All posts by Jim Gunther

About Jim Gunther

Husband, father, grandfather, humanist, republican, (very!) amateur anthropologist. Interests: politics, education, ethics, comedy, eclectic music taste. Former corporate manager. School governor, charity trustee, volunteer adviser

It Never Rains…

…but it pours, so the saying goes.

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

Coronavirus

Coronavirus

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

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

Floods

Floods

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

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

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

Hardball

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

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

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

Overreach

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

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

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

The Return of Experts

Professor Chris Whitty

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

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

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

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

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Stepping Stones

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

A Leap

Stepping stones

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

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

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

Good Empathy

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

Bad Empathy

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

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

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

Spoilers

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

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

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

Carry On Empathising

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

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Zeroes and Villains

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

cabinet meeting
Zeroes and Villains

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

Zeroes

Yes Men

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

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

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

Villains

Villain

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

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

Invisible Men

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

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

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

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A Star Has Fallen

Led By Donkeys, Dover Cliffs 31/01/2020

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

I lit a candle. It helped a bit.

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

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

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Five Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five years
Five years
Five years
Five years

With acknowledgements to David Bowie

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Dog Days

No animals were harmed in the production of this blog post.

Following the disastrous result of last week’s election, here are a few preliminary thoughts on our current situation and on where we go from here.

Those of us with a progressive view of society have some very serious thinking to do. But first, it makes me think that our predicament for the next five years is very much like that of a dog dependent on its master for food, exercise and shelter. (Hence the title Dog Days.) Or, more accurately, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, “a dog that’s been beat too much”. The harsh reality is that any crumbs of comfort, in terms of government actions of which we approve, will be like scraps on the floor for the dog off his master’s table. We hope or beg. Get used to it.

Dog with pleading eyes

So, Leave It Is

At risk of stating the blisteringly obvious, any hope of the UK remaining a member of the EU is gone. The same is true of the proposal for a People’s Vote: gone in one blow. So we formally leave at the end of next month and potentially crash out at the end of the transition period at the end of 2020. Johnson’s first pronouncement to make illegal any further extension to the transition period is childish, petulant and irresponsible: a harbinger of worse to come? And all this despite the fact the UK would now vote Remain: all recent opinion polls give a clear lead to Remain voters. And in the General Election, 53% of electors voted for parties with either a Remain or People’s Vote policy position. That’s called democracy – to some, anyway.

So the real battle on our hands becomes the nature of the partnership between the “sovereign” UK and the EU27. For “sovereign”, read “totally subservient to Trump and the USA and the weaker party in trade negotiations with the likes of China”. In the kindergarten language we have become inured to, soft Bullshit or hard Bullshit. So the fight is to argue for something least damaging to jobs and the economy: something like Labour was promising to put to a second vote if it gained power. It sounds a tough call, but we must try.

Reasons for Labour’s Worst Result

A letter writer in yesterday’s Guardian repeats a comment made by a coal mining colleague 60 years ago: “The Tories can tell lies much better than Labour can tell the truth”. Sadly, some things don’t change.

Many, many words have already been written and spoken about why Labour lost so heavily. The word “trust” has been repeated time and again. In no particular order of importance, factors include the distorting effect of the referendum aftermath, Labour losing touch with its traditional base in the North of England, the believability of the manifesto pledges, antisemitism and the Party’s handling of this and, of course, the character and background of Corbyn himself. If the party had stuck to its manifesto pledges (about which I got quite excited!) things would have been better. The extra policies that flowed were like throwing sweets from a moving van, in more and more desperation to be liked. It smacked of desperation and lost the Party credibility.

There is a case to answer for each factor: I will save any more detail for another time. One factor not listed above is the effect of the media. The “right-wing press” have been with us since the “Zinoviev letter” forgery and earlier. Grossly unfair that it is, nothing is going to change any time soon. More worrying is the dreadful performance of BBC News – other aspects of the BBC’s coverage have been better (Newsnight in particular: hail Emily Maitlis and Emma Barnett!) Laura Kuenssberg must go! Repeatedly retweeting Tory propaganda and lies without the most basic fact-checking is just one of several sackable offences. Sinisterly, all the BBC’s “errors” seemed to help the Tories. There has been a revolving door between the BBC news departments and Press Office / PR jobs in CCHQ. Deeply troublesome!

The jury is still out on the overall effect of social media, other than to say that the Tories’ posts, tweets and advertisements seemed to be mostly lies and their opponents’ mainly pointing out inconvenient truths. All this implies the need for a new Labour leader with the character to survive in this hostile landscape and build a believable position of trust. Another tough call!

Corbyn and Reflection

I don’t feel strongly about whether Corbyn stays on as leader of the Labour Party during the 3 months it takes to elect a new one. On balance, I would prefer him to go now and appoint a clearly neutral caretaker leader. Unlike Johnson, I believe Corbyn is an honourable, if stubborn, man. The necessary reflection must be carried out diligently, with active involvement of all wings of the party. Listening, including to ex-Labour voters, is a key part. Of more importance, if he were to stay in the interim, Corbyn must shed himself of the “comfort blanket” of his clique of immediate advisers and sycophants. Seamus Milne is an obvious example. Otherwise, any lessons learnt from a review will be tainted with the accusation that the conclusions will be biased by the current leadership.

Tories Old and New

There are many ways to classify the current batch of Tory MPs, new and old. Here are two of them.

Firstly, having got rid of the more sensible (i.e. reasonable) MPs in the last parliament, we can assume that we now either have Tory MPs who are “true believers” of Johnson’s far-right project – swivel-eyed lunatics like Gove, Rees-Mogg, Raab and Patel – and a rancid majority who throw away their principles for power. A dispiriting thought, but almost certainly true.

Secondly, Tory MPS can also be classified as those serving long-standing Tory-voting areas, mainly consisting of the better off and skewed to the home counties and those in former Labour seats in the Midlands and North where the anti-Labour swing was highest. It will be interesting to see how this latter group (a) will relate to their new constituents and (b) how, if at all, this affects Johnson’s policy stance.

The “Real” Johnson

After the 2016 Party conference, I wrote a post about Theresa May, Who May She Be? She was still something of an enigma, having revealed little about herself. Reading this post again, I find that it is about 80% correct but an important omission is any explicit reference to the “hostile environment”, a quintessentially May policy. In fact, it was not until my Hostile Means Nasty post nearly two years later when I first use the phrase. It’s easy to forget how quickly certain ideas pass into common usage.

And so to the man who will be Prime Minister for the next five years, barring unforeseen events: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. He still remains something of an enigma, but not because of any low profile. Rather, it’s mainly because of his pathological levels of narcissism. With his habitual lying and his “concern horizon” beginning and ending with himself, we have few clues as to predict how he will act when clearly no longer in campaign mode.

It is said that Johnson’s childhood ambition was to be “World King”. More realistically, as an adult he has aspired to be Prime Minister and his every move in recent years has been to that effect. He has now got what he wanted – and so, it would seem, have 29% of the electorate. (29% is The Tories’ vote share of 43.6% multiplied by the turnout of 67.3%.) Sadly, a third of us don’t seem to care.

So, what can we expect in this week’s Queen’s Speech? (We will know soon enough, but how much of it we believe is another matter.) Even his economic policies are unclear, as the manifesto’s back-of-the-fag-packet calculations (where they exist) give no clue. It all looks unsustainable: apparently higher spending in focus-group friendly areas combined with lower taxes. It doesn’t add up without borrowing at the levels spelled out in detail in the Labour manifesto. (Tory borrowing would be higher than Labour’s manifesto plans if we leave the EU with no deal at the end of 2020.)

public borrowing graph
Public borrowing

“One Nation” or Divisive?

Johnson made some conciliatory noises on Friday about “One-Nation Conservatism”, suggesting a different approach from the pre-election version. But beware: Johnson’s past habitual lying and Tory right wingers’ past form should mean we take all this with a mighty pinch of salt. “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”  (M Thatcher, Downing Street 1979, on taking office). She then went on to become the most divisive PM of my lifetime, so far.

If we do get a more conciliatory Johnson now that he doesn’t need to kowtow to the DUP and the ERG, I guess we are expected to be grateful and submissive. Which takes us right back to the dog begging for scraps from the table.

But I do have one question. If Johnson crashes the UK out of the EU next December against the wishes of the majority of us, denies the Scots their vote and drives a wedge between GB and Ireland (in the form of border checks in the Irish Sea), how sustainable is that?

Cunning As a Fox

Finally, back to the Dog Days. Except, of course, we the people of the UK are not dogs. The masthead to my blog clearly shows that I do not have big, brown, pleading, doleful eyes! (Compare photos at the top!) More importantly, I hope, is that we, as people, have some self-respect.

The BatLionFox

So – changing animals rapidly – what do we need from a new Labour leader? The Guardian yesterday lists seven contenders (six women, one man): Rebecca Long-Bailey, Emily Thornberry, Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner, Jess Phillips, Lisa Nandy and Yvette Cooper. My instant gut reactions are as follows: my head says Keir Starmer, my heart Jess Phillips. But first we need a proper period of reflection, as mentioned earlier. For me, this includes doing proper research on all of the contenders before casting my vote – I might change my mind!

The combined forces of the Opposition Parties fall far short of the Tories’ MP count. But much can be achieved – or resisted – by the political equivalent of guerrilla warfare. This means we need an Opposition leader who can think on their feet, stand up to the bullies and call out the liars. Perhaps someone with the hearing of a bat, the roar of a lion and the cunning of a fox – but not Liam, of course!!

Reflect, listen, learn, organise!!

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About Bloody Time

Two news items in the past week have given me a faint hope that we may finally begin to put this country on a better, by which I mean a fairer, way of running things. But both also provoked in me the reaction “about bloody time!”

The first news item broke about a week ago, when my wife and I were out of the country on a short break but the repercussions have rumbled on all week. It gives me hope that one key part of what I call “feudal detritus” may, at last, be beginning to crumble. The second item has already been misrepresented in the right-wing press as a “return to the 1970s” but may more accurately be described as a return to the spirit of the immediate post-war period in 1945.

The Banned Old Duke of York

Andrew headlines
Andrew headlines

It comes at something of a relief to see that many more people are waking up to the reality of the true character and skills of Andrew Windsor, second son of our current Head of State. People who know me can confirm that I have been banging on for years about two – previously inconvenient – truths about the man. One is that he is extremely stupid intellectually. The other is that he is morally reprehensible, arrogant and lacking in any self-awareness or concern for others. He reminds me very much of another pampered, spoiled son, over-indulged by his ever-loving mother: Mark Thatcher (of “lost in the desert” fame).

A decade or so ago, Andrew had a “job” ludicrously entitled Britain’s “Special Trade Envoy”. This entailed him jet-setting around the globe at taxpayers’ expense, staying in posh hotels and dining in expensive restaurants with some of the worst dictators and Human Rights abusers on the globe. And its purpose? To flog them British arms. In the end, his lack of intellect and self-awareness made him a diplomatic embarrassment and the role was quietly dropped. My favourite quotation from this period was from an obviously exasperated senior civil servant who was involved in these publicly-funded jaunts. Speaking of our envoy, he said “there is no evidence of any cerebral activity upstairs”. I just love that use of the word “upstairs”.

Anyway, a combination of a “car crash” TV interview (which Windsor thought had gone quite well!) and close association with a sex offender has finally woken people up to the man’s true character. He is now “suspended indefinitely” (sort of, it looks like) from his public “duties”. His big brother seems to have had the final word on this.

This “I told you so” moment is all very well. But the real significance is in the wider implications for the future of the monarchy as an institution. This is spelled out more fully in an interesting article on Friday by Gaby Hinsliff. As she says: “If the monarchy cannot put its house in order, it should not be surprised if the nation ultimately seeks to do it for them”. Republicans like me can only hope this is the beginning of the end.

The Labour Party Manifesto

Labour Manifesto 2019
Labour Manifesto 2019

A lot has already been said about the Labour Party Manifesto, launched this week. The usual hostile suspects in the press have used words like “unaffordable”, betraying their lack of understanding of economics and the damage done by 40 years of free market fundamentalism. Funding sources have been identified by Labour to explain how the policies in the manifesto will be paid for. It’s evident that Labour has learnt the lessons of the false basis of economic thought over the past four decades; the Tories plainly have not. The Overton Window is shifting back in Labour’s direction.

For the first time in decades, I feel genuinely excited to see a set of priorities which chime well with my own thoughts. Here are just a few of the details which provoked in me an “at last!” reaction:

  • The prospect of rescuing the struggling NHS with a stable, above inflation increase in funding for the next few years.
  • All schools brought back under democratic control. (I was at a briefing session for Governors earlier this week: there was much complaining about the confusion of responsibilities and lack of control introduced in the Gove / Cummings era.)
  • Closure of tax loopholes for private schools: educating only those who can afford to pay is self-evidently not per se a charitable objective.
  • Higher tax contributions to the common good from the wealthiest 5% (a figure fact-checked and confirmed by the BBC on Friday).
  • The proposed “green new deal” to create high-skill jobs and tackle the greatest threat of all: that to our planet and its environment.
  • Re-humanising the welfare system by removing its most vindictive policies (sanctions, benefits cap, bedroom tax) introduced in the Cameron years.
  • A public health approach to drugs policy – hopefully one which is finally evidence-based.
  • Renationalisation of the natural monopolies of energy, water, railways and the 21st century sine qua non, broadband supply.
  • Last but not least, building many more genuinely affordable homes, including a target of 100,000 new council houses a year. (From the 1950s to the 1970s, Labour and Conservative government oversaw up to 300,000 new homes a year, so it can be done, if Tory dogma doesn’t get in the way.)

There’s more to like, but that will do for now. One economics editor has described the manifesto as “radical, populist and worthy of Attlee”. High praise indeed!

Living in Hope

One lesson to be learned from the Andrew affair is that the Establishment always looks after its own. Labour’s manifesto paints a bold vision of how it doesn’t always have to be this way. Maybe, just maybe, there is finally some room for hope to replace frustration and despair for our future political landscape.

A century ago, in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell wrote these lines:
..All who live under the present system practice selfishness, more or less. We must be selfish: the System demands it. We must be selfish or we shall be hungry and ragged and finally die in the gutter. The more selfish we are, the better off we shall be.”

One hundred years ago, income and wealth inequality were at a peak. In the 20th century, it took two World Wars to reduce that inequality significantly and to remind ourselves of our common good. (Part 3 of Thomas Piketty’s 2013 book Capital in the 21st Century explains this in some detail.) In the past 40 years, the false economic policy choices introduced by Thatcher and Reagan resurrected the moral sanctity of selfishness. “Greed is good” was the takeout line from that approach. As a result, over those 40 years, inequality levels have returned to levels last seen just before the outbreak of the first World War. No wonder Tressell’s words seem so fresh and relevant to today. Labour’s manifesto offers an opportunity to move economic policy in the UK to a healthy position, in line with how humans actually think and behave. (See my 2015 posts Being Human II: the Four Cs and Why George Osborne is Only Half Human for an explanation.) We can but hope.

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Antidisestablishmentarianism

When I was a child, the word “antidisestablishmentarianism” was a kind of word challenge. With its 28 letters and 12 syllables – count them or see Wikipedia if you don’t believe me – it’s claimed to be (one of) the longest words in English. For much of my life, it’s just remained as a kind of freakish part of our language and I never thought much about what it actually means. Actually, you can find a brief definition in Wikipedia, too.

Head of the Church??

So what brought the subject to my mind? It was the coincidence of two things. The first was a timeline in the preface to a book I’m reading, summarising key events in progressive politics with their dates, from the 1832 Reform Act to the early 21st century. The second was number 11 in a list of 11 items which the National Secular Society is lobbying to be included in political parties’ pledges for the forthcoming election. The 11th pledge is “separate church and state”, a constitutional reform woefully overdue in England.

The 19th and Early 20th Centuries

The term “antidisestablishmentarianism “ came to prominence in the mid 19th century as a resistance movement to the progressive reforms of, naturally enough, proponents of disestablishmentarianism. The latter idea had been floated early in the 19th century by Radical thinkers including Jeremy Bentham, “godfather” of utilitarianism. Following the aforementioned 1832 Reform Act and the emancipation of Catholics, the idea was further spurred on by nonconformist Christians.

The Liberation Society was founded by Edward Miall in 1844 to press for the disestablishment of the Church of England. Many MPs in the Liberal Party were supportive of the change but – you’ve guessed it – the Tories were opposed. Plus ςa change. And there, 175 years later, it remains stuck, in England, anyway.

The situation was rather different elsewhere in the British Isles. The Irish got there first, with disestablishment of the Anglican Church in 1869. Agitation for disestablishment started earlier there, in the previous century. This was hardly surprising as the Irish established church was especially corrupt, being disproportionately rich in a country full of poor Catholics. Gladstone was the Liberal Prime Minister at the time of Irish reform, via the Irish Church Act 1869.

The Welsh had to wait until 1920 for disestablishment there, following the long tradition of non-conformism (principally Methodism) in Wales. As is often the case, things were a bit different in Scotland. First, there was the famous “schism” of 1843 when Evangelicals split to form the Free Church of Scotland. The 1921 Church of Scotland Act formalised the reconciliation of the factions and can be seen as a sort of de jure disestablishment, even if the modern Scottish Church sees itself “in terms of service not status”. More information can be found in the section The 1929 Settlement in the Church of Scotland website history page.

The Present Day

So here we are now. In England, we still have an “Established” Church with 21 bishops in the House of Lords and the Head of State also head of that church. Positively mediaeval, I call it.

About a decade ago, you may recall, constitutional reform was again being discussed, mainly in relation to the reform or replacement of the anti-democratic House of Lords. It’s now 108 years since the Parliament Act which restricted the Lords’ powers. Those alive then would be aghast that no progress has been made since 1911.

So, I suppose – if asked – I would call myself a disestablishmentarian. But I would also sign up to the other 10 items in the NSS list. Full details are on the NSS website. In summary, along with disestablishment of the CofE, the other 10 items are:

  1. No more faith schools
  2. End religious discrimination in school admissions
  3. Abolish the collective worship requirement – but note this brilliant new website, Assemblies For All, a great new resource for schools
  4. Promote free speech as a positive virtue
  5. End non-stun slaughter
  6. Review laws on assisted dying
  7. End all forms of non-consensual genital cutting
  8. Outlaw caste discrimination
  9. End “the advancement of religion” as a charitable purpose
  10. Guarantee secular public services.

Oh, and one more thing: back to the heady days of the Tory / Liberal Democrat coalition under David Cameron. In 2014, as Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg – remember Cleggmania? – advocated the separation of Church and state “in the long run”. Just as in the mid-19th century, this was still too much for the same-old enemy of reform. David Cameron said things were just fine as they are, responding to Clegg that disestablishmentarianism is “a long-term Liberal idea, but it is not a Conservative one”.

Oh, and coming even more up to date, I wonder what our current Prime Minister would make of the word. Probably, very much like I would have done as an eight year old. Some of us just never grow up. As I said earlier, plus ςa change, plus c’est la meme chose. Or, as we might say in English: same old Tories, defending the establishment few.

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Human Values

I’ve been a school governor for over three decades. Here are some ideas which help to explain why I do it.

1970s: The Germ of an Idea

In the early 1970s, I was flat sharing in London. One of my co-tenants was an Australian woman who normally worked as a teacher. At the time I knew her, she was on an extended working holiday in the UK. In a conversation with her, she made a number of assertions.

The first was about the relative benefit to national economies of education and military spending. The second was on their relative moral worth.

silo and classroom
Silo and classroom

Economic and Moral Benefits

The economic arguments are worth repeating, in particular the multiplier effects of spending in these two areas. Every pound (or Australian dollar) spent on education is repaid many times over by the enhancements in the skills – and value to the economy – of each generation. In turn, these skills could be passed on to succeeding generations in a form of virtuous circle of benefit. Military expenditure, by contrast, is used for killing and destroying people and things (buildings, etc.) or, like nuclear weapons, are kept in concrete bunkers, do nothing for the whole period they exist and cost money to guard. Nearly fifty years later, these arguments seem a bit simplistic but still hold a basic truth.

But it’s the moral comparison which I still find most compelling. The moral worth to society of spending one’s career as a teacher seems the greatest of any as it is one person’s contribution to the skills and moral values of future generations. By skills I mean basic life skills such as patience, sharing, taking your turn (for the youngest pupils) through to more obvious basic “academic” skills such as reading, writing and numeracy through to a life-long passion for education: learning to learn. Moral worth comes from teaching respect, openness to others’ ideas and views, courage, perseverance, self-respect, tolerance and by school staff modelling these behaviours as they work.

Keeping the Peace 1

One way of “keeping the peace”, at least in the short term, comes through policing people’s behaviour and, in extremis, by military means. Such methods tend to rely on fear as a motivator: a poor one in my view. Fear, like some addictive drugs, is usually required to be applied in increasing “doses” to continue to effect. The law of diminishing returns applies here. Fear can also, of course, lead to resentment by the fearful.

I’m not denying – and I salute – those individual acts of courage which are unique to military service: putting oneself in the “line of fire”, so to speak. But I have very strong doubts about the moral and ethical basis of choosing a military career. My discomfort flows from the unquestioning obedience to orders from a “higher” authority. This is tantamount to signing a blank cheque for any military-related government policy decision, no matter how morally dubious. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not a pacifist: some degree of “defence” expenditure is necessary. But I would struggle to find a morally defensible casus belli since World War Two.

Keeping the Peace 2

I digress, so let’s get back to education. The school where I am Chair of Governors is situated in the most multinational, multi-ethnic part of a town which is itself quite multicultural. Broadly speaking, it’s a relatively peaceful place and people of many nationalities and cultures generally get along fine with each other. We have around 45 different nationalities represented in our school, a fact which we celebrate. Mutual respect is hard-wired into our values. A neighbouring school on the same “campus” site shares our values.

As I said recently to the Chief Education Officer in our Local Authority, I firmly believe that the values we encourage in our pupils contribute strongly to the community coherence of our town.

British Values?

Which is why, unsurprisingly, I get annoyed when politicians (or Ofsted aping the words) bang on about “British” values. For the record, to the best of my recollection, it was Gordon Brown who, as Prime Minister, started it. The Tories have continued to emphasise this concept as part of the English nationalism and exceptionalism which has, tragically, taken over the Party. To the idea of “British” values, I simply say this: there is no such thing. The values we emphasise in our school are to be found in any liberal democracy in, let’s say, Northern Europe at least. Similar values can be found, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout “Western” liberal democracies.

I would like to say that they are “human” values, but, sadly, I don’t see that they extend that far.

Measuring the Wrong Things

The reality is that we live in a country where Ofsted has been given the job to assess and judge schools and similar institutions. My recent post Abolish Ofsted? goes into more detail on this. The inspection framework doesn’t measure those valuable cultural and societal issues mentioned above. There are some practical reasons for this. “Community coherence” is hard to measure: it is quite subjective and the effects of “good” education in this dimension may take decades to show. Today’s Guardian opinion piece on the importance of creativity in our education system is another example.

A good Ofsted inspector will understand this and (a) make an effort to understand the context of the school and (b) take a holistic approach which makes due allowance for the softer, harder-to-measure aspects of a school’s performance. It is a pity that many Ofsted inspectors are not up to the job in this respect.

Respect

So, my deepest respect goes out to teachers: it’s a hard but rewarding job educating our future citizens. And I salute their “critical friends”, my fellow School Governors, volunteers all (as far as I am aware). In these troubling times, our very future as a civilised nation depends on their dedication.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
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