From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘A perception more than a reality’?

Perception or reality?

April 1st

So March slips seamlessly into April and the news gets its annual injection of  quirkiness.  One story that caught my attention was the one about a bronze statue of Dominic Cummings, designed by a Scandanavian sculptor called Olof Prial, that is to be erected outside the opticians in Barnard’s Castle where Cummings went to test his eyes.  Another was the story about a ten-person government commission – the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities  – that is said to have reported after the better part of a year that, where race is concerned, the UK ‘should be regarded as a model for other white-majority countries’ because, according to its chair, Tony Sewell, while there is ‘anecdotal evidence of racism’ in UK, the commission could find no ‘evidence of actual institutional racism’.   People who spent any time at all opposing apartheid in South Africa will have been mightily relieved to discover that they have came to the right place. Provided, of course, that they haven’t noticed today’s date.

Nobody should be particularly surprised at the findings of the Commission’s 258 page report, which was apparently completed several months ago (and which, beyond the Foreword and Introduction, I have to confess to not having read in its entirety).  Boris Johnson signalled its outcome very clearly when he set it up.  Its job, he said, would be to ‘change the narrative so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination.’   As long as we ‘change the narrative’ and stop people feeling they are victimised and discriminated against, all will be well and victimisation and discrimination will disappear out of the window.  Johnson apparently made sure of the desired outcome of the review by getting Munira Mirza, the Director of the No 10 Policy Unit who is on record as saying that institutional racism is ‘a perception more than a reality’, to hand-pick the members of the Commission.   Perhaps the otherwise unaccountable delay in the report’s publication until April Fool’s Eve can be attributed to the same penchant for a jolly jape as Johnson’s racist references to, among other people, ‘piccanninnies’ with ‘water-melon smiles’.

We cannot, surely, be expected to believe that the arrival on the scene of an overtly racist prime minister will have miraculously purged our society of the institutional racism identified by so many previous reports.  Racism is now, Sewell’s Foreword suggests, just an unpleasant historical memory: ‘For some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present and there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer.’  This miraculous change must have happened in the four years since David Lammy produced his 2017 Independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system.*

Lammy’s review revealed that young black people were nine times more likely to be locked up in England and Wales than their white peers, while the proportion of British and minority ethnic (BAME) youth prisoners rose from 25% to 41% in the ten years between 2006 and 2016.   Perhaps even more startling in view of what one knows about the penal system in the USA is the fact that while the 13% of the US population who are black accounted for a striking 35% of the prison population in that country, here the 3% of our population who are black accounted for 12% of the prison population, proportionally almost double the US’s notorious black imprisonment prison rate.   Lammy’s 2017 figures showed that for every 100 white men convicted of public order offences here there were 494 BAME convictions.   For every 100 white men convicted, the equivalent BAME conviction figures for criminal damage and arson, possession of weapons, drug offences, theft, violence against the person and sexual offences were 156, 144, 127, 121, 119 and 118 respectively.  In every instance the number of black men convicted was, proportionately, significantly higher than the number of white men.  

The Home Office’s own figures show that In 2018/2019 Black people were more than five times as likely to have force used against them by police as White people, and were subject to the use of Tasers at almost eight times the rate of White people.** Other figures show that there are twice as many BAME deaths in custody as a result of restraint, and twice as many involving the use of force, as for other groups.  So much for institutional racism being ‘a perception more than a reality’ – unless, of course, that miraculous transformation has indeed come about in a couple of years.  The outrage with which the Review report has been greeted by members of the BAME community would suggest that not to be the case.

As seems now to be the Downing Street custom, snippets of the report were allowed to leak out in advance.  One of the extracts that has occasioned the greatest consternation is one that manages to find a silver lining to the grotesque history of slavery: ‘There is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain (sic).’  This cultural transformation is clearly seen as a positive benefit.   Crudely put, the route of the perceived ‘progress’ appears to boil down to: lift the African out of the heart of darkness in Africa, transport him across the Atlantic and subject him to the purifying fire of slavery, and, hey presto! you have your ‘re-modelled  African/Britain’, whatever that may be.   Didn’t any of the ten members of the commission pause even for a moment to call out the assumption of racial superiority underlying this bizarre attribution of a ‘silver lining’ to slavery?  In what respect, precisely, is the ‘re-modelled African’, now apparently fit to live in Britain, superior to his antecedents from, say, the empires of Songhai or Mali in West Africa?  

When Diane Abbott, the former shadow Home Secretary, heard that Munira Mirza was going to be involved in selecting the commissioners, she is reported as having said: ‘A new race equalities commission led by Munira Mirza is dead on arrival. She has never believed in institutional racism.’  Boris Johnson’s supposedly ‘independent’ Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities seems by all account to have done its very best to do the job he wanted it to do. It has tried to ‘change the narrative so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination’. But I suspect that Johnson is already wishing that the report really had been ‘dead on arrival.’  It is very much alive and kicking and has clearly already succeeded in gravely exacerbating a great many people’s sense of victimisation and discrimination. Even on April Fools Day it is difficult to believe that Boris Johnson, even Boris Johnson, could manage to shoot himself in the foot quite so crassly.


* https://www.theguardian.com/law/2017/sep/08/racial-bias-uk-criminal-justice-david-lammy

**  https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/police-use-of-force-statistics-england-and-wales-april-2018-to-march-2019

From David Maughan Brown in York: If you didn’t laugh you would cry

November 20th

With all too little of interest happening on the home front during lockdown, one is obliged to look elsewhere for subject matter to write about.  More traditional theatres being closed, it is a blessing, if a mixed one, that there is more than enough political theatre being enacted on both sides of the Atlantic to provide ample material for blogs, as well as keeping newspapers, journalists and, in particular, comedians and cartoonists in business.   The latter will be viewing the prospect of a very grey future once Donald Trump has eventually been dragged kicking and squealing out of the White House after wreaking whatever damage he can on the United States and the rest of the world in the interim.  Biden comes across as boringly sane and normal by comparison.   This side of the Atlantic, the comedians and cartoonists will be hoping that whoever is in charge will wait a bit longer before they come to the conclusion that putting the clown in charge of the circus was a seriously stupid thing to do and replace him with the far less colourful Rishi Sunak.  It will then be the turn of the playwrights to realise that much of what comes across as high farce in the present provides scope in the future for rewriting as tragedy.  If you didn’t laugh you would cry.

The latest act in the Johnson-Patel political psychodrama has seen considerable fall-out resulting from the long delayed release of a two-page summary of a report by Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minster’s former adviser on ministerial standards, into allegations that Priti Patel, our Honourable Home Secretary (how much irony can one honorific carry?), had been bullying members of the civil service in three separate departments unfortunate enough to have to report to her.  Allan found that the bullying had taken place, if ‘unintentionally’ (!), and that the ministerial code had been broken, which, in terms of every UK precedent, should have led either to the dismissal or the resignation of the Minister concerned.   Instead, Johnson did the exact equivalent of what he had done following Cummings’ excursion to Barnard Castle: demonstrated a total incapacity to learn from his mistakes; in this instance decided that the man responsible for doing the investigation had got it wrong, Patel hadn’t broken the Ministerial code or bullied anyone; and declared that he had full confidence in Patel and the matter was closed. Presumably worried that the media would be nasty to poor Priti in response, Johnson then ordered his MPs to “form a square around the Prittster (sic),” thereby demonstrating that he was, as so often, doubly delusional: first in imagining that he was on a par with the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, and, second, in imagining that the matter was closed.

Sir Alex Allan’s predictable and honourable response to having his painstakingly researched and carefully considered report ignored by Johnson was to resign his role as the independent adviser on the ministerial code.  Trying to advise Johnson on ethics was always going to be an uphill struggle, given that Johnson has made a career out of treating morality and ethics with total contempt.   University Vice Chancellors in general being given the same autocratic free-rein as Prime Ministers, I can understand how Sir Alex would feel, having on one occasion been undermined in a very similar way by one of the four Vice Chancellors to whom I was deputy.  Being unable, unlike Sir Alex, to embellish my CV with a knighthood, I couldn’t afford to resign.  

It is a truism that the distinguishing characteristic of bullies is that they will always pick on those who are weaker than themselves.   Asylum-seekers are among the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.   Nobody, apart apparently from those sycophantically prepared to form Johnson’s dutiful square around the “Prittster”, needs to read Sir Alex’s long-suppressed report to discover that Patel is a bully: there can be no question that the way the Home Office is treating asylum seekers at the behest of Patel constitutes a particularly cruel and brutal form of bullying.  Could there ever be a more loudly trumpeted invitation to potential bullies to get on with their bullying than the deliberate and overt creation and continuation of a “hostile environment” for any group of people?

Patel’s latest ploy has been to reinstate the regular compulsory reports by asylum seekers to Home Office offices that had been suspended in March on the basis that, however great the temptation, it wouldn’t look good if, after all they have been through to get here, asylum seekers were seen to be succumbing to Covid-19 as a result of having to make unnecessary journeys by public transport to report to the Home Office.  Apparently that doesn’t matter any longer, perhaps because Patel has decided that if they die of Covid that will simultaneously pre-empt the challenges of the “leftist” lawyers who have the unpatriotic cheek plead their cases, and also save her the cost of deporting them all.  It is all grist to the cartoonist’s mill, but none of it is remotely funny.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Hot-air balloon?

Into the sunset?

November 15th.

The UK is currently facing two existential crises simultaneously, either of which would, on its own, constitute the severest test of a UK government since World War II.   On the one hand, we have a pandemic that has so far, even by the official underestimate, cost over 51,000 lives, is still getting worse, and is once again threatening to overwhelm our hospitals.  Our Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, is predicting that the coming winter will be the NHS’s worst in decades.  The UK was always going to be affected by Covid-19 but the pandemic has been far worse in the UK, and has killed tens of thousands more people than it need have, as a result of our government’s embarrassing incompetence and, in particular, its desperately poor communication. On the other hand, as if the damage done to the economy by the pandemic were not bad enough, we have the economic catastrophe of an ideologically-driven Brexit to contend with in six weeks time.  This last will almost certainly result in a relatively short time in the break-up of our supposedly ‘United’ Kingdom.    In the meantime, as a ‘no-deal’ Brexit looms, the Prime Minister’s always very limited attention span is entirely taken up with the internecine ferret-fight in the Downing street sack that I wrote about in my last entry.

The first two ferrets to be evicted from the sack, or alternatively given it, have been Lee Cain, Boris Johnson’s Director of Communications, and the infamous Dominic Cummings.  Lee Cain’s career started with his appointment as a tabloid journalist working for The Sun, which provides a very good early indication of his moral compass, or lack thereof, although he may well have learned the art of telling convincing lies earlier.  His distinction in the field has been plummily expressed by no lesser personage than the honourable member for the eighteenth century, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who declared on his departure that Cain had been ‘a fantastic public servant … somebody instrumental in ensuring the Vote Leave campaign was successful and somebody who has made a huge contribution to this government’.  Enough said.  One has to assume that, as Johnson’s Director of Communications, Cain was at least partly responsible for the government’s shift from the clarity of its initial Covid slogan, ‘Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives’, to the much-ridiculed opacity of the May revision: ‘Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save lives.’  It is arguable that the ineptness of that slogan, and Cain’s soul-mate Dominic Cummings’ drive to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight, were the two most significant factors in undermining the credibility of government communications about the pandemic.  Cain’s place in Downing St. is due to be taken by one James Slack, who is obviously perfectly named to take tighter control of the government’s communication strategy.

The ferret fight was over Lee Cain’s prospective promotion to being Boris Johnson’s chief of staff following the appointment of Allegra Stratton as the government’s political press secretary. The latter would appear to have a career death-wish as she has apparently agreed to front Downing Street’s proposed imitation of the White House daily press briefings.  That was obviously going to cut across Cain’s direction of communications, so another job needed to be found for him.  The whole point of what goes on behind the scenes in Downing Street is that it goes on in the dark as far as the public is concerned.  It, like Michael Howard, has ‘something of the night about it’, and it is this Achilles heel, alongside our lack of a written constitution, that point to the weakness in our democracy that I referred to in my last entry.  It is ‘special advisers’ who, no matter how comprehensively they fit into Dominic Cummings’ ‘misfits and wierdos’ category, currently determine the direction of government, not the cabinet, and certainly not parliament. 

According to Andrew Woodcock’s report in The Independent, the ferrets ranged against Cummings and Cain (and who knows how many of their dozen or so fellow travellers from the Vote Leave campaign who had joined them behind the scenes in Downing St.) were, we are told, Allegra Stratton, Munira Mirza, who is currently Johnson’s ‘policy chief’, and, no doubt crucially, Carrie Symonds. Symonds is Boris Johnson’s fiancée, mother of his most recent child, which makes her officially the latest in the long line of women with whom Johnson has shared his bed, not that history suggests she will be enjoying an exclusive privilege in that respect.   So who gets to hold some of the most influential political appointments in what we are pleased to call our ‘democracy’ can be largely determined, not by formal processes of advertisement, application and assessment,  by who our Prime Minister happens to have as his formally acknowledged bed partner at any given time. 

From time to time on still days when I’m working on my allotment I hear a sudden belching sound and look up to see a hot air balloon drifting gently overhead.  The one I saw most recently seems in retrospect to be pertinent.  Hot air balloons strike me as having a lot in common with our Prime Minister.  They are highly visible – all show  – but have very little substance; they are kept afloat by hot air, fuelled by toxic gases, and extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of circumstance, being blown, hapless and uncontrollable, in unwanted directions before any adverse wind that arises.  Nobody down on the ground, mere earthlings, can have any idea who the hell, if anybody at all, is steering them.   The balloons that fly over my allotment are often like the one illustrated, floating off towards the sunset  – one hopes not the sunset of our democracy.  The faintly discernible ‘Virgin’ is obviously very much less than accurate in Johnson’s case, but then he clearly relished driving around in a bus with an obvious lie about the NHS blazoned across its sides in the run-up to the referendum, so it doesn’t seem too inappropriate.  Anyone who takes the trouble to type ‘Hot-air clown balloons’ into the Google Images search facility will see that I would have been spoiled for choice had I wanted to choose one of those as an illustration for the analogy, but none of the clowns on view came close to capturing the uniquely Johnsonian combination of deranged hair and shifty eyes.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Freedom is Slavery’?

November 10

‘War is Peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.’   Anyone might think that our brain-washed cabinet ministers are required to spend at least an hour every day meditating on these slogans, originally inscribed on the white pyramid of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984, as their mantras.  How else can one account for their ability to tell us with straight faces and reverent voices, that the Internal Market Bill, which they are very happy to admit breaks international law, is designed to protect the Good Friday Agreement and ensure that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland?  How silly of the rest of the world, now rather significantly including the President-Elect of the United States, to see it as doing precisely the opposite.   Orwell’s Big Brother would be hard pushed to come up with anything quite as imaginative as the government’s claim, articulated again by the Right Honourable George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, that what amounts in effect to a wrecking ball where the Withdrawal Agreement (and, for that matter any hope of a trade deal with the US) is, in fact, ‘a vital safety net.’

In marked contrast to the lickspittle Tory MPs who seem only too willing to vote for anything Boris and Dominic Cummings tell them to vote for, and duly ensured that the bill passed with a substantial majority in the House of Commons, a number of Tory Peers, including Michael Howard (who was memorably described as ‘having something of the night about him’) have spoken eloquently about the damage the bill will do to the UK’s reputation and international credibility.  As Baron Howard of Lympne put it, having stressed that he is a strong supporter of Brexit: ‘This government has chosen as one of its first assertions of its newly won sovereignty to break its word, to break international law and to renege on a treaty it signed barely a year ago.’   Howard’s speech contributed towards the offending clauses of the bill being voted down by a huge majority of 268 votes in the House of Lords.

The government has vowed to reinstate the offending clauses when the bill comes back to the House of Commons regardless, but, given how adept practice has made Boris Johnson where abrupt U-turns are concerned, that wouldn’t be the safe bet this week that it would have been a fortnight ago.   Johnson and Cummings will not have regarded Joe Biden winning the US election as a significant factor in their gaming of Brexit.  Biden has in the past referred to Johnson as a ‘kind of physical and emotional clone of Trump’, he has made it absolutely clear that if Brexit threatens the Good Friday Agreement in any way the desperately desired trade deal with the USA will not be forthcoming, that his ancestry is Irish rather than British, and that he will be more interested in the USA’s relations with the EU than with UK.  The Scottish newspaper The National reported that Tommy Vietor, who was a former special adviser to President Obama and is ‘close to Biden’ responded to Johnson’s congratulatory tweet to Biden and Kamala Harris by saying: ‘This shapeshifting creep weighs in.  We will never forget your racist comments about Obama and slavish devotion to Trump.’  It seems safe to assume that the ‘we’ included Biden.

So the past week has been, as the cliché would have it, something of a rollercoaster, as hopes rose and fell, taking levels of shadenfreude with them, that Trump would finally get his long overdue comeuppance, and that Johnson and his no-deal Brexit plans would, to one extent or another, be collateral damage.  But, where the USA is concerned, hope for the short-term has been qualified by the recognition that, even after Trump’s four long years spent reducing the reputation of the US Presidency to a steaming pile of ordure, 71 million US voters still managed to find reason to vote for him.   So what, one has to ask, even as one enjoys the viral videos of Trump as a two-year-old having a tantrum, is the long-term future of US democracy?  More immediately, what does the future for the UK look like now that Johnson finds himself internationally friendless in his proudly, if deceitfully, won ‘sovereignty’?  Which populist bully does he cosy up to next? Bolsonaro?  Even if someone at the last minute manages to point him successfully in the direction of an intelligent trade deal with the EU, we will still be left with his landslide general election win to mull over.   Johnson isn’t quite as much of an embarrassment as Trump (nearly, but not quite), and Biden clearly appealed to a much broader cross-section of the US electorate than Corbyn ever could to its UK counterpart, but one only has to look at the twitter feed following the debate on the Internal Market Bill in the House of Lords to recognise the parallels between the mindless irrationality of many of the Trump supporters our televisions have been serving up to us over the past month and that of the Brexit devotees whose devotion has not been shaken one little bit by the intervening months of shambolic incompetence.  Perhaps Freedom is Slavery after all.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Covid corruption

October 21st 

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

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

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

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

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

From David Maughan Brown in York: Signs and signals

September 28th

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

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

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

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

From David Maughan Brown in York: Shooting at the moon

September 6th

My first diary entry about our Covid-19 testing incapacity in UK was on March 31st when the UK was managing to achieve some 7,500 tests a day, at a time when Germany was testing 500,000 people a week.  There followed a series of wishful-thinking targets that were never even close to being met, as the our Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Health and Social Care competed with each other to raise the bar to 25k, then 100k, then 200k then 500k tests per day by way of distracting the dumb masses from noticing that each ever more ambitious goal wasn’t being met.   Well over five months later they are still at it.  We are now, in early September, managing to test around 320,000 people a day, still well short of the 500,000 target, but we should all ignore that minor detail and, with joy in our hearts, celebrate the fact that we will soon achieve lift-off.   We will soon be testing four million people a day, a target which was apparently down-graded by the incorrigible pessimists in the civil service who didn’t think it was realistic to aim for ten million a day quite yet.   This wondrous escalation in our achievements will, appropriately enough, be called “Operation Moonshot”.  Seriously.  This isn’t a belatedly discovered Monty Python sketch; not even the combined wit of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Graham Chapman could have come up with something quite so ludicrously absurd.

This is in a context in which Boris’s ‘world-beating’ testing regime is requiring people sick enough to feel the need to get themselves tested to drive over a hundred miles  – from, for example, London to the Brecon Beacons in Wales, or the Lake District to Dumfries in Scotland – to get a test.  Distances that even Dominic Cummings might think twice about before driving by way of an eye-test.   When confronted with what might seem a bit of a flaw in a world-beating testing system, our inimitable Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, was wholly unapologetic and pointed out that there were bound to be ‘operational challenges’ with any national system.   He is undoubtedly growing into the big job his support for Brexit earned him: instead of being diffidently incompetent he is now super-confidently incompetent.   He has also learnt from experience that the best way to appease the plebs is just to change a target: with the lordly manner of the monarch distributing alms to the poor on Maundy Thursday, he graciously undertook to ensure that nobody in future would need to travel more than 75 miles to get a test.   I was irritated enough at having to make a round trip of 53 miles to get a test when I was feeling perfectly well a couple of weeks ago.  If anything were beyond belief where this government is concerned, it would be beyond belief that the man responsible for the nation’s health should be quite happy for a sick person to be expected to drive 150 mile round-trip for a blood-test.  And this is the same man who expects us to believe that we will soon be testing four million people every day.

It is, of course, just remotely possible that I am misjudging Hancock and that the “Operation Moonshot” moniker represents an exceptionally rare moment of honesty for a cabinet minister in the Brexit cabinet.   Perhaps a momentary flash of self-perception has enabled him to appreciate that his new target is wholly unrealisable while he is in charge, and his patently ridiculous name for it is a coded admission that he recognises that he is aiming for the moon.  It is much more likely, though, that the moon he is shooting at is made of green cheese.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Land of Hope and Glory

August 26th

I promised, or perhaps threatened, in my last entry to return to the cultural war that continues to rage around the Last Night of the Proms – mainly, I suspect, because free-market Tories (is there another kind?)  have seized on it as another stick with which to beat the BBC in their campaign to do away with the license fee.   

The particular occasion for this latest spewing of right-wing bile was the BBC’s decision that, given that choral music is a known disseminator of the Covid-19 virus, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia!’ should be played, but not sung, at the Last Night of the Proms this year.   The words of both songs, as culturally appropriated in the 21st century, unashamedly glorify Empire, which many people find embarrassing.  As one might have expected, the BBC’s decision has revitalised the conservative ‘erasure of history’ argument, and, even more predictably, provoked an intemperate rant from Johnson who asserted that it is ‘time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history’, an embarrassment which he described in cringe-worthy Public Schoolese as ‘wetness’. 

The words of ‘Rule Britannia!’ were written in 1740 and interesting, for me at least, mainly for the punctuation of the first line. (‘You can take the English Professor out of the Department but you can’t take the Department out of the Professor,’ they say.)  The first line was an exhortation: ‘Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves’.   When we used to bawl it out as loudly as we could at a very ‘English’ preparatory school in the wilds of the Southern Highlands of what was then Tanganyika in the 1950s, we added a tell-tale ‘s’ and sang ‘Britannia rules the waves’, changing it from an injunction into a statement, which, even in the 1950s, was an exaggeration.   If Britain’s claim to rule the waves was tenuous in 1740, in a way it wasn’t in the 19th century, it is entirely untrue now, but my guess is that 95% of the singing flag-wavers at the Proms will, probably inadvertently, have been adding that undeniably jingoistic ‘s’. 

The triumphalist words of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ are more revealing in the context of Johnson’s declaration that we should ‘get over’ what he called ‘our bout of self-recrimination’ about our past.  The words were written by A.C. Benson in 1901 in the immediate aftermath of the Anglo-Boer – usually referred to in UK as the ‘Boer’ war by way of distracting attention from the fact that Britain was the aggressor, in much the same way as ‘NHS Test and Trace’ is an attempt to deflect attention from the fact that the associated chaos and incompetence is entirely attributable to the government and not the NHS.  The words were written soon after the death of Cecil Rhodes, and the line in the chorus, ‘Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set’, clearly echoes Rhodes’ vision of an ever expanding British Empire on which the sun never sets.   So when it comes to there being no need for national self-recrimination, the Anglo-Boer war is as good a place to start as, say, the massacres committed by British troops at Amritsar or on Bloody Sunday.

Concentration camps were not invented by the Nazis, they were first used in Cuba in the 1890s and shortly after that they were used more extensively by the British to intern Afrikaner women and children, and an unknown number of black South Africans, during the Anglo-Boer war, before being used by the British to the same deadly effect in Kenya and Malaya.  They ‘concentrated’ the civilian population in prison camps to prevent them from offering assistance to the Boer guerrilla fighters, while they ‘scorched’ the earth by burning all crops and homesteads to the same end.   It is estimated that somewhere around 28,000 Afrikaner women and children died of disease or starvation in the concentration camps in South Africa in 1901-2, of whom around 22,000 were children.   A further 20,000 black South Africans are estimated to have died in racially segregated camps over the same two years.  Twenty-two thousand dead children would not normally be associated with either ‘Hope’ or Glory’, nor were they much cause for triumphalist celebration then, let alone now.  And Boris clearly thinks that we shouldn’t be bothered with self-recrimination about them – I suppose they were just another bunch of foreigners.

The Right Honourable the Viscount Alfred Milner, who was the High Commissioner to South Africa and Governor of the Cape Colony at the time, would have been a shoe-in for Boris Johnson’s cabinet had he only been with us now.  Recognising belatedly that all those women and children dying on his watch might result in some regrettably bad press down the line, he wrote, refreshingly frankly (Dominic Cummings would have sorted that out): ‘It is impossible not to see that, however blameless we may be in the matter, we shall not be able to make anybody think so, and I cannot avoid an uncomfortable feeling that there must be some way to make the thing a little less awfully bad if one could only think of it.’  Cummings and Johnson would have been able to think of it.  Part of Milner’s problem, of course, was that the NHS wasn’t around at that time so he couldn’t label them ‘NHS Concentration Camps’.   In the meantime our Culture representative in the government of all the talentless, Oliver Dowden, says: ‘Confident forward-looking nations don’t erase their history [however ‘awfully bad’], they add to it.’  To which one can only respond by saying that nobody is trying to ‘erase history’: the BBC merely thinks it is not a good idea to celebrate some aspects of that history.  But the telling last word, and the strand of culture it represents, should perhaps be left to Piers Morgan as a representative spokesman for the jingoists who have responded to the BBC with such frothing outrage:  “The BBC needs to grow a pair & stop grovelling to such insane ‘woke’ cancel culture nonsense that most Britons find utterly absurd.”  The ‘pair’ he is referring to are, all too obviously, not breasts.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Populism and Justice

August 22nd

Populism is a political trait inextricably woven into democracy, whose essential meaning, according to the Concise Oxford, simply involves having concern for the views of ‘ordinary people’.  Which, of course, begs the question of whom Oxford regards as ‘ordinary people.’  Chambers, usually to be relied on for more colourful nuance, defines a populist as a ‘supporter, wooer or student of the common people.’  In the era of Trump and Johnson, ‘populism’ tends to be used mainly in the implicitly pejorative sense conveyed by Chambers’ ‘wooer’, and refers to the process of winning votes by pandering to the worst prejudices of as many people as possible who already entertain, or can be imbued with, those prejudices.   Countering that kind of populism is always going to be an occupational hazard for any decent person entering politics.    But populism should, surely, play no role whatever in a judicial system, and I get increasingly concerned that that is exactly what is happening. 

One doesn’t need to be a practising Christian to endorse the quaintly archaic wording  of the 1662 prayer for the Church in the Book of Common Prayer, ‘grant … to all that are put in authority … that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice….’ ‘True’ justice must, surely, be ‘indifferent’:  it should be based on a complex mix of precedent, compassion, retribution, and recognition of the need to protect society.  The passing of sentence should be the business of independent and experienced experts – but populism, of course, doesn’t like experts.   Justice should not be based on the emotionalism cultivated by the tabloid press and by the encouragement of victim statements, however heart-rending the latter often are.   If a 65 year-old man is beaten to death by a couple of teenage thugs, he may well have a wife, children and grandchildren who can all tell a court how devastated they are by his death, but he is obviously no more dead, and the crime is no worse, than if he happened to be homeless and to have no family or friends to be devastated by his death.  Justice should be ministered ‘indifferently.’

Two recent controversies over sentencing come to mind.  The first is over the sentences handed down to the three teenagers who were responsible for the killing of PC Andrew Harper, who was caught up in a tow-rope and dragged to his death behind a car when he intervened in the theft of a quad bike.  The driver of the car was sentenced to 16 years’ imprisonment and his two eighteen-year old passengers to thirteen years each.   Harper had only been married for four weeks, and his widow, Lissie, who is very personable, very articulate and clearly heart-broken, believes that the sentences fall into the category of being ‘unduly lenient’, and is campaigning for a new law to make life sentences mandatory for people who kill police officers and other emergency workers.  Suella Braverman, our worthy Attorney General, has entirely predictably decided to refer the sentences to the Court of Appeal.  She it was who destroyed any iota of credibility she might have had left as Attorney General after agreeing to join Johnson’s cabinet of all the talentless by fully endorsing Dominic Cummings’ jaunt to Durham at the height of lockdown as ‘responsible and legal’, prior to the Durham police having had time to consider whether or not it was, in fact, legal.   The way PC Harper died was, as Bravermann said, ‘horrific’; his death was indeed ‘shocking’.    But 13 years in prison for two teenagers, who happened to be passengers in a car that drove off with a man inadvertently caught in a tow-rope dragging behind it, is ‘unduly lenient’?  What does it say about a prison system that can’t reform a teenager in two or three years, never mind 13?  Mandatory sentences were a favourite recourse of the fascistic apartheid government in South Africa: their object is to deny the judges the right to use their discretion, to overrule and discredit expertise, to toss red meat to the yapping right-wing Law and Order brigade.  Lissie Harper does not come across as a member of that brigade, and one can only feel desperately sorry for her, but her tragedy has taken place in a media climate that fosters contempt for experts and militates against rational judgement.

The other recent sentence worth commenting on is the minimum 55-year sentence handed down by the judge in the Manchester Arena bombing case, which, the court was told, would have been a ‘whole life’ sentence but for the legal preclusion of that sentence on the grounds that Hashem Abedi was under age at the time of the offence. There is no question that Mr Justice Baker was right in saying that: ‘The stark reality is that these were atrocious crimes: large in their scale, deadly in their intent and appalling in their consequences.’  But one wonders what the choice of 55 years was about, if not to pre-empt an outcry that anything less would be ‘unduly lenient’ in the face of the harrowing victim statements read out in court by survivors?  What is the point of sentencing the English State (which seems likely to be all that is left of the Union by then) to cover the cost of Abedi’s board and lodging for a minimum of the next 55 years?  Do we no longer believe in the possibility of reform and redemption?  Not even over, for the sake of example, 40 years rather than the somehow magic 55 years?  I suppose the one thing we should be grateful for, in the context of a justice system that has to try to keep itself afloat in a sea of populism, is that even David Cameron had the good sense not to call a referendum on the restoration of the death penalty.  But don’t hold your breath on that score as long as Johnson is in nominal charge.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Quarantine again

July 17th

This week our Sheffield grandchildren are with their parents at a cottage in Anglesey and our York grandchildren, having spent a week near the sea in Galway, are now similarly ensconced in a cottage in a valley somewhere in the west of Ireland.   Last year we were with them all in a country house surrounded by fields of artichokes near Morlais in Brittainy.  We are still taking social distancing very seriously so are having to share their holidays vicariously via Face Time and Whatsapp, and very much appreciating the fact that they are taking the trouble to share them with us, and, once again, thankful for the difference technology has made to the experience of the past few months.  Within a few minutes of arriving at the cottage in Anglesey our two granddaughters, aged 9 and 7, were showing us around the cottage with palpable excitement, one giving us the guided tour of the ground floor, the other of the first floor.   The family in Ireland have to climb a significant hill get any signal so we are seeing and hearing much less of them.

The excitement of the children at the prospect of holidays, their anticipation and enjoyment of new places and new experiences, are infectious; their crushing disappointment if the holidays they have been looking forward to have to be cancelled for any reason is equally contagious.   Our two Cape Town granddaughters look forward all through the year to the week they have been able for the last few years to spend at our timeshare, sometimes with us, in the Drakensberg in Kwazulu-Natal.  So the bad news had to be broken to them well in advance this year that Covid-19 had resulted in the resort being closed and none of us being able to go.  I can imagine how devasted they would have been had they counted down the number of sleeps until their holiday, packed their bags and gone to bed early the night before their crack of dawn departure for the airport, and then discovered when they woke up that the government had during the night issued a decree that meant their holiday had to be cancelled after all.   I feel for all the families to whom that has happened in UK today as a result of our government’s sudden decision to impose two weeks’ of quarantine on anyone arriving back from Spain from today.   Many parents will be in serious need of a holiday after months of lockdown and home schooling, and will be disappointed and angry too, but it is the bitter disappointment and bewilderment of the children that strikes the strongest chord.

We know that Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson are both geographically challenged.  Cummings thinks that London and County Durham are indistinguishable when it comes to rules about social isolation.   Boris was reported by The Times in 2012 to have thought that Brussels was in Spain; he referred to Africa as a ‘country’ at the Conservative Party conference in 2016; and he had to be corrected by Theresa May at a cabinet meeting in 2018 when he repeatedly confused Yemen with Lebanon, a mere 1400 miles distant, in spite of being Foreign Secretary at the time.   So it would be too much to expect him to be able to distinguish between different parts of Spain.  As it happens, Las Palmas, which is included in the blanket quarantine rules, in spite of having a significantly lower Covid-19 infection rate than UK, is almost exactly the same distance from Barcelona, where there is a spike of infections, as Yemen is from the Lebanon.  The Balearic and Canary Islands all have much lower rates of infection than we do, and one might expect people living on an island to be able to recognise other islands when they see them.  So what does the government think it is doing repeating the stupidity of forcing people coming from areas with significantly lower infection rates than ours to quarantine themselves for two weeks after arriving here?

Belgium has distinguished the six regions in Spain where the Covid-19 spikes have occurred from the rest of Spain in its response to the surge of infections in Spain.  If our government can draw a distinction between Leicester and Coventry, 25 miles apart, when it comes to infection spikes and regulatory responses, why can’t it draw a distinction between, for example, Las Palmas and Tenerife on the one hand, and Barcelona and Zaragoza on the other?  I suspect that there are two reasons for this.  One is that they aren’t interested in fine distinctions:  all ‘foreigners’ (as a polite generic term for a plethora of racist sobriquets) are inherently threatening and to be distrusted, so there’s no point in distinguishing between Brits coming back from different parts of a country run by foreigners.  The other is that the motivation behind this illogical, abrupt and very contentious imposition of a blanket quarantine may well be very similar to the reason for the last one.  Simon Calder discloses in an article in today’s Independent that Dominic Cummings phoned The Times shortly after his return from his notorious visit to Durham to let them know about the imminent imposition of the blanket quarantine.  The aim, it is said, had much more to do with distracting attention from the adverse publicity being given to the government’s lethally carefree treatment of care-homes than it had to do with people arriving from other countries.  If that is true, it is certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility that last night’s abrupt implementation of another quarantine had equally little to do with the safety of UK citizens and was intended, rather, to distract attention from the fuss around the Intelligence and Safety Committee’s Russia report.  Whatever the reasons, the adults whose holiday plans have been ruined can always vote for a different government in four years’ time.   It is the bitterly disappointed children, abruptly denied their summer holiday on the beaches of the Canary Islands, I feel most sorry for.