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.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Cunning Plans

July 19th

I concluded my entry on July 10th by saying: ‘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.’   After successfully managing to stall the operation of this important committee for six months via the simple expedient of avoiding getting round to nominating its Tory membership, it had become clear to Cummings and Johnson that they would have to succumb to the inevitable and allow it to start functioning – but only on their own terms.   Baldrickian cunning plan B was to make sure that whatever it is that they are so anxious to keep hidden would stay under wraps via the appointment of one of their less intellectually gifted Brexiteer yes-men to the chair of the committee.   The constitution of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which, uniquely, sees the chair being independently elected by the other members of the committee, would be no obstacle.  When had a mere principle stood in the way of either Johnson or Cummings getting what he wanted? 

Alas, even Machiavelli and Rasputin must have had their off days: their cunning plans, unlike those of the A Team, will sometimes not have come together.   There will have been days when, distracted by side-issues like an outbreak of the plague or the after effects of a bad batch of vodka, or perhaps even concerns that their eye-sight might be failing or that a recent dalliance might come to light, they allowed themselves to be outmaneuvered.  So to Tory consternation and unexpected schadenfreude for the rest of us, as it turned out, Grayling wasn’t elected after all.   Julian Lewis, a Tory right-wing Brexiteer who is obviously less biddable than his Tory right-wing Brexiteer counterpart Grayling, was elected instead, thanks to collusion with the Labour members of the committee.   This coup put paid to both parts of the Cummings/Johnson cunning plan in one fell swoop.  Not only did they not end up with their ventriloquist’s dummy in the chair, but, potentially even more problematic, they have been landed with a chair who actually knows something about Intelligence and Security.  Lewis has been a member of the Defence Select Committee since 2010, and a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee since 2014.   So the bit of the plan that involved having Grayling make the same mess of chairing, and thereby discrediting, the Intelligence and Security Committee as he has of every government department he has ever been put in charge of disappeared out of the window at the same time.

In normal circumstances arch manipulators would tend to keep quiet about it if they had tried illegitimately and unsuccessfully to manoeuver their stooges into the chair of a committee they shouldn’t have been interfering with.   They would go back into their darkened room and concoct cunning plan C.   But that is all too evidently not the Johnson and Cummings bullyboy style.  They clearly don’t give a damn that the world knows they have been involved in skull-duggery, or even that they have been outmaneuvered in the dirty tricks department, provided it also knows that they have exacted appropriate revenge.   Nobody had better try to do anything like that again, particularly not if it involves colluding with members of the opposition.  No doubt regretting that their whips are not allowed to take their titles literally, they have had to content themselves with having Julian Lewis thrown out of the Conservative party.   As a shining example of how to ‘Take back Control’ that may yet prove something of a double-edged sword:  while it demonstrates a ruthless vindictiveness towards any party member who might have the temerity to cross them, and could serve its purpose as a deterrent, it simultaneously ensures that the Chair of this key committee is genuinely independent of any political party and that the long delayed report on Russian interference in the general election will see the light of day very soon.   It might yet prove not to have been a particularly brilliant tactical move on the part of a Prime Minister who has a lot to hide, extending from the number of children he has fathered to who knows what else, to alienate and antagonise the chair of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee and, in the process, deprive his party of its majority on the committee.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Stateless in Syria

July 17th

Every day that passes provides fresh insight into the kind of government we, as members of the UK electorate, have landed ourselves with for the next four and a half years. Today’s response to the Court of Appeal’s decision that Shamima Begum should be allowed back into the UK to present her appeal against the removal of her British citizenship provides yet another window into the government’s contempt for human rights, and further evidence of just how little credence should be given to the pretence that the Huawei decision had anything whatever to do with China’s abysmal human rights record.   

A fifteen year-old schoolgirl, technically still a child, is successfully brainwashed by terrorist fanatics and sets off, accompanied by two friends of similar age, to join them in Syria.  Our much-bruited Prevent programme would appear not to have detected the fact that they were being radicalised; the police had interviewed all three of them when a friend of theirs left for Syria a few months earlier, but left it at that; our ‘not fit for purpose’ Home Office failed to stop them at the border or prevent them from leaving the country.   They join ISIS, Begum marries an ISIS fighter, and they lend their tacit (perhaps active, we don’t know) support to ISIS atrocities, and when ISIS is defeated Shamima Begum turns up in a refugee camp.   Our government, ignoring her right to a fair trial, promptly disowns her and removes her British citizenship on the specious grounds that in spite of being born, brought up and radicalised in UK, she has a technical right to Bangladeshi citizenship.  The Government of Bangladesh equally promptly, and understandably, says she is the UK’s responsibility and denies her that right, so she is rendered stateless.  This in spite of the fact that no less an expert on the deprivation of human rights than Theresa May is on record as saying that ‘it is illegal for any country to make its citizens stateless.’

The Appeal Court’s decision merely means that Shamima Begum should be allowed back to present her case, and does not imply that she should be allowed to stay in UK.   But that ruling, all too predictably, was enough to provoke an outpouring of bile from the frothing loons of the right-wing tabloid press.   The Sun, as so often, epitomises the fanaticism with its headline: ‘Shamima Begum ruling is monstrous – this vile fanatic has no place on our soil.’   Given that the right-wing media will always be pulling whichever of this puppet government’s strings Dominic Cummings isn’t pulling himself, the Home Office response was all too depressingly predictable:  it will appeal the Appeal Court’s ruling to the Supreme Court.   Whatever Shamima Begum has done wrong should be exposed in open trial in UK , and she should be sentenced accordingly.   The arbitrary life-sentence of statelessness in a Syrian refugee camp, which in the age of Covid-19 probably amounts to a death sentence, handed down by the Home Secretary is manifestly unjust, however convenient for the government and the Home Office it might be in helping them to avoid being held to account for allowing Begum to be radicalised and to leave the country in the first place.  

Shamima Begum was an all too obviously impressionable child when she was brain-washed into leaving the UK at the age of fifteen.   How far have we actually come in the fewer than seventy years since a fourteen year-old boy could be hanged as a ‘terrorist’ under the State of Emergency in Kenya, in the name of our of still reigning monarch, for the offence of being found in possession of a bullet?  And can we have any confidence whatever that The Sun wouldn’t still think that that was a good idea?

From David Maughan Brown in York: Taking Back Control

July15th 

Another day, two more U-turns.   Michael Gove’s libertarian assertion a couple of days ago that he wouldn’t favour making face-coverings compulsory for people entering shops because it is ‘common courtesy’, and the great British public can implicitly be relied to exercise that courtesy, has been overruled.  Whoever makes this government’s decisions in the shadowy depths of 10 Downing Street – usually Dominic Cummings – appears to have rather less confidence in our collective courtesy, and face coverings are now, very belatedly, going to be compulsory for anyone visiting shops after all.  But, fair play, it is important to be even-handed, and common courtesy needs to be exercised towards the virus as well:  it needs to be given a chance to infect people for at least one more week, so face coverings don’t need be worn in shops until 24th July.  This will give the government time to ask the police, who are going to have to work out how to enforce the law, whether they think making it compulsory and making people who don’t wear face coverings eligible for £100 fines was a good idea in the first place.  They don’t.   But we shouldn’t bank on there not being another rapid U-turn, as the Tory backwoodsmen don’t like the idea of having to wear face coverings any more than Michael Gove does.   Desmond Swayne, of deepest and darkest backwoods fame, declared in parliament yesterday that the new regulation was a ‘monstrous imposition’ that would deter him from going shopping.  So goodbye to the V-shaped recovery then.

The other U-turn, much more dramatic and with the potential for vastly more serious long-term consequences, sees our government performing an abrupt about-turn and reneging on its previous commitment to allow the Chinese private company Huawei to be involved in the 35% of the roll-out of the UK’s 5G network that isn’t security sensitive.   Not only is any future involvement arbitrarily ruled out, but all Huawei- manufactured components of the existing 3G and 4G networks need to be stripped out by 2027.  Now there’s common courtesy for you.  It isn’t as if Johnson and company have suddenly unearthed the fact that Huawei is a Chinese company and that China has a communist government with some very unsavoury propensities.  Nor have they suddenly discovered that Huawei poses a more serious security threat than they had realised in January when they made their original commitment.   It is unlikely that even Dominic Cummings, radical thinker that he is, has been influenced by the deranged conspiracy theorists who think that 5G masts are responsible for Covid-19.   A conservative estimate suggests that the sudden volte-face will involve picking another £2 billion from the magic-money tree, and up to two years delay in the roll-out of 5G.   Any pretence that this U-turn has anything to do with China’s new stance on Hong Kong or its treatment of the Uighur Muslims would have to be based on the assumption that Tories have even the first remotest interest in Human Rights which (with a few honourable minority exceptions) is entirely belied by, among other things, the Windrush scandal, and the government’s persistence in maintaining Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ with its appalling attitude towards immigrants.   The Huawei U-turn can be laid entirely at the door of Johnson and cronies’ cringing subservience to the erratic whims of Donald Trump, so desperate are they to feast on the crumbs under his trade table. Trump, needless to say, has no qualms about making it embarrassingly clear what he thinks of them by boasting to the world about having persuaded them to do turn their backs on their commitments to Huawei.

The English Nationalists have taken control of the ship – otherwise known as hi-jacking – that had been comfortably and productively docked in a European harbour for the better part of 50 years.   They didn’t like having to pay harbour fees and there were too many pesky foreigners around for their liking – foreigners who for the most part couldn’t even speak proper English.  So, after spending three years blundering around in the engine-room before finally managing to get the engines started, they have set sail and headed out into the unforgiving ocean towards the Americas, following in the wakes of heroes like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, their eyes alight with the prospect of fresh riches and empire.  Regrettably, unlike those plundering knights of the realm, they haven’t the first idea about how to sail a ship, nor have they the faintest notion about where they are going or how to navigate the way to get there.   So they go round and round in circles, not catching the faintest stirring of a trade wind but caught in a trade war between the world’s two major economic powers, China and the USA.  They had hoped that China would be a source of riches, at it used to be, but the trade war, over which they have no control, has crushed all hope of that.   They are tempted to seek safe harbour on the other side of the Atlantic to replenish their supplies, of chicken in particular, but that would make it a bit too embarrassingly obvious that they are, in fact, handing control to the mad Donald Trump. So much for taking back control.

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: ‘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.