Friday 24 March 2023

Johnson on Planet Z?

I watched most of ex-PM Johnson’s “appearance” before the Commons Privileges Committee, mostly because it was an historic occasion (as far as I know it has never happened to any other ex-PM), and a little bit because I wanted to see this former Eton Schoolboy whose report said of him that “he thinks the ordinary rules don’t apply to him” finally get his comeuppance. One thing is clear: if he honestly, really , truly, “on my heart” didn’t realise that the parties did not observe the rules his government was laying down for everyone else, than he isn’t fit to be responsible for feeding the Downing Street cat, never mind governing the country. However, that is not what the Committee must decide but rather: “Were his lies inadvertent?, negligent?” The wonder is that it will take another week or two for the Committee to publish their findings. The rest of the world must be laughing their socks off. Here’s a well-tried aphorism to help the Committee: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it probably is a duck. Apart from the effrontery of denying what he obviously knew, there are two other aspects of the “evidence” which show his lack of empathy with his fellow citizens. 1. He implied throughout that the Downing Street Staff were entitled to some leeway because they “ worked very hard under considerable pressure." Probably true. So did millions of others: NHS staff struggling with life and death issues without adequate resources and protection because the government had failed to prepare for the predicted pandemic and implement the recommendations of the Cygnus Exercise conducted only a few years previously, while his own party were in power. Ditto care home staff. Ditto, to a lesser extent, the education services, the hospitality industry , emergency services and delivery drivers. 2. He argued again and again that these parties were “leaving dos” and were therefore “essential” work events. Most of us change jobs several times in our careers. I suspect very few people these days stay in the same job from day one to retirement. So leaving a job is by no means a unique lifetime event. I have done it eight times, (to clarify, have carried on doing the same job, teaching, but at different schools and institutions.) I’ve had to think very hard to recall what, if anything, marked my leaving each one. After four years in my first appointment I think I got a mention from the Headmaster in Assembly. (We still started each day with a story a hymn and a prayer in those days). After three years in the next, a small primary school, the staff bought me an LP record. It was of the Huddersfield Choral Society singing Haydn’s “Creation.” It conains the chorus "Achieved is the glorous work," which I arrogantly thought apt, but whether or not they did is another matter. The next one, after six years, I organised myself in the pub at the bottom of the school hill. This was very much a farewell “do” as my next job was at the other side of the world in Papua New Guinea. Against some of their jokey expectations I survived. I can’t remember anything about the other five. My final “retirement” was a bit of a damp squib because they weren’t sure whether or not they would “need me” the following school year. It may well be that some of the “leaving dos” in Downing Street marked the end of long and distinguished careers, but I have the impression that most marked the end of short-term stints. Contrast Downing street’s laxity with the rules pertaining to, and rigorously observed, in the highly significant “leaving dos” we all experience in our lifetimes: the funerals of our relatives and friends, very often dearly loved grandparents, parents, partners, siblings, contacts and colleagues. At some no relatives or friends were allowed at all. At others numbers were strictly limited, social distancing had to be observed both during the ceremony and traveling to and from the funeral, and relaxed socially gatherings after the ceremony to reminisce about the “dear departed” simply didn’t happen. We simply went home, often alone. Against this austere but necessary approach, which Johnson emphasised time and gain from his podium, the indulgence of the Downing Street trivialities is crass and insensitive. Johnson simply doesn’t understand: he is not fit for office.

Monday 20 March 2023

It's parliament that's on trial.

Johnson before the Privileges Committee It is a measure to which British politics has sunk that the media seem to believe that there is at lest a possibility that our ex Prime Minister Johnson might be exonerated by the House of Commons Privileges Committee when he appears before them on Wednesday to claim that he did not knowingly lie to the Commons when he said that that “all lockdown rules were observed” in Downing Street when the series of “Partygate “ events was held. What is at stake is far more than Johnsons reputation, which is soiled beyond repair in the eyes of most of us. It is that of parliament itself. If the committee of seven MPs, four Tories, two Labour and one SNP do not find Johnston guilty of lying, preferably unanimously but at least by a majority, and recommend a sufficiently severe sanction, then our claim to be a liberal democracy is beschmisched. Mr Johnson’s supporters tell the media, and they dutifully report, that he is confident he will receive a clean bill of health. This could be true, as he appears to be a master of self deception. However Andrew Rawlinson in yesterday's Observer (19/03/2300) details the history that shows the facts do not support the claim of confidence. Briefly they are: 1) While still Prime Minister, Johnson did his best to block the reference to the Privileges Committee; 2) When this ploy failed No 10 delayed for months submitting to the Committee the evidence (What’s App records etc) it had requested; 3) By persisting with its requests, the Committee was accused of conducting a “witch hunt”; 4) When the written evidence was eventually produced, it was redacted to such as extent as to be almost meaningless; 5) The Metropolitan Police, after their own investigation, issued 126 fines for breakages of the law, including one to Johnson; 6) When the civil servant Sue Gray was known to have accepted a post with the Labour Party, her report, which had been hailed as impartial, fair and factual, including by Johnson himself, wqas and is now claimed to be biased and unreliable. Mr johnson's presence at several paries is sevidenced by photographs. If ever there was an “open and shut” case, this must be it. Any claim that Johnson “did not know” that he was there, or that it was a "party" is risible. But Johnson has a reputation of being like a “greased piglet.” His attempts to wriggle free could provide material for our satirists for years to come - a fitting end to a “beyond awful” career in politics. We must hope.

Thursday 16 March 2023

A "nothing changes" budget

The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, finished his speech on an upbeat note: “Inflation down, debt falling, growth up.” Well, that’s certainly world-beating perception management. It’s all true, but fails to mention that inflation at the end of the year will still be at 2.9%, nearly half as much again as the 2% target level, [government] debt is predicted to fall, but will still be 30% above the acceptable level, and growth, at a predicted 0.2%, is the lowest in the G7 and a tiny fraction of the 3% the politicians would like to see. It is hard to see how the budget is likey to do anything to make the UK a happier place. We have three major social/economic problems in Britain, inequality, poverty and low productivity. The budget does little or nothing to alleviate any of them. In fact, inequality and poverty are likely to become worse Our level of inequality is unacceptable because it is so demonstratively unfair. People on average incomes and below, however comfortable in absolute terms their lifestyles might be, cannot be expected to be satisfied with their lot if the people at the top are creaming off shedloads. Examples abound. According to figures in last November’s “Prospect” magazine Lloyds Banking Group pays its CEO £8.9m a year, 255 times the average pay (£28, 005) of the lower quartile of employees. For Greggs its £2m, 98 time £19, 824. In 2022 the UK the median household (not individual, household) income was £32 300. An income sufficient to allow them to increase their annual pension pot contribution from £40 000 to £60 000, as permitted by this budget, would be beyond their wildest dreams in a different world. While assisting the well-off to become even better off, the budget does little or nothing to reduce the levels of poverty of which this rich country should be deeply ashamed. The cruel bedroom tax persists, as does the cutting off of benefits to the third and any subsequent children. Benefits, already inadequate, will receive only below-inflation increases. About 1 in 5 households are forced to exist below the poverty line (eg having to chose between eating and heating), over 4m children live in poverty, more than half of them in households where at least one parent is in work. Although the UK is a rich country (still sixth in the world) we would be even richer if, instead of stagnating, our economy grew at the same rate as comparable countries. The budget attempts to tackle the problem by increasing the number of workers. The availability of child care is to be vastly extended in the hope of tempting more parents into paid employment. Hence, the economy gets two for the price of one. Every sixth-former who studies economics learns that if a householder does his/her own cleaning or car repairs nothing is added to GDP. However if he/she employs a cleaner or a garage, then the cleaner’s or mechanic’s wages are added to GDP, which therefore grows. The additional child-care employee’s wages are added to GDP as are the wages of the former home-maker if he/she takes to opportunity to go out for paid employment, or, in this day and age, works from home without the distraction of keeping an eye on toddler. Surely this is the wrong tack? We have enough “stuff” and there’s enough to satisfy everyone if we leaned to share it properly. What would improve our quality of life is more leisure, more family time (including nurturing the children), more enjoying friendships, more walking in the countryside, more playing games,more time to appreciate the wonders of the world we live in. Not more work, but more productive work in less time. To achieve this we need investment. The budget’s exemption from tax for profits invested may achieve this, but what we really need is a change in the culture: to encourage those with spare money to use it for long-term investment rather that a short-term pitch in the markets.

Monday 13 March 2023

Beyond awful

It is unfortunate that most of the media’s reporting of the banning of Gary Lineker from the BBC has centred around his allusion to the “language used by Germany in the 1930s” rather than his actual description of the government’s policy on asylum seekers as: “Beyond awful. . . an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people.” This has enabled Tory mouthpieces to distract attention from the actual policy and criticism by cries of foul, unfair, a gross exaggeration etc.” Tory perception management never misses an opportunity. It is hugely encouraging that the “sporting fraternity and sorority” have massed around Mr Lineker in support and the BBC has been forced to abandon its flagship sports programme in its usual form. Well done to them for for standing up for common decency when our politicians haven’t dared. I hope that when the fuss has died down it is the description of the policy which stays in the public mind rather than the distraction of Germany. Gary Lineker has done us a favour. In thirteen years of mean, selfish and incompetent government encompassing the bedroom tax, the cut in overseas aid, the “test and trace” shambles, government procurement via a VIP line of "mates," the illegal prorogation of parliament, and “partygate,” to name but some, we critics have exhausted our lexicon of descriptions: unbelievable, shambolic, bizarre, beyond belief, incomprehensible, cruel, inhumane .. . . So thanks, Mr Lineker, for another string to our bow. I hope “beyond awful” will in future be prefixed to every mention of this Conservative government, and their trademark populist policies, until they are ousted. Maybe it will even live on in history. To help foreign correspondents, in the languages in which I have a smattering “beyond awful” is , in French “ au delà d’horrible”; German, “überaus schrecklich”; Italian “oltre terribile;” Chichewa,” kupitirira zoopsa” and neo- Melanesian, ” long hap nogut.”

Wednesday 8 March 2023

Four cheers for Gary Lineker (and none for the BBC)

“The Church sleeps on. It sleeps on while 60 000 people are moved from their homes in the interest of a fantastic racial theory: it sleeps on while plans are made (and implemented) to transform the education of Africans into a thing called “Native Education” - which will erect a permanent barrier against Western culture reaching the African at all: it sleeps on while a dictatorship is swiftly being created over all Native Affairs in the Union, so that speech and movement and association are no longer free... In God’s name. Cannot the Church bestir itself all over the world and act? Cannot Christians everywhere show their distress in practical ways by so isolating South Africa from contact with all civilised communities that she realises the position and feels some pain in it? “ That is a quotation from a famous article by the celebrated Anti-apartheid priest and Mirfield Father Trevor Huddleston in the Observer in 1954. The frustration Huddleston expressed about the Churches’ indifference to the evils of Apartheid mirrors the frustration we Liberals and liberals are experiencing about the indifference today’s British public appear to feel about the callousness of our current government , and in particular its inhumane and probably illegal policy towards immigrants and asylum seekers. How can it be that a quarter of us are still prepared to vote for them and, allegedly, their policy towards migrants has 55% approval? Sone weeks ago in "The New European" Will Self gave this as an explanation: (I paraphrase). Political anoraks (such as me) are a minority. Most people don’t think much about politics, except perhaps at election time, when they vote on a “general impression.” In between-times their concerns don’t move much beyond “their minor ailments, sex and the price of petrol.” I do not believe this is said in a patronising way, given that I presume “the price of petrol” is a shorthand for the struggle to make ends meet, and I know that our respective minor aliments form a large part of every conversation I have with my contemporaries. As today’s pitiful display in the Punch and Judy performance which passes for Prime Minister’s Questions Time illustrates, the major parties are too terrified to raise their standards on behalf of the migrants. Sunak claims to speak “on behalf of the British people” (twice) to “implement the British people’s priority;” Starmer highlights the failure of the various policies so far after 13 years in power, but offers no alternatives (establish legal and safe ways to get here, even booths saying “welcome to Britain,” and have a department large enough to “process” them as rapidly as possible so that they can get on with boosting our economy and earning my pension); and Ed Davey avoids the issue altogether by choosing to highlight ambulance delays. This is why the intervention of the former star footballer and current presenter of “Match of the Day” Gary Lineker is greatly to be welcomed. The “non-anoraks” know about him, listen to him, and trust him. And, because his job does not depend on it (or it shouldn’t ) he is prepared to be frank rather than emulate the politicians’ circumlocutory evasions. His opinion: “Good heavens [this policy] is beyond awful.” yes indeed. The facts: “There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries” (Germany, 164,925; France, 112 860; UK, 74 750 over the same most recent period.) Another opinion: “This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used in Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order.” Note that he’s talking about the language, not the actions. And he’s not the first one to point out that senior Tories are using inflammatory language, which is very successfully inflaming the situation. Perhaps that's what they intend. Lineker’s intervention should be welcomed, not censored. He joins with honour one of his successors as a famous footballer, Marcus Rashford, whose intervention obtained school meals in the holidays for those entitled to them in term time. If our politicians are too cowardly to lead, then it is important for others with decent views to fill the gap, and those in the limelight have a special responsibility.

Tuesday 7 March 2023

Yet another toxic Brexit "freedom."

An earlier post describes how our government has used our Brexit-acquired “freedom” from EU regulations to postpone the EU requirement to stop polluting all (sic) our rivers and water resources by 2027, to the later date of 2063 (yes, forty years later, rather than four), and then only 75% of them rather than all. Now, announced last month, we are to use our "freedom" to suspend the EU’s ban on the use of neonicotinoids, an insecticide used in agriculture. These insecticides are apparently toxic to bees. Experts (of whom some members of the Tory party have “had enough”) tell us that bees play a vital function in preserving and maintaining the ecological system on which we all depend. Indeed, the worst-case scenario claims that without bees life as we know it would not exist. You can read about the importance of bees, and other threats to them caused by climate change and intensive farming, here. So, with casual indifference, our government has decided to ignore the dangers to future generations for short-term gains to the UKs sugar-beet growers, who find neonicotinoids useful in protecting their crops. It is worth noting that, until we joined the Common Market, sugar beet was not a traditional home-grown product. We obtained our sugar from the Caribbean. However, the much derided Common Agricultural Policy ( CAP) gave substantial subsidies to the continental sugar-beet growers, so the UK’s farmers , quite naturally, jumped on the bandwagon. I find it shaming that, while the EU, for the sake of the future of the planet, sticks bravely to the neonicotinoids ban, the UK breaks ranks. Similarly, in regard to immigration and asylum seeking, our government appears to flaunt with pride its policy of sailing as closely as possible to the limits of international law, and possibly beyond them. Although we were never perfect, throughout my lifetime the UK has had the reputation of being a leading advocate and practitioner of of decency, compassion, intelligent pragmatism and respect for the law. The present government is daily tearing this reputation to shreds. >

Wednesday 1 March 2023

Super Sunak? Well, maybe not quite yet.

Prime Minister Sunak's new "deal" with the EU on our trading relationships with Northern Ireland, artfully called the "Windsor Framework," is receiving plaudits all round (well, almost). The “adults” are back in control, is the general opinion. It remains to be seen whether the hard line Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland , and the hard-right so called European Research Group of Tories in the Westminster parliament, will be won over, and whether ex Prime Minister Johnson will feel he has enough support to lead opposition to it. This will take about a fortnight. If they all cave in Sunak’s image will be bathed in yet more sunshine and he may even begin to look more like a winner for the next election. Whether that happens or not, I hope the lasting legacy of his present triumph is that it has exposed the lies and deceit by which Johnson sold his far from “oven ready” Northern Ireland Protocol. One newspaper headline exposed the truth succinctly: “Brexit gets done – again (hopefully.) For the sake of all of us, and not just the people of Northern Ireland, I hope that the “Framework “ sticks, and indeed becomes the first step in “the long arduous process of undoing Brexit” as Rafael Behr puts in in today’s Guardian. What I hope will eventually emerge is that all Sunak has achieved is the undoing of a tatty bit of tawdry deception engineered by probably the least competent ever of his predecessors – and something which he himself supported and so, as a senior member of the cabinet which approved it, bears a large measure of responsibility for it. What has received very little attention amidst the carefully choreographed “suspense” surrounding the release of this “Framework” is that Monday 27 February, marked the seventieth anniversary of the London Debt Agreement, signed in 1953. This genuinely landmark accord cancelled, without any reservations, half of Germany’s external debts. The other half was "restructured." You can see the details here. The reason was that the Western Allies, effectively in charge of the instructions to regulate international finace (IMF, World Bank and the GATT) realised that Marshall Aid was not enough, and that Germany could not become a viable democracy, market for the products of the rest of the world, and a bulwark against military aggression, whilst burdened with crippling debt. The anniversary serves as a reminder that: 1) external debt can be cancelled; 2) this does not lead to “moral hazard;” 3) debt cancelation enables countries to provide a humane standard of living for their citizens . . . .) and contribute to world economic development; 5) condescending terms such as “forgiveness” and “charity” need not be used; 6) private firms and individuals (eg Donald Trump) can go bankrupt, have their debts cancelled, and then “bounce back;” 7) there are 52 countries in the world burdened with unpayable debt and whose citizens are living in extreme poverty (eg where often more is spent on debt servicing than on health and education put together); 8) much of the debt is no longer held by the original lenders, but by “Vultures” who have bought it at a discount and are determined to extract every penny of their “investment.” You can find further and better particulars here. When the World banking system was in jeopardy after the 2008/9 crisis Mr Sunak’s distinguished predecessor Gordon Brown successfully organised the rest of the world to save the banks from their folly and the rest of us from destitution. Now, debt is a “world problem” worthy of Mr Sunak’s attention, if he has the will and genuine “pragmatic” skills. Will he rise to the challenge?