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: “Completely potty”

August 8th

A cacophony of clucking reverberates around our shores as another flock of Brexit chickens, not yet chlorinated, comes home to roost.   These particular metaphorical chickens have taken on the guise of asylum seekers who are desperate enough to pay up to £3000 each to people-smugglers to allow themselves to be put on overcrowded and unseaworthy small boats, pointed towards these shores, and pushed out into the English Channel.  Taking advantage of the calm weather, they are arriving in our territorial waters in increasing numbers.   Many of them will be fleeing the violence in countries like Syria and Somalia, many of them will have seen their homes and livelihoods destroyed, their friends, and members of their own families, killed.  Some will be fleeing persecution, torture and death threats.   Some are unaccompanied children.  They will all have made their hazardous and unwelcomed way across Europe and will be traumatised enough to think that, after all they have been through, it is worth the risk to try to make it across the last twenty or thirty miles of open water to what they hope will be a safe haven where some of them already have friends and family.

We should be pleased that the UK is still seen around the world as the kind of country it is worth undergoing daunting hardship and perilous journeys to try to get to.   After five more years of this government it almost certainly won’t be.  Instead of meeting trauma, courage and resilience with compassion and understanding, our national figurehead where such matters are concerned, the execrable Priti Patel, Secretary of State for the Home Office, she of the permanent smirk, spews her xenophobic venom over Twitter and threatens to get the Royal Navy to sort them out.  A Ministry of Defence ‘source’, according to the Independent, says the idea of using the navy is “completely potty” and elaborates as follows: “We don’t resort to deploying armed forces to deal with political failings.  It’s beyond absurd to think that we should be deploying multi-million pound ships and elite soldiers to deal with desperate people barely staying afloat in rubber dinghies in the Channel.”

In essence, Patel’s problem is that ‘Taking Back Control’ and a national ‘Independence’ from anybody else’s rules was always a chimera.  Just as operating on World Trade Organisation terms means exactly what it says on the tin – being bound by regulations we don’t determine ourselves – so the ‘law of the sea’ dictates that people in small boats in UK territorial waters have to be rescued and taken to land in UK.   However much a furious Patel might feel inclined to sink the rubber dinghies, she can’t order the Navy even to ‘turn them back’.  It isn’t possible to disregard internationally agreed rules without making one’s country a ‘world-beating’ international pariah with whom nobody would want to have any dealings.   Genuine control would involve allowing the migrants to travel here safely, processing their asylum claims rapidly and humanely (which would require a different Home Office), welcoming those entitled to asylum and returning those we aren’t convinced by to the country of first entry to Europe to try to persuade that country to accept them.

Patel and her Brexiteer buddies are also going to sort France out, and make sure that France takes seriously its responsibility for stopping the boats leaving its shores, or turning them back before they leave French territorial waters.  They had better remember who won the Battle of Agincourt.   But if the Brexiteers were capable of coherent thought instead of perpetually playing to their fellow frothing-loon media supporters they might conceivably ask themselves two questions.  First, why on earth should France bother?  Once the transition period is over, the French would be entirely justified in feeling insulted, looked down on and patronised enough by the Brexiteers to stop spending what must be very extensive resources on trying to prevent migrants from making the crossing.  Indeed, it would be sensible, and almost certainly cheaper, to provide the migrants with the boats and escort them into British territorial waters themselves, with a ‘You wanted to leave the EU and “take control of immigration”, so it’s over to you.’  Literally ‘over to you’.

The other, longer term, question they should be asking themselves – although it seems way beyond their intellectual capacity and the very limited horizon of the immediate self-interest on which their attention is exclusively focussed – is who on earth do they think is in a decade or two going to be staffing the NHS, looking after their parents, waiting on the tables in their restaurants, and keeping fresh food on their tables, as our birth rate declines and they make sure that what is left of the once United Kingdom is a wholly undesirable place for people from Europe to seek work?   Many of the desperate people in those boats are highly qualified professionals (how else do they get to have the £3000?); they have all shown themselves to be enterprising, courageous and resilient.  They can only, in the longer term, strengthen the shallow gene-pool that has given us the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mark Francois, to name just two of the leading lights guiding our apology for a government.