It’s well known that Peter Green, guitarist extraordinaire,
lived a troubled life. Drug induced mental health issues seem to have kept him
out of the public eye for decades after his initial success with Fleetwood Mac.
Which is a shame: he had a unique talent and his guitar playing style is easily
recognisable. For me, his soulful playing seems both melancholy and soothing,
all at the same time. If I had to choose just one word to describe it, I would
Fleetwood Mac’s most famous instrumental hit during Green’s
time with the band is undoubtedly Albatross.
I’m sure those of us of a certain age associate that song with certain events
from our younger days. Picture the scene. It’s late in the evening at some
party or another. The room is almost in darkness. Fuelled by a certain amount
of alcohol, couples will be slowly shuffling around each other, “smooching” to
the lilting chords from Green’s guitar. Ah, happy days…
And absolutely nothing like this:
Back to Man of the World: Green also sings: “I guess I’ve got everything I need, I wouldn’t ask for more”. It seems that the commercial success of Fleetwood Mac, and the wealth it brought, did not sit easily with him. It was disputes with other band members over his discomfort with all their money that led to Green leaving the band. Perhaps all the fame and fortune became a kind of albatross around his neck and led to the health problems. Peter Green did not fit the stereotype of the extrovert, flashy guitar man. He came across as someone altogether more modest and self-effacing.
Return and Revival
Around ten or fifteen years ago, Peter Green had some
measure of a revival and this was the only time I saw him live. My wife and I
went to gig which John Mayall was headlining, with Green making a brief
supporting appearance. By this time, his appearance was more like this:
And it was Green and not Mayall I remember from that evening.
John Mayall came across as arrogant and cold. We were “treated” to a
masterclass of Mayall’s famous virtuosity on a range of instruments. There was
no warmth or engagement with the audience. Rather, it was an exhibition of “look
how clever I am”. I was sorely disappointed.
But Peter Green was a bit shambolic and more than a little
self-effacing. He seemed genuinely delighted, and a bit overawed, to be back in
the spotlight. I found the whole thing rather endearing and it was undoubtedly
the best part of the evening for me. So, a happy memory.
I would like to conclude this tribute to Peter Green by including a lesser-known, early clip from Green’s days with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, pre Fleetwood Mac. This early performance shows all the characteristics of Green’s playing style and was a foretaste of what was to come. Take 3 minutes of your time to enjoy – and perhaps discover for the first time:
Has the UK entered the final death spiral of some ironic
self-referential spin into a black hole of incompetence? Quite possibly. I had
never thought it logically possible to include the words “intelligence” and “Chris
Grayling” in the same sentence. But the gods of surrealism have now made it
There’s stupid. And then there’s Chris Grayling. There’s
incompetent. And then there’s Chris Grayling. There’s failing. And then… you
know the rest.
The media is awash with lists of the man’s failures. The Daily Mirror found eighteen. Perhaps the most notorious are:
The disastrous part-privatisation of the
probation service, now recently reversed;
The contract with the ferry company with no
The unlawful ban on prisoners receiving books
from their visitors;
The nightmarish new timetable for Thameslink and
You can read the full list at the link above.
In 1967, the Hollies released a single “King Midas in Reverse”.
Could’ve been written for Grayling.
Taking the Piss
The report into alleged Russian government interference in UK politics was presented to the Intelligence and Security Subcommittee last autumn. Its publication was delayed on the pretext of the upcoming election. Johnson then delayed the Tory nominations to the Committee for over six months. And then, in an act of breathtaking surrealism, the government has nominated as Chair one Chris Grayling, serial failure.
To which there is really only one response. You’re totally
taking the piss, Prime Minister.
Cherry on the Cake
Another Tory nomination to the Committee runs Grayling a
close second in uselessness and incompetence: Theresa Villiers. Quite posh too, it
Here’s a few highlights of her incompetence:
When Northern Ireland Secretary, talking
bollocks over the impact of the UK leaving the UK in its effect on the
border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic
It’s hard to keep going in shielding “lockdown” without
going bananas to some degree. Here are my thoughts on some recent (and one very
old) news items, loosely connected to the theme of bananas.
This one’s a bit of a classic – but worth repeating here.
We start today with the famous Euromyth about straight bananas. Undoubtedly just one of many lies written by Boris Johnson to fend off boredom when he was Brussels correspondent at the Daily Telegraph. The Wikipedia link in the sentence above contains several other myths. My memory is long enough to remember an actual Daily Express headline from before we joined the “Common Market” in 1973. It was warning the Great British public that joining the EEC would lead to the banning of the traditional British kipper. Well, we can all work out for ourselves that that prediction turned out to be decidedly fishy.
And so from fish to the seaside.
A great many people, me included, were horrified at the
sight of the crowds on Bournemouth beach last week, with no respect at all for
proper physical distancing. Local council workers collected 50 tonnes of
rubbish from the beach on just one day: the average for a June weekday is about
5 tonnes apparently. It seems that there is a section of the British population
who, as temperatures climb towards 30 degrees, “go bananas”. They find it essential
to travel in their thousands to beaches and beauty spots, even in the middle of
a once-in-a-century pandemic.
I am sure that a major contributory factor was the rule
breaking by Dominic Cummings and the lamentable speech by Johnson in his
support when the truth was revealed by the Guardian
and Daily Mirror. If ever it was a
case of “one rule for us, another for the rich and their friends”, this was it.
This was a watershed moment: the day the UK government lost control of the
public health message.
Johnson has compounded this major error of judgement with his announcements on easing lockdown restrictions in recent days. Johnson’s whole tone and body language result in a strong message that everything is being relaxed; the message of caution is sotto voce at best.
I for one expect to see coronavirus cases and deaths start
to rise again soon. The USA is a warning to us all about what happens when a
country is badly led.
Without a Trace
Finally, I turn to three examples all illustrating Britain’s
descent into the status of a banana republic. They all stem from the gross
incompetence and hubris of the “Leave EU” mind set running (ruining?) the
In early May, we were promised a “world beating” app after rejecting the Google / Apple version adopted successfully in other countries. This was “global Britain’s” very own version of a Track and Trace app, now sadly abandoned adding months of delay.
Here’s a technical account of what went wrong. An article for more general reading can be found here on the Metro website. What a pitiful shambles of a country this makes us appear to the rest of the world. But it gets worse: read on.
Taking a Pounding
Our currency, the pound sterling, is another factor moving
the UK towards the status of a banana republic. A Financial
Times article from a few days ago uses the term “emerging market currency”
because of the erratic behaviour of the pound’s exchange rate on currency
This may all seem like esoteric stuff, only of interest to finance people and exchange rate obsessives. There is a very basic real world effect, which anyone travelling abroad from the UK will shortly find out. That is in the so-called “spread” of exchange rates: the difference between the buying and selling rates. Broadly speaking, the higher the reputation of a country’s economy, the narrower is the spread between buying and selling rates. The “official” exchange rate – the one usually quoted in the media – is the mid-point in the range between these two.
So the rate that holidaymakers get at an exchange bureau, the number of euros or dollars that they actually get when they exchange pounds, will be further below this middle figure if the spread is wider. In short, people will feel even more ripped off than usual. And the blame lies with the country’s plummeting reputation caused by the government’s incompetence.
Where on Earth?
And just when you thought it couldn’t get more stupid, here’s
tale of Br*xit hubris and idiocy by our government.
Remember Galileo? No, not the famous scientist of old – no,
Galileo, the EU’s joint project to have a GPS system that was not dependent on
the US military. (Sometimes, the US military turns off GPS, usually when they’re
up to no good somewhere in the Middle East. Then all the satnavs in cars and
smartphones stop working until GPS is turned on again.) The UK has spent £1.2
billion as its share of Galileo but is walking away from the project to devise
our own system, as part of the government’s stance on EU negotiations. The estimated
cost to the UK of this decision is somewhere between £3 and 5 billion.
Our plans for yet another “world leading” go-it-alone
project looks like it will be as big a fiasco as all the other deluded dreams. The
government has invested in a 20% stake in a company called OneWeb. They are
designing a completely different network of satellites designed to serve a
completely different purpose from Global Positioning. All the developed GPS
systems use satellites in orbit 20,000km above the Earth. The OneWeb system
uses satellites only 1200km up, designed to provide internet access, not GPS.
How long will we have to wait until – just like Track and Trace – it’s back to the drawing board, following months of wasted effort?
The “Lollipop” Plane
Still, we can console ourselves that our Prime Minister now
has a vanity jet aircraft repainted from camouflage grey with £900,000 quids’
worth of red, white and blue paint. Critics
say it looks like a lollipop; it’s more conspicuous appearance will handicap
its previous use for fighter jet refuelling when not needed by the PM. An easy
target in hostile airspace!
It’s hard to imagine anything more designed to place the UK
in utter contempt with other world leaders – apart, of course, from the world’s
autocratic rulers who revel in such tat.
I’m confused. And I feel a bit less safe than I did a week
and a half ago. I know I’m not the only one.
Cracks in the Shield
I have mentioned before that I am one of the people to have
been classified as “extremely vulnerable” to coronavirus and so I’m one of the
so-called “shielding” group. The initial guidance letter on 23rd
March advised us to stay at home at all times for a minimum of 12 weeks: not
even to leave the house for exercise or for getting food or medicines. (There
were 2 copies in quick succession, from my GP and my current “overseeing”
hospital.) The original guidance even recommended packing a hospital bag, just
in case, including contact details for next of kin: a bit scary to receive this
at the time!
For most of the next 10 weeks, there was nothing at all from
gov.uk or the “NHS Coronavirus Service”: we were left just to get on with it ourselves.
Many in more challenging circumstances than I felt even more abandoned: a
recent edition of Woman’s Hour has
some actual case studies. (The relevant
audio starts around 16 minutes into this audio clip on BBC
Sounds.) Over this period, I first convinced myself that our (sheltered) garden
was as safe as the house – subsequently confirmed by my hospital consultant. Then, I felt safe doing short (30 minute) walks
from home for exercise: I see very few people in our rural area and those I do
see all keep apart well over the 2m distancing rules.
Then, unexpectedly, on 19th May, a third letter arrived from another
hospital where I had treatment in 2018, carrying roughly the same words but extending the lockdown period by 15
days to 30th June. Just four or five days later, even more
unexpectedly, Johnson announced a relaxation of the lockdown rules for us
shielders along with relaxations for the wider public.
Frankly, I’m deeply, deeply suspicious about this change of
government guidance. The relaxations of the lockdown rules (in England),
coupled with widespread flouting of them on beaches and at beauty spots in last
weekend’s sunshine, potentially makes the “world out there” a less safe place.
So I’m ignoring what Johnson said and I’m relying on more trusted sources (e.g.
Independent SAGE and selected “experts” via trusted media) and carrying on much
Cracks in the Lockdown
Johnson and his gang of zealots and idiots (a.k.a. HM Government) were beginning to lose their tenuous grip even before the “Cummings Lockdown Tour” of Durham and Barnard Castle was made public by the Guardian and Daily Mirror.
Several events have now occurred to undermine the government’s position – and our trust – even further.
Cummings’ Rose Garden press conference was a
load of self-interested preposterous bullshit which revealed even more actions
in which he had broken the rules.
The pathetic, craven, orchestrated defences of
Cummings’ position by about 50% of the Cabinet simply destroyed any vestige of
respect for the individuals concerned.
Johnson’s ill-judged defence of Cummings exposed
him to a wider audience as weak, lacking judgement and, together with the
previous point, strongly reinforced the message: “one law for us and another
for everyone else”.
The many tales of raw emotion from those willing
to tell their stories of self-sacrifice for the common good added a potent
emotional impact to the narrative of hypocrisy and elitism.
The previously announced change from the clear “stay at home”
to the vaguer “stay alert” message started the rot and provoked much derision
at the time. It’s been downhill for government credibility ever since.
So, we’ve just had a torrid couple of weeks when the government
has totally lost whatever trust I had in them. I treat every single policy
change with suspicion. Any so-called facts and figures from government sources
I now double-check from other reliable sources of information. The daily (or
now, weekdaily) government briefings have been reduced to propaganda exercises,
with fiddled figures and disappearing graphs of international comparisons when
they no longer served Johnson’s propaganda purposes.
A whole raft of announcements following the 25th
May rose garden fiasco were made in the next few days, each one intended to
provide “good news” in a desperate attempt to move the news agenda away from
Johnson’s bungled “return to work but not by
public transport tomorrow or maybe Wednesday” announcement
The reopening of schools to years R, 1 and 6,
which came as a surprise to those working in education and leaving too little
time to prepare. The rationale for choosing reception and year 1 children as
well as (the expected) year 6 has never been satisfactorily explained by the
Exactly the same pattern has been repeated in
the announcement about the return of dentistry on Monday next. Dentists are
complaining that they have had insufficient
time to prepare. And what else? Sound familiar? Problems for dentists with
getting sufficient PPE (Personal Protective Equipment).
Relaxations on socialising (meetings of up to 6
people in gardens as well as parks) are basically unenforceable, making it much
easier to disobey them. A recipe for increasing the virus spread, I would say.
The much-publicised “track and trace” was “launched”
last Thursday. Everybody except government knows this was a sham and the scheme
will be up and running properly somewhere between the end of June and October,
depending on your optimism. It’s the same old centralised-run scheme using
private contractors such as Capita who in turn use unskilled staff with too
little training. The promised NHS app, fanfared at the start of its trial on
the Isle of Wight, has vanished out of sight for now. Rumours have it that it’s
not working properly.
And for us shielding folk? The relaxations of
the rules came as a complete surprise to NHS staff and to charities supporting
people with the relevant pre-existing conditions. There has been no medical evidence
whatsoever to justify the change. We’re meant to take it on trust. Which leaves
us feeling confused and more vulnerable.
The new rules for England, unlike Wales and Scotland, do not
specify a maximum distance people are allowed to travel – hence the crowded
scenes at the weekend on our beaches and beauty spots.
Scientists and government advisers are increasingly
distancing themselves from government policy announcements. Do you believe that
R (the reproduction rate) will stay below 1.0? I’m far from convinced.
I simply don’t trust anyone in Johnson’s rabble. It seems to
me to be a basic requirement for a functioning democracy that citizens trust
their government in times of crisis. Johnson and company fail on all counts.
So I find everything the government says and does
delusional. If I hear another Government Minister say the words “world beating”
I shall scream! Here’s one thing we’re world beating at. On Wednesday, deaths
from coronavirus in the UK (359) were greater than for all of the EU27 countries
combined (311). Here’s the graph:
Full story here.
And besides, why would we even want
to beat the rest of the world on anything to do with the pandemic? Surely, if
ever there was a time for global cooperation, for example in developing a
vaccine, it’s now.
An Old, Old Enemy
So what underlies all this? I think it’s another
manifestation of our old enemy, English Exceptionalism. To the rest of the
world, with our plans to leave the EU, the chimera of “Global Britain” and so
much more, we’re even more of a laughing stock. People in other countries pity
us. Here are just a few examples:
And, lastly, a recent viewpoint from that august
organ, the Financial
Countless further examples are out there on the internet of
the degree of contempt in which the UK is held around the world. It’s
demeaning, it’s embarrassing – and it has to stop.
The message gets clearer all the time. If you don’t care
whether your granny dies prematurely, carry on voting Conservative. Keep your
illusions. It’s just that they’re getting more lethal by the minute.
Or… The case for a Government of National Unity, with Keir
Starmer in a key role, gets stronger by the minute. Then there would be at
least one grownup in charge.
Sha 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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% ofPPE 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
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
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
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
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.
Day 33 of shielding. Here’s a collection of pandemic-related
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.
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.
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.).
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
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
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
(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.
If (b), find a lounger in a sunny spot.
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.)
Ask a minion to get you a powerful light source:
an industrial strength laser is ideal.
Settle comfortably on the sunbed or lounger.
Shine the light source directly onto your
oversized abdomen (ignore any burning smells).
Drink the contents of the glass in one go.
Lie back and relax, contented with how much joy
you have just brought to the world.
do NOT attempt this at home, unless your name is Donald Trump.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.