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: Of barrels and troughs

March 5th 

The evidence is stacking up that the Tory party is not just the nasty party – as perfectly exemplified by our Honorable Home Secretary – but also the comprehensively corrupt party.   Give or take a bit of relabelling, the ‘pork barrel’ cartoon above seems apposite: the geriatric male on the right seems a pretty accurate representative of the Conservative Party’s membership demographics, and the sleek and well-fed gentleman on the left seems a reasonable depiction of its MPs and their trough-sharing, or in the immediate case barrel-sharing, chums.  The dollar sign would just need to be changed for a pound sign.

Rishi Sunak, our Honourable Chancellor of the Exchequer – who has been coming in for a great deal of mockery of late for using public funding to put out what is said to be a cringingly embarrassing (I haven’t been able to steel myself to watch it yet) self-promotion video to assist his chances of moving next door from No 11 to No 10 Downing Street – has been having to deny accusations of engaging in “naked pork-barrel politics”.[1]  45 towns have recently been awarded a share of £1 billon ‘levelling up’ funding; 39 of those just happen to be in Tory constituencies, with Sunak’s own relatively wealthy constituency’s Richmondshire borough being high up the priority list.  The Independent’s Rob Merrick points out that ‘this echoes the controversy over the £25m towns fund handout to the constituency of Robert Jenrick’ – our old friend the Honorable Secretary of State for Communities, Housing and Local Government of the seemingly corrupt deal with Richard Desmond (see June 28th post) – which just happened to be only 270th on the list of the most deprived constituencies.  That decision was approved by Jake Berry, who was the Honourable Minister for the Northern Powerhouse (seriously) from 2017-2020 at the time, at the same time as Jenrick coincidentally approved a similar grant for Berry’s constituency.  The scratching of backs comes to mind – porcine backs.

But the corruption extends well beyond the relatively limited scope of pork-barrels, strictly interpreted as public monies channelled towards the ruling party’s constituencies. It is, for example, reported that our Honorable Prime Minister has succeeded in settling Sir Philip Rutman’s bullying case against our Honorable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, for a mere £340,000[2] of our taxpayer’s money (plus Rutman’s undisclosed legal costs) to avoid the full extent of the execrable Patel’s bullying being exposed in an employment tribunal.   A Prime Minister would, one might think, have second thoughts about a very public squandering of public money on protecting a hopelessly unsuitable senior minister from public scrutiny just because she is popular with the party members and hangers-on who cluster around the trough, but this is a government that quite clearly simply doesn’t care about what the rest of the world thinks.

Our honourable ministers are happy to be filmed standing outside their houses hypocritically clapping NHS staff, over 900 of whom have died during the pandemic, many of them as a direct result of government carelessness and incompetence, and then ‘reward’ them with a derisory 1% pay-rise, which, given that inflation is more than 1%, amounts to a pay cut.  Having squandered hundreds of millions on dishing out contracts for PPE and Test and Trace to their private sector chums they now claim they ‘can’t afford’ any more.  And they are very happy to break international law a second time, further trashing the UK’s international reputation and risking the Good Friday Agreement, by unilaterally extending the grace periods on post-Brexit customs checks at Northern Ireland ports until the end of September. 

The one unquestionable national success story of the past dismal year has been the roll-out of the vaccination programme. The trough-oriented politicians in our cabinet cannot contain the enthusiasm and volubility with which they are congratulating themselves on this success.  Their record suggests very strongly, however, that the only reason it has been a success is that, unlike Test and Trace, they couldn’t identify any profits that could be made by their private sector chums from the mass roll-out of vaccinations, so they handed it over to the NHS whose efficiency and commitment they are now trying to take credit for, even as they deny the staff responsible their promised post-Covid reward.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/budget/budget-keir-starmer-regeneration-funding-b1812508.html

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-56281781

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

November 10

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

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

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

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