I understand that the UK has acquired a new nickname, one which is gaining in popularity across the globe. So, welcome to Plague Island.
The new moniker is well deserved. Google the phrase “plague
island” and the top listed links nearly all refer to Britain and how those in
other countries see us. If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself.
And Morocco has banned all flights to and from the UK: that’s
how bad they see us.
A Few Statistics
Let’s just check out how we compare now with other parts of Europe.
The circles represent the number of cases over the past 2 weeks. We are faring much worse than the countries compared here: Only Russia and Turkey are doing worse than us, with populations much bigger: 146 million and 86 million respectively.
And the UK’s figures have been rising sharply over the past few days.
The cumulative totals of Covid cases since the start of the
pandemic put the UK as the worst in Europe:
The statistics for Covid death rates (per million
population) also show the UK in a poor light:
Of the comparable countries in Europe (i.e. with similar
levels of living standards), only Belgium and Italy have higher death rates.
The British Government has banged on repeatedly about our
early start in vaccinations, but the truth is that we became too complacent in
our self-congratulation. The table below shows how we have been overtaken in our
vaccination programme by other countries:
The UK has slipped to 15th place in the world table and European countries such as Portugal, Spain, Italy and France – the last a country with a long history of vaccine scepticism – are now ahead of the UK.
A graph showing our vaccination rate over time gives a clear
picture of that complacency:
As one of the half million people entitled to receive an additional pre-booster “third primary” jab, I went for mine yesterday. The earlier impression I had with both my first and second vaccinations back in February and April was of a large, well organised operation with committed people energised to help get us out of the pandemic. Yesterday’s session was a much more low-key affair. I clearly blame the government for taking their eyes off the ball and engendering a more complacent atmosphere in the country.
So, what do I conclude from all this?
The early stages (from January to July this year) of the
vaccination programme was excellent and an example of what can be done by the
NHS, its staff and volunteers when there is a crisis to be dealt with. Every
other aspect of the handling of the pandemic has been handled disastrously by
Johnson and his clique of incompetents.
Britain is viewed with pity and incredulity everywhere
around the world: pariah status is all but assured. But right now, Plague
Island is the best we deserve.
I was fortunate to be academically inclined during my school
years. This meant that I did well at school. But, more relevant to this
discussion, I enjoyed learning. (Well, nearly all the time. When I was about 8
years old, I was, for a brief time, bullied at school and didn’t want to go.
But – and I still really don’t know how or by whom – the problem was quickly
My own experiences at school and university have left me
with a life-long passion for learning. I feel that I continue to put that
passion to good use: books, TV and radio, theatre, adult education courses and,
of course, the internet all play a part in my continuing quest to know more
stuff. My wife would say much of this learning is of no practical use, but I
really don’t care about that. Learning and the creativity conjured up by the
human imagination are, to me, moral and social goods in their own right.
Pleasure or Drudgery?
At risk of sounding just a bit evangelical, a word I never
expected use about myself, I do wish that everyone could honestly say that they
love learning. The discovery of something new should be a moment of joy, at
least most of the time.
To that end, I was most struck by a recent article by Eliane
Glaser in Prospect magazine: Homeschooling
has revealed the absurdity of England’s national curriculum. I
do recommend you take the time to read it, as it expresses views which I
strongly share, albeit from the point of view of a frustrated parent of
school-age children during lockdown. I had experienced similar shock and
surprise when my grandchildren, then aged eight and ten years, started spouting
complex jargon of English grammar, the likes of which were way beyond my
learning when I was their age.
My (unexpressed) thoughts at the time were: “Why are they
learning this?” Most of the answers can be found in the Glaser article, but
essentially, it boils down to the reforms introduced when Michael Gove was
Education Secretary. Don’t forget, his “career psychopath” henchman of choice
was one Dominic Cummings, of subsequent Barnard Castle / Rose Garden fame.
Glaser opines that the time kids spend on this stuff is “clearly age-inappropriate,
joyless and fundamentally pointless”.
Note my emphasis on “joy” (or the lack of it).
Stories, Testing and Gaming the System
Glaser goes on to quote a variety of experts on such
subjects as the value of story-telling and listening, the over-use of testing
and the consequent gaming of the assessment “system”. The over-emphasis on
mechanical, rote-learning of the 3Rs leaves precious little time for creating a
love for the arts, music and even the wider aspects of science and the natural
world. The National Curriculum and Ofsted create an environment which focuses
too much on evidence in writing, ready and waiting for the next “pounce” by
“Testing drives teaching”, says Debra Myhill in the article:
one of the academic advisers on the curriculum. The whole regime kills joy,
creativity and imagination. Surely these are the qualities which define the
very essence of being human? In an internet-rich world of instant information
at our fingertips, the last thing future citizens need is an over emphasis on
memorising and parroting facts!
In 1988, when my elder son moved to Middle School (as it was
then), I started what turned out to be a 32-year “spell” as a School Governor.
In the early days, governors were purely decorative. We sat dumbly at meetings
whilst the Head Teacher and Chair of Governors engaged in a ritual of mutual admiration.
Times changed and the role of Governor became more
demanding. Perhaps the high point was during the years of New Labour. I recall
meetings in Whitehall and a group called the “Innovations Unit”. Ideas and best
practice were exchanged on the basis of mutual respect. New Labour’s biggest
sin was, perhaps, an excess of change. And some New Labour ideas encouraged the
thinking that some schools at least might be better off outside the control of democratically
accountable local government.
Things turned very sour in 2010. Funding for capital projects
was cut to almost zero as part of George Osborne’s 2010 “slash and burn” budget
dedicated to the god of austerity. But from then on, it was rule by diktat from
the centre. Teachers and governors alike were the enemy – unless they held ideas
in tune with the new orthodoxy. Joy went out the window: there was little “love
of learning” to be seen. It was all standards, criticism of “the blob” and a climate
Matters came to a head and I stood down as a Governor last
summer. There were a number of factors which led to my decision, not least that
my advancing years were making it more difficult to remember the buzzwords and
phrases I was expected to parrot to Ofsted and the like. I did not want to let down
the school, whom I continue to hold in great respect and affection. And, to be
honest, I really wasn’t enjoying it any more.
But two factors loomed large. The whole dirigiste regime initiated
by Gove and broadly maintained by his successors played a big part in my
disaffection. But the final straw can be summed up in two words: Gavin
Williamson. In my Mr Men 2019 satirical post, I referred to him as Mr
Stupid-Boy-Pike, as a mark of the respect I have for him. He was in his
kindergarten phase at the time, as Minister of Defence. Lots of toys for boys
When the news that Johnson has appointed him as Education
Secretary, I instinctively let in a sharp intake of breath, as I recoiled from
the news. His litany of serious errors since has received wide publicity, so I
will not try to list them all. Here’s a piece from last November, entitled Is
Gavin Williamson the Worst Education Secretary Ever? To the list at
that time (A level algorithm fiasco and A-level / GCSE U-turn last summer, poor
or no guidance to schools on online learning, etc.) we can add the more recent
examples of: threatening local authorities with legal action to override their
(wise) decision to shut schools early for Christmas, forcing schools to open
for one day in early January before another U-turn which has kept children
away from schools for the past 2 months.
But my biggest
charge against Stupid-Boy Williamson is this: he doesn’t understand what
education is for! See this Indy piece:People
think Gavin Williamson is very confused about the point of education. He seems to
think only of schools and universities as factories for churning out people
with enhanced career prospects. This grotesque, utilitarian approach might be
forgivable in a Minister in some other Department, but in Education??
Where’s the nurturing of the love of
life-long learning, the richness of culture or the joy in that? So, with a
heavy heart, it was time to pack it in.
The Parents’ Revolt?
Glaser ends her article with a call for parents – now
well-versed in what their kids do all day at school – to rise up and revolt
against the repressive box-ticking mentality their children are being subjected
to. Perhaps March 8th: the day children in England return to school
would be a good time to start. But remember: do it for the love of learning. Do
it with imagination, with joy.
O wad some
Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
time we Brits took a look around us and see what sort of reputation we have in
the world these days. So here’s an example I have seen today.
A Travers la Manche
Bermann has a new book out, called Goodbye Britannia. Ms Bermann has
a distinguished CV: graduate of the Sorbonne, studied China and spent time as a
student in Beijing. She worked in the French Diplomatic Service in Beijing,
Paris and Moscow. Her last job before retirement was as France’s Ambassador to
Russia. She is clearly a woman of some considerable experience and skill.
Of more relevance here is the fact that she was French
Ambassador in London between 2014 and 2017, a period which included the fateful
referendum on Britain’s EU membership. During her years as a French Diplomat,
she would, no doubt, couch the advice and opinions she gave in the most
diplomatic language. No longer a career civil servant, she is free to speak her
mind. And most interesting it is.
So let’s see what a straight-talking French diplomat has to
say about les rosbifs. So far, I’ve only seen extracts quoted in the UK
press, but they make for some excellent reading. Here’s a few:
Boris Johnson is an unrepentant and
inveterate liar. Je suis d’accord*.
Johnson feels he is not subject to the same
rules as others. Je suis d’accord. And it seems, so did his school
master at Eton, writing in 1982: “Boris really has adopted a disgracefully
cavalier attitude to his classical studies . . . Boris sometimes seems
affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility…
I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an
exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds
Some Br*xiters are consumed with hatred for
Germany. Je suis d’accord.
They are gripped by a myth that Britain
liberated Europe single-handedly. Je suis d’accord. Try telling that
to the relatives of the 22 million Russians who died in WW2.
The referendum result was a triumph of
emotion over reason. Je suis d’accord.
The Leave campaign was full of lies. Je
Leave campaigners exploited negative attitudes
of many Brits to immigration. Je suis d’accord.
Johnson’s government’s handling of the Covid
pandemic is among the worst in the world, alongside Trump’s USA and Bolsonaro’s
Brazil. Je suis d’accord.
Johnson will try to hide the economic losses
caused by the UK leaving the EU, blaming all negative economic impacts on Covid.
Je suis d’accord. Johnson and his gang can be guaranteed to play this
trick: many will be fooled. Don’t be.
It seems to me entirely appropriate that the Burns quotation
at the start comes from a poem entitled To a Louse.
And it’s even more appropriate that the French for “a louse”
is “un pou”.
I had my first Covid jab earlier this week. It was
everything you would expect from the NHS when given the resources to get on
with the job.
From the phone call from my GP practice the previous Friday
to the visit to the vaccination centre, it was all very well organised. Staff
were friendly, helpful and professional, offering information and reassurance
as needed. Clearly, some of the people at the centre were volunteers: you could
tell by their sense of enthusiasm at having the opportunity to help others. And
everyone there was working to a common purpose, so there was a clear sense of
team spirit in the air.
Including the mandatory 15 minute rest (and observation for any
adverse reaction) after the jab, the whole process took 20-25 minutes from
start to finish. A fine example of public service at its best.
Public Service Ethos
Back in 2016, I wrote a blog post called In
Praise of Public Service Values. In it, I explain how certain public
services should never be – or should never have been – privatised. The main reason
I gave then was the commonality of purpose all the way through the public
sector, from the top management through to the front-line staff. In a
privatised service, there is some discontinuity between profit-maximising leaders
and service-oriented junior staff. Priorities get blurred; messages get mixed.
I now recognise there is a second, powerful reason why
public services should remain in the public sector. I have recently watched the
2020 Reith Lectures given by former Bank of England chief Mark Carney. In his
first lecture, he speaks of the “moral hazard” of “commodification”.
Experiments show that, in carrying out an activity with a clear moral purpose,
people are disincentivised by financial gain. People are more effective
when morality, rather than money, drives their actions.
A further danger of commodification is what Carney calls “flattening”
of moral value or civic virtue. Once an activity is described solely in terms
of money, in profit or loss, something of real human value gets lost.
Good deeds become mere transactions; cynicism and boredom can creep in.
Government Failure to Learn
We should have learnt from the lessons of the 2012 London Olympics,
when Serco’s failure to recruit sufficient “Olympic greeters” led to the army
to be called in to help out. But this government didn’t learn. Perhaps the most
deadly of the consequences of the failure to learn from past mistakes are the
repeated failures over lockdowns: too late to impose, too soon to relax
restrictions. Johnson and his gang are far too ready to listen to the bayings
of the death squad of Tory backbenchers grotesquely misnamed the “Covid
It is extraordinary to think that, over 11 months into the
pandemic, the Government has still not properly implemented border controls for
people entering the UK. Failure to learn lessons from other countries’
approaches to quarantine and its enforcement is particularly ironic when “control
of borders” was a key rallying cry of the prominent Leavers now running the
Private Sector Failure
But a major government failure was to hand Test and Trace to the private sector, and specifically to friends of the Cabinet members – corruption on an eye-watering scale. Compare and contrast the spectacular failure of the £22bn privatised “NHS Test and Trace”. (The link in the last sentence leads to a page which lists 22, mainly private sector, companies involved: Serco and Sodexo are perhaps the most significant.) I’m not clear whether the list of 22 includes all the companies whom Serco and Sodexo have subcontracted work to.
I believe that one key underlying problem in using the private sector was the failure to use vital public health expertise in its design. The private sector dominated thinking was based upon the model of running call centres (for which the private sector has plenty of experience). What was overlooked was the public health expertise in the subtleties of the interpersonal relationships and sensitivities in cold calling people about health issues. Many of us see our health as an intensely personal matter and there was an understandable reluctance for “cold called” people to engage.
Finally, here’s the BMA’s
view from last September giving the medical professions view on the many
and varied shortcomings in over-reliance on the private sector.
Called to Account?
As for accountability, my best estimate currently is this.
Of the 110, 000 deaths to Covid so far, somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000
could have been avoided through better governance and decision-making. It would
be a betrayal to those who died and their grieving families if this stark
analysis were somehow forgotten. To govern is to be accountable.
As the country’s mood lifts, from fear and despair to hope and positive expectation of an end to the pandemic, I have a concern that that public opinion will fail to call to account the actions of this government over the past year. Repeated failure and disastrously poor decision-making vastly exceed the one thing we seem to have got right: vaccination, thanks to the “real” NHS. It would be grossly unfair for Johnson and co to be let off the hook over their lamentable performance overall.
It’s only two and a half weeks since my last post and there are three news stories that would be really big in their own right, all happening at the same time. Each one would produce an open-mouthed look of astonishment. And yet… I find myself strangely unable to gather the right words to describe my reaction to any of them.
They are: the UK reaching the end of the transition period and
actually leaving the EU, the third national lockdown following shocking rises
in Covid cases and deaths and Donald Trump inciting a mob to violent
insurrection in the Capitol Building in Washington DC.
End of UK’s EU Membership
The UK ended its 47-year membership of the European Union at
midnight Brussels time on New Year’s Eve. New Year celebrations were muted this
year because of the pandemic. But, of course, there was no cause for celebration.
Johnson had achieved something of an historic moment: the enactment of the
first trade deal in recorded history that actually erected trade barriers
rather than removed them. The UK now has trade deals with fewer countries
now that when it was an EU member.
After end of year stockpiling and the usual traffic lull over the holiday period, stories are beginning to emerge of delays at ports on the Channel and Irish Sea. A common reason is lack of preparation by traders and hauliers and incomplete paperwork. Companies such as John Lewis, Debenhams, Waterstones, Fortum and Mason and M&S have either ceased or suspended sales into the EU (include Ireland, North and South), either because of the disruption or because they see it as no longer an economically viable proposition. And supermarkets report empty shelves in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, customers in the EU are finding VAT and customs
charges demanded by their postal organisations for online purchases from the
Here’s an Irish perspective. It’s easy to predict that a lot of customers
in EU countries will be deterred from placing orders from UK-based sites when
online shopping. And, of course, as a third country airline passengers are
being turned back at EU airports as our “plague island” status makes us no
longer exempt from EU travel bans.
The real tragedy of all this is that every one of these problems were predictable – and predicted by those of us who wanted to remain in the EU.
Whilst the cabinet and Prime Minister were distracted by EU
trade negotiations, cases of Covid-19 have been rising and rising. And all at a
time when the government’s full attention should have been on policies and
communications to reduce the spread of the virus. And so England finds itself in
its third nationwide lockdown of the pandemic, announced last Monday with just
a few hours’ notice.
So, let’s just track back what has happened in recent weeks:
In late September, scientists and Keir Starmer advocated a 2-week “circuit breaker” lockdown just as the new variant of the virus was emerging. The government did nothing, apart from some tinkering with the tier system.
In early November, as the case for stricter measures became unanswerable, a necessarily longer 4-week second lockdown was imposed.
In early December, after Lockdown 2, Johnson announced a 5-day relaxing of the household mixing rules over the Christmas period. People naturally saw this as a “green light” for something of a 5-day “holiday” from restrictions. Plans were made, train tickets booked.
As Covid cases kept rising, just a few days before Christmas, Johnson cut the Christmas relaxation to just Christmas Day. Families cancelled plans, tried to get refunds on train tickets. (Remember, no trains run in England on Christmas Day and Boxing Day). Meantime, Education Secretary Williamson stated keeping schools open was a “national priority”. Local authorities, who had better local information of local spikes in cases, were overruled when they tried to close their schools. Greenwich Council was threatened with legal action to enforce the “national priority”. An opportunity was missed to control mixing between households in schools in hotspot areas in the runup to Christmas.
Families mixed on Christmas Day, with Government blessing, allowing the virus to spread within extended families. Teachers made plans for a Covid-safe phased reopening in the New Year.
On January 4th, schools reopened. This allowed the virus which had spread within families on Christmas Day to spread again between families with school-aged children.
On that same day, Johnson announced Lockdown 3 and the closure of all schools the following day. Teachers scrambled to rearrange their plans back to home schooling.
On January 5th, schoolchildren stayed at home, along with some parents working from home, thereby enabling them to bring their newly school-acquired infection into the family home once again.
So, in summary, the Governments actions – and inactions – encouraged
the virus to spread between families in the runup to Christmas, within families
at Christmas, between families again on the one day of schooling and finally
within families again from last Tuesday. Add to this the delays to Lockdown 1
in March and “Eat out to Help Out” in the summer, which kept Covid case numbers
bubbling along at higher levels for the autumn that they need have been. Can
anyone think of a worse possible way this could have been handled? I can’t.
And yet Johnson and Williamson are still in post. Parliament
passed a vote of no confidence against Neville Chamberlain because he was so
useless. He resigned and on May
10 1940, he was replaced by some other bloke with a name like an insurance
company. The rest, as they say, is history.
So, how come only 43 percent in a very
recent poll want Johnson to stand down? (Those wanting him to stay number
nearly 40 percent. I don’t understand: what do these folk want him to do before
they change their views? Slaughter all first-born? Whoops! That’s me gone.) As
I’ve said before, we need a Government of National Unity.
Mob Rule in Washington
And so to America, the “shining city on a hill” of
It’s only in the last few days that I’ve ever in my life had
the following thought: that is now within the bounds of possibility that the
USA will descend into a second Civil War. And that is a truly shocking thought!
I don’t think there’s any doubt now that Trump incited a mob to march on the Capitol and commit acts of violent insurrection. Impeach him tomorrow; simple as that. Get his stubby fingers off the nuclear codes. Immediately.
But the poison Trump spread will linger. It’s truly an awful
prospect. We will no doubt return to this subject again, Meantime, good luck
They’re Only Words
And yet the most frustrating thing is this. My words and
those of professional commentators are just that. Words. I feel they won’t
change anything. Words – reasoned argument – implies reason. Certainly Trump and
a sinister cohort of his followers are way beyond reason. And this is all
happening in a country with more privately-owned guns than people.
So we continue. With our words. For words are all I have. And
Hope – for the best.
I write this on the day of the announcement about a trade
deal between the EU and the UK. This post explores the twin themes: Thick
and Fast and Thick and Slow. I will explain.
Thick and Fast
Now that we appear to have some sort of deal, we can expect one sure-fire thing: the lies will keep coming thick and fast. Johnson and his gang of no-hopers will try to convince us that it is a great deal, one which has been hard-fought and won thanks to the skills of the UK negotiating team. And it will all be bollocks.
The timing of the announcement is interesting, with no
newspapers tomorrow (Christmas Day). But be assured that the usual suspects (Sun,
Mail, Telegraph, Times, Express) will find space in their Boxing Day
editions to spread even bigger lies than the government itself will do.
Obviously, Johnson and co. will feed much of the stuff to the friendly media
The lunatic fringe on the Tory backbenchers (Master Francois
and his ilk) are speaking of “star chambers” of tame lawyers who will check the
“purity” of the agreement: to see if the small print accords with their
delusional thoughts. And the big unknown will be Labour’s response. Worrying
signals from Keir Starmer’s office in recent days seem to echo the phrase “a
deal is better than no deal”. The honourable position for all Labour MPs is to abstain
in the required Parliamentary vote.
One thing has been abundantly clear for four and a half years
or more. Any deal with the EU will be worse for the country than EU
membership. We must not allow the government to hide behind the smokescreen of
the pandemic. Leaving the EU will make all of us poorer, slowly, year by year,
estimated at a permanent loss of 2% a year off GDP growth. Certainly, the
effects of gross mismanagement, procrastination and poor policies will continue
to make Covid the bigger short-term shock. But the lasting, slow-burn damage
will be leaving the European Union.
So, prepare to be inundated with an avalanche of lies from
our elected leaders: they’ll be coming thick and fast.
Thick and Slow
By way of contrast, if you were to look for an epithet to
describe every member of the UK Government, “thick and slow” would be a
good one. Historians will one day look back in amazement and disbelief at our
misfortune: to have the most incompetent government of modern times at a time
of our greatest need for at least 75 years.
Thick: it would be invidious to try to rank the members of the Cabinet in order of stupidity. For sure, Stupid Boy Pike, a.k.a. one Gavin Williamson and Little Miss Pretty Petrifying, a.k.a. Priti Patel would rank near the bottom of the pile: “rank” being the operative word.
There are those who believe that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, somehow stands above the pack. I disagree. Sunak is one of the country’s biggest problems. His failure to understand the impact of the pandemic on the poorest people – after all, his wife is richer than the Queen – or to implement consistent financial support for those losing their incomes cuts directly across attempts to control the spread of the virus. Millions of people are in such poorly paid and insecure jobs that they simply cannot afford to self-isolate when required. Sunak’s resistance to improving benefit payments to something closer to the European norm further compounds the problem.
Slow: We are in this mess now because of one of Johnson’s
personality faults. He has a Trump-like desire to be liked and so has a
pathological problem with decision making, particularly when it means being the
bearer of bad news. Hence the last-minute U-turn on Christmas, the last of many
– far too many – examples of delayed decision making.
But perhaps the most damning indictment of Johnson and his gang is their collective slow learning. It’s generally understood that the UK government was too slow in March imposing a lockdown, resulting in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. The same mistake was repeated in September, when scientists and Keir Starmer all urged the Prime Minister to impose a 2-week circuit breaker. Johnson failed to do so and we had a 4-week lockdown – with only partial success – 6 weeks later. And now we’ve just had the third repeat of the same basic “too late” decision making and ruining millions of people’s plans for Christmas into the bargain.
So the unmerited trumpet-blowing we can now expect over the
EU trade deal also acts as a convenient distraction from the government’s
continuing serious mishandling of the pandemic crisis.
I guess you need to be above a certain age to remember Victor Sylvester, bandleader and erstwhile king of ballroom dancing on British TV and radio. But fans of Strictly Come Dancing will no doubt also be familiar with the foxtrot pattern Slow, Slow, Quick Quick Slow. Change “quick” to “thick” and there you have it. That’s your government, that is.
Next slide, please…
With acknowledgement to Rob Newman and David Baddiel
The world – or our little bit of it – has recently become
very strange indeed.
On the day when we have one genuinely excellent piece of news – the first vaccinations against Covid – we find ourselves on the brink of disaster – or worse. And which of those it will be is in the hands of a man with the attention span of a gnat and no discernible talents whatsoever. I refer, of course, to our Prime Minister and his theatrical 11th hour and 59th minute dash to Brussels.
Dumb and Dumber
When I use the terms “disaster” and “disasterer”, I’m
referring to the choice between Johnson’s putative feeble and thin trade deal
with the EU and the bigger disaster of “no deal” (which Johnson dresses up as “Australian-style”).
Choose your metaphor: Disaster or Disasterer, a Rock and a Hard Place, (for the
classically-minded) Scylla or
Charybdis; the Devil or the Deep Blue Sea, Dumb or Dumber. You choose: all
of them worse than where we now are.
That Elusive “Sovereignty”
Apologists for leaving the EU have been banging on for years
about something called “national sovereignty”. There is quite a good definition
statement of this abstract concept to be found in this
US website. In the abstract, this sounds like a good idea – as long as you
don’t think too deeply about it. As far as we are allowed to know, at the time
of writing, the issues still divide UK and EU negotiating positions seem to
boil down to two things.
The first is our future theoretical desire to deviate from
EU norms and standards, in state aid for UK companies, workers’ rights and
consumer protection mainly. And the second is how any divergence is policed –
and by whom. (Rumour has it that there’s a deal already hammered out for fish. Topical
comparison: more people work at the Addenbrookes Medical Campus in Cambridge
than in the whole UK fishing industry, but no matter, for now.)
Lockdown in My Head
To be honest, I have some instinctive liking for having these theoretical freedoms. Consider, for a moment, the restrictions of our day-to-day freedoms brought about by the Covid lockdown restrictions. There’s a kind of “lockdown in my head” feeling of frustration and unease flowing from those things I’m currently not allowed to do. (We’re in tier 2, by the way.) It’s a feeling that won’t quite go away: akin, I guess, to some form of mini-imprisonment.
But, in practice, life is not that much different from “normal”
times. The amount of socialising we do these days is pretty minimal, Zoom
meetings have replaced face-to-face ones and we do more shopping online.
Furthermore, medical issues over the period from 3 years to 1 year ago meant that
my activities were curtailed compared to my life before then. Our holiday plans
have been much changed, but we still managed a weekend break in February (before
Covid really struck the UK) and a week in a cottage in Wales in September. We’ve
been relatively fortunate so far. But that “lockdown in my head” feeling is
still there, in the background.
So I do “get” the instinctive desire to be “free”.
In the Real World
But now we must get real. As John Donne said in his 17th
XVII, “No man is an island”. The bald fact is that we live in a very
interconnected world. Back in the 19th century, when Lord Palmerson
was Foreign Secretary, Britain could flex its muscles and send in a gunboat to
teach Johnny Foreigner a lesson. That was because Britain was indisputably the
strongest nation on earth – and we threw our weight around. We had 10% of the
world’s GDP; that’s now less than 2.5%.
Nowadays, we need collaboration with other countries, and
our nearest neighbours in particular. 40% of our food is imported, mostly from
the EU – frictionlessly until 31st December. Combatting transnational
crime and terrorism needs good cooperation and easy transfer of data and
intelligence: all under threat after the end of this year. The EU is the only
entity so far on a global stage to challenge the overmighty power of companies
like Google and Amazon. Britain alone will be powerless against abuse of
dominant market monopolies.
Our supply chains (for example in motor manufacturing), our love lives and relationships, our holidays and trading by companies large and small have been built around frictionless movement of goods and people. From January 1st? For people, all that stops. For goods, we still don’t know.
By acting as the rogue state of Europe – for example, by
breaking international law – we have poisoned the well of trust needed to
smooth the flow of day-to-day interactions across borders. (I believe some sort
of deal has been brokered so that we can withdraw the offending paragraphs from
legislation going through Parliament – but it’s all a bit unclear as I write.)
So the prized concept of “sovereignty” is, in reality,
illusory. This means Johnson and co. are chasing an illusion with no upsides in
Before the Normans
But there is a deeper psychological illusion lurking behind all
this insanity. Leave extremists, like Johnson and Rees-Mogg, seem to have a
different understanding of the concept of freedom itself. Look at the language
they use. Behind it lies a mythological past dating back to the days before the
Norman conquest in 1066. We learnt at school about the Battle of Hastings, the
Domesday Book – how dare they write it all down to ease taxation? – and Norman
castles all over the land, to oppress the local populations behind the safety
of battlements and drawbridges.
This stuff cuts deep into our national psyche. The myth of a
golden age of “free” Angles and Saxons lies beneath this yearning for the
illusion of “sovereignty”. And I feel it is high time we let it go and face
reality in the 21st century.
Labour Must Abstain
If Johnson does come back from Brussels with a deal, beware the lies which will be spun: world-class, heroically won or whatever. It will bring disruption, extra bureaucracy, shortages of food and medicine and lost jobs – to name a few. And don’t let the government hide behind the tribulations of the pandemic: these problems will be Tory Government-made and were avoidable.
So Keir Starmer must lead his party to abstain: on the positive, moral principle of “a plague on both your houses”. Let the government take the blame they deserve. At the end of the same John Donne poem mentioned above, we find the equally famous words: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”. Johnson take heed.
When the month
ends, it will be “good riddance” to 2020: it’s been an awful year. Ring in the New
Year by all means: the vaccines, at least, bring hope. But our status in the
world will have been diminished mightily. A mournful chime for us all.
It seems the pathologically oversized ego got the better of
him. Leaving by the front door, cardboard box in hand, is self-evidently the
work of a poseur and narcissist. Well, he got his page one headlines and I’m
doing him the perverse service of reproducing the moment below. But the image
is too delicious to pass over.
Good. Good riddance.
I rarely agree with former PM David Cameron. But it was he
who first coined the term “career psychopath” for the man-with-a-box shown
above. The abbreviation “CP” seems to lend too much of an air of “cool” to such
a repellent, twisted creature. So I’ll use the name “Seepy” from here on. It
seems quite appropriate: the malign poison he exudes seems to have seeped out
all over the body politic of this country. And it rhymes with creepy.
From education, to Vote Leave, mismanagement of the Covid
pandemic, the needless deaths and job losses shown plainly that, whilst he may
have been an effective campaigner and a “breaker and shaker”, when it comes to actually
governing a country, his presence has been pure poison.
Henchman at Education
I personally first became aware of Seepy ten years ago, when he was Gove’s henchman at Education. His wild ideas clearly struck a chord with the former Murdoch hack Gove. The changes introduced in these years have wreaked havoc with our education system: I estimate it will take twenty years to recover once reversal of these policies has started (which, of course, it hasn’t yet). The fragmentation and disruption to schools in particular has produced not one scrap of evidence that improvement to outcomes has resulted. And the marketisation of university life has led to some perverse results. As a result of high student fees and hence competition for students, we have a generation with high student debts. Because of Covid, we have extra students crammed into accommodation, virtually as prisoners as the virus swept through our campuses in late September and October.
I distinctly remember a conversation I had about seven years
ago with a former Local Education Authority Chief Education officer. She
lamented the “responsibility without power” dilemma created by Gove’s
newly-introduced dogma-driven policy. Since the Gove changes, Local Education
Authorities are forbidden from opening new LA-run schools. But they retain
statutory responsibility to ensure all children in their area have a school
place. So, where demand exceeded supply, she had to persuade, cajole and beg
unaccountable Academy Trusts to expand or build new schools to meet the need.
This was, and is, clearly a more difficult and stressful job than when Local
Authorities controlled all the “levers”. It’s not at all clear to me how this
loss of control benefits children’s education.
How much of this was the brainchild of Seepy personally, I
just don’t know. But it’s easy to imagine his enthusiastic campaigning for this
piece of market-inspired dogma.
Vote Leave: Lies and Misuse of Data
Much has been written
already about the lies told by the Vote Leave campaign, from the £350m for the
NHS through to the 20 million Turks about to “invade” Britain once Turkey
joined the EU. This latter was presented almost as an established fact: the
truth was that under Erdogan, Turkey was moving further and further away from
meeting the EU’s exacting criteria for membership.
And, of course, Vote Leave was fined £61,000 by the Electoral Commission for breaking spending limits with some very dodgy shifting around of funds. Unfortunately for true justice, the level of penalties available to the Electoral Commission were based upon General Elections, where each malpractice potentially only affects one of 630 constituencies. The referendum result, self-evidently, affected the whole United Kingdom.
And it was Seepy who headed the Vote Leave operation and
should carry the can for its misdeeds.
Number Ten: Reign of Terror
The scope for misdeeds continued on a nationally significant
scale when Seepy was put in charge of running Johnson’s Downing Street operation
when the latter became Prime Minister. All the departmental special advisers,
in a break from the previous norm, were told they had a dual responsibility:
now reporting to Seepy himself as well as their own Minister. One outfall from
this was the resignation of Savid Jared as Chancellor who saw this as a
diminution of the power of the treasury.
Another fallout from this change was the incident in August
2019 when Sonia Khan, former Spad to Jared, was frogmarched from Number Ten on Seepy’s
orders. Khan made allegations of his aggression and bullying behaviour. She has
now reached an out-of-court
settlement “for a five-figure sum” in lieu of an employment tribunal
hearing due next month to hear her claim for unfair dismissal. Seepy was named
as a respondent in the case; Cabinet Office lawyers tried – unsuccessfully – to
get his name removed, presumably so that the full story of Seepy’s behaviour
was not presented in open court.
And Then Came Covid
Johnson is notorious, from both during and before his time
as Mayor of London, for being lazy and not on top of the detail of running his
office. So it was no surprise that his Number Ten Cabinet Office as proved to
be dysfunctional and incapable of governing the country. The pressures of managing
the pandemic have made this problem a lot worse, and the results: worst death
rate in Europe, biggest hit to the economy, are in plain view. It’s a matter of
open record that Johnson has been over-dependent, to an unhealthy degree, on
his chief adviser. It must remain a matter of speculation how much of this dysfunction
is a result of the chaos and infighting which Seepy has encouraged by his
The Ballad of Barnard Castle
I think few now doubt that the poor adherence to Government
guidance in the pandemic by sections of the public is due in part to the famous
trip to Durham and Barnard Castle. Certainly senior police officers quote
the incident being used as justification for rule-breaking when their officers
apprehend members of the public. It follows, as night follows day, that people
have died – and continue to die – as a result of this one incident. Worse,
Johnson’s attempt to defend the actions of his henchman has undermined the
whole moral authority of the UK government.
EU and US Trade Deals
There are now fewer than 50 days until the UK is scheduled
to finish the transition period and “fully” leave the EU. The government,
businesses and those responsible for new border IT systems are woefully unprepared.
How can companies (including logistic firms) prepare for something, the details
of which are still to be negotiated?
Leaving the EU was the raison d’être of the Johnson
government and of Seepy’s appointment to a leading role. Some damage limitation
could be achieved by negotiating a trade deal with the EU in the extremely
limited time left. Johnson and his sidekick seem more emotionally attached to a
deal with the US, with food poisoning, threats to UK farmers’ livelihoods, NHS
creeping takeover by US private health companies as clear threats. Their dreams
were based on their soulmate across the water, one Donald Trump.
But there’s just one problem with these dreams. Trump lost.
And Joe Biden, his successor-to-be takes a different view. Firstly, he is proud
of his Irish roots and very strongly opposed to anything which might affect the
Good Friday Agreement. Meanwhile, Trump, the Arch Bunker of populism, is in
denial, skulking in the Twituation Room in the White House.
The received view was that Seepy was keen on No Deal with
the EU. Johnson is, presumably a tabula
rasa in this respect: he is, after all, the journalist who wrote two versions, Remain and Leave, of his
article for the Daily Telegraph at
the start of the referendum campaign. So, with Seepy gone, the betting shifts
towards a last-minute deal. Johnson will dress this up as a great feat of
negotiating: just one more lie, like “oven ready” was last autumn.
There were, of course, two items of good news in the past week. The announcement of an effective vaccine was one; the departure of the man at the centre of this blog post was the other. The Covid vaccine needs to be stored and transported at -70 degrees. Let’s hope the lorries carrying them don’t get stuck on their way from Belgium (where the vaccine will be made). Meantime, stay safe and stick to the rules! (Even if some don’t!)
His influence has left lasting damage, first in education, then the economy (through leaving the EU single market) and then health (through dysfunction and chaos at the heart of government and the loss of government authority from Barnard Castle).
I’m very glad he’s gone. But the damage he’s done will be with us for some time to come.