From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘The right deed for the wrong reason’

28th June

So bumptious Boris is back to his bounciest and most boisterous best, particularly at performing U-turns.   Overdoing the alliteration seems an appropriate way to pay deference to a man whose rhetoric overdoes everything, most of the time including the truth.   Suitably socially-distanced Boris watchers (health warning: only for those with their blood-pressure medication close to hand) might well be asking themselves whether Boris’s very obvious disorientation is the result of his making himself dizzy with so many U-turns in such a short time, or whether the U-turns are the result of his having no idea where he was going in the first place and simply being comprehensively lost.   Those of us who are old enough to remember what my grandchildren would regard as ‘the olden days’ before sat-navs were invented will probably remember the latter feeling, although we were fortunate enough not to have a visually-impaired Dominic Cummings in the back seat telling us where to go.  Watching Boris’s blunderings and speculating about their origins may not be a particularly productive or spiritually fulfilling way of spending one’s time in lockdown, but it can become compulsive.

The list of U-turns is impressive, indeed, dare I say it, potentially ‘world-beating’: vouchers for free school meals during the summer holidays; binning our ‘world-beating’ tracking and tracing app.; relenting on all primary school children being back in school before the summer holidays; reversing the decisions on the NHS surcharge and the bereavement scheme; remote voting in the House of Commons; and the imposition of the blanket quarantine.  And those are just the ones that come immediately to mind.  Those are, however, just details: the Grand-daddy of them all, which Boris has been ‘doubling down’ on again today, is the gargantuan Tory U-turn on ‘austerity’.   The other U-turns, which have to do to what are essentially mere details, were forced on an unthinking government, both congenitally and ideologically averse to consultation with anybody, least of all unions and local councils, by public pressure. This one, which involves borrowing at historically low interest-rates in order to spend our way out of recession and mass unemployment by investing in infrastructure, “Building, building, building”, suggests that there is, after all, a glimmer of intelligence, a flickering candle, somewhere in the pea-soup fog of collective Tory intelligence.

As the Keynesian economists they obdurately refused to listen to have been telling them for the last decade, that is what they should have been doing ever since the recession in 2008.  If they had gone down that road, they could have avoided the untold misery, anxiety, poverty and cultural impoverishment their ideological obsession with shrinking the state has occasioned:  the closing of youth and child services; the forcing of tens of thousands into the humiliation of having to rely on food-banks; the closing of municipal libraries; the strangling of the justice system; the denial of adequate funding to the NHS, which occasioned the lack of PPE and caused how many deaths?  The list goes on and on and on.  And, even in deciding on the U-turn, Boris still can’t bring himself to be entirely honest:  “We are absolutely not going back to the austerity of 10 years ago,” he told the Sunday Times today.  ‘The austerity of the last 10 years’, to which he gave every evidence of being wholly committed, would have been more honest.

Now, with his invariably tone-deaf timing, bouncy Boris declares his commitment to ‘Building, building, building’ at the precise moment his housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, is coming under increasing pressure for overruling Tower Hamlet officials, who apparently begged him not to give a last-minute go-ahead to Richard Desmond’s application to get ‘building, building, building’ a one billion pound housing development, involving 1500 houses, in an already overcrowded part of Tower Hamlets in London.  Having sat next to Desmond at a dinner, and allegedly watched a promotional video for the development, Jenrick is alleged to have overruled planning objections the day before Desmond would have been obliged to pay £45 million in extra developer’s contributions to the Labour-run Tower Hamlets council.  Desmond subsequently sent Jenrick a message thanking him for his speedy response and for saving him from having to pay ‘loads of doe (sic)’ to ‘the Marxists’.  It will, of course, have been entirely coincidental that Desmond then made a £12,000 donation to the Conservative Party.  But a mere twelve grand is peanuts in the grand scale of things:  the Independent reported yesterday that the Tories have received a total of £11 million in donations from building magnates in the six months since Boris became prime minister.   Who, any longer, wonders why?

T.S. Eliot has Becket say in his Christmas sermon in Murder in the Cathedral: ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.’  In clinging on desperately to avoid losing Dominic Cummings, Boris was very clearly doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason: he is wholly dependent on Cummings to run the country for us.  In regarding the Jenrick matter as ‘closed’ (according to Priti Patel, who would know) he is laying himself open to the very strong imputation that his commitment to “building, building, building” is a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.  Infrastructure projects, as anyone who has ever managed them knows full well, leave all sorts of opportunities for corruption and sleaze.   

In his bouncily boyish way, Boris has been trying to demonstrate to the world that he is back to his best, but perhaps only managing to give the impression that he is, in P.G. Woodhouse terminology, a bounder.  Today he has told us that he is ‘fit as a butcher’s dog’ and we’ve been regaled with unedifying footage of his backside as he did press-ups for the benefit of the Mail on Sunday to prove it.  While many of us would be only too pleased to see his back, I don’t imagine that too many people want to be shown his backside as an accompaniment to Sunday dinner.   Boris may well be ‘fit as a butcher’s dog’, although how many press-ups he managed wasn’t mentioned.  Some of the women who know him best may, for all we know, also consider him to be as randy as a butcher’s dog and to have the moral compass of a butcher’s dog.  His apparent inability to see anything whatever wrong with Cummings’ and Jenrick’s behaviour might suggest to some people that he also has the ethics of a butcher’s dog.  But, however fit he may or may not be, best not to enter him in the butcher’s dog category at Crufts (‘The World’s Greatest Dog-show’) until someone has, at the very least, groomed him.   There are times when I get the impression that Crufts isn’t even in the same league when it comes to the world’s greatest dog-show.

From David Maughan Brown in York: A Cunning Plan

June 25th

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

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

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

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

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

From David Maughan Brown in York: Academic integrity.

June 2nd

I suspect that one of the reasons scientific researchers and other academics very seldom seem to go into politics and achieve high office is that they are seriously hamstrung by old-fashioned and outmoded ideas about honesty.  Their lives as academics will have been nurtured on notions of academic integrity:  you don’t invent the results of your experiments and reverse engineer the experiment to fit those results; you don’t borrow chunks of other people’s work without acknowledgement and pretend they are the product of your own original thinking; you don’t invent quotations and attribute them to historical figures to flesh out your argument.   So academics might be expected to take a rather dimmer view of such behavior, and get angrier about it, than most others seem to.  

A considerable furore, and a vast amount of ridicule, has rightly been occasioned by Dominic Cummings’s excursion to County Durham to share his Covid-19 virus with the Northerners, and by his ridiculous story about having driven the thirty miles to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight.  But very little fuss appears to have been made about the fact that, very soon after he arrived back in London on 14th April, Cummings sat down to doctor a blog he had published on March 4th 2019 by inserting a paragraph which enabled him to assert during his Downing Street rose garden non-apology last week: ‘Last year I wrote about the possible threat of coronavirus and the urgent need for planning….’  The lack of integrity displayed by this piece of chicanery would have been enough to earn Cummings a disciplinary hearing, and possibly the sack, in an academic environment, but it appears to be the kind of thing that people have come to expect from Downing Street these days.   It certainly won’t have bothered Boris Johnson whose own first sacking, in that instance from his job as a reporter for The Times in 1988, was for inventing a quotation to attribute to an historical figure in a front-page story.  

Johnson’s distant relationship with the truth is so well known that newspapers have been listing and ranking his ‘biggest lies’, which inevitably include the two most  potent Brexit untruths: the £350 million a week for the NHS, and the 70 million Turks imminently scheduled to invade the UK to take people’s jobs and sponge off the NHS as soon as Turkey joined the EU.  But it is the everyday lies from Downing Street, the deliberate massaging of the truth, which illustrates the lack of integrity most insistently.  And here the best example is, once again, the daily episode of the coronavirus testing fairy story, for which the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has just been rapped over the knuckles by the head of the UK Statistics Authority, who accuses the government of continuing to mislead the public with its statistics on Covid-19 tests.

To distract attention from the heated debate over whether Hancock’s arbitrary target of 100,000 tests a day by the and of April had been met, Boris upped the target to 200,000 by the end of May.  A minor tweaking of the language, presumably by way of elegant variation, somehow changed the target to ‘capacity’ for testing rather than actual tests.  Hancock proudly announced over the past weekend that ‘capacity’ was indeed up to 205,000.  He didn’t mention that the number of tests actually carried out was fewer than 130,000, and of those some would have been posted out but not yet returned, and others would have been double counted: when two swabs are used on the same person that sometimes counts as two tests, not one.  The statistics have no integrity whatever, and there is precious little to be found in 10 Downing Street from where they come.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Back to school?

1st June

How on earth could it have come to this? Today is the day, much-heralded by the tabloids, for the return to school after the ten long weeks of lockdown and home-schooling.  But only for some classes and only in England, and it is being left entirely up to parents, living through the worst health emergency this country has experienced for a hundred years, to take the potential life-or-death decision whether or not to risk sending their children back to school if they happen to be in the eligible classes.

On what possible basis are they supposed to make that choice?  Because the government of England, which we used to think was the government of the United Kingdom, says it is now time (and safe) to do so?  But the June 1stdate was decided weeks ago on the basis of no evidence whatsoever that it would be safe by today and, given that 8,000 people are still being infected by the virus every day, it is still, all too clearly, not without risk.  And not just risk to the children.  Although the evidence shows that children are the age group least badly affected by Covid-19, the extent to which asymptomatic children can carry the virus back into their homes to infect the rest of their families is still a lot less certain.

So are parents supposed to base their decision on our government’s track-record where the virus is concerned?  That is something of an ask considering that the UK is widely considered to have been one of the four worst countries in the world when it comes to its handling of the pandemic, unfair as that is to the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and North Ireland.   Thanks to a decade of austerity, and a linked determination to be deaf to all warnings, we were hopelessly illprepared and under-equipped for the outbreak of a widely predicted global pandemic.   We stopped testing and tracking just when we should have been ‘ramping’ it up.  We allowed two major sporting events to go ahead, bringing thousands of spectators into this country from the epicentre of the disease in Europe, at a time when the rest of Europe was busy locking everything down.   We didn’t close our airports when we should have, and our government now bizarrely thinks that it is a good idea to do so three months too late.   So our government’s track-record isn’t going to inspire in parents a lot of confidence that it knows what it is talking about when it says it is safe for schools to reopen.

To complicate their decision even further, parents are having conflicting advice and concerns dinned into them from all sides.  The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) thinks it is OK for schools to reopen, but at least four members of that group have come out independently to say it is too soon.  And in any case that group lost credibility to such an extent when it became clear that Dominic Cummings was sitting in on SAGE meetings, and might be influencing its decisions, that an independent group scientific advisory group felt obliged to set itself up.  Teachers unions think it is too soon.  The vastly more credible devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and North Ireland, which don’t consist of English Nationalists, think it is too soon.   But educational experts and children’s mental health experts are consistently pointing to the need to get children back to school as soon as it is safe to do so.  And almost all parents who aren’t teachers are likely to be only too ready to acknowledge that the home schooling they are trying to supervise won’t be as educationally sound as the lessons their children enjoy (or otherwise) in their classrooms.

What more basic reason could there ever be for having any government at all than to have a competent and authoritative body that can ensure that children will be safe in its schools?  One only has to look to New Zealand to know that, even in a global pandemic such as the one we are trying to live through now, that is not an unrealizable ambition.  But pity the unfortunate parents in England who have been left high and dry by our parody of a government to make the choice themselves as to whether to expose their children and their families today to the unquestionable, if one hopes relatively minor, risk of being infected by Covid-19.  It is a huge relief for me personally that none of my grandchildren is in one of the guinea-pig classes.  Not that I imagine for one moment that my children would think it a good idea to send their children back to school in present circumstances, even if they were eligible.

From David Maughan Brown in York: A Barney Castle

a meme travelling the internet after Cummings’s concern about his eyesight.

May 26th

The latest episode of Downing Street  – the West End’s moderately high-culture answer to EastEnders – was well worth waiting 24 hours for.   It featured Dominic Cummings, still Boris Johnson’s chief advisor, strolling out of the shadows to take centre stage in the 10 Downing Street garden and entertain an assembly of the journalists he treats with such contempt.  His demeanour, as he spent an hour painstakingly explaining to the slow-witted just how reasonable it was for him to have followed his paternal instincts and driven his wife and child 264 miles up to Durham when his very own slogan instructed everyone in the country to stay at home, suggested that he would much rather have been back in the blue-bell woods in the North East.  It is just possible that the journalists might also have preferred to spend their sunny Bank Holiday afternoon somewhere else. 

Cummings admitted that he had, indeed, driven the thirty miles to Barnard’s Castle over the Easter weekend, and explained that he had been worried that his eyesight had been affected by Covid-19 and so obviously needed to test it to see whether he could drive the 264 miles back to London safely. Smart idea that.  You can tell why he is Boris’s chief advisor.  Climb into the car with your wife and four-year old child on your wife’s birthday and drive for 30 miles down a highway to test your dodgy eyesight and, incidentally, visit a beauty spot.  If you don’t crash into someone or something, your sight must be fine and you can enjoy the beauty once you get there; if you do crash into something but manage to survive, you can make sure dodgy eyesight gets added to the list of Covid-19 symptoms, even if you are the only person in the entire world who has been affected by the virus in that way.

Boris either believed this absurd story himself, or decided that the great British public and his newly restive back-benchers were stupid enough to believe it, and sent Cummings out to air it in the 10 Downing Street garden, which is, one gathers, usually reserved for entertaining heads of state and the leaders of government.  As far as Boris is concerned Cummings behaved ‘responsibly, legally and with integrity’, and he was presumably convinced that everyone else would feel the same way.  The problem, of course, is that most of the people who needed to be convinced know that Boris’s familiarity with ‘integrity’ is pretty much on a par with Judas Iscariot’s familiarity with loyalty.  Many of them also appear to accept the wisdom of the adage that ‘when the aide becomes the story, the aide goes’.

Johnson’s desperation to hold onto Cummings at any cost betrays an astonishing and rather pathetic degree of dependence and weakness for a Prime Minister who has recently won a landslide election.  Perhaps allowing Cummings free rein of the 10 Downing Street garden was a tacit acknowledgement that Cummings is in effect, if not in name, the leader of this Conservative government.  Although quite how Cummings’ ‘political disrupter’ label and the term ‘conservative’ can sit comfortably side by side is anyone’s guess.  In the meantime, while Cummings insisted throughout his hour in the garden that he hadn’t done anything wrong, and certainly wasn’t about to apologise, is it just possible that he was having a private laugh at the expense of the rest of us?   Did he know, when choosing Barnard’s Castle as the beauty spot for his sightseeing eye-test, that in Durham dialect a ‘Barney Castle’ is an exceedingly pathetic excuse?

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘What are you doing here?’

May 24th

Rosie, our youngest granddaughter, whose third birthday coincided with the start of lockdown, seems destined to be a head teacher.   Another locked-down family birthday saw us heading over to their house a mile or so away in York to deliver a birthday card, presents and a couple of dozen freshly picked asparagus spears for Rosie’s mother, Kate.   Abiding strictly by formal lock-down delivery protocols, we deposited the presents on the front doorstep, knocked on the door, and stood well back to convey our birthday wishes.  The front door was opened by nine-year old Matthew who barely had time to say hello before Rosie pushed past him, assumed the leadership role squarely in the doorway, fixed us with an exceedingly hard stare – which Paddington Bear would have envied – and, belying her name, sternly demanded: ‘WHAT are you doing here?’

Feeling duly chastened – as though caught bunking out of lockdown by a particularly strict housemaster – I explained that we had come to deliver presents and say ‘Happy Birthday’ to her mother, who duly appeared at the front door at that moment.  Rosie didn’t say anything but remained visibly unimpressed by what she obviously regarded as an extremely feeble excuse.   When the family came by our allotment last weekend, Rosie had been fully briefed about the virus and the need for social distancing and, maintaining social distancing so effectively that it could well have been interpreted as antisocial distancing, eyed us with deep suspicion throughout her time in the vicinity.   She clearly understands about the disease and, because she feels perfectly well herself, I suspect she assumes that if she needs to keep away from us it must be because we have caught it.

Today’s episode of the Downing Street soap opera sees a chorus of opposition voices raised against Svengali Cummings, Boris’s chief political advisor, who is once again stealing the limelight from his boss.   At a time when everyone in the entire population was being ordered to go home and self-isolate if they experienced any Covid-19 symptoms, Cummings experienced the symptoms, presumably caught from Johnson, and, along with his equally symptomatic wife and his son, jumped into this car and drove the 200 plus miles all the way up to Durham to ‘self-isolate’ near his family.  Cummings was potentially doing for the Durham area what the merchant with his flea-ridden and plague-contaminated merchandise did for Eyam, but Boris’s response to the chorus of demands for Svengali’s resignation, predictably enough, was to open the gate of his kennel-yard and send his senior ministerial poodles out to yap mendaciously in Cummings’ defence.  It is now alleged not only that Cummings went up to Durham, but that he was seen at Barnard’s Castle 30 miles away at Easter, that he then drove down to London and then back to his family, all while the country was supposed be in lockdown and he should have been self-isolating at home.   One of Boris’s teachers once commented that Boris didn’t think rules were for him; that has been obvious all along, but it is now equally obvious that he doesn’t think rules are for his advisors either.

What this country clearly needs is more Rosies.  Had Rosie been in the doorway confronting Cummings when he got to his forbidden destination and demanding to know ‘WHAT are you doing here?’ I suspect even he might just possibly have felt abashed enough to turn round and drive straight back to London.