From David Maughan Brown in York: Of lights and tunnels

3rd December

“The beginning of the end,”  “the light at the end of the tunnel”, the clichés roll out towards Dover today to greet the ‘unmarked’ lorries as they emerge from the Channel tunnel bringing the UK our first batch of the newly approved Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.  ‘Unmarked’, presumably, lest anyone have the bright idea of hi-jacking the tens of thousands of vials of vaccine to do a bit of do-it-yourself vaccinating, sell them on the black market, or ransom them back to Boris.  Good luck with that: I would have thought that freezer boxes of a vaccine that needs to be kept at minus 78-80 degrees centigrade would be about as difficult to shift as the Mona Lisa. 

This is, of course, extremely good news.  Having just scraped over the 75 year-old bar, I find myself in the fortuitous position of being in priority category number 3, a poor but eager third to the medical staff, carers and retirement home inhabitants in category 1, and the over-eighties in category 2 – not that that will be much use to us, given that Susan remains languishing in the over-70 category 4.  But there does seem to be a realistic hope that we might both have been able to receive our two doses by Easter and be able to start living a rather more ‘normal’ life again.  But, inevitably, the good news had to be soured for most of us by our cringing embarrassment of a government’s having felt compelled to leap on the opportunity for some of the jingoistic competitive crowing one might expect to hear in the playground of an independent prep school.

The fact that the UK just happened to be the first country ‘in the world’ (as distinct, presumably, from on Mars, Venus or Jupiter) to approve the roll-out of the vaccine has been held to be evidence that Boris Johnson’s regular claims that the UK is ‘world-beating’ have finally been proved true.  It matters not that Pfizer just happens to be an American company and that the vaccine is manufactured in Belgium: we approved it first.  This, according to the wholly inimitable Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, lest we forget, was ‘because of Brexit’ which unshackled us from the pedestrian ‘pace of the Europeans who are moving a bit more slowly.’   

Not to be outdone in the jingoist stupidity stakes, Gavin Williamson, our overgrown schoolboy of an Education Secretary, who is even further out of his depth in his portfolio than Hancock is, if that is possible, went further in an interview with LBC this morning.   His imperishable words in response to a question as to whether Brexit could be really held responsible for this world-beating achievement deserve to be quoted in full:  “Well I just reckon we’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulators.  Much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have. That doesn’t surprise me at all because we’re a much better country than every single one of them, aren’t we.”   I’ve listened to the clip; I can vouch for the fact that that is exactly what our Secretary of State for Education really did say.  There we have it in a nutshell:  Brexit was necessary because we didn’t want to be held back from our glorious destiny by that inferior lot across the channel.  As we have always believed, even if political correctness has got in the way of saying it, Worthy Oriental Gentlemen start at Calais. 

Leaving Brexit and the question of whether our glorious destiny lies in the 21st or the 19th century aside, the immediately self-defeating stupidity of the playground boasting about being world beating lies not with the offence it will have given to the French, the Belgians and the Americans, but with the open invitation it provided for doubt to be cast on the credibility of the approval process.  If it was the fastest approval process in the world might it have been the least thoroughgoing?  After all, Boris was the fastest and first person in the world to approve of a twenty-five mile drive to Barnard Castle as a good way to test one’s eyes, but that didn’t say a whole lot for the credibility of the approval process.   Why would that matter?  Because the main obstacle to achieving the ‘herd immunity’ to Covid-19 across the population as a whole that is essential to the return to a ‘normal’ life, lies with the anti-vaxxers who are looking for reasons to persuade their social-media followers not to accept the vaccination, and appear already to have recruited a significant number of people to their cause.

Hancock’s and Williamson’s juvenile bragging invited the inevitable responses from the countries they were demeaning.  The most telling of those has probably been the one from Anthony Fauci, Donald Trump’s least favourite Director of the USA’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is on record as stating that the UK ‘really rushed through that aproval’.[1] Fauci compared it to running ‘around the corner of the marathon’ and joining it in the last mile, and then touched on the anti-vaxxer issue in suggesting that if the U.S. “had jumped up over the hurdle here quickly and inappropriately to gain an extra week or a week-and-a-half, I think that the credibility of our regulatory process would have been damaged.”  Fauci went on to be even more damningly specific: “… they just took the data from the Pfizer company. And instead of scrutinizing it really, really carefully, they said, ‘OK, let’s approve it. That’s it.’ And they went with it.”

So there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, however hard our esteemed cabinet ministers try to extinguish it with their rancid hot air.  But I’m not waiting with bated breath for my two doses to speed through the Channel tunnel to rescue me from self-isolation.   It will have taken the lorries a few hours to get here from Belgium today; my two doses won’t be coming until after the 31st December, by which time the queues of lorries could be taking many days.  If it was seriously stupid to claim that Brexit had speeded up the approval process for the vaccine, it would be manifestly insane to imagine that Brexit won’t slow its delivery down immeasurably.


[1]https://www.politico.com/news/2020/12/03/fauci-uk-pfizer-vaccine-rush-442588

From David Maughan Brown in York: Not just another Birthday

Menu

29th November

Yesterday saw yet another lockdown birthday come and go.  This time it was my own.  In many respects the contrast from one year to the next could hardly have been be starker.  Last year I spent the day with my younger son, Brendan’s, family in Cape Town, enjoying the already significant warmth of early summer two days before we flew back for Christmas in York.  The last week of November in South Africa always saw the first lychees coming into the shops and one of my annual birthday rituals, which was duly observed, was to enjoy our first lychees of the season.  Yesterday the temperature in York didn’t rise above two degrees Celsius at any point during a murky winter’s day.  Not only did it not feel like lychee weather but I didn’t set foot outside the house all day.  Being all too well aware that I wouldn’t really get to see, never mind hug, my York and Sheffield grandchildren or their parents, and that the day would see us feeling very isolated, I hadn’t been looking forward to it with any great enthusiasm.  But I hadn’t been taking due consideration of my wife and family’s determination to make sure it was a memorably enjoyable, and paradoxically social, day.

It started with breakfast/brunch shared with the family in Cape Town.  Brendan had organised a globalised breakfast for us with Anthony doing the buying and Zoom overseeing the sharing.  The main component was a nostalgic fruit salad consisting of mango, grapes, strawberries and passion fruit.   During the course of the breakfast, I unwrapped presents intended, according to the accompanying card, for ‘a relaxed afternoon’, consisting of a 1kg bag of dry roasted peanuts, four assorted bottles of craft cider and perry, and a copy of Barack Obama’s 750 page long memoir A Promised Land.  Not being a speed-reader, never mind a speed eater or drinker, the relaxed afternoon will extend into very many more than the single one envisaged.  I’ve already dipped very fleetingly into the Obama memoir – humane, articulate and elegantly written – which will keep me going for several weeks and raises, again, the question of how on earth the same country could elect two such polar opposite Presidents within four years.

Breakfast was followed by morning tea, again courtesy of Zoom, with Sarah’s family in Sheffield, with the opening of more presents, some exquisitely crafted birthday cards and a copy of a strikingly mature poem about winter written by the eight-year old younger of my two granddaughters.  I was told to expect a similar Zoom call with Sheffield in the afternoon, but when Susan called me over to her laptop at tea-time I was surprised to find the screen filled with an even more globalised gallery-view of all my siblings and their partners as well as Anthony and Sarah’s families: Johannesburg, Washington DC, Exeter and Swakopmund in Namibia being represented, as well as Sheffield and York.  Last year our interactions consisted of brief phone-calls and/or WhatsApp messages; yesterday we spent a very pleasant  hour catching-up, and agreed to do the same at Christmas.  Over the course of the day a couple of phone-calls had come in from friends and 10 greetings messages had come in for me on the extended family WhatsApp group from various nephews and nieces.

Dinner was again shared on Zoom, scheduled to allow the Cape Town contingent to get home from the party that had kept them from being included in the afternoon’s gathering.  Anthony had circulated a menu in advance (see illustration), I had made my choices which he had prepared, in the case of the excellent Irish chowder with our eldest grandson, twelve-year old James, as leading chef.  Anthony had sent the same menu, with recipes, to Brendan and Sarah so that they could prepare their own choices.  We all dressed as we would to go out, enjoyed a great meal, and spent two hours in each other’s company.  It didn’t take long before one simply stopped noticing that the company was ‘virtual’.   

The day was, on reflection, a testament to people’s capacity to adapt to changed circumstances.   I saw members of our children’s families in person for perhaps five minutes during the day when Kate and two of the children came round to give birthday wishes from a safe distance in person, and Anthony and James came to deliver the dinner.   But far from its being an isolated-feeling lockdown birthday it was probably the most sociable and, where members of the extended family are concerned, inclusive birthday of my adult life – thanks to the good offices of Zoom and WhatsApp, and the love, care and thoughtfulness of close family and friends.

From David Maughan Brown in York: The Fool and the Blind Man

26th November 

One of the more memorable, if enigmatic, lines from W.B. Yeats’ very late poem ‘The Circus Animals Desertion’ keeps going round in my mind:  ‘And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread….’  Yeats was alluding to the legend of Cuchulain, but the symbolism of the Fool – in the Elizabethan sense of the court jester – and the Blind Man seem peculiarly apposite.  In the present context the Fool needs no introduction, although Shakespeare’s Fools were often able to use their foolery as a front behind which a wisdom was to be found that is notably absent from the clown who is supposed to be leading our country at present.   The Blind Man is the one who, while seemingly able bodied, walks straight towards, and falls into, a gaping hole that almost everybody else can see.  Our Blind Man, Rishi Sunak, however eminently smooth, affable and seemingly reasonable, is, like our Fool, not gifted with foresight.  He is not a Tiresias figure – the blind but far-sighted seer of myth and legend – and seems incapable of seeing the pitfall in front of him.  While Sunak may be doing his best to shore up the sides of the Covid pit which the incompetence of his colleagues is digging ever deeper, the Brexit pit is one he is said to have been striding towards all his adult life, and he appears blindly oblivious to the danger.  So much so that the word wasn’t heard once as he outlined his plans in yesterday’s Comprehensive Spending Review.  The Brexit pit has been predicted by both the Governor of the Bank of England and the independent Office for Budget Responsibility to be destined to be at least twice as deep as the Covid pit.   

So whose was the bread the Fool and the Blind Man have “stolen”?  In the first instance, that of the 4.2 million children under 16 in UK who were already living below the poverty line in 2019 and whose situation will inevitably have become significantly worse during the pandemic.  The Equality and Human Rights Commission recently warned the government that the pandemic was having a ‘devastating’ impact on the well-being of children.  It took a 23 year-old football player to shame the Fool and the Blind Man into reversing their policy of discontinuing the provision of free school meals during the holidays.  And it isn’t because the feckless working class unemployed aren’t prepared to go out and work to provide for their children, as the backwoodsmen on the Tory back benches would no doubt maintain: seventy percent of children in poverty, according to May Bulman in Tuesday’s Independent, have at least one parent who is in work.   In a context in which it was disclosed yesterday that £10 billion was wasted on PPE in the early months of the pandemic because government incompetence had ensured that the stock of PPE when the pandemic struck was grossly inadequate, imposing a freeze on most public sector salaries, which will amount to a real term decrease as Brexit sends prices soaring, seems pretty shameless.  It certainly won’t help to put the bread back on the table.  And all the while the Blind Man assures us that there won’t be a return to austerity.

Beyond the UK, the bread is being stolen from the poorest of the poor elsewhere in the world, as the Fool and the Blind Man set about changing the law to save £4 billion by cutting the legislated 0.7% of GDP that our laws dictate should go to foreign aid every year down to 0.5%.  The quantum of foreign aid that will be available after the 28% cut will, of course, also be significantly reduced by the fall in GDP resulting from the pandemic, and the much longer-term reduction in GDP resulting from a no-deal Brexit, which, the Blind Man asserted again on the Today programme this morning, wouldn’t bother him.   This cut is being made in the same breath as four times as much, £16bn extra, is gifted to the Ministry of Defence to appease the Hooray Henrys on the Tory backbenches and pander to the Fool’s delusion that the UK is still the global superpower it was in the 19th century.  Tory backwoodsmen will be arguing that much of our foreign aid is wasted as a result of corruption in the countries to which it is granted, in a context in which it has been made all too clear that the £4 billion saving in financial aid is dwarfed by the tens of billions that have been squandered through the pandemic via the corrupt Tory ‘Chumocracy’ that has seen huge contracts going to line the pockets of wholly unqualified friends and relations of Tory Ministers, MPs and special advisers.  “Chumocracy” is a grotesquely inelegant word, but then what it describes isn’t very pretty either.   British foreign aid buys us wholly disproportionate goodwill and influence around the world, vastly more (pace the Blind Man’s feeble plaint on the Today programme) than our defence force, and once converted into local currencies at very advantageous exchange rates brings enormous benefits.   Cutting the aid budget is short-sighted and mean spirited, but then, of course, a Fool is a fool and a Blind Man is, by definition, the apogee of short-sightedness.

From David Maughan Brown in York: If you didn’t laugh you would cry

November 20th

With all too little of interest happening on the home front during lockdown, one is obliged to look elsewhere for subject matter to write about.  More traditional theatres being closed, it is a blessing, if a mixed one, that there is more than enough political theatre being enacted on both sides of the Atlantic to provide ample material for blogs, as well as keeping newspapers, journalists and, in particular, comedians and cartoonists in business.   The latter will be viewing the prospect of a very grey future once Donald Trump has eventually been dragged kicking and squealing out of the White House after wreaking whatever damage he can on the United States and the rest of the world in the interim.  Biden comes across as boringly sane and normal by comparison.   This side of the Atlantic, the comedians and cartoonists will be hoping that whoever is in charge will wait a bit longer before they come to the conclusion that putting the clown in charge of the circus was a seriously stupid thing to do and replace him with the far less colourful Rishi Sunak.  It will then be the turn of the playwrights to realise that much of what comes across as high farce in the present provides scope in the future for rewriting as tragedy.  If you didn’t laugh you would cry.

The latest act in the Johnson-Patel political psychodrama has seen considerable fall-out resulting from the long delayed release of a two-page summary of a report by Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minster’s former adviser on ministerial standards, into allegations that Priti Patel, our Honourable Home Secretary (how much irony can one honorific carry?), had been bullying members of the civil service in three separate departments unfortunate enough to have to report to her.  Allan found that the bullying had taken place, if ‘unintentionally’ (!), and that the ministerial code had been broken, which, in terms of every UK precedent, should have led either to the dismissal or the resignation of the Minister concerned.   Instead, Johnson did the exact equivalent of what he had done following Cummings’ excursion to Barnard Castle: demonstrated a total incapacity to learn from his mistakes; in this instance decided that the man responsible for doing the investigation had got it wrong, Patel hadn’t broken the Ministerial code or bullied anyone; and declared that he had full confidence in Patel and the matter was closed. Presumably worried that the media would be nasty to poor Priti in response, Johnson then ordered his MPs to “form a square around the Prittster (sic),” thereby demonstrating that he was, as so often, doubly delusional: first in imagining that he was on a par with the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, and, second, in imagining that the matter was closed.

Sir Alex Allan’s predictable and honourable response to having his painstakingly researched and carefully considered report ignored by Johnson was to resign his role as the independent adviser on the ministerial code.  Trying to advise Johnson on ethics was always going to be an uphill struggle, given that Johnson has made a career out of treating morality and ethics with total contempt.   University Vice Chancellors in general being given the same autocratic free-rein as Prime Ministers, I can understand how Sir Alex would feel, having on one occasion been undermined in a very similar way by one of the four Vice Chancellors to whom I was deputy.  Being unable, unlike Sir Alex, to embellish my CV with a knighthood, I couldn’t afford to resign.  

It is a truism that the distinguishing characteristic of bullies is that they will always pick on those who are weaker than themselves.   Asylum-seekers are among the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.   Nobody, apart apparently from those sycophantically prepared to form Johnson’s dutiful square around the “Prittster”, needs to read Sir Alex’s long-suppressed report to discover that Patel is a bully: there can be no question that the way the Home Office is treating asylum seekers at the behest of Patel constitutes a particularly cruel and brutal form of bullying.  Could there ever be a more loudly trumpeted invitation to potential bullies to get on with their bullying than the deliberate and overt creation and continuation of a “hostile environment” for any group of people?

Patel’s latest ploy has been to reinstate the regular compulsory reports by asylum seekers to Home Office offices that had been suspended in March on the basis that, however great the temptation, it wouldn’t look good if, after all they have been through to get here, asylum seekers were seen to be succumbing to Covid-19 as a result of having to make unnecessary journeys by public transport to report to the Home Office.  Apparently that doesn’t matter any longer, perhaps because Patel has decided that if they die of Covid that will simultaneously pre-empt the challenges of the “leftist” lawyers who have the unpatriotic cheek plead their cases, and also save her the cost of deporting them all.  It is all grist to the cartoonist’s mill, but none of it is remotely funny.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Wish fulfilment’?

November 18th

There are many reasons for those of us who have retired from the business of university management to be grateful no longer to have to worry about how best to steer our universities through whatever rough seas the shifting winds of politics and economics put in their way.   As I’ve said in previous entries, I don’t envy today’s Vice Chancellors having to contend with the current pandemic and its future repercussions on top of the perennial problem of transient cabinet ministers intent on to leaving their mark on the system before they move on to a more significant portfolio.   But recent events have made me particularly pleased no longer to be implicated in any way in a global academic research system which is, in one aspect at least, unforgivably wasteful and exploitative, and is arguably profoundly immoral.   

Where the UK is concerned, we still have one of the most productive and highly regarded university systems in the world, although there is no question that Brexit is bound to wreak very serious, and possibly irreparable, damage on it.  An impressive array of outstanding research, disproportionate to the size our system, still comes out of our universities, but it does so at incalculable cost.  Most of that cost is entirely hidden, both at the national and individual institutional levels.   The figures for the monies distributed by the six UK Research Councils (see the table from the THES above) amounted in 2017-18 to rather under £1.2bn; a roughly equivalent amount will have been distributed to Higher Education on the basis of the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF).   That is the visible cost where the Research Councils are concerned.   Some idea of the invisible cost, literally invisible, is arrived at by the simple expedient of subtracting the number of successful grants, 1,793, from the number of applications, 6,959.   So 5,226 bids that will each have taken literally hundreds of hours to put together, and will have carried the hopes, and sometimes the livelihoods, of their authors with them, have all been an abject waste of time and talent.   ‘Livelihoods’ because far too many researchers around the world are obliged to live a frighteningly precarious existence from one successful funding grant to the next.   Much of the cost is unquantifiable as it relates to mental health, wellbeing and general quality of life.

That, if course, is only half of the problem where government funding of universities in UK is concerned.    The other half lies with the countless more hours that have to be spent preparing for the regular cycle of REF evaluations; hours spent administering and writing about research rather than doing it.  And then there are all the other non-governmental funding bodies that, to their great credit, fund academic research, but in the process compound the problem where the wholly unproductive time and energy expended on unsuccessful funding bids is concerned.   This is often time and energy expended by many of the ablest men and women in the country that could have been spent far more productively.

Why write about this right now?  Because over the past nine months I have spent a significant amount of time painstakingly proofreading and commenting on an excellent collaborative research bid being produced by a group of researchers from, among others, Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania, whose principal investigator was from the University of Cape Town.  The proposal to one of the major medical research funding bodies in the United States was for the funding of the evaluation of a potentially really important behavioural intervention designed to try to address the significant number of young men in the Western Cape (and, ultimately, elsewhere) who test positive for HIV but don’t then move to treatment.   The intervention involves a short video to be used when they are being counselled on first receipt of their HIV-positive result.  The video, whose production was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, features brief interviews with HIV positive men on antiretroviral treatment trying to address stigma and fears about antiretrovirals by talking about the normality of the lives they are able to lead.  

The bid was not funded at initial submission, but the reviews were largely very positive, detailed comments were received from the reviewers, and the researchers were invited to resubmit.  A huge amount of work went into making sure all the comments were addressed and the bid was duly resubmitted. The devastating news came through on Tuesday that the resubmission had been rejected without further review.  No reasons given; apparently no appeal possible; literally hundreds and hundreds of hours wasted, not just the time of those preparing the bid but also that of the initial reviewers.   The funding body would have been perfectly within its rights to change its funding policies in the interim to focus, for example, on Coronavirus instead of HIV/AIDS, but if that is what has happened it is wholly indefensible for them not to have communicated that to researchers whom they had invited to resubmit a bid on HIV.

A better way needs to be found globally for funding academic research, some way that does not result in the livelihoods and wellbeing of academic researchers becoming collateral damage, and so much of the time and energy of some of our ablest minds being  entirely wasted. 

From David Maughan Brown in York: Reflections on Mangrove

The Mangrove Nine

16th November 

Yesterday evening’s brilliant BBC One screening of Mangrove, the first in a series of five films in the Small Axe series directed by Steve McQueen, was difficult to watch.  The historically accurate film covers the two years from 1968, the year of Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, when Frank Critchlow established his Mangrove Trinidadian restaurant in Notting Hill, which rapidly became a much needed hub for the British-Caribbean community, to the 1970 Old Bailey trial of nine men and women of West Indian extraction who had been arrested following a protest march on the local police station.   The protest was the eventual outcome of eighteen months of racist harassment by the police who had conducted twelve violent and destructive raids on the Mangrove over that period under the pretence that, being run by black people, it was bound to harbour drug-dealers and prostitutes.  The trial lasted for 55 tense days during which the defendants were liable, if found guilty, to ten-year prison sentences for incitement to riot.   The acting across-the-board is mesmerising, the story-telling superbly nuanced, and the film has deservedly earned five star ratings from the critics.

It was difficult to watch for two reasons.  The first was that it was such a visceral reminder of so much that went on in South Africa during the apartheid years.  The film captures the vicious racial stereotyping, the casual racist brutality of the police,  vividly and chillingly.  And it manages to do so without caricature or overstatement.    PC Frank Pulley, superbly acted, still a constable after 15 years in the police force, epitomises the racist bully who takes his own inadequacies out on those he assumes to be powerless to resist.   The film reveals the extent to which those in the dock are in every respect – morally, intellectually, and in terms simply of their common humanity – vastly superior to their corrupt and mendacious police accusers and, for that matter, to the inhumane court orderlies, the supercilious prosecutor and the establishment judge.  The film brought home to me, once again, just how naïve some of us in South Africa were to imagine during the 1970s and 1980s that Britain could be looked to for a model of decency and justice where the police and courts were concerned.  Give PC Pulley and his cronies a crash course in Afrikaans and they would have been entirely at home in the Suid Afrikaanse Polisie of the time.

The other reason it was difficult to watch was much more immediate and equally, if not more, visceral.  It was, quite simply, that there is still at least one arm of the British State, namely the Home Office, that blithely continues to operate with the same casual and dishonest brutality today.  The only way I can account for its appalling behaviour is by assuming that it must still be informed by a similar dehumanising racism.  We learnt from a report from Lizzie Dearden[1] in today’s The Independent that the latest device for stopping asylum seekers from crossing the English Channel in small boats in the Priti Patel box of tricks is to prosecute and imprison as a people smuggler any asylum seeker who has been coerced into steering one of the boats. Having been criminalised for trying to make sure that their fellow asylum seekers don’t drown, these asylum seekers then become liable for immediate deportation on their release from their up to 30 months imprisonment. A report in yesterday’s Observer revealed that many asylum seekers arriving by boat are being deported back to France before their asylum claims have been properly considered.  As was no doubt the case with the Mangrove Nine, who faced ridiculously exaggerated charges, the Crown Prosecution Service are cravenly acceding to, in this instance it would seem, the Home Secretary’s vicious whims.  

A second article in today’s The Independent, this time from May Bulman[2], draws our attention to a twenty-fold increase in the number of self-harm incidents in one of the detention centres holding asylum seekers who have arrived in small boats.   They are only taking to small boats in their desperation, it bears repeating, because safer routes to seek asylum, and in many instances join family members, in UK have been deliberately closed to them.   After the trauma and fear that drove them from their homes, after the hazards, hardship and hostility they have faced on their long journeys overland to reach the English Channel, after having had to pay people smugglers for the privilege of risking their lives to get here, it is hardly surprising that when they find themselves imprisoned on their arrival and threatened with immediate deportation before their claims to asylum have even been listened to they should self-harm in their utter desperation.   And this is the country that they looked to for sanctuary and justice.

We are being told that the departure of Cummings and Cain from Downing Street will give Boris Johnson a chance to ‘reset’ the direction of his government.   Now that he has crossed the threshold of the Promised Land of Brexit ‘sovereignty’, with or without a deal, one can only hope that he will demonstrate the statesmanship to look beyond the Brexit credentials of his cabinet ministers.    Unless he thinks that the majority of the British people are so brutally xenophobic that they are happy to go along with the  appalling way Patel wants asylum seekers treated, which I can’t bring myself to believe, he must, surely, taker a closer look at the role of Home Secretary.   Patel seemed to win some public sympathy via her account of the racism directed towards her when she was at school.  But it is common cause that the abused all too often end up as abusers, the bullied all too often become bullies themselves.   The outcome of the long-standing enquiry into Patel’s alleged bullying of her officials in the various government departments unfortunate enough to fall under her spell has been kept under wraps, no doubt for very good reason.   Now that Boris is having to self-isolate in the austere confines of his Downing Street flat he can, perhaps, find time to watch Mangrove.  As he does so, with a possible cabinet reshuffle in the back of his mind, he should perhaps ask himself whether it is possible that any of his current cabinet ministers have the instincts and mental attitudes of a grossly over-promoted 2020 version of PC Frank Pulley, and, if so, whether he wants them to continue to discredit any claims that the United Kingdom is a humane and civilised country.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/channel-crossings-migrant-boats-jailed-dinghies-smugglers-cps-b1722937.html

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/self-harm-detention-brook-house-asylum-seekers-b1668406.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: Hot-air balloon?

Into the sunset?

November 15th.

The UK is currently facing two existential crises simultaneously, either of which would, on its own, constitute the severest test of a UK government since World War II.   On the one hand, we have a pandemic that has so far, even by the official underestimate, cost over 51,000 lives, is still getting worse, and is once again threatening to overwhelm our hospitals.  Our Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, is predicting that the coming winter will be the NHS’s worst in decades.  The UK was always going to be affected by Covid-19 but the pandemic has been far worse in the UK, and has killed tens of thousands more people than it need have, as a result of our government’s embarrassing incompetence and, in particular, its desperately poor communication. On the other hand, as if the damage done to the economy by the pandemic were not bad enough, we have the economic catastrophe of an ideologically-driven Brexit to contend with in six weeks time.  This last will almost certainly result in a relatively short time in the break-up of our supposedly ‘United’ Kingdom.    In the meantime, as a ‘no-deal’ Brexit looms, the Prime Minister’s always very limited attention span is entirely taken up with the internecine ferret-fight in the Downing street sack that I wrote about in my last entry.

The first two ferrets to be evicted from the sack, or alternatively given it, have been Lee Cain, Boris Johnson’s Director of Communications, and the infamous Dominic Cummings.  Lee Cain’s career started with his appointment as a tabloid journalist working for The Sun, which provides a very good early indication of his moral compass, or lack thereof, although he may well have learned the art of telling convincing lies earlier.  His distinction in the field has been plummily expressed by no lesser personage than the honourable member for the eighteenth century, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who declared on his departure that Cain had been ‘a fantastic public servant … somebody instrumental in ensuring the Vote Leave campaign was successful and somebody who has made a huge contribution to this government’.  Enough said.  One has to assume that, as Johnson’s Director of Communications, Cain was at least partly responsible for the government’s shift from the clarity of its initial Covid slogan, ‘Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives’, to the much-ridiculed opacity of the May revision: ‘Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save lives.’  It is arguable that the ineptness of that slogan, and Cain’s soul-mate Dominic Cummings’ drive to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight, were the two most significant factors in undermining the credibility of government communications about the pandemic.  Cain’s place in Downing St. is due to be taken by one James Slack, who is obviously perfectly named to take tighter control of the government’s communication strategy.

The ferret fight was over Lee Cain’s prospective promotion to being Boris Johnson’s chief of staff following the appointment of Allegra Stratton as the government’s political press secretary. The latter would appear to have a career death-wish as she has apparently agreed to front Downing Street’s proposed imitation of the White House daily press briefings.  That was obviously going to cut across Cain’s direction of communications, so another job needed to be found for him.  The whole point of what goes on behind the scenes in Downing Street is that it goes on in the dark as far as the public is concerned.  It, like Michael Howard, has ‘something of the night about it’, and it is this Achilles heel, alongside our lack of a written constitution, that point to the weakness in our democracy that I referred to in my last entry.  It is ‘special advisers’ who, no matter how comprehensively they fit into Dominic Cummings’ ‘misfits and wierdos’ category, currently determine the direction of government, not the cabinet, and certainly not parliament. 

According to Andrew Woodcock’s report in The Independent, the ferrets ranged against Cummings and Cain (and who knows how many of their dozen or so fellow travellers from the Vote Leave campaign who had joined them behind the scenes in Downing St.) were, we are told, Allegra Stratton, Munira Mirza, who is currently Johnson’s ‘policy chief’, and, no doubt crucially, Carrie Symonds. Symonds is Boris Johnson’s fiancée, mother of his most recent child, which makes her officially the latest in the long line of women with whom Johnson has shared his bed, not that history suggests she will be enjoying an exclusive privilege in that respect.   So who gets to hold some of the most influential political appointments in what we are pleased to call our ‘democracy’ can be largely determined, not by formal processes of advertisement, application and assessment,  by who our Prime Minister happens to have as his formally acknowledged bed partner at any given time. 

From time to time on still days when I’m working on my allotment I hear a sudden belching sound and look up to see a hot air balloon drifting gently overhead.  The one I saw most recently seems in retrospect to be pertinent.  Hot air balloons strike me as having a lot in common with our Prime Minister.  They are highly visible – all show  – but have very little substance; they are kept afloat by hot air, fuelled by toxic gases, and extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of circumstance, being blown, hapless and uncontrollable, in unwanted directions before any adverse wind that arises.  Nobody down on the ground, mere earthlings, can have any idea who the hell, if anybody at all, is steering them.   The balloons that fly over my allotment are often like the one illustrated, floating off towards the sunset  – one hopes not the sunset of our democracy.  The faintly discernible ‘Virgin’ is obviously very much less than accurate in Johnson’s case, but then he clearly relished driving around in a bus with an obvious lie about the NHS blazoned across its sides in the run-up to the referendum, so it doesn’t seem too inappropriate.  Anyone who takes the trouble to type ‘Hot-air clown balloons’ into the Google Images search facility will see that I would have been spoiled for choice had I wanted to choose one of those as an illustration for the analogy, but none of the clowns on view came close to capturing the uniquely Johnsonian combination of deranged hair and shifty eyes.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Lock him up!’

November 13th

I suspect that the only way the United States is going to be able to put a metaphorical strait-jacket on Donald Trump, appropriate as a literal one would be, is going to be to turn one of his crowd-rousing rally slogans back on him and “Lock him up!”.  His psychologist niece, Mary, author of Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, who is making a name (and no doubt a fistful of dollars) for herself with her insights into her grotesque uncle, is quoted by The Independent as saying that ‘He’s psychologically incapable of dealing with, processing or moving on from this kind of loss.  Interfering with a peaceful transfer of power is obviously bad, as is undermining the legitimacy of the incoming administration … but who knows what other kind of smash-and-grab activities he’s going to engage in?’[1]   

Speculation about possible kinds of smash-and-grab activity ranges from pardoning all his criminal cronies on his way out of the White House, to resigning on 19th January so that he himself can be pardoned by stand-in President Spence, to setting up an alternative Presidency ‘in exile’ at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida retreat, for the next four years.  A more benign speculation is that he will simply bide his time and stand for election again in 2024, but that is only marginally more benign as it would, at the very least, involve four more deranged years of racist, xenophobic and misogynistic tweets to his 70 million followers, aimed at further undermining Biden’s administration.  What is certain is that Trump is determined to flout the assumption (and tradition) that outgoing Presidents will behave like adults rather than tantrum-prone toddlers. 

Besides undermining the legitimacy of the democratic process in the USA, this turns the otherwise very sensible 70-day hand-over period between the date of the election and that of the inauguration into a very fraught two months that carries the serious possibility of armed conflict.  There are millions guns in private ownership in the US; we’ve been shown TV footage of heavily armed private militia gearing up for a fight; and Trump’s behaviour, cravenly supported by senior member of the Republican Party, seems at times calculated to encourage violent responses from men with guns.   Investigations are under way into a whole range of potentially criminal acts Trump has been accused of, so locking him up out of political harm’s way might be a good solution, although that would be certain to further enrage what is appropriately referred to as his ‘base’.   The USA does, however, have a written constitution whereby if Trump is still refusing to leave the White House by then, which seems entirely possible, he can be forcibly escorted out of it by the secret service on January 20th.

A number of commentators have suggested that Democracy in the US is in serious danger of being ’broken’.  Donald Trump may be doing his best to help it in that direction, but the USA does at least have that written constitution to fall back on.  Democracy in the UK is arguably on even more shaky ground in that we all too evidently can’t fall back on a written constitution to protect us in the longer term from dangerous mavericks.   The 70-day handover from one duly elected President to another in the US assumes a respect for tradition and a level of decency and political maturity on all sides, but where that is lacking, as in the present case, the law can ensure a resolution to any impasse.   Similarly, our representative democracy in the UK assumes a level of integrity and responsibility on the part of the Members of Parliament who are elected by the people to approve the laws that govern them, and it assumes that it will be the people’s elected representatives who will ultimately be responsible for overseeing the implementation of those laws.  But where this is manifestly not what is happening, where we find ourselves having to ask ‘who is it really that we are being governed by?’, we don’t have any constitutional remedy.   Reinforcing this question, our news headlines have been drawing attention to unedifying stories about Downing Street ‘special advisers’ fighting like ferrets in a sack, and we have been regaled with photographs of the dishevelled losers emerging from the sack into such light as there is on a rainy autumn day in London. Watching them limp off into the gathering dusk one is tempted to wonder whether that is what our democracy has come to. But that merits an entry all to itself.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/mary-trump-biden-election-emily-murphy-b1721263.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Freedom is Slavery’?

November 10

‘War is Peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.’   Anyone might think that our brain-washed cabinet ministers are required to spend at least an hour every day meditating on these slogans, originally inscribed on the white pyramid of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984, as their mantras.  How else can one account for their ability to tell us with straight faces and reverent voices, that the Internal Market Bill, which they are very happy to admit breaks international law, is designed to protect the Good Friday Agreement and ensure that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland?  How silly of the rest of the world, now rather significantly including the President-Elect of the United States, to see it as doing precisely the opposite.   Orwell’s Big Brother would be hard pushed to come up with anything quite as imaginative as the government’s claim, articulated again by the Right Honourable George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, that what amounts in effect to a wrecking ball where the Withdrawal Agreement (and, for that matter any hope of a trade deal with the US) is, in fact, ‘a vital safety net.’

In marked contrast to the lickspittle Tory MPs who seem only too willing to vote for anything Boris and Dominic Cummings tell them to vote for, and duly ensured that the bill passed with a substantial majority in the House of Commons, a number of Tory Peers, including Michael Howard (who was memorably described as ‘having something of the night about him’) have spoken eloquently about the damage the bill will do to the UK’s reputation and international credibility.  As Baron Howard of Lympne put it, having stressed that he is a strong supporter of Brexit: ‘This government has chosen as one of its first assertions of its newly won sovereignty to break its word, to break international law and to renege on a treaty it signed barely a year ago.’   Howard’s speech contributed towards the offending clauses of the bill being voted down by a huge majority of 268 votes in the House of Lords.

The government has vowed to reinstate the offending clauses when the bill comes back to the House of Commons regardless, but, given how adept practice has made Boris Johnson where abrupt U-turns are concerned, that wouldn’t be the safe bet this week that it would have been a fortnight ago.   Johnson and Cummings will not have regarded Joe Biden winning the US election as a significant factor in their gaming of Brexit.  Biden has in the past referred to Johnson as a ‘kind of physical and emotional clone of Trump’, he has made it absolutely clear that if Brexit threatens the Good Friday Agreement in any way the desperately desired trade deal with the USA will not be forthcoming, that his ancestry is Irish rather than British, and that he will be more interested in the USA’s relations with the EU than with UK.  The Scottish newspaper The National reported that Tommy Vietor, who was a former special adviser to President Obama and is ‘close to Biden’ responded to Johnson’s congratulatory tweet to Biden and Kamala Harris by saying: ‘This shapeshifting creep weighs in.  We will never forget your racist comments about Obama and slavish devotion to Trump.’  It seems safe to assume that the ‘we’ included Biden.

So the past week has been, as the cliché would have it, something of a rollercoaster, as hopes rose and fell, taking levels of shadenfreude with them, that Trump would finally get his long overdue comeuppance, and that Johnson and his no-deal Brexit plans would, to one extent or another, be collateral damage.  But, where the USA is concerned, hope for the short-term has been qualified by the recognition that, even after Trump’s four long years spent reducing the reputation of the US Presidency to a steaming pile of ordure, 71 million US voters still managed to find reason to vote for him.   So what, one has to ask, even as one enjoys the viral videos of Trump as a two-year-old having a tantrum, is the long-term future of US democracy?  More immediately, what does the future for the UK look like now that Johnson finds himself internationally friendless in his proudly, if deceitfully, won ‘sovereignty’?  Which populist bully does he cosy up to next? Bolsonaro?  Even if someone at the last minute manages to point him successfully in the direction of an intelligent trade deal with the EU, we will still be left with his landslide general election win to mull over.   Johnson isn’t quite as much of an embarrassment as Trump (nearly, but not quite), and Biden clearly appealed to a much broader cross-section of the US electorate than Corbyn ever could to its UK counterpart, but one only has to look at the twitter feed following the debate on the Internal Market Bill in the House of Lords to recognise the parallels between the mindless irrationality of many of the Trump supporters our televisions have been serving up to us over the past month and that of the Brexit devotees whose devotion has not been shaken one little bit by the intervening months of shambolic incompetence.  Perhaps Freedom is Slavery after all.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Remembrance

                      Remembrance
                         (2014-2018)
 
A hundred years from when they marched
straight of limb and stupefied with song 
to fall with their faces to the foe,
we were always destined for
a four-year festival of faux remembrance.
A nation standing still in silent thrall 
to the century’s winning spin:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
 
Were the children of Dunblane and Sandy Hook that lucky too?
When cadets in Peshawar are called forward one by one
for execution by a bullet in the brain,
when a helicopter falls like a stricken bird out of the sky
to kill young people in a pub below,
when cafes and concert halls
become slaughter-houses for the people of Manchester and Paris,
nobody stands beside the graves proclaiming to the world
that age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.
 
Wilfred Owen, who knew the pity and the cess of war,
and mourned the prospect of the undone years,
disavowing the consolatory, 
was one of those the years could not condemn.
He would have welcomed the embrace of age.
But still we choose the consolatory
long after those who needed consolation
for Passchendaele or Delville Wood,
for Mons or Arras or the Somme,
have followed the ones they loved into the earth.
 
We know, with Grenfell and McCrae,
what it is to live, feel dawn and see the sunset glow, 
we know that life is colour and warmth and light – 
yet we allow the cadences of poetry
to celebrate their loss and wrap the lie.
The notes of the last post dying on the wind,
white crosses ranked in ordered lines, 
poppies sprouting on lapels each autumn,
the elegiac rhythms of the verse –
all serve to sanitize the cess.
 
From Flanders fields to suit lapels those poppies flow, 
from parliament, to football field, to studio.
Poppies that declare we care
about dead sons and brothers, 
about fathers blown to bits in far off lands –
as long as they were ours, of course.
But we do not care enough
not to vote for photogenic men
who wear their poppies every year to show they care, 
but do not care enough
not to send out other people’s hopes, and loves, and lives,
to die hideously in foreign fields.