from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Five Giants

Lord Hennessy

June 23.  This week, BBC Radio 4 is running programmes under the heading of: “Re-think.  People’s Hopes and Dreams for the world post-corona.”   It launched the series with a talk by Peter Hennessy on yesterday’s World at One programme.

Peter Hennessy, Lord Hennessy, is, for those who do not know his work, the leading historian of modern politics in Britain.  As a Times journalist and later an academic, he has written widely and authoritatively on the practice of government in Britain since the Second World War.  His views repay attention.  This is what he said:

“It is possible that out of our experience of a cruel, capricious and deadly pathogen something of real and enduring value could emerge.  That out of tragedy could come possibility and purpose.  Is there a usable piece of our past to guide us, to give us hope?  I think there is.

The Covid 19 experience has sharpened our sense of the duty of care we have one for another, that a state has for its people, all of its people, to a degree we’ve not felt collectively since World War II and its aftermath.  We heard it week after week on Thursdays at eight when we clapped, cheered and rattled our pots and pans in salute to the NHS front line and other key workers.  It was the sound of people, rediscovering themselves. 

There are too many differences between six years of total war and the likely length of the Covid emergency for easy comparisons to be made, but what we can learn from those war years is just how powerful and beneficial a never-again impulse can be if it is poured into the making of a new deal for the British people.  The great World War II coalition led by Winston Churchill and Clem Attlee began to plan for exactly that on the back of what was and still is the most remarkable report ever produced for a British government.  In late 1942, Sir William Beveridge, the leading social arithmetician of his day, identified what he called five giants on the road to recovery, and he put them in capital letters: Want, Ignorance, Idleness, Squalor, Disease.  The report was a best-seller. Beveridge’s great insight was that all five giants had to be struck simultaneously if the hard crust of deprivation was to be shattered.  After the war, governments of both parties were fuelled by a Beveridge-ite consensus for over thirty years. 

Through the grim Covid weeks and months of 2020, can we see the possible outline of a new Beveridge, a new post Corona banner we can all rally round, a banner emblazoned with the heraldry of a new consensus?  We can. I think there is a hard edged, not a fudged consensus to be crafted, using five priorities.  Social care.  Something must be done, and fast.  A big public-private push on social housing.  Getting technical education right at last after a hundred and fifty years of trying.  Combatting and mitigating climate change.  Preparing our country and our people for the full impact of artificial intelligence on our productive capacity and our society.

If our politicians could pick up this new consensus and run with it, finding the right tone and pitch of language in which to express it, the early twenty-twenties could be one of the most creative and productive patches of our history and a worthy memorial to the Covid fallen.  It has taken a pathogen for us to find and refresh our shared duty of care, but rediscover it we have.”

More tomorrow on this vision.  Others may wish to comment on his optimism, and on the five giants he has chosen to slay.

Add Mss (2)  May 21 Being Local.  “The NHS has decided to write its own track and trace programme, rather than install the simpler and operational Apple / Google app.  To no-one’s surprise, it is already in trouble and missing deadlines.  At this level, the bespoke solution is a mistake.”  Thus it transpires.  The only comfort is that in spite of the words spoken at the launch of the project, a computerised app seems no longer to be crucial, whoever designs it.  A voice on the phone, preferably from the locality of the infected person, is what you need.  And we have had telephones since 1875.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Testing, testing, testing…

30th April

Today is the glorious day by when government promised that the number of Covid-19 tests would have been ‘ramped up’ to the point where the UK would be carrying out 100,000 a day.   It can only be hoped that anyone who has been holding his or her breath waiting for this to be achieved won’t have expired in vain by now.  The BBC’s health correspondent, analysing the situation on the 1pm news, gave us the disappointing information that we wont know for a few days, because it takes time for the results to be processed.   In the meantime he assured us that ‘people can book on line for testing kits to be sent out.’  But the good news, the really, really good news, is that eligibility for tests has been expanded so that ‘anyone who needs to leave home to work’, the over 65s, hospital patients and staff, and care home staff and residents can now be tested ‘even if they don’t have symptoms’.  This, he assured us, meant that we are now just one step away from ‘whole population testing’.

Where does one even begin to comment on such obsequious drivel?  For a start, you don’t have to have the results of the tests to know how many tests have been carried out, and we do, in fact, know that the figure is only somewhere around 52,000.  It is nowhere near the 100,000 promised. The government plaintively says there is more capacity, which just begs the question as to why they can’t organise for the capacity to be fully utilised.   People can indeed, at least in theory, book on line for testing kits, but it is painfully clear that the available number of testing kit slots is hopelessly inadequate.  And the good news about the expanded eligibility is simply ridiculous.  How stupid does the BBC think we are?  The number of people to whom eligibility has been expanded is apparently around 25 million; the total population of the UK is over 65 million.  So the ‘just one step’ we are away from whole population testing is a mere 40 million.  Even at the rate of 100,00 tests a day, which we are still only halfway towards meeting after a month of Ministers ‘doing their very best’, meeting the demand from those of us to whom eligibility has now been extended would take us to Christmas, and the ‘just one step’ beyond that would take well over another year.

So what is going on with the BBC?  In South Africa under apartheid we tended to idealise the BBC as a model of fearless independent broadcasting in comparison with the SABC.  But then, I suppose, we similarly tended to regard the British Bobby as a model to be followed before we learnt about the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven, and so on.  What is going on is that the BBC is fearlessly avoiding offending the Tory Party private enterprise fanatics who would like nothing more than to see the license fee done away with.  There is a certain amount of schadenfreude to be had from considering how close to apoplexy they, and the right-wing, mainly foreign, media barons who own and control the vast majority of the British media, must be finding themselves as they see a Tory government having effectively to nationalise more or less everything in sight, from paying the salaries of private sector workers to taking over the railways.   But in the meantime, as the government tries to duck its culpability for the now tens of thousands of coronavirus-related deaths and the BBC carefully avoids holding it to account for those deaths, those of us to whom eligibility for testing has so generously been extended know perfectly well that we will have to carry on for very many months trying to make absolutely certain that we never need a test.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: following the science …

27 April. When the time came to choose my A levels, I thought that as well as History and English, it would be useful to take Maths.  This was immediately forbidden.  The school timetable could only cope with science or humanities.  No mixing.  So my third subject became Latin.  This may have helped my prose style over the years, but I have always regretted my lack of any engagement with the world on the other side of the fence.

In the course time I found employment as a history lecturer at Keele University.  Keele had been founded in 1949 by A. D. Lindsay, a visionary Oxford philosopher.  His premise was that the urgent task of post-war reconstruction would place scientists and engineers at the forefront of change.  It was critical, therefore, that they knew how to engage with politics, society, history and ethics if they were to make an appropriate contribution.  Conversely, those governing and administering the reconstructed country would need to be able to understand the work of the technicians.  The solution, therefore, was a higher education curriculum which required those undertaking specialist subjects to spend time studying, at least in outline, topics in other parts of the curriculum.  A physicist would do a first year course in Western Civilisation and take minor subjects in the social sciences and humanities throughout the degree programme.  A political scientist would spend quality time in a science laboratory.  By the time I arrived, some quarter of a century later, the vision had been weakened by the ingrained conservatism of the schools and the professions, but it still existed as a model which, by and large, the rest of the sector was failing to follow.  Its relevance to the forthcoming task of post-pandemic reconstruction can scarcely be understated.

The consequences of this failure are evident in the current crisis.  Britain has tended to address the task of politicians communicating with scientists by ensuring that figures such as Chief Scientific and Medical Officers are capable of engaging with non-specialists, not the other way round.  Thus it is that Johnson’s cabinet contains just two people with scientific backgrounds, Alok Sharma who studied Physics, and Therese Coffey, who, alone of her colleagues, has a Ph.D, in Chemistry.  She has been virtually invisible throughout the crisis.  

There are three farmers educated at agricultural colleges – perhaps they have transferable knowledge of rural epidemics such as BSE or Foot and Mouth.  Starmer’s shadow cabinet is no better.  In academic terms it is decidedly brighter than Johnson’s, but again only two scientists – Valerie Vaz,  Biochemistry, and Thangam Debbonaire,  Maths.  All the rest are social scientists or historians (except three who left school at sixteen).  The current debate over running the NHS is conducted by an Oxford PPE student for the Government and a Durham Philosophy and Politics graduate for Labour.  Margaret Thatcher has been repeated as a female prime minister, not as a research-level scientists.  Angela Merkel has demonstrated just how valuable such a background is in this crisis.

Then there is Dominic Cummings, by far the most powerful figure in Number 10.  He is currently in trouble for taking part in meetings of SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), then running round to the other side of the table and receiving its ‘independent’ advice.  Cummings is, I am sorry to say, an historian.  He was taught at Oxford by Norman Stone, Professor of Modern History, right-wing newspaper columnist and possessor of other serious moral failings.  Stone died last year.  His obituary written by the authoritative figure of Sir Richard Evans, recently retired Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, ended with the following paragraph:

‘Journalists often described him as “one of Britain’s leading historians”, but in truth he was nothing of the kind, as any serious member of the profession will tell you. The former prime minister, Heath, was wrong about many things, but he was surely right when he said of Stone during his time in Oxford: “Many parents of Oxford students must be both horrified and disgusted that the higher education of our children should rest in the hands of such a man.”’

Whether Cummings’ parents came to regret their choice is not recorded.  Its impact on their son seems to have been considerable.

Specialised knowledge still matters, never more so.  The point for non-scientists is not to know what scientists know, but to know how they think.  Yesterday Brian Cox, the astronomer, was interviewed on the Andrew Marr show in his capacity as a contributor to the BBC ‘Bite-Size’ programmes which are providing curriculum for home-schooled children.  He referred to the great populariser, Richard Feynman, and his argument that the chief characteristic of scientific activity was the embrace of doubt.  There was no such thing as a monolithic, unchallengeable body of facts, particularly in the case of a virus that has only existed for a few months. 

‘The point is’, concluded Cox, ‘that we are facing the unknown … if you hear a politician saying that we’re following the science, what that means is that they don’t really understand what science is.’

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: the newspaper habit …

April 23.  The media is full of advice on how to survive the lockdown, which for my household is now projected to last the whole of this calendar year.  The advice is generally of two kinds: those things that you might normally do but should do more, like take exercise or keep in touch with your family; and those things that you might normally do but should do less, particularly consume alcohol.

By and large we are following these injunctions.  My one besetting sin, which is doing serious damage to my peace of mind to say nothing of the time available for more useful projects, is reading newspapers.  Before the crisis, we bought hard copy print whenever we were out shopping.  We live too far from a newsagent to get a daily delivery.  These papers were the prime cause of untidiness in the house.  In every room, on every coffee table, were copies not yet finished and not sufficiently out of date to be dispatched to the waste.  Even when the news was stale, there were crosswords and sudokus to complete.  We have a log burner which needs lighting most evenings and for this purpose the large pink sheets of the Financial Times were invaluable.  The shrunken tabloid pages of the Guardian and Times not so much. 

These days every surface is clear of print, except dog-eared pages of the London Review of Books which arrives by post.  Instead I am reading online.  I always checked the free Guardian site when we had not bought a copy.  Now I subscribe to the Times to get an alternative point of view.  Also the New York Times to look at the world from outside the UK.  And thanks to the OU virtual library, I can read the Financial Times each morning [an illuminating story yesterday about the plight of second-home owners in the crisis].  There is the potential to consume hours a day wandering about these electronic journals.  And whereas hard copy papers have a back page as well as a front, the links in the stories mean that I can endlessly travel to yet further corners of the internet universe.

I can try to persuade myself that by this means I am collecting material for what one day might be a history of this crisis.  But in truth it would probably be simpler, and much more restful, if I just turned off the media and tuned in again when it is all over, to find out what happened.

The one defence of this virtual habit is that the press is having a golden period, despite the loss of advertising revenue.  Almost all the detailed analysis of the epidemic, and most of the stories exposing the shortcomings of the government, are starting life in the papers, which in turn are being fed material by informed academics, exasperated health workers, insubordinate public officials, and outraged members of the public.   This is true not just of long-term dissenting journals such as the Guardian but of papers which traditionally support the Conservative Party.  In recent weeks nothing has done more damage to the reputation of Johnson’s Government that the lethal 5,000 word ‘Thirty-Eight Days’ article written by the Sunday Times insight team last week.   Even the Daily Telegraph, which slavishly followed Johnson’s line throughout the Brexit crisis, is running front-page stories critical of various shortages. The BBC is doing its best, but is constrained by the need to take a balanced view of the Administration.  Little critical information, so far, has emanated from opposition politicians, although this may change now that Labour has a new leader and Parliament has reconvened.  Yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions with Keir Starmer was a promising start. 

What is so seductive, and so dangerous, about keeping abreast of events in this way is that every time I open my laptop and call up a paper, the news has changed.  There is no fixed point, no moment when I can be assured that I am abreast of the day’s developments.  Is there a newspaper equivalent of alcoholics anonymous?  If not, it may need inventing.

from Anne in Adelaide: now more than ever …

12 April Image from The Economist

12 April. I have been spending too much time scanning the news streaming in over the internet, TV and radio. The information is staggering. You don’t know what to think, who to believe, which version of the future to hang on to. One moment there are signs of hope and the next you read the account from an emergency worker in New York who is facing the horror of people dying from Covid-19 in their homes and his team feels helpless. Meanwhile, I remain in self-isolation in Australia waiting … for what?

Then we have the Whatsapp groups that have been set up to keep us in the loop: neighbourhood groups, family groups, and friendship groups. Memes and jokes abound, making light of being holed up at home – drinking too much, eating too much and being frustrated. It’s all a joke. Then there are the more serious messages trying to understand the beast that is Covid-19. There are many wonderful musical items spread around too – some home efforts and some professional. You could watch all day: every time your phone goes ‘ting’ to alert you to another comment, another theory, another cute kid singing for your comfort.

Now more than ever, I believe we need to concentrate on getting news from reputable sources. I cannot count the number of times I have had to alert friends to scams and fake news and threats that go around the world and that people forward without checking on snopes.com. (No! your phone will NOT be trashed by the ‘Dance of the Pope’ video that you might receive via Whatsapp. That hoax has been going for 5 years in various forms.)

No harm done with that one, but what does harm are the quasi-news-investigative reports that come around – from such sources as Epoch Times. An hour-long report was sent to us purportedly exploring the source of the Covid-19 virus and after a lot of interviews clothing the theory in valid reports it comes to the conclusion that Covid-19 escaped from a Chinese military facility and is an ENGINEERED virus – biological warfare. Frightening. Persuasive. Dammed the Chinese …

I didn’t know much about the Epoch Times so I looked them up.  They are not a reputable balanced media source. They are financed by Chinese Americans with ties to the Falun Gong. Very Anti-China Govt. and Pro-Trump (Wikipedia: ‘Facebook banned The Epoch Times from advertising on its platform, after finding that the newspaper broke Facebook’s political transparency rules by publishing 1.5 million USD pro-Trump subscription ads through sockpuppet pages (a page using deception).)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Epoch_Times

The Epoch Times have supported conspiracy theories like the qAnon (conspiracy theory of a deep state plot against the DT) and the dangers of vaccinations for kids …

So, I come back to: Now more than ever – let us read reputable sources. When I was a child living in East Africa my father listened to the BBC news on a short-wave radio and he continued to listen to the BBC throughout his life. For the years we lived in South Africa we also listened to the BBC – you could not trust the SABC, the South Africa Broadcasting Corp, they were the mouthpiece of the National Party, the party of Apartheid – a perfector of lies.

And … there comes a time when you don’t want to waste this time by being glued to the news broadcasts screaming for your attention. The media has it made – what a subject! Our newspapers have Covid-19 pages filled with stories.

Of course, it comes down to the question: what is a reputable source of news: the BBC, the Economist? The Washington Post? Scientific American? The Financial Times in the UK? Do these choices show my bias – of course they do. But if The Economist tells me that Covid-19 came from a military lab near Wuhan, I am more inclined to believe them than the Epoch Times.

And I am trying not to leap up when my phone goes ‘ting’.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Constitutional conundrum

April 8th The BBC seems to assume that lockdown is having a seriously detrimental effect on the nation’s intelligence.  One reporter this morning announced that fewer than  15,000 Covid tests  are currently being carried out nationally every day, and then considered it necessary to point out that this was “well short of the target of 100,000 a day.’’  Another said that the estimate of the cost of paying the salaries and wages of all those being furloughed under the government’s support scheme up to the end of May was now estimated at between 30 and 40 billion pounds rather than the original £10bn, and then felt it necessary to point out to us that it “could go up even more if the lockdown continues into the summer.”  How could it not go up even further?  I suspect that Alexa is soon going to get irritated with the frequency with which I beg her to switch from Radio 4 to Classic FM.

It is always possible, of course, that the BBC is being kind to us and assuming that our brains will be burned-out from the effort of trying to understand what on earth is supposed to go on in the higher echelons of government when the Prime Minister is temporarily out of action.  Dominic Raab seems to have the same problem when repeatedly asked at news conferences what decision-making powers he has when he stands in for the Prime Minister.  To get the confusion off to a good start we have an obvious contradiction: the Prime Minister is, we are told, primus inter pares – first among equals.  Which obviously means that they aren’t, in fact, ‘equals’.  We wouldn’t be so crude as to appoint a “Deputy” for the Prime Minister – too much like a “Deputy-Sheriff” – and it would make the contradiction even more obvious if he were to be referred to as the second among equals.  So we have a “First Secretary of State”, but carefully avoid having a Second Secretary of State, presumably because that would avoid any confusion as to who should deputise for him (almost always ‘him’?) in his absence.  

We can’t have an Acting Prime-Minister, even when the Prime Minister is absent, because, as an expert in these matters from the Institute for Government tells us: ‘The prime minister remains the prime minister – he’s the one who kissed the hand of the Queen….”  That clears that one up for us then.  Note the lower-case ‘p’s and ‘m’s by way of visual emphasis of the ‘pares’ bit.  But the non-Deputy non-Acting non-prime ‘equal among equals’ who stands in for the Prime Minister can, another constitutional expert tells us, ‘take over the prime minister’s official functions that require the presence of a physical person.’  A ‘physical person’ as distinct, presumably, from a non-physical person.   The mythical primus inter pares is clearly non-physical, but at that point I abandon the struggle to understand, making a mental note as I head for the sanity of the allotment that it could all be made a lot clearer if we were to stoop to having a written constitution. But we obviously don’t want it to be any clearer, or we would have had a written constitution long ago.