From David Maughan Brown in York: Covid corruption

October 21st 

It would appear that the supposedly Right Honourable Robin Jenrick – Member of Parliament for Newark and Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government – has achieved the elevated status of being informally appointed, in public school terms, as the Prime Minister’s private fag.  He is being sent scurrying all over the country, most often to media studios, running errands for Boris.  Most people have better things to do, even under Covid restrictions, than keep an accurate count of the number of hours the different cabinet ministers spend in front of microphones and TV cameras, but if anyone is keeping count they will almost certainly find that Jenrick is way out in the lead at present.   I suspect that, although he is so bland as to be instantly forgettable, his readiness to run errands enables Boris himself to get on with his other priorities in life which, if past record is anything to go by, involve spending a lot of time in bed – not with Covid-19 for company.  As the one Cabinet Minister who should very evidently have been sacked for corruption – in his case for his role in the Richard Desmond property scandal I wrote about on 28th June – it is entirely appropriate that Jenrick should be seen to be the government’s chief spokesperson these days. 

Anyone in the UK who stereotypically regards governance in Africa as endemically corrupt, needs to look closer to home.  Motes, beams and eyes come to mind.  Human Rights organisations around the world have been pointing to the extremely worrying extent to which the governments of a range of countries around the world have been taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to crack down on human rights.  Far less publicity seems to have been given to the extent to which the pandemic has provided cover for governments to line their own pockets, and those of their friends and associates, while attention has been focussed on the far more immediate issues of national health systems and economies that are on the verge of being overwhelmed.   Arguing the need to act urgently in these “unprecedented” circumstances, without any parliamentary scrutiny or oversight, the UK government has seen the pandemic as the ideal opportunity to pour billions of pounds without any need for a competitive tendering process into the coffers of private sector companies that in many instances have had no previous experience whatever of the services or goods for which they have been contracted.   We should all by now be detecting a very pungent stink of rat every time a cabinet minister opens his or her mouth to utter the word “unprecedented”. 

An article by Ben Chu in Sunday’s Independent 1 titled ‘Has the government wasted billions on private firms?’ provides some revealing figures.   The desperately poorly performing “NHS” test and trace system, outsourced to companies like Serco, whose notoriety has up to now been based mainly on the crass way it runs detention centres and gaols, has quietly soaked up £12bn.  Serco apparently thinks its contribution to the programme has been a ‘triumph’.  Another 15bn has been allocated for personal protective equipment.  Ben Chu cites a figure of 1,997 private sector contracts that have been awarded to the private sector, to a total value of £12bn, since February. The absence of any need for competitive tenders has, inevitably, resulted in a number of suspicious awards such, for example, as a £840k contract for running focus groups awarded without competitive tender to what Ben Chu categorises as “close associates” (read “friends”) of Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove. 

In the context of this over-energetic pumping of tens of billions of pounds into the bank accounts of private sector companies – Serco’s trading profit for the first half of this year was up 53% at £76m – the additional £5m Boris Johnson balked at in his protracted negotiations with Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Manchester, is utterly trivial.  Burnham needs the money to provide support for those about to lose their incomes as a result of the imposition of Tier 3 on Greater Manchester and the significant, and wholly unexplained, drop in government support since the first lockdown.  Boris’s tactic of trying to pit the different regions in the North against each other by insisting on negotiating support packages with each region separately, rather than having a nation-wide formula, is cynical and contemptible but will almost certainly come back to bite him via its exacerbation of the North/South divide in this country.  A further example of the Tories’ utter disregard for the hardship and destitution being visited on so many families came with the voting down by a significant majority this evening of the proposal that free school meals should continue to be provided through the coming half-term and the school holidays until next Spring for children whose families qualify for them.  Angela Rayner, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party was obliged to apologise for referring to one of the Tory backbench MPs as ‘scum’ during the debate.  She probably wouldn’t have got away with ‘lick-spittle’ either.

[1] https://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-independent-1029/20201018/281655372555692

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Six Giants

William Beveridge

June 24.  In the matter of identifying the aftermath of the pandemic, history has to be used with caution.

Peter Hennessy (see June 23) knows well that the Beveridge revolution was initially resisted by the war-time Conservatives.  Churchill believed that planning for a post-war future was simply a distraction in the middle of a conflict whose outcome was far from certain.  His attempt to bury the Beveridge report was defeated by its dry-as-dust author, who proved surprisingly adept at deploying the media of his time to publicise his document.  The report was full of practical detail, but by couching his target in terms of the five ‘giants’, Beveridge tapped into the moral subconscious of the British people, engaging with a tradition of social justice that stretched all the way back to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

The report became a best-seller.  My dog-eared copy once belonged to my father, who used it in the latter days of the war to lecture to his fellow sailors with whom he was serving in a naval outpost in Sierra Leone.   It was central to Labour’s landslide victory in 1945 (though Beveridge was himself a Liberal), and in turn the scale of that majority was critical to overcoming the opposition to many of the proposals, ranging from the Tory Party to a host of vested interests.

Starmer’s Labour Party will need another landslide, and another document to energise the electorate.  The Beveridge Plan offers only a partial model.  Lakes of ink have since been spilled over its recommendations.  Eligibility for relief was centred on the outdated figure of the male breadwinner with his dependants.  The ‘National’ in the NHS and other reforms reflected a passion to centralise every form of welfare, in most cases denying effective local participation in the provision of services.  There was no engagement with the environment by a Labour Government which spent its time in office burning every ton of coal it could get out of the ground.

There is a case for simply taking on the same giants and this time slaying them properly.  Anne Chappel has directed me to a recent article which points out in convincing detail how Beveridge’s agenda is still yet to be met.*  We still have work to do with poverty, health, education, unemployment and housing.  Nonetheless, three quarters of a century on, it is perhaps time to update the mission.

I would slightly re-shape Hennessy’s agenda.  The giant of Squalor remains a task in the form of social housing.  Idleness remains a task in the form of the vast numbers, barely visible in 1945, beyond working age and needing affordable social care as they grow old.  Ignorance remains a task in terms of acquiring the skills to combat and exploit technical change, including artificial intelligence.  Want has worsened since 2010, a permanent stain on the record of successive Conservative administrations.  There is a new giant of Pollution to be attacked.  And there is a new giant of Power, collected at the centre since the war by both parties, and now needing to be distributed to the localities in which the new sense of community is now flourishing, and more effectively devolved to the nations, where Labour urgently has to relaunch itself.

Above all we must revive and give purpose to the closing paragraph of the Beveridge Report: 

Freedom from want cannot be forced on a democracy or given to a democracy. It must be won by them. Winning it needs courage and faith and a sense of national unity : courage to face facts and difficulties and overcome them ; faith in our future and in the ideals of fair-play and freedom for which century after century our forefathers were prepared to die ; a sense of national unity overriding the interests of any class or section. The Plan for Social Security in this Report is submitted by one who believes that in this supreme crisis the British people will not be found wanting, of courage and faith and national unity, of material and spiritual power to play their part in achieving both social security and the victory of justice among nations upon which security depends.(para 461)

* https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/10/beveridge-five-evils-welfare-state

from David Vincent, Shrewsbury, UK: Prime Ministers, Loneliness and Solitude

April 8. We are all of us having to adjust to the shocking prospect that the Prime Minister might actually die of Covid-19.  The historian in me struggles to find a previous case.  There have been examples in modern times of more or less concealed incapacitating (see Boris Johnson’s idol Winston Churchill, passim), and of sudden resignations following the diagnosis of a fatal disease  – Henry Campbell Bannerman in 1908 and Andrew Bonar Law in 1923.  Two leaders of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell and John Smith, died in post, paving the way for the fortunate Harold Wilson and Tony Blair.  But not the nation’s leader at a time of absolute national crisis.  The nearest equivalent of such an event would be Pitt the Younger, who died in 1806 in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars (see also Spencer Perceval in 1812, though he was assassinated, and George Canning who expired in more peaceful times in 1827 after just 119 days in office).

Amongst the immediate responses was a curious tweet from Andrew Neil (note for non Brits: grizzled former editor of the Sunday Times and now the most feared BBC political interviewer.  In the recent General Election, Boris Johnson, alone of the candidates, refused to submit himself to an extended interrogation by him, which diminished his reputation as it enhanced Neil’s).  A reason, he said, why Johnson has proved vulnerable to Covid-19 was his ‘loneliness’ in Number 10.  It was not clear whether he meant social loneliness, given that Johnson has been living by himself in the flat above Number 11 while his pregnant partner self-isolates in the official country retreat of Chequers, or political loneliness in the Shakespearean sense of ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.’

Whichever is the case, it raises the question of the balance between solitude and loneliness in the present crisis.  The former, the tendency, as Johann Zimmermann wrote, ‘for self-collection and freedom’, has over the period since the eighteenth century become an increasingly valued an enjoyed condition.  The latter, which can be seen as failed solitude, the condition, as Stephanie Dowrick writes, of being ‘uncomfortably alone without someone’ has been a growing cause for concern in recent decades.

Enforced isolation has an ambiguous effect on the two experiences.  On the one hand it has made solitude a still more valued practice.  In families where the adults are working at home, the children are about all day long, the garden is small or non-existent, periods of solitary escape have become as desirable and unattainable as supermarket delivery slots.  The most basic form of solitude, taking a stroll out of doors, has become stigmatised or completely forbidden.  Walking the dog, for two centuries the most commonplace way of taking time out alone, has suddenly become a basic luxury.  A French friend tells me that Parisian dogs are becoming exhausted, as neighbours borrow them from their owners to legitimise exercise in the fresh air. 

On the other hand, it has made loneliness still more threatening.  It becomes more difficult to make physical contact with such friends as the individual possesses.  Intermittent escapes from an empty home to shops, cafes, local libraries, public entertainments, are now forbidden.  Access to medical or social services is yet more of a problem.  This outcome has been early recognised, and attempts are being made in functioning communities to identity those uncomfortably alone and provide them with necessary support.  And there is, of course, the ever-increasing use of digital connections. 

Where the balance will finally be struck in these contrasting effects of isolation remains to be seen.  At least we should emerge with an enhanced awareness of both conditions.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Two long-term victories.

Two long-term victories over the weekend

Firstly, after several weeks trying to unlock the supermarket delivery system, we finally succeeded, thanks to a government scheme that actually seems to be working.  The scheme goes like this:

  1. The NHS circulates GP surgeries for information on patients who might be vulnerable not to infection as such, but to developing severe conditions once infected.
  2. It writes to a million and half patients, including my household, telling them that they are exceptionally vulnerable and instructing them to stay at home under all circumstances, except medical appointments that cannot be conducted remotely.
  3. Those receiving the letter are urged to log in to the Gov UK site, and enter details of their residence and their circumstances.
  4. Gov UK then contacts the nearest supermarket at which the vulnerable individual is registered, asking it to make delivery slots available.
  5. The supermarket (in my case Tesco) writes to the customer informing them of their special status.
  6. The customer, to their astonishment, discovers that whereas the unavailable slots had stretched away to the edge of doom in all the major supermarkets, now there are delivery times open all next week.

Thanks to local farm shops, and friends adding our needs to their shopping lists, we weren’t hungry nor were likely to be. But the prospect of regular deliveries takes away a significant degree of worry and effort.  We have submitted our list.  Due for delivery on Friday.

Secondly, Keir Starmer has been elected leader of the Labour Party.  I had re-joined the Labour Party specifically to vote for this outcome (as had many others).  It is the first time since 2005 that I have cast my vote on the winning side in a public election.  In the words of Polly Toynbee in The Guardian, ‘a trusted, tried and tested, big-brained grown-up arrives’.  It is too soon to know how he will turn out.  During the election he had to tread very carefully as he took on the Corbynistas who had spent the last four years trying to ensure that they would never again lose control of the party.  He comes to the position not as a life-long politician, but as a professional who has run a complex, value-driven organisation.  Those of us who have been involved in managing universities know that it requires a different skill set than being a political advisor or, for that matter, an academic historian.  And unlike Corbyn, a failed public schoolboy whose tertiary education lasted one week at North London Polytechnic, who, according to his recent biographer, thereafter never read a book in his life, Starmer has an applied intelligence.  Helena Kennedy, who was a colleague in a human rights law chambers, said ‘he was the smartest by far, and we need clever’.  At this moment, we do indeed.