From David Maughan Brown in York: The Fool and the Blind Man

26th November 

One of the more memorable, if enigmatic, lines from W.B. Yeats’ very late poem ‘The Circus Animals Desertion’ keeps going round in my mind:  ‘And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread….’  Yeats was alluding to the legend of Cuchulain, but the symbolism of the Fool – in the Elizabethan sense of the court jester – and the Blind Man seem peculiarly apposite.  In the present context the Fool needs no introduction, although Shakespeare’s Fools were often able to use their foolery as a front behind which a wisdom was to be found that is notably absent from the clown who is supposed to be leading our country at present.   The Blind Man is the one who, while seemingly able bodied, walks straight towards, and falls into, a gaping hole that almost everybody else can see.  Our Blind Man, Rishi Sunak, however eminently smooth, affable and seemingly reasonable, is, like our Fool, not gifted with foresight.  He is not a Tiresias figure – the blind but far-sighted seer of myth and legend – and seems incapable of seeing the pitfall in front of him.  While Sunak may be doing his best to shore up the sides of the Covid pit which the incompetence of his colleagues is digging ever deeper, the Brexit pit is one he is said to have been striding towards all his adult life, and he appears blindly oblivious to the danger.  So much so that the word wasn’t heard once as he outlined his plans in yesterday’s Comprehensive Spending Review.  The Brexit pit has been predicted by both the Governor of the Bank of England and the independent Office for Budget Responsibility to be destined to be at least twice as deep as the Covid pit.   

So whose was the bread the Fool and the Blind Man have “stolen”?  In the first instance, that of the 4.2 million children under 16 in UK who were already living below the poverty line in 2019 and whose situation will inevitably have become significantly worse during the pandemic.  The Equality and Human Rights Commission recently warned the government that the pandemic was having a ‘devastating’ impact on the well-being of children.  It took a 23 year-old football player to shame the Fool and the Blind Man into reversing their policy of discontinuing the provision of free school meals during the holidays.  And it isn’t because the feckless working class unemployed aren’t prepared to go out and work to provide for their children, as the backwoodsmen on the Tory back benches would no doubt maintain: seventy percent of children in poverty, according to May Bulman in Tuesday’s Independent, have at least one parent who is in work.   In a context in which it was disclosed yesterday that £10 billion was wasted on PPE in the early months of the pandemic because government incompetence had ensured that the stock of PPE when the pandemic struck was grossly inadequate, imposing a freeze on most public sector salaries, which will amount to a real term decrease as Brexit sends prices soaring, seems pretty shameless.  It certainly won’t help to put the bread back on the table.  And all the while the Blind Man assures us that there won’t be a return to austerity.

Beyond the UK, the bread is being stolen from the poorest of the poor elsewhere in the world, as the Fool and the Blind Man set about changing the law to save £4 billion by cutting the legislated 0.7% of GDP that our laws dictate should go to foreign aid every year down to 0.5%.  The quantum of foreign aid that will be available after the 28% cut will, of course, also be significantly reduced by the fall in GDP resulting from the pandemic, and the much longer-term reduction in GDP resulting from a no-deal Brexit, which, the Blind Man asserted again on the Today programme this morning, wouldn’t bother him.   This cut is being made in the same breath as four times as much, £16bn extra, is gifted to the Ministry of Defence to appease the Hooray Henrys on the Tory backbenches and pander to the Fool’s delusion that the UK is still the global superpower it was in the 19th century.  Tory backwoodsmen will be arguing that much of our foreign aid is wasted as a result of corruption in the countries to which it is granted, in a context in which it has been made all too clear that the £4 billion saving in financial aid is dwarfed by the tens of billions that have been squandered through the pandemic via the corrupt Tory ‘Chumocracy’ that has seen huge contracts going to line the pockets of wholly unqualified friends and relations of Tory Ministers, MPs and special advisers.  “Chumocracy” is a grotesquely inelegant word, but then what it describes isn’t very pretty either.   British foreign aid buys us wholly disproportionate goodwill and influence around the world, vastly more (pace the Blind Man’s feeble plaint on the Today programme) than our defence force, and once converted into local currencies at very advantageous exchange rates brings enormous benefits.   Cutting the aid budget is short-sighted and mean spirited, but then, of course, a Fool is a fool and a Blind Man is, by definition, the apogee of short-sightedness.

From David Maughan Brown in York: If you didn’t laugh you would cry

November 20th

With all too little of interest happening on the home front during lockdown, one is obliged to look elsewhere for subject matter to write about.  More traditional theatres being closed, it is a blessing, if a mixed one, that there is more than enough political theatre being enacted on both sides of the Atlantic to provide ample material for blogs, as well as keeping newspapers, journalists and, in particular, comedians and cartoonists in business.   The latter will be viewing the prospect of a very grey future once Donald Trump has eventually been dragged kicking and squealing out of the White House after wreaking whatever damage he can on the United States and the rest of the world in the interim.  Biden comes across as boringly sane and normal by comparison.   This side of the Atlantic, the comedians and cartoonists will be hoping that whoever is in charge will wait a bit longer before they come to the conclusion that putting the clown in charge of the circus was a seriously stupid thing to do and replace him with the far less colourful Rishi Sunak.  It will then be the turn of the playwrights to realise that much of what comes across as high farce in the present provides scope in the future for rewriting as tragedy.  If you didn’t laugh you would cry.

The latest act in the Johnson-Patel political psychodrama has seen considerable fall-out resulting from the long delayed release of a two-page summary of a report by Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minster’s former adviser on ministerial standards, into allegations that Priti Patel, our Honourable Home Secretary (how much irony can one honorific carry?), had been bullying members of the civil service in three separate departments unfortunate enough to have to report to her.  Allan found that the bullying had taken place, if ‘unintentionally’ (!), and that the ministerial code had been broken, which, in terms of every UK precedent, should have led either to the dismissal or the resignation of the Minister concerned.   Instead, Johnson did the exact equivalent of what he had done following Cummings’ excursion to Barnard Castle: demonstrated a total incapacity to learn from his mistakes; in this instance decided that the man responsible for doing the investigation had got it wrong, Patel hadn’t broken the Ministerial code or bullied anyone; and declared that he had full confidence in Patel and the matter was closed. Presumably worried that the media would be nasty to poor Priti in response, Johnson then ordered his MPs to “form a square around the Prittster (sic),” thereby demonstrating that he was, as so often, doubly delusional: first in imagining that he was on a par with the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, and, second, in imagining that the matter was closed.

Sir Alex Allan’s predictable and honourable response to having his painstakingly researched and carefully considered report ignored by Johnson was to resign his role as the independent adviser on the ministerial code.  Trying to advise Johnson on ethics was always going to be an uphill struggle, given that Johnson has made a career out of treating morality and ethics with total contempt.   University Vice Chancellors in general being given the same autocratic free-rein as Prime Ministers, I can understand how Sir Alex would feel, having on one occasion been undermined in a very similar way by one of the four Vice Chancellors to whom I was deputy.  Being unable, unlike Sir Alex, to embellish my CV with a knighthood, I couldn’t afford to resign.  

It is a truism that the distinguishing characteristic of bullies is that they will always pick on those who are weaker than themselves.   Asylum-seekers are among the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.   Nobody, apart apparently from those sycophantically prepared to form Johnson’s dutiful square around the “Prittster”, needs to read Sir Alex’s long-suppressed report to discover that Patel is a bully: there can be no question that the way the Home Office is treating asylum seekers at the behest of Patel constitutes a particularly cruel and brutal form of bullying.  Could there ever be a more loudly trumpeted invitation to potential bullies to get on with their bullying than the deliberate and overt creation and continuation of a “hostile environment” for any group of people?

Patel’s latest ploy has been to reinstate the regular compulsory reports by asylum seekers to Home Office offices that had been suspended in March on the basis that, however great the temptation, it wouldn’t look good if, after all they have been through to get here, asylum seekers were seen to be succumbing to Covid-19 as a result of having to make unnecessary journeys by public transport to report to the Home Office.  Apparently that doesn’t matter any longer, perhaps because Patel has decided that if they die of Covid that will simultaneously pre-empt the challenges of the “leftist” lawyers who have the unpatriotic cheek plead their cases, and also save her the cost of deporting them all.  It is all grist to the cartoonist’s mill, but none of it is remotely funny.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Tactical distractions

October 26th

The BBC news this morning greeted the new week with breathless excitement.   A tanker had been hi-jacked in the English channel; the hi-jackers were seven Nigerian stowaways ‘believed to be seeking asylum in the UK’; four helicopters had undertaken a daring mission in the dark; sixteen heavily armed members of the Special Boat Services (SBS) had abseiled down onto the tanker; and ‘with overwhelming force quickly regained control of the vessel.’   Anyone sufficiently excited by the cinematic drama to turn to Google to establish precisely who our heroes from the SBS might be will be instantly enlightened by the ITV website: it is, we are told, ‘a highly covert elite maritime anti-terrorist unit of the Royal Navy.’

My immediate response to this as the BBC’s first news story of the day, still sleepy as I was, was to detect a distinct smell of rat.  I lived too long in South Africa under apartheid to have any confidence whatever in the truth or motives of the national broadcaster, and the past decade of Tory government has instilled in me an equivalent level of cynicism when it comes to any story obviously put out by government ministers.   The whiff of rodent gathered strength as the details of the story started to come out and it became clear that the SBS assault had been ordered by our execrable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, along with her more junior colleague, the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace.   

The seven stowaways had omitted to take with them the explosives or firearms that might have justified the expense of helicopters and elite ant-terrorist troops, and were unarmed, although this apparently hadn’t deterred the crew from taking refuge in the ‘safe place’ always provided on tankers in case of hi-jackings.  Various versions of the story had the crew being threatened with ‘broken glass’, ‘knives and other sharp objects they had picked up’, and scary ‘verbal abuse.’  The captain, rather significantly one might have thought in the context of a ‘hi-jacking’, remained in control of the tanker’s bridge throughout.   The seven targets of the elite anti-terrorist unit couldn’t have stowed away with the intention of seeking asylum in the UK because they could apparently have had no idea when they boarded the ship in Lagos where it would be heading.  Patel subsequently praised the SBS for its ‘swift and decisive action’, but one wonders how it could have taken 16 heavily armed SBS operatives all of 9 minutes to ‘regain control of the vessel’.

The evidence is stacking up to the point where one doesn’t need to be an irredeemable cynic to assume, until it is demonstrated otherwise, that everything anybody associated with this government ever does (with the possible exception of Rishi Sunak) is either hopelessly incompetent or done with dishonest and deceitful intent.   Presenting the seven stowaways as dastardly ‘asylum seekers’ all too obviously plays into Patel’s racist anti-immigration rhetoric.  But the whole dramatic spectacle of the heavily armed SBS warriors abseiling down onto the tanker under cover of darkness bears a remarkable similarity to the 250-strong raid on the terrace house in Forest Gate in east London in 2006 that I wrote about on July 29th.  In that case the police knew that the intelligence the raid was based on was extremely dubious and that the ‘bomb’ which the 15 heavily armed men, kitted out in their chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear protection suits were searching for, almost certainly didn’t exist, but the police were ordered by the politicians to conduct the raid regardless.   Here, the 16 SBS men will almost certainly have known that the 7 stowaways weren’t armed in any serious sense of the word.  In both instances sledgehammers and gnats come to mind.

So what were these overkill spectaculars all about?  In the Forest Gate case, a training exercise, a message that the government was taking anti-terrorist action seriously, and a distraction.  The report on the police’s extra-judicial murder on the London tube of the Brazilian plumber, Jean Charles de Menezes, was due to be published imminently, and the media needed to be given something else to focus on.   Apart from playing to Patel’s virulent anti-immigrant agenda, today’s tanker-hijacking story was no doubt similarly designed to distract the media’s attention, however briefly, from a range of political awkwardnesses: the very strong criticism by a large segment of the legal profession of Patel’s and Johnson’s attacks on ‘lefty lawyers’ in the immigration and asylum context; the continuing disaster of the Government’s hopeless mishandling of Track and Trace; and the equally self-mutilating stupidity of Boris Johnson’s continuing refusal to support the continuation of school meals.  Take your pick.

From David Maughan Brown in York: The circus has come to Town

July 9th

As those of us who have chosen to stay in what is now largely self-imposed lockdown live our generally uneventful lives, thanking our lucky stars that we weren’t in the impotent position of having had to rely on Matt Hancock to throw a protective ring around us, we watch the world stirring back to life with an underlying sense of apprehension.  When will the seemingly inevitable second wave or ‘spike’ strike?  What are the realistic chances of a vaccine being developed in the relatively near future?  When might we finally get to hug our grandchildren and visit family in far-flung places?  When, long after the 50%-off offer has lapsed, might we feel it is safe enough to try to get a booking at our favourite restaurant? How will all this affect the long-term futures of our children and grandchildren? Will anybody, apart perhaps from Jacinda Ardern, ever get a handle on how to deal, once and for all, with Covid-19?

Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave a very good impression in a lengthy BBC Today programme interview this morning of having a reasonably good handle on how to coax the economy back towards something resembling normality.   He may not have all the answers – particularly with regard to the self-employed and the UK’s October furlough ‘cliff-edge’ – but, given that he has to contend with the backwoodsmen on the Tory back benches, it is refreshing to hear him coming across as being just as ‘unencumbered by dogma’ as he claims to be.   Sunak was eminently reasonable and good-humoured in the face of Martha Kearney’s constant interruptions and her dogged insistence on asking the questions she obviously had  on a piece of paper in front of her, regardless of whether he had already pre-empted and answered them.   In fact I got much more irritated by her insistence on interrupting and talking over him than he appeared to.  As an economist, Sunak comes across as far too intelligent, and far too unencumbered by dogma, to believe that Brexit can possibly be a good thing, so I am left wondering what his long term strategy might be.

In the meantime the circus goes on around him.   Boris Johnson, temporarily forgetting that he is the unchallenged world-beating champion of the U-turn, is refusing to back down on his craven attempt to blame the care home managers for the 20,000 care home deaths that resulted from his government’s incompetent handling of the pandemic.   Dominic Raab, our Foreign Secretary, allows an unexpected glimmer of hope that our government might actually have a faint awareness of human rights, despite their perpetual denial by the Home Office, by placing sanctions on a number of prominent Russians and Saudis implicated in human rights abuses.  But that hope is promptly snuffed out by Elizabeth Truss, Secretary of State for International Trade, who rushes to resume sales of arms to the self-same Saudis so that they can get on with bombing civilians in Yemen.  Matt Hancock has stopped boasting about the number of Covid tests being carried out – possibly because he knew that someone somewhere would eventually discover that 30% of the tests that were hurriedly posted out to make up the numbers were never returned.   But that doesn’t stop him from boasting about how successful his Trace and Test programme has been in tracking down all the customers from the three pubs that had to close the day after the great ‘Independence’ opening because one customer from each had tested positive for Covid-19.  That was remarkably stupid, even for Hancock, because by then everyone knew that the Test and Trace programme had had absolutely nothing to do with contacting all the customers: the pubs’ landlords or landladies (mainly the latter) had personally telephoned up to 90 customers each.

The circus is scheduled to be performing every day for the next four and a half years.  The reviews can only continue to be very bad indeed.  The one change of personnel that might make the outcome slightly better would be the promotion of Rishi Sunak, who currently manages the ticket-office, to the role of ring-master.  That would allow Boris Johnson to be relegated to a role he is far better suited to, that of understudy for the clown: the one they call on when they need a clown who isn’t even remotely funny. 

From David Maughan Brown in York: Common Sense

May 14th

Boris has defended his much ridiculed shiny new ‘Stay alert.  Control the virus. Save lives’ slogan by asserting that he is relying on people to use their common sense.  His increasingly tetchy Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, by contrast, has adopted the tactic of responding to anyone who asks what the slogan is supposed to mean by boldly asserting that everyone obviously knows what it means.  Given that the First Minister of Scotland has asserted that she has no idea what it means and will stick to the original easily understood ‘Stay at Home’ slogan, thanks very much, one can only conclude that the United Kingdom is not as quite as united as it says on the tin.

Common sense appears to be in short supply, so Boris is gambling once again.  One of the BBC correspondents gave us the “shocking news” recently that the sales of new cars had gone down by 97% in the UK in April.  Anyone one who is “shocked” when he discovers that car sales have gone down in a month when every motor showroom in the country has been closed should not be allowed near the air-waves.  The more interesting question was how, in those circumstances, even 3% of previous sales had been maintained.  The news that GDP fell by 2% in the first quarter when it was only the last ten days of the quarter that were affected by the lockdown has similarly led reporters to scurry around asking economists whether they think that means we might be heading into a recession.  The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, who is the only cabinet minister who gives the impression that he has any idea what he is doing (in spite of apparently being a Brexit supporter), must have had his tongue firmly in his cheek this morning when he said he thought it possible that those figures might suggest a recession could be on its way.

The government guidance on how to interpret the new slogan is not, in itself, a shining example of common sense.   We are allowed to play basketball in the park, but people can’t meet both their parents in a park simultaneously, even if they remain socially distanced.  The First Secretary of State had to be corrected when he said he thought common sense dictated that the latter would be OK, and one can only assume that nobody responsible for the guidance has ever watched anyone playing basketball. Similarly, I can drive 50 miles to take a walk in the Lake District but I can’t take a flask of tea and sit down for a chat, appropriately socially distanced, in a lonely friend’s garden.  Why?  Because I might have to go through the house to get to the garden, and it isn’t permissible to meet people in their houses.  My daughter, who I know has been rigorously socially distancing, can’t come to my house, but any estate agent, who might for all I know be stupid enough to shake the hands of Covid-19 patients, can.   One can only conclude that common sense isn’t so common after all.  If you are looking for some from a government, try New Zealand or Scotland.