From David Maughan Brown in York: A crannog and a clown

Crannog on Loch Tay

August 5th

Normality at last – or as close to normality as one can get in the UK these days.  At the micro-level, a week spent with our daughter, her husband and their two daughters at a hired cottage in Kenmore, at the northern end of Loch Tay.   A week spent exploring the area (all travelling in the same car!); canoeing on the loch and watching the family swimming; enjoying the Olympics on a very large television screen on the rare occasions when it rained (very much less frequently and persistently than we would have been subjected to had we stayed in York); and playing games with the grandchildren.  We spent a fascinating morning at the museum at the Scottish Crannog Centre, which was, paradoxically, all the more interesting because the crannog itself (an iron age dwelling built out over the loch to avoid building on land that could be cultivated on the shore) had caught fire and burnt to piles and ashes in six minutes just four weeks before our visit.   

At the macro level, everyone was calmly going about their business as though the sensible requirements to keep wearing masks and maintain respectful social distances were perfectly normal.  They had avoided the headline-catching grandiosity and sheer stupidity of Boris Johnson’s much bruited ‘Independence Day’.  When Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, appeared on television, one had the sense of having arrived in a serious country whose leading politicians actually cared about the people they governed.  Throughout the six-hour drive up to Kenmore – which turned into an eight-hour drive on the way up as a result of a two-hour hold-up on the motorway resulting from a bad accident – I had a relieved sense that I was driving away from badly-produced and singularly unfunny comic-opera country.  By the time we came back, I found myself wondering what I was missing that was preventing roughly half the population of Scotland from being desperate to shake off their subjugation to the idiocies and incompetence of the Westminster government as rapidly as possible by attaining a genuine independence.

Even in Scotland the only way to escape footage of our Honourable Prime Minister lumbering around in a hi-viz jacket, with the straw-like ends of his storm-ravaged haystack of hair sticking randomly out from the brim of a hard hat, was by avoiding turning on the television.   The point of a hi-viz jacket is in the name: high visibility.   ‘Look at me, look at me’ it demands, like a three-year old desperate to show its mother that it can almost do a somersault.  Whoever manages Johnson’s diary appears have been instructed to ensure that he visits at least one factory, workshop, laboratory, ship-yard, building-site, or anywhere else he can get away with wearing a hi-viz jacket, at least once a day.   It is as if the man was born wearing a small, ill-fitting hi-viz jacket and now, like Linus Van Pelt with his security blanket, can’t feel wholly comfortable without one.

Johnson, whose minders have somehow managed to keep him away from Scotland for many months as a 100% guaranteed vote-loser for the Tories north of the border, travelled up to pay a two day visit immediately after we arrived back.  His visit was characterised, first, by his lying about not having turned down an invitation from Nicola Sturgeon to visit her in Edinburgh.  But that wasn’t unusual as Johnson tells lies much of the time.  Second, by his refusal to self-isolate when he got back in spite of the fact that one of the aides who had travelled with him has tested positive for Covid-19.  This merely reinforces the widespread recognition that it is ‘one rule for us and another for them.’  Third, he ‘joked’ about the lead Britain and the Conservative Party took in combatting climate change under Margaret Thatcher by having the foresight to close the coal mines in the 1980s: ‘Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who closed so many coal mines across the country, we had a big early start and we’re now moving rapidly away from coal altogether.’  

This throw-away remark, made, almost unbelievably, on a visit intended to woo support for the continuation of the union, produced an immediate backlash.[1]  Alan Mardghum, secretary of the Durham Miners Association, said: ‘Johnson has again shown utter contempt for the people of former mining communities.  The wilful annihilation of the coal industry caused social and economic devastation in our communities that is still felt to this day.  It was an ideological assault.… It is no joke.’

Shortly after we arrived back from Scotland the BBC News covered the visit of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the exiled leader of the opposition in Belarus, to London where she was inevitably shown being ‘entertained’ by Johnson in Downing Street.  My reaction to the coverage can only be described as one of embarrassment.  Here was a person trying to lead the opposition to a brutal dictator, who was coming to our country looking for support in her efforts to do so, and all we could do as one of the richest and formerly most powerful countries in the world was present her with a clown for her to have to pretend to take seriously.  Johnson is a supreme narcissist, a racist, a serial liar and philanderer, a wholly immoral man capable of the crassest of misjudgements, and he is, it would seem, the best leader our England-dominated political system can come up with.

It is difficult to know precisely what the long-term economic effect would be were Scotland to gain its independence, shake the dust of Westminster off its shoes, and rejoin the European Union.  The Scottish Crannog Centre, which reflects five thousand years of Scotland’s history, is due to be rebuilt on a larger and better site immediately across the loch from its present location.   Scottish Independence could not possibly wreak as much damage to Scotland as last month’s fire did to the crannog, and a fresh start, as far as possible from the taint of the little-England mentality that currently dominates UK politics, might well be the best way Scotland could  start its next five thousand years.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/boris-johnson-mine-closures-joke-b1898337.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: “Freedom Day”

Mad as a box of frogs?

So “Freedom Day” has finally arrived.  We have reached Boris Johnson’s final milestone on the road out of lockdown. All covid restrictions have been lifted and we are now free to cavort all night, singing and dancing, hugging and kissing whoever we like, crammed into nightclubs with thousands of others who have finally been able to cast off, and consign ‘irreversibly’ to history, the face-masks and other restrictions that infringed their right to liberty and dignity – indeed every human right you can think of – so wantonly.   It may not quite compare with the storming of the Bastille, or the signing of the American Declaration of Independence, or the ending of apartheid, but it comes pretty damn close.  Apart from anything else, it has the signal advantage for our honourable Prime Minister of freeing him from his oft-repeated promise to heed the scientific advice and follow the data not the dates.

On the strength of what our government appears to think is an unanswerable question, however often it is parroted – ‘If not now, when?’ – it is confidently falling back on the certainty that the British public will always behave responsibly.  Obviously, no one in Government was watching the TV coverage of the European football final.  Why bother when England is so manifestly superior in every respect to any other country in Europe (in spite of the England team clearly having too many children of immigrants who should have been sent back to where they came from) that it was bound to win unless the referee, or the other team, or both, cheated?  Had Boris and his cabinet been watching the coverage, they might have noticed that their ‘responsible’ citizens in the stands and fan zones were doing anything but maintaining responsible social distancing.  As an answer to ‘If not now, when?’, why not try ‘When everyone who is prepared to be vaccinated has been vaccinated’.

Covid? No worries.

No, we can’t wait for more people to be vaccinated – the economy would suffer too badly.  A covert return to Boris’s original ‘herd immunity’ strategy would be far better: keep the economy going and ‘learn to live with’ the dying of a few tens of thousands more victims of Covid, and the long-Covid disablement of tens of thousands of others.  Interesting idea – but the timing could perhaps be better:  Boris Johnson has timed his lifting of all restrictions to coincide almost exactly with the moment when the rapidly rising infection rate of our third wave of Covid reaches the nice round figure of 50,000 a day.  The inevitable consequence of that is, as The Guardian has pointed out: ‘The latest figures released by the NHS show more than half a million people were contacted and told to self-isolate between 1 and 7 July, the highest weekly figure since the app launched.’[1]  This has already resulted in multiple smaller businesses – pubs, hotels and shops – having to close as a result of a policy intended to enable them to open and stay open, and is threatening to close supermarkets and bring car production lines to a grinding halt.  By 16th August, the date until which our government, committed as it is ‘to data not dates’, is determined to keep the current self-isolation rules in force (in spite of its ‘Freedom Day’ lifting of all restrictions), it is estimated that nine times as many, around 4.5 million, people will have been forced into self-isolation by the pinging of the NHS app with all the fallout to the economy that will entail.  

Except that, perhaps, after all, it is a matter for their own or their employers’ discretion as to whether they need to self-isolate and contribute to the stalling of the economy by doing so.  No lesser eminences than our Investment Minister, Gerry Grimstone, and our Business Minister, Paul Scully,(ever heard of them? No, I haven’t either) have asserted that employees and their employers could choose to ignore the instruction to self-isolate if it reached them via the NHS app, which is ‘only advisory’, rather than Test and Trace, which is legally binding (although all restrictions have been lifted).[2]  Scully confided that he knew how frustrating this was because he ‘had to self-isolate last week [him]self for over a week, and I know how incredibly mind-numbing it is as well as the impact on the economy.’  The numbing of his mind was clearly long lasting if it allowed him to continue to fit ‘over a week’ into his week.  Sadly, within an hour of Scully making his statement, he was contradicted by ‘Downing Street’, England’s most talkative cul-de-sac: ‘Isolation remains the most important action people can take to stop the spread of the virus. Given the risk of having and spreading the virus, when people have been in contact with someone with Covid it is crucial people isolate when they are told to do so, either by NHS test and trace or by the NHS Covid app.’

It is hardly surprising in the circumstances that the shadow health minister, Justin Madders, should have seized on the opportunity to take a shot at the open goal: ‘The government is making it up as they go along. Ministers mix messages, change approach and water down proposals when the public and businesses need clarity and certainty.’

The mere mixing of messages, and accompanying bumbling ineptitude, on the part of Johnson and his cabinet is not, however, the most serious charge on the charge sheet.  That has, as a consequence of the extraordinary timing of ‘Freedom Day’, been elevated from corporate manslaughter to murder.   More than 1,200 scientists from around the world have, according to an article by Adam Forrest and Jon Stone in Saturday’s Independent, written a letter to The Lancet condemning Johnson’s decision to lift all Covid restrictions on 19th July as a ‘murderous policy … of herd immunity by mass infection.’[3] The policy is, as far as they are concerned, ‘unscientific and unethical’ because it will allow the Delta variant to spread rapidly around the world – London is, after all, a global travel hub.   The argument that Johnson’s policy is ‘murderous’ has been very cogently articulated by William Haseltine, a prominent HIV/AIDS researcher in the US: ‘I believe the strategy of herd immunity is actually murderous: I think that is the word we should use, because that is what it is; it is knowledge that you are doing something that will result in thousands, and in some cases tens of thousands of people dying.  It is a disastrous policy, it’s been clear that that’s been the case for some time, and to continue to espouse that policy is unconscionable.’

Everyone should be aware by now that Johnson is unsurpassed when it comes to being ‘unscientific and unethical’, but his lack of anything resembling ethical awareness is very seldom called out quite so cogently.   The grieving relatives and friends of the untold thousands who will die as a result of Johnson’s maverick policy decision would do well to take their lead from Haseltine and hold him accountable for their murder.  This whole scenario is so Alice in Nightmareland-ish that if Johnson were to enter a plea of insanity in response to the indictment, most people would have very little difficulty in believing it.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jul/19/cbi-and-marks-spencer-join-calls-for-government-to-tackle-pingdemic

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/20/isolate-if-pinged-by-nhs-covid-app-says-no-10-despite-ministers-claims

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-covid-scientists-warning-b1885305.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: Of flames and ashes

Belfast in flames again

April 15th

It took 30 years of violence during the euphemistically termed ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, at the cost of more than 3,500 lives, before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement enabled the more than twenty years of peace that followed.   It took all of three months from the end of the one-year Brexit transition period on December 31st for the petrol bombs to start being hurled again, and buses and cars in Northern Ireland to start being torched.  It is reported that more than ninety policemen in Belfast and elsewhere have been injured in the riots over the past couple of weeks.   A quaintly deferential pause has been called by the ‘loyalists’ to the escalation of what is rapidly becoming a deeply worrying conflict between the Protestant and Catholic sides of the great divide in recognition of the week of mourning following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, but this ‘truce’ has no more chance of lasting than the unofficial truce that broke out on the Western Front at Christmas in 1914. Boris Johnson can’t pretend he wasn’t warned.

Northern Ireland was always going to be the single intractable and ultimately irresolvable problem with Brexit.   As the legacy of slavery hangs over the United States, and to a somewhat lesser extent over us, so the legacy still endures of the ‘planting’ of Protestants in the north of Catholic Ireland that began some three hundred years ago.  As long as Northern Ireland remained one of the four component parts of the United Kingdom, and Ireland remained part of the European Union, the former’s departure from the EU was going to have to result in a border of some description between the two if the EU was going to be able to maintain the integrity of its trading standards.   It was abundantly clear that a land border of any description would inevitably, and very quickly, put the fragile peace accord of the Good Friday Agreement in serious jeopardy.   So Boris Johnson, very late in the Brexit negotiations with the EU, adopted what seemed to be the lesser of two evils and agreed to a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain down the Irish Sea.

One minor problem with this solution was that Johnson had visited Northern Ireland the previous August and assured the political and business communities, hand on heart, that access to the markets the other side of the Irish Sea would remain entirely unfettered:  ‘There will be no border down the Irish Sea, that will happen over my dead body.’   Whether this was a deliberate, bare-faced lie, like some many of his others – his conscience and any ethical sense he might ever have had were dead and buried long ago, even if his body hasn’t yet followed their example – or whether he simply hadn’t bothered to look at, or think through, the detail, is immaterial.   Trade in both directions is fettered; many businesses in Great Britain have decided it isn’t worth the hassle to continue to deliver to Northern Ireland; the supermarket shelves there are depleted; and unionists, in particular, understandably feel betrayed.

Even as the petrol bombs exploded and the police were trying to quell the rioting last week there was little indication that Downing Street gave much of a damn about what was going on.  Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, went to the verbal extreme of declaring that the injuries to the ninety-odd policemen were ‘unacceptable’. But I suspect that for all his protestations of devotion to the United Kingdom Boris Johnson himself, ensconced as King of his Little England castle, just doesn’t care about what happens to those he probably thinks of as the ‘Paddies’ and ‘Micks’ of Ireland, precious few of whom ever got to Eton.   Ireland, like France, is the other side of a stretch of water and full of people who, because they aren’t part of England, are all essentially foreigners, even if the ‘loyalists’ don’t agree,  and even if they all speak a version of the Queen’s English.   But Johnson would do well to remember that, with Biden now President of the United States, if the Good Friday Agreement goes up in flames, which seems pretty well inevitable if Johnson keeps on down the path he is taking at present, any hopes of a trade deal with the United States, supposedly the one big, fat prize of Brexit (however deluded that ambition was in the first place) will be consumed to ashes by those very same flames.

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: ‘Lock him up!’

November 13th

I suspect that the only way the United States is going to be able to put a metaphorical strait-jacket on Donald Trump, appropriate as a literal one would be, is going to be to turn one of his crowd-rousing rally slogans back on him and “Lock him up!”.  His psychologist niece, Mary, author of Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, who is making a name (and no doubt a fistful of dollars) for herself with her insights into her grotesque uncle, is quoted by The Independent as saying that ‘He’s psychologically incapable of dealing with, processing or moving on from this kind of loss.  Interfering with a peaceful transfer of power is obviously bad, as is undermining the legitimacy of the incoming administration … but who knows what other kind of smash-and-grab activities he’s going to engage in?’[1]   

Speculation about possible kinds of smash-and-grab activity ranges from pardoning all his criminal cronies on his way out of the White House, to resigning on 19th January so that he himself can be pardoned by stand-in President Spence, to setting up an alternative Presidency ‘in exile’ at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida retreat, for the next four years.  A more benign speculation is that he will simply bide his time and stand for election again in 2024, but that is only marginally more benign as it would, at the very least, involve four more deranged years of racist, xenophobic and misogynistic tweets to his 70 million followers, aimed at further undermining Biden’s administration.  What is certain is that Trump is determined to flout the assumption (and tradition) that outgoing Presidents will behave like adults rather than tantrum-prone toddlers. 

Besides undermining the legitimacy of the democratic process in the USA, this turns the otherwise very sensible 70-day hand-over period between the date of the election and that of the inauguration into a very fraught two months that carries the serious possibility of armed conflict.  There are millions guns in private ownership in the US; we’ve been shown TV footage of heavily armed private militia gearing up for a fight; and Trump’s behaviour, cravenly supported by senior member of the Republican Party, seems at times calculated to encourage violent responses from men with guns.   Investigations are under way into a whole range of potentially criminal acts Trump has been accused of, so locking him up out of political harm’s way might be a good solution, although that would be certain to further enrage what is appropriately referred to as his ‘base’.   The USA does, however, have a written constitution whereby if Trump is still refusing to leave the White House by then, which seems entirely possible, he can be forcibly escorted out of it by the secret service on January 20th.

A number of commentators have suggested that Democracy in the US is in serious danger of being ’broken’.  Donald Trump may be doing his best to help it in that direction, but the USA does at least have that written constitution to fall back on.  Democracy in the UK is arguably on even more shaky ground in that we all too evidently can’t fall back on a written constitution to protect us in the longer term from dangerous mavericks.   The 70-day handover from one duly elected President to another in the US assumes a respect for tradition and a level of decency and political maturity on all sides, but where that is lacking, as in the present case, the law can ensure a resolution to any impasse.   Similarly, our representative democracy in the UK assumes a level of integrity and responsibility on the part of the Members of Parliament who are elected by the people to approve the laws that govern them, and it assumes that it will be the people’s elected representatives who will ultimately be responsible for overseeing the implementation of those laws.  But where this is manifestly not what is happening, where we find ourselves having to ask ‘who is it really that we are being governed by?’, we don’t have any constitutional remedy.   Reinforcing this question, our news headlines have been drawing attention to unedifying stories about Downing Street ‘special advisers’ fighting like ferrets in a sack, and we have been regaled with photographs of the dishevelled losers emerging from the sack into such light as there is on a rainy autumn day in London. Watching them limp off into the gathering dusk one is tempted to wonder whether that is what our democracy has come to. But that merits an entry all to itself.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/mary-trump-biden-election-emily-murphy-b1721263.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: Hulk or Home Office?

October 2nd

What is being contemplated with regard to asylum-seekers unwise enough to think that England’s green and pleasant land might be a desirable destination is becoming simultaneously clearer, murkier, and much darker.   It seems from a couple of interviews in yesterday’s edition of the BBC’s Today programme and a report in the Guardian that it isn’t just our execrable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who would really, really, really like to find a way of getting rid of pesky asylum-seekers by transporting them to Ascension Island (or, one gathers, St Helena) in the South Atlantic, but the Cabinet Office and “Downing Street” as a whole (i.e. Dominic Cummings with Boris Johnson in tow).  There is a move afoot, according to a Guardian source, to “radically beef-up the hostile environment” in 2021 as soon as the Brexit transition period comes to an end.  The Windrush disgrace and our government’s declared intention to ignore international law where Brexit is concerned have apparently not done enough damage to our increasingly wafer-thin international reputation.

A smorgasbord of options other than rocky islands in the South Atlantic has apparently been put before civil servants to consider in a despairing effort to keep asylum-seekers off our sceptred isle. The options are said to include Morocco, Moldova, Papua New Guinea (only twice as far away as Ascension Island), disused oil-rigs, and ships anchored off-shore.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  The cunning wheeze of using disused ships to house prisoners was conceived in the 18th century, as anyone who has read Great Expectations and made the acquaintance of the escaped convict Abel Magwitch will know.   Permanently moored prison ships, known as ‘hulks’, were never one of the hallmarks of a civilized society and their use was discontinued in 1856 because they were regarded as inhumane.   But the hallmark of Conservative parties is, of course, to conserve the past.

Adam Holloway, very Conservative MP for Gravesham in Kent, made it clear when interviewed by the Today programme that Patel’s and Downing Street’s object in considering these literally outlandish schemes is to provide ‘some sort of deterrent’ to discourage asylum-seekers from wanting to come to the UK.   Putting them in the stocks or giving them public floggings for having the temerity to think that England might be a good place to seek refuge from persecution and torture might seem a bit too strong by way of a deterrent for all but the retired colonels in the shires.  So what about a nice “detention centre” in the sunshine of Morocco, for example?  You wouldn’t need to go back historically as far as the hulks, the archives will be sure to have kept the blue-prints for our Anglo-Boer war concentration camps.  If you are planning to outsource your interviews with asylum-seekers anyway, you could outsource them to locals in Morocco – think how much cheaper that would be.  If you are aiming at the 99% failure rate of the much lamented “fast-track” process, it wouldn’t matter if the locals couldn’t speak the asylum-seekers’ language and didn’t know anything about asylum law – it would be easy enough to make sure UK journalists couldn’t get anywhere near the concentration camps.  It’s been done before. Of course, even if you were to intercept the asylum-seekers in the English Channel before they arrived in England, you would need to break international asylum laws by taking them ashore to an airport in order to deport them to Morocco, or wherever else, without assessing their claims first, but we are soon going to be an independent sovereign state, so, once again, to hell with international law.

I find myself wondering why I find all this so deeply depressing.   It isn’t so much because of its callous inhumanity towards people so desperate to find a home here, and in some instances join family here, that they are prepared to put to sea in inflatable swimming pools.  Xenophobia and inhumanity is what one has long come to expect of the Conservative party.  It isn’t so much the utterly absurd and impractical options that have been put forward by Patel and “Downing Street” more generally for serious consideration by civil servants.  That is entirely in line with the wholly fanciful, and ultimately delusional, construction of a United Kingdom better off economically and politically outside the European Union – the Conradian “fixed idea” that obsesses the Brexiteers. What is probably the most depressing aspect of this whole sorry business is the extent to which it lays bare the apparently irredeemable shortsightedness of our politics.   The asylum-seekers who are taking to small boats and enriching the people smugglers are only doing so because more conventional ways of getting here are closed off to them.   They are showing themselves to be courageous, determined and resilient.  Most of them happen to be young; many have skills that are needed here.  I’ve made the point before, but it seems particularly pertinent here.  Who, precisely, do Johnson, Patel and rest think is going to be driving our economy in 30 years time as our population growth declines and our current workforce grows old?  Who, for that matter, will be left to look after them in their old age once their fatal combination of xenophobia and negligence has decimated our Health and Care sectors?  Better surely to offer genuine, which means competently assessed, asylum-seekers a home rather than consigning them to concentration camps in the desert or the modern equivalent of the hulks.