From David Maughan Brown in York: Fiction and Reality

July 10th

Writing fiction has been one of the things I have tried my hand at since I retired in 2013.  I spent much of the first year writing a cathartic historical novel, subsequently published as Despite the Darkness, based in part on our experience during the apartheid years of being harassed by the South African Police’s Special Branch who objected to what I was writing and what their spies were reporting back to them about my lectures and speeches.  I then wasted three years going through the motions of getting a literary agent to take the novel on and try to sell it; getting tired of waiting for him to do so; and finally deciding to self-publish after all.  During the last of the three years I wrote a sequel that is currently with the publishers.  People have asked me whether I will be writing another one, to which the answer is ‘probably not’ – not just because I am too busy doing other things, even in lockdown, but because these days fiction has grave difficulty in staying ahead of reality.  In plotting the kind of fiction I write one always has to be asking oneself ‘is that plausible?’  With historical fiction the question becomes ‘could that really ever have happened?’   In recent times too much has happened which, had one been writing a novel, one would have had to discard as simply being far too implausible.

The enjoyment of literature usually depends to some extent on what Coleridge referred to as ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’.   How many people, to take a current example, would willingly suspend their disbelief when reading a political novel if the author were to cast Chris Grayling in the role of Chair of the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee?  The response would be likely to involve a heavy sigh, a ‘Get Real!’ (that’s the bowdlerised version), and the novel being put aside in favour of something less wildly implausible.  

It would be doing a disservice to the military to draw any parallel with the old saw which holds that ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron.   Chris Grayling’s record as a cabinet minister could be deemed to have demonstrated the opposite of the Midas touch: everything he touched turned to dust, but it wasn’t gold dust.  Grayling is probably best known for awarding a £14 million contract to a start-up company, Seaborne Freight, to ship medical supplies to the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit.  The fact that the company had no ships and no port contract, and a set of legal terms and conditions that had been cut and pasted from a pizza delivery company, was not seen as any kind of hindrance to the award of the contract.  Nor, apparently, is his copy-book seen to have been blotted by the mere £33million that had to be paid out to Eurotunnel for the breach of public procurement rules that was involved in the award of that contract.

Grayling was transport secretary in 2018 when the railway timetable debacle took place, and was criticized by the rail regulator for not scrutinising plans for the change-over carefully enough.  His ideological compulsion towards shrinkage of the State led him to the disastrous part-privatisation of probation services that has recently had to be rescinded.  But his ministerial record is not one of consistently benign incompetence.  Some of his policies have been malign to the point of vindictiveness.  One of the nastier and stupider ones was his introduction, as Minister of Justice, of a ban on prisoners being allowed to receive books from friends and relatives, and his imposition of a limit on the number of books prisoners were allowed.  This was found to be unlawful by the high court in 2015.  I think I am right in saying  that every single one of Grayling’s major policy innovations has had to be reversed by his successors in the various departments unfortunate enough to have fallen into his clutches. The Guardian reported last year that decisions Grayling had made while heading those departments had had been estimated by Labour to have cost the taxpayer £2.7 billion.  Who would believe such hopeless incompetence if anyone were to put all that into a novel?

All this begs the question, of course, as to why on earth Boris Johnson (read Dominic Cummings) would want to nominate a man with a record like that to chair the UK’s parliamentary Intelligence and Security committee.  It isn’t as if, in the age of Novichok, Huawei and Russian interference in elections, intelligence and security aren’t important.  There seem to be two plausible reasons.  One would be that Johnson (read Cummings – always) wants a yes-man Brexiteer at the helm of a committee that has traditionally been independent and tried to avoid party political allegiances.  The other would be that as part of his strategy to disrupt the Westminster ‘establishment’ Cummings would like to discredit and undermine one of its key parliamentary committees.  You, quite literally, couldn’t make it up.  But, speaking for myself, and leaving ‘intelligence’ out of it for obvious reasons, I am certainly not going to feel that my security will be in any way enhanced by knowing that Chris Grayling will be chairing our national Intelligence and Security Committee.

From David Maughan Brown in York: The circus has come to Town

July 9th

As those of us who have chosen to stay in what is now largely self-imposed lockdown live our generally uneventful lives, thanking our lucky stars that we weren’t in the impotent position of having had to rely on Matt Hancock to throw a protective ring around us, we watch the world stirring back to life with an underlying sense of apprehension.  When will the seemingly inevitable second wave or ‘spike’ strike?  What are the realistic chances of a vaccine being developed in the relatively near future?  When might we finally get to hug our grandchildren and visit family in far-flung places?  When, long after the 50%-off offer has lapsed, might we feel it is safe enough to try to get a booking at our favourite restaurant? How will all this affect the long-term futures of our children and grandchildren? Will anybody, apart perhaps from Jacinda Ardern, ever get a handle on how to deal, once and for all, with Covid-19?

Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave a very good impression in a lengthy BBC Today programme interview this morning of having a reasonably good handle on how to coax the economy back towards something resembling normality.   He may not have all the answers – particularly with regard to the self-employed and the UK’s October furlough ‘cliff-edge’ – but, given that he has to contend with the backwoodsmen on the Tory back benches, it is refreshing to hear him coming across as being just as ‘unencumbered by dogma’ as he claims to be.   Sunak was eminently reasonable and good-humoured in the face of Martha Kearney’s constant interruptions and her dogged insistence on asking the questions she obviously had  on a piece of paper in front of her, regardless of whether he had already pre-empted and answered them.   In fact I got much more irritated by her insistence on interrupting and talking over him than he appeared to.  As an economist, Sunak comes across as far too intelligent, and far too unencumbered by dogma, to believe that Brexit can possibly be a good thing, so I am left wondering what his long term strategy might be.

In the meantime the circus goes on around him.   Boris Johnson, temporarily forgetting that he is the unchallenged world-beating champion of the U-turn, is refusing to back down on his craven attempt to blame the care home managers for the 20,000 care home deaths that resulted from his government’s incompetent handling of the pandemic.   Dominic Raab, our Foreign Secretary, allows an unexpected glimmer of hope that our government might actually have a faint awareness of human rights, despite their perpetual denial by the Home Office, by placing sanctions on a number of prominent Russians and Saudis implicated in human rights abuses.  But that hope is promptly snuffed out by Elizabeth Truss, Secretary of State for International Trade, who rushes to resume sales of arms to the self-same Saudis so that they can get on with bombing civilians in Yemen.  Matt Hancock has stopped boasting about the number of Covid tests being carried out – possibly because he knew that someone somewhere would eventually discover that 30% of the tests that were hurriedly posted out to make up the numbers were never returned.   But that doesn’t stop him from boasting about how successful his Trace and Test programme has been in tracking down all the customers from the three pubs that had to close the day after the great ‘Independence’ opening because one customer from each had tested positive for Covid-19.  That was remarkably stupid, even for Hancock, because by then everyone knew that the Test and Trace programme had had absolutely nothing to do with contacting all the customers: the pubs’ landlords or landladies (mainly the latter) had personally telephoned up to 90 customers each.

The circus is scheduled to be performing every day for the next four and a half years.  The reviews can only continue to be very bad indeed.  The one change of personnel that might make the outcome slightly better would be the promotion of Rishi Sunak, who currently manages the ticket-office, to the role of ring-master.  That would allow Boris Johnson to be relegated to a role he is far better suited to, that of understudy for the clown: the one they call on when they need a clown who isn’t even remotely funny. 

From David Maughan Brown in York: We should be worried

July 7th

I am coming to the conclusion that there is only one way in present circumstances to allow drugs designed to lower my blood pressure any chance whatever of being more useful than a chocolate fire-guard, and that is to lock myself down in a dark room well out of reach of radios, televisions and newspapers.   The drugs can’t compete with the side effects of listening to or reading about Boris, who is now blaming care homes ‘that didn’t really follow procedures in the way they could have’ for the Covid-related deaths of 20,000 or so of their residents.   The managers of the care homes are understandably outraged. They may not have asked for 25,000 patients to be discharged from hospitals without being tested for the virus, many of them back into the care homes that Matt Hancock put such an effective ‘protective ring around’, but they ‘could have followed different procedures’?   One different procedure could have involved refusing to allow the residents back into the care homes and leaving them them to die somewhere else, outside Hancock’s PPE-free ‘protective ring’.  That would have stopped them taking the virus back into the care homes.  Their relatives might have objected to that, but the managers could have explained that the prime minister wanted them to follow different procedures.  Except, of course, that at the time he didn’t.

Watching the different acts going on under the big-top of Boris’s world-beating circus while reading numerous accounts of the ways in which repressive governments around the world have used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse for cracking down on the people they govern, has raised questions for me about the resilience or otherwise of our own democracy.  Precisely who is our prime minister accountable to for the next four and a half years, after having dissembled his way to a referendum victory followed by a landslide general election?  Boris certainly doesn’t feel accountable to parliament, as evidenced by his sending our fresh-faced friend Matt Hancock in his stead to try to explain away Boris’s care home comment, in the manner of a public school prefect sending his private fag off to run an errand for him.

Boris demonstrated his contempt for parliamentary democracy clearly enough prior to the general election via his abortive attempt to prorogue parliament to avoid democratic accountability .  That attempt was thwarted by the judiciary, which prompted immediate threats about the judiciary needing be brought into line.  We should be worried.  Boris has demonstrated his contempt for the independence of the civil service by easing out Sir Mark Sedwill, its most senior official, and replacing him as national security adviser with a political appointee, David Frost, who is manifestly under-qualified for the role.  At the same time, Boris has made it transparently clear that the likes of Dominic Cummings and Robert Jenrick, his unelected aides and his hand-picked cabinet ministers, will be untouchable, regardless of how badly they behave, just so long as he doesn’t want them touched.  We should, again, be worried.

Boris clearly doesn’t even feel accountable to the people who unwisely lent him the votes that won him the referendum and the general election.   The former was won in part by stoking fears about immigration, as in the lie about imminent Turkish accession to the EU.  But Boris clearly had no qualms whatever, never mind feeling the need to consult anyone, before inviting three million Hong Kong residents to come to live here.  And, in spite of knowing full well that employment is one of the chief anxieties leading to voters’ anti-immigrant sentiment, he issued his invitation at the precise moment when the UK is facing its worst unemployment crisis in decades.   All in the interest of throwing a gauntlet down to China to demonstrate his independent, post-Brexit macho credentials.  If China doesn’t behave itself he’ll doubtless send a couple of gun-boats around to sort them out.

Where are the checks and balances? How can a prime minister in circumstances such as these be held accountable?  Boris can win an election to ‘get Brexit done’ on the back of earnest assurances that he would obviously never contemplate a no-deal outcome to the trade negotiations, and then, having won the election, he can go hell for leather for a no-deal outcome.   Such an outcome might succeed in further enriching Boris and his chums, but even without the fall-out from a global pandemic it would have done enormous damage to the rest of us, as his own government’s analyses showed. In present circumstances it seems likely to prove catastrophic.  A no-deal Brexit was not on the ballot paper, either at the referendum or the general election, and by the time we left the European Union all the polls were showing that a significant majority of the electorate do not want a no-deal outcome.  So much for democracy.  We should be very worried indeed.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Happy Birthday to the NHS

July 4th

Happy Birthday to the NHS on its 72nd birthday.   As everyone in UK who has made it to the Biblical cut-off age of three score years and ten knows only too well by now, 72 is a dangerous age in the Covid-19 era.   In this strange new world, people attain instant vulnerability on the day they turn 70.  In that respect people are actually rather luckier than the NHS, which becomes instantly vulnerable every time a Conservative government comes to power.  Right now, after a decade of Tory misrule, the NHS is more vulnerable than it has ever been, as the present pandemic has made all too obvious. 

So Boris, in his kindly way, has given the NHS an unforgettable birthday present, gift-wrapped, virtually if not literally, in the blue light that will bathe key buildings around the country in its honour this evening, and presented to the NHS to echoes of the applause that rang out around the country on Thursday evenings not so long ago. Boris’s present is to honour the NHS’s birthday by declaring it ‘Independence Day’ and encouraging us all to get out to celebrate it in the pubs which were opened in its honour today for the first time in three months.   Boris has suggested that we might want to ‘act responsibly’ in doing so, and has set the example when it comes to acting responsibly by boasting about going around shaking the hands of Covid-19 patients in hospitals, and regarding it as entirely reasonable for his chief advisor to go for thirty mile drives to test his eyesight.

So the NHS will be partying tonight to celebrate its birthday, with extra staff invited to come in to join the party.  The Independent reports that ‘all NHS trusts have been warned to expect levels of attendance usually seen during new year celebrations, and have been asked to prepare their A&E departments and free up bed capacity in their hospitals to manage the increase.’  A&E staff must be really bored by now with trying to save the lives of Covid-19 patients, so they are bound to welcome an influx of drunk and injured people, many with alcohol poisoning, instead.  Some of the drunks will be violent and abusive instead of singing Happy Birthday, as they always are, but that will give the police who always have to hang around A&E departments a good reason not to get themselves injured trying to break up the celebratory riots out in the streets.   Boris could, of course, have scheduled the opening of the pubs for a more boring mid-week evening, but that would have limited the opportunities for his compulsively grandiloquent rhetoric and for the close association of post-Brexit England’s ‘Independence Day’ with the USA’s Independence Day, and he would thereby have lost an opportunity to ally himself with his insane counterpart in the USA.

Dealing with drunks who might try to tear off their face masks will obviously heighten the vulnerability of NHS staff, so many of whom have died unnecessarily from Covid-19 already, but the vulnerability of the NHS goes far deeper than the immediate safety of its current staff.   Tory Party ideology fetishises the private sector and abjures large national organisations: privatisation offers more opportunity for private profit, profiteering, graft and corruption.   Adherents of the ideology maintain, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that it leads to greater efficiency and promotes productivity.  One only has to look at our railways and the UK probation service to see the absurdity of that idea.   The NHS was progressively, and I suspect deliberately, starved of the funds it needed to maintain the quality of its service for a steadily ageing population through the years of austerity, as seen, to take just one example, from the woeful shortage of PPE equipment and ventilators when a long-predicted virus struck.  The drying up of adequate funding enabled bits of the NHS to be carved off and handed to the private sector, as will have been intended. 

The government’s ideological mind-set blinded it to the need to look to local authorities and GPs in establishing an efficient track and trace system rather than relying on privatised central laboratories, with the result that England’s failure, even now on ‘Independence Day’, to have an efficient system in place has made us the subject variously of international pity and scorn.   But, in spite of all this, this government has shown itself to be incapable of learning from its manifest mistakes.  They are still careering towards a no-deal Brexit whose symbolic success depends to their blinkered minds on a trade-deal with the USA.  This government knows, and doesn’t care, that what the USA wants most out of a trade deal with the UK is for us to be carving nicely chlorinated roast chicken on our Sunday dinner tables, and for our government to reciprocate by carving our NHS up for them and handing the potentially profitable parts to Donald Trump on a plate.   Happy Birthday, NHS, I hope it won’t be your last.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Telling the Numbers

July 1.  My job as a Pro Vice Chancellor at the Open University, working with Brenda, covered many areas, as befitted so protean an organisation.

Two of my responsibilities, ten years on, still influence all our lives.  I inherited the task, central to the OU from its creation, of working with the BBC to promote learning across society at large, as well as our own students.  And in what had become a digital age, I initiated the transfer of OU learning materials to a free-to-use site we called Open Learn.

The Radio 4 programme, More or Less, has just finished a series which has coincided with the coronavirus outbreak.  Its brief is to interrogate and illuminate the figures by which we understand our lives, some official, some generated by other organisations.  The programme is sponsored by the OU and listeners can follow up its broadcasts by going to the Open Learn site and engaging with further learning materials.

This morning, More or Less conducted a retrospect of its coverage of the pandemic from the first cases in Britain.  The emphasis was exclusively on what has gone wrong, particularly in England.  Data published in the last few days has demonstrated beyond doubt that we have the worst record in Europe, and over the long run are likely to be overtaken only by the disastrous populist regimes of Brazil and the United States.  The programme both summarised official data and demolished claims made along the way by Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson, particularly with regard to the tragedy in the care homes, which have accounted for 43% of all excess deaths.

Throughout the crisis ministers have sought to postpone any historical reckoning until some later date, when a leisurely public enquiry can accumulate the evidence and reach a conclusion long after the guilty parties have left office.  We are supposed to focus only on the future.  The More or Less programme was broadcast the day after Boris Johnson’s ‘New Deal’ speech in which he attempted to re-set the agenda of public debate, shifting the narrative away from the pandemic towards the glorious ‘bounce forward not bounce back’ economic agenda.  It’s not going to work.  We are all of us historians now.  We want to understand what went wrong, and, critically, we have multiple channels for helping us do so, including, directly and indirectly, the OU.

Amongst the comparisons made in any retrospective is with China, whose response, after a critical delay, has ultimately been much more effective that the UK’s.  The vast difference is in the level of public debate.  It is more than possible that in free society, the outbreak in Wuhan would have been spotted before it escaped to infect the rest of the world.  And there is no prospect whatever of Chinese citizens now discussing what long-term improvements should be made in the management of pandemics.  For all its ramshackle systems the British state is still exposed to the informed, Radio 4-listening, OU-studying, public.  

Much of the More or Less programme focussed on the missing fortnight in March, when the government failed to act on the information that was building up in Europe.  It concluded, however, with a new scandal, the failure to inform local health officials of test results in their areas.  The Labour MP Yvette Cooper tweeted today: “Our local public health teams, council, NHS doctors & managers in Wakefield have had to fight for months to try to get this data. In public health crisis, most important thing is knowing where infection is. Appalling & incomprehensible that basic info hasn’t been provided.”  Indeed, it is. 

A functioning democracy needs debate not just at the national level but in local communities, which in turn requires the appropriate data to be made available at that level.

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: A Cunning Plan

June 25th

Anyone with nothing better to do in lockdown than browse the Gov.UK website will find truncated biographies of the members of the current UK cabinet listed under ‘Ministers’.  No length of lockdown could possibly end up being boring enough to induce me to do something so self-lacerating without some good reason.  In this instance I was interested in finding out precisely which Higher Education establishments we can hold responsible.  Unsurprisingly, it turns out that almost 50% of them went to either Oxford or Cambridge, while a further 20% or thereabouts went to one of the other Russell Group universities.  Interestingly, many of those who didn’t illuminate the rarefied cloisters of those supposedly ‘top’ universities appear to be sufficiently ashamed of the fact to avoid any mention at all of their education in their potted biographies.  Although recent political developments in both England and USA raise serious questions about universal ‘education’ in general, and precisely what steadily expanding Higher Education is supposed to have done for national analytical capability, in particular, our cabinet cannot all be as stupid, or even as incompetent, as they seem.  There has to be a cunning plan.  If lockdown allows time to read Ministerial biographies, it must also allow time for speculation.

It was obvious from their reactions that the leaders of the Leave campaign, Johnson and Farage in particular, did not expect to win the referendum in 2016, in spite of the populist lies their Little Englander campaign was built on. Johnson and company also knew by mid-2019 that the majority of the electorate did not support Brexit, in fact never had, and successfully managed to evade the dreaded second referendum.  The government’s own advisers were indicating that any form of Brexit was going to be economically damaging, and the much-derided independent ‘experts’ were almost all saying the same.  This meant that the puppeteers in the cabinet knew they would not be able to blame a credible cohort of specialist economists for the financial fall-out from Brexit, in the way they are all too obviously going to try to evade responsibility for the deadly fall-out from Covid-19 by bleating over and over again that they were just ‘following the science’.  

Who, then, is there to blame?  The obvious answer is the EU.  But that only really works provided you don’t enter into serious negotiations or accept any compromises.  The EU has to be so blameworthy that you are morally obliged to walk away from the table without any deal.   So you have to reject any extension of the transition period, and you know that Dominic Cummings can be relied on to invent a narrative that will sound plausible to your core support.   You need to do this by January 1st 2021 because the Covid-19 virus, bless it, has ensured that, no matter how much additional economic damage a no-deal Brexit will result in in the long term, 2021 can only be better for the economy than 2020.  If you delay departure for an extra year while you pretend to negotiate a deal, the specific damage occasioned by Brexit, as distinct from Covid-19, might become too obvious.

In the meantime the cunning plan will work even better if 2020 can be made even more memorably awful.  People have short memories and by the time, in our version of democracy, they get to vote again four and a half years hence, they will have forgotten just how much responsibility you bear for the awfulness.   So impose a two-week quarantine on people coming into the UK from less infected countries to put extreme financial pressure on airlines, and ensure tens of thousands of redundancies, just before you agree to institute air “corridors” or “bridges” which might have helped to avoid such redundancies.   Watch news coverage of shop managers, restaurant and pub owners, and numerous others spending tens of thousands of pounds and hours of work preparing their premises to open in July on the assumption that two-metre social distancing will be compulsory, and then make them do it all again by changing your mind at the last minute, against scientific advice, and saying that one metre will be fine after all.  Make sure you avoid consulting with leaders in the different sectors, and especially with the unions, before taking decisions in crucial areas, such as sending children back to school, before you change your mind about that too.   It is all grist to the mill of making 2020 so bad that even a no deal Brexit has to seem like an improvement.

Alas, however, most conspiracy theories have a fatal flaw.  This cunning plan requires January 1st 2021, the Brexiteers true ‘Independence Day’, to mark the beginning of the post-Covid post-EU era, and depends on its authors betting the house on there not being a second spike of the virus.    If that is what the whole devilishly clever wheeze depends on, you don’t release lockdown too early, against the advice of your scientific advisers, and you don’t allow your Prime Minister’s compulsively bombastic self-display to extend to a grossly premature declaration of  a subsidiary lockdown-release ‘Independence Day’ on July 4th which encourages tens of thousands of people to flock to unsocially-distanced beaches and street parties.  Perhaps there was no cunning plan after all; perhaps they really are as comprehensively clueless as they seem.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘A time to break down, and a time to build up’

June 24th

From time to time throughout my adult life I have found the words of Pete Seeger’s 1962 song ‘Turn, turn, turn’ running through my mind.   The vast majority of those words aren’t, of course, Pete Seeger’s: but for the repeated ‘Turn, turn, turn’, and ‘I swear it’s not too late’, they are all taken directly, if in a different order, from the evocatively poetic King James Version of the Bible.  Over the last week or two the phrase that has kept coming to mind has been ‘a time to break down, and a time to built up’, bearing in mind that ‘break down’ fits the song’s rhythm a whole lot better than ‘dismantle’ would.

‘Dismantling’ lodged in my mind two weeks ago when the Minneapolis Council announced its startlingly radical, but clearly long overdue, response to the murder of George Floyd.  The Council President, Lisa Bender, told CNN that a majority of members of the Council had ‘committed to dismantling policing as we know it in the city of Minneapolis and to rebuild with our community a new model of public safety that actually keeps our community safe.’  She followed this up by indicating that the Council was looking to shift funding towards community-based strategies.   A two-minute internet search reveals that the Minneapolis Police Department, which initially described George Floyd’s death as a ‘medical incident’, has a long and very ugly record of police brutality.

Monday’s very extensive media coverage of the Reading park murders showed what a good day it was, if not exactly ‘to bury bad news’, certainly to distract attention from embarrassing anniversaries.  Monday was the 72ndanniversary of the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks.  Given the scandal surrounding the treatment of many of those who arrived on the Empire Windrush, it won’t be remotely coincidental that the ‘Empire’ part of the ship’s name tends to be omitted in references to it a country that still, apparently entirely without embarrassment, attaches the ‘British Empire’ moniker to the various Medals, Members, Officers and Commanders of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire that make up the major part of its Honours awards. 

On Monday evening the Channel 4 News resisted the distraction offered by the events in Reading to the extent of carrying a four-minute piece on the family of Ann-Mari Madden, who arrived in Britain from Jamaica on the Empire Windrush, and her four children.  Mrs Madden is a British citizen, as are her four children, but their lives have been blighted by our Home Office’s twenty-year long refusal, in spite of every last shred of evidence the family could offer over all those years, to recognise that fact on the grounds that they didn’t have passports to prove their citizenship.   As if the stress of losing friends and career opportunities was not enough, one of the children was threatened with arrest and deportation before they were finally able to take their case to the Windrush Task Force. The Task Force managed in 24 days to achieve what the Home Office had clearly spent 20 years successfully endeavouring not to achieve.  The Madden family have submitted a claim for compensation but seem likely to have to wait another 20 years to see any.  The Home Office has so far managed to process a total of 60 claims and distributed about £1 million out of the estimated £300-500 million it is estimated it will in the end have to pay out.

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, Queen of the Hostile Environment, has refused to apologise for the foot-dragging reimbursements, excusing the delay on the grounds that the Home Office is handling them in a ‘sensitive way’.   ‘Home Office’ and ‘sensitive’ go together about as comfortably as ‘Minneapolis Police Department ‘ and ‘gentle’ would.   Which brings me back to ‘dismantling’.   The viciously vindictive manner in which the Madden family, like so many others, has been treated over the past decades is strongly reminiscent of the very worst aspects of the Department of the Interior in South Africa under apartheid.  It is, quite simply, inconceivable that the Maddens would have been treated so appallingly for that length of time had they not been black.  In May 2006, the then Home Secretary, John Reid, declared of the Home Office that: ‘Our system is not fit for purpose. It is inadequate in terms of its scope, it is inadequate in terms of its information technology, leadership, management systems and processes.’  The Home Office has had 14 years since then to get its act together, the hostile environment is still all too obviously still with us, and now it would seem that the only solution is to dismantle it.  If the Minneapolis Police Department can be dismantled, so can the Home Office.  It is ‘a time to build up’ something very different in its place.   Whatever takes its place should not be led by someone whose sole qualification for the job (apart from having been fired from a less senior one previously, which Boris would obviously identify with) is that she was either blinkered enough to think that Brexit was a good idea or duplicitous enough to pretend to think so.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Proportionality.

June 23rd

Three men sitting with their friends enjoying the sunshine on a summer afternoon in Reading last Saturday are suddenly attacked without warning by a man they don’t know, and brutally, and with ruthless efficiency, stabbed to death.  Three of their friends are also stabbed, but their injuries are relatively minor.  It soon becomes apparent that their attacker, who is quickly arrested, is a mentally disturbed asylum seeker from Libya, Khairi Saadallah, who is said to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his involvement in the Libyan civil war.  The identities of the three dead men are released one by one; moving tributes are paid to them by parents and friends, who express their shock and loss; the pupils of James Furlong, by all accounts an inspirational local history teacher, gather to pay their tearful tributes.   Boris Johnson tweets a formulaic statement to the effect that his ‘thoughts are with all those affected by the appalling incident in Reading’; Priti Patel calls the attack ‘senseless’ and elaborates on her boss by adding her heart and prayers to her thoughts which are ‘with all those affected’; the media are full of photographs of people laying bunches of flowers as tributes.   The attack is appalling, the grief of those who knew the men heartfelt and touching.

The sigh of relief that will have gone round Downing Street and the editorial offices and newsrooms of our predominantly right wing media must have been audible across London.  Here, at last, they were back on familiar non-Covid territory:  terrorist attacks, knife-crime, asylum seekers, Muslims, white victims, grief-stricken parents and friends.  After weeks of increasing discomfort as they watched the government they had supported into power demonstrating an embarrassing level of blundering incompetence in its handling of a killer pandemic, they were able to beat the Law and Order drum to their hearts content and, in the process, turn their collective back on the Covid-19 fall out.

I suspect I am not alone in detecting a certain disproportionality in what has been going on here.  A couple of weeks ago Professor Neil Ferguson, whose statistical analysis was instrumental in persuading our Government to institute the lockdown in the first place, said that the belated imposition of that lockdown will have resulted in some 20,000 unnecessary deaths.   A government that, supposedly, religiously ‘follows the science’ needs to take such statements seriously, even if a number of senior scientists have been sufficiently sceptical of their claim to feel the need to set up their own parallel, but independent, Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.   That means that in recent weeks roughly seven thousand times as much grief, anguish and loss can be laid at the door of our incompetent government as can be laid at the door of Khairi Saadallah’s murderous killing spree.  Those 20,000 deaths will have been painful, lingering and desperately lonely; the grief of parents, partners and children will have been just as devastating; uncountably more lives have been irreparably disfigured and futures blighted.   The media could obviously never lavish as much attention on those twenty thousand lost lives as it has been able to lavish on the tragic deaths of the three men murdered in the park in Reading on Saturday, and culpability for the 20,000 deaths will never be as easily provable, but we should bear all those other deaths in mind, even as we are appalled by what happened in Reading on Saturday.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Britain’s Got Talent At Being Racially Offensive

Cecil Rhodes from Punch 1892 (wikicommons)The Rhodes Colossus: Caricature of Cecil John Rhodes, after he announced plans for a telegraph line and railroad from Cape Town to Cairo.

June 18th Scientists the world over are using their analytic skills to discover more about Covid-19 every day, but they appear not, as yet, to have come to any conclusions as to why the virus, or perhaps the resulting lockdown measures, appear to be having a seriously detrimental effect on the intelligence of prominent ‘leaders’ in our society, even when they don’t show other symptoms.  The last couple of days have evidenced so highly-charged a competition to see who can make the most offensively tone-deaf statements about the ongoing manifestations of the Black Lives Matter protests that one could be forgiven for thinking that one had inadvertently dropped in on the preliminary rounds of a national Britain’s Got Talent At Being Racially Offensive competition.   Boris Johnson’s scintillating record in the field would obviously have guaranteed him a pass directly into the final.

On the off chance that anyone can begin to compete with Boris when the competition gets to that final, my bets are currently on Dominic Raab to come third, and the light horse in the field, Louise Richardson, the current – for how long one wonders – Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, to come second.

Dominic Raab, our Foreign Secretary until such time as the Tory party changes the designation because ‘Foreign’ is such a dirty word, has just been gifted the Department for International Development by Boris because ‘International’ and ‘Development’ are also dirty words, and our English Nationalist Cabinet apparently thinks charity should begin at home.  Other people might think it is ‘Dominic’ that is the dirty word.   Anyone but Boris might even think that a degree of racial sensitivity could be a good idea in a Foreign Secretary, even when his role must be assumed now to include doing away with foreign aid.  But Raab’s latest entry in the competition involves suggesting that the Black Lives Matter symbolism of  ‘taking the knee’ derives from ‘Game of Thrones’ and asserting that he would only do it for the Queen (having once done it for his wife).   That level of crassness does, of course, equip him very well to lead a Little Englander drive to limit International Development. A drive that is so unutterably stupid in its long term implications as to rival the Tories’ parallel obsession with Brexit.   The only way to stem the tide of people flowing towards Europe from Asia and Africa, whether fleeing wars and oppression or driven by climate change, is somehow to make staying in their own countries a better option than trying to get to Europe.   Cutting the funding for foreign aid and international development is a very peculiar thing to do for people in Europe who dislike foreigners and are paranoid about immigration. 

Professor Louise Richardson’s entry for the competition this week was by way of invoking the name of Nelson Mandela as an ally in her argument that the Rhodes statue high above the entrance to Oriel College should not ‘Fall’.  This was in spite of the fact that, after four years of resistance, the governing body of the College has finally voted to remove it.  The Independent carried a report today to the effect that Professor Richards was arguing that Rhodes was a man of ‘great nuance’ and that Mandela had recognised “that we have to acknowledge our past but focus on the future,” and said that hiding history was not the “route to enlightenment”.   Museums, as Professor Richardson obviously knows full well, are buildings which exist for the purpose of ‘storing and exhibiting objects of scientific, cultural and historical interest’, as the OED puts it.   Far from ‘hiding history’, putting that statue, like the infamous Cape Town one, in a museum, would make it possible to contextualise it and confront and understand that history, in all its ugliness.   You can’t do that when the statue is stuck in a niche high above the street, usually noticed only by those who find it profoundly offensive.

Professor Richardson’s enlisting of Mandela in her defence of the Rhodes statue is deeply offensive not just to black people but to all those of us, particularly those of us who were lucky enough to know him, who regarded Mandela with boundless admiration and affection.   He was for many of us, pace the boarded-up statue of Churchill, without question the greatest moral and political leader of the twentieth century.   In response to the ‘hiding history’ brigade, I’ve heard it argued that Germany does not need to have statues of Hitler all over the place in order to confront its 20th century history.  That is obviously true, but the analogy is worth dwelling on.  Rhodes was not responsible for anything equivalent to the holocaust, but it is a fact that he was greatly admired by Hitler who is on record, according to Rhodes’ biographer Antony Thomas, as saying that Rhodes was the only person who understood the historical conditions for maintaining British supremacy, but had been ignored by his own people.  According to the same source, Hitler’s admiration for Rhodes is further evidenced in the former’s statement of his belief that ‘the German people are called by the divine destiny to be the leaders of the world for the glory of the German being as well as for the human race.’  This was, word for word, but for two key words, a direct quotation from the ‘nuanced’ Rhodes:  Hitler had replaced Rhodes’ ‘English ‘ with ‘German.’   Professor Richardson should have known better.