Monthly Archives: April 2018

Equal Under the Law

We no longer live in a democracy. The UK is now more a sort of elective dictatorship – and will remain so for as long as Theresa May continues to be Prime Minister and she continues to approach her role as she does currently.

What Makes a Modern Democracy?

A common fallacy is that it is all about the voting. As long as all adults have chance to vote every few years, everything will work out in the long term. That’s just a tiny part. Modern democracies have evolved over centuries and it is the interplay of several components (which we take for granted) which are all needed.

The terms “democracy” and “liberal democracy” are almost interchangeable these days. Wikipedia, as ever, has a go at defining both: Democracy and Liberal democracy. Its components can be broken down in many ways. Here, I’m using those stated by political scientist Larry Diamond. I shall mention two of them only very briefly and concentrate on the last two.

According to Diamond, democracy consists of four key elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government; the active participation of the people; protection of human rights of all citizens; and the rule of law.

Political System

Basically, this is a system for choosing and replacing the Government through free and fair elections. The British system requires that Parliament is sovereign. A basic requirement for any democracy is that the system produces a government broadly in line with the public’s wishes, i.e. that it is representative of the people who voted for it, but not beholden to their every whim and wish. This is not the place to discuss the merits of our “first past the post” electoral system, so I will say no more except, by world standards, I think we’re still pretty good. Obviously, the unelected House of Lords is a major aberration, but again, this is not the place I wish to discuss reform of the Lords.

Active Participation

Diamond’s view of this includes not only voting, but also embraces active “citizens”, i.e. active in politics and civic life. Implicit in this is that the electorate are reasonably well-informed about what they are voting for. I contend that this last point was simply not true for the EU referendum.

election turnout
Election turnout since 1945

The election turnout figures since WWII from Wikipedia show a broadly steady trend at about 75% until the New Labour years, which mark a significant fall to about 60% in 2001, followed by a slow recovery back to around 70%.

For comparison, the turnout for the EU referendum was 72.2%, only slightly above the figures for recent general elections. I draw no conclusions from these figures here.

Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists five fundamental rights: Right to equality; freedom from discrimination; right to life, liberty, personal security; freedom from slavery; freedom from torture, and degrading treatment. To these, for a “liberal democracy”, I would add the freedom of expression, which includes freedom of speech and of the press.

By European standards, Britain fares badly under “freedom of the press” with the vast majority (by circulation) of the media owned by foreign or non-domiciled billionaires with agendas far removed from public opinion. I have commented on this in the past and simply draw attention to this fact here.

But I do want to say some words on the right to equality and on freedom from discrimination. Linton Kwesi Johnson in a rare and interesting interview in Saturday’s Guardian, states “I believe that racism is very much part of the cultural DNA of this country, and most probably has been so from imperial times”. Evidence for this is overwhelming and endorsed strongly in an excellent book I read recently: Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor. He has particularly harsh words – repeatedly – to say about the extreme racism of Winston Churchill, for example. The Windrush generation has just brought the institutionalised racism of UK immigration policy into the limelight. It affects many, many more than those who arrived on the Empire Windrush. UKIP (when it was a force to contend with) and the Tories (by adopting UKIP-type policies) have strongly encouraged the rise of the racists and bigots in our midst.

But this is still not the reason I say we’re living in an elective dictatorship.

Rule of Law

The rule of law divides into four key areas: an independent judiciary, the right to a fair trial, presumption of innocence and equality under the law.

A judiciary independent of the executive arm of Government is hard-wired into the Constitution of the USA and has, so far, saved us from the full evils of Trumpism. Britain succeeds in this area too, but more by custom and practice than anything concrete – until the European Convention on Human Rights was incorporated into UK law, by the Blair government. The Tories have threatened to overturn the Human Rights Act 1998, so beware.

I think we do fairly well on fair trials, so no further comments on this.

And so to the factors supporting my assertion we are becoming more like a dictatorship: presumption of innocence and equality under the law.

Presumption of Innocence

For centuries, this has had two practical effects. Defendants have the right to have their evidence considered by the magistrate, judge or jury (alongside all the other evidence). And the onus is on the state (i.e. prosecution) to prove (beyond reasonable doubt in criminal cases) the guilt of someone accused.

Theresa May’s hostile environment policy has effectively removed this right from immigrants, including the Windrush generation. The same problem has spread, via the DWP, to the much harsher sanctions regime for poor and disabled people applying for benefits. In both cases, aspiring immigrants and benefit seekers are disbelieved (i.e. assumed guilty) and it is they who must prove their “innocence”. This is a flagrant violation of natural justice and of the rule of law. Such practices can normally only be found in fascist-type dictatorships, not democracies.

Equality Under the Law

The hostile environment applies to undocumented (i.e. NOT illegal) immigrants and to the poor and disabled. It follows, as night follows day, that this is discriminatory: race, gender, disability, you name it. So we no longer have equality under the law. QED.

With Amber Rudd gone, the spotlight turns to Theresa May herself. Good. And about time. She’s at the dead centre of Britain sliding into some kind of elective dictatorship. I’ll leave it there.

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A Fine Bromance

I’m sometimes a bit behind with the news. I don’t always watch the Ten O’Clock News: it’s just too mad and depressing. So it was courtesy of Have I Got News for You that I saw the gut-heaving video of Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to the USA. Here are some stills to give you the flavour:

Bromance
Bromance

YUK, YUK, YUKETY-YUK!

For those who want to see the videos, iPlayer streams the whole programme at:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0b124gz/have-i-got-news-for-you-series-55-episode-4

The relevant stuff is between 10:19 and 15:36.

Another Singalong

Meantime, here’s another old tune (from the 1930s) with new words for you to sing along to:

A Fine Bromance

A fine bromance: I groped the missus
A fine bromance, mon frère, this is
You bring to the White House a charm and some genuine cachet
So don’t be as cold as yesterday’s pommes de terre hachées.

A fine bromance, it began well
A fine bromance with Emmanuel
I needed a friend and I’ve found one with him now, dear mon ami
I hope that the world can see all our wonderful bonhomie

A fine bromance, we’ve no morals
A fine bromance, so no quarrels
You’ve spoken to Congress and said that you don’t like my plan
For climate change and for Iran
But this is a fine bromance.

A fine bromance, I’m so needy
A fine bromance, and so greedy
I don’t know if he’s into the huntin’ and shootin’
But anyway, I’ve still got that Vladimir Putin.

A fine bromance, I’m primordial
A fine bromance, entente cordiale
Our relationship’s strong, and we don’t want to see it all blown apart
I love him ‘cos he looks like Napoleon Buonaparte

A fine bromance, you look fitter
A fine bromance, my heart’s a-Twitter
Poor Angela and T’resa, the don’t stand the slightest chance
They won’t get a second glance
‘Cos this is a fine bromance.

 

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Facebook v Cambridge

You almost certainly will not have seen this.

10 April: Mark Zuckerberg testifies to US Congress – covered widely in US and UK media. Amongst other things, he said: “What we do need to understand is whether there is something bad going on at Cambridge University overall that will require a stronger action from us”. Zuckerberg, with probably no facts, tries to deflect the blame from Facebook to a third party, in this case Cambridge University.

Zuckerberg

Yesterday: Aleksandr Kogan appears before Parliament Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. He told the Committee all his academic work was reviewed and approved by the University. Got this from parliament.uk.

Kogan

A few hours earlier: Correspondence emerged that a Cambridge Ethics Committee had rejected a proposal by Kogan in the same field of data mining back in 2015. A member of the Ethics Committee said Facebook’s approach fell “far below the ethical expectations of the University”.

In other words:

  1. Zuckerberg cast false aspersions against Cambridge University to protect his own skin;
  2. Aleksandr Kogan omitted a key piece of evidence yesterday to Parliament.

A Google search at 14:30 today revealed only one place where this was reported: here in the Guardian.

Certainly the BBC, who published Zuckerberg’s speech fully, hasn’t picked this up. I’ve looked.

I thought you might like to know.

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David Who?

Have you seen this man?

David Cameron wanted poster
Wanted?

Many rumours exist about this man:

  • He is believed to have once been Prime Minister of this country
  • If you see him, he is probably safe to approach. He is believed to be no longer dangerous.
  • At one time, he was seen as extremely dangerous: his laid-back attitude to the job allowed his henchman, Wild Gideon Osborne to wreak havoc and destitution amongst the poor and disabled
  • He put Party interest above the National Interest
  • He caved in to the Crazies (no, not the Crankies, but he’d probably do that too)
  • He split the country down the middle by calling an ill-advised referendum, thereby encouraging racists and bigots to commit acts of violence (Remember Jo Cox MP)
  • He made no plans in the event he would lose
  • He lost
  • He buggered off to write his memoirs.

Location

He is rumoured to be lying low in an expensive caravan somewhere in rural Oxfordshire. If you find this caravan, take the following steps:

  • Creep softly up to the door of the caravan
  • Turn the key to lock it
  • Take the key
  • Throw it away where no one can find it.

    Paxman on Cameron

    In the more informal surroundings of Room 101, Jeremy Paxman finally told us what he thought of Cameron:

    “The worst Prime Minister since Lord North”. Probably just about sums him up. Enough said.

 

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Nazi No, Nasty Yes

It’s an unspoken rule of diplomacy that one does not compare one’s opponent to the Nazis except in the most extreme of circumstances. Which is what makes former Civil Service Head Bob Kerslake’s comments on Newsnight earlier this week all the more extraordinary:

From his comments, it’s clear there was disagreement and strong misgivings within the coalition Cabinet about the stance being taken on immigration policy. For a senior (former) civil servant to use such undiplomatic language is truly shocking and should not be ignored.

Way back in 2002, Theresa May had warned at the Tory Party conference that the Conservatives were increasingly seen as the “Nasty Party”. Subsequent actions show she forgot her own advice. The latest revelations by the Guardian show just how Nasty the Tories and May have become. (At the time of writing, this story has been picked up by BT.com and the Daily Mail(!!), with some automated computer-generated versions on YouTube and Facebook. The Sun has a heavily-spun account and the Telegraph has an account which effectively reverses the truth. Significantly, I can find NO reference at all to the story on the BBC website!!!)

The leak is this. On 30 January 2017, mini-May, Home Secretary Amber Rudd sent a private memo to May, vowing to give immigration officials more “teeth” to hunt down and deport illegal migrants. Rudd wrote “…I will be refocusing immigration enforcement’s work to concentrate on enforced removals.”  This included diverting £10m of funding away from fighting crime “with the aim of increasing the number of enforced removals by more than 10% over the next few years”. May’s thumbprint is all over the harshening of policy. Rudd says her proposals had been “Informed by the review that you [i.e. May] commissioned whilst home secretary”. Nasty, nasty.

Heimat

A short, but hopefully relevant, diversion here. I was captivated by the epic TV series Heimat by Edgar Reitz when it was first broadcast by the BBC between 1984 and 1993. I watched the more recent repeats on BBC4 a few years ago. Warning: total playing time for the 32 episodes is fifty-nine and a half hours(!) Of particular note was the portrayal of the Wiegand family in the 1930s and 40s. The Wiegands were a (fictional) middle class family ruined by the crash and hyperinflation of the late 1920s whose fortune and status were restored in the early 1930s. Their gradual accommodation to, and subsequent support for, the Nazis is told tellingly and convincingly. The message was clear: it could happen to any such family, anywhere. (The fissures and divisions in the UK engendered by Cameron’s insane decision to call a referendum on EU membership have increased significantly the chances of something similar happening here.)

I like Germany and its people a lot: most significantly because they openly acknowledge their dark periods of history (they don’t get darker than the Holocaust), they have learnt from them and moved forward. They teach their children well the lessons learned – in marked contrast to our denial of the dark side of the British Empire. I’m currently reading an excellent book: Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire. Even the briefest of readings of any review of this book (I chose Amazon’s at random) demonstrates there is a very, very different story to tell of the effects of the Raj from the Kiplingesque one we usually hear.

Nazi or Just Nasty?

None of this makes Theresa May an Adolf Hitler. But such empathy as she does possess lies solely with the sort of Maidenhead middle classes just like the Wiegands. From her authoritarian approach and her actions, both as Home Secretary and as Prime Minister, I could easily picture her as some middle-ranking official just obeying orders to administer the Final Solution.

So a reasoned and reasonable conclusion is that May isn’t a Nazi, but she’s done more than anyone else to turn the Tories into the Nasty Party. Nasty, nasty, nasty.

Amber Warnings

I have been banging on about May for three years now: call them “Amber Warnings” if you like. Take your pick:

Nasty Indeed 2015; Why Do We Think We’re So Special? 2016; We Are Entitled to Proper Government (on risk to Good Friday agreement) Feb 2016; Madness, Madness, I Call It Madness 2016; Who May She Be? 2016; Shame On You, May 2017; Obsession 2017; The Weight of History 2017; Don’t Vote For Mayhem! 2017; Which Theresa? 2017; Forever Walk Alone 2017; Mr Men 2017 (Little Miss I-Know-Best) 2017; Call It Out: Crazies! 2018; The Modes of May 2018; Vassal State 2018

So it’s a great relief to see that some of the issues I’ve raised are now mainstream news items. Let’s keep them in the headlines.

One last time: Nasty, nasty, nasty, nasty.

 

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Whose Commonwealth?

Are you as bemused as I am about all the hype around the Commonwealth? Little Betty holds a meeting at Windsor Castle to engage in a pre-emptive strike by the House of Windsor to establish her much-criticized son as the new head of the Commonwealth, putting other Prime Ministers in an awkward spot. Not exactly democracy. It would appear she has got her wish: shame, shame, shame: missed opportunity.

charles windsor cartoon
New Commonwealth head?

What’s It Good For?

In “War”, Edwin Starr sang “War, huh, yeah, What is it good for? Absolutely nothing”.  I think much the same about the Commonwealth. Wikipedia gives a summary of the Commonwealth and a map of its 53 members, mostly former countries of the British Empire. I’ve always seen it as a nostalgia-fest for the Queen, which would be allowed to quietly die once she does.

commonwealth map
Map of Commonwealth

The Commonwealth doesn’t seem to be very good at anything. As Wikipedia says here, more than half the Commonwealth countries do not recognise LGBT rights and the majority of Commonwealth countries still criminalise homosexual acts between consenting adults. A proposal by the UK government to bring this to the CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) was watered down before it saw the light of day.

The official Commonwealth website shows that it actually has a Charter! Here are the pages  for  Tolerance and  Human Rights. Fine words, but unenforced, just a load of bollocks.

Lenny Henry’s Commonwealth

I watched the Lenny Henry programme about the Commonwealth, where he revisited his Jamaican roots. He pulled several punches, but at the end of the programme, I was none the wiser as to what the commonwealth does. Everyone knows about the Commonwealth Games: there was much hype and extended coverage on the BBC, trying to make it look like a mini Olympics. There’s also a War Graves commission and some cultural and literary connections. The criteria for joining the club are suitably vague.

Barak Obama

Now that the bad news has been announced that Little Betty embarrassed her guests in a most unconstitutional way, the sooner the Commonwealth is laid to rest, the better. Under Charles, it will simply be a rallying point for the Leaver post-imperial deluded as a sort of Empire 2.0. With only 9% of our trade going to the Commonwealth countries, it will never make up for the loss of 44% with the EU. India, the most populated country, owes Britain no favours.

Barak Obama in London
A better choice

A few weeks ago, The Guardian put forward an interesting idea: that Barak Obama become the new Commonwealth leader. Now that would be an interesting idea, and a rallying point around those opposed to Trump. Sadly, that opportunity has been lost. Better to kill it off. Goodbye and good riddance.

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We Say No

About four years ago, I was returning to the UK via Luton Airport. I was struck by the number of Home Office signs on the approach to the UK Border starting with he word “NO”. I was half expecting to see signs stating “No Blacks”, “No Irish”, “No Dogs”. By the time I got to passport control, I felt ashamed and emabarrassed to be British. But never mind, my passport was the same colour as everyone elses’ in the EU Passports line, so I could merge with the crowd.

Windrush
Windrush

My thoughts today with the Windrush generation, I remember also the insincere PA announcement you get when a train reaches its destination. “Thank you for travelling with X today”. For X, insert your own privately owned monopoly supplier of train services – as if you had a choice.

So for the Windrush folk, we get “Thank you for choosing the UK to spend your life, work hard, bring up children and pay your taxes. Want something? Pension? Cancer treatment? Now fuck off!”

Timeline

A brief history, for Daily Mail readers, who joined the fight today.

  • Theresa May was Home Secretary at the time of my Luton Airport embarrassment, implementing a “hostile environment” for “illegal” immigrants. Schools, The NHS, employers, landlords and the rest were turned into Home Office police, to check the immigration status of all who dared use publicly funded services. Vans patrolled the streets of north London telling illegal immigrants to “Go Home”.
  • The Guardian published stories about the plight of the Windrush generation on 01/12/2017, 21/02/2018, 22/02/2018, 10/03/2018 (the £54,000 cancer story), 22/03/2018 (May’s refusal to intervene in the cancer case), 12/04/2018, 13/04/2018 and 16/04/2018.
  • 12/04/2018: Law Society says 50% of immigration cases are overturned on appeal to an independent panel. It says the system is “seriously flawed” and having a “devastating” effect on the families. Home Office said it was “meeting its targets” and some cases were “complex”. Both political decisions.
  • Theresa May resisted calls from Caribbean leaders for a formal meeting with heads of the 12 countries at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting until the early hours of 16/04/2018.
  • 16/04/2018 07:16 Penny Mordaunt MP says “We need to do a better job”
  • 16/04/2018 12:57 Caroline Noakes MP, Immigration Minister admits “some people were deported in error”
  • 15:54 Amber Rudd MP, Home Secretary, the Mini-May, is sent to the Commons to apologise and denounce May’s policy. Rudd blames her officials for getting it wrong.
  • At about the same time, May announces U-turn and will hold an “informal” meeting with the 12 Caribbean heads.

A special task force is set up to clear up the mess in two weeks. Oh yeah? So that’s all right then. Except it isn’t.

So how’s about a civil disobedience campaign where everyone who is forced by law to check immigration status just stops. As Chair of Governors of a school , I’d be happy to persuade my governors to do this – as long as a few others join in: like the Poll Tax in Scotland, the government can’t fine us all.

Sing Song

Bumsrush Martin Rowe Guardian 17/04/2018 (sorry about any copyright!)

In the meantime, here are some new words to a well-known song. All together now:

Land of “Nope” and Tory, Mother of the Free
How shall we exploit thee, those not born of thee?
Wider still and wider, may th
y checks be set
May, who made thee Nasty, make thee Nastier yet
May, who made thee Nasty, Make thee Nastier yet.

 

 

 

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Vassal State

Welcome to Little Britain, the Vassal State. May has used powers grabbed for themselves by mediaeval kings to wage “war” when England’s very existence was seen as under threat – usually from the French! It was bad enough when Blair chose to become Bush’s poodle – at least Bush was rational and he sought Parliamentary approval first. This, strategically for the longer term, is much worse.

Syria 14 April: Missiles and rescuers looking for civilian casualties

Is this what the Leavers intended when they said “take back control” – only to hand it straight over to a US president with the attention span of a gnat and the social development of a 3 year old? Let’s keep some sense of proportion. No, this is not World War Three by any means: a raid roughly twice the size of the last one, but limited. But peace now depends entirely on Putin’s reaction.

Two Egos

We’re now trapped, helpless, between two giant egos, both of whom have said some very stupid things in the (recent) past: Trump and Putin. Trump has done most of the provoking (in words), Putin, more sinisterly, by covert action (fake news, etc.). So the ball would appear to be in Putin’s court- as I write this. The problem is complicated by the uncertainty in the US position: 6 hours ago, CNN reported a contradiction between Trump’s comments and those of his Defense Secretary James Mattis. So uncertainty rules.

Brave New World?

Forget international law since the end of WWII, based upon the UN and lessons learnt from the collapse of the League of Nations. Trump has rewritten the rules – partly (some would argue mainly) because Putin has vetoed all attempts to use the UN Security Council to do its job. The putative New World Order is based purely on raw power. Using the average of two sets of figures on Wikipedia, the US accounts for 36% of all global military spending, at $607bn or 3.3% of its GDP, Russia $65bn (5.0%), France $52bn (2.2%) and the UK $49.5bn (2.0%). (The UK GDP figure is not declared on Wiki, so I used the BBC 2016 figures). By contrast, Germany spends only 1.2% of its GDP, or $41.4bn; the next highest EU figure (by amount) is Italy at $25.4bn (1.4%).

There is an obvious “push” factor here. The more a country chooses to spend on bombs, planes, aircraft carriers, troops and the rest, the more willing it is to use it. Eisenhower, at the end of his Presidency, warned of the lobbying power of the “military industrial complex”. The Wikipedia entry for “Why We Fight” refers only to the seven propaganda films made by the US military in the 1940s; it does carry a link to the 2005 documentary by Eugene Jarecki “Why We Fight” which I’ve seen. It gives a clear exposition of the “push” effect and is hard to come by in the USA. It’s available in the US on DVD, but hurry, Amazon has only one copy in stock! (At the time I write this.)Not quite censorship, but close.

So, frankly, the UN’s future hangs in the balance, suspended between the twin narcissistic egos of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. May has tied the UK firmly to the former, without any vote in Parliament. Is that democracy in action – or taking back control? Not for the 48% who voted Remain, nor many of the Leavers, I suspect, when they realise what has happened.

Timing and Parliament

The timing of the attacks was very convenient for May – two days before Parliament reconvenes. Macron was in a great hurry – for purely domestic purposes which are not clear. The trick was to get Trump’s attention long enough – and the famous US Constitution’s “checks and balances” to propose a measured attack. (One advantage of reading Fire and Fury – see my earlier post Book Review –  is that I have a better understanding about  how the Trump White House currently operates.)

Macron and Napoleon

I had my suspicions about President Macron: there was always something of the Napoleon about him. Previously, in true Nicholas Parsons style, I had given him the benefit of the doubt. But no more. We need to watch him like the hawk he has turned out to be.

The future stability of the EU now depends basically on the relationship between France and Germany: the UK has made itself irrelevant (other than as a destabilising force) by May’s mishandling of the EU referendum result. As a result of choosing to abjectly follow Trump’s tweet agenda (with political cover from France on timing), we have already left the EU, in all but name.

At the time of drafting (Saturday morning), it was hard to find any definitive news on Germany’s current position: Here’s a couple, from the New York Times and Samaa.tv  It seems the Americans and Pakistanis are better informed than the British via their media.

The Devil Has the Best Tunes

The mood music will clearly favour May in the short term. Simple, decisive action always looks attractive at first. As religious apolgists often say, “The  Devil Has the Best Tunes”.  It’s arguable that Cliff Richard’s Best track, during his 1977 revival period, was Devil Woman. The “measured attack” mentioned above included a great deal of use of hotlines and back channels between the USA and Russia. We know we’re in trouble when we don’t talk any more.

As a phrase that’s been around since Roman times, “bread and circuses” have been used to pacify the masses over the centuries. Karl Marx probably had a thing or two to say on the subject, as did his younger siblings (or not)…

At three and a half minutes, this video is a bit long: younger viewers may find the racist (Black and White Minstrel Show) feel offensive. This was standard for 1930s Hollywood.

When the Truth Emerges

No doubt, Parliament will have its revenge at not being consulted: we’ve just seen May in full-blown Little Miss I-Know-Best mode. I think there will be some debate in Parliament on Tuesday and there will be ample aopportunity during the committee stages of the Exiting the EU bill during the Autumn.

In the short term, the BBC will revert to its WWII comfort zone as Government propagandist, last used to good effect in the Falklands war. There’ll be lots of talk of “precision strikes”, but Trump’s (contradictory) tweets will ensure that Assad moved key assets out of harm’s way.

But the truth will slowly emerge, and who will you trust?

Those of us who wish to see a brighter future than as America’s supine vassal may need to find a little of the Bogart-style steel… Here’s looking at you – and you – and you, to keep up the pressure on May and her ragbag of a government.

Be very careful about what you wish for – and who you cheer for – in the days and weeks ahead.

 

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Missed Connection

About 15 years ago, a group of Head Teachers, together with the Chief Executive of our group and I, went on a fact-finding and exchange of ideas to a group of schools in Doncaster. We travelled by train and the consensus route involved a change at Derby. The outward journey passed off uneventfully and we completed our business. The first leg was by Virgin Cross Country and the second by whatever name the operator of the Midland Main Line had at the time: it’s changed hands so often I forget.

We had 12 minutes “transfer” time at Derby station and we knew it was a simple cross-platform transfer: about a 30-second walk. A succession of minor holdups meant it looked like we would arrive in Derby 12 minutes late. No one was particularly bothered, as we knew how easy a transfer it was.

We arrived at Derby only to see our train pull out of the platform. It was dusk and my most vivid visual image was of our train’s red tail lights disappearing into the distance. As the Chair of the group, I understood the need to act professionally and chose my words very carefully, so there would be no misunderstanding. I approached the young man who had obviously flagged off the train we wanted. I said “Will you please tell me who has the authority on this station to hold that connection?” His reply surprised me at the time: “Nobody”, he said. There was no point in extending the conversation, so we all went into a huddle and waited for the next London-bound train.

Here’s a picture of a train like the one we missed. (This picture was taken at St Pancras in 2005). I tried to get the right livery – for rail buffs. They, and anyone who’s actually travelled by train more than 20 years ago will note that the rolling stock still betrays its BR origins. They’d only painted the loco. And to anyone north of a line from the Trent to the Mersey, you’d be bloody lucky to find any train that isn’t old hand-me-down BR stock covered in several layers of different coloured paint – unless you’re lucky enough to hop on a passing train on the way to or from London. Northern Powerhouse? Don’t make me laugh.

Midland Main Line train
The one that got away?

A Trip to Brussels

At about the same time, I went to visit an old university friend who was now working there. He joined British Rail a few years after graduating. His dad was a railwayman: like the military, working “on the railways” seemed to be in the blood. We had a couple of bottles each of Belgian beer: I knew already how tasty it was, but I hadn’t observed just how strong (7% ABV)! We both got a bit pissed.

He told me, when the railways were privatised, he was moved over to Railtrack – of which more below. As, by then, he was a fairly senior BR manager, he was put in charge of a project. This was to design a system of incentives to deal with what happens when trains are delayed that would fit with the new, fragmented structure. Its basic design was this:

  1. A train is late.
  2. Someone must be to blame.
  3. Find out who: this pitched Railtrack against Operating Companies, Operating Company against Operating Company.
  4. Settle any disputes: this was bound to take up a lot of time and resource.
  5. Debit the faulty party and credit the other party.

At the end of the month, add up all the debits and credits for each company (they’re all profit-maximising private companies, so there are bound to be more disputes at this stage. Settle the accounts (details unknown).

My immediate thought at the time was “gravy train for lawyers and accountants” (no pun intended – then!) but said no more.

The thought struck me in the last day or two: do you know what we have here? It’s an algorithm! Not of the lines of computer code sort, like Facebook and Amazon, but in the rules of the game. And the game, if you’re a profit-maximising entity, is to end the month in net credit. So you instruct your staff on how they must behave to maximise your company’s profits.

Compare this to a similar experience I recall from my student days. Birmingham to Oxford on a Sunday, change at Banbury. Owing to the dreaded “weekend engineering works (probably – I can’t remember) our arrival at Banbury was a few minutes late, after the scheduled departure time of the connecting service. Some relatively junior member of the station staff would have said something like “hurry along” and we all scuttled across the platform. The result? Everyone on both trains was a couple of minutes late – no big deal.

Who Benefits?

Well, the lawyers, accountants and shareholders, obviously.

So who else? The staff? Compare or man in Banbury with the one in Derby – yes, they were both men. The Derby man looked younger than my memory tells me about his Banbury counterpart. But, there again, police officers all look about 12 now, so maybe it’s just me. Think about it. The guy in Banbury was probably proud of working “on the railways”, just like my friend and his dad. His day would have been boosted, just a tiny bit, because he had used his common sense and held the connection so that everyone got to their destinations on time – or near enough. The important point is that he had the authority to do so. Nobody gave it much thought, it might not even have been written down in some rulebook, but everybody knew that’s how British Rail worked.

Now think of the young man at Derby: he probably felt slightly embarrassed about the answer he had to give me. The key point is that he had been disempowered and deskilled. He was reduced to being just a pawn in someone else’s game. A unit of labour. Wave the flag. Follow the rules. Which of these would have the higher self-esteem after years of doing each of the two jobs? It’s not hard to draw the obvious conclusion.

So, anybody else? Not the Passengers, obviously: half the people (or at least those So let’s add paint suppliers to the list of beneficiaries.

I already know that 80% of us support Labour’s policy to renationalise the railways. And that’s mainly beacuse (a) they’re very expensive, with walk-up fares and deason tickets costin up to 3 times those in other parts of Europe. And they need about 3 times as much public money to prop up unprofitable bits and pay for major capital projects.

A Word About Words

I absolutely, unequivocally refuse to use the “C” word when describing rail passengers. Customers buy baked beans: it’s a transaction. Rail travel is a whole different experience. Just ask Michael Portillo or his millions of regular viewers – that probably includes you! The people who travel by train are Passengers. Capital P. Using the C word reduces rail travel to a commodity. That’s another part of the problem.

Railtrack

So, finally, as promised, let’s turn to Railtrack: the company that liked to kill its users. I’ll explain.

Formed in 1994 to take over the infrastructure assets of British Rail, it was floated on the Stock Exchange 2 years later, a few people in the know mainly city types and rich friends of Government, made a killing with the shares. This always happens with privatisations and represents a one-off transfer of wealth to a privileged few (let’s call them the elite shareholders). Public and freight users of the railways began to express gave concerns about Railtrack’s safety and improvement record. The regulator, John Swift, appointed earlier by the Tories, continued to treat them with a soft touch.

Following a Labour election victory and the Southall crash (1997, 6 dead), John Prescott (in his role as transport secretary) took a much tougher line and appointed a much tougher regulator, Tom Winsor. The crashes kept coming: Ladbroke Grove (1999, 31 dead), Hatfield (2000, 4 dead) and Potters Bar (2002, 7 dead) As well as the 50 dead, a total of at least 769 people were injured.

So what had been happening inside the company? The clue is in the expertise built up by the staff over the years: remember the pride and father and son working on the railways examples above? Let’s face it, much of BR’s expertise never got written down. Experienced staff tended also to be more expensive. Finding themselves in an alien profit-maximising environment, I guess some just left. But Railtrack had 3 choices: (a) wait until the individual retires at normal age; (b) offer early retirement / “voluntary” redundancy; (c) offload to subcontractor. Given the cultural liking for sub-contracting to cut costs and save money, each subcontractor had the same 3 choices, including offloading to their sub-subcontractors. The important point to note is that expertise was either lost altogether or fragmented over a myriad of subcontractors and nobody knew where the “experts”, or certainly Railtrack didn’t, in any systematic way – always useful in times of emergency, e. g. just after a big crash.

In other words, Great Britain, pioneer of rail travel in the 1820s, had wantonly lost the ability to run a safe and reliable railway service!

graph
Rail deaths during and after Railtrack

Data for this graphic and the numbers quoted come from this Wikipedia page: the Railtrack years are easy to spot, even without my colouring! Most of the narrative is adapted from here.

Railtrack panicked after Hatfield; the susbsequent repairs across the network cost £580m. I can do no better than quote Wikipedia verbatim here: “Because most of the engineering skill of British Rail had been sold off into the maintenance and renewal companies, Railtrack had no idea how many Hatfields were waiting to happen, nor did they have any way of assessing the consequence of the speed restrictions they were ordering – restrictions that brought the railway network to all but a standstill”. Yes – I was one of millions caught up in that time, a journey to London on a “fast” train, normally taking 40 minutes, took 2 hours 15 minutes: I found it excruciating: every time we got anywhere near a point of danger (typically, literally, points!), the train slowed to 20mph before speeding up to the next one. I cannot imagine what it was like for commuters at that time.

Public revulsion and a share price hit did it for Railtrack (the repair costs and a massive overrun on the WCML modernisation were the main causes of “exceptional” losses.

Shareholders’ Reaeguard Action

The Government decided to renationalise Railtrack and form Network Rail. There was one last sting in the tail, the elite shareholders staged a revolt and staged a very effective and time consuming legal fight to hang on their ill-gotten gains – or to have their cake and eat it, as we say today. This consumed an awful lot of Ministerial and civil service time and energy which could have been concentrated on setting up a safe and reliable railway in public hands. So there are people out who see their own selfish financial interests rather than people’s i.e. rail Passengers’ lives. So I dedicate this blog post not to tem, but to the 42 “hypothetical” people who, statistically speaking, died during Railtrack’s dismal 8 year stint at running the railway. [Calculation: Railtrack deaths 62 over 8 years (average 7.75), Network Rail 28 over 11 years (average 2.5); excess (7.75-2.5)*8 =42.]

And , above all I dedicate this to the memory of the 50 real dead, their friends, relatives and loved ones, who lost their lives at Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar.

Soyhall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield, Potters Bar: Railtrack’s Greatest Hits

In Memoriam: Lest We Forget

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Book Review

I’m not usually in the business of writing book reviews, but here goes…

Some friends with whom I’d normally volunteer heard, back in January or February, that I was back in hospital and sent me a present. It was the book Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff. In the event, I had other reading material and only read it a few weeks ago. It was published after much hype on 6th January. My colleagues were well-intentioned: they knew how deep my contempt for Trump was thought it would keep me amused.

dung sir
Dung sir?

My summary: don’t bother – it’s a pile of crap.

The Author

Wolff’s face stares out from the end cover of the sleeve, which informs us he has received “numerous awards”. He certainly has an over-inflated sense of his own self-importance and access to the Trump White House during his early months in office. Try as he might, it’s obvious he’s a bit of a fan of Steve Bannon: the book kind of runs out of steam when Bannon joins the long list of White House resignations and sackings.

Apparently, according to Wikipedia, it was the New York Times’ No. 1 bestseller, which tells you more about the alien nature of the USA, and New York City, than anything else. Well, whoopee-do.

Not familiar with Steve Bannon: if you saw any of the amusing Saturday Night Live sketches in early 2016, he’s the one depicted as the Grim Reaper standing behind Trump at his presidential desk and exercising a malign influence over the totally inexperienced (to politics) Trump. A fair depiction of the man. Bannon and Breitbart’s views are so far to the right they would be off the scale in any European context.

The Beach

Nevertheless, I read the whole book from beginning to end, but I was mightily relieved when it was all over. It put me in mind of an incident from the 1980s when I was on holiday on a Greek Island with my first wife and kids. A friend, whose judgement I thought I could trust, lent me a book by a very well-known American author. Clue: he sold over 750 million books and is mentioned in the episode of Fawlty Towers called The American. Against my “better” judgement, I took the book on holiday: it was the only reading material I had.

The incident I remember distinctly took place on the beach. A fellow Brit tourist, noticing what I was reading, approached, thinking he had found a fellow fan. He made some reference to the book and how much he enjoyed it. In an excess of candour and distinct lack of diplomatic skills, I said just four words in reply – I regretted the words even before they had left my lips: “I think it’s crap”. I still recall his disappointed facial expression as he backed away, confused: why would this idiot (i.e. me) read a book he didn’t like? Why indeed?

The Language Used

The book is really unsuitable for a UK audience. It’s written in a style which required a good understanding of US (or New York) slang terms and requires a great deal of knowledge of the workings of the White House. It’s full of the characters Trump has surrounded himself with and the macho, testosterone-fuelled aggression of the rich and powerful. Much of the language is simply inaccessible to a UK reader and I had to let it wash over me and get the general drift.

The Premise: Life in the White House

The overall tale is of a bunch of non-politicians totally unprepared for government: the Trump White House is utterly dysfunctional. It starts its days as a random bunch of feuding tribes, all busy stabbing each other in the back and leaking like crazy to the traditional media, the purveyors of “fake news”. Then it gradually coalesces into two rival groups, vying for Trump’s attention (his attention span is notoriously short). One faction is the uber-right, an incomprehensible world inhabited by Bannon, Breitbart and such like, the other faction Wolff calls “Jarvanka”, basically the family running government like the Trump businesses, Sopranos style. (It’s a conflation of Jared and Ivanka, of course: witty or not?)

The overall picture presented is of entirely dysfunctional White House. Two of our favourite US box sets were The Sopranos and The West Wing. The picture painted is pure Sopranos. Trump’s White House differs from the Sopranos in two ways. Unlike Tony Soprano and his extended family, no one in the Trump White House has any endearing human qualities: it’s all scheming and back-stabbing. And Trump and his rich cronies with whom he has chosen to surround himself are rich enough to pay for very clever lawyers who can help keep them out of trouble with the law.

(That having been said, Jared Kushner’ s father Charlie has spent time in prison for “tax evasion, witness tampering and making illegal campaign donations” – p17).

Trump Himself

If the book is to be believed – and it’s clearly “sexed up” to sell more copies – Trump himself is every bit as dreadful as your worst nightmares – and then some. He has the attention span of a gnat, refuses to read any written brief if at all possible and certainly not any longer than one side of A4 paper. He refuses to watch PowerPoint presentations (some sympathy there!) so White House staff have had to try various methods to get his attention. His outright refusal to study detail and his almost total ignorance of foreign policy matters are confirmed in the book. One chink in his armour is a child-like need to be liked personally: this trait is exploited by the cannier members of staff.

I’ve always seen him as a petulant 3 year old. At different points in the book, colleagues liken him to 2 year old and 9 year old. In the latter stages of the book, it’s clear Trump has absolutely none of the basic attributes needed to be President. Audit trails exist all over the place, any one of them damning enough to start impeachment proceedings. By the end of the story, his supporters on the uber-right broadly divide into two groups. There’s the “let’s make the best of it and wait until 2020 and find another empty vessel as our puppet” group – Trump doesn’t have the self-discipline to be their man. And then there’s the “Trump must go now” camp.

The UK

These folks are really not interested in the affairs of our little island. Theresa May makes her first – and only – appearance on p258 – and then only in describing the seating plan at a G20 conference. Mr Slime fares rather better, if only in word count. On p275, he is described as “the right wing British Brexit leader who was part of the greater Breitbart circle”. Oh, and on the following page, there is, surprisingly, an extensive quote lifted from the Guardian. And that’s it.

So, further evidence (of sorts) that our infantile, needy delusion about a “special relationship” with the USA is just that: delusion. I draw the obvious conclusion as to who our best friends are (and it’s not Trump’s America).

A Warning for the Future

I finish with a direct quotation from the book: it brought a chill to my spine.

Trump, in Bannon’s view, was a chapter, or even a detour, in the Trump revolution, which had always been about weaknesses in the two major parties. The Trump presidency – however long it lasted – had created the opening that would provide the true outsiders their opportunity, Trump was just the beginning.

Standing on the Breitbart steps that October morning, Bannon smiled and said ‘It’s going to be as wild as shit’” (My emphasis)

Be very afraid, and avoid this dreadful book!

[Since writing the above, I have looked at “professional” reviews from the Guardian, Irish Times, Amazon (4 stars) and the New York Times. Two comment on Wolff’s previous notoriety for inaccuracies in reporting. Otherwise, nothing to add.]

[And finally, I realised that the still picture comes from a Monty Python Sketch called Book of the Month Club. Its selling point, according to the John Cleese deleivery character, was “Join our club and, after the third book, you get a pile of dung”. It left me pondering what three books I’d be forced to read to get Wolff’s book for free!]

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