From David Maughan Brown in York: “Completely potty”

August 8th

A cacophony of clucking reverberates around our shores as another flock of Brexit chickens, not yet chlorinated, comes home to roost.   These particular metaphorical chickens have taken on the guise of asylum seekers who are desperate enough to pay up to £3000 each to people-smugglers to allow themselves to be put on overcrowded and unseaworthy small boats, pointed towards these shores, and pushed out into the English Channel.  Taking advantage of the calm weather, they are arriving in our territorial waters in increasing numbers.   Many of them will be fleeing the violence in countries like Syria and Somalia, many of them will have seen their homes and livelihoods destroyed, their friends, and members of their own families, killed.  Some will be fleeing persecution, torture and death threats.   Some are unaccompanied children.  They will all have made their hazardous and unwelcomed way across Europe and will be traumatised enough to think that, after all they have been through, it is worth the risk to try to make it across the last twenty or thirty miles of open water to what they hope will be a safe haven where some of them already have friends and family.

We should be pleased that the UK is still seen around the world as the kind of country it is worth undergoing daunting hardship and perilous journeys to try to get to.   After five more years of this government it almost certainly won’t be.  Instead of meeting trauma, courage and resilience with compassion and understanding, our national figurehead where such matters are concerned, the execrable Priti Patel, Secretary of State for the Home Office, she of the permanent smirk, spews her xenophobic venom over Twitter and threatens to get the Royal Navy to sort them out.  A Ministry of Defence ‘source’, according to the Independent, says the idea of using the navy is “completely potty” and elaborates as follows: “We don’t resort to deploying armed forces to deal with political failings.  It’s beyond absurd to think that we should be deploying multi-million pound ships and elite soldiers to deal with desperate people barely staying afloat in rubber dinghies in the Channel.”

In essence, Patel’s problem is that ‘Taking Back Control’ and a national ‘Independence’ from anybody else’s rules was always a chimera.  Just as operating on World Trade Organisation terms means exactly what it says on the tin – being bound by regulations we don’t determine ourselves – so the ‘law of the sea’ dictates that people in small boats in UK territorial waters have to be rescued and taken to land in UK.   However much a furious Patel might feel inclined to sink the rubber dinghies, she can’t order the Navy even to ‘turn them back’.  It isn’t possible to disregard internationally agreed rules without making one’s country a ‘world-beating’ international pariah with whom nobody would want to have any dealings.   Genuine control would involve allowing the migrants to travel here safely, processing their asylum claims rapidly and humanely (which would require a different Home Office), welcoming those entitled to asylum and returning those we aren’t convinced by to the country of first entry to Europe to try to persuade that country to accept them.

Patel and her Brexiteer buddies are also going to sort France out, and make sure that France takes seriously its responsibility for stopping the boats leaving its shores, or turning them back before they leave French territorial waters.  They had better remember who won the Battle of Agincourt.   But if the Brexiteers were capable of coherent thought instead of perpetually playing to their fellow frothing-loon media supporters they might conceivably ask themselves two questions.  First, why on earth should France bother?  Once the transition period is over, the French would be entirely justified in feeling insulted, looked down on and patronised enough by the Brexiteers to stop spending what must be very extensive resources on trying to prevent migrants from making the crossing.  Indeed, it would be sensible, and almost certainly cheaper, to provide the migrants with the boats and escort them into British territorial waters themselves, with a ‘You wanted to leave the EU and “take control of immigration”, so it’s over to you.’  Literally ‘over to you’.

The other, longer term, question they should be asking themselves – although it seems way beyond their intellectual capacity and the very limited horizon of the immediate self-interest on which their attention is exclusively focussed – is who on earth do they think is in a decade or two going to be staffing the NHS, looking after their parents, waiting on the tables in their restaurants, and keeping fresh food on their tables, as our birth rate declines and they make sure that what is left of the once United Kingdom is a wholly undesirable place for people from Europe to seek work?   Many of the desperate people in those boats are highly qualified professionals (how else do they get to have the £3000?); they have all shown themselves to be enterprising, courageous and resilient.  They can only, in the longer term, strengthen the shallow gene-pool that has given us the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mark Francois, to name just two of the leading lights guiding our apology for a government.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Smoking guns

July 25th

So the Intelligence and Security Committee’s long and eagerly awaited Russia report did not contain the ‘smoking gun’ our cliché-loving journalists might have been either slightly apprehensive about (the right-wing majority) or hoping for (the very small proportion who don’t like Boris and the Tories one little bit.)  A ‘smoking gun’ was always unlikely at both a literal and metaphorical level.  At the literal level the Russians moved on from six-shooters long ago: their preferred author when it comes to getting interesting ideas about how to kill people is much more likely to be John Le Carré than Stephen King, and the preferred method for whacking the target more likely to be a scent-bottle full of novichok, or a few drops of polonium in a cup of tea, than a Smith and Wesson.  It was unlikely at the metaphorical level because unearthing a weapon of any description that has been used with ill intent tends to involve wanting to find it, and that means having to look for it.   The Intelligence and Security Committee is not in the business of hunting for weapons; its job is to analyse what they were being used for once they have been found.  So someone else has to find them and it has been transparently obvious ever since the Brexit referendum that the last thing the Conservative government wanted was an investigation into how the fraction of the electorate that voted to leave the EU was persuaded to do so.

Nobody was tasked with finding out if Russia had been trying to meddle in our democratic processes, and a blind eye was turned to all pointers to what might have been happening, such as the odd 145,000 or so anti-EU messages allegedly posted on social media by Russian bots in the 48 hours leading up to the referendum, so the committee’s report was always bound to have been unable to come to any substantive conclusions.   Boris and company, having engineered it, obviously knew that.  They knew precisely what was in the report and knew that it didn’t contain a ‘smoking gun.’  Which raises the interesting question as to why they should have bothered to stop it from being published before the General Election, in the face of considerable noisy flak from their parliamentary opposition.   And, following-on from that, why would Boris have deliberately delayed the Intelligence and Security Committee from holding any meetings at all for more than six months after the general election?  Could that delay have been deliberately designed to generate enough of a Brexit-related furore around the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report to distract attention from whatever else was going on that they really did need to cover up?   Was the ISC report just a decoy?

Even by the government’s own analysis, leaving the EU can only be seriously damaging for the UK’s economy.  It will, equally obviously, threaten the integrity of the UK which the Conservative and Unionist Party pretends to hold so dear.   Our cabinet cannot be so stupid that they don’t recognise those facts, or appreciate that trading under World Trade Organisation terms will make just as much of a nonsense of their cherished ‘independence’ as they claim trading on hated EU terms does.  So I can only conclude that what this is all about is personal wealth aggrandisement from Brexit in general and, more immediately, from the flow of Russian money into UK in particular.   The way the  ‘Leave’ campaign was conducted made it abundantly clear that the people now leading us into an economic wasteland wouldn’t recognise an ethic if it took its face-mask off, ignored social distancing, and introduced itself to them at a cocktail party.

If Robert Jenrick’s dinner side-dish of £12k into party coffers was a down-payment on a  £1 billion housing agreement with Richard Desmond, what was the value of the deal for which the wife of the former Putin minister, Lubov Chernukhin, was prepared to pay £160k, ostensibly just to play tennis with our fat (by his own admission) prime minister?  Boris was clearly seen for some reason to be likely to be more susceptible to female than male charms.   Ms Chernukhin was clearly so ready to take one for the team that she was also prepared not just to endure a dinner with Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, a less than enthralling prospect, but even to pay £30k for the experience.   The same question needs answering there , and was it just coincidence that it happened to be our Defence Secretary who was the lucky beneficiary of her company? 

Boris and his already wealthy chums were bound to welcome any help they could get, from any source however shady, where the referendum and election were concerned, but is it possible that anger at the blatant failure on the part of government to take any interest whatever in whether external forces had influenced the outcomes was deliberately fomented to divert attention from, and investigation into, precisely whose pockets Russian money is flowing into even as it goes to swell the Conservative Party’s coffers?

From David Maughan Brown in York: A Box of Frogs

July 13th

Icelandic is reputed to have 46 different words for snow, but then there is a lot of it around.   English has a similar multitude of different colloquial idioms for insanity, for much the same reason.   So, just to take the ones that begin with the phrase ‘as mad as’, one can take one’s pick from over a dozen English idioms: as mad as a hatter; a March hare; a box of frogs; a hornet; a wet hen; a bear with a sore head/ ear/ leg; a bag of hammers; a badger; a cut snake (which used just to be ‘as mad as a snake’ until someone, somewhere, presumably decided that a snake would be madder if someone cut it, and the expression caught on); a two-bob watch (obviously a little archaic, given inflation and metrication); a balloon; and a rat under a bucket.  There are more than enough local idioms for us to be able to disdain the visa-less entryists from places like Australia, such as ‘mad as a gum tree full of galahs’, and we would obviously want to eschew outlandish imports as we take back control of the English language.   The choice gets much wider if one looks to metaphors, such as ‘barking mad’ and ‘off one’s trolley’, or to synonyms for ‘mad’, as in: ‘nutty as a fruitcake’; ‘crazy like a fox’; and ‘daft as a brush.’  

So, with reference to Michael Gove’s statement yesterday that, ‘At the end of this year, we are leaving the single market and customs union regardless of the type of agreement we reach with the EU,’ the choice is wide open when it comes to trying to find suitable idioms for a cabinet as barking mad as this one.   Speaking for myself, I am wavering between ‘as mad as a box of frogs’ and ‘as mad as a rat under a bucket.’   The ‘box’ of the former conveys the tightness of the confines of the narrow ideology within which a cabinet consisting solely of English nationalist Brexiteers choose to hop around, bumping into each other and their ideological ceiling in the darkness, and vocalizing in ever louder and uglier tones.  Frogs tend, however, to get a generally benign press, thanks no doubt to the likes of Kermit (and, with a modicum of species leeway, Toad of Toad Hall) in spite of the fact that some frogs, like the poison-dart frogs of South America, are suitably poisonous.  The ‘bucket’ of the latter idiom conveys a sense of equal darkness but more space for rapid U-turns, and even less penetrable walls, but implies a solitary madness, belying the more appropriate collective insanity of the frogs.  There is no question, though, that rats get a deservedly bad press (Toad of Toad Hall’s counterpart, Ratty, we remember, was actually a water vole, not a rat): they assist with the spread of disease, and they have a reputation for greed, deviousness and working in the dark.

The box of frogs is taking back control of our borders via an Australian type points system for which there are special exemptions for Health and Care workers but not for Social Care workers, whose origins make me wonder whether ‘as mad as a gum tree full of galahs’ might not have been the most appropriate idiom after all.  Those of us who have better memories than Boris Johnson may recall that in his first speech as Prime Minister he said: “And so I am announcing now – on the steps of Downing Street – that we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all, and with a clear plan we have prepared to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve.”   As an ‘older person’, I would have found this prospect vaguely hopeful had I believed him.  In January this year, six months later, Boris admitted in a BBC interview that he hadn’t had a plan after all, and that it might take five years to formulate one.  He had been lying again, as we should have expected, but the BBC, needless to say, was too deferential to point that out.    Now we know at least part of the plan: he is transferring his ‘whack a mole’ propensities to all those who need social care. Social care workers are supposedly ‘low skilled’, they don’t earn enough to qualify via the galah points system, and they won’t be exempted.  There are already 122, 000 vacancies in the care sector, so good luck to older people when it comes to being given the dignity and security they deserve.

When the box of frogs can’t even make up its collective mind as to whether to require people to wear face coverings in shops, what possible chance could it ever have of coming up with a solution to the challenge of finding a fair and equitable way of funding and staffing social care for an ageing population?   Even without the gratuitous further damage that will be wreaked on our economy by adding a no-deal Brexit to the damage caused by Covid-19, older people in UK should probably have known that they could wave goodbye to any chance of long-term dignity and security as soon as this government came to power. 

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: 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 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: 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.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: miscounting

June 3.  The puzzle is why Matt Hancock thought he could get away with it.

Everyone knew that his claims for the level of coronavirus tests included multiple swab tests for the same individual, posted tests, pregnancy tests, driving tests, eyesight tests (the last two another form of double counting in Cummings land).

Yesterday he received a magisterial rebuke from the chair of the UK Statistical Authority, Sir David Norgrove:

Statistics on testing perhaps serve two main purposes [lovely use of mock diffidence in the ‘perhaps’].  The first is to help us understand the epidemic, alongside the ONS survey, showing us how many people are infected, or not, and their relevant characteristics.  The second is to help manage the test programme… The way the data are analysed and presented currently gives them limited value for the first purpose.  The aim seems to be to show the largest possible number of tests, even at the expense of understanding.  It is also hard to believe the statistics work to support the testing programme itself.  The statistics and analysis serve neither purpose well.

Hancock and his fellow ministers seem to have forgotten that in earlier moments of virtue, previous governments have set up a series of bodies to keep them numerically honest – the UK Statistical Authority, the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Office for National Statistics (ONS), amongst others.  These are staffed by competent, principled, number-crunchers who appear at times to take a positive pleasure in pointing out the official misuse of data.

It is not that Norgrove himself is new to the game.  He has been in office since 2017, and on 17 September 2019, he wrote to the then Foreign Secretary, one B. Johnson, about the Brexit Bus: 

I am surprised and disappointed that you have chosen to repeat the figure of £350 million per week, in connection with the amount that might be available for extra public spending when we leave the European Union.  This confuses gross and net contributions.  It also assumes that payments currently made to the UK by the EU, including for example for the support of agriculture and scientific research, will not be paid by the UK government when we leave. It is a clear misuse of official statistics.

The explanation of these repeat offences is not innumeracy, but rather a varying approach to the function of figures.  In the case of the bus, Cummings had correctly calculated that it did not matter if the numbers were challenged.  The mere act of discussing the claim, up to and including Norgrove’s letter, anchored in the public mind that there was a substantial cost to EU membership.

Similarly, Hancock, desperately trying to defeat the coronavirus, seems to have calculated that the only way to mobilise action is to set and report huge targets, so as to create a boiling mass of activity amongst those charged with delivering outcomes.  As anyone involved in running large organisations knows, there are more sober, disciplined, forms of project management, but Hancock seems entirely to lack the mental or practical resources to use these.

I came across this process when working on my book on solitude.  As I reached the present, Theresa May published the world’s first strategy for tackling loneliness.  When I examined the figures she was using, I found that her claim that 20% of the population was lonely was contradicted by data in the same document from the ONS, which had calculated a figure of 5% (the same figure as lately reported by the Nuffield / UCL study discussed in the diary entry for May 27).  But it was the larger headline figure that featured in the press release accompanying the strategy, and in the subsequent public discussion.   Statistical accuracy was subordinated to the need to dramatize a newly foregrounded social condition.

It was not difficult for a toiling researcher into the past to work this out.  Historians can count when they need to. 

Guess what is the subject Sir David Norgrove’s Oxford degree. 

Look it up if you don’t believe me.  

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: the divided golf course

May 14. A month ago, on April 14, I wrote a piece on ‘Borders’, describing the ‘insane’ prospect of different lockdown regulations on either side of national borders within the UK.

Now it has come to pass.  The picture above is the view from the bottom of my garden.  Below the field is the Severn, hidden by the trees on the bank.  Almost unnoticed in the current crisis, we have been enjoying a warm, dry Spring and the river is unusually low for this time of the year.  Beyond it, across a few more fields, is Wales, with the Breiddens in the distance.   Were I to go for a walk on the hills, as we often did in peacetime, I could now be stopped by the police.  It is legal to drive to take exercise in England, not in Wales.  It is permissible for people to go to any kind of work in England, not in Wales.  There is a golf course in the border village of Llanymynech, a few miles away, where 15 holes are in Wales, 3 in England.  According to the new rules, only the English holes can be played. 

Some of this is just a trivial irritation.  But there is a more serious event taking place.  The leaders of Scotland, Wales and even Northern Ireland, have publicly condemned Johnson’s broadcast on Sunday, where he announced a partial, if very confused, relaxation of the rules ‘in the UK’.  The nation leaders were quick to point out that they had not been consulted about the new regime and did not agree with it.  They were free to go their own way and intended to do so.  This is partly a matter of local calculation about the state of the pandemic and the risk of relaxing the lockdown.  It is also a consequence of the growing perception that the Westminster government is fundamentally incompetent.  The electorates of the other nations are looking to their own representatives for a road map out of the crisis, and practices are likely to diverge still further in the coming months.

The coronavirus pandemic did not invent the break-up of the UK, but amongst the consequences will be a significant acceleration of that process.  And Brexit is yet to come.