…or, to spell it out, the Cummings-Johnson Junta.
Sliding Into Fascism
Back in the heady pre-EU referendum days of early 2016, I wrote a blog post which I entitled Sliding Into Fascism. Reading it again now, I was struck by how much has changed since then. The issues and concerns about which I wrote seem to have taken place so long ago. Some of the names are the same as now, but all in different jobs. I made reference to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan – remember her? – and her predecessor Michael Gove, then at the Ministry of Justice. George “austerity” Osborne was, of course, Chancellor of the Exchequer and, in a comment in reply to the post, even a junior minister in the Cabinet Office, “Matthew” Hancock, gets a mention.
Some of the themes in the post still ring familiar. The Education Secretary was making threatening-sounding statements to the teaching unions. Opaquely-funded so-called “think tanks” were allowed to continue their right-wing propaganda and fake news whilst charities’ freedoms to speak out were being curtailed. The House of Lords was being stuffed full of extra cronies of the Prime Minister.
Other measures reported in the post seemed all to point in one direction: namely, changes designed, bit by bit, to consolidate the Tories’ stranglehold on the electorate to perpetuate a de facto one-party rule. Since the, matters have taken a turn for a whole lot worse.
Under a Bus
The fact that the vast majority of the press are Tory supporters, often advocating policies and actions even more extreme that the government itself, doesn’t seem enough for the CJJ. Cummings’ power grab for political advisers effectively reporting to his command and the widespread sacking of senior civil servants is all part of the so-called “hard rain” falling on the Civil Service. Mark Sedwill from the Cabinet Office, Jonathan Slater from Education, Sally Collier from Ofqual are just three senior heads to roll in recent days. Veteran journalist John Humphreys weighs into the debate in an article for YouGov here. (His article also served as a reminder of a resignation early in 2020 following bullying by Home Secretary Priti Patel.)
The head of the FDA (the senior civil servants’ “trade union”) put it this way: “This administration will throw civil service leaders under a bus without a moment’s hesitation to shield ministers from any kind of accountability”. History shows that power without accountability always leads to greater and greater abuse of that power.
Taking the Central Line
The United Kingdom as a state has always been centralised compared with many of its counterparts. The freedom given to the government of the day by our unwritten “constitution” fails to provide the checks and balances which act as a safeguard elsewhere. But the centralisation of power into Westminster has proceeded more rapidly since the days when Thatcher was PM. Local government has been reduced almost to a cipher whose job is to do the bidding of, and beg for discretionary funding from, central government.
The pandemic has thrown the results of all this centralisation into stark relief – but it has also shown how ineffective it is, compared to more successful countries (i.e. nearly all of them) in managing the effects of coronavirus. Early on, repeated failures in supply of PPE followed a centralisation of procurement in the NHS. Confusing and unsafe repeated changes of policy on wearing PPE were undoubtedly driven by rationing shortages rather than any public health “science” claimed by ministers.
Centralised Test and Trace has been the opposite of Johnson and Hancock’s “world beating” claim. The number of times this and similar phrases are used by those in positions of power show just how insecure they feel inside about the alleged “Greatness” of Britain. Puerile hysteria about blue passports and the offensive jingoistic lyrics of some “traditional” songs are further evidence of this insecurity.
Without a Trace
The main reason that Track and Trace has been such a disaster – failing to meet its targets nine weeks in a row – is the dogmatic obsession with running everything from Whitehall and subcontracting (and sub-subcontracting) everything to the government’s mates in the private sector. The announced U-turn on handing more work and power to local Directors of Public Health with the necessary local government spending is happening only painfully slowly. Hancock is acting like a drowning man, not wanting to let go of any scrap of centralised power for reasons of pure dogma and an authoritarian instinct. The true black hole into which power is being sucked goes by the name of the man whose eyesight needed testing on the road to Barnard Castle.
Oh, in case you missed it, here’s a couple of things about Dido “Dodo” Harding, head of Track and Trace and the bits of Public Health England that the government hasn’t forgotten about, you may find interesting. As CEO of TalkTalk, Marketing magazine described her in these terms: “TalkTalk boss Dido Harding’s utter ignorance is a lesson to us all.” So that puts her on a par with every member of the Cabinet. And the second thing is her horsey connections as a board member of Cheltenham Racecourse. Matt Hancock is MP for Newmarket. Health experts have reckoned that at least 20,000 lives could have been saved if the UK had locked down a week earlier. And what happened during that, literally, fatal week? Why, the Cheltenham Festival, of course. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
One other key plank in the “abolish all dissent” plans of the CJJ concerns judicial review. Gina Miller tweeted today: “Sneaky Govt! On 31 July they announce Independent Review of Administrative Law via a press notice. Tonight they quietly put on http://Parliament.uk the scope & who’ll decide if to act on recommendations. I’ve highlighted & abbreviated.” (Gina Miller is the lawyer who won two court cases between the 2016 referendum and the 2019 general election. The first ruled that the government must seek a Parliamentary vote of approval before signing the withdrawal agreement: this led to the notorious Daily Mail “Enemies of the People” front page. The second ruled Johnson’s 2019 proroguing of parliament illegal. Between them, they reinforced the principle that ministers are not above the law.)
Johnson has found a sympathetic chair in Edward Faulks QC. Now, the next bit you simply couldn’t make up. Faulks’s middle names are “Peter Lawless”. Yes, Lawless. His wife Catherine is a Tory councillor. Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove have taken upon themselves the role of deciding what the government will do following the Review. The intention is already clear. Johnson wants to put himself and his government above the law. These are the actions of a dictator and not those of Head of Government in a supposedly democratic state.
I’d like to end with some wise words. The first come from the leader writer in today’s Guardian, who writes of the Cummings-Johnson Junta as “an administration that refuses to delegate but fails to govern”. To those who find this all a bit boring, the second words come from no less a figure than Plato: “The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men”. That just about sums it up. You were warned.