Tuesday, 11 February 2020

No case for HS2

I suppose that, now the Johnson government has engineered for itself an 80 seat majority, we shall have to get used to fuming with impotence as it imposes wrong decisions on us.

HS2 is a case in point.  Given the enormous urgency of climate change, why on earth are we still toying (if a cost of £100bn+ can be called toying) with high speed vanity projects to whizz the wealthy hither and thither?  HS2, along with the expansion  of Heathrow, and Leeds and Bradford airports, should be off the agenda.  We really do have to shift our priorities.

Specific to HS2, at least one alternative project, by railway experts Quentin Macdonald and Colin Elliff, offers far better connectivity at a fraction of both the environmental and monetary costs. It is called HSUK. Details of the scheme can be found here http://www.highspeeduk.co.uk/
 If you're not convinced,Christian Woolmer, sometime aspirant Labour candidate for the mayoralty of London and a another well- informed railway-buff, has a highly critical article in the London Review of Books which is well worth a read. Find it at  http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n08/christian-wolmar/whats-the-point-of-hs2

My own inexpert opinion is that HS2, if it goes ahead, is more likely to suck enterprise out of our region  to London, rather than energise the Northern Powerhouse. 

There is just a hope that some of the new Conservative MPs  elected to represent Labour's former heartlands will flex their  muscles and give the scheme the thumbs down.

Friday, 7 February 2020

Windermere's children: What's in a name?

Yesterday I re-watched the BBC 2 programme about the 300+ Polish refugee children  brought to the UK  in 1945 for "rehabilitation" after their incarceration in concentration camps.  For details see this previous post:


and if you missed it I urge you to watch it on


One of the most striking features is the emphasis the children place on their identities, names and families.

The first boy asked to introduce himself automatically uncovers his forearm to reveal his number tattooed concentration camp number.  We get the message of dehumanisation.

One  boy was included in the group at the last minute because another was withdrawn for reasons that I failed to catch.  Unfortunately the "paperwork" wasn't changed and so he was travelling under the others name.  He see him anxiously enquiring as to whether this has been rectified.  I think that by the end of their stay in Windermere it hadn't been but he was assured that: "as the wheels turned and in the fullness of time, it would be.  Welcome to England."

A third boy is addressed by the archetypally insensitive PE master as: "Son."  He responds angrily that he is the son of ***** ***** of Poland. Told that "It's just a phrase," he replies: "Well, don't use it with me."

A modern trend that I find disturbing as that we are urged, and in some cases required, to blur or disguise our identities with "user names."  These are widely used on social media platforms and we can have no idea who is saying what about whom, or being rude to whom and telling lies about whom.  

As Peter Pomerantsev in "This is Not Propoganda" describes, in the fields of "fake news" and opinion distortion the use of fake or untraceable identities is endemic.

This poses  a serious danger to the working of democracy, and is in urgent need of international regulation.

In all spheres, and not just politics, we need to know who is saying what, how they can be contacted for correction if necessary, and, where appropriate, who is financing  them.

Those Polish refugees knew from bitter experience the importance of their identities.  We should take a leaf our of their book.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Lock 'em up ant throw away the key?

The Tories have long prided themselves on being the "tough on crime" party, advocating tougher sentences for  all the errors some of our flesh are heir to.  It's popular stuff and helps win elections.  

So it's no surprise that the government's most publicised reaction to Sunday's knife attack in Streatham by  convicted terrorist Sudesh Ammam is to  alter the law so that those convicted of terrorist offences lose their right to automatic release when they've served half their sentence.

What comes as a surprise to me, and I suspect to many others , is that such a right to "automatic release" exists at all.  I had supposed that early release, for terrorists or anyone else, was conditional on good behaviour.  Such a condition is necessary to enable the prison authorities to steer their inmates toward co-operation.  It should be up to an independent parole board to decided whether or not "good behaviour" has been achieved.

Clearly Ammam  had not co-operated with the prison (he had refused to take part in "deradicalisation" activities) so did not deserve any favours and should not have been released.  So if that is what the law actually  says, then it should be changed, though whether it is fair to change it retrospectively in the case of prisoners to whom early release has already been promised is another matter.

However, the government  also urgently needs to look carefully and equally urgently at the other factors involved: the gross overcrowding in our prisons; state of the prison education service; facilities for rehabilitation; and the strength  of the probation service for supervision after release (and supervision of the many  who have committed offences but don't really need to be sent to prison.)  

All of these service have been starved since the austerity regime post 2010, and they weren't all that well funded before .

It was a Conservative Home Secretary,   Douglas Hurd, who warned their conference that, vote winner though it might be, "Prison is an expensive was of making bad people worse." 

Our prison, rehabilitation and probation services are now a national disgrace.  We can hope that the newly prolific Tories will use these recent and unwelcome incidents to put the fundamentals  right , and not just rely on the popular headline-winning gesture

Friday, 31 January 2020

EU: "This blessed plot* -" an interlude.

31st January, 2020

Day of shame, day of sorrow, day of humiliation.  The day we detach ourselves from a serious attempt at civilised progress.  A day our government of  deceivers  "celebrates" with the issue of a tin-pot 50p coin which, in my youth was worth 10 shllings (serious money) and is now the equivalent of a threepenny-bit.** Says it all.

First, let’s be clear about with what we’re dealing.  This is a coup d’état.  We normally think of these being violent, or involving the military, but this is a coup nevertheless.  A  small group, but backed by enormous wealth and a supportive press have taken over the reins of the state to further their own ends. 

You  This group has never accepted the decision to join the EU, they’ve simmered in the background (John Major’s “bastards.”), supported a populist UKIP party and poisoned the press against the EU over a long period.  The three major parties have helped by using the EU as a scapegoat for unpopular decisions   Even we Liberals/Liberal Democrats have been complicit in this.  We hardly get “We are in favour of the EU” out of our mouths before there’s a  " . . .but."
“. ”
 Alarmed by a haemorrhage of support to  UKIP an overconfident David Cameron decided to finesse them with an “In-Out” referendum. Even though it was technically “advisory” he made the constitutionally invalid promise that the result would be observed, ”No ifs, no buts.”

Again all parties were complicit in this irresponsibility. No Liberal Democrat, in the Commons or the Lords (with lawyers on £300 a day just for signing in!) came forward to demand a super-majority, agreement of all parts of the UK, or any other normal safeguard such as any run-of the mill golf club or music society would include on any major decision affecting its constitution

A flawed referendum, an electorate in which the most affected were excluded,  lies and misrepresentation, illegal expenditure and possibly foreign involvement to destabilise the country, led to a narrow but apparent victory for Leaving.

For three years, in spite of some of the largest demonstrations and petitions in our history, the Commons failed to own up to its ineptitude and decide to repudiate the result of the flawed referendum, but kept on digging to find a way of squaring the circle of respecting the tiny referendum majority  while minimising the damage to the country’s economy, reputation and participation in the politics of the wider world. 
Despite flagrantly abusing the constitution and brushing aside its accepted conventions, thus bringing an end to the “good chaps theory of government,” the chancer but proven election winner Johnson took advantage of a weak opposition, what appears to have been a bribe to the Brexit party leaders, (we shall see),  and failure to form a “Remain” alliance and, although polling only 47% of the vote against 53% of the combined Remainers, has been returned with a Commons majority of 80 or so.  A condition of fighting as a Conservative was apparently a pledge to support Johnson on Brexit.  The clique’s  position seems impregnable. 

 We must not give up hope.

The UK's basic problem is that, whereas most if of the remaining 27saw joining the EU as a success, for Britain it was an acknowledgement of failure.

  For the original Six, after the second bloody war in half a century, it was an attempt to so integrate the countries of the continent  to make future wars impossible.  For Spain, Portugal, Greece and the Eastern European countries, joining the EU was an acceptance that they had successfully thrown off authoritarian dictatorships and become respectable democracies.

At the beginning, the formation of the European Coal and steel community in 1951, Britain  stood aloof. It might even be argued that at the Messina Conference which  led to the Treaty of Rome  and at which the UK was represented not my a minister but by a middle-ranking civil servant, a Russel Bretherton, we actually tried to frustrate progress.  However, the conference was successful and in 1957 the Six went ahead.

As the economies of the Six forged ahead and Britain stagnated, it took only four years for us to realise our  error, and in 1961, under the Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, the British government applied to join.  After protracted negotiations, in1963 the French President Charles de Gaulle said "Non", and again in 1967.  

In 1970,under the Conservative PM Edward Heath, the UK made its third a application and, possibly because by this time de Gaulle had retired, ir was were third time lucky and were welcomed into the club on 1st January 1973.
Sadly we have never been more than a semi-detached member, more sulking on the side-lines than giving enthusiastic support.  Sections of the Labour Party, which became the government in 1974, wanted to pull out, and Prime Minister Harold Wilson "settled" the matter by having a referendum, in which the "people's will" proved to be to Remain by a majority of two to one - a much more solid seal of approval than the narrow 52/48% margin Leave achieved in 2016.

Our politicians in the mid 20th century would dearly have liked the UK to "go it alone."  They reluctantly realised that was not feasible.  Alone we were then still "a leading power of the second rank" but sinking slowly.  In the EU, together with our neighbours, we could still retain a seat at the World's top tables.

Prime Minister Johnson thinks that by optimistic bluster he can reverse history and that a soar-away  Britain will flourish alone.  I believe he is wrong.  We shall certainly survive and we shall remain rich by World standards.  We could all be comfortable if our national wealth were fairly shared.  But we shall gradually slip from being a "leading power" down to the third or fourth rank, in thrall to the US (effectively a 51st State?), China, India and, of course the EU itself.  

It will not be sudden - more like a slow puncture:  economically, culturally,  and politically we shall become less and less significant

Bur as time goes by those not allowed to vote in 2016, those deluded by false promises, the young deprived of a truly international future, will gradually form a more convincing majority.

The mission for we Remainers is to keep the flame alive.  

We must hammer away at the fact that Johnson's claim to be implementing  "the will of the people" is fraudulent and purely the result of our crude electoral system.  Of course, we shall be mocked as "bad losers" but both time and logic are on our side. In the long run , and before we're all dead,  Victor Hugo's prediction:

"A day will come when you, France; you England; you Germany; all you nations of the continent, without losing your distinct qualities and glorious individuality , will merge into a higher unity  and found the European brotherhood."

will again be fulfilled. It will be a sisterhood too, and I hope include Scotland and Wales and all of Ireland.

Roll on

*The delightfully ambiguous title "This blessed plot" is borrowed from the late Hugo Young's excellent account, subtitled : "Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair" published by Macmillan, 1998

**  For younger readers: there were 12 pennies (d) in a shilling (s) and 20 shillings in a pound (£).   A threepenny- bit was a brassy-looking coin slightly smaller that the present  pound coin, and,  as far as I remember, with 12 sides. So there were four 3d "bits" in a shilling and each one was worth one 80th of a £ (compared with the current 50p, of which there are two to a £).  But you could buy quite a lot with a 3d bit: eg  ice-cream a bag of chips and around four miles-worth of bus-rides.

PS.  (added 1st February)  This letter from a Dave Skinner, was published in the Guardian  on 31st January.  It is a brilliant description of how we have arrived at the present mess.

"I am sad to see the UK leaving the EU, as are large numbers of my European colleagues.  I am British and have worked for the EEC - and then the EU - since I graduated in 1973.  I retired several years ago.  I remember the positive buzz in the early years of membership.

But then the rot set in.  The UK began to think it was special, too good for the rest of them.  Money back, opt-outs and so on.  In the 1980s we saw the beginning of Euromyths and the media enthusiasm for Brussels- bashing.   UK governments did not have the courage to emphasise the benefits of membership, and even laid the blame for many of their own unpopular decisions on the EU.  The British Public still think that "health and safety" is an EU invention.

This arrogant trend finally resulted in David Cameron's pusillanimous referendum.  The campaign was ridiculously vague, based on lies, and serious malpractices have still not been investigated.  The last three years have been a misery for those of us who know the reality (and were not allowed to vote in the referendum)  and had to listen to the lies spouted about the organisation we have been proud to work for.  

The outlook for the UK is not good.  The brave new world the government is promising could well become the desperate flounderings of a has-been island.  What a waste."

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Windermere Humanity

Last night I watched the BBC Two  programme, The Windermere Children, about 300 Jewish and largely Polish refugee children  who were brought in 1945 from the war-ravaged continent to be re-rehabilitated in the UK.

Some things haven't changed much.  The Home Office wasn't all that co-operative and gave them visas for only a year.  So  it wasn't quite a hostile environment from officialdom, but not all that welcoming either.  The scheme was organised by the Jewish philanthropist Leonard Montefiore, he of the pre-war Kindertransport rescue.

There were mistakes.  On arrival at a former factory camp which looked from the outside surprisingly like a concentration camp, the children, played in this reconstruction by Polish actors, were ordered to line up, boys on one side and girls on the other,  stripped of their clothing, which was burned, and then medically examined.

Must have been very reminiscent of their previous experiences .  But we know much more today. Maybe the organisers didn't know then.

After this uncertain start the system worked  and supported by love, skilled psychiatry  art therapy, education, and loads of bread (which wasn't rationed until July 1946) the children were helped to cope with the horrors of their past and move on to live useful and fulfilling  lives, mostly in the UK.

A programme on BBC Four, (TV, not radio) followed in which the some of the surviving participants told of their experiences both in Windermere and subsequently.  You can see some of the details discussed at:


Why should I feel so proud of what my country achieved then?  After all, it was nothing to do with me.  I was only eight and probably didn't know where Windermere was.  (there wasn't much travelling cor the likes of me during the war).

 But I do feel shame at my country's current indifference to the plight of all refugees, not just children, today.  Specifically, last week the Dubs Amendment  to accept unaccompanied refugee children with family connections in the UK, which the House of Lords re-inserted into the EU Withdrawal Bill, was again removed by the Johnson government and its 80 seat Commons majority

A letter in  yesterday's Guardian form a Bob Finch,  points out that practical humane gestures are actually a well established feature of our tradition.  He reminds us that in1552 King Edward VI set up Christ's Hospital:

  "to take out of the streets  all the fatherless children  and other poore men's children  that  were not able to keep them and bring them to the late dissolved house  of the Greie ffryers wch they devysed to be an hospital for them where they should have meate, drincke and cloths, lodging and learning and officers to attend upon them."

Mr Finch suggest that the 1 000 unaccompanied refugee children on Lesbos could be shared out between the UK's 500 boarding schools, two apiece. with the government, or charities (most of these schools are charities) footing the bill.  Given the memoires of Roald Dahl and others some might dismiss this solution as further child cruelty, but it's probably better than the mud and misery of the camps.  (Actually, the Windermere Camp featured an archetypal bullying PE master - so those refuges survived even that.  One went on to captain the British Weight-Lifting team at the Olympics).

Since we have a government which determinedly puts its own and the interests of its backers first, what we seem to be lacking is philanthropists  of the calibre of Leonard Montefiore to rescue some of today's refugees, and some of our reputation. 

Monday, 27 January 2020

Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th january 2020

According to Primo Levi's account ("If this is a Man," Chapter 17) the Germans  evacuated Auschwitz on 18th January 1945 as the Russian armies approached.  He writes:

All the healthy prisoners (except a few prudent ones who at the last moment undressed and hid themselves in the hospital beds) left during [that] night. . . They must have been about twenty thousand, coming from different camps.  Almost in their entirety they vanished during the evacuation march. . . Perhaps someone will write their story one day.

By what turned out to be good fortune, a week earlier Levi had  been diagnosed with scarlet fever and consigned to the hospital.  The guards appear  to have forgotten, or deliberately decided to abandon, the sick, who were left behind.  They also left behind some potatoes in the kitchen.  After collecting some, and finding a stove on which to cook them, Levi writes:

It was essential to get [the stove] working.  We all three [Levi and two fellow patients] had our hands paralysed  while the icy metal stuck to the skin of our fingers, but it was vitally urgent to set it up to warm ourselves to boil the potatoes.  We found wood and coal as well as embers  from the burnt huts [which had been bombed and abandoned.]

When. . . the stove began to spread its heat, something seemed to relax in everyone, and Towarowski (a Franco-Pole of twenty-three, typhus) proposed to the others that each of them offer a slice of bread to us three who had been working.  And so it was agreed.

Only a day before  a similar event would have been inconceivable.  The law of the Lager said: 'eat your own bread, and, if you can, that of your neighbour', and left no room for gratitude.    It really meant that the Lager was dead.  

It was the first human gesture  that occurred among us.  I believe that that moment can be dated as the beginning of the change  by which we who had not died slowly changed from Häftlinge (prisoners) to men again.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Four cheers for the BBC

I squirm with embarrassment  whenever one of our politicians claims that this that or the other British institution or attribute is "the best in the world and the envy of the world,"  when it patently isn't. Candidates for this misplaced accolade are variously our justice system , our "Mother" of parliaments, our football leagues, our sense of "fair play"(sic), our inventiveness and maybe even our sense of humour.

The one  institution which actually deserves the accolade is the BBC, respected throughput the world  for its impartial news services and admired for its creative dramas.  So why are our politicians, particularly Tories with puffed up illusions about our importance on the world stage, so keen to trash it ?

One answer in respect of the Tories is that the success of the BBC demonstrates that their central belief, that capitalist institutions motivated by the urge to maximise profits are the best and indeed only effective way to keep the wheels of the world turning, is a fake.  The BBC's continued success  is a constant reminder of the falsity of their core belief.

Not that I believe the BBC to be perfect.  Their mistaken belief that "balance" requires that minority cranks (Normal Lamont on climate change, Patrick Minford on Economics, Nigel Farage on Europe)  be given equal  time  along with the established views of "experts" has done considerable harm.  Their interviewers are as often harassing as they are enlightening.  Too much time is spent by the BBC on advertising itself.  Radio 3 broadcasts as much prattle as it used to do music, presumably in order to compete with Classic FM.  "The Archers" characters and their stories become more unrealistic every day, in order, I presume, to attract younger listeners.  And thy pay their male stars too much in comparison to their  female ones.

Of course the BBC needs to adapt in both its financing and organisation, to accommodate to developments in technology and the availability of streaming devices.  But this should be done in a co-operative and friendly way, not by bullying threats to its licence fee.  I note  that both France and Germany finance their public service broadcasting with licence fees,  You can see the details, along with other countries, here.

In my year in France I was moved by an elderly couple, fellow members of the church choir, who confided that as youngsters during the war  they had crowded round their illict radio to gain the truth about what was happening from the BBC World Service.  Frankly I would make that service totally independent of the Foreign Office and give it a virtually blank cheque.

As to the rest of this wonderful institution, it should negotiate necessary change in the knowledge that it is a cherished part of our national life and an invaluable source of international influence.  And The Johnson government should take that on board.