From David Maughan Brown in York: The Boris and Donald Duo

Follow my Leader

January 9th

One of the more surprising things about Wednesday’s first storming of the Capitol in Washington since August 14th1814 was how surprised and shocked the majority of the world’s politicians and media commentators purported to be.   Trump had pre-emptively started to call the validity of the election, particularly of all postal votes, into question long before Election Day on November 3rd.  For the previous five years, Trump’s Twitter followers, now numbering over 88million, had been encouraged to live in an alternate reality, regaled with a narrative that cast him in the role of the Swamp-Draining Super-hero who was on their side in the battle against the swamp-dwellers.  With that narrative as the base, it was easy for him to build the grand delusion that the election had been fraudulently stolen from him and them; their votes had counted for nothing.  Rather than countering the myth-making, every single one of the 62 failed lawsuits contesting the outcome of the election merely served as further proof to his followers that there was a grand conspiracy at play and that their votes had been stolen.  The indistinguishably socialist/communist/Marxist swamp dwellers were in the process of illegitimately seizing power.

So when, after an inflammatory speech outside the White House, Trump said ‘After this, we’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you.  We are going to be walk down to the Capitol…’ and continued with ‘… you’ll never take back our country with weakness.  You have to show strength, and you have to be strong’, his followers took him at his word and invaded and trashed the Capitol headquarters of the swamp-dwellers, at the cost of five lives.  Trump had omitted to mention that, while he would be with them in spirit, he sure as hell wasn’t going to be with them in person: he had retreated to the safety of the White House.   It is clear from interviews with their leaders in the Capitol that the motley gang of what Biden rightly called insurrectionists genuinely believed that in invading the Capitol they were reclaiming their democracy.  The next day, Trump, having earlier tweeted to the rioters in telling them to go home that ‘We love you. You’re very special’, clearly awoke belatedly to the realisation that his immediate interests lay in disowning any responsibility for inciting the insurrection.  So he promptly betrayed his followers by executing a U-turn worthy of Boris Johnson and declared: ‘Like all Americans I am outraged by the violence, lawlessness and mayhem.…To those who broke the law, you will pay.’  

The comparison with Johnson, whom Trump once approvingly labeled ‘Britain Trump’, is not coincidental.  When asked, Johnson condemned the invasion of the Capitol and Trump’s role in inciting it: “I unreservedly condemn encouraging people to behave in the disgraceful way that they did in the Capitol.”  But, inadequate as ‘disgraceful’ was as a label for what went on, Johnson’s condemnation came across as the equivalent of Trump’s own volte-face from incitement to insurrection to ‘outrage’ at the insurrection he had incited.  Johnson was Trump’s man and vice versa.  As Foreign Secretary in 2017 Johnson is on record as saying that Trump was doing ‘fantastic stuff’ and ‘making America great again’; in 2018 Johnson bizarrely made the case for Trump to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Needless to say Trump agreed with him: “I’m going to get a Nobel Prize for a lot of things — if they gave it out fairly, which they don’t.”  The admiration was mutual.  Prior to Johnson’s election as Prime Minister by the Conservative Party, Trump told The Sun: “I actually have studied it very hard. I know the different players. But I think Boris would do a very good job. I think he would be excellent. I like him. I have always liked him.”  

The mutual admiration is not a case of opposites attracting.   Both men appear to be entirely lacking in either principles or scruples when it comes to getting what they want.   Both men have been caught out lying countless times, are inveterate womanisers and seem compelled to handicap their effectiveness in government by  surrounding themselves with sycophants of limited or no competence.  Both men belong to a minority social elite, have a history of racist utterances, purport to be men of the people, and, somewhat surprisingly, seem to manage to convince a significant proportion of ‘the people’ that are just that.  Both men foster grand delusions among their voters in order to achieve their political ambitions: Trump’s most recent one being the stealing of the election; Johnson’s being the delusion that Brexit can be of benefit to the UK.  Johnson’s distancing of himself from Trump at this juncture will, as always, be a matter of expediency and opportunism, not principle: he needs now to try to cosy-up to Biden.   The only question for me is whether in similar circumstances our wholly unprincipled Prime Minister would be prepared to incite an invasion of Parliament if he saw it as being in his interests to do so.  He was very happy to prorogue Parliament illegally.  He was entirely comfortable with introducing legislation in Parliament to renege on an international treaty he had himself signed less than a year previously.  I’ll leave it to you to consider the extent to which scruples about democracy would get in the way of Johnson’s ever inciting his followers to violence if he saw it as being in his interests to do so.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Hibernation

hibernating dormice

June 24.  Hibernation.  Tuesday’s public announcements, reinforced in my case by a personal letter from the NHS, have merely highlighted the collapse of trust in governing bodies in the UK.

According to Boris Johnson, the era of hibernation is over in England.  Pubs and hairdressers will open, the two-metre rule is halved.  The ‘shielded’ will be allowed to visit family from July 6, and permitted to roam freely from the beginning of August.

In better times, a public statement by the Prime Minister in Parliament, reinforced by a press conference attended by both the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer, plus an official three-page letter, should be enough.  Who am I, a toiling historian, entirely innocent of a medical education, to dispute these authoritative statements?

But before I will move an inch from my current uneventful but secure lockdown I will consult every newspaper I can find, sundry blogs to which I subscribe, my neighbours, my friends (particularly two who actually are scientists), my younger brother who is playing a major regional role co-ordinating trace and test regimes and sits on the board of two hospital trusts, my grown-up children (especially), my lawyer, my astrologer, anyone who might be able to triangulate the official message.  Then I will discuss the matter with my similarly sceptical wife, and between the two of us I expect we will decide to change nothing in our daily ritual until the consequence of the relaxation becomes evident in the infection rates (see Add Mss below).

This is tiring.  A healthy democracy requires a questioning electorate, but only so far.  If we are to get on with the business of our lives, we have to invest confidence in those to whom we delegate fundamental decision-making powers.  The education we have received since the beginning of the year tells us that the administrative competence of ministers appointed not for their abilities but for their position on Brexit is low, that the government machine which should support them is not firing on all cylinders (no controlling ‘deep state’ here, anymore than there is in the USA), that the Prime Minister is careless of detail and the truth, and that the scientists and medical specialists argue with each other, including about the current topic of the safe rate to relax restrictions. 

And if we are to get on with the business of our lives, we have to walk down a street or enter a public building without viewing every stranger as a potential threat to our health and wellbeing.  Amongst the many inherent contradictions in the new policy is allowing alcohol to be consumed in a ‘mitigated’ form.  Someone somewhere has forgotten that the point of drinking is that is a means of throwing off the mitigations of the daily round.  It promotes personal interaction, reduces inhibitions, and in extreme, but far from uncommon, cases leads to profoundly anti-social behaviour (there is a reason why the business of Accident and Emergency Departments has sharply declined in the pandemic lockdown).  

In the end the calculation of risk will be largely personal.  In two months we expect the arrival of a new grand-daughter a hundred-and-fifty miles away in London.  It is likely to be that event, not further iterations of official advice and guidance, that will cause us to emerge from the burrow in which we have been sleeping.

Add Mss 3.  June 10 Staying Alive: “When the final calculations are made, it is likely that those dying alone because they are alone will be far exceeded by those dying in company because they are in company.In Australia a lifting of the lockdown has been suspended in large parts of Melbourne because of a resurgence of infections blamed on family gatherings and birthday parties.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Kilometre-long queues

June 6th

Another York family birthday, this time it’s grandson James turning 12.  Another expedition across town along ‘half-known roads’ to go through the increasingly familiar ritual of putting a bag of presents on the doorstep and wishing him a socially-distanced Happy Birthday when he appeared in the doorway.  Definitely no hugs.  The sense of loss that comes with not being able to share the special days in person rather than via Zoom doesn’t lessen with the repetition.  This time no lingering either as it was raining and an ‘unseasonal’ North wind was blowing.  ‘Unseasonal’ is another word that could do with some scrutiny these days.   After the wettest February on record and the driest May on record, it feels as if we could be in for the windiest June on record, if anyone tries to keep that particular record.  It is almost as if the 2020 weather is as discombobulated as the rest of us by what is, or more probably isn’t, going on. When everything becomes ‘unseasonal’ it might be time to consider what it means to be ‘seasonal’.   In the meantime I would appreciate it if somebody could work out how to lock the wind down, as my roses are not enjoying it one little bit, welcome as the rain is. The drought-breaking shower I celebrated a few days ago didn’t even begin to penetrate the rock-hard soil on the allotment.

At least the weather in Cape Town appears to be doing what it should, the winter rain is back and had we been locked down there, which we came very close to being, we wouldn’t have had make do with the 35 litres of water per adult per day which was our allowance on our last two water-restricted visits.  That relatively close shave lends itself to ongoing comparisons of lockdown experiences in our Zoom chats with our family in Cape Town.  

Yesterday my son mentioned that a couple of days after the South African government had lifted its lockdown ban on alcohol and tobacco sales he had driven past a not very rigorously socially-distanced kilometre-long queue outside a local liquor store.   The South African government, which in general responded to the pandemic vastly better than ours has, banned alcohol and tobacco sales when it imposed the lockdown, arguing that alcohol and social-distancing were not good companions.  That may well be true, but it doesn’t take any account of addiction, and although the profits of online wine merchants increased dramatically in the first weeks of lockdown in the UK, the lockdown regulations here were generally adhered to reasonably well.  The tobacco ban took no account of the history of such prohibitions and instantly created a thriving black-market for criminal gangs to exploit. An abrupt ban on a previously legal and easily accessible addictive substance is not well advised, to put it mildly. 

When it came to kilometre-long queues, however, I wasn’t in any position to brag about the wisdom of our recent performance on that front.  People who queue outside a liquor store for a couple of hours at least have something to show for their patience when they finally get to their destination.  Our democratic representatives in the House of Commons have recently been forced into a kilometre-long, socially distanced queue in order to be able to cast their votes on our behalf.  The infinitely more sensible casting of votes electronically has been stopped; Members of Parliament have been forced to ‘set an example’ by returning to London from the far-flung corners of the UK, often having to risk taking public transport, which we are all advised against, to do so; MPs who for one reason or another can’t return to London are thereby disenfranchised.   When those who could get down to London eventually get to the front of the queue, all they have achieved is the opportunity to cast a largely meaningless vote: it isn’t parliament that is making our Covid-19 policies up on the hoof.  And all because the Honourable Member for the Eighteenth Century, the inimitable Jacob Reese-Mogg, formally titled even more risibly as ‘Leader of the House’, thinks the raucous baying of the Tory backbenchers – better suited to a dogfight than the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ – might help our chaotic shambles of a Prime Minister to look a little less pathetic as he is humiliated week after week at Prime Minister’s Questions.