood in for the self-isolating Boris Johnson at the No. 10 pandemic briefing session. The country found itself dependent on the most duplicitous, scheming Cabinet Minister to explain the current situation and to tell us what the Government – collectively the most incompetent in my lifetime – is doing to tackle the outbreak. And yet we have no choice but to – sort of – believe he is speaking the truth.

Playing Catch Up

testing for coroavirus
Testing…

There’s wide agreement, including in some traditional Tory supporting newspapers, that the government screwed up its handling of the crisis, at least in the first few weeks. So the UK has been playing catch up since Johnson’s U-turn on 23rd March. The lack of testing kits and ventilators are the two most glaring examples. But the food supply industry, and in particular the supermarkets, have not exactly bathed themselves in glory. The government seems to be still too ideologically inclined to believe that the private sector can do more to adapt than is actually the case.

We’re in the psychologically disturbing phase where all the key numbers, and in particular deaths, are still rising daily. It helps me personally not to over-obsess on them. I also look out for good news stories to act as some kind of reassurance. As “MD” in the latest Private Eye points out, since January 1st, 159,987 people have died in the UK, 158,759 from causes other than the coronavirus – and therefore not newsworthy. (I guess the article was written on Monday: the numbers have changed, but the broad point still stands.) It’s clearly important that we keep a sense of proportion in all this. I’m sure that’s a struggle for a lot of people, including me at times. I’m hoping that the fear factor, which affects behaviour such as panic-buying, will subside, once the numbers start to stabilise and then subside.

Irrelevant

It’s a tragedy for the country that the Labour Party has boxed itself into a corner of irrelevance as a result of the extraordinarily extended self-indulgence – as it now feels – of a leadership contest. The result is due to be announced later today as I write. Everybody expects Keir Starmer to win. It would be great if he and other talented Labour Party leading figures were invited to join a government of national unity, at least until the crisis is over. Stranger things have already happened in the past two weeks, announced mainly from the lips of the new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. He’s the only Cabinet member who has emerged in this crisis for whom I have any grain of respect. He has been clear in his announcements, bold in some decision making and shown a willingness to rethink as new information emerges – or there’s a strong backlash from sections of the community: small businesses, for example.

There’s a sense in which the people and the formerly hated “experts” have pushed the government away from a disastrous policy stance up to 22nd March into something more in line with what is needed. There’s a wish in the air that somehow, sometime, we may all end up living in a kinder, fairer world when this is all over. But any further thoughts on that must wait for another time.

Testing, Testing

I think we all agree that the key to getting out of this is testing. That’s both much more testing for live coronavirus cases, starting with all frontline NHS staff, and a reliable, easy-to-use antibodies test kit to retrospectively test those who’ve had symptoms but has not yet been positively tested owing the current lack of kits. Matt Hancock has promised 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. We, the people, aided and abetted by the right politicians and the media, must hold his feet to the fire to deliver on this one.

Stay safe, stay well.

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It Never Rains…

…but it pours, so the saying goes.

Whilst this may be referring to the record levels of rainfall in February, it also refers to the relentless pace of news items which follow one another, each one would be headline news in quieter times.

Coronavirus

Coronavirus

At the time of writing this piece, worldwide there have been reported 107,000 cases and over 3600 deaths from the coronavirus epidemic. The corresponding figures for the UK are 319 confirmed cases and 3 deaths. By way of comparison, UK Public Health figures quote a low of 1700 and a high of 23,000 deaths in the UK each year from boring old winter flu. So, should we be concerned? Yes and no, I say!

A week or two ago, the main COVID-19-related story seemed to feature some bored Brits in a Canary Island hotel. But the virus has made the idea of a cruise holiday look a whole lot less attractive. Cruise ships seem to be ideal incubating areas for catching the bug. The ships now seem more like floating prisons with inadequate medical facilities.

Floods

Floods

With the record rainfall came the floods, spread fairly widely across the country (except, perhaps South East England). We did have a bit of flooding on one of our regular dog walking footpaths, but that’s as bad as it’s got around here. I see the insurance companies are quoting a bill of £360m in insurance claims for the clear up – probably an underestimate as all claims won’t have been processed yet and homes are still drying out.

Now Johnson has promised extra cash for flood defences: an extra £2.6bn over a 6 year period to 2021. And yet, this will hardly make up for the flood defence budget cuts during the period of austerity. Flood defence spending was cut sharply under George Osborne’s chancellorship after a period of increases under New Labour. And, of course, the climate emergency means that the risk of severe flooding is increasing year by year. Flood defences are just one of many examples of the “lost decade” of underfunding in the past ten years.

Oh, and Johnson finally made it to one flood-hit area in Worcestershire over the weekend – 22 days after the event. He was heckled during his visit: someone called him “traitor”. Tough.

Hardball

I read a week or so ago that one of the new intake of Tory MPs said she was “pleased” to see the UK “play hardball” in its posturings before EU trade negotiations started last Monday. Some of the statements made by our chief negotiator, the unelected official David Frost, seem intended to piss off the EU negotiating team. Some of Frost’s and Johnson’s statements appear to contradict undertakings in the withdrawal agreement Johnson pushed through Parliament late in 2019. On top of the three and a half years of dithering before “settling” our negotiating position, the UK now firmly looks like a country whose (legally binding) word cannot be trusted. It’s a very poor position, in my view, especially when you’re outnumbered 27 to one.

So what else has emerged on the UK government’s position? Well, we seem to want to get out of everything with “European” in its name, regardless of the harm it does to our interests. Southampton has already lost the Medicine Standards Agency and the skilled jobs that go with it. Students are likely to miss out if the UK pulls out of Erasmus+, as seems likely. There’s to be no cooperation either on data sharing in the EU’s virus epidemic early warning scheme or in aircraft safety. So dogma and anti-EU prejudice win out over saving lives. What a charming bunch this government is!

I was less than thrilled to learn that the UK will be recruiting 50,000 extra border staff to help lorry drivers and businesses to fill out all the extra forms needed once we leave the customs union. That 50,000 roughly equals the shortages of doctors and nurses in the NHS. Or to put it another way, four times more people to fill in customs forms than the 12,000 people working as fishermen in the whole of the UK fishing industry.

Overreach

I do have two small positive thoughts amidst all the gloom. The first is based more on hope than experience. Surely, I contend, more people will slowly catch on to the sheer overreach and hubris of the most incompetent and useless Cabinet in my lifetime. Ministers have been chosen on the basis of loyalty to the cause rather than aptitude for the job. A good argument is made about the usefulness of dissent in Cabinet as a means of improving the quality of decision making in this article by Ian Dunt. The same author also goes into more detail than I have done about the “laziness and ineptitude” of the Government.

Add to this some basic truths. Practically all “experts” of every type (teachers, economists, food and health professionals, to name a few), a clear majority of university graduates and most business leaders oppose the government’s plan to leave the EU, especially on the (no) terms now emerging. And I can’t resist this rather uncomfortable thought as the statistics make clear. If the coronavirus outbreak really takes off, it will lead to the deaths of far more Leave than Remain voters. The 53% lead for Remain in recent polls will be extended further by the Grim Reaper.

So, how long will it be before reality bites and leads to collapse of this insane project led by Johnson? It can’t come soon enough and, in a grim way, the coronavirus outbreak may bring this about sooner.

The Return of Experts

Professor Chris Whitty

I said I have two positive thoughts. The Cummings / Johnson policy (the order of the previous words is important) to ban Ministers’ appearance on flagship BBC programmes seems to be crumbling with the spread of the virus. And, following his spell of hibernation, Johnson’s address to the nation on the outbreak last week saw him flanked by two “experts”: the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser. We are quickly learning that it’s experts we trust in times of crisis.

And no wonder. On viewing the video of Johnson’s speech and those of his two experts, I was struck by how much more convincing Chris Whitty in particular was than Johnson himself. The latter’s body language was revealing: he looked like someone who wished to be anywhere else than where he was then. It was a similar story when he was expressing his condolences to the family of one of the victims: insincerity oozed out of every pore: watch the first 10 seconds of this video to see what I mean:

Or as cartoonist Steve Bell put it last week more succinctly: Johnson’s plan is “Wash Hands. Go Home. Die.”

Give me Chris Whitty any day rather than Dominic Cummings as our de facto Prime Minister. Our lives may depend on it.

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Stepping Stones

Away from the madness that is current UK politics, this post is about empathy: the human quality which enables us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It’s mostly used for morally good reasons, but can be misused.

A Leap

Stepping stones

Having empathy for another person requires us to take a sort of leap: of imagination, of trust. It’s a bit like jumping across a fast-flowing stream from one stepping stone to another. Empathy comes easily to those we describe as “caring” types – for others, it’s much harder. Extreme examples of the latter would be those exhibiting autistic or narcissistic characteristics. To use our stone-jumping analogy, the autistic person has poor jumping skills and needs to try harder; the narcissist simply doesn’t see the need, and so lacks all motivation.

Way back in 2015 at the start of my blogging, I made two attempts to define the most basic attributes which make us human. The first effort, Being Human: it’s Easy as C,C,E! didn’t capture it right. So I had a second go a week later in Being Human II: The Four Cs. Unfortunately, the way these two posts are written means that you need to read both to get the whole picture. But, in essence, the four Cs are Compassion, Conscience, Curiosity and Competition. Psychologically healthy human beings have a reasonable balance of these four attributes. The first two: Compassion and Conscience, tend to be emphasised by those on the left politically, the latter two: Curiosity and Competition, by those on the right.

In my first try, the “E” in “CCE” is Empathy. This concept turns out to be trickier than I first thought and I was made to think again by comments received.

Good Empathy

Fortunately for the human race, this turns out to be, by far, the more common type. But first let me explain: by “good” and “bad” I am referring to the motive of the empathic person. Empathy itself is morally neutral, even if applied for morally good motives in the majority of cases. Good empathy, that well-intentioned leap of imagination, is the stepping stone to a whole lot of possible good outcomes. A better understanding between the two individuals and sympathy and comfort for the receiver are two of the most obvious. Society as a whole benefits by better understanding and, to make a leap in my argument, fewer wars and conflicts result. (The late, great Douglas Adams had an amusing counter-argument based on the idea of the Babel Fish).

Bad Empathy

Sadly, there is a Mr Hyde to the Dr Jekyll of empathy. Psychopaths, grooming gangs and similar types exploit the human propensity to empathize for their own nefarious motives. A period of grooming often precedes other more exploitative acts, usually of a sexual nature. The clever and subtle ways in which exploiters use human empathy to draw in their victims is one reason that such crimes are often hard to detect and slow to eradicate.

Victims may be reluctant to report misconduct following an extended period of feeling empathy. For particularly vulnerable individuals, such faked, exploitative empathy may be the strongest emotional relationship that person has experienced. That’s what makes misused empathy so heartbreaking to see.

In modern parlance, you could say that the natural human instinct for empathy has become weaponised for nefarious purposes. Misused in this way, empathy is a destroyer of the sum total of trust in the world.

Spoilers

On a more general point, it is the destroyers of trust between human beings who disproportionately screw things up for the rest of us. An extreme example would be acts of terrorism. It is they who are almost wholly responsible for modern societies’ irritations such as the security procedures at airport terminals. Expect to see more of this in other public venues now that the government plans to put a statutory duty of care on managers of public places such as concert halls. I feel this is a mixed blessing: tedious and inconvenient for the mass of us but, sadly, on balance, probably necessary.

All the extra “security questions” involved in accessing online banking and other services of all kinds is a result of this destruction of trust (by the few on the many) and a depersonalisation of services in general. Faceless call centres replace face-to-face transactions between people. Industrial scale money-laundering and tax evasion results in a society where the majority are inconvenienced but the rich perpetrators still largely get away with their crimes.

More disturbingly, the whole area of child protection and safeguarding was brought into stark relief by those who have abused their position of trust. The activities of Jimmy Savile and his like cast a long shadow.

Carry On Empathising

Back to more cheerful thoughts: empathy evolved over tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of years as a key factor in enabling human societies to function. Empathy is a natural, and mostly positive, instinct. So, whilst being ever alert to those who would abuse our trust, carry on empathising! Walk out on those stepping stones of empathy: of understanding another person better. It’s part of what makes us human.

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Zeroes and Villains

The awfulness of the new Cabinet is unprecedented in my lifetime. The embarrassment of viewing the moment in their first meeting when Johnson did his “call and reply” bit was beyond all reason. For those who may have missed it, the British Prime Minister asked a series of questions which elicited a series of answers, based upon the fictitious number of hospitals they will build, the number of new nurses, and so on. Every answer was a lie, based upon the Tory propaganda previously announced in recent weeks.

cabinet meeting
Zeroes and Villains

In my December 2019 post Dog Days there was a section titled Tories Old and New. Johnson sacked the more sensible members of his party before the election, or they chose not to stand again (or both). This meant the new batch of Tory MPs are either spineless, unprincipled yes-men and women or rabid “true believers” in the cause of far right English nationalism. A more succinct term for these – worthless or scarily evil – individuals would be Zeroes and Villains.

Zeroes

Yes Men

Most of the new Cabinet Ministers appear to have no discernible talents whatsoever. In a recent article for the Guardian, columnist Polly Toynbee called them “pipsqueaks and placemen, yes-women and yellow bellies”. She also says that this Cabinet is “the most under-brained, third-rate cabinet in living memory”, an analysis with which I concur strongly. The important, and disturbing, point here is that Johnson’s Rasputin, one D Cummings, will brook no dissent. The constructive dismissal of Sajid Javid as Chancellor amply illustrates this frightening truth. A clear inference from this is that Rishi Sunak is a Zero who will do Rasputin’s bidding.

Another Zero is the new Attorney General Suella Braverman, described as a “biddable mediocrity” in the latest Private Eye, who is “ready to say anything to get on”. Legal correspondent Owen Bowcott’s Guardian article explains why we should all be worried about Braverman’s views on wresting control from the judiciary.

An excellent article by Ian Dunt on the politics.co.uk website spells out why dissent in any decision-making body – in this case the UK Cabinet – is necessary to improve the quality of decision making. Johnson isn’t going to get this from his Zeroes. So this increases the risk – if indeed that were possible – of poor policy making. Watch out for the first cock-up before long. On the subject of Ian Dunt, here’s another excellent piece by him this week, explaining why ending free movement is such a bad idea: damaging both economically and socially.

Villains

Villain

I listed Gove, Rees-Mogg, Raab and Patel as the “swivel-eyed lunatics” in my December blog post. Call them “true believers” or Villains if you like. None of them can be expected to challenge Johnson’s (i.e. Cummings’) views on policy. There’s a touch of Zeroes about them too. For example, Patel has been quoted by one of her senior civil servants as having no interest in the rule of law. Surely this would, in normal times, disqualify her automatically from the post of Home Secretary.

There’s more than a touch of Zero about the Villains, too. For example, in an interview this week, Patel repeatedly used the phrase “counter-terrorism” when she meant “terrorism”. It makes you wonder if she really has any idea what she’s talking about. (See Michael “the Room Next Door” Spicer’s funny take on YouTube here.) But, deep inside this shell of total incompetence, there’s a heart of pure evil. Her comments about 8.5 million “economically inactive” Britons taking over the work of unskilled immigrants (to be barred from entering the country) is a case in point. Patel fails to comprehend that the overwhelming majority of these 8.5 million are students, retired, already carers or have long-term health conditions. Zero and Villain, all in one.

Invisible Men

So where is the country’s beloved leader in all this time of floods and major policy announcements? Hiding in a big house in Kent, apparently. From the evidence so far, this Government is setting out to be the least accountable, as well as the least competent and most cruel in my lifetime. Johnson is truly the Invisible Man.

But, sadly, so too is the current leader of the official Opposition. I said earlier that it was a mistake for Jeremy Corbyn to hang around after Labour’s massive election defeat. Either he’s in hiding too or the media are ignoring him on the grounds that his views don’t matter: he’s a lame duck. At least half the country is crying out for some forensic, incisive opposition. It seems an awful long time to the 4th April when Labour announce the winners of Leadership and Deputy Leadership elections.

With every day that passes, Johnson’s gang of Zeroes and Villains drag us further down towards authoritarianism and, dare I say it, fascism. Some real resistance to this slide cannot come soon enough for me.

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A Star Has Fallen

Led By Donkeys, Dover Cliffs 31/01/2020

Thanks, lads. A tiny flicker of light on a sad, dark night. Watch the full video and the one on Big Ben on the Led By Donkeys Facebook page.

I lit a candle. It helped a bit.

How long must we wait before the enormity of the folly perpetrated last night sinks home in this diminished land?

The words are few
When I’ve nothing new
To say.
But I thought it through:
The fightback starts
Today.

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Five Years

Pushing through the Parliament Square
So many of us sighing
News had just come over,
We had five years more to cry in.

Young girl came and told us,
Earth was really dying
Cried so much her face was wet,
Then I knew she was not lying.

I heard flaming trees near the Opera House, raging memories
I saw flash floods, dry river beds, electric storms and rising seas
My brain hurt like a warehouse, such a gloomy stark nightmare
I looked around for rays of hope, but they were just not there.
And all the fat, greedy people, and all the poor, needy people
And all the nobody people, mocked by somebody people
I never thought I’d fear for so many people.

A girl at school went off her head,
Hit some other children
No welfare staff are left to help
Austerity won’t fill them.

An old man with a broken arm,
Fixed his stare to the walls of the A&E
A nurse came and told him he’d just have to wait,
And he thought this is not how it used to be.

I think I saw you in an old folks’ home,
In a nightshirt cold and long
Crying and waving and looking so sad,
Don’t think you knew you were in this song.

And the PM took his briefing pack and I knew he’d never read it
And then he laughed at all the people on Universal Credit
A disgrace, you’re racist, the way that you talk
I hate you, you’re contemptible, I want you to walk.

We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
Five years, not a surprise
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, and look who we’ve got!

We’ve got five years, not a surprise
Five years, stuck on my eyes
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, just look who we’ve got!

Five years
Five years
Five years
Five years

With acknowledgements to David Bowie

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