Thursday 27 May 2021

Confessions of a Cummings

 If Prime Minster Johnson's illegal prorogation of parliament in the autumn of 2019 marked the end of the "good chaps theory of government," then yesterday's intemperate revelations by Dominic Cummings mark the end of the era of common decency  in public political discord.  The uninhibited  criticisms untempered by any vestige of politeness, and their reporting in today's media, must be the most bizarre episode in UK politics in a century.

It is refreshing that the "revelations" contained few if any of the evasions and fudges so common from politicians of all stripes, but particularly government ministers and spokespersons, but the Cummings tirade has exceed the boundaries of ordinary courtesy.

 Revenge porn at its worst?

The revelations do not in fact reveal anything those of us who have been following events  didn't already know or a least suspect. Those who need to refresh their memories could read items 10 to 20 of this indictment of Johnson in an earlier post.  For even greater detail read "Failures of the State.  the Inside Story of Britain's Battle with Coronavirus," by Sunday Times reporters Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott (HarperCollins 2021)

Nevertheless it is interesting to have conformation of the reality of events from the inside.

Whether these lurid accusations  will make an immediate political difference remains to be seen. So far Johnson and his Cabinet have been "Teflon coated."  Johnson has an ebullient personality which is attractive to many who seem happy to give him the benefit of the doubt in an admittedly difficult situation.  I'm beginning to wonder if this preference for personality over competence is the result of the fact that the voting most people do these days is  to retain or throw people off "Love Island" or to get "Celebrities. . .out of Here."

However, I'm pretty certain that, sooner or later, the Johnson shine will fade (as did Margaret Thatcher's and Tony Blair's) and competence and relevance will come to be seen as more important in making serous political choices.

What I have seen no mention of so far in the media furore is the "in depth" reason for our failure to deal competently with the pandemic:  the systematic underfunding of the NHS and care system over a decade with the result that,  when the pandemic struck, our health and care systems had no spare capacity to deal with it.

As the King's Fund  reports:

During the period of austerity that followed the 2008 economic crash, the Department of Health and Social Care budget continued to grow but at a slower pace than in previous years. Budgets rose by 1.4 per cent each year on average (adjusting for inflation) in the 10 years between 2009/10 to 2018/19, compared to the 3.7 per cent average rises since the NHS was established.

 Although from the accession of the Conservative-led government in 2010 the NHS was supposed to be protected from cuts, in fact, in order to "stand still" the health and care services need above inflation increase in order to accommodate increasing longevity (such as me) and advances in, but increasingly expensive, medical techniques.

 And Britain's heath and care crevices were not in a robust state to begin with.

As journalist John Kampfner records, Germany has 8.3 hospital beds per 1 000 population, France 7.3  and the UK 2.7.  At the start of the pandemic Germany had 28 000 intensive care unit beds,  the UK           4 100.  Germany has 4.1 doctors per 1000 population , the EU average is 3.5 and the UK 2.8. (Pages 223/4, "Why the Germans do it Better." Atlantic books, 2020)

 So the "tens of thousands" of people who have so far died unnecessarily in the pandemic are partly the result of current government  errors, some of which may be  excusable, but mostly  the result of the British illusion, fostered by both major patsies, that we can have Scandinavian-style public services  with US scale taxes.

We can't, and we need to grow up and recognise this.

If there is to be a "new era" of politics  after the pandemic, and I hope there will be,  we need grown up political parties who will speak to a grown up electorate about realistic taxation levels to fund the public services we think we deserve.


Post script, added 17h45.

 The Ko-Ko Defence

 I had intended to leave the emphasis on the longer term rather than immediate causes  of the pandemic catastrophe rather than of the failings of the current government , but I have just caught a clip of Health Secretary Matt Hancock's defence in response to Cummings's the accusation that in the Cabinet room Hancock  assured colleagues that elderly people in hospital would all be tested for the virus before the were returned to their care homes.

 It went like this (I prĂ©cis):

I knew what had to be done.

So I planned how to do it,

My team worked tirelessly to prepare and implement the plan.

and [eventually] it was done.

 Though he didn't actually say "eventually." 

This reminds me of the closing scenes of Gilbert and Sullivan's opera "The Mikado" in which the Lord High Executioner, a timid chap called Ko-Ko, has to explain to the somewhat bloodthirsty Mikado why he, Ko-Ko, hasn't actually executed anyone.

"It's like this:  When your Majesty says, 'Let a thing be done,' it's as good as done -practically, it is done - because  your Majesty's will is law.  Your Majesty says, 'Kill a gentleman,' and a gentleman is tolld off to be killed .  Consequently that gentleman is as good as dead - practically he is dead. - and if he is dead, why not say so?"

Gilbert, thou shoulds't be living at this hour.





Friday 21 May 2021

The princes and the BBC

Rightly or wrongly our royal family share with the BBC the distinction of being one of Britain's most internationally admired  institutions.  That being the case Princes William and Harry may come to regret their outspoken welcomes for Lord Dyson's highly critical report on the BBC in relation to Martin Bashir's interview with their mother in 1995.

Of course those of us who have not experienced similar family disruptions cannot begin to understand the pain  the two boys must have experienced at the time, and which they still feel.  Psychologists tell us that all children see their parents, even those that are not  potential kings and queens, as magic figures who can solve any problem. 

To see these magic figures  reduced to common humanity by a marriage break-up followed by divorce is a shattering experience.  For  that to be followed by the death of one's mother in an accident caused by others  compounds the distress.

We are told by those who pretend to know that both princes, and particularly Prince Harry,  are resentful of media intrusion into their lives.

They need to be careful what they wish for.  What would be most harmful to the prestige of the royal family would be if  the media, and hence the public,  stopped taking much notice of their affairs.

As readers of  Barwise and York's thoroughly researched book "The War Against the BBC" know,  the Corporation is currently in grave danger from  Conservative Governments who are looking for  excuses to cl[p its wings, have already  reduced its funding by 30% since 2010, and are hoping to create space for its commercial rivals of the Fox News type.

The BBC needs friends

The BBC can be relied upon for a reverential attitude towards to the royal family.  The princes would be well advised, despite their justifiable distress, not to bite the hand that helps to feed them. 


Post script (added 25th May)

The Guardian failed to print my letter pointing out the hypocrisy of the government which has seized power through  duplicity, distortion, false promises  and downright lying should wax so indignantly about this 26 year old error of the BBC.  However I don't complain as this letter from a Mike Temple of Sidmouth, Devon put it more succinctly:

 It is reassuring to learn that Boris Johnson is "obviously very concerned" about lying, deceit and cover-ups.(Guardian letters 24th May) 

Friday 14 May 2021

Nice work (allegedly): if you can get it.

 It would  be hard to further embarrass former Tory Prime Minister David Cameron after the publicity given to his grilling by parliamentary committees yesterday, but this quotation, from  "Britain Alone " by Philip Stephens, made me smile.  

Quoting an unnamed official on what Cameron thinks about the  world the response is:

In [Cameron's ]mind "the world is somewhere  where you take your holidays."  (p340)

 Most of the following "information" is taken from an article by  Peter Geoghegan in  the "London Review of Books" 6th May 2021.

  1.  It was in a speech  made in February 2010 (just before he became Prime Minister) that David Cameron promised to "lift the lid on secret corporate lobbying" which was the next big scandal waiting to happen. This speech has now been deleted  from the Conservative Party's web-pages.
  2. Greensill, on whose behalf Cameron was so persistently lobbying, specialises in "supply chain financing." (In simple terms, as far as can see, the need for this arises because some big firms are slow to pay their suppliers.  So Greensill pays the suppliers for them but only, say 95% of the total, and then claims 100% from the purchasing  firm.)  What it does is called "reverse factoring" and does not appear on a balance sheet as debt.  It has been described as "balance sheet manipulation with a smiley face."
  3. David Cameron, after he had stood down as Prime Minister,  took positions with  Afiniti, a US data firm, became a consultant to Illumina, a biotech company, and registered with the Washington Speakers Bureau.
  4. Another former Prime Minister, Theresa May, has received more than £600 000 from this Washington Bureau in speaking  fees since the pandemic began. 
  5. For his work as an advisor to Greensill Cameron received "share options worth as much as $70 million." (This is often quoted as £60m.  The average UK wage is presently around £30 000 a year.   - so to earn, a million the worker on this average wage would have to work 33 years.  To receive £60m at this rate he or she would need to work  2000 years, or from the time Jesus was about 20 to now.)  Cameron says this estimation of £60m is "completely absurd" but refuses to disclose the actual figure, saying it is a private matter.  (Suppose it was only half that, say £30m.  That would mean working every year from "1066 and All That" until now, and you wouldn't quite make it.
  6. A Greensill company, Earnd, went into administration owing at least £400 0000 to NHS-affiliated organisations.
  7. Outsourcing now comprises one third of central government spending: hence the value to firms of effective lobbying.
  8. On stepping down (much to his credit) from  being Chancellor, Sajid Javid, still an MP, took a second job with J P Morgan at     £150 000 a year.
  9. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) is supposed to monitor these things. Its chair is Lord Pickles, former Tory leader in Bradford, who is also president of the Enterprise Forum, an organisation to "connect the business community to the Conservative Party."
  10. Nigel Boardman, the person appointed by Prime Minister Johnson to conduct the formal enquiry into Cameron's lobbying , sits on the board of a private bank chaired and majority-owned by  a major Conservative Party donor.
  11. The twice yearly register of minsters' interests has not been published since last July.

So it all seems rather relaxed and cosy.

 Peter Geoghegan's book "Democracy for Sale; dark money and dirty politics" is, in my view , essential reading for anyone interested defending and improving Britain's democracy.

Wednesday 12 May 2021

UK Democrcy: going backwards

 The "Whig view of history"  was  that, on the whole, by and large, in the main, and little by little,  our country gradually became more tolerant, more civilised, more free, and more democratic. Surely there were fits and starts, and a few stops along the way, but the inexorable movement was for things to get better for everyone.

We can see this pattern very clearly in the development of our democracy.  The happy story took the following path.

The "Great Reform Bill" of 1832 sorted out the "rotten boroughs " which had few, and in some case no, population, but two MPs, and re-allocated them to the growing cities such as Leeds and Manchester which had lots of population but no MPs

The next "Reform Bill" in 1867, when Disraeli, a Tory never one to miss a trick , "caught the Liberals bathing and stole their clothes" and gave the right to vote to lots of householding men.  The act of voting, the ballot, was made secret in 1872 and the right to vote, the franchise extended to yet more men in Gladstone's 1884 "Third Reform Bill" and to women in 1918, provided they had reached years of discretion (30: men reached them at 21).

 Ten years later  the age limit was lowered and women could also vote at 21. The age was lowered to 18 for everyone in1969.  In Scotland it has now been lowered to 16 for devolved elections.  

 Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland use moderately proportional electoral systems for their Parliament and Assemblies, and local govenment, but First Past the Post is still the rule in England, except for a supplementary vote in the election of Metro-Mayors  and Crime Commissioners.

In parallel moves over a longer period Magna Carta in 1215 established that the government (in those days the Monarch ) was not above the law.   The "Glorious Revolution " of 1688 established the supremacy of parliament over the government, the powers of the House of Lords were reduced to the right to delay legislation for two years rather than defeat it in 1911 and this was reduced to one year in 1949.  

Life Peers were introduced in 1958 and these could be women.  The number of hereditary peers allowed to sit was reduced to 99 in 1999 (the existing hereditary peers elect them from their number).

 In 2011 the Fixed Term Parliament Act took away the prime minister's right to call a general election when he thought his party had the best chance of winning.  In future parliaments would run for a regular term (5years) as legislatures do  in most countries and the timing of elections was "fair" to all.

And so on: onwards and upwards.

That is, until 2021.

 In yesterday's "Queen's Speech" which sets out the government's programme for the parliamentary session:

  • people will be allowed to vote only if they can produce photographic proof of their identity.  This is allegedly to reduce voter fraud, for which there is negligible evidence in the UK.  It will potentially disenfranchise up to 2 million voters, mostly  from the more marginalised groups, who, surprise surprise, are least likely to vote Tory.  The US call it "voter suppression."
  • The Fixed Term Parliament Act is to be repealed, thus returning  the right of calling an election to one of the contenders at a time when he or she thinks will be most favourable to their own party
  • There are to be restrictions on the right to protest, particularly if you make a noise.
  • Measure which claim to increase freedom of speech (and prevent so-called no platforming of undesirables in universities,) are likely to reduce it.
  • The right to judicial review of government actions to ensure that they do not break the law is to be reduced.
  • Elections with a "supplementary vote" to ensure that the winner is supported by a majority, are to be returned to First Past the Post and so often result in the  return of a  minority.

This is indeed the end of "the good chaps theory of government."



Monday 3 May 2021

Johnson: the detailed indictment



In an earlier post, Lest We Forget"  I have isolated four issues for which Prime Minister Johnson must be held responsible, and one pre-Johnson issue for which the Tory party is responsible, all of which should not be forgotten as the Tories bask in the successful roll-out of the vaccine by the NHS, for which they claim the credit, and which is leading to a welcome reduction in the restrains of lockdown.

The following items are nearly all taken from an article by Jonathan Freedland  in last Saturday's Guardian and form a very comprehensive list  of Mr Johnson's errors, omissions and excesses.

  1. The mysteries surrounding the financing of the refurbishing of the Downing Street flat.
  2. The post-Grenfell  Fire Safety Bill, which makes lease-holders responsible for making their flats safe.
  3. The financing of the  2019 holiday in Mustique.
  4. The breaking of the 2019 manifesto pledge to retain overseas  aid at 0.7% of GDP, leading to. . .
  5. . . . the cutting by 80% of funding for the provision of clean water. . .
  6. . . . cuts in UN Family Planning programmes . . 
  7. . . . leading to increased child deaths
  8. The highest (so far) Covid death toll in Europe . . .
  9. . . . along with the deepest economic recession in the G7.
  10. Delayed lockdown in March.
  11. Delayed lockdown in September.
  12. Multi family hug-in over Christmas, reduced at the last minute from five days to one.
  13. Borders remaining open during much of  the crisis period.
  14. Failure to take the early stages of the pandemic seriously by missing five Cobra meetings and. . .
  15. . .  .permitting and attending an international rugby match and. . .
  16. . . . permitting the Cheltenham (horse racing) Festival 2020 to continue with crowds.
  17. Establishing  a VIP line  which gave barely qualified friends and Tory donors privileged access for  PPE contracts.
  18. £37 billion spent over three years  on an ineffective Test, Trace and Isolate system.
  19. Initial failure to  provide meals during holidays to schoolchildren  entitled to free meals in term time.
  20. Failure to sack Dominic Cummings after his "eyesight testing" trip north against government guidelines.
  21.  Failure to sack Robert Jenrick for unlawfully overturning a planning decision to save a Tory donor £45m.
  22. Re-appointing Gavin Williamson to the cabinet only two months after  he had been sacked by Mrs May for leaking sensitive information.
  23. Failure to sack Mr Williamson after the 2020 examinations fiasco.
  24. Failing to sack Priti Patel after she had been found to have broken the ministerial code.
  25. Promising there would be no border down the Irish Sea.
  26. Signing up to  a protocol which established such a border.
  27. Sacking, or causing to resign, six senior civil servants, induing the cabinet secretary.
  28. Being prepared to break international law in the Internal Markets Bill.
  29. Illegally proroguing parliament
  30. Promulgating the lie of £350m per week for the NHS to support the Brexit campaign.
  31. As Foreign Secretary, asserting that Mrs Zaghari- Ratcliffe had been training journalists in Iran, leading to her prolonged incarceration.
  32. Joking that Sirte in Libya would be a nice place to visit once the dead bodies had been cleaned from the airport.
  33. Allegedly claiming that he would prefer to see "bodies pile high" rather than introduce a lockdown.
  34. As Mayor of London squandering  public money on a "Garden Bridge," High Wire crossing of the Thames and an airport on the Isle  of Grain . . .
  35. . . .and channelling public money to his then girlfriend, Jennifer Arcuri.
  36. Racist musings about the "half-Kenyan" Barack Obama.
  37. Taunts about Muslim women as "bank robbers" and "letter boxes". . .
  38. . . . and African children as "piccaninnies."    
  39. Blaming "drunken fans" for the Hillsborough disaster. . . 
  40. . . . and accusing the people of Liverpool of "wallowing in victimhood."
  41. Making himself the arbiter of whether or not the ministerial code has been broken.
  42. As a student, being a member of the Bullingdon club  which thought destroying restaurants was "fun."
  43. At the WTO, blocking moves to persuade  "big pharma" to take the COVID Vaccines out of patent, so as to make the maximum  number of vaccines available to all countries at the lowest possible cost.