It’s an unspoken rule of diplomacy that one does not compare one’s opponent to the Nazis except in the most extreme of circumstances. Which is what makes former Civil Service Head Bob Kerslake’s comments on Newsnight earlier this week all the more extraordinary:
From his comments, it’s clear there was disagreement and strong misgivings within the coalition Cabinet about the stance being taken on immigration policy. For a senior (former) civil servant to use such undiplomatic language is truly shocking and should not be ignored.
Way back in 2002, Theresa May had warned at the Tory Party conference that the Conservatives were increasingly seen as the “Nasty Party”. Subsequent actions show she forgot her own advice. The latest revelations by the Guardian show just how Nasty the Tories and May have become. (At the time of writing, this story has been picked up by BT.com and the Daily Mail(!!), with some automated computer-generated versions on YouTube and Facebook. The Sun has a heavily-spun account and the Telegraph has an account which effectively reverses the truth. Significantly, I can find NO reference at all to the story on the BBC website!!!)
The leak is this. On 30 January 2017, mini-May, Home Secretary Amber Rudd sent a private memo to May, vowing to give immigration officials more “teeth” to hunt down and deport illegal migrants. Rudd wrote “…I will be refocusing immigration enforcement’s work to concentrate on enforced removals.” This included diverting £10m of funding away from fighting crime “with the aim of increasing the number of enforced removals by more than 10% over the next few years”. May’s thumbprint is all over the harshening of policy. Rudd says her proposals had been “Informed by the review that you [i.e. May] commissioned whilst home secretary”. Nasty, nasty.
A short, but hopefully relevant, diversion here. I was captivated by the epic TV series Heimat by Edgar Reitz when it was first broadcast by the BBC between 1984 and 1993. I watched the more recent repeats on BBC4 a few years ago. Warning: total playing time for the 32 episodes is fifty-nine and a half hours(!) Of particular note was the portrayal of the Wiegand family in the 1930s and 40s. The Wiegands were a (fictional) middle class family ruined by the crash and hyperinflation of the late 1920s whose fortune and status were restored in the early 1930s. Their gradual accommodation to, and subsequent support for, the Nazis is told tellingly and convincingly. The message was clear: it could happen to any such family, anywhere. (The fissures and divisions in the UK engendered by Cameron’s insane decision to call a referendum on EU membership have increased significantly the chances of something similar happening here.)
I like Germany and its people a lot: most significantly because they openly acknowledge their dark periods of history (they don’t get darker than the Holocaust), they have learnt from them and moved forward. They teach their children well the lessons learned – in marked contrast to our denial of the dark side of the British Empire. I’m currently reading an excellent book: Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire. Even the briefest of readings of any review of this book (I chose Amazon’s at random) demonstrates there is a very, very different story to tell of the effects of the Raj from the Kiplingesque one we usually hear.
Nazi or Just Nasty?
None of this makes Theresa May an Adolf Hitler. But such empathy as she does possess lies solely with the sort of Maidenhead middle classes just like the Wiegands. From her authoritarian approach and her actions, both as Home Secretary and as Prime Minister, I could easily picture her as some middle-ranking official just obeying orders to administer the Final Solution.
So a reasoned and reasonable conclusion is that May isn’t a Nazi, but she’s done more than anyone else to turn the Tories into the Nasty Party. Nasty, nasty, nasty.
I have been banging on about May for three years now: call them “Amber Warnings” if you like. Take your pick:
Are you as bemused as I am about all the hype around the Commonwealth? Little Betty holds a meeting at Windsor Castle to engage in a pre-emptive strike by the House of Windsor to establish her much-criticized son as the new head of the Commonwealth, putting other Prime Ministers in an awkward spot. Not exactly democracy. It would appear she has got her wish: shame, shame, shame: missed opportunity.
What’s It Good For?
In “War”, Edwin Starr sang “War, huh, yeah, What is it good for? Absolutely nothing”. I think much the same about the Commonwealth. Wikipedia gives a summary of the Commonwealth and a map of its 53 members, mostly former countries of the British Empire. I’ve always seen it as a nostalgia-fest for the Queen, which would be allowed to quietly die once she does.
The Commonwealth doesn’t seem to be very good at anything. As Wikipedia says here, more than half the Commonwealth countries do not recognise LGBT rights and the majority of Commonwealth countries still criminalise homosexual acts between consenting adults. A proposal by the UK government to bring this to the CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) was watered down before it saw the light of day.
The official Commonwealth website shows that it actually has a Charter! Here are the pages for Tolerance and Human Rights. Fine words, but unenforced, just a load of bollocks.
Lenny Henry’s Commonwealth
I watched the Lenny Henry programme about the Commonwealth, where he revisited his Jamaican roots. He pulled several punches, but at the end of the programme, I was none the wiser as to what the commonwealth does. Everyone knows about the Commonwealth Games: there was much hype and extended coverage on the BBC, trying to make it look like a mini Olympics. There’s also a War Graves commission and some cultural and literary connections. The criteria for joining the club are suitably vague.
Now that the bad news has been announced that Little Betty embarrassed her guests in a most unconstitutional way, the sooner the Commonwealth is laid to rest, the better. Under Charles, it will simply be a rallying point for the Leaver post-imperial deluded as a sort of Empire 2.0. With only 9% of our trade going to the Commonwealth countries, it will never make up for the loss of 44% with the EU. India, the most populated country, owes Britain no favours.
A few weeks ago, The Guardian put forward an interesting idea: that Barak Obama become the new Commonwealth leader. Now that would be an interesting idea, and a rallying point around those opposed to Trump. Sadly, that opportunity has been lost. Better to kill it off. Goodbye and good riddance.
About four years ago, I was returning to the UK via Luton Airport. I was struck by the number of Home Office signs on the approach to the UK Border starting with he word “NO”. I was half expecting to see signs stating “No Blacks”, “No Irish”, “No Dogs”. By the time I got to passport control, I felt ashamed and emabarrassed to be British. But never mind, my passport was the same colour as everyone elses’ in the EU Passports line, so I could merge with the crowd.
My thoughts today with the Windrush generation, I remember also the insincere PA announcement you get when a train reaches its destination. “Thank you for travelling with X today”. For X, insert your own privately owned monopoly supplier of train services – as if you had a choice.
So for the Windrush folk, we get “Thank you for choosing the UK to spend your life, work hard, bring up children and pay your taxes. Want something? Pension? Cancer treatment? Now fuck off!”
A brief history, for Daily Mail readers, who joined the fight today.
Theresa May was Home Secretary at the time of my Luton Airport embarrassment, implementing a “hostile environment” for “illegal” immigrants. Schools, The NHS, employers, landlords and the rest were turned into Home Office police, to check the immigration status of all who dared use publicly funded services. Vans patrolled the streets of north London telling illegal immigrants to “GoHome”.
TheGuardian published stories about the plight of the Windrush generation on 01/12/2017, 21/02/2018, 22/02/2018, 10/03/2018 (the £54,000 cancer story), 22/03/2018 (May’s refusal to intervene in the cancer case), 12/04/2018, 13/04/2018 and 16/04/2018.
12/04/2018: Law Society says 50% of immigration cases are overturned on appeal to an independent panel. It says the system is “seriously flawed” and having a “devastating” effect on the families. Home Office said it was “meeting its targets” and some cases were “complex”. Both political decisions.
Theresa May resisted calls from Caribbean leaders for a formal meeting with heads of the 12 countries at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting until the early hours of 16/04/2018.
16/04/2018 07:16 Penny Mordaunt MP says “We need to do a better job”
16/04/2018 12:57 Caroline Noakes MP, Immigration Minister admits “some people were deported in error”
15:54 Amber Rudd MP, Home Secretary, the Mini-May, is sent to the Commons to apologise and denounce May’s policy. Rudd blames her officials for getting it wrong.
At about the same time, May announces U-turn and will hold an “informal” meeting with the 12 Caribbean heads.
A special task force is set up to clear up the mess in two weeks. Oh yeah? So that’s all right then. Except it isn’t.
So how’s about a civil disobedience campaign where everyone who is forced by law to check immigration status just stops. As Chair of Governors of a school , I’d be happy to persuade my governors to do this – as long as a few others join in: like the Poll Tax in Scotland, the government can’t fine us all.
In the meantime, here are some new words to a well-known song. All together now:
Land of “Nope” and Tory, Mother of the Free How shall we exploit thee, those not born of thee?
Wider still and wider, may thy checks be set May, who made thee Nasty, make thee Nastier yet May, who made thee Nasty, Make thee Nastier yet.
Welcome to Little Britain, the Vassal State. May has used powers grabbed for themselves by mediaeval kings to wage “war” when England’s very existence was seen as under threat – usually from the French! It was bad enough when Blair chose to become Bush’s poodle – at least Bush was rational and he sought Parliamentary approval first. This, strategically for the longer term, is much worse.
Is this what the Leavers intended when they said “take back control” – only to hand it straight over to a US president with the attention span of a gnat and the social development of a 3 year old? Let’s keep some sense of proportion. No, this is not World War Three by any means: a raid roughly twice the size of the last one, but limited. But peace now depends entirely on Putin’s reaction.
We’re now trapped, helpless, between two giant egos, both of whom have said some very stupid things in the (recent) past: Trump and Putin. Trump has done most of the provoking (in words), Putin, more sinisterly, by covert action (fake news, etc.). So the ball would appear to be in Putin’s court- as I write this. The problem is complicated by the uncertainty in the US position: 6 hours ago, CNN reported a contradiction between Trump’s comments and those of his Defense Secretary James Mattis. So uncertainty rules.
Brave New World?
Forget international law since the end of WWII, based upon the UN and lessons learnt from the collapse of the League of Nations. Trump has rewritten the rules – partly (some would argue mainly) because Putin has vetoed all attempts to use the UN Security Council to do its job. The putative New World Order is based purely on raw power. Using the average of two sets of figures on Wikipedia, the US accounts for 36% of all global military spending, at $607bn or 3.3% of its GDP, Russia $65bn (5.0%), France $52bn (2.2%) and the UK $49.5bn (2.0%). (The UK GDP figure is not declared on Wiki, so I used the BBC 2016 figures). By contrast, Germany spends only 1.2% of its GDP, or $41.4bn; the next highest EU figure (by amount) is Italy at $25.4bn (1.4%).
There is an obvious “push” factor here. The more a country chooses to spend on bombs, planes, aircraft carriers, troops and the rest, the more willing it is to use it. Eisenhower, at the end of his Presidency, warned of the lobbying power of the “military industrial complex”. The Wikipedia entry for “Why We Fight” refers only to the seven propaganda films made by the US military in the 1940s; it does carry a link to the 2005 documentary by Eugene Jarecki “Why We Fight” which I’ve seen. It gives a clear exposition of the “push” effect and is hard to come by in the USA. It’s available in the US on DVD, but hurry, Amazon has only one copy in stock! (At the time I write this.)Not quite censorship, but close.
So, frankly, the UN’s future hangs in the balance, suspended between the twin narcissistic egos of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. May has tied the UK firmly to the former, without any vote in Parliament. Is that democracy in action – or taking back control? Not for the 48% who voted Remain, nor many of the Leavers, I suspect, when they realise what has happened.
Timing and Parliament
The timing of the attacks was very convenient for May – two days before Parliament reconvenes. Macron was in a great hurry – for purely domestic purposes which are not clear. The trick was to get Trump’s attention long enough – and the famous US Constitution’s “checks and balances” to propose a measured attack. (One advantage of reading Fire and Fury – see my earlier post Book Review – is that I have a better understanding about how the Trump White House currently operates.)
Macron and Napoleon
I had my suspicions about President Macron: there was always something of the Napoleon about him. Previously, in true Nicholas Parsons style, I had given him the benefit of the doubt. But no more. We need to watch him like the hawk he has turned out to be.
The future stability of the EU now depends basically on the relationship between France and Germany: the UK has made itself irrelevant (other than as a destabilising force) by May’s mishandling of the EU referendum result. As a result of choosing to abjectly follow Trump’s tweet agenda (with political cover from France on timing), we have already left the EU, in all but name.
At the time of drafting (Saturday morning), it was hard to find any definitive news on Germany’s current position: Here’s a couple, from the New York Times and Samaa.tv It seems the Americans and Pakistanis are better informed than the British via their media.
The Devil Has the Best Tunes
The mood music will clearly favour May in the short term. Simple, decisive action always looks attractive at first. As religious apolgists often say, “The Devil Has the Best Tunes”. It’s arguable that Cliff Richard’s Best track, during his 1977 revival period, was Devil Woman. The “measured attack” mentioned above included a great deal of use of hotlines and back channels between the USA and Russia. We know we’re in trouble when we don’t talk any more.
As a phrase that’s been around since Roman times, “bread and circuses” have been used to pacify the masses over the centuries. Karl Marx probably had a thing or two to say on the subject, as did his younger siblings (or not)…
At three and a half minutes, this video is a bit long: younger viewers may find the racist (Black and White Minstrel Show) feel offensive. This was standard for 1930s Hollywood.
When the Truth Emerges
No doubt, Parliament will have its revenge at not being consulted: we’ve just seen May in full-blown Little Miss I-Know-Best mode. I think there will be some debate in Parliament on Tuesday and there will be ample aopportunity during the committee stages of the Exiting the EU bill during the Autumn.
In the short term, the BBC will revert to its WWII comfort zone as Government propagandist, last used to good effect in the Falklands war. There’ll be lots of talk of “precision strikes”, but Trump’s (contradictory) tweets will ensure that Assad moved key assets out of harm’s way.
But the truth will slowly emerge, and who will you trust?
Those of us who wish to see a brighter future than as America’s supine vassal may need to find a little of the Bogart-style steel… Here’s looking at you – and you – and you, to keep up the pressure on May and her ragbag of a government.
Be very careful about what you wish for – and who you cheer for – in the days and weeks ahead.
I’m not usually in the business of writing book reviews, but here goes…
Some friends with whom I’d normally volunteer heard, back in January or February, that I was back in hospital and sent me a present. It was the book Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff. In the event, I had other reading material and only read it a few weeks ago. It was published after much hype on 6th January. My colleagues were well-intentioned: they knew how deep my contempt for Trump was thought it would keep me amused.
My summary: don’t bother – it’s a pile of crap.
Wolff’s face stares out from the end cover of the sleeve, which informs us he has received “numerous awards”. He certainly has an over-inflated sense of his own self-importance and access to the Trump White House during his early months in office. Try as he might, it’s obvious he’s a bit of a fan of Steve Bannon: the book kind of runs out of steam when Bannon joins the long list of White House resignations and sackings.
Apparently, according to Wikipedia, it was the New York Times’ No. 1 bestseller, which tells you more about the alien nature of the USA, and New York City, than anything else. Well, whoopee-do.
Not familiar with Steve Bannon: if you saw any of the amusing Saturday Night Live sketches in early 2016, he’s the one depicted as the Grim Reaper standing behind Trump at his presidential desk and exercising a malign influence over the totally inexperienced (to politics) Trump. A fair depiction of the man. Bannon and Breitbart’s views are so far to the right they would be off the scale in any European context.
Nevertheless, I read the whole book from beginning to end, but I was mightily relieved when it was all over. It put me in mind of an incident from the 1980s when I was on holiday on a Greek Island with my first wife and kids. A friend, whose judgement I thought I could trust, lent me a book by a very well-known American author. Clue: he sold over 750 million books and is mentioned in the episode of Fawlty Towers called The American. Against my “better” judgement, I took the book on holiday: it was the only reading material I had.
The incident I remember distinctly took place on the beach. A fellow Brit tourist, noticing what I was reading, approached, thinking he had found a fellow fan. He made some reference to the book and how much he enjoyed it. In an excess of candour and distinct lack of diplomatic skills, I said just four words in reply – I regretted the words even before they had left my lips: “I think it’s crap”. I still recall his disappointed facial expression as he backed away, confused: why would this idiot (i.e. me) read a book he didn’t like? Why indeed?
The Language Used
The book is really unsuitable for a UK audience. It’s written in a style which required a good understanding of US (or New York) slang terms and requires a great deal of knowledge of the workings of the White House. It’s full of the characters Trump has surrounded himself with and the macho, testosterone-fuelled aggression of the rich and powerful. Much of the language is simply inaccessible to a UK reader and I had to let it wash over me and get the general drift.
The Premise: Life in the White House
The overall tale is of a bunch of non-politicians totally unprepared for government: the Trump White House is utterly dysfunctional. It starts its days as a random bunch of feuding tribes, all busy stabbing each other in the back and leaking like crazy to the traditional media, the purveyors of “fake news”. Then it gradually coalesces into two rival groups, vying for Trump’s attention (his attention span is notoriously short). One faction is the uber-right, an incomprehensible world inhabited by Bannon, Breitbart and such like, the other faction Wolff calls “Jarvanka”, basically the family running government like the Trump businesses, Sopranos style. (It’s a conflation of Jared and Ivanka, of course: witty or not?)
The overall picture presented is of entirely dysfunctional White House. Two of our favourite US box sets were The Sopranos and The West Wing. The picture painted is pure Sopranos. Trump’s White House differs from the Sopranos in two ways. Unlike Tony Soprano and his extended family, no one in the Trump White House has any endearing human qualities: it’s all scheming and back-stabbing. And Trump and his rich cronies with whom he has chosen to surround himself are rich enough to pay for very clever lawyers who can help keep them out of trouble with the law.
(That having been said, Jared Kushner’ s father Charlie has spent time in prison for “tax evasion, witness tampering and making illegal campaign donations” – p17).
If the book is to be believed – and it’s clearly “sexed up” to sell more copies – Trump himself is every bit as dreadful as your worst nightmares – and then some. He has the attention span of a gnat, refuses to read any written brief if at all possible and certainly not any longer than one side of A4 paper. He refuses to watch PowerPoint presentations (some sympathy there!) so White House staff have had to try various methods to get his attention. His outright refusal to study detail and his almost total ignorance of foreign policy matters are confirmed in the book. One chink in his armour is a child-like need to be liked personally: this trait is exploited by the cannier members of staff.
I’ve always seen him as a petulant 3 year old. At different points in the book, colleagues liken him to 2 year old and 9 year old. In the latter stages of the book, it’s clear Trump has absolutely none of the basic attributes needed to be President. Audit trails exist all over the place, any one of them damning enough to start impeachment proceedings. By the end of the story, his supporters on the uber-right broadly divide into two groups. There’s the “let’s make the best of it and wait until 2020 and find another empty vessel as our puppet” group – Trump doesn’t have the self-discipline to be their man. And then there’s the “Trump must go now” camp.
These folks are really not interested in the affairs of our little island. Theresa May makes her first – and only – appearance on p258 – and then only in describing the seating plan at a G20 conference. Mr Slime fares rather better, if only in word count. On p275, he is described as “the right wing British Brexit leader who was part of the greater Breitbart circle”. Oh, and on the following page, there is, surprisingly, an extensive quote lifted from the Guardian. And that’s it.
So, further evidence (of sorts) that our infantile, needy delusion about a “special relationship” with the USA is just that: delusion. I draw the obvious conclusion as to who our best friends are (and it’s not Trump’s America).
A Warning for the Future
I finish with a direct quotation from the book: it brought a chill to my spine.
“Trump, in Bannon’s view, was a chapter, or even a detour, in the Trump revolution, which had always been about weaknesses in the two major parties. The Trump presidency – however long it lasted – had created the opening that would provide the true outsiders their opportunity, Trump was just the beginning.
Standing on the Breitbart steps that October morning, Bannon smiled and said ‘It’s going to be as wild as shit’” (My emphasis)
Be very afraid, and avoid this dreadful book!
[Since writing the above, I have looked at “professional” reviews from the Guardian, Irish Times, Amazon (4 stars) and the New York Times. Two comment on Wolff’s previous notoriety for inaccuracies in reporting. Otherwise, nothing to add.]
[And finally, I realised that the still picture comes from a Monty Python Sketch called Book of the Month Club. Its selling point, according to the John Cleese deleivery character, was “Join our club and, after the third book, you get a pile of dung”. It left me pondering what three books I’d be forced to read to get Wolff’s book for free!]
The BBC is, by common consent around the world, the best broadcasting organisation – by about a billion miles! At 40p a day, it’s also the best value on earth. We get multiple channels of uninterrupted TV and radio broadcasting, a definitive source to turn to on the internet, and much more besides. And we share our radio services with the world (World Service and domestic channels via the internet, for free. It’s called soft power.) (The news that children and young people spend more time on Netflix than the whole of BBC output saddened me considerably and shows what a difficult time traditional media have in this digital age.)
But some things need to change: the BBC, in some respects, has been bullied and starved of funds for so long that some of its output is cowed and subservient to Government propaganda.
The Good Stuff
Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of stuff on the BBC which reflects life in modern Britain. In drama, I particularly liked David Hare’s highly political Collateral, completed only recently on catch-up following my extensive hospitalisation. No exaggeration, but I think that Nish Kumar’s Mash Report is the best satire on TV since That Was the Week That Was, way back in 1963. Nothing else comes close in the years between, except possibly Spitting Image. That was on ITV in the days when the channel was obliged to observe its obligations as a Public Service Broadcaster.
On the Mash Report, I particularly like Rachel Parris, who very cleverly walks a wafer-thin line between satirising the inanity of much of today’s TV output and making some razor-sharp political points. BBC Radio has The Now Show and, more genteelly, The News Quiz, where Government stupidity is called to account. (BBC1’s Have I Got News for You, originally a spin-off from The NewsQuiz, has grown a bit safe and flabby with age, but has its moments.)
No, the problem is more narrow that this – but oh so important. The problem is not with the BBC’s output as a whole, but with BBC News.
New Labour and Beyond
New Labour under Blair didn’t exactly tell it straight. Every new initiative – and there were many – came with some form of spending target. Spending was announced again when plans were finalised and when funds were allocated to specific plans. Those working in the voluntary sector at that time quickly learned to keep an eye open for any financial commitments from which they could benefit, add it all up over time and divide by 3. (The same money, often grouped differently in different announcements, was typically repeated 3 times in different ways). Each statement was, in a sense, true, but the end result was always less than it seemed at first sight.
All pretence at honesty went out the window under Cameron and May – particularly under the malign influence of the all-powerful Osborne, for whom political machinations, rather than economics, was his strong point. Propaganda demonising the poor and deflecting the blame away from their friends (and Tory donors) in the City was broadly successful. The BBC didn’t seem to notice – or care – too much.
The Low Point
The BBC had a lamentable time during the EU referendum campaign. It was all over the place, trying to find a false “balance” between the arguments of the Remainers and the Leavers. There was no moral equivalence between the two sides. The Leavers (especially the more extreme Leave.EU) simply told lies after lies after lies. The two most notorious were this. The implication that we would be £350m a week better off outside the EU and the money could be used to fund the NHS was never remotely true. And the claim that Turkey was about to join was ludicrous, a piece of dog-whistle Islamophobia, very thinly disguised. To be an EU member, 32 boxes need to be ticked, Turkey had managed just two and was going backwards under the authoritarian rule of Recep Erdogan.
The Remainers, meanwhile, had Project Fear: a series of wild speculations about what might happen. There was barely a mention of the benefits 40 years of membership of the EU had brought to this country, nor indeed of its effects on other countries. I lamented this last point, in iambic pentameter, two days before the vote, in my post This Blinkered Isle. It was essentially Tory v. Tory. Cameron, in particular, made a wholly unconvincing convert to the cause with his magnificent negotiation of further “concessions”, having been happy to be a member of a party which had consistently slagged off the EU for the best part of 40 years. Corbyn’s evident lack of enthusiasm for the EU didn’t help and Labour’s Remainers were given about as much airtime as the handful of the Labour Leave rebels.
It was over 40 years since there had been a UK-wide referendum, a constitutional aberration in our “Parliament is sovereign” way of running the country. I guess the BBC’s over-cautious approach was partly through lack of skills and experience. With evidence now emerging of dodgy dealing between Leave.EU and Cambridge Analytica and a breach of the rules (which is a crime) in the arrangements between Vote Leave and BeLeave, the whole process looks increasingly shabby. As the brave Gina Miller said earlier this week: “If the referendum had been a court trial, a retrial would have been ordered by now.”
But the BBC did a piss-poor job of informing and educating the public in those crucial months in early 2016.
What’s Needed Now
There are some small signs that things are improving. The BBC website often includes “Explainers” and “Reality Check” links for those who want to get a more balanced perspective. But BBC News needs to find its mojo: to assert its independence from Government and show some courage.
But far, far too many news items on BBC TV and Radio take the following form:
Some academics, researchers or lobby groups – beware the Thought Police! – produce some well-researched analysis of a problem and manage to get some BBC airtime, or an item on the news;
The BBC gives the group a reasonable amount of time to make their argument;
The report finishes with a bland reading of a statement that begins something like “A government spokesman said…” and what follows is some bland statement from a departmental Press office which, 90% of the time, fails to address the substantive issue. (You can feel for the poor civil servant obliged to churn out this stuff. The evident lack of conviction shines through between the words. Another little bit of the man’s or woman’s soul dies.)
Move on to the next item; once again, the BBC lets an element of Government policy off the hook.
Must do better: it’s our BBC and we want be informed.
On the face of, at least until Wednesday, Theresa May has had a good week, Jeremy Corbyn a bad one – just look at the headlines and BBC news. But look a little more closely.
May was quick to claim credit for the UK government for the coordinated approach to sanctions against Russia following the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. There’s better news on Thursday about Yulia’s recovery, but father Sergei remains “critical but stable”. I can only wish him well.
Surely the critical matter here is that the UK is a member of NATO and May quickly convinced other NATO members that the Russian state was culpable. The other states then had to examine their NATO treaty obligations. May’s decisive approach was good politics. Jeremy Corbyn took a more judicial approach and was way too slow off the mark. That’s bad politics in these days of 24-hour rolling news.
Similarly, Corbyn has been way too slow on the matter of antisemitism in the Labour Party. Although all forms of discrimination are anathema to the very values of Labour, this running sore has been allowed to fester until it boiled over. The rumblings continue in the media several days later. And Corbyn has baggage where, as a backbench rebel outsider never expecting power, he was not always careful about his friends and associations in the past. There’s nothing anyone can do about the baggage, but, Corbyn was way, way too slow to sound convincing. By Wednesday morning, it was 2-0 to May.
Return to I-Know-Best and Maybot
For nearly a week, May looked (almost) Prime Ministerial. I was relieved to see that May had reverted to her two default operating modes by Thursday. After a spell as Maybot at the last Prime Minister’s Questions before Easter, she became Little Miss I-Know-Best on her whistle-stop tour of the UK on Thursday. She visited Ayr (Scotland), a children’s day care centre in Northumberland (England), a farm near Bangor (Northern Ireland – you know, the place where power sharing broke down over a year ago) and the Aston Martin factory in St Athan (somewhere in South Wales, apparently). She tried to tailor her message to each audience, but the Maybot mode got switched on and she kept lecturing everyone how they must all be “strong and united”. (See The Modes of May for definitions if you’re not sure).
Apparently, she also became Maybot when the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg managed to catch up with her for an interview.
The whole thing smacked of a re-run of her disastrous 2016 General Election campaign, where May toured a succession of empty factories and warehouses in front of a small, hand-picked audience and tried – and failed – to look Presidential. She generally succeeded in her other objective: to avoid exposure to ordinary members of the general public. The woman clearly hasn’t learnt anything from her election campaign; she certainly continues in I-Know-Best mode by not listening.
A majority of the Scots and Northern Irish voted to stay in the EU; so, too, did 48% of us English folk. Dashing around the countryside on a single day is no substitute for proper consultation with the people in the constituent parts of our “United” Kingdom and their devolved governments – where they haven’t broken down by neglect of what matters (including the peace secured by Blair and the Good Friday Agreement).
So, business as usual, then: Tory party politics before the National Interest.
But it does also clarify my thoughts in relation to Jeremy Corbyn and the recent 3-part post on the Road to the Promised Land. Corbyn is not the man to lead us there, mainly because of what he’s done in the past (when he had no ambitions for the top job), rather than what he’s going now. Which is a shame, because Jeremy Corbyn is a good man.
It should be screamingly obvious by now that it is essential that the UK stays in the EU. But we have to do it in a way which is consistent with our values, the wider principles of democracy and our so-called “unwritten” constitution – thanks, Gina Miller. My ideal scenario for the next few years would look something like this:
May, or a credible alternative (see below) “caretaker” Prime Minister, steers us through to a transition period which is, in all but name, the status quo;
Public opinion, armed with a few home truths, shifts to a clear majority in favour of Remain: two-thirds should do it;
At some point, triggered by some opportunist event, a General Election is held: Tories lose big time. Labour, alone or in a formal coalition with the SNP (and even any Green MP), form a majority government
A suitable Prime Minister buries the “Leave” message and can concentrate on the important challenges facing the country: basically, what’s left of my “Pressing Priorities” in part 1.
After a suitable interval, the UK begins, at last, to play a useful and constructive role in the EU’s affairs. We have much to offer: perhaps the subject of a future post!
Sounds simple? Obviously not: there are dangers and pitfalls on the way and the chances of success are slim: it all depends on the timing.
Dangers and Pitfalls:
Public opinion will never shift enough until sufficient people see through the greatest con trick perpetrated by the Tories, basically Cameron and Osborne, aided by their media “outliers” – see “The Great Conflation” below;
The Crazies and any rump from the defunct UKIP form a populist party like the FN or AfD and peel off committed Labour leavers;
The right-wing media – and some Tory Crazies, will simply play dirtier and dirtier tricks, aided by sympathetic companies exploiting lax regulation of Big Data;
The danger of a Crazy as PM for a crucial period in the negotiations;
The EU and/or EU27 run out of patience with the UK’s wavering position as to what it wants (Perfidious Albion 2.0?)
Reasons for Hope:
Addressing each of the above in turn:
It’s all in the timing. I suspect Labour has the bigger task on its hands with its traditional working class base. The Tories most inclined to vote Leave will simply die of old age. Yesterday, 29 March, marked 12 months until we “leave” the EU: the Daily Express front page looked like this:
I knew the Express had long since given up any attempt to be newspaper, but this was a classic of its genre. All that was missing were pictures of Churchill and Vera Lynn and it would have been perfect! How about a few bluebirds? It would be funny if it wasn’t so delusional. Just how “uncurious” do you have to be to lap up this stuff?
On the same day, the Guardian published a handy checklist of the 12 concessions made by the UK government, all clearly spelled out 15 months ago. The detail is here, courtesy of PressReader; the list, in short, Ease of Brexit, Article 50 talks sequencing, Transisiton Deal, “Implementation” period, Time Limit, Money, Trade deals, Hi-tech customs solution, Free movement, Rule-taking and role of the ECJ and Fishing. (PressReader is a Canadian digital publisher who republishes interesting and informative articles from around the world.) Express readers had to make do with some sub-sub-Churchillian waffle from Britain’s very own mini-Trump.
Yes, a replacement “UKIP” is a worry. But Labour has a huge army of activists – hats off here to the indefatigable Owen Jones, who, by sheer numbers and organisation, can get Labour’s advantages to its traditional base across., This already happened in the 2017 General Election to some degree. The resounding defeat of the Tories I expect in the May local election – essentially the London results as the media are over-represented there – will give Labour some Momentum: in more senses than one. Tory voters supporting Crazy candidates may also vote for some neo-fascist party, negating the arithmetic.
Yes, so that’s why the threat of Big Data undermining democracy becomes a very high priority issue any government can sell to the public. Self-evidently, this can best be moved forward by the UK working in full concert with its fellow EU members and officials in Brussels. Only the EU working together, based upon past experience, will be willing and able to take firm regulatory action: it’s a natural fit.
See comments on Prime Minister below
Key EU27 countries, including Germany and France, have been remarkably patient and indulgent of the UK’s shifting position so far. Ironically, the threat of terrorist attacks and the need for good shared intelligence works in everyone’s favour.
The Elite: The Great Conflation
Perhaps the greatest deception played on the British public, and swallowed whole by simply too many of us, is what I call the “Great Conflation”, essentially the work of Cameron and Osborne, in opposition between 2008-10 and as government propaganda from 2010. It’s basically this: the meaning of the word “elite” has been fudged to confuse and combine two very different groups of people: (a) the rich and super-rich, who have gained most from the rise in inequality over the past 35 years and (b) professionals, academics: the “liberal intelligentsia” if you like. Both groups were more likely to vote Remain, but for very different motives (a) financial self-interest and (b) through rational analysis and examination of the evidence.
Populist elements in the Leave campaign could then present the referendum votes as a simple “elite v. the ordinary people” binary issue. Privately educated, ex-City stockbroker Mr Slime’s entire shtick was based upon this deception. This all culminated in Gove’s now notorious remark about “the people” not needing “experts”. Added to this was the insidious drip-drip feeding of the American idea that the poor and disabled, i.e. those on benefits, were, per se, undeserving.
A similar fudge happened in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when the Bush administration coined the term “weapons of mass destruction”, similarly ill-defined to obscure its meaning. Blair was his poodle on this, and much else.
The Dilemma: Who Is To be Prime Minister?
The tricky bit I’ve left until last: who will lead us out of this mess? Bear in mind the relative strategic, long-term importance of two very different matters:
UK stays in the EU and the issue is settled in the public mind for at least one or two generations: a key constitutional matter and a statement of the kind of country we want the UK to be;
Tackling the problems affecting ordinary people’s lives: my “Pressing Problems” listed in part 1.
Self-evidently 1 is strategically more important than 2, as its effects will be felt for generations. Equally obviously, a Tory-led government would grudgingly deal with the minimum tinkering on the “Pressing Problems”, to the extent that public opinion forced them to. The grudging “with strings” pay offer to NHS staff last week is an example. By contrast, a Labour-led government, under Jeremy Corbyn or someone who broadly shares his policy agenda, would find no difficulty in prioritising (approximately) these issues. Labour’s problems would be sniping from the usual quarters about “tax-and-spend” or “back to the 70s” in economic terms.
There are two possible scenarios:
Tories cling to power until after the start of the Transition Period
For nearly all her time as PM, May has played her role extremely badly – see my previous post The Modes of May There are indications in the last few days that, as a reluctant Remainer during the campaign, she may be steering her party towards a “Norway plus” destiny. She dare not speak its name, for fear of upsetting the Crazies and splitting her party – not to mention the hard nut cases of the dreadful (and unrepresentative) DUP.
May is safe for the foreseeable(!) future as any alternative Tory contender would be so much worse: the two favourites with the Tory faithful (aged, out of touch and down to 70,000 members by some rumours: the Tories refuse to publish up-to-date membership figures) are both Crazies. Johnson is a petulant 4 year-old child: a mini-Trump with a bit of Latin; Rees-Mogg is the role model for privilege and lack of any contact with the real world. Why are Little Englanders so impressed simply by a posh accent and a posh school?
And, of course, Westminster Tories are ruthless at getting rid of inconvenient leaders or leadership candidates: Thatcher was stabbed in the back by her Cabinet colleagues when they finally accepted she had gone completely mad. (I speak with authority having seen her in person about a year after the coup – but that’s another story!) Comparison with The Godfather and horses’ heads would be way, way too far-fetched. But May was “crowned” Tory leader – and hence PM – in 2016 clearly because Tory Central Office could not trust their members to do the right thing. So, better the devil you know.
Snap General Election
So, we can probably conclude that a Tory coup or May repeating her mistake of calling a snap general election won’t happen. The May local elections will set the mood at Westminster for the summer and autumn, when detailed, line-by-line scrutiny by Parliament of our so-called “deal” will be debated. So it will either be one too many government defeats in the Commons (or maybe the Lords) or something really silly that captures the public mood. In that situation, Jeremy Corbyn will become Prime Minister.
So, on the more important issue (EU membership), ironically, we will probably get to much the same place in terms of the transition arrangements whether it’s May or Corbyn. (May’s machinations in focusing on internal Tory Party infighting has simply wasted about 15 months: her latest proposals were clearly stated by Barnier and the EU27 as unacceptable well over a year ago. So it’s been all about damage limitation.) But every day that the Tories cling on to power is a day wasted in tackling the “Pressing Problems” – things that would make a difference to ordinary people’s lives.
So, and here’s the crunch: my concerns about Corbyn – even though I agree with practically everything he has said, consistently for many years – and making few friends (in and out of the Labour Party). First, the plus side. He has enthused a new, younger membership to join and fight on the ground – door to door stuff targeted at marginal constituencies: Labour has the foot-soldiers – the Tories clearly don’t. In John McDonnell, he has an able “elder statesman” lieutenant with broadly the right economic policies – see any number of my past posts on economic matters!
And now, my concerns. Corbyn personally carries a lot of baggage from his well-documented past, in relation to his (Bennite) position of lack of enthusiasm for the EU. Principled and consistent though this may be, it means I question his true motive for his current stance as Leader of the Opposition. May’s appalling mishandling of negotiations so far are legion: as a blinkered Home Secretary with no notion of the “National Interest”. As hinted earlier, this may be playing a clever game of gradually moving Labour to an anti-Leave position. As I said, it’s a much trickier task for Labour’s 2 distinct sets of voters: our unfair first-past-the-post voting system requires aspiring Prime Ministers to play that game. And of course, as an “Islington socialist”, Corbyn doesn’t exactly play well in Labour’s traditional heartlands in Northern England.
Cruel and unfair as this may be to a principled man with whom I share most views, that is the political reality. So Labour, under any leader, will also need to play the long game.
So, for me, it’s all in the timing. May has had a relatively good week (Russian diplomat expulsion in 26 countries, etc.) and Corbyn a bad one (Antisemitism, etc.) – see future post. (For the rest of her tenure, she’s been crap.) The important thing is that not too much damage is done. Uncertainty can be put off only for so long. We can only hope that not too many more businesses choose to move to other EU countries. The genuinely seamless border between the Republic and Northern Ireland remains unresolved. The spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace it brings, is in peril. Who knows, the Irish, for so long the colonised power, may save the UK from the foolishness of the Little England mentality.
May bangs on about the unity of the United Kingdom (see next post Bad Week, Good Week): well, give a proper say to the votes of the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland (who voted Remain), to the Welsh. Note also the 96% Remain vote in Gibraltar and the effective veto the EU officials have given to the Spanish Government over that element of the transition arrangements that apply to the status of Gibraltar. Above all, consult and listen!
Step One is to hold the status quo through the transition period. Step Two is to transform public opinion enough for Parliament to do its job. And for Parliament to vote that, all things considered, we remain in the EU and start acting like a grown up member. That will need a General Election and probably a new leader of the Labour Party. Some very promising rising stars in their thirties and forties are emerging.
Those of us on the progressive side of politics need to keep our nerve, be eternally vigilant to the dirty tricks of our enemies (you know who I mean) and to play the long game, for the sake of our future generations.
I won’t live to see that Promised Land, but I hope my children and grandchildren will. That gives me hope for the future.
[Editorial note: Looking at the File Properties details, the source Word document used for this 3-parter was started on 15th March and substantially completed on the 27th. Publication was delayed by my medical issues. I was amused to see that the Guardian lead article for 29th March makes basically the same points. The main difference is this: my 3 posts take nearly 6000 words to make my argument; The Guardian managed it in just 1266, and with more diplomatic language.
Which proves one thing at least – I’m no journalist!]
This is the second of a 3-part post, published on consecutive days. Part 1, Where We Are, was published yesterday. Part 3, Getting There, comes out tomorrow.
So now, a few ramblings around how I hope things may turn out. But first, let’s talk about the gross structural bias against Labour winning, and I’m not just talking about the fact that most of our so-called newspapers are owned by foreign or tax-dodging “non-doms” with an agenda far removed from public opinions. The new phenomenon of “fake news” and social media misuse makes another twist in the knife.
Generally speaking, I don’t like generalisations. My May 2017 post Curiouser and Uncuriouserclassifies people into two camps: those who carry on taking a sceptical view of what they see or hear – and retain a sort of child-like curiosity to continue to learn throughout their lives and those who simply believe whatever nonsense they’re told by someone who asserts an air of authority: The “curious” and the “uncurious”. The important difference is that the curious carry on thinking for themselves; the uncurious don’t. None of us is immune from “uncuriosity”. I spent the best part of forty years of my life sitting on the fence about the existence, or not, of God. I was busy climbing the greasy corporate pole and being a father with a house and mortgage to pay for. I put God’s putative existence on the “too difficult” pile, called myself an agnostic and hid behind semantics like “It all depends what you mean by God”. It was only when circumstances allowed me some time to think, it was only a matter of 2-3 days before I firmly jumped off the fence and “came out” as a committed atheist, and subsequently a Humanist, a group with whom I share a common set of values and, broadly, the same ethical code, derived entirely by rational thought. So we all make our choices of how we spend our time and what we think it’s worth thinking about.
So far, so non-judgmental. But there are some clear facts and correlations – and gross generalisations. Tory voters, stereotypically, were modestly educated and fit firmly in the “uncurious” camp. For Labour, it’s much more complicated: Labour gets the well-educated (and presumably “curious”/ well-informed) middle class votes and a steadily falling number of traditional, mainly white, working class voters who have clearly lost the safe, union-backed steady jobs and struggled in the “gig economy” described in part 1. The former group (well informed) voted overwhelmingly Remain and latter overwhelmingly Leave. Call these second group of referendum votes a “fuck you all” protest, if you like. I will leave you to judge whether Jeremy Corbyn is playing a clever, long game so as not to upset either camp or simply acting instinctively from his known earlier Eurosceptic views derived essentially from a (Tony) Bennite perspective.
There are some encouraging developments. I regularly scan the “The Papers” page on the BBC website each morning, to see how the enemy – you know, the usual suspects – report the previous day’s events. The Telegraph and Expresssimply didn’t cover May’s climbdown in Brussels (red lines) last week and the Mail simply had some bland and misleading cross-reference to an inside page story which was, I assume equally spun to the opposite of the truth. Here’s a handy summary of what she conceded; the simpering acquiescence of Johnson and Gove suggests leading Leave extremists in the Cabinet are lying low for the moment. It’s a delight to see the right-wing press’s bewilderment. For those too busy to read the article at the link, the concessions cover Northern Ireland, Fish, Duration of Transition Period and Citizens Rights. May has rubbed out some of her red lines she had used to appease her extremist wing. However, the EU made it clear over a year ago where they would not budge, so May has just wasted 15 months fighting internal party battles. Only fish seems to have caught the public imagination – of which more, shortly.
The other piece of good news is the imminent bankruptcy for UKIP who, a judge ordered last week, must pay £175,000 legal costs. With their toxic previous rich funders likely to abandon them and a succession of leadership changes prompted by leaders with a liking for racist women 25 years their junior, UKIP will shortly be as dead as a smoked kipper. Hurray! And not before time.
BBC Stops Giving Airtime to Idiots
There’s another thing that must change: the BBC must stop giving undue prominence and airtime to idiots, in particular, that which I called Mr Slime in Mr Men 2016. Mr Slime has stood for 7 elections and failed at every attempt. He has been given 32 appearances on BBC1’s Question Time, 10 more than Caroline Lucas, who has actually been a real MP for 8 years.
And so, back to fish. Prime Ministers sometimes have to make very difficult decisions between a bad outcome and a very bad one. Sacrificing the fisherfolks’ interest short-term is hardly the most difficult decision a PM has to make. Think of Blair’s capitulation to the blackmail by the Saudi ruling family over BAE corruption. Would you be a Prime Minister who watched as the petrol stations ran out of fuel?
The reaction of the crazies was pathetic: no license to tie up the boat, Rees-Mogg on the shore, Mr Slime throwing dead fish. Crass and puerile don’t even begin to describe it. John Crace has an amusing account here. As an MEP, Mr Slime was a member of the fisheries committee, where he could have defended the interests of the UK fishing industry at 42 meetings of the committee. He showed up once – thanks again to John Crace for that interesting fact you may not have seen. I always knew Mr Slime was a tosser – we now know he’s a dead fish tosser.
That sorry episode brought to mind Monty Python’s Fish Slapping Dance:
Don’t you just wish the figure falling in the water was Mr Slime and it happens again… and again… and again…
And talking of idiots, the Daily Mail seems to be in the habit of running campaigns on the least important things. First, it was the colour of the new UK passports: blue (“Will it give free passage to 27 other countries?” “No, but it’s blue…”) Then the Mail got into a hell of a lather when their manufacture was awarded to a French company. (Ahem… The UK is still part of the EU and subject to its procurement rules. In any case, it saves £120m over its British competitor. Wouldn’t a “free, global” UK do the same, especially as the chosen supplier meets all the cybersecurity checks, as the government said on Friday.) Do we yet have sufficient grounds yet to get Paul Dacre sectioned under Mental Health legislation?
NHS Stops Being a Political Football
I’ve said earlier that the Tories are bound to split; it’s unavoidable – to get rid of the Crazies, like Rees-Mogg, Johnson, Fox, Dorries et al. Basically all those of the 62 MPs who signed the “Hard Brexit” letter a month ago because they actually believed it, rather than for party loyalty reasons. That’s probably close to the 35 Crazies I identified 10 days earlier.
That would be good, because part of my Promised Land vision is this: any political party which is serious to gain power as the Government of the UK must sign up to, and stick to an NHS Pledge. A rough attempt at such a pledge follows:
“If my Party gains power in a general election, I pledge to sustain funding for the NHS during my term of office at the average of the 6 best (i.e. highest) EU countries, as a percentage of GDP.”
This is no magic bullet and hard funding decisions will still be needed as the population ages and technology enables more (and costlier) options to keep people alive and well. But the key point is this: it stops the NHS from being a political football, subject to constant tinkering and reorganisation. Until now, in my view, the Tories could never be trusted to support the NHS and its values in any meaningful way. I want to live in a country where not signing the pledge automatically disqualified a party from being considered mainstream – and respectable. May’s announcement of a 3-year spending plan is welcome, but there were no figures or ideas whether this was new money. Another example of the Tories being dragged along by public opinion – it feels like drawing teeth.
My guess is it would add about 20% to the total NHS bill: a lot of money, but if others can do it, so can we. It’s all a matter of priorities. Would you rather have 3 billion quid spent on an aircraft carrier with no planes?
The average cost in 3 years’ time (i.e. including the Government’s 6% recent pay offer) of an NHS clinical staff member (doctors, nurses and all other similar jobs) I estimate as £55,300. (This includes their salary, direct and indirect overheads, i.e. the total cost to the taxpayer.) My base source is a National Audit Office report from February 2016, so it’s pretty pukka. £3 billion would pay for 54,000 NHS clinical staff – admittedly for only a year, but it gives you a flavour. You choose.
Practically everyone has been, or has a close relative, who has been to an NHS hospital within the last year. If so, one clear fact emerges: people come from all over the world and work in our NHS. They work seamlessly and harmoniously together using a system that works: nearly all the time. If only 10% of them return to their home country, the NHS would be truly fucked, to use some medical jargon.
I’ve had 5 stays in an NHS hospital since Christmas Day, totalling 6 weeks. In all that time, the care and attention I received was perfect: 10 out of 10 – except for 2 members of staff, both on the same ward. Not too bad, I think. But the NHS works mainly on one thing: exploitation: exploitation of the goodwill of the people who choose healthcare as a career. Tired, dedicated people working 12.5 hours shifts, cancelling days off to provide cover for the chronic shortages of staff.
This was a constant problem – especially at night. One morning, they were so short-staffed, the ward sister served breakfast, because there was no one else to do it. And all done with a cheerful friendliness that brightened everyone’s day. Thank you, Jackie! You’re a star – 11 out of 10 at least. And to the kind, caring woman from Zimbabwe – sadly, I forget her name – who gave me a hug when I was still in a state of shock when they told me what was actually wrong.. This was 10 minutes after a brilliant consultant, originally from Pakistan, took time out from his busy clinic to break the news in person (a relatively rare form of blood cancer) because, in his words, his first thought was “how would I like to be treated if I were the patient?”.
So, I say to anyone who thinks targeting numbers of net migration figures is even a sane thing to do, I say this. Think. And think again.
Tomorrow, in part 3, Getting There, I share my thoughts on how things may turn out – if we’re very, very lucky – and vigilant.