Monday 31 January 2022

Never mind what the people want


There are 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland. The SNP won 48 of those in the 2019 general election, and there are no obvious indications that they are likely to lose any of those anytime soon. Indeed, latest polls suggest that their total is likely to increase, with some predictions even suggesting that they could win all 59. Even if the SNP doesn’t achieve quite that level of success, there seems little probability as things stand that their dominance of Scottish politics is under threat. By any definition, under the normal rules of UK politics, they have a massive and repeated mandate for a second referendum on independence.

One might think that Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition might have some regard to the climate of opinion in Scotland before deciding on its policy response, but they’re far too busy being loyal. The Labour leader declared over the weekend that, if his party wins a majority in England, his new government will move quickly to reform the union in ways which he seems unable or unwilling to spell out in any detail in advance, and to do so without any form of referendum. His only red line, he says, is that the union will continue. That’s quite a red line, and the word ‘only’ is doing a lot of work there.

In essence he is telling the Scots that it doesn’t matter what they want, or who they vote for, he will consider a majority in England to be a mandate for telling the Scots exactly what they can and can’t have and then imposing it upon them. As a plan for winning back votes in Scotland, it looks to be rather lower in the cunningness stakes than anything which Baldrick ever thought of. It does have some merit for Welsh independentistas though; telling Scotland that only English votes count in deciding how they are governed might just help people in Wales to come to an understanding of how little they also count for the ‘British’ Labour Party, and how detached from any concept of democracy that party has become. Carry on, ‘Keith’!

Friday 28 January 2022

"What the public wants"


It was, as I recall, The Jam who sang that “the public gets what the public wants” before adding “the public wants what the public gets” in a subsequent verse. It was a reversal which always puzzled me somewhat, probably because I never really listened to much of the other lyrics. But hiding behind “what the public wants” is a time-honoured tactic used by politicians to divert attention from something they don’t want to talk about. It’s a phrase which has been working overtime recently as the PM repeatedly tells us that “what the public wants” is for the government to get on with the job which they were elected to do. In itself, it’s not entirely unreasonable – by and large, the public probably do want the government to govern. It doesn’t necessarily follow, though, that there are not other things that they also want.

We’ve also been told by his acolytes this week that the public really aren’t that worked up about Johnson eating a piece of birthday cake, even if the cake was lying in wait for him, or about the fate of a few animals. They may be right about the cake (although Jake may be pushing his luck a little in suggesting that people in the UK really don’t care about a few animals). It’s pure distraction, though – the issue is neither cake nor animals but honesty and integrity, and in particular the repeated lies told in response to every revelation. I honestly don’t know to what extent ‘the public’ are exercised about Johnson’s honesty and integrity, and I’m far from convinced that those being so dismissive on his behalf know that either. Many of those who voted for his party do seem willing to forgive any sins he commits, and no-one can reasonably argue that they didn’t know that he was a compulsive liar before electing him. It was a well-documented fact. For those who believe that the end justifies the means, Brexit and crackdowns on foreigners are cause enough to ignore wrongdoing, however egregious. And when people make a bad choice, even if they know it at a conscious level, there is always a tendency to rationalise it in order to overcome any feelings of cognitive dissonance.

It may simply be a degree of wishful thinking on my part, but I can’t help feeling that, on this issue, the tendency of top Tories to limit their definition of ‘the public’ to that category alone is taking them into a deeper and deeper hole. Whilst there are many other people who also ignored the rules during lockdown – especially after that eye testing jaunt – that isn’t much of an excuse in the eyes of all those citizens who tried their best to do what they thought they were being told to do in the interests of all of us. Not all Tory voters are unprincipled ideologues in my experience, and there will be plenty amongst those who gave them that majority in 2019 who will have seen friends and family die alone during the pandemic and who will be aghast at the antics in Downing Street.

The question is whether, or to what extent, the public who, as Johnson correctly says, want the government to get on with governing, also want the government to do so with honesty and integrity, applying the same rules to themselves as they do to others. According to the same people who argue that the public don't care, following the ‘rule of law’ is one of those Great British Values which make the people of these islands stand out from mere foreigners. Both things can’t be simultaneously true. None of us knows with any certainty, but opinion polls are certainly suggesting that the government’s assumption that people don’t care about such questions is misplaced. The Great Liar, and the sycophants around him, are placing an awful lot of faith in their belief that ‘the public’ really don’t care about honesty.

Thursday 27 January 2022

Ultimately, it's our own fault


In a capitalist economy, ordinary citizens serve only two functions – they can be a source of labour or consumers of products and services. That doesn’t preclude them from being both, of course, but those who are neither are, essentially, surplus to requirements. That’s putting it bluntly – and most capitalist economies are overlaid with at least an element of social democracy which seeks to mitigate and/or gloss over the worst effects of capitalism. But the core ideological debate within UK politics is about the degree of mitigation and gloss; not about the fundamentals. Labour is as wedded to the underlying ideology as the Tories, they just argue about the extent of mitigation.

Understanding that raw fact about the nature of capitalism is core to understanding the Tory attitude towards the unemployed, or those dependant on the state pension. They are seen as burdens, rather than full members of society. Whilst actively culling them is a step too far, even for the more extreme members of the current cabinet (although if a pandemic does part of the job, that’s just serendipitous), keeping them as poor as possible comes a close second. The fact that we have one of the lowest state pensions in the developed world is one illustration of the attitude; yesterday’s announcement of new benefit sanctions on the unemployed is another. The government’s ‘solution’ to a situation in which there are 1.2 million vacancies and 500,000 unemployed is to force people into whatever jobs are available, regardless of preference or skills, by driving them deeper into poverty if they are unemployed for more than four weeks.

It’s an oversimplistic mathematical approach to filling vacancies – an unemployed sales person in Devon is hardly going to be able to fill a brain surgeon vacancy in Aberdeen (and there are an awful lot of unfilled vacancies in the NHS); but essentially it will drive many people, regardless of their skills or experience, into minimum wage jobs in sectors such as care regardless of their suitability for such a role. A means of fixing the social care crisis is something which this is not. It probably doesn’t matter to them though – low wage labour helps the profits of private care companies, and keeps down the cost of looking after the almost useless people (in capitalist terms) receiving the care.

It’s not the only way of organising a society or economy; we could instead start, as some of us do, from the basis that the purpose of an organised economy is to serve the members of society as a whole rather than assuming that those members exist only to serve the economy. It’s an idea which we’ve largely lost sight of, as we’ve swallowed the tenets of capitalist ideology. But we don’t even need to be as radical as that to see the essentially short-sighted nature of the Tory approach. Decent pensions and benefits – as well as paying a proper living wage – allow those currently regarded as useless to become useful even to capitalists, as consumers. It means spreading ‘consumption’ more evenly and fairly, but I’m sure some genius could come up with a good slogan to cover it – something like ‘levelling up’, maybe? Whereas failure to do so has the effect of concentrating wealth in ever-increasing quantities in ever fewer hands.

They get away with it though. They have managed to convince those in the middle that the problem is the poor, and convince the poor that the problem is the even poorer. And to convince both that immigrants are the problem. They get away with it, in short, because enough of us allow them to.

Friday 21 January 2022

Securing the right to self-determination


Not long after Thatcher won the 1979 election, the Tories’ support in the opinion polls took something of a dive, and Labour were ahead, sometimes well ahead, for most of 1980, 1981, and early 1982. In April 1982, the UK went to war against Argentina to restore the UK’s control over a colonial possession, and the Tories took a clear lead in the opinion polls which took them through the 1984 election and beyond. War was good for the Tories’ fortunes.

Whether sabre-rattling over Ukraine will assist the current Tory PM out of his difficulties remains to be seen; we can only hope that even Johnson is neither mad enough nor desperate enough to start a war with Russia. Whilst it’s true that a corrupt kleptocratic regime partly funded by crooked Russian billionaires poses a direct threat to the UK’s citizens, it is far from clear that Russia poses the same degree of threat. The biggest danger to the wellbeing of the people of these islands is a great deal closer to home.

Throughout the Cold War, the line which we were sold in the West was that it was a conflict between two ideologies. The idea that it was about freedom vs communism was always over-simplistic (Marxist purists might argue that it was more a case of market capitalism vs state capitalism, which is more a difference of method than ideology), but there is no question that, since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has become a capitalist country. Repressive, certainly. Corrupt, unquestionably – although the UK isn’t currently exactly a paragon of virtue on that score. Yet despite the increasing alignment of economic systems, the hostility remains. It tells us that, for all the talk about ideology and freedom, the stand-off between Russia and the Western powers is just a continuation of centuries of rivalry between the big powers – as it was, in fact, throughout the cold war. And the dispute over Ukraine is reminiscent of disputes of the past about different spheres of influence. Ukraine is little more than a pawn in the game.

One element of the dispute, as pointed out by Simon Jenkins – although the extent to which it is really the cause of the dispute rather than a pretext for grievance is another question – is the situation in the east of Ukraine where there are a majority of Russian speakers. They are seeking a greater degree of autonomy, but the muscular unionists (to coin a phrase) in Kyiv have refused to implement the Minsk II settlement which would have granted a degree of autonomy, as well as the outcome of a referendum in 1994 which would have made Russian the language of administration in Donbas, insisting instead on Ukraine remaining a unitary state using a single language. Some independentistas will have difficulty knowing which side to support as a result: should we support the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine when threatened by a large and aggressive neighbour, or should we support the right of the people of Donbas to govern themselves? For those of us who believe that the people living in any area have the right to determine their own future, the answer is clear. What is a good deal less clear is how those people can be given a meaningful opportunity to express their wishes in a free and fair vote. One of the few certainties is that war will not resolve that question. And I doubt that an unwinnable war with Russia will do much for Johnson, either.

Thursday 20 January 2022

Hints of desperation


The attempt by some Tories this week to suggest that ‘Keith’ is as guilty of breaking lockdown rules as Johnson, and establish some sort of equivalence between him and Johnson because of a photograph showing him drinking a lunchtime beer during a day spent campaigning, smacked of desperation and barrel-scraping. It was also a rather pathetic attempt at misdirection, with its implicit suggestion that the ‘sins’ being committed in Downing Street were all to do with the consumption of alcohol. Whilst the consumption of apparently industrial quantities of alcohol certainly adds colour to the stories, painting, as it does, a picture of celebration and insouciance whilst others were sick and dying, the line actually crossed in Downing Street wasn’t that one at all. There was nothing in the Covid rules which barred the consumption of alcohol, even if it occurred in the workplace; what was forbidden was people gathering together for non-work purposes.

Had the infamous ‘drinks party’ in May last year resulted in 100 people gathering in the garden after work to drink lemonade and mineral water, it would have been an equally egregious breach of the rules as that which actually occurred. If the media had got hold of a picture of Starmer clutching a diet coke at 7 in the evening in the company of a gang of colleagues who had finished campaigning for the day, they would have got him ‘bang to rights’, to use the sort of lawyerly phrase with which he is presumably familiar. But taking a break to eat a takeaway at lunch time with the same people as he’d been working with all morning before carrying on in the afternoon? Under the rules, what he was drinking was irrelevant, even if unwise. The problem for Johnson and those around him is not their love of wine, but their inability to distinguish between a work meeting and a social gathering. Even ‘Keith’ can do that much.

Monday 17 January 2022

Making sense of the denials


When the PM stood up in the House of Commons last week and uttered his unapologetic apology, he must have been well aware that there were other events which hadn’t yet been made public, especially the “Wine Time Friday” sessions which were apparently scheduled into the electronic calendars of around 50 Downing Street staff, and which the PM is reported to have called into on multiple occasions. And he must surely have been aware that there was a high probability, given the succession of stories over recent weeks about other events at Downing Street, that they would also become public sooner or later. Perhaps he was simply hoping that the story wouldn’t get out – a pretty forlorn hope given that there are clearly multiple sources behind the string of stories.

Alternatively, this latest revelation of a weekly event might just make some sort of sense of his repeated denials that there has been any wrongdoing. It is clear that the Friday sessions predated both the pandemic and the Johnson premiership – they were simply seen as a ‘normal’ part of the working week. Whilst many were trying to work from home, Downing Street staff were under instructions to attend the office and work normally – and ‘working normally’ apparently includes staying in the office until late on a regular basis and consuming alcohol whilst doing so. There have been stories in the past about a culture of boozy lunches when Johnson was editor of the Spectator; perhaps for him, drinking in groups around desks and/or moving out into the garden really is just a normal working day.

Earlier on in the unfolding story, some ministers got a bit hung up trying to define what was or was not a party. Duncan Raab tried to claim that it can’t have been a party because people were "all in suits, or predominantly in formal attire", and Business Minister Paul Scully tried to argue that the absence of balloons and party poppers proved that it was a work event. It’s a semantic blind alley: for most of us, staying at the office after the end of the working day and cracking open a few bottles whilst chatting informally draws a clear line between work and socialising. And it was the people doing that who made the rules outlawing socialising at the time. It’s a difference which most of us understand; Johnson’s inability to understand or empathise with the way others think goes to the heart of the problem.

Whatever, the man’s days in Number 10 are now clearly numbered. I somehow doubt that the infamous Sue Gray report will deliver a verdict which is enough, in itself, to finish him off. Establishing criminality isn’t really part of her brief, and she’s not exactly independent either as a senior civil servant reporting to the PM. Johnson’s continued smirk when he refers to her and her report suggests that he is confident that she’ll give him enough wiggle-room to carry on, but the real question is whether Tory MPs, fearful for their seats and beset by a wall of outrage from their constituents, will be content to allow him to do so. The odds look to be against him at the moment, especially if more revelations keep appearing.

Whilst many will take a certain amount of pleasure at seeing the Great Liar defenestrated, we should be careful what we wish for. Perhaps there is a dark horse lurking somewhere in the depths of the Conservative Party, untainted by association with the boss, who will restore a degree of decency, common sense and honesty to the affairs of government. But if there is, he or she has yet to make himself or herself known – and the alternatives who are currently making their play don’t exactly look like people who are going to make things much better.

Friday 14 January 2022

Making the rules proportionate


Yesterday, Jacob Rees-Mogg, in seeking to defend the actions of Boris Johnson and his government, came close to saying that what happened may have been against the rules, but the problem was that the rules were not proportionate to the situation. At least, that is how some seem to have interpreted his comments. It’s not out of character; this is, after all, the man who claimed that the reason so many died in Grenfell Tower is that they were too stupid to ignore the advice of the fire brigade. In his world, ‘sensible’ people like him and his boss should take take a view on which rules to obey and which to ignore, and should be allowed to do so with impunity.

It’s a pity that his innate sense of superiority and apparent attempt to justify rule-breaking retrospectively blur the fact that he may actually have a point. Not one which can be used to in any way excuse the past, but one which might be a lesson to learn for the future. Were the rules really proportionate or sufficiently targeted to the problem in hand? To take the specific example of the innumerable parties at Downing Street, it is surely legitimate, in terms of infection control, to ask just how much extra risk is created if people who are working closely together all day long indoors in poorly ventilated buildings then go out into the garden at the end of the day and enjoy a few drinks together in the sunshine. That added risk must be very small indeed, and I can well understand how it might have seemed that way to those involved. It doesn’t alter the fact that rules were broken, though, and that those rules gave them no right to make their own assessment of the risk of breaking them.

If that’s the point which Jake was attempting to make, then it’s a reasonable one, even if he failed to make it in quite such terms. If they’d wanted to, the government could have made all manner of exceptions to the rules which would have covered that sort of situation, but they chose not to for, I suspect, two very simple reasons. Firstly, at the time they were making the rules, they had already dithered for too long and were trying to claw back some of the time that they’d wasted – stopping to work out the fine print would have compounded the disaster they were overseeing. And secondly, keeping the rules as clear, and as black and white, as possible was by far the best way of ensuring widespread adherence. The objective was to stop people mixing beyond what was strictly necessary, and allowing people to use their judgement to decide how much extra risk was involved in activity A or activity B would have led overall to much wider mixing and faster spread – and also have made the job of enforcement many times more difficult.

It’s easy to look back and say that such-and-such an activity caused no problems, and should therefore be ignored, the argument which Rees-Mogg comes close to making. It’s like arguing that driving above the speed limit or crashing a red light on a particular occasion caused no accidents and can therefore be ignored. In this case, the simple fact is that the government made the rules and then ignored them, despite encouraging the police to enforce them for other people. No amount of retrospective analysis of the harm done (or not done) can change the fact that other people were prosecuted and fined for lesser breaches of the rules.

The point which Jake makes about how strict the rules should be is one which governments may well wish to consider carefully in responding to future circumstances, although they will always still be faced with the argument about ‘keeping it simple’ which many might think trumps any attempt at finessing the rules. But trying to use that point to justify, in any way, what has already been done is foolish to say the least. It looks like what it is – just another attempt to justify following a different set of rules.

Thursday 13 January 2022

Leading reluctant horses to water


Spin doctors, to use the pejorative description of PR officers, generally have a poor reputation. But having worked with some, both in my political activity over the years and in my paid employment, I can honestly say that they are generally professional and hard-working. When presented with a situation where their clients have, shall we say, ‘got into a little local difficulty’, they will always do their very best to come up with a strategy aimed at rescuing the reputation of the individual or organisation employing them. Sometimes, however, the task is beyond even the best of them, and their task is never made any easier if the client believes that he or she knows better and/or is pathologically incapable of taking and following the best advice. And that brings us to the Prime Minister.

On Monday, he effectively tried to tell us that he couldn’t possibly know whether a party had taken place on 20th May 2020 or even whether he’d been present, until a civil servant had investigated the claims and reported back to him. Whilst it’s just about believable that a PR expert might have tried to come up with some sort of approach to buy a little time in order to establish the facts for him or herself (they would know Johnson well enough to know that they couldn’t depend on the veracity of whatever he had told them), it’s hard to believe that what Johnson actually came out with was the product of any serious deliberation. And even harder to believe that the PR people would not have known that he’d be unable to prevent himself smirking as he uttered the words.

It should have been obvious to anyone that the statement wouldn’t hold for longer than it took to make it, and the PM’s own former adviser, Guto Harri, very publicly offered the advice that only a full and grovelling apology to the House of Commons stood any chance of saving his skin. It was good advice; it’s the accepted norm that the best – or perhaps I should say ‘least worst’ – option in difficult circumstances is to come clean, tell the whole truth, get everything out in the open and make a fulsome and sincere apology. It was Johnson’s only chance, and he fluffed it. It’s impossible to know, from the outside, whether his own in-house staff were trying to push him in the direction suggested by Guto Harri, but they don’t deserve to be in their jobs if they weren’t. Instead, what we got was the ludicrous claim that his own private office had invited 100 people to a party in his back garden after normal office hours without asking or even telling him, and that he and his then fiancée just happened to wander out into the garden at the appointed hour, saw people milling around drinking and eating snacks from a buffet table, assumed that it must be a work meeting (because aren’t all work meetings like that?) and joined in by mingling with those present, before realising after 25 minutes that it wasn’t a work meeting at all and returning to his own office. And, eighteen months later, when it came to light and he was forced into delivering a non-apology to the House of Commons, he proceeded to tell MPs privately afterwards that he had done nothing at all wrong.

It’s unbelievable that any spin doctor would have even countenanced advising Johnson to try such a lame and pathetic approach. I can imagine them sitting in front of a television pulling their hair out as he spoke. Normally, having worked in such a high-profile role as spin doctor to the PM would be a huge asset in seeking further employment, but who’d want to employ someone who was even suspected of going along with this charade? And that brings us back to the starting point – no matter how expert, professional or experienced a PR officer is, he or she can only deliver if the client is willing and able to listen to and follow advice. Nobody would ever accuse Johnson of falling into either of those categories.

Wednesday 12 January 2022

Luck, not skill


On Monday, Michael Gove was busily repenting his ‘sin’ of arguing for a more cautious approach to Covid in England than that decided upon by the PM (with its inevitable knock-on effects in Wales). In effect, he was arguing that because the Omicron wave has turned out – so far at least – to be less severe in its impact than some of the worst-case scenarios put forward by the experts, Johnson took the right decision in not implementing further restrictions. That is something of an oversimplification, based on hindsight. The outcome actually owes more to luck than judgement. And whether the decisions were right or not depends on some difficult value judgements as well.

Imagine two cars at the top of a steep hill crowded with pedestrians. One driver disables his brakes completely before both cars set off down the hill. It is an almost inevitable result of the physics of gravity that the brake-free car will arrive before the other, even if a few pedestrians are killed or injured in the process. Whether disabling the brakes was the ‘right’ thing to do depends on how highly we value two things: getting to the bottom first, and the lives and families of the unfortunate pedestrians. It is increasingly clear that Johnson and his government place a very high value on being first to the bottom and a very low value on the lives of the pedestrians. They believe that getting through the Omicron wave before other European countries will enable the UK economy to recover faster than others. Some ministers have been talking openly about there being a ‘first-mover’ advantage. It follows that they view any additional deaths or injuries incurred in the process as a ‘price worth paying’, and scorn those other countries (and we’re not just talking about other parts of the UK here) who are slowing their progress in order to protect citizens. Whether events have proved them ‘right’ or not doesn’t simply depend on whether they get to the bottom first. It also involves an implicit value judgement on the cost of getting there.

It’s true that nobody knew in advance how many extra hospitalisations and premature deaths would result from allowing rapid transmission of the virus, but everybody knew that the answer would be both greater than zero, and also greater than in other countries which adopted a more cautious approach. How much greater is down to luck, not judgement. The English government has been very much, as Mark Drakeford put it, an outlier. Making such a value judgement is actually not a unique position for a government to be in – all administrations sometimes have to make difficult decisions based on costs and benefits. (A much more down-to-earth example is when local councillors have to decide whether to install a new pedestrian crossing or not, and take the number of accidents and deaths into account in the process.) The pandemic has, however, elevated this type of decision to a much greater scale; they’ve been gambling using the lives of tens of thousands of citizens as the stake. Having the highest body count in Europe is nothing to be proud of, however Johnson might try to spin the ‘benefits’; and it’s a direct result of government policy.

What the statements made by Gove and others this week reveal is just how little the lives, health and well-being of the citizens of the UK matter to them in comparison to securing the profits of companies (and Tory donors). Their real ‘success’ is in getting so many people to share their view that the rest of us are essentially of low value and expendable.

Friday 7 January 2022

Imposing a common identity


Many of my generation will remember the days when cinemas marked the end of their daily showings by playing ‘God Save the Queen’, but it seems that the detail of the memories varies significantly. Some seem to remember it as a time when the entire audience stood in silence and respect and allowed a certain sense of Britishness to wash over them and infuse their very bones with patriotic pride. Others remember it as the cue to start the rush to the doors. Perhaps both were true at different times, with those older than I tending to remember the former, whilst we ‘youngsters’ have a much more vivid memory of the latter phenomenon. The point is that, by the time cinemas stopped doing it, the anthem was being overwhelmingly ignored by an audience keen to get to the bus stop. Time changes attitudes, a fact of life which seems to have escaped a number of Tories this week.

I can also remember the BBC playing the same anthem at the end of its daily programming (back in the days when programmes really did end at a specified time). Maybe there were some older people who stood reverently to attention to hear it out, but I doubt that was true in most households. Although, thinking about it, it probably did cause most people to rise to their feet once it started, because in the days before remote controls were invented that was the only way to reach the off switch.

One of the strangest things about the demand from a Tory politician this week that the BBC should be compelled to play the anthem at 1am every morning is that he is quite a bit younger than I, as is Andrew RT Davies who has supported the call. Either their memories of what happened when the anthem came on during their childhood years are defective, or else they were brought up in very strange households. Their apparent belief that there are masses of wavering Brits out there who will be swayed into a surge of patriotic loyalty to the Crown and all things British by the simple act of exposing them to a daily dose of union flags and the royal dirge is almost touching.

They’re not alone though. Other Anglo-British nationalists, such as Sir Keir ‘I’m-not-a-nationalist-at-all’ Starmer seem to have been infected as well. Sitting surrounded by giant union flags, proclaiming that the monarchy is one of the things which makes us British and in which we should take a patriotic pride, and highlighting the England football team as a prime example of what he means by patriotism, he seemed completely lacking in any awareness of how his words might be seen in the non-English parts of the UK. (Or even in his own party, most of whose activists are, I suspect – on the basis of experience – committed republicans.) The problem with English nationalists, whether they are obscure backbench Tories or leaders of the opposition, is that they seem to believe that they can somehow define a common sense of national identity and then impose it on the masses using symbols and songs.

I say ‘problem’, but whether it’s a problem or not depends on perspective. I can think of few things more likely to push even more Scots towards independence than trying to impose a particularly English sense of Britishness upon them. Even here in Wales, where most people are entirely comfortable considering themselves to be both British and Welsh, trying to impose that Anglo-centric view upon them is likely to prove counter-productive to the unionist cause. Perhaps, from an independentista perspective, it’s not a problem at all, but a route to success. Maybe we should encourage them to go further, and make it a legal obligation to both watch the anthem at 1am and stand rigidly to attention when it is played. We could even have wartime-style wardens (they really love anything vaguely related to ‘the war’) patrolling the streets to check on conformance. I can think of few things more likely to advance the cause of independence than the imposition of a single version of Britishness.

Thursday 6 January 2022

Defining futility


Some Tory backbenchers, including ex-PM Theresa May, were being very hard on the PM yesterday, demanding that he set out his plans for dealing with any future variants of Covid. What possessed them to believe that any plan put forward by Johnson would be worth the paper it was written on is one of life’s little mysteries – they know him well enough to know that nothing he says can or should ever be taken at face value anyway. Besides, we can already work out what his plan will be based on his actions to date, and there are three parts to it.

Part 1 will be to deny that there can ever be another variant at all. Deaths will continue at roughly the present rate, and Tory MP’s will politely applaud the PM’s announcement that no new measures are needed.

Part 2 will be to declare that the variant is harmless. It’s not based on data or science (why would we expect that it would be?), but additional deaths will only be in the hundreds or low thousands, and Tory MP’s will shout and wave their order papers at the PM’s announcement that no new measures are needed.

Part 3 will come into effect when mere facts show that the variant might indeed be more infectious than any we’ve seen to date, but the PM will declare that the NHS can and will simply ride the wave. Thousands, or even tens of thousands will die, hundreds of thousands will be hospitalised, parts of the NHS will collapse under the strain – and Tory MPs will cheer the PM to the rafters when he announces that no new measures are needed.

The strategy, if one might dignify it with such nomenclature, has only two elements in reality. The first is that, regardless of what happens, no new measures will be required, and the second is that the announcement of no new measures will please the majority of Tory MPs, with their degree of pleasure increasing in direct proportion to the seriousness of the situation. Given that the second part of that, with its concomitant that the crazies who have taken over the Conservative Party might allow the world king to stay in office a little longer, is now the only driver of pandemic policy, asking for a detailed plan is an entirely futile exercise. A bit like being an ex-PM sitting on the backbenches, I suppose.

Tuesday 4 January 2022

Learning to live with it


The media reported two fatal stabbings in London last week, an occurrence which seems to be becoming all too frequent. Each and every one is a tragedy for those involved, of course, but to put it in perspective, very, very few people die each year as a result of knife crime. According to the House of Commons Library, there were 244 homicides as a result of the use of a sharp instrument in the year to March 2021. Yet no-one seriously suggests that we should ‘just learn to live with’ knife crime, and invest resources in dealing with the consequences rather than in attempting to reduce the incidence. It would be a very silly argument to make. And yet…

Contrast that with preventable deaths due to Covid. There have been 174,000 premature deaths so far which mentioned Covid on the death certificate, according to the ONS, and currently around another 1,000 are being added to that total every week. There are things which the UK government could do to reduce the incidence of infection, or even to make resources available to allow the more civilised governments in Wales and Scotland to take more steps to protect the population, but they have instead decided to allow the virus to rip through the population in England, with inevitable knock-on effects elsewhere in the UK. Instead of acting to prevent deaths and hospitalisations, they are investing scarce resources in building extra temporary wards in hospital car parks (with no clue as to how they will be staffed, given that Covid-related staff absences are increasing daily). It’s good business for what the Telegraph referred to as “purveyors of soft-shell body storage solutions”. Yes, that’s right – their normal business is supplying temporary morgues, but they are handily diversifying to house the living in glorified tents. Although we may yet be calling on them for their core business skills as well. This is what ‘learning to live with Covid’ looks like for at least the next few months in the UK, and there is no certainty that it won’t be so for a great deal longer.

One of the fundamental arguments for restricting people’s freedom has always been to protect others from the consequences of that freedom. That is why we do, quite properly, restrict the ‘freedom’ of people to walk around the streets carrying knives, and we act against transgressors. In the case of Covid, the argument has been turned upside down. The ‘freedom’ of people not to have ‘restrictions’ placed on their daily lives in order to control the spread amounts to the freedom to infect others as they wish. Not intentionally, of course – that’s where the comparison with carrying knives breaks down – but those resisting restrictions have enough knowledge to know that the ‘freedom’ they demand has inevitable consequences for others, including the premature death of thousands of them.

The UK finds itself at a time of crisis with a government in thrall to people who present an effective cull (perhaps unintentional, although in the case of some of them, I cannot be certain) of the oldest, frailest and most vulnerable of the population (for it is those categories most likely to die early) as some sort of libertarianism, a protection of the ‘freedom’ of the many. And, rather than having a reasoned debate on what collectively enforced measures might be sensible to reduce the impact of the disease, the public is encouraged by the UK government, from the PM down, to see any measures as individually restrictive rather than collectively preventative, and a compliant media goes along with this. It’s difficult to overstate how dangerous the crazies who have infiltrated and taken control of the Tory party are, but the one thing Brexit has taught us about them is that ‘winning’ one argument is never enough for them. Their pursuit of ideological purity can and will never be satisfied, and the costs of making the attempt will be high. Wales and Scotland need out.