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: 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: ‘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: The naivety of hope.

5th November

One might have thought one had learnt by now.  It wasn’t, surely, possible that people in the UK could be so easily fooled, or perhaps so desperate, that they would think Brexit a good enough idea to vote for.  Wrong.   Donald Trump was so unspeakably awful that, however uninspiring Hilary Clinton might be, there couldn’t really be any serious chance that he might become President.  Wrong again.  Boris Johnson had made such a dog’s dinner of the Brexit negotiations and showed such overweening contempt for parliament that if he were to win the 2019 general election it had, surely, to be by a wafer-thin margin.  Wrong yet again.  Well, anyway, if anything was absolutely certain it had to be that, after four years of racism, misogyny, deranged tweets and 220,000 Covid-19 deaths, the predicted ‘blue wave’ of Biden-voting states must surely materialize as an eminently well deserved landslide come-uppance for Trump.  You didn’t need a vibrantly youthful and charismatic visionary to knock a grotesque caricature of a President out of the park; surely you just needed someone who was decent, intelligent and reasonably articulate? Wrong again – at least where anything remotely resembling a landslide is concerned.

So where does my seemingly irredeemable naivety in such matters come from? High on my list of suspects would be my 43 years spent working in Higher Education.  You can’t spend your working life in the company of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed university students, almost always intelligent and often very idealistic, without coming away with some hope for and belief in the future.   Higher education must, surely, imbue graduates with an ability to distinguish what has a good chance of being true from what is obviously untrue; with some degree of ethical sensibility; with some level of social conscience and environmental awareness?   Wrong again – or, at least, there seems to be a lot of evidence to the contrary. 

60% of the United States electorate is said to be ‘college educated’; 35% of them have bachelor’s degrees.  I haven’t seen a more recent statistic with regard to the number of USA adults who believe that the world really was created in seven days in 4004 BC, but in 2000, when George Bush was elected President via the infamous ‘hanging-chad’ election, the figures I saw indicated that precisely the same proportion of the electorate, marginally over 50%, were full-blooded creationists as had voted for him.  That may, or may not, have been a coincidence.  Sceptics might be inclined to ask: ‘What about the multi-million year-old fossils that would seem to belie this belief?’  The answer to that is obvious:  ‘God planted the fossils in 4004 BC to test our faith.’  If a context of wholly irrational religious belief, which must, statistically, be informing the lack of thinking of many voters in the USA who have been through Higher Education, provides any kind of clue, one can begin to understand some otherwise incomprehensible aspects of the wider intellectual climate behind what our televisions have been showing us over the past few days:  how can so many women be ardent supporters of a man who has such obvious contempt for women? How can any black American possibly support so blatantly obvious a racist?  How can anybody from any religious faith root for a man who has spent the last four years sowing division and hatred, and deliberately fomenting violence?  So, what price universal education, and higher education in particular?

This side of the Atlantic, significantly over 40% of UK voters between the ages of 25 and 65 have first degrees, but it won’t only be the remainder who are sufficiently undiscriminating to regard The Sun, and the Daily Mail as sources of wisdom, nor will it have been only those over 65, many of whom are also university-educated, who will have voted for Brexit and Boris Johnson. It is a commonplace that Trump and Johnson have a great deal in common.  When Johnson stands up and tells us that it is a “moral imperative” to impose a four-week lockdown, we don’t have any reason whatever to think he has any greater acquaintance with the morality he invokes than his grotesque American counterpart.  Trump spent two years at Fordham University and followed that with a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.   Johnson, as everyone knows, has a degree from Oxford.   Whatever else they might have imbued these two eminences of the global political landscape with, the universities that Trump and Johnson attended have clearly not cultivated in them a sense of morality, or much in the way of common decency.  That will not have stopped the universities in question from regarding Johnson and Trump as a credit to them, or deterred the universities in any way from cynically trying to exploit their political eminence for recruiting and fund-raising purposes.  Such is the nature of the Higher Education marketplace.  But that won’t stop me, perhaps naively, from regarding higher education as being ultimately a force for good, in spite of individual examples to the contrary.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Tactical distractions

October 26th

The BBC news this morning greeted the new week with breathless excitement.   A tanker had been hi-jacked in the English channel; the hi-jackers were seven Nigerian stowaways ‘believed to be seeking asylum in the UK’; four helicopters had undertaken a daring mission in the dark; sixteen heavily armed members of the Special Boat Services (SBS) had abseiled down onto the tanker; and ‘with overwhelming force quickly regained control of the vessel.’   Anyone sufficiently excited by the cinematic drama to turn to Google to establish precisely who our heroes from the SBS might be will be instantly enlightened by the ITV website: it is, we are told, ‘a highly covert elite maritime anti-terrorist unit of the Royal Navy.’

My immediate response to this as the BBC’s first news story of the day, still sleepy as I was, was to detect a distinct smell of rat.  I lived too long in South Africa under apartheid to have any confidence whatever in the truth or motives of the national broadcaster, and the past decade of Tory government has instilled in me an equivalent level of cynicism when it comes to any story obviously put out by government ministers.   The whiff of rodent gathered strength as the details of the story started to come out and it became clear that the SBS assault had been ordered by our execrable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, along with her more junior colleague, the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace.   

The seven stowaways had omitted to take with them the explosives or firearms that might have justified the expense of helicopters and elite ant-terrorist troops, and were unarmed, although this apparently hadn’t deterred the crew from taking refuge in the ‘safe place’ always provided on tankers in case of hi-jackings.  Various versions of the story had the crew being threatened with ‘broken glass’, ‘knives and other sharp objects they had picked up’, and scary ‘verbal abuse.’  The captain, rather significantly one might have thought in the context of a ‘hi-jacking’, remained in control of the tanker’s bridge throughout.   The seven targets of the elite anti-terrorist unit couldn’t have stowed away with the intention of seeking asylum in the UK because they could apparently have had no idea when they boarded the ship in Lagos where it would be heading.  Patel subsequently praised the SBS for its ‘swift and decisive action’, but one wonders how it could have taken 16 heavily armed SBS operatives all of 9 minutes to ‘regain control of the vessel’.

The evidence is stacking up to the point where one doesn’t need to be an irredeemable cynic to assume, until it is demonstrated otherwise, that everything anybody associated with this government ever does (with the possible exception of Rishi Sunak) is either hopelessly incompetent or done with dishonest and deceitful intent.   Presenting the seven stowaways as dastardly ‘asylum seekers’ all too obviously plays into Patel’s racist anti-immigration rhetoric.  But the whole dramatic spectacle of the heavily armed SBS warriors abseiling down onto the tanker under cover of darkness bears a remarkable similarity to the 250-strong raid on the terrace house in Forest Gate in east London in 2006 that I wrote about on July 29th.  In that case the police knew that the intelligence the raid was based on was extremely dubious and that the ‘bomb’ which the 15 heavily armed men, kitted out in their chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear protection suits were searching for, almost certainly didn’t exist, but the police were ordered by the politicians to conduct the raid regardless.   Here, the 16 SBS men will almost certainly have known that the 7 stowaways weren’t armed in any serious sense of the word.  In both instances sledgehammers and gnats come to mind.

So what were these overkill spectaculars all about?  In the Forest Gate case, a training exercise, a message that the government was taking anti-terrorist action seriously, and a distraction.  The report on the police’s extra-judicial murder on the London tube of the Brazilian plumber, Jean Charles de Menezes, was due to be published imminently, and the media needed to be given something else to focus on.   Apart from playing to Patel’s virulent anti-immigrant agenda, today’s tanker-hijacking story was no doubt similarly designed to distract the media’s attention, however briefly, from a range of political awkwardnesses: the very strong criticism by a large segment of the legal profession of Patel’s and Johnson’s attacks on ‘lefty lawyers’ in the immigration and asylum context; the continuing disaster of the Government’s hopeless mishandling of Track and Trace; and the equally self-mutilating stupidity of Boris Johnson’s continuing refusal to support the continuation of school meals.  Take your pick.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Fundamentalisms

October 24

Assuming that any will still be around by the end of this century, social historians may by then have arrived at a consensus as to what it was about the fifty years many of us have just lived through that led to the development of so many different brands of fundamentalism.

Yesterday, the u3a* French conversation group I belong to spent its meeting discussing two articles extracted from French newspapers.  The first, which need not detain us here, gave an account of how the unfortunate Mr Eugène Poubelle, a 19th Century local administrator in Paris, came to give his name to French garbage bins.  The other was a copy of the very unusual, it claims unique, joint manifesto ‘in favour of freedom of expression’ recently published by the French audiovisual and print media titled (obviously translated from the original French), “Together let us defend freedom”.  This was a collective response to the beheading by a religious fundamentalist of Samuel Paty, the French teacher who had shown the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to those children in his class who were not Muslims.

Nothing Samuel Paty could possibly have done could ever have justified his arbitrary beheading, which was clearly the product of an extremity of what the manifesto rightly condemned as an example of the ‘novel totalitarian ideologies that are threatening freedom of expression.’   But I felt I was swimming against the tide of group sentiment when I argued that it was possible for the fervent upholding of the right to freedom of expression to shade into an equally totalitarian ideology.  It would have been perfectly possible for Mr Paty to make his historical point by describing the cartoons, rather than displaying them.  However well-intentioned, his discriminatory ejection of the Muslim students from the class before showing the cartoons demonstrated his awareness that what he was about to do in the name of freedom of expression would be considered highly offensive.  Telling a group of devout Christians that you are about to burn a copy of the Bible, but will kindly close the door so that they can’t witness your doing so, wouldn’t lessen the extent of the offence being occasioned, even if the repercussions would be unlikely to be the same.  As the old saw has it, the right to freedom of expression self-evidently doesn’t extend to shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, nor should it give totally free license to the provocative causing of unnecessary offence. For Samuel Paty to be posthumously awarded the Legion d’Honneur for his crass insensitivity was to implicate the entire French nation in the gratuitous offence he had occasioned.  My response to the manifesto, and to the huge crowds that gathered to align themselves with Samuel Paty, was ‘I’m sorry, but “Non, je ne suis pas Samuel”.’

An equivalent fundamentalism – in this instance free-market fundamentalism – has been the ultimate cause of the much less spectacular deaths of untold thousands of people in England over the past few months who should not have, and need not have, died from Covid-19.   Our pathetically inadequate test and trace system, which over the past week has been able to return test results within the necessary 12 hours in fewer than 15% of cases, and trace fewer than 60% of all contacts (in a context in which it is said to be essential for at least 95% of contacts to be traced if the disease is to be contained effectively), is the entirely predictable outcome of the Tories’ obsessional devotion to the private sector.   It required a wholly irrational faith in the free market for Johnson and company to by-pass local health authorities and the network of NHS GP surgeries around the country entirely, in the process squandering billions of tax-payer’s money on outsourcing companies with no relevant experience whatsoever, to put their largely useless track and trace system in place and then seriously imagine that it could ever be ‘world-beating.’   It still rankles that they should have been shamelessly deceitful enough to taint the name of our excellent NHS by calling their failing system “NHS Track and Trace”.

*  In the hope of literally downplaying the ‘University’ in the name ‘University of the Third Age’, which rather depressingly for some of us is apparently now regarded as having the potential to put people off joining, the decision has recently been taken to make the subtle change of lowering the case of the logo from ‘U3A’ to ‘u3a’.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Covid corruption

October 21st 

It would appear that the supposedly Right Honourable Robin Jenrick – Member of Parliament for Newark and Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government – has achieved the elevated status of being informally appointed, in public school terms, as the Prime Minister’s private fag.  He is being sent scurrying all over the country, most often to media studios, running errands for Boris.  Most people have better things to do, even under Covid restrictions, than keep an accurate count of the number of hours the different cabinet ministers spend in front of microphones and TV cameras, but if anyone is keeping count they will almost certainly find that Jenrick is way out in the lead at present.   I suspect that, although he is so bland as to be instantly forgettable, his readiness to run errands enables Boris himself to get on with his other priorities in life which, if past record is anything to go by, involve spending a lot of time in bed – not with Covid-19 for company.  As the one Cabinet Minister who should very evidently have been sacked for corruption – in his case for his role in the Richard Desmond property scandal I wrote about on 28th June – it is entirely appropriate that Jenrick should be seen to be the government’s chief spokesperson these days. 

Anyone in the UK who stereotypically regards governance in Africa as endemically corrupt, needs to look closer to home.  Motes, beams and eyes come to mind.  Human Rights organisations around the world have been pointing to the extremely worrying extent to which the governments of a range of countries around the world have been taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to crack down on human rights.  Far less publicity seems to have been given to the extent to which the pandemic has provided cover for governments to line their own pockets, and those of their friends and associates, while attention has been focussed on the far more immediate issues of national health systems and economies that are on the verge of being overwhelmed.   Arguing the need to act urgently in these “unprecedented” circumstances, without any parliamentary scrutiny or oversight, the UK government has seen the pandemic as the ideal opportunity to pour billions of pounds without any need for a competitive tendering process into the coffers of private sector companies that in many instances have had no previous experience whatever of the services or goods for which they have been contracted.   We should all by now be detecting a very pungent stink of rat every time a cabinet minister opens his or her mouth to utter the word “unprecedented”. 

An article by Ben Chu in Sunday’s Independent 1 titled ‘Has the government wasted billions on private firms?’ provides some revealing figures.   The desperately poorly performing “NHS” test and trace system, outsourced to companies like Serco, whose notoriety has up to now been based mainly on the crass way it runs detention centres and gaols, has quietly soaked up £12bn.  Serco apparently thinks its contribution to the programme has been a ‘triumph’.  Another 15bn has been allocated for personal protective equipment.  Ben Chu cites a figure of 1,997 private sector contracts that have been awarded to the private sector, to a total value of £12bn, since February. The absence of any need for competitive tenders has, inevitably, resulted in a number of suspicious awards such, for example, as a £840k contract for running focus groups awarded without competitive tender to what Ben Chu categorises as “close associates” (read “friends”) of Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove. 

In the context of this over-energetic pumping of tens of billions of pounds into the bank accounts of private sector companies – Serco’s trading profit for the first half of this year was up 53% at £76m – the additional £5m Boris Johnson balked at in his protracted negotiations with Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Manchester, is utterly trivial.  Burnham needs the money to provide support for those about to lose their incomes as a result of the imposition of Tier 3 on Greater Manchester and the significant, and wholly unexplained, drop in government support since the first lockdown.  Boris’s tactic of trying to pit the different regions in the North against each other by insisting on negotiating support packages with each region separately, rather than having a nation-wide formula, is cynical and contemptible but will almost certainly come back to bite him via its exacerbation of the North/South divide in this country.  A further example of the Tories’ utter disregard for the hardship and destitution being visited on so many families came with the voting down by a significant majority this evening of the proposal that free school meals should continue to be provided through the coming half-term and the school holidays until next Spring for children whose families qualify for them.  Angela Rayner, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party was obliged to apologise for referring to one of the Tory backbench MPs as ‘scum’ during the debate.  She probably wouldn’t have got away with ‘lick-spittle’ either.

[1] https://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-independent-1029/20201018/281655372555692

From David Maughan Brown in York: Roosting chickens

October 14th

Flocks of chickens are coming home to roost on our Prime Minister, the supposedly Honourable Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and it isn’t just the odd stray feather they are contributing to his general air of lazy dishevelment.  When the great moment came on Monday for the unveiling the new Covid-19 tiered lockdown system that had been trailed so extensively for the better part of the previous week, Boris Johnson’s Chief Medical Officer, standing a socially distanced few feet beside him, calmly asserted that he had no confidence that it would work.  Immediately after the news conference, the Scientific Advisory Council for Emergencies (SAGE) released the minutes of a meeting it had held on 21st September at which the Government’s own hand-picked scientists unequivocally advocated a short, sharp, ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown as the only way to get the rapidly escalating incidence of infections under control. Boris Johnson rejected their advice and implemented his Rule of Six and the 10pm curfew on restaurants and bars instead, thereby comprehensively demolishing any last remnants of his endlessly repeated claim to have been ‘following the science.’  He can no longer get away with blaming the scientists.

The latest figures show that very nearly 20,000 people were diagnosed as Covid-19 positive in UK yesterday.  There has been an exponential increase in the number of infections, hospitalisations and deaths in the weeks since Boris and his lackeys took that September decision, and we are headed within the next two weeks to equal the March and April numbers in intensive care and we haven’t hit winter yet.  The trailing of the severe Tier 3 restrictions in Liverpool five days in advance inevitably resulted in the predicted partying in the streets on Tuesday night in anticipation of the midnight implementation of the new rules.  The almost unbelievable stupidity of that crowd differed only from the stupidity of the similarly maskless crowd that flocked to Donald Trump’s recent election rally in Florida in that, whereas the stupidity in Florida was suicidal given the age-profile of that crowd, in Liverpool the sozzled revellers appeared to consist largely of young people who probably won’t die themselves but will inevitably be passing the virus on to their elders, some of whom most certainly will die.  The measures brought in by Boris on 21st September as an alternative to the lockdown simply haven’t worked, and there is no reason whatever to imagine that his new Tier system will work either.   The number of infections in York, currently in tier 1, has increased by almost 50% in the past 24 hours.

If the current exponential growth in infections and deaths is stripping the Emperor of whatever clothes he had left, the wedges Johnson’s incompetence has succeeded in driving between the different nations of the supposedly United Kingdom will soon be making his unsightly nakedness even more glaringly apparent.  Northern Ireland has decided to implement the national lockdown Boris is refusing to agree to.  In two weeks time it will be possible to compare the results of the two different approaches to the crisis.  In the meantime the government of Wales has felt obliged to take the extraordinary step of trying to protect the public health of its citizens by banning cars from the North West of England.  Scotland, one gathers, is contemplating taking similar measures.  So some parts of the UK are, indeed, taking control of their borders – but, again, not in the way Boris anticipated.

The flocks of chickens do not cluck in unison.  Johnson is caught between several competing factions.  One flock consist of the supposedly ‘libertarian’, Tory backbenchers who oppose any kind of lockdown on the basis of the damage it does to the economy.   Closer inspection would probably reveal that that group really doesn’t care how many plebs in ‘the North’ die, just as long as their own shares in in the Wetherspoons pub chain don’t take too much of a hit.  That group would be better described as braying rather than clucking.  Another group, including extra-parliamentary experts, is warning the government about the destitution that will result if a lockdown is implemented without adequate support for those whose incomes will suffer: parents won’t be able to buy shoes for their children; women will have to prostitute themselves to keep food on their children’s plates.  The official opposition is demanding a national lockdown along the lines of SAGE’s September recommendations.  The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, is still threatening to bring legal action against the government and refusing to cooperate if restrictions in his area of responsibility are raised to Tier 3 without adequate financial support being put in place

If the variously suicidal or homicidal crowds of revellers and Trump devotees can be fairly described as stupid, their idiocy does not begin to compare with Johnson’s stupidity as he steadfastly lumbers towards a ‘no deal’ Brexit in 10 weeks time, apparently intent on making sure that the worst crisis in UK since World War II gets a whole lot more catastrophic for everybody involved.   And ‘everybody’ includes the entire continent of Europe, even if it will be vastly more catastrophic for us in the still ‘United Kingdom’. Having opportunistically lied and cheated his way into the position from which he can do greatest damage to the country he is supposed to be leading, Johnson fully deserves everything the roosting chickens can dump on him.   If I sound close to despair, it is because I am.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Send them Home Office

September 30th

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”   The words of Dylan Thomas’s villanelle, “Do not go gentle into that good night”, come to mind – not in relation to old age burning and raving at the close of day, although there is no doubt a bit of that – but in the context of the liberal values our country has tried to uphold for so long being slowly but steadily extinguished.  This is a process that has been gathering momentum ever since the attack on the twin towers in 2001.

Following another of the more or less daily revelations about the Home Office that I wrote about in my entry for September 26th, today’s editorial in The Independent  draws readers’ attention to the malign intentions towards refugees and asylum-seekers articulated in the Tory manifesto at the last election, which included a commitment to reform the Human Rights Act, impose limitations on judicial review, and abandon the EU Dublin convention which establishes the criteria and mechanisms for determining which Member State is responsible for examining an asylum claim made in the EU.  As if that weren’t enough, the editorial also suggests that the Tories are considering passing a new law that would override “the UK’s treaty obligations under the 1950 European Human Rights Convention”, which would be another transgression of international law.

Yesterday’s revelation, again from the pen of May Bulman, was about an unnamed Ugandan woman who this week finally won her case against the Home Office for rejecting her asylum claim, made on the grounds that she is lesbian, that gay relationships are illegal in Uganda and that she would have been under threat of harm had she stayed in Uganda.  She arrived in the UK in 2011 to seek asylum but was, unsurprisingly, one of the 99% of applicants who fell foul of the Home Office’s “fast-track system” for assessing asylum applications, whereby applicants were kept in detention and allowed two weeks to obtain the evidence necessary to back their claim for asylum.  Her case was rejected on the grounds that whoever interviewed her on behalf of the Home Office didn’t believe she was gay.  The system was discontinued in 2015 following a High Court ruling that it was ‘structurally unfair’, but the applicant in question had already been deported back to Uganda in December 2013.  Once she was back in Uganda, her fears were fully realised when she was gang raped – presumably an example of the appalling crime known, in South Africa at least, as “corrective rape” – and ended up pregnant.  The High Court ruled last year that her deportation was unlawful as she had not had enough time to obtain the evidence necessary to support her case, and simultaneously ruled that her detention had been unlawful.

This might all be regarded as past history – after all, that particular system was discontinued in 2015 – but for the fact that it required a High Court decision last year before she was allowed back to the UK, and, even then, the Home Office appealed the High Court’s decision so that it had to go to the Appeal Court this year.  Anyone who might be inclined to interpret the Home Office’s behaviour in this regard as being gratuitously and viciously vindictive would be vindicated by the fact that, believe it or not, the Home Office is reported to be considering appealing once again, this time against the Appeal Court’s decision.  Being gang-raped is obviously not enough to indicate that an asylum–seeker is in some danger.

If this incident seems indicative of more than a little madness on the part of whoever makes such decisions in the Home Office, today’s further revelation suggests a seriously dangerous level of insanity.  It is reported, both on the BBC’s Today programme this morning and in The Independent, that our inimitable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has in all seriousness been contemplating flying asylum seekers out to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic – a rocky island in the South Atlantic 4000 miles from UK with 800 inhabitants – to have their applications processed.  If Robben Island, a mere 5 miles from apartheid South Africa’s mainland, was far enough to stop prisoners from absconding, 4000 miles should do the trick for the Tories.  This is the kind of story that any half-intelligent newspaper editor would reject as being too obviously implausible to fill the annual April Fools slot in the April 1st edition.  Quite so – but the mad Patel apparently thinks it could be a goer.  This is taking things a lot further even than Theresa May’s ill-judged 2013 “Go Home” billboards, and smacks of a slavish attempt to imitate Australia’s inhume incarceration of asylum seekers on Nauru island in Papua New Guinea.   Patel must either be verifying the purity of the drugs her police force is confiscating, or she must be so xenophobic as to be comprehensively insane.  Either way, Boris Johnson would be wise to get rid of her – preferably to Ascension Island – as soon as possible.  But when was Boris ever wise?

From David Maughan Brown in York: Signs and signals

September 28th

Every time a significant new announcement is made with regard to Covid-19 regulations, which seems to be around twice a week these days, the BBC News dutifully does the rounds of the four countries of the supposedly ‘United’ Kingdom’ in turn, so that those of us in England can be kept up to speed with the invariably much more sensible variations on the theme being proposed in the other three countries.  Not, of course that the BBC would ever be likely to venture such a value judgement at a time when the right wing of the Conservative Party (i.e. about 90% of it) is baying for the BBC’s blood on the wholly specious grounds that it has a left-wing bias.  What I am finding increasingly irritating about this regular tour of the UK’s four constituent parts is not the regular reminder that Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, the Scottish and Welsh First Ministers respectively, are so much more articulate than their English counterpart, whose stumbling inarticulacy, however plummy, so often gives the lie to the notion that he is a good communicator.  What gets me much more viscerally is the glaring absence of a signer in the background whenever Boris delivers one of his portentous orations, by stark contrast with the ever-present signers helping the First Ministers to communicate with the people in their countries who are hard of hearing.

It is beyond comprehension both that Boris would not narcissistically want to admire his own speeches, and that he would not be compulsively drawn to watch his Scottish and Welsh counterparts’ speeches, not because he is interested in what they are saying, which might require too much concentration, but to prove to himself how much better he is at oratory.  Does he not notice the signers in the background?  Does he think that English superiority and exceptionalism must mean that we don’t have any people in England who are hard of hearing?  Are the signers, to him, simply an unusually animated part of the furniture that isn’t worthy of his attention? Or does he perhaps think that what they are doing is translating spoken language into signs for the benefit of the backward descendants of the Celts and Gauls who inhabit the mountainous outer reaches of the UK and haven’t in consequence yet developed to the point of being the proud owners of a spoken language?   Or does he, quite simply, not care?  And what about the Minister of State for Disabled People, Work and Health (sic)?  Or the Minister of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (sic)?  Or any of the rest of our Cabinet of the talentless?  Do they neither notice nor care either?  Or is it that, just like the First Ministers of the other countries they only get to speak to Boris once every three months and our ministers are so awed by the privilege that they don’t want to rock the boat by asking awkward questions?

If the absence of signers is signalling to those who want to read the signs that our government in England (the government, in theory, of the whole United Kingdom) is a lot less caring and inclusive than the governments of the Scotland and Wales, it has not been the only sign over the past six months that has signalled that we have plenty to worry about where our government is concerned.   A handshake is normally a sign of greeting and friendship; when Boris Johnson invites the cameras to photograph him shaking hands with Covid patients in hospital it signals a reckless braggadocio that, all too literally, bodes ill.   The meaning of ubiquitous signs saying “Stay at Home” is crystal clear – until Dominic Cummings jaunts off to County Durham and cabinet ministers from the Prime Minister downwards, falling over themselves to claim that he has done nothing wrong, signal that the injunction only applies to some people, not everyone, and half the population, picking up the signal, thinks ‘what the hell’ and starts following the Cummings example and interpreting the advice and regulations to suit themselves.

My personal assumption about the reason for the absence of signers from our screens when Johnson is exercising his oratory is that the necessary animation of a signer in the background inevitably attracts the attention, however fleetingly, of viewers who aren’t hard of hearing, and Boris is always desperate to have the full gaze of the nation exclusively, and he no doubt assumes admiringly, focussed on himself.  Of all the warning signs visible on our screens over the past six months signalling that the consequences of Covid-19 are going to be very dire for our incompetently governed country, the most telling sign, paradoxically, has probably been that glaring absence of signers.   What it signals, at least to me, is that we are being told what to do, rather than led, by a self-obsessed narcissist with a hand-picked Cabinet of the like-minded who are ultimately interested only in themselves and their chums.  All talk of inclusivity and ‘levelling-up’ is simply window-dressing.