From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘The right deed for the wrong reason’

28th June

So bumptious Boris is back to his bounciest and most boisterous best, particularly at performing U-turns.   Overdoing the alliteration seems an appropriate way to pay deference to a man whose rhetoric overdoes everything, most of the time including the truth.   Suitably socially-distanced Boris watchers (health warning: only for those with their blood-pressure medication close to hand) might well be asking themselves whether Boris’s very obvious disorientation is the result of his making himself dizzy with so many U-turns in such a short time, or whether the U-turns are the result of his having no idea where he was going in the first place and simply being comprehensively lost.   Those of us who are old enough to remember what my grandchildren would regard as ‘the olden days’ before sat-navs were invented will probably remember the latter feeling, although we were fortunate enough not to have a visually-impaired Dominic Cummings in the back seat telling us where to go.  Watching Boris’s blunderings and speculating about their origins may not be a particularly productive or spiritually fulfilling way of spending one’s time in lockdown, but it can become compulsive.

The list of U-turns is impressive, indeed, dare I say it, potentially ‘world-beating’: vouchers for free school meals during the summer holidays; binning our ‘world-beating’ tracking and tracing app.; relenting on all primary school children being back in school before the summer holidays; reversing the decisions on the NHS surcharge and the bereavement scheme; remote voting in the House of Commons; and the imposition of the blanket quarantine.  And those are just the ones that come immediately to mind.  Those are, however, just details: the Grand-daddy of them all, which Boris has been ‘doubling down’ on again today, is the gargantuan Tory U-turn on ‘austerity’.   The other U-turns, which have to do to what are essentially mere details, were forced on an unthinking government, both congenitally and ideologically averse to consultation with anybody, least of all unions and local councils, by public pressure. This one, which involves borrowing at historically low interest-rates in order to spend our way out of recession and mass unemployment by investing in infrastructure, “Building, building, building”, suggests that there is, after all, a glimmer of intelligence, a flickering candle, somewhere in the pea-soup fog of collective Tory intelligence.

As the Keynesian economists they obdurately refused to listen to have been telling them for the last decade, that is what they should have been doing ever since the recession in 2008.  If they had gone down that road, they could have avoided the untold misery, anxiety, poverty and cultural impoverishment their ideological obsession with shrinking the state has occasioned:  the closing of youth and child services; the forcing of tens of thousands into the humiliation of having to rely on food-banks; the closing of municipal libraries; the strangling of the justice system; the denial of adequate funding to the NHS, which occasioned the lack of PPE and caused how many deaths?  The list goes on and on and on.  And, even in deciding on the U-turn, Boris still can’t bring himself to be entirely honest:  “We are absolutely not going back to the austerity of 10 years ago,” he told the Sunday Times today.  ‘The austerity of the last 10 years’, to which he gave every evidence of being wholly committed, would have been more honest.

Now, with his invariably tone-deaf timing, bouncy Boris declares his commitment to ‘Building, building, building’ at the precise moment his housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, is coming under increasing pressure for overruling Tower Hamlet officials, who apparently begged him not to give a last-minute go-ahead to Richard Desmond’s application to get ‘building, building, building’ a one billion pound housing development, involving 1500 houses, in an already overcrowded part of Tower Hamlets in London.  Having sat next to Desmond at a dinner, and allegedly watched a promotional video for the development, Jenrick is alleged to have overruled planning objections the day before Desmond would have been obliged to pay £45 million in extra developer’s contributions to the Labour-run Tower Hamlets council.  Desmond subsequently sent Jenrick a message thanking him for his speedy response and for saving him from having to pay ‘loads of doe (sic)’ to ‘the Marxists’.  It will, of course, have been entirely coincidental that Desmond then made a £12,000 donation to the Conservative Party.  But a mere twelve grand is peanuts in the grand scale of things:  the Independent reported yesterday that the Tories have received a total of £11 million in donations from building magnates in the six months since Boris became prime minister.   Who, any longer, wonders why?

T.S. Eliot has Becket say in his Christmas sermon in Murder in the Cathedral: ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.’  In clinging on desperately to avoid losing Dominic Cummings, Boris was very clearly doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason: he is wholly dependent on Cummings to run the country for us.  In regarding the Jenrick matter as ‘closed’ (according to Priti Patel, who would know) he is laying himself open to the very strong imputation that his commitment to “building, building, building” is a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.  Infrastructure projects, as anyone who has ever managed them knows full well, leave all sorts of opportunities for corruption and sleaze.   

In his bouncily boyish way, Boris has been trying to demonstrate to the world that he is back to his best, but perhaps only managing to give the impression that he is, in P.G. Woodhouse terminology, a bounder.  Today he has told us that he is ‘fit as a butcher’s dog’ and we’ve been regaled with unedifying footage of his backside as he did press-ups for the benefit of the Mail on Sunday to prove it.  While many of us would be only too pleased to see his back, I don’t imagine that too many people want to be shown his backside as an accompaniment to Sunday dinner.   Boris may well be ‘fit as a butcher’s dog’, although how many press-ups he managed wasn’t mentioned.  Some of the women who know him best may, for all we know, also consider him to be as randy as a butcher’s dog and to have the moral compass of a butcher’s dog.  His apparent inability to see anything whatever wrong with Cummings’ and Jenrick’s behaviour might suggest to some people that he also has the ethics of a butcher’s dog.  But, however fit he may or may not be, best not to enter him in the butcher’s dog category at Crufts (‘The World’s Greatest Dog-show’) until someone has, at the very least, groomed him.   There are times when I get the impression that Crufts isn’t even in the same league when it comes to the world’s greatest dog-show.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Back to school?

1st June

How on earth could it have come to this? Today is the day, much-heralded by the tabloids, for the return to school after the ten long weeks of lockdown and home-schooling.  But only for some classes and only in England, and it is being left entirely up to parents, living through the worst health emergency this country has experienced for a hundred years, to take the potential life-or-death decision whether or not to risk sending their children back to school if they happen to be in the eligible classes.

On what possible basis are they supposed to make that choice?  Because the government of England, which we used to think was the government of the United Kingdom, says it is now time (and safe) to do so?  But the June 1stdate was decided weeks ago on the basis of no evidence whatsoever that it would be safe by today and, given that 8,000 people are still being infected by the virus every day, it is still, all too clearly, not without risk.  And not just risk to the children.  Although the evidence shows that children are the age group least badly affected by Covid-19, the extent to which asymptomatic children can carry the virus back into their homes to infect the rest of their families is still a lot less certain.

So are parents supposed to base their decision on our government’s track-record where the virus is concerned?  That is something of an ask considering that the UK is widely considered to have been one of the four worst countries in the world when it comes to its handling of the pandemic, unfair as that is to the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and North Ireland.   Thanks to a decade of austerity, and a linked determination to be deaf to all warnings, we were hopelessly illprepared and under-equipped for the outbreak of a widely predicted global pandemic.   We stopped testing and tracking just when we should have been ‘ramping’ it up.  We allowed two major sporting events to go ahead, bringing thousands of spectators into this country from the epicentre of the disease in Europe, at a time when the rest of Europe was busy locking everything down.   We didn’t close our airports when we should have, and our government now bizarrely thinks that it is a good idea to do so three months too late.   So our government’s track-record isn’t going to inspire in parents a lot of confidence that it knows what it is talking about when it says it is safe for schools to reopen.

To complicate their decision even further, parents are having conflicting advice and concerns dinned into them from all sides.  The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) thinks it is OK for schools to reopen, but at least four members of that group have come out independently to say it is too soon.  And in any case that group lost credibility to such an extent when it became clear that Dominic Cummings was sitting in on SAGE meetings, and might be influencing its decisions, that an independent group scientific advisory group felt obliged to set itself up.  Teachers unions think it is too soon.  The vastly more credible devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and North Ireland, which don’t consist of English Nationalists, think it is too soon.   But educational experts and children’s mental health experts are consistently pointing to the need to get children back to school as soon as it is safe to do so.  And almost all parents who aren’t teachers are likely to be only too ready to acknowledge that the home schooling they are trying to supervise won’t be as educationally sound as the lessons their children enjoy (or otherwise) in their classrooms.

What more basic reason could there ever be for having any government at all than to have a competent and authoritative body that can ensure that children will be safe in its schools?  One only has to look to New Zealand to know that, even in a global pandemic such as the one we are trying to live through now, that is not an unrealizable ambition.  But pity the unfortunate parents in England who have been left high and dry by our parody of a government to make the choice themselves as to whether to expose their children and their families today to the unquestionable, if one hopes relatively minor, risk of being infected by Covid-19.  It is a huge relief for me personally that none of my grandchildren is in one of the guinea-pig classes.  Not that I imagine for one moment that my children would think it a good idea to send their children back to school in present circumstances, even if they were eligible.