From David Maughan Brown in York: Of barrels and troughs

March 5th 

The evidence is stacking up that the Tory party is not just the nasty party – as perfectly exemplified by our Honorable Home Secretary – but also the comprehensively corrupt party.   Give or take a bit of relabelling, the ‘pork barrel’ cartoon above seems apposite: the geriatric male on the right seems a pretty accurate representative of the Conservative Party’s membership demographics, and the sleek and well-fed gentleman on the left seems a reasonable depiction of its MPs and their trough-sharing, or in the immediate case barrel-sharing, chums.  The dollar sign would just need to be changed for a pound sign.

Rishi Sunak, our Honourable Chancellor of the Exchequer – who has been coming in for a great deal of mockery of late for using public funding to put out what is said to be a cringingly embarrassing (I haven’t been able to steel myself to watch it yet) self-promotion video to assist his chances of moving next door from No 11 to No 10 Downing Street – has been having to deny accusations of engaging in “naked pork-barrel politics”.[1]  45 towns have recently been awarded a share of £1 billon ‘levelling up’ funding; 39 of those just happen to be in Tory constituencies, with Sunak’s own relatively wealthy constituency’s Richmondshire borough being high up the priority list.  The Independent’s Rob Merrick points out that ‘this echoes the controversy over the £25m towns fund handout to the constituency of Robert Jenrick’ – our old friend the Honorable Secretary of State for Communities, Housing and Local Government of the seemingly corrupt deal with Richard Desmond (see June 28th post) – which just happened to be only 270th on the list of the most deprived constituencies.  That decision was approved by Jake Berry, who was the Honourable Minister for the Northern Powerhouse (seriously) from 2017-2020 at the time, at the same time as Jenrick coincidentally approved a similar grant for Berry’s constituency.  The scratching of backs comes to mind – porcine backs.

But the corruption extends well beyond the relatively limited scope of pork-barrels, strictly interpreted as public monies channelled towards the ruling party’s constituencies. It is, for example, reported that our Honorable Prime Minister has succeeded in settling Sir Philip Rutman’s bullying case against our Honorable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, for a mere £340,000[2] of our taxpayer’s money (plus Rutman’s undisclosed legal costs) to avoid the full extent of the execrable Patel’s bullying being exposed in an employment tribunal.   A Prime Minister would, one might think, have second thoughts about a very public squandering of public money on protecting a hopelessly unsuitable senior minister from public scrutiny just because she is popular with the party members and hangers-on who cluster around the trough, but this is a government that quite clearly simply doesn’t care about what the rest of the world thinks.

Our honourable ministers are happy to be filmed standing outside their houses hypocritically clapping NHS staff, over 900 of whom have died during the pandemic, many of them as a direct result of government carelessness and incompetence, and then ‘reward’ them with a derisory 1% pay-rise, which, given that inflation is more than 1%, amounts to a pay cut.  Having squandered hundreds of millions on dishing out contracts for PPE and Test and Trace to their private sector chums they now claim they ‘can’t afford’ any more.  And they are very happy to break international law a second time, further trashing the UK’s international reputation and risking the Good Friday Agreement, by unilaterally extending the grace periods on post-Brexit customs checks at Northern Ireland ports until the end of September. 

The one unquestionable national success story of the past dismal year has been the roll-out of the vaccination programme. The trough-oriented politicians in our cabinet cannot contain the enthusiasm and volubility with which they are congratulating themselves on this success.  Their record suggests very strongly, however, that the only reason it has been a success is that, unlike Test and Trace, they couldn’t identify any profits that could be made by their private sector chums from the mass roll-out of vaccinations, so they handed it over to the NHS whose efficiency and commitment they are now trying to take credit for, even as they deny the staff responsible their promised post-Covid reward.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/budget/budget-keir-starmer-regeneration-funding-b1812508.html

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-56281781

From David Maughan Brown in York: Our ‘one-way road to freedom’

February 23rd

By his own avowal, our inimitable Prime Minister’s buccaneering days are done:  “I won’t be buccaneering with people’s lives” he insisted, as he traced the contours of his much trailed ‘roadmap out of lockdown’ at his Downing Street press conference yesterday. In the context of Johnson’s repeated promise to focus on ‘data not dates’ in responding to the pressure to relax the Covid restrictions prematurely from the libertarian loons on his backbenches, Johnson’s roadmap and accompanying announcement of his retirement from buccaneering with people’s lives, over 120,000 deaths too late, was less than entirely convincing.  The key milestones on the road consist entirely of dates, not data: March 8th, March 29th, April 12th, May 17th, June 21st by when all restrictions will supposedly be lifted.   The five-week gaps between the last three dates are, however, intended to allow for reviews of the data.  The roadmap is ‘a one-way road to freedom’, Johnson assured us, but so adept has he become at spectacular U-turns that we can be entirely confident that the mere fact that he is proceeding down a one-way street wont preclude yet another U-turn.

The last one-way road to “freedom” we went down was, it is probably worth remembering, with Brexit.  On January 1st this year Johnson, glowing with self-satisfaction, announced that ‘we have our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it.’   Brexit is already giving some of our fishermen the freedom to make the most of the opportunity to find other jobs as their businesses go belly-up.  It seems doubtful that they would have voted so enthusiastically for a move that would, they were told, return to them the entirety of the UK’s freshly ‘independent’ fishing waters had they known that their quotas would in some instances go down rather than up, that transport delays would see millions of pounds worth of their fish having to be destroyed, and that they wouldn’t be able to export their shell fish catches to the EU at all.  In similar fashion, supermarket workers in Northern Ireland have been granted freedom from the irksome business of having to stack goods on their shelves as exporters from England, Scotland and Wales make the most of their freedom not to export their produce to Northern Ireland, freeing themselves thereby from the onerous necessity of filling in the reams of paperwork that Johnson erroneously declared before Brexit that they would be free to bin.

At the vastly more trivial end of the spectrum of damage, tens of thousands of people in this country must be being impacted by unheralded inconveniences arising from the freedom we are now holding in our unappreciative hands.  My particular irritation derives from the brand-new exercise bike that that has now been sitting lifelessly in our house for five weeks, all through our week of sub-zero temperatures, because the missing electrical connection is still missing.  My weekly phone-calls to Emma, Dominic, Dominic again, Emma again, and finally, yesterday, John – Emma and Dominic’s supervisor – have elicited the information that a batch of 50 of that same missing part (I was obviously not the only victim) arrived on our newly independent shores three weeks ago but had been held up in Customs until two hours before I phoned yesterday.   I am told it will arrive with me before the end of the week, but I’m not holding my breath.

Boris Johnson’s roadmap holds out the extremely attractive prospect of our being able to meet up outdoors with our Sheffield and York families over Easter, although separately, and spend time with children and grandchildren.  But I’m not holding my breath on that score either.   Perhaps Johnson would inspire more confidence that his buccaneering days really are over if he took the trouble to comb his hair occasionally and didn’t always look as if he had just come down off the poop deck of a wind-blown pirate ship wearing a hair-style modelled on an irredeemably worn-out lavatory brush.

From David Maughan Brown in York: “Breaking Point”?

Brexit Poster

February 15th

Anyone capable of putting two and together who saw coverage of Donald Trump’s speech to his assembled followers on January 6th, immediately followed by the storming of the Capitol, cannot fail to have concluded that Trump incited the mob to do the storming and was ultimately responsible for the resultant loss of life.   Republican Senators who had either fled for their lives as the mob invaded, or barricaded themselves fearfully inside offices and committee rooms, were shown graphic footage of the crowd roaming the Capitol baying for blood in Trump’s name during the latter’s brief second impeachment trial.  Yet 43 out of 50 of those Senators managed to find reason to exonerate the man the entire outside world could see was directly responsible: he rallied his followers from around the country, repeated the lie that their votes had been stolen, and told them that their only recourse was to ‘fight’.  

When they assumed office, those 43 Senators all publicly swore (or affirmed): ‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same….’   But there is clearly a limit to the bearing of true faith and allegiance, and the defending of the Constitution, when it comes to the potential for alienating the deranged Donald Trump’s 74 million strong voter base.  Truth, integrity, honesty, probity were all readily ditched in the face of the threat Trump’s support base poses to the retention of their Senate seats.   So much for democracy, the world’s autocrats and dictators will happily, and no doubt vocally, conclude.

The ways in which our populist politicians in UK play to what they perceive to be their base of racists and xenophobes may have less of the TV reality-show razzmatazz about them, but they hold just as much potential to become dangerously out of hand in the not too distant future.   Farage and Johnson consciously played the race card in the lies they told to the electorate in the build up to the Referendum, most obviously in the ‘Breaking Point’ poster and the allegation that Turkey was about to join the EU.  Seemingly every day now the TV and print media, those that care about such things, are carrying stories about the extent of the vitriolic racist abuse being directed at our footballers and BAME politicians, most notably in the latter case the female ones.  And recent figures show a 300% increase in Antisemitic incidents reported in UK over the past decade.

Do the increasing levels of racism and xenophobia flourish because they are given license by our motley and depressingly mediocre bunch of cabinet ministers, or are the chameleon politicians merely following an existing trend in pandering to a Trumpian base?  Whichever is the case, the Prime Minister has a responsibility to do something about it  – but we can be 100% certain that he won’t.  In the absence of a written constitution, the only oaths formally sworn by public officials in the UK are oaths of allegiance to the Queen, which carry no moral or ethical implications beyond that loyalty.   

The symbolism of the ‘Home’ in the ‘Home Secretary’ designation and its oversight of policing and immigration gives that role a particular significance.   Its present, seemingly irremovable, incumbent, Priti Patel, has recently gone on record as baldly saying ‘I don’t support protest’ and ‘I didn’t agree with taking the knee per se, at all’.1 [i]So much for our sportsmen’s support for the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement; so much, for that matter, for Dr Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement in the USA.  Patel comes across as a quintessential example of what black anti-apartheid activists in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s would have dismissively termed a ‘coconut’ – brown on the outside but white on the inside, where the ‘white’ represented the support for the vicious racism of apartheid that characterised so many white South Africans.  But nothing Patel can say or do is enough to dislodge her from the role for which she is so manifestly ill-equipped because, word has it, she is much more popular with the UK’s Trumpian Conservative base than Boris Johnson is.  We should be worried.

The Napier barracks in Kent can, once again, be taken as an example, this time of the way Patel and her Home Office are playing to what they perceive to be the prejudices of their Tory-supporting gallery – without the reality TV show razzmatazz, but to deeply damaging effect.   It has now emerged that a 2014 report concluded that the late nineteenth century barracks had never been intended for long term use, didn’t even in 2014 meet ‘acceptable standards for accommodation’ and were ‘derelict’.[ii] On the grounds that they ‘previously housed our brave soldiers’ (in Cabinet-speak all our soldiers are, by definition, ‘brave’, just as everyone who dies does so ‘sadly’) Priti Patel recently claimed that is ‘an insult to say they are not good enough for asylum seekers’.  It just so happens that nobody from the Home Office has actually visited the barracks since November last year.  Leaving aside the implication that we house our ‘brave soldiers’ in derelict accommodation, this obviously begs the question of where she perceives asylum seekers to be in the hierarchy of humanity: the lower the rung of the ladder they are perceived to be on, the more suitable for them the accommodation becomes.   Chris Philp, the Immigration Minister, gave the game away when he claimed the facility was ‘appropriate and suitable’ to house asylum seekers and commented in the House of Commons that  ‘They were good enough for our armed services and they are certainly more than good enough for people who have arrived in this country seeking asylum.’[iii]

Stuart McDonald, the SNP’s shadow Home Secretary, responded to this by saying ‘This whole debacle shows how completely out-of-touch the Home Office is with reality.  To place asylum seekers in inhumane conditions and claim it was necessary to maintain public confidence in the asylum system is utterly appalling – and shows contempt for both asylum seekers and the general public’.   But, with the shadow of Donald Trump lurking in the background, one has to ask whether the Home Office really is out of touch with reality, and whether the ‘the general public’ would regard themselves as having been shown contempt.  Are Patel and Philp right in thinking that the general public of this country is happy to see desperate and vulnerable asylum seekers, fleeing from who knows what horrors, treated with deliberate cruelty, inhumanity and contempt?  If so, we need to be very worried indeed.


1


[i] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/priti-batel-blm-protests-b1801663.html

[ii] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/asylum-seekers-barracks-home-office-phe-b1802951.html

[iii] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/barracks-asylum-seekers-inspectors-home-office-b1801055.html

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury UK: Truth-telling

February 4. There is published today a new book by the journalist Peter Oborne: The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.*

“I have been a political reporter for almost three decades,” he writes. “I have never encountered a senior British politician who lies and fabricates so regularly, so shamelessly and so systematically as Boris Johnson.”

The standard response to this kind of exposé, however well conducted, is that lying is priced into the Johnson brand, and here he is, world king with an eighty-seat majority and his party still ahead of Labour in the opinion polls.

Covid-19 has, however, created a new and more urgent response to Johnson’s mendacity.

Also just published is a report from the front line, Breath taking. Inside the NHS in a time of pandemic, by Rachel Clarke.** It describes the experiences of a doctor during the early months of the outbreak. Clarke was a television journalist before retraining as a doctor specialising in palliative care. When the crisis broke, like many others from different medical disciplines she volunteered to an intensive care unit in a nearby hospital.

A theme throughout her book is the enhanced importance of truth in communicating with seriously ill patients:

“When drugs run dry, when cure is no longer an option, I deal in words like my patients’ lives depend on it. Words build trust, allay fears, dispel myths, inspire hope. They clarify, challenge, encounter and console. Words leap beyond the constraints of masks and gowns and gloves and gowns. Titrated carefully, dosed just right, words can take a dying patient all the way from the depths of despair to a place of home and even serenity… It follows that doctors have a duty to use our words with exceptional care. We are nothing if our patients cannot trust us. Above all, our words must be our bond.” (p. 212)

Other accounts emerging from intensive care units stress the urgency of what may be final words.

An anaesthetist writes of his experience preparing a patient for a ventilator:

“‘I need to phone my family,’ she gasps. I nod and say OK, almost shouting to be heard over the noise of the alarms. The patient tries to talk to her family on FaceTime. She is extremely breathless and looks like she is dry drowning in thin air. Tears pour down her face. I hear someone on the phone crying and saying ‘I love you’ … While we are pre-oxygenating her, I take off her CPAP hood and lean closer. ‘We’re here to look after you. Everything will be OK.’ I stop talking because I think I might cry. I worry she is dying. I hold her hand. She squeezes it and I squeeze hers back.”***

Every word, however brief and obscured by machinery, masks or bad phone reception, is freighted with a lifetime’s meaning.

An individual or institutional crisis places an additional premium on truth. Stressed and exhausted by her days on the ward, Rachel Clarke was enraged by the casual, self-regarding misrepresentations in Boris Johnson’s daily press conferences. She knew just what was happening in the hospitals, how much worse matters really were for both patients and staff.

“I never wanted Red Arrows, medals or minutes of silence” she writes at the end of her book: “Like my colleagues, my needs were more prosaic. Really I just wanted honesty from those who rule us.” (p. 216)

*(London: Simon and Schuster, 2021)

**Rachel Clarke, Breath taking. Inside the NHS in a time of pandemic (London: Little, Brown, 2021).

***https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/31/im-an-nhs-consultant-anaesthetist-i-see-theterror-in-my-covid-patients-eyes?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

From David Maughan Brown in York: New Dawns

21st January

The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light.
If only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

The words of Amanda Gorman’s poem, read from the platform at Joe Biden’s inauguration by ‘a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother’ as she described herself, chimed perfectly with the President’s own words in his inauguration address: ‘And together we will write an American story of hope, not fear.  Of unity not division, of light not darkness.  A story of decency and dignity, love and healing, greatness and goodness.’  The oldest man ever to be inaugurated as President and the youngest Poet Laureate ever to give voice to a poem at a President’s inauguration, who happens to be a 22-year old black woman, successfully combined to embody the watching world’s hope for a better America.   At one end of the spectrum, Biden gives the impression of epitomising the decency and goodwill that will be one of the main qualities needed if unity is to overcome division; at the other end, Amanda Gorman embodied the intelligence, energy and bravery that will be essential if the new dawn is to bloom – the bravery to be rather than just to see.  The events of the day brought hope.

There are new dawns and new dawns, and some give promise of a lot more light than others.  For all Boris Johnson’s empty words in welcoming Biden’s inauguration as ‘a fantastic thing … for a country that has been through a bumpy period’ one can only hope that, as he watched the ceremony from Downing Street, he began to realize just how exposed he is now that his fellow populist has exited Stage Left (like the bear in Shakespeare’s  aptly titled The Winter’s Tale – except, of course, that Trump could only ever exit Stage Right.)  Johnson’s compulsive overuse of the term ’fantastic’ – as when he said his signing of the Brexit agreement was a ‘fantastic’ moment – is telling.  Much as he would have liked his soul-mate Donald Trump to have won the election, the bad news for Johnson is that Biden’s election is no fantasy, and the contrast between the two is already starting to become glaringly obvious, even as the stench of rotting fish and other meat being discarded from lorries trapped at our borders by Johnson’s ‘tariff-free trade deal’ wafts its way towards Downing Street.

Leaving personality traits, such as Biden’s decency, modesty and empathy, aside, the most obvious contrast where the processes of government are concerned is perhaps already to be seen in Biden’s choice of cabinet.  Whereas Biden has brought together a very richly diverse and vastly experienced group of people to help him lead the country through the aftermath of the divisive Trump era, Johnson’s sole job specification was that candidates had to be short-sighted enough to join him in his fantasy that Brexit would be a good thing for the UK, or sycophantic enough to pretend to.  It won’t take more than a week or two for it to become obvious which is the better set of selection criteria.  It is, of course, possible that one of Biden’s undisclosed essential criteria was that his picks needed to have an intelligent view of Brexit.  So, for example, in his informative run-down of Biden’s cabinet in The Independent* James Crump reports that Antony Blinken, Biden’s new Secretary of State, ‘called Brexit a “total mess” and compared the decision to the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen.’

Unsurprisingly in this context, Biden’s approaches to Islam and immigration are two of the most striking areas of difference between the two new versions of dawn.  In his first few hours in office President Biden signed 16 Executive orders rescinding central pillars of Trump’s policy, including overturning Trump’s “Muslim Ban” on travel from majority-Muslim countries and putting a stop to Trump’s family separation policy.   Biden will call a halt to the building of Trump’s border wall, and his administration will stop referring to immigrants as ‘aliens’, and will extend protections against deportation for thousands of Liberians living in the US.  Another of the executive orders signed by Biden calls on Congress to legislate a pathway to citizenship for Americans who were brought into the USA as undocumented children – the ‘Dreamers’ for whom Obama sought to provide some legal protection against deportation via the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme.  All very far cry indeed from the deliberate creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants, which Priti Patel eschews in word even as she embraces it in deed.  Boris Johnson and Priti Patel don’t need a wall, they have the English Channel which Patel has used very effectively to enforce her very own family separation policy via closing off legal routes for unaccompanied refugee children to join extended families in UK. 

Those are particulars.  If one is looking for examples of the contrast between the decency, open-mindedness and generosity of spirit that informed Biden’s inaugural address and the juvenile pettiness and meanness of spirit that characterizes Johnson’s government, one need look no further than its refusal to grant full diplomatic status the EU ambassador to the UK, João Vale de Almeida, and his 25-strong mission.   The Foreign Office’s rationale for this juvenile playground vindictiveness is that it wouldn’t be appropriate to treat an international body as if it were a nation state.  The fact that 142 other countries around the world grant EU Ambassadors the same status as those of sovereign nations is, of course, beside the point in a context where one of the few points of Brexit was to assert British exceptionalism.  In this respect, when it comes to Trumpism, ‘Britain Trump’ is, via his Raab Foreign Secretary side-kick, even succeeding in outdoing Trump who briefly downgraded the EU’s diplomatic status in 2019 before restoring it on the grounds, more articulately expressed by his EU Ambassador, Gordon Sondland, than he ever could himself, that the EU is “a uniquely important organisation, and one of America’s most valuable partners in ensuring global security and prosperity”.**  If even Donald Trump could understand that, Biden’s ascent to the Presidency seems unlikely to come to Johnson’s rescue where salvaging any benefit from the “total mess” of Brexit is concerned. 

There are new dawns and there are new dawns, and some give promise of a lot more light than others.

*  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/joe-biden-cabinet-picks-who-list-b1789950.html

** https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/21/uk-insists-it-will-not-grant-eu-ambassador-full-diplomatic-status


			

From David Maughan Brown in York: What are they thinking?

14th January

One of the problems associated with trying to preserve what is left of one’s sanity under lockdown via a high degree of selectivity where the news media are concerned is that it is extremely difficult to get a handle on precisely what the great British public is thinking.  Reading the Independent, Guardian and New European, and watching or listening exclusively to the BBC and Channel 4 news, doesn’t help very much when it comes to gauging just how much support there is for current government ministers or their policies.  One assumes that a populist government would be anxious to run its policy proposals past focus groups representing ‘the people’ in the interest of maintaining its popularity, but can it be doing so in present circumstances?  Or is it having to look for affirmation from the dwindling numbers of members in the Conservative Party whose average age was estimated by the Bow Group, a Conservative think tank, in 2017 as 72 (although others suggest the rather lower figure of 57).*   Now that Brexit is ‘done’, for ill or even worse ill, does Boris Johnson keep the likes of Gavin Williamson and Priti Patel in key posts in the cabinet, in spite of the levels of embarrassment they occasion, because he thinks the Tory-voting public like their policies, because he thinks the Conservative Party likes them, because they know too much about him, or just because he is beyond embarrassment?

Having kept Priti Patel at a safe distance from the 10 Downing Street press conferences since May, in spite of the fact that she is Home Secretary and thereby ultimately responsible to Johnson for the explaining and policing of lockdown measures, Boris Johnson absent-mindedly allowed her to front the press conference on Tuesday evening.  In response to questions about how the lockdown rules should be interpreted, Patel confidently assured the nation that ‘The rules are actually very simple and clear’, and went on to elaborate on what is permitted: ‘And then of course outdoor recreation but in a very, very restricted and limited way, staying local.’  Given that the point of the questioning was to ask what ‘local’ is supposed to mean, and given that ‘recreation’ is explicitly ruled-out in the government guidance – ‘It is against the law to … leave home for recreational or leisure purposes…’ – this was less than helpful.  Unsurprisingly, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick appears not to think that the rules ‘are actually very clear and simple’: she recently told the BBC’s Today programme that, ‘Anything that brings greater clarity for officers and the public in general will be a good thing.’

John Rentoul, The Independent’s chief political commentator, claims that Patel is popular among Conservative Party members, which raises the question as to whether there really is wider support beyond that very limited (in several ways) group for the short-sighted and xenophobic viciousness of Patel’s policies on asylum and immigration.  So, to take just two examples this week, in The Independent on Sunday 10th  Rob Merrick reported that, in line with Patel’s crack-down on immigration, our government had refused the EU’s offer of the ‘standard’ reciprocal visa-free exemption for performers and then, predictably, lied that it was the EU that had refused the UK’s request.   This had been greeted with outrage from the music industry, which stands to lose a significant portion of its annual income as a consequence.  On Wednesday 12th The Independent carried an excoriating critique of Patel’s ‘brutal’ approach to asylum-seekers which risks ‘whipping up an unpleasant reaction to some very vulnerable people’ by no lesser figure than Caroline Noakes, Priti Patel’s Conservative predecessor as Home Secretary.** Where asylum-seekers are concerned, Noakes suggested that commitments to change the Home Office following the Windrush scandal had been ‘torn up, disregarded and rendered clearly completely irrelevant’, citing a camp for asylum-seekers being set up on Ministry of Defence land in her Kent constituency that has no electricity or water mains and will not be provided with healthcare.  Noakes concluded that asylum ‘is an incredibly hard nut to crack, but I don’t think you crack it by being inhuman towards people; I don’t think you crack it by being brutal and muscular in your policies.’

So we find two markedly contrasting approaches within the same Conservative Party: the one brutal and inhuman – and one could cite reams more evidence against Patel in that regard; the other compassionate.  If Rentoul is right about the Patel being popular with the membership of the Conservative Party, it seems reasonable to suppose that Caroline Noakes probably isn’t.  But the critical question for me, in the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol in Washington by white supremacists, is just how much support the Tories have among the great British public for their brutal and inhuman approach to immigration and asylum.  One has to assume that, at the very least, Johnson and Patel must be confident that support for their brutality extends well beyond the limited membership of the Conservative Party.  I would like to think that, despite the best efforts of the Sun and the Daily Mail, the majority of the British public would, if it came to it, disavow a policy of calculated brutality and inhumanity towards exceptionally vulnerable people seeking refuge in our country.  But I could be wrong.  As I acknowledged at the outset, I don’t have a finger anywhere near the pulse of the general populace.  If I am wrong, it really does matter.  Because if I am wrong that would suggest that England is nurturing a hard core of white supremacists and assorted extremists who might well be capable of the violent storming of the Palace of Westminster at the behest of a maverick political leader, just as their counterparts in USA stormed the Capitol.   

*https://fullfact.org/news/how-old-average-conservative-party-member/

** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/home-office-immigration-caroline-nokes-priti-patel-uk-b1776208.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: The Boris and Donald Duo

Follow my Leader

January 9th

One of the more surprising things about Wednesday’s first storming of the Capitol in Washington since August 14th1814 was how surprised and shocked the majority of the world’s politicians and media commentators purported to be.   Trump had pre-emptively started to call the validity of the election, particularly of all postal votes, into question long before Election Day on November 3rd.  For the previous five years, Trump’s Twitter followers, now numbering over 88million, had been encouraged to live in an alternate reality, regaled with a narrative that cast him in the role of the Swamp-Draining Super-hero who was on their side in the battle against the swamp-dwellers.  With that narrative as the base, it was easy for him to build the grand delusion that the election had been fraudulently stolen from him and them; their votes had counted for nothing.  Rather than countering the myth-making, every single one of the 62 failed lawsuits contesting the outcome of the election merely served as further proof to his followers that there was a grand conspiracy at play and that their votes had been stolen.  The indistinguishably socialist/communist/Marxist swamp dwellers were in the process of illegitimately seizing power.

So when, after an inflammatory speech outside the White House, Trump said ‘After this, we’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you.  We are going to be walk down to the Capitol…’ and continued with ‘… you’ll never take back our country with weakness.  You have to show strength, and you have to be strong’, his followers took him at his word and invaded and trashed the Capitol headquarters of the swamp-dwellers, at the cost of five lives.  Trump had omitted to mention that, while he would be with them in spirit, he sure as hell wasn’t going to be with them in person: he had retreated to the safety of the White House.   It is clear from interviews with their leaders in the Capitol that the motley gang of what Biden rightly called insurrectionists genuinely believed that in invading the Capitol they were reclaiming their democracy.  The next day, Trump, having earlier tweeted to the rioters in telling them to go home that ‘We love you. You’re very special’, clearly awoke belatedly to the realisation that his immediate interests lay in disowning any responsibility for inciting the insurrection.  So he promptly betrayed his followers by executing a U-turn worthy of Boris Johnson and declared: ‘Like all Americans I am outraged by the violence, lawlessness and mayhem.…To those who broke the law, you will pay.’  

The comparison with Johnson, whom Trump once approvingly labeled ‘Britain Trump’, is not coincidental.  When asked, Johnson condemned the invasion of the Capitol and Trump’s role in inciting it: “I unreservedly condemn encouraging people to behave in the disgraceful way that they did in the Capitol.”  But, inadequate as ‘disgraceful’ was as a label for what went on, Johnson’s condemnation came across as the equivalent of Trump’s own volte-face from incitement to insurrection to ‘outrage’ at the insurrection he had incited.  Johnson was Trump’s man and vice versa.  As Foreign Secretary in 2017 Johnson is on record as saying that Trump was doing ‘fantastic stuff’ and ‘making America great again’; in 2018 Johnson bizarrely made the case for Trump to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Needless to say Trump agreed with him: “I’m going to get a Nobel Prize for a lot of things — if they gave it out fairly, which they don’t.”  The admiration was mutual.  Prior to Johnson’s election as Prime Minister by the Conservative Party, Trump told The Sun: “I actually have studied it very hard. I know the different players. But I think Boris would do a very good job. I think he would be excellent. I like him. I have always liked him.”  

The mutual admiration is not a case of opposites attracting.   Both men appear to be entirely lacking in either principles or scruples when it comes to getting what they want.   Both men have been caught out lying countless times, are inveterate womanisers and seem compelled to handicap their effectiveness in government by  surrounding themselves with sycophants of limited or no competence.  Both men belong to a minority social elite, have a history of racist utterances, purport to be men of the people, and, somewhat surprisingly, seem to manage to convince a significant proportion of ‘the people’ that are just that.  Both men foster grand delusions among their voters in order to achieve their political ambitions: Trump’s most recent one being the stealing of the election; Johnson’s being the delusion that Brexit can be of benefit to the UK.  Johnson’s distancing of himself from Trump at this juncture will, as always, be a matter of expediency and opportunism, not principle: he needs now to try to cosy-up to Biden.   The only question for me is whether in similar circumstances our wholly unprincipled Prime Minister would be prepared to incite an invasion of Parliament if he saw it as being in his interests to do so.  He was very happy to prorogue Parliament illegally.  He was entirely comfortable with introducing legislation in Parliament to renege on an international treaty he had himself signed less than a year previously.  I’ll leave it to you to consider the extent to which scruples about democracy would get in the way of Johnson’s ever inciting his followers to violence if he saw it as being in his interests to do so.

From David Maughan Brown in York: School is out

January 5th

So, another year, another lockdown.  One day last week – it doesn’t much matter which, they are all the same – someone, probably our exemplary Prime Minister (in the Concise Oxford’s enigmatic second-choice meaning: ‘serving as a warning’), switched our Secretary of State for Education on and pointed him in the direction of the BBC’s Today studio.  Once he got there, it transpired that he had been programmed by mistake to audition for the BBC’s ‘Just a Minute’ programme by talking non stop, without pause or hesitation, for the full ten minutes of the interview on the subject “Education is our nation’s top priority”, digressing only to complain without hesitation that the Today presenter who had drawn the short straw kept interrupting him by trying to ask questions.   His programmer appeared not to have been told that one of the rules of the game was that he was supposed to avoid repetition.  It became apparent very rapidly that whoever is responsible for robotics in Downing Street hasn’t yet got on top of programming Williamson to voice his repetitive message in something other than a monotone.  The gist of what he had been programmed to say was, you will have gathered, that education is a national priority, and that schools would most certainly reopen on schedule on 4th January.

On December 30th the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (the SAGE that scientific experts decided they needed to establish when it became apparent that Dominic Cummings was trying to exert his malign influence on the official SAGE) warned that a third national lockdown, was “vitally necessary”.  On 18th December the Office of National Statistics had calculated that the rate of Covid19 infection in children was much higher than that in adults: the proportion of the 2-6 year-old population in England infected with Covid19 was more than twice that of those who were over 50, and that of the 7-11 year-old population more than three times that number.  A study released by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on 23rd December had concluded that the government would have to close primary and secondary schools and universities if the infection rate was not going to continue to worsen.  

On Wednesday 30th the Government yielded to pressure and postponed the start of the Spring Term for all secondary, and some primary schools in London, to mid-January, in spite of education being a national priority.  By Saturday 2ndthe government had performed another U-turn, telling primary schools in London not to open the following Monday, generously allowing parents almost the whole weekend to make childcare arrangements.  This was somewhat ironic given the same government’s threat to take legal action against some (Labour) London Councils for trying to ignore the fact that education is a national priority by closing their Covid-hit schools for the last week before Christmas.  On Sunday 3rd it was reported that the National Association of Headteachers was urging all schools to move to home learning and that it was taking legal action against the Department of Education, demanding to know the scientific evidence on which the insistence on keeping schools open was based.  At the same time the National Education Union reminded its members that they were not obliged to go to work if the conditions they were expected to work in were unsafe.

All of which was a slow and painfully protracted lead-up to the moment on Monday 3rd when Johnson, hair half-brushed and spasmodically jerking clenched fists for once kept more or less under statesmanlike control, announced our third national lockdown – despite the fact that education is our national priority. At our resurrected Downing Street daily news conferences that afternoon, when Johnson was asked in effect why he had waited until millions of potentially infected children had been brought back to infect others at school for just one day before closing all schools, colleges and universities as part of a national lockdown, he replied: “We wanted to keep schools open but, alas, it became clear that the data wasn’t (sic. – and he prides himself on his Latin) going to support that.”  Given that the day before he had baldly declared that “schools are safe”, the implication was that the data from 18th December had only become known the night before.  Telling the entire nation such a bare-faced lie on such a critical matter would not have been regarded as particularly statesmanlike in the pre-Trumpian era.  So the classrooms were empty today while over 62,000 people in UK tested positive for Covid; 30,000 people suffered in hospital with Covid; over 1000 people died From Covid; and our official underestimate of Covid-related deaths in UK rose to over 77,000.   The wheel has come full cycle and “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives” has once again trumped education as the national priority.  One just has to hope it isn’t too late to save the NHS

From David Maughan Brown in York: Having one’s fishcake and eating it.

The Conker King

December 31st

So, as 2020 shuffles embarrassedly off the stage, our ever-modest, ever-honest, ever-understated Prime Minister has finally, as far as he is concerned, ‘got Brexit done.’   As of 11pm tonight it will all be a thing of the past, the bright new dawn will break in the middle of the coldest night this winter, and we can all come together again and rejoice in our newly won freedom and sovereignty.  Not only has be ‘got Brexit done’ but, as he announced to the evident astonishment of BBC’s outstanding political commentator, Laura Kuenssberg, who was interviewing him yesterday, he has achieved what the skeptics regarded as being impossible by way of ‘cakeism’:  he has managed both to have his cake and eat it.  Given that we have actually had a sovereign throughout the four and a half long years of the Brexit saga, I’m hoping it isn’t too outrageously pro-EU of me to wonder whether he has taken the trouble to ask Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II what she thinks of his cake deal.  It isn’t difficult to guess what the answer would be, were the protocol to allow her to tell him. 

The ‘democratic’ process of parliamentary approval of the deal left something to be desired.  After those very long, very fraught, four and a half years, our elected representatives were allowed all of 24 hours to read the 1200/2000-page (estimates vary) agreement, and given five hours to debate it.  Leaving aside the minor detail that the cake deal only looks at trade in goods, which account for only 20% of our GDP, and completely ignores the other 80% that relates to Services, there remains endless potential for years of ongoing wrangling with EU negotiators on a wide range of important issues, such as: the mutual recognition of professional qualifications; data sharing; and, perhaps the most serious, security, as the deal cuts the UK out of the Schengen Information System database, which provides real time information on serious crime and terrorism and was said by a senior police officer to have been checked 603 million times by the police last year, and the EU’s policing agency, Europol.  Our Home Secretary, Priti Patel’s, assertion that the deal will make UK ‘safer and more secure’ is manifestly untrue.

The great ambition of Brexit was for the UK to ‘take back control’ of its destiny which, bearing the island heritage of Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Admiral Horatio Nelson et al. in mind, meant the need to demonstrate symbolically that Britannia Rules the Waves.  The grand announcement of the agreement of a deal was delayed hour by hour, pizza by pizza, through the night into Christmas Eve as the 0.12% of UK GDP represented by the off-shore fishing industry was haggled over to this end.  Given that HMS Victory, the Golden Hind and Raleigh’s ship the Ark Ralegh (which he gave to Elizabeth 1st who ungratefully renamed it the Ark Royal) are, regrettably, no longer in service, the waves these days apparently have to be ruled by fishing trawlers.  One might have imagined that the triumphant gesture with which Johnson greeted the news of the agreement (see above) – the eleven-year old who has just been crowned Conker King of the second form – signified that he had achieved his goal of having his fishcake and eating it.  But far from it.  The Independent’s analysis tells us that:  ‘EU boats will continue fishing in UK waters but their share of fish will [only] fall 15 per cent in the first year and 2.5 per cent in each of the four following years…. By 2026, UK boats will be allowed to catch approximately £140m more fish.’   After that there will be annual negotiations, and no doubt more late night pizzas (despite Brexit being ‘done’ five years before) to decide how much of the catch each side gets.  The UK could, of course, decide at that point not to allow anyone else’s fishing boats into its waters, but then not only would the EU be entitled to place tariffs on UK exports (including all the fish the UK can’t eat as it is), but someone has also uncovered a paragraph buried among the 1200/2000 pages entitling the EU to cut its supplies of petrol and gas to UK in such an eventuality. SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford has spotted, buried in the detail, that the deal Johnson is busy celebrating means that Scottish boats will actually have less access to cod and haddock than they do now.   Apart from being yet more grist to the Scottish Independence mill, this means that whatever fishcake Johnson thinks he can both have and eat is unlikely to be made from either of our two most popular fish.

I hope it won’t sound too hollow if I take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy New Year as Covid2020diary turns 21, in fact if not in name.

From David Maughan Brown in York: It’s all in the stars.

December 23rd

Manston Airport in Kent: 22/12/20

‘It’s all in the stars’ – or, more accurately, to be a bit of a killjoy, in the planets.  A Grand Conjunction only happens once every 800 years so it must, of course, be redolent of cosmic significance, and Jupiter and Saturn chose to align for our benefit at the winter solstice in 2020.  What could be more significant than that?  Given what 2020 has dished out to everyone, astrological significance should come as no surprise, but when it comes to comprehensive interpretation one has to rely on the wisdom of astrologers.  What better authority to call on to tell us what it all means than the Daily Telegraph’s tame astrologer Carolyne (sic) Faulkner who informs the world that this conjunction is occurring in Aquarius, which is an air sign, and that all other conjunctions for the next 200 years will be occurring in air signs.  She goes on to say that whereas “Earth energy triggers people to become more grounded, practical, sensible; to have respect for politicians and institutions. Air energy triggers cerebral, less tangible happenings.”

I’m glad she told us that.  If we had been told that it was Earth energy that was holding sway over us we would have had to conclude that the energy, like that of the pink mechanical rabbit in the battery advertisement, was grinding to an arthritic halt.  There is very little that is grounded, practical or sensible in the way we are being governed, and respect for politicians, and many institutions – the NHS being a notable exception – dribbled away long ago.   On the other hand, if air energy ‘triggers cerebral less tangible happenings’ that explains why our entire economic and societal future is currently caught up in an ideological wind-storm with no tangible benefits whatever in prospect.  To take the latest example of the utterly delusional cerebral forces determining our future (giving the benefit of any doubt that anything resembling a brain is involved), one only has to cite our representative Home Secretary, the inimitable Priti Patel: ‘The government has consistently, throughout this year, been ahead of the curve in terms of proactive measures.’  She then went on to correct Boris Johnson’s absurd claim that only 170 HGV’s were queuing in Kent, by claiming the number was 1500, in itself a serious underestimate (today there are said to be 5000- 8000), and then pointing out that the number was constantly fluctuating as “lorries are not static”.  Tell that to the drivers of the seemingly motionless lorries ‘stacked’ on Manston airfield in the photograph above.   She might also like to tell them where they are supposed to find food, water and loos – never mind somewhere to sleep – for the three or four non-‘static’ days they are having to spend in Kent before being forced to be away from their children for Christmas.

The Grand Conjunction, symbolically hidden from the view of most of the UK by impenetrable clouds, should probably be taken as nothing more esoteric than a stark cosmic warning – a preview projected in the stars – of the much less grand, but probably equally far reaching, conjunction of Covid19 and Brexit.  The French government, understandably panicked by our callow Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock’s, ill-judged statement that the new variant of the virus was ‘out of control’, promptly closed their borders to all people coming from UK, and every single state in the EU, apart from Greece and Cyprus which are retaining strict quarantine regulations, immediately followed suit.  Many other countries around the world have now done the same.  So our proudly independent and sovereign little island nation is completely cut off; nobody wants us anywhere near.  Our rabidly jingoistic tabloid press promptly and predictably erupted with age-old Francophobic fury, accusing President Macron of playing politics.  Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian politician, reflecting on the current chaos and probably on the empty supermarket shelves to come, commented that the British people “will now start to understand what leaving the EU really means….”  Matt Hancock, gaze fixed firmly on the national navel, and unable to see beyond the white cliffs of Dover, had been intending his comment to persuade those living on his little island to abide by their Tier restrictions, oblivious to the fact that the rest of the world was bound to be listening.  Those trying to argue that lorry drivers don’t pose any risk of transmitting the virus because they spend their time ‘alone in their cabs’, and should have been allowed to cross back to France, have the same problem with national navel-gazing: they would appear not to have heard that HIV/AIDS research in South Africa has demonstrated very clearly that the spread of HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa can be traced along the routes taken by long-distance truck drivers ‘alone in their cabs’.

The timing of the Grand Conjunction so close to Christmas 2020 has reawakened discussion of the theory that the star of Bethlehem in the story of the nativity could have originated with the conjunction of Jupiter with Venus (rather than Saturn) in 2BC. For those inclined to read messages into astronomical events, there might be a message there for our nationalistic ‘Christian’ xenophobes as they ponder the Nativity story in their unsung Christmas church services.   Perhaps the writing in the stars might be inviting them to compare the fates of two families, and two very young children in particular.   On the one hand, 15-month-old baby Artin who drowned in the English Channel in 2020, along with his parents, Rasoul and Shiva, his nine-year-old sister Anita, and his six-year-old brother Armin, after the family had fled from the violence in the near East, travelling from Iran to Turkey, Italy and France before having to try to cross the channel in a small boat because Priti Patel had closed off all legal and safe ways to get here under the pretext of Covid.  On the other hand, Jesus of Nazareth, whose parents had also had to flee violence in the near East, but who found refuge in a non-Christian country that was happy to provide refuge to asylum seekers long before there were international agreements requiring countries to do so.

It’s all in the stars – if one only knew how to interpret them.