Category Archives: politics

On Voting, And Emma Nicholson


“If voting could change anything, they’d make it illegal.” Old saying, from the 1960s counterculture.
The latest eruption in the ongoing culture wars, fuelled by Twitter as ever, is against Baroness (Emma) Nicholson of Winterbourne, who has been stripped of her largely honorary post on the committee that awards the Booker Prize. Her late husband set up the award many years ago.
Her crime was to vote, again some years ago, against the legal establishment of gay marriage. Various authors, one of them gay, say this now makes her unsuitable.
Not entirely clear how this connects, especially as this is an honorary post, as I have said. I know a little about Nicholson. She appears to be a typical Shires Tory lady. I doubt she and I agree on anything much but I have to respect her views. She has done a lot of good work for the disabled.
The key point here, and one largely missed I think, is the word vote. Nicholson has been vilified and sacked because, in a democratic vote some years ago, she voted in a way that some now disapprove of. This is how democracy is supposed to work, a free and fair ballot on any subject, and to punish someone for voting the wrong way, some years later, negates the whole concept of democracy, then. And sets, I suggest, a very dark precedent.
For a fair discussion of all this, see today’s column by my fellow Suffolk resident, former colleague and a very brave journalist, Janice Turner.

On The Collapse Of Our Civilisation, And More Cheerful Matters

So where are we today? (I did love the story the other day that NASA, I think, had detected activity in the outer atmosphere of Mars. A bit like the first chapter of HG Wells’ The War Of The Worlds. And a potential war between the nuclear-armed India and China. 2020 is truly the gift that keeps on giving, and we are less than half way through.)
Johnson has ended lockdown, effectively, because he thinks several hundred thousand more deaths will be less politically damaging than five or six million job losses.
Those job losses will be laid at his door because they would not have happened, thosee jobless will know, if he had not ended the lockdown. They will diminish that, to me, baffling popularity he enjoys among a proportion of the electorate who accept that bumbling, Billy  Bunteresque, fluffy haired persona he has constructed. (The reality is something much darker, as those who know him better than I do have written.) It will hit those people especially hardest in the former Labour constituencies that gifted him the last election.
Two hundred thousand deaths or potentially more can be spun away as an unavoidable sacrifice – “world-beating” efforts to combat the virus, the Olympic levels of lies and deceit we have seen so far. “Hundreds of thousands’” of tests each day. Demonstrably untrue. Just lies, in plain sight.
People want to believe Johnson because they do not want to accept they have taken in by the lies so far and been deceived. Confirmation bias, it is called.
Let’s move forward. Tory MPs know Johnson is leaking that baffling popularity that won him the last election like air from a deflating balloon. The Cummings affair only accelerated that. They will bin him when he is no longer able to win elections for them, they judge. Not long now.
No one wants to take over, even though, as I have suggested here, he might not want to continue. Get the next few months over, and let him and his advisers take the blame.
We face the twin effects of a virus-induced economic collapse, our national net worth down by a fifth as measured in terms of GDP already, and the aftermath of a No Deal Brexit, which looks like what will happen because madmen think it is a good idea and the hedge fund managers will benefit and make billions. Is this where you want to be, in a country run by the functionally insane and those who will become rich from your future misery? Answers on one side of the paper only.
Put those two together and think forward for a moment.
The consequences will be at best catastrophic. Five, six million unemployed, the end of whole industries, travel, hospitality, chunks of retail, commercial property now worthless, a disintegrating housing market, banks valueless as compulsory debt forgiveness destroys their net worth. This will happen.
That is the best case scenario. The worst is this. There comes a stage when the government can no longer print/create money because no one will take it. (Economists are divided on this one.)
Food shortages, leading to mass starvation as the poor, in inner cities especially, cannot buy what they need at prices they can afford.
A level of civil disorder that resembles a minor civil war.
The lack of basic pharmaceuticals as they are held up at our borders that means hundreds of thousands will die from a shortage of anything from asthma treatments through cancer drugs to antibiotics. (Try to work out how many of our antibiotics are sourced from abroad. Not easy.)
This is pretty much the collapse of our civilisation. It is all very well to say this kind of thing can never happen here. Not in this country. Except that we have already suffered enough from the myth of British exceptionalism.

On Covid-19, And Conspiracy Theories


I do not normally do conspiracy theories, having had a few offered to me as a journalist which I politely rejected. But let us assemble a few facts and see where they might take us.
This morning Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, is widely quoted as saying the Covid-19 virus was “manufactured” in a Chinese laboratory, presumably the Wuhan Institute of Virology. (This exists; look it up.)
He quotes a Norwegian-British research paper that suggests elements of the virus’s genetic code were “inserted” artificially.
Hardly conclusive. However, fact 2. A couple of weeks ago Luc Montagnier, a French virologist who won the Nobel Prize in 2008 for his work on the AIDS virus, suggested that the Covid-19 genome, which has been decoded, seemed to include elements of quite different viruses, namely a respiratory Coronavirus and AIDS. This suggests “manipulation”, he said. “It’s not natural.”
Montaignier is something of a maverick. But I know enough science to appreciate that it is almost impossible for two such different viruses to exchange genetic material – like crossing a flamingo with a hamster. Or leaving two books together and finding that, overnight, pages of one had migrated to the other. Viruses are indeed like books – mere strings of genetic information.
This is over-simplifying, scientists will appreciate, but correct me if I am wrong. Still, a virus that affected the respiratory system and so was easily spread, combined with an immuno-suppressant, is especially lethal. If that was what you wanted.
Again, not conclusive. Still, fact 3. A week or so ago Rachel Sylvester, a columnist on The Times, where I used to work, said the Tories, left and right of the party, were turning strongly away from the PRC government. Her reasons were not entirely convincing – human rights abuses, the need to strike a trade deal with the US. This is, however, a complete turnabout from the pro-China policies of the Cameron Government, which were based on the need for stronger trade links.
She said that we could expect to see more evidence of this in coming months. Sylvester is an extremely well sourced columnist – if she says the Government is doing this or that, she will have been told this at the highest level.
Since then we have heard, extraordinarily, that the Johnson Government, not exactly a great fan of mass immigration, plans to extend citizenship rights to all three million inhabitants of Hong Kong. A plan written up approvingly by its usual supporters in the press but which has infuriated the Chinese authorities. (Who, incidentally, are frustrating attempts to research the source of the virus.)
Where does this all lead? The security services will know a great deal more than you or I about the aetiology of the virus and how it may have emerged from Wuhan.
Does someone, somewhere, know something that might make it politically expedient, a few months down the line, to say, no, we never liked the Chinese? And here is the proof.
Conspiracy theories are occasionally right. I’d give this one, say, 50/50?

On Corbyn, Eventually

I was never going to write this. I have supported Labour in pretty much every election I have ever voted in, but I am not a party member and not a party loyalist. It is not my place, then, to comment on internal party politics. And yet…
Fiona Millar tweeted today that she was not sure how much longer, after 40 years, she could stay with Labour. She is, among other things, the partner of Alastair Campbell. Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin are facing disciplinary proceedings over their respective challenges to perceived antisemitism among Corbyn supporters.
All are core party achievers who had much to do with Labour’s revival and its successes in government after 1997. Others have already left in disgust. The party that helped mobilise support against the Mosleyites in the 1930s now refuses to condemn outright and blatant antisemitism.
This is not so much the tail wagging the dog. This is the dog devouring its own entrails.
Why? Corbyn is eight years older than me. I recall the student politics of the mid-70s, a strident, fissiparous whirl of Trots, Communists, ultra-Trots, anarchists, ultra-anarchists, God knows what. They were forever passing motions in support of Albania, China, wherever, celebrating the death of Franco, condemning Pinochet or US policy, congratulating the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or the MPLA in Angola.
None of it meant anything outside that bubble. Most people involved in all that grew up and walked away, or used their undoubted political energy in more sensible ways, the trade unions, mainstream politics.
Corbyn and his ilk never grew up. There were plenty like him. He spent the next forty years swimming in the same waters. His like will have attended any number of events celebrating the Cuban revolution, condemning Israel and the US, in support of various former USSR satrapies, pro-Ghadafy, pro-Saddam, pro-Serbia in the Balkans conflict, even.
He voted for the UK to leave the EEC, as was, in 1975. This is in line with the views of Moscow at the time, as expressed by its then mouthpiece, the Morning Star, and the Communist Party. “Down with the bosses’ Europe!” (One reason I campaigned on behalf of the EEC back then was the view that anything the Kremlin thought was a bad thing, geopolitically, must have something to recommend it.)
In all this time, Corbyn and others like him will have shared a platform, especially at those anti-Israel events, with any number of antisemites, many but not all from the Arab world.
Scroll forward to 2015, and Corbyn becomes head of the Labour party, against all expectations, including, probably, his own, and against the wishes of most of those taking part in the election process. An accidental leader.
Then comes the steady drip of those meetings he had attended, in the company of antisemites and other undesirables. About one revelation a day, at present. There are the unapologetic apologies – I apologise for any offence I may have given from taking part, rather than, I apologise for even being there. Corbyn cannot apologise properly because he remains wedded to those causes.
He never grew up. He could never say, as most would and as would be the most electorally advantageous strategy for Labour today, yes I did believe some silly things in my youth but I have abandoned them. Because he hasn’t. He at least has the courage of his earlier convictions.
The people he surrounds himself with must share those convictions because this is how the far left operated all those years ago. Ideological purity is everything, so expel all those who disagree.
(I suspect John McDonnell knows this, which is why I would take a small side-bet on his becoming leader within six months. God knows what he will do with Diane Abbott.)
It is our misfortune to be alive at the concatenation of three unexpected events. The worst existential crisis to face this country, barring the Cold War, since 1945. The most grotesquely incompetent serving Conservative government since probably well before then. And the arrival of the accidental leader of the opposition, someone unable to abandon his juvenile views even though it is in his best interests, the best interests of his party and the best interests of the country, to do so.
What a state to be in.

On the 1960s, and progress

To the V&A for the You Say You Want A Revolution exhibition on the
years 1966 to 1970. There is a strict ban on photography. Which in the
spirit of the age I ignore, surreptitiously.
It is surprisingly moving. I was 10 in 1967 and have no excuse not to
remember it. Hair (actually 1968), Magical Mystery Tour… I remember
them. The 60s are a decade much derided, and there was a lot of
silliness about, well documented in the exhibition. I recall it all.
And does one really need to see the frock coat worn by Jimi Hendrix’s
drummer? More than one actually.
It was quite revealing, though. A lot of things that made an awful lot
of people’s lives an awful lot better started there. Women’s rights,
gay rights, black people’s rights, environmentalism.
You walk around the exhibition with the headphones on playing the
appropriate music. Which is then available in a 3 CD set. And there’s
a souvenir book.
The revolution will not be televised. It will be available in the gift
shop after your visit.

On Labour, And History

In the first ballot for the 1976 Labour leadership contest, I am reminded, the candidates were Jim Callaghan, Tony Benn, Anthony Crosland, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Michael Foot. Say what you like about these. Crosland helped destroy the education system. Foot – well, they subsequently had to wait three decades to find a leader who was worse.

This time round we get Jeremy Corbyn. Angela Eagle, a politician so charismatic that when she held her press conference to launch her leadership bid the entire press corps left half-way to report on the doings of someone they had never heard of a fortnight ago. You can see it here:

Oh, and Owen Something, a person whose sole qualification for the job is that he is Welsh.

It is like the aftermath of some terrible First World War battle, is it not, when all the officers are killed and the regiment is led by dim second lieutenants fresh out of Sandhurst? Excepting of course Theresa May, whose spell as Home Secretary suggests an inability to crack down on the real Bad Guys and a willingness to infringe on civil liberties in a botched attempt to do so. IMHO. Time will tell.

On Corbyn, And Lenin

On Chancellors, and PMs

We were talking over lunch the other day about the decline and fall of George/Gideon Osborne, his dimming prospects of getting to Number Ten, and wondering how far back you had to go to find a Chancellor who subsequently made a successful Prime Minister. A long way, I reckon.

Almost by definition, unsuccessful Chancellors do not get promoted to the top job. While some of the best Chancellors since the war, say Rab Butler, Nigel Lawson, Ken Clarke, Roy Jenkins, never got to move next door or may never have wanted to do so

 Of those that did, James Callahan presided over the Winter of Discontent, national humiliation at the IMF and “crisis, what crisis?” (Which I know he never said, but he might as well have done.)

John Major had Black Wednesday, the cones hotline, Back to Basics and a truly calamitous election defeat. Then there was Gordon Brown…

The two most successful relatively recent Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, were never Chancellor. You have to go back to Harold Macmillan to find one who successfully made the transition.

Perhaps we did well to avoid PM Osborne.

On The Death Of Corporations, And Inequality

There is an extraordinary essay by Paul Graham, a US entrepreneur and author, giving a new insight into the reasons behind growing inequality. I will leave a link later on, and I urge you to read it in its entirety. I will also try, probably badly, to summarise.

Graham’s thesis is that The Refragmentation, as he calls it, is caused by the cessation of twin forces that had previously been bringing together different strands of society into a more homogenous whole. Instead, anything from politics to culture to the spread of individual incomes is increasingly being pulled apart and fragmenting.

(I have to thank the often excellent Capitalists@Work blogsite for bring this to my attention.)

Those two forces of integration were WW2 and the rise of the global US corporation. Graham writes, understandably, from a US perspective, but much of his argument applies as well to the UK.

WW2 saw conscription, and was followed by an expansion in higher education, former soldiers being funded by the state to go to college. As he points out, the man behind the mule team in West Virginia didn’t return there when hostilities ended. He got a degree and went to work for one of the emerging corporations.

These were heavily unionised, which exerted upwards pressure on salaries at the bottom. Meanwhile, there were none of the extravagant rewards for the executives we see today, when in the UK we have just passed the day on the calendar by which the average FTSE-100 boss will have already this year have earned the average annual salary of the rest.

The corporations were, in salary terms, a flattened pyramid, then.

Back in the post-way years and beyond, there were few entrepreneurs, and they were probably only running small stores and gas stations, or working as plumbers or other contractors. (My interpretation.) The middle classes worked for those big corporations – the biggest of all even had a name, the Nifty Fifty. (Again, my comment.) They stayed for life, often, because it was a safe job leading to a safe pension, and it was hard to move around.

The media was consolidated into three US channels – two in the UK, even after 1955. Independent films would have difficulty finding distributors.

This was all broken apart by disruptive technology. IBM was destroyed by Apple and Microsoft, after one of the worst decisions ever made in the business world, its failure to acquire exclusivity for the DOS operating system.

Then Netflix, Amazon – other routes to market that challenged the old oligopolies. The rise of the multi-billionaire dotcom entrepreneur. These so weakened those global corporations that they were no longer offering jobs for life. Those that survived at the top saw their salaries spiral up. The unions were weakened because the survivors had to cut costs to compete. Downward pressure on salaries at the bottom. Automation didn’t help.

Choices for consumers grew. People began to dress differently. They ate differently. Fragmentation everywhere.

If Graham’s thesis is right, then this will only continue.  Refragmentation, because it is in reality a return to the old social inequalities before those two factors, WW2 and the corporation, kicked in.

Anyway, take time to read the essay. You can find it here:

On Doctors

One of the features of the Radio 4 Today programme, to which I have an entirely masochistic addiction, is the shroud-waving doctor.

The British Medical Association is a highly professional middle class trade union, whose spokesmen are extremely articulate – and after all, NHS staff are all angels, aren’t they? So a programme seldom goes by without someone from the BMA or its equivalent telling us that this or that branch of medicine is facing utter collapse unless large amounts of cash are pumped in, right now.

One of those areas facing devastation from a thousand cuts is the local GP’s practise. I have wondered here before whether, given those hospitals under special measures seem more often to be in affluent suburbs and country towns than in impoverished inner city boroughs, any shortage of resources might have more to do with local councils’ willingness to allow house-building on any available scrap of land without providing the necessary infrastructure to cope with a larger population.

Now we learn that the number of GPs retiring or otherwise leaving in their late 50s has more than doubled over the past decade, leaving surgeries understaffed. Even the ones who make it into their 60s are going early.

Part of this is the Law of Unintended Consequences. Changes to pensions legislation has meant that, for highly paid professionals such as doctors, there is no financial benefit to working on to the normal retirement age.

I use a large suburban health centre which has recently moved to new, rather impressive premises. No complaints there; but the turnover of doctors I see does seem remarkably high. A number are mothers who are working part-time. Their prerogative, but it costs as much to train a female doctor who will work a couple of days a week as a male one who works full time.

And I notice that several seem to have retired of late. They are either a testament to their own medical skills, having managed to remain remarkably well preserved right up to the normal retirement age. Or they are going early.