Lying with impunity

I have today had a letter from the office of that egregious ass, Jake Mogg, known principally for lying in the House of Commons, as shown above, though he has lied elsewhere, too [see Mogg the Mendacious, Mogg Mendax]. The letter (which is quite as underwhelming as you would expect) was in belated response to a petition seeking to ‘Make lying in the House of Commons a criminal offence’ which asked that

The Government should introduce legislation to make lying in the House of Commons a criminal offence. This would mean that all MPs, including Ministers, would face a serious penalty for knowingly making false statements in the House of Commons, as is the case in a court of law.

We believe false statements have been made in the House and, although regarded as a “serious offence” in principle, options to challenge this are extremely limited as accusing a member of lying is forbidden in the House. 

Truth in the House of Commons is every bit as important as truth in a court of law and breaches should be treated in a similar way to perjury and carry similar penalties.

The letter begins,

‘The Government does not intend to introduce legislation of this nature. MPs must abide by the Code of Conduct and conduct in the Chamber is a matter for the Speaker.’

As will become apparent below, this utterance is on a par with Mogg’s habitual standard of misleading statements.

(You can read the response in full – for what it is worth – if you click on the link to the petition above)

It has taken over three weeks for the government to come up with this response, which should have been triggered when the petition reached 10,000 signatures, which it did on the day that Dawn Butler was expelled from the House of Commons for telling the truth. The truth she told was that on several occasions the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had lied to the House of Commons by making false or misleading statements at the despatch box. Ms Butler cited a video by Peter Stefanovic which documented those instances. An independent fact-checker subsequently found that ‘the majority of Mr Johnson’s claims that Ms Butler mentioned were either false or misleading.’ The video has now had in excess of 31.1 million views and has featured as a news story on foreign TV stations, yet has inexplicably failed to feature on BBC News (even in their report of Ms Butler’s expulsion, when she expressly cited it).

Ms Butler was expelled because the House of Commons has very precise and detailed rules about ‘unparliamentary language’. Thus, ‘Accusations of deliberate falsehood, if seriously alleged, would be a matter of privilege and could be made only on a substantive motion secured by writing privately to the Speaker to obtain permission to raise a matter of privilege. Any such accusation made in the course of other proceedings would be disorderly and must be withdrawn.

Technically, there is no doubt that Madam Deputy Speaker was correct in asking Ms Butler to amend her words and in expelling her when she refused to do so, but the manner of her doing it suggested that she found the breach of parliamentary etiquette far more outrageous than the well-substantiated assertion that the Prime Minister had repeatedly misled the house. There is a yawning hole in the procedures of the archaic and often absurd institution on which our country depends for government and legislation that means that the Speaker has stronger powers to sanction MPs who accuse others of lying in the chamber than those who actually lie (see ‘what are the consequences for politicians who lie?‘ a Channel 4 fact check).

The full flavour of this absurdity is well brought out in Mogg’s letter, which helpfully informs me that

MPs are also subject to the House of Commons Code of Conduct and the Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members’ which ‘includes a general duty on MPs to “act in the interests of the nation as a whole…” alongside a requirement that MPs “act on all occasions in accordance with the public trust placed in them. They should always behave with probity and integrity”

furthermore, there is a

Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards [who] is an independent officer of the House of Commons and is responsible for investigating allegations that MPs have breached the rules in the Code of Conduct.’

Sounds good, eh? Except that, as the letter goes on,

Conduct in the Chamber is beyond the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. This is because the House has determined that how Members conduct themselves in the Chamber, including their adherence to the principles of public life, is a matter for the Speaker

In other words, the House of Commons Code of Conduct has no force in the Chamber of the House of Commons because the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (an officer of the House of Commons) has no responsibility for… standards of conduct in the chamber of the House of Commons.

However, although one would have thought that lying to the House of Commons was clearly a case of not ‘adhering to the principles of public life’ what is less clear is that it is the responsibility of the Speaker to do anything about it: Erskine May, the so-called ‘Bible’ of Parliamentary procedure, says that

The Speaker’s responsibility for questions is limited to their compliance with the rules of the House. Responsibility in other respects rests with the Member who proposes to ask the question, and responsibility for answers rests with Ministers.

And the present Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle – a sadly spineless and ineffectual creature, in my view – has said, “The Speaker cannot be dragged into arguments about whether a statement is inaccurate or not. This is a matter of political debate.” (Though to be fair to him, previous holders of that office have said the same).

So if it is not for the Parliamentary Commissioner or the Speaker to do anything about the Prime Minister’s lying to parliament, whose then is the responsibility?

I expect you have already guessed. Such conduct is a clear breach of the Ministerial Code (aka ‘the Nolan Principles’) and the sole responsibility for interpreting and enforcing that lies with…

…the Prime Minister.

To sum up, in this absurd Alice-in-Wonderland institution, which has not enough seats to accommodate its members, a voting system that requires the members to troop out into the lobby then back in again through the appropriate door, and till recently required the wearing of a top hat to make a point of order during a division*, the Prime Minister is sole arbiter of whether he (or any of his ministers) should suffer any sanction for lying to the House or failing to correct the parliamentary record when they have made a false statement to the House.

Could I suggest, Mr Mogg, that a more honest response would simply have read,

‘The Government does not intend to introduce legislation of this nature as the Prime Minister (and other ministers, if he allows it) can at present lie to parliament with impunity, and we would prefer to keep it that way.’

*To increase their appearance during debates and to be seen more easily, a Member wishing to raise a point of order during a division was, until 1998, required to speak with his hat on. Collapsible top hats were kept for the purpose. This requirement was abolished following recommendations from the Modernisation Select Committee, which stated: “At present, if a Member seeks to raise a point of order during a division, he or she must speak “seated and covered”. In practice this means that an opera hat which is kept at each end of the Chamber has to be produced and passed to the Member concerned. This inevitably takes some time, during which the Member frequently seeks to use some other form of covering such as an Order Paper. This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other, particularly since the advent of television. We do not believe that it can be allowed to continue.”

The Beat-Boxer and the Steam Machine: a paradigm of primitive speech

Let us suppose a beat-boxer, one of those gifted with the skill to reproduce a whole orchestra of percussive instruments using only his voice, and let us have him put in charge of a large and complicated steam-driven machine of the sort which has something fed in at one end, processes it, and puts the finished article out at the other, all the while whistling and hissing and clanking with various rods and cranks and and cogs and arms moving up and down and round and round. It is not entirely automatic, so the beat-boxer has to dance about it, furbishing it here, oiling it there, pulling this lever, turning that valve, as well as loading it at the start and unloading it at the end of each cycle.

Engines of PS Savoie, Lac Leman, built by Sulzer of Winterthur

As he moves, he accompanies himself with a soundtrack of his own improvising, which imitates the rhythm and the sounds of the machine, with some interjections of his own, and punctuated with movements and gestures. If he has a purpose at all in doing this, it is primarily aesthetic: he does it for the joy of it. But that is not to deny that it is useful to him: it keeps him attuned to the rhythm of the machine and serves as a kind of mnemonic (maybe the noises of his own that he inserts correspond to different actions that he performs at various points in the cycle). You might even imagine a circumstance where he uses his beat-box track as a tool to instruct someone else in operating the machine, because there is a correspondence between it and the various stages of the process of operating it.

If you recorded the beat-boxer going about his business, you could analyse the sound-track to bring out that correspondence, identifying elements of the track that corresponded to this movement of the machine, or that part of the process, or this action on the part of the operator. In this world of viral videos on Tik-tok and YouTube you could imagine him expanding his repertoire to include other kinds of machinery, different sorts of operation, each with its own soundtrack. The soundtracks on their own would, in a sense, embody the operations – an instance of the true sense of synecdoche, where a whole is conjured by a part. Yet at the same time each soundtrack would be an improvisation, not consciously devised, only incidentally having a structure that corresponded to something else.

This, I would suggest, serves as a paradigm for how human speech could incidentally evolve a structure corresponding to the world in which it was created, a structure that (once discovered) could be parsed and analysed into elements that correspond to things in that world, standing in relations that correspond to the relations in that world – and yet at no time is there a conscious ‘naming of parts’, no ostensive definition where we say a word and point to what it means.

This is the solution, for me, of a problem that has troubled me in a theory I have been evolving for some time. My thesis is that Language, as we know it today, is an artefact of writing, specifically of writing used to transcribe speech (something that does not happen till about a thousand years after writing is invented). My reasoning is that it is only when speech is made visible and we have a chance to study it that we can discover the structure that underlies it, a structure we can then analyse into words and grammatical relations.

The question that requires to be answered is where that structure came from, and how does it come to be made up of elements that correspond to things in the world, if it was not expressly devised to do so? And that, I believe, is the question that my example of the beat-boxer and the steam machine answers. Speech in its initial form, I suggest, is no more than the soundtrack of specific human activities, bound up with a larger pattern of gesture, movement and expression that comes naturally to humans engaged in any activity. Its key element is probably rhythm and its character is largely mimetic (or interpretive, if you like): we bind ourselves to the task in hand by improvising sounds and gestures to accompany it. It is, I would suggest, a pleasurable activity, akin to music-making, and its primary motivation is aesthetic: it expresses how it feels to be doing whatever it is – or if you like a larger canvas, how it feels to be human, in this world, doing this thing.

Tens, or probably hundreds, of thousands of years of human activity (which is probably of a fairly consistent character, given that it’s the same sort of creatures living in the same world doing the same sorts of things) will render the improvisation of such soundtracks a matter of instinct and intuition, much like birdsong, with the young attuned to learn it from their elders. And of course I say ‘soundtracks’ only to emphasise the role played by speech – in reality, it is an expressive performance, led by facial expression, gesture and movement, in which speech plays only a contributory part, one very much bound up with the rest and only separable from it when, much later on, the invention of writing (eventually) provides the means of making speech visible – and so capable of study.

Ringing in the New Year

My recent passion for bakelite telephones, recounted here, has led to a new and unusual doorbell, though the route was somewhat circuitous.

I developed a personal dislike of wireless doorbells in our last house, an upper maisonette flat, where answering the door involved descending one and sometimes two sets of stairs. Soon after we moved in, the doorbell we inherited became insane and took to ringing on its own initiative, so that I would go plunging down the stairs to open the door and find no-one there. My solution there was to rig an old-fashioned ‘butler’s bell’, the sort that is hung on a coil spring and rung via system of pulleys connecting it to a brass bell-pull at the font door.

Our new house came with a wireless bell that needed only a new battery to make it work and it served well enough but with a couple of drawbacks. One is a peculiarity of the house, which is effectively back-to-front, with the entrance from the street being via the back door, which gives onto a convoluted passage with three right angle turns before you reach the main hall via another internal door which is usually shut. This means that the wireless receiver needs to be in line with the back door, where the bell push is, which puts it at some remove from the main part of the house and on the wrong side of the internal door. Add to this a sonorous chime sufficiently musical to be masked by the radio in the kitchen if (as is usual when I am there) it is playing Radio 3, and you breed high levels of doorbell-related anxiety (exacerbated by a further peculiarity of the house which is that the entrance described above is not on the same street as the house address but actually round the corner on the next street).

My first preference was to replace the wireless bell with something similar to the mechanical bell I had used in our previous house, but butler’s bells had evidently become an object of desire in the interim and the prices were absurd, so I decided to put up with the hard-to-hear wireless bell in the meantime.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, my bakelite telephone researches had led me to an article entitled ‘Build your own ring generator for testing!’ which centred round a ‘black magic box’ made by Cambridge Electronics Laboratories in the USA. This device, powered by a suitable battery, would send AC current of the right frequency to cause a telephone connected to it to ring just as it would if its number had been dialled. Picture my surprise when, shortly after reading the article, I came across just such a Black Magic Box entirely by chance on eBay. This was so evidently a sign – and the price so reasonable – that I promptly bought it, along with various other components, in order to build myself a ring generator (even though I did not really need one).

That was in mid-November. When the various parts arrived, it became evident that something was amiss. Although I had followed the specifications in the original posting, the black magic box would not fit in the black plastic box that I had ordered to contain it and the battery. When I looked more closely, I saw that I had bought a different and slightly larger version of the ringing generator; what was more, while the original required a single 12v battery, this one required four.

[Before you begin to have visions of this small box wired up to four car batteries, let me assure you that these 12V batteries – designated A23 – are astonishingly small:

(they are actually made up of a stack of eight 1.5V button cells in series enclosed in a wrapper)]

So I had to order three more batteries (together with three more wee mounting boxes to put them in). No sooner had I done that (my eBay records show) than my eye was caught by something else phone-related, to wit, a no.41 Bellset:

The bellset as it originally appeared: note the black oxidised gongs, which are actually copper. Though they look quite well in the original, I was unable to resist taking them back to the bare metal.

It had a low opening price – £10 – and I stuck in a minimal bid. No-one else was interested and I won it. By the time it had arrived, the thought had crossed my mind that not only could I use my black magic box to make it ring, but I could rig the whole thing as a doorbell.

It is curious how often you can have all the major components of a grand scheme in place only to be thwarted from executing it by some tiny detail. In this case, it was the bell-push. The original ring-generator called for a push-button (or ‘momentary’) switch, and though I had one, I wasn’t sure it had the gravitas for a front door bell (even if our front door was actually the back door):

Furthermore, there was the problem of locating it – the door in question is of the modern sort, lacking the ample wooden jambs of the traditional kind in which a bell-push might be housed. That does not matter for the present bell, which being wireless, can be stuck to the jamb with no need to penetrate it.

Then it occurred to me that there was, in the turn of the hall, the remnants of an earlier bell, which evidently had not been wireless:

Might the original wiring still be intact? A little detective work showed that it was, with the wires emerging at a point concealed by the present stick-on wireless bell. Flushed with success, I attached the bell-set to a makeshift arrangement that housed the black magic box and its batteries, ran a wire from the box to one terminal of the old bell, then attached the two bell wires to one another outside the door (rather than through the bell push, to save me from having to operate it when I wanted to be at the other end of the business) then completed the circuit by touching the other wire from the black magic box to the second terminal in the old bell-box.

The bell-set rang!

It was at just this point, all obstacles removed and problems solved, poised on the verge of success, that things took a baffling turn. The entire set-up, from the connections to the bellset to the black magic box to the batteries, was makeshift, with bared wire simply looped round terminals and in some cases held down with blu-tack – I wanted to be sure that it worked in principle before making the effort to solder on proper connections and the like, knowing that when I did, I could be sure that everything would work as it should. So I set to and made proper permanent connections and put it all firmly together.

And it did not work.

Not a cheep could I get out of it!

I checked and rechecked the connections: they were all tight and where they should be. I checked the batteries: the total voltage was a little down, but surely not enough to account for such complete absence of response? To be sure, I added another battery in series, but still nothing. At this point I became convinced that I had done something foolish and somehow managed to wreck the black box: I recalled there were warnings about polarity, and about incorporating a resistor in the circuit to protect against short-circuits (which I had not done). I began to realise how limited my understanding of electricity really was. Had I, in the moment of my triumph when I made it ring using the old bell circuit, somehow contrived to do it irreparable damage? There had been no bangs, flashes or sparks, but it was certainly now as dead as a dodo, and had been, apparently, since that single, triumphant ring.

Having slept on it, I woke convinced that the explanation was probably less dramatic. I tested the batteries again, this time individually, rather than as a group. Three were fine, but the other was some way below what it should be. I recalled that batteries wired in series (a bit like Christmas lights) were only as strong as their weakest link. I decided to buy some more batteries, but those available locally were exorbitant so I ordered some more (postage free) from eBay, and for good measure, a holder that would take four at time, rather than the ramshackle arrangement I had concocted myself:

on the left, the original box, with a vacant space where the black box was located, and four separate battery containers wired in series using gold wire saved off a bottle of Rioja. On the right, a proprietary quadruple-battery holder.

But while I was waiting for the batteries to arrive, I fell to thinking. If fresh batteries solved the problem, just how practical would this doorbell prove in service? all it took was for one battery to fail a little and it would cease to operate. And how long would the batteries last, anyway? Might I not become ensnared in a downward spiral of anxiety, perpetually concerned that the bell might have stopped working, so always checking it, only to wonder if by doing so I was actually running the batteries down?

Then I saw this:

It is a hand-cranked magneto, designated GPO generator 26AP, and its sole purpose in life is to make telephone bells ring. I watched it closely and saw it was attracting little interest on eBay and was able to secure it with a minimal bid of £9.99 (though the postage actually cost more than that – it’s a heavy little article, but it did arrive very promptly.) With this, I reasoned, I could always be certain that the bell would ring – all you had to do was turn the handle; and there would be no batteries to run out.

The only practical problem was where and how to mount it, since it was somewhat larger than a conventional bell-push. After some investigation (involving drilling holes and a knitting needle) I was able to confirm my surmise that there was a gap of some four inches or so between the cladding of the outer porch and the wall of the house. Since the generator was about five inches front to back, this meant that if I sawed a suitable hole, it could sit on a wee shelf, with most of its bulk concealed and only the face with the handle protruding. After an initial false start when I discovered that an iron rone pipe was already occupying half the space behind the first hole I created, I moved the scene of operations some way to the right and cut a second hole. This was one was unencumbered, and the only difficult was leading the wire to the generator. My first thought was to use the existing wires and add extensions to them at either end, but since they were already old and had at least one dodgy join in them, I reasoned it would be best to use a fresh cable. This was thicker than the old wires and it took a lot of patient work to enlarge the somewhat crooked passage that they followed to allow the new cable through.

But eventually, it was done.

L-R: new cable entering enlarged hole on inner door jamb; emerging at the other side and passing behind the cladding; the initial abandoned hole in the process of repair, with the generator to the left.

And it works, giving me an absurd amount of pleasure when it does. Sometimes I ring it just for fun.

the little gold arrow, in the best tradition, is manufactured from gold foil taken from the top of a wine bottle

The one drawback is that it sounds exactly like the telephone, but since it is in a different place and in any case only rings two or three times (depending on the vigour with which the handle is turned) that does not really matter. And it makes me smile whenever I see it.

Bellset in situ, with the gongs taken back to the bare metal. The box deserves a new coat of varnish.

The question that Johnson must answer about Cummings

Either Dominic Cummings’s action in driving to Durham from London had some justification that excused it or it had not.

That it requires excuse is unarguable, since the guidelines state clearly that infected households must isolate at once and that even healthy people should leave the house only for a narrow range of reasons and should not travel to stay elsewhere.

Mary Wakefield’s account of her own and her husband’s illness, broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day and published in The Spectator, is mendacious, since it makes no mention of their travelling to Durham and implies that they remained in London (suppressio veri, suggestio falsi : to suppress the truth is to suggest a lie). However, the details it supplies may be accurate. If they are, then Cummings fell ill within 24 hours of being seen hurrying from Downing St. which happened around midday on 27 March:

‘My husband did rush home to look after me…But 24 hours later he said “I feel weird” and collapsed. I felt breathless, sometimes achy, but Dom couldn’t get out of bed.’

Since from that point

‘for ten days he had a high fever, with spasms that made the muscles lump and twitch in his legs. 
He could breathe but only in a limited shallow way’

it is evident that he could not have driven anywhere*.

We know from Durham Police that he was already in the city by 31 March, so the inference is that he travelled north either on the same day he left Downing St (27 March) or, at the very latest, on the morning of the next day.

10 Downing St issued a statement on 30 March saying that Cummings was self-isolating with coronavirus symptoms. It is scarcely credible that Downing St, and Boris Johnson, did not at that point know that Cummings was in Durham (if they did not, then Cummings must have lied to them, or at the very least concealed the fact that he had travelled).

We now come to the central point of the matter. If Boris Johnson knew that Cummings had travelled to Durham, in breach of general government guidelines on travel, and had done so with an infected person and possibly when infected himself, then either he was persuaded that the action was excusable or he was not. If he was not so persuaded, then he has colluded in concealing Cummings’s wrongdoing at the time and has lied about it since it came out, and persuaded members of the cabinet to repeat his lie.

But if he believed it was excusable, then he still colluded in concealing it. Why?

This is the crux of the matter. When Downing St announced on 30 March that Cummings was self-isolating with coronavirus symptoms, why did it suppress the fact that he was doing so in Durham?

If, as the Prime Minister now maintains, Cummings ‘acted legally and with integrity,’ then he would have saved himself and his colleagues a great deal of trouble if he had said so at the time. Indeed, given the furore that has been generated by it now, it would surely have been politically expedient to do so; unless –

and here we come to the sequels. Both Catherine Calderwood and Neil Ferguson were high-profile figures making a valuable contribution to managing the pandemic. Both were dismissed for trivial breaches of government guidelines when those came to light – Calderwood for making a non-essential journey, Ferguson for allowing someone to visit him. In neither case was any public good served in dismissing them – quite the reverse – since their contribution was valuable and important. The reason both had to go was the same: it looked bad.

It looked bad that two such high-profile figures who were very much part of the campaign to persuade the public to accept draconian restrictions on their freedom had flouted them. As Nicola Sturgeon said, ‘I know it is tough to lose a trusted adviser at the height of crisis, but when it’s a choice of that or integrity of vital public health advice, the latter must come first.’

If Boris Johnson is telling the truth – and given his record of public mendacity and faithlessness in private life, that is a big ‘if’ – then he sincerely believes that Cummings ‘acted legally and with integrity’ in travelling the length of England with an infected wife. So why did he not say so at the time?

If the answer is that ‘the public wouldn’t accept it’ (and remember that this was just a week into lockdown) then that is the same reason that both Calderwood and Ferguson were later dismissed – because what they did, though trivial in itself, was publicly unacceptable. What Cummings did was certainly more serious – he knew his wife was infected and that it was quite likely he was too – yet he broke both the guidelines on isolation and on travel. It would have looked very bad at the time had it come to light, even if there was some excuse.

That raises the question of timing. The story has come out two months into lockdown, when restrictions are already being eased in England and to a lesser extent elsewhere, seven weeks or more after it happened. It is evident from Mary Wakefield’s dishonest account – which her husband later corroborated – that she hoped it would not come out at all, since her version is expressly concocted to give the impression that they remained in London. Was it Boris Johnson’s hope that in suppressing it – as he did – that the passage of time and the possible easing of lockdown would render it, if not acceptable, at least less unacceptable than would have been the case on 30 March?

If that is the case – that (despite believing Cummings had done nothing wrong) he feared public outrage if it was made known at the time – then, besides showing his own cowardice and want of integrity, that is tantamount to saying that Cummings’s action was unacceptable in precisely the same way as Ferguson’s and Calderwood’s were – that it was not the breach of guidance that mattered, but its being discovered – and that he therefore colluded in concealing it.

If, on the other hand, he believes that Cummings ‘acted legally and with integrity’ it is hard to see what other reason he could have for concealing the fact that he travelled to Durham. If it is justifiable now, it was justifiable then. If Cummings has not already gone by the end of today, and if the Prime Minister does not shirk the five o’clock briefing – both distinct possibilities – the question he must be pressed to answer (and not allowed to dodge) is ’why, if you believe Mr Cummings to have acted legally and with integrity, did you not make public the fact that he had travelled to Durham when it was announced that he was in isolation with symptoms of coronavirus on 30 March?’

Supplement: well, I think my question remains the one to ask.

Cummings appeared half an hour late and gave a statement that bore all the hallmarks of being contrived to meet the needs of the moment, in the sense that it provided an explanation for each of the points of controversy that were in the public domain. Some explanations were less credible than others, but the key point for me remains the same: when did the Prime Minister learn that Cummings had travelled to Durham and at what point did he form the conviction that in doing so he had ‘acted legally and with integrity’?

We know, from Cummings himself, that he did not ask Johnson before he went, which was on the evening of 27 March, as I surmised. Cummings said that ‘arguably, this was a mistake’. It would be interesting to know why he thinks that. He says that ‘at some time in that first week when we were both ill and in bed I spoke to the prime minister and told him what I had done. Unsurprisingly, given the condition we were in, neither of us remember the conversation in any detail.’ [my emphasis]

Since that is a key point in the whole affair it seems particularly unfortunate that neither man can recall it in detail nor when it happened (a cynic might observe that it might as well not have occurred at all). At all events it occurred ‘in the first week’ [i.e. of Cummings’s isolation] at a time when both men were ill and in bed. That puts it between 28 March and 5 April when Johnson was admitted to hospital.

That means that for over seven weeks Boris Johnson has known that his chief aide ostensibly broke the guidelines on isolation and on travel that he was instrumental in imposing on the general public. Even in his fevered state, that must have been a matter of concern to him, more so when Catherine Calderwood was forced to resign for very similar reasons on 5 April, the day Johnson was admitted to hospital. When Johnson was discharged from hospital a week later (April 12) to recuperate at Chequers, he must have been fully aware that a serious situation existed with regard to his chief aide’s actions. (Was anyone else aware?)

Cummings returned to work in London on 14 April and at some point after that went to Chequers to see Johnson. I do not know when that was, but Johnson returned to Downing St on Monday 27 April. It is inconceivable that Cummings would have met Johnson at Chequers without discussing the difficulties entailed in his travelling to Durham instead of complying with the guidelines that everyone else had to follow.

If Johnson is telling the truth when he says that he believes Cummings to have ‘acted legally and with integrity’ then the inference is that he has believed that to be the case for nearly a month – yet he said nothing till 24 May.

On Saturday 25 April The Spectator published an article by Mary Wakefield in which she said  “we emerged from quarantine into the almost comical uncertainty of London lockdown” omitting the fact that they had emerged in Durham and then driven 260 miles to London. She had already broadcast the substance of this article, if not its entirety, on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day that morning. (curiously, this is not available on BBC Sounds, though all subsequent and some previous ones are. It is my distinct recollection that the London reference formed part of the broadcast, which I heard. I do not take The Spectator)

It is difficult to believe that the Prime Minister can have been unaware of that article and that broadcast especially as it was seen at the time as a deliberate distraction from the revelation that Cummings attended SAGE meetings. It is also difficult to believe that the mendacious implication that the Cummings family had spent their isolation in London can have escaped him.

In other words, a month ago the Prime Minister knew both that his chief aide had travelled to Durham in apparent contravention of both isolation and lockdown guidelines and that his wife had published an article and made a broadcast implying that they had remained in London. At the very least he must have seen that the situation called for some explanation. But if we are to believe him, he also thought that Cummings had ‘acted legally and with integrity.’

So why did he wait a month to say so, and then only because he was forced?

It is surely always wiser to control a difficult situation by forestalling it than to wait till you are forced to respond, provided you are in the right and your actions are defensible.

Otherwise you are liable to look as if you are not in the right and that your defence is a desperate contrivance to excuse something you had hoped would not come to light.

*Yet by his own account, he did – to drive his son to hospital, in another highly implausible set of circumstances. Despite having others to hand who could have done it for him (including, I believe, his wife), and the availability of taxis (which Cummings denies but taxi drivers and hospital dispute), he rose from his sickbed and took his wife and son – at a point when he had reason to believe that all three were infectious – by car to hospital. Still, I did say that his wife’s account is mendacious, and presumably she suppressed the bit about the journey to hospital as it might have identified their whereabouts.

Another lie from the egregious Bernard Jenkin

As I have pointed out before, Bernard Jenkin is given to lying to the public (see Liars in public places). It’s not a habit he’s cured, if what he said today on BBC Radio 4 is anything to go by:

“We’ve got two democratic systems of deciding things in the modern constitution: one is by representative democracy and the other is by direct democracy.  What we have is a collision between two forms of legitimacy,” he adds. “The Supreme Court has clearly chosen the parliamentary, they don’t address the question of the direct mandate.”

There is a good reason why the Supreme Court did not address the question of the ‘direct mandate’ – there is none in this country. There are three branches of government – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Jenkin himself is part of the second: he is elected to the house to scrutinise and pass the laws which the executive propose and the courts then interpret. For him to suggest that there is a second ‘democratic system of deciding things’ – ‘direct democracy’ that is one of ‘two forms of legitimacy’ is simply a lie.

It is a particularly brazen one, given that he had heard (and who could fail to hear Mr Cox?) the Attorney General not long before confirm, in answer to a question on its legal force, that the referendum had none; it was not binding.

But he should have needed no reminder – it is incumbent on all parliamentarians and those outside parliament who make its doings their business to know that in this country we have no provision for a binding referendum save the sort that brings into force legislation already passed by an Act of Parliament, as was the case with the 2011 UK Alternative vote referendum (see detail here), a point I discussed in The Real Enemies of the People.

Commons Briefing Paper 7212, giving background on the European Union Referendum Bill, could not be clearer on this point:

‘This Bill requires a referendum to be held on the question of the UK’s continued membership of the European Union (EU) before the end of 2017. It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions.’

So, Jenkin is lying when he says ‘we’ve got two democratic systems of deciding things in the modern constitution’ just as he was lying when he said ‘the country voted overwhelmingly to leave’ in the 2016 referendum, when in fact only 17.4 million out of an electorate of 46.5 million did so. By implying that the Supreme Court ought to have addressed this  ‘direct mandate’ and second ‘form of legitimacy’ (which he has just invented) he promotes the pernicious narrative that casts the present crisis as ‘The People v. The Remainer Elite’ with the Judiciary ranked among the latter (along with, curiously, the very Parliament of which he is a member, whose sovereignty he has sworn to uphold).

This is the new way of doing politics: invent ‘alternative facts’ and inject them into the mainstream discourse, where, if unchallenged, they rapidly gain currency.  Journalists, do your job: call it out at every turn.

Candidates oddly reluctant to take helm of sinking ship headed for the rocks

Like the young woman from Glasgow, who raised the issue that will shape politics not only in Britain but the rest of the world for the foreseeable future – the climate emergency – I was not impressed by any of the candidates for conservative leader (and hence, prime minister) in last night’s debate; though it took some reflection to work out why.

I had, unusually for me, spent half an hour that morning voluntarily listening to BBC Radio 4 instead of switching to Radio 3 as soon as my wife was out the door because I found myself spellbound by Jonathan Sumption’s final Reith Lecture. Sumption, formerly a Justice of the UK Supreme Court, demonstrates that in an age of vacuous blether it is still possible to speak lucidly on complex matters, to be both intelligent and intelligible (unlike the current US president, who is neither). His subject was Britain’s unwritten constitution. His somewhat chilling concluding remarks are worth quoting in full:

‘Prophets are usually wrong, but one thing I will prophesy; we will not recognise the end of democracy when it comes, if it does. Advanced democracies are not overthrown, there are no tanks on the street, no sudden catastrophes, no brash dictators or braying mobs, instead, their institutions are imperceptibly drained of everything that once made them democratic. The labels will still be there, but they will no longer describe the contents, the facade will still stand, but there will be nothing behind it, the rhetoric of democracy will be unchanged, but it will be meaningless – and the fault will be ours.’ ( read full transcript here)

‘Meaningless rhetoric’ characterised much of what we heard from the five candidates last night: they were cloyingly polite to the selected members of the public who posed them questions, chummy amongst themselves – all first names and freely acknowledging each other’s worth (‘Saj makes a good point there’) but you would not have thought these were five men bidding for the position that would incidentally make them leader of the country –- the whole thing was curiously muted. They often talked over one another, producing an unintelligible gabble, but voices were not raised and there was no discernible passion. There was an overall lack of conviction, like a group of actors rehearsing a script that each of them knows is a stinker. They were, like the man swimming in a sewer, merely going through the motions.

 

It was only later, in a moment of sudden insight, that the reason for this curious lack of conviction dawned on me: each of them knows that, no matter who wins, they are embarked on a disastrous course from which they cannot turn back. It is quite possible that whoever emerges as victor will be not only the last Conservative Prime Minister but also the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

The positions put forward by the candidates in last night’s debate were neither to win the approval of their colleagues in the conservative parliamentary party nor for that part of the national TV audience that were actually watching (my brother texted me to say I was missing an excellent game in the Women’s World Cup between Brazil and Italy). They were addressed to the only audience that actually had a say in the matter, the ones who will ultimately decide, the conservative constituency associations (whose member ship totals around 124,000).

And each of the candidates knew that, in addressing that constituency, there were certain things that must be said and, more importantly, left unsaid. Brexit must be delivered, ideally by the 31 October. The only real question was who was best equipped to deliver it. The idea that it might not be a good idea at all and that perhaps we should think again could not be mentioned; nor could the fact that changing the British Prime Minister did not materially alter the situation vis-a-vis the EU: there is no scope for further negotiation of the withdrawal agreement; the Irish backstop cannot be removed or time-limited.

Only Rory Stewart came near to pointing out that there was no scope for further negotiation and no time to do anything by October 31st, but even he baulked at stating openly what all of them know, that leaving the EU is a bad idea that will harm the British economy, damage business and lose jobs as well as greatly weakening our standing in the world: any trade deal we try to strike as an individual country with any of the major economic powers – China, the USA, India and indeed the EU itself – will be negotiated from a position of weakness.

These things have been stated by members of the Conservative party, but only by yesterday’s men, the now toothless big beasts such as John Major, Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine who are very much fringe spectators, not active participants. The more generally voiced attitude expressed by the mainstream of the parliamentary party is that ‘we just need to get on and do it’ – a classic piece of political chicanery to take a phrase that resonates with millions of ordinary people and misapply it. There are a great many people (most of them women and mothers, I would venture) who are all too familiar with the daily necessity of ‘just getting on with it’, who know that, no matter what calamity has befallen, the daily necessities need to be attended to –children still need to be got up and fed and sent to school, money must be earned to pay the bills and put food on the table.

However – and this is the crux of the matter – they do not use that expression when they find themselves convinced that they have been following the wrong road for some time and that somewhere in the mist up ahead it goes over a precipice.

What you say then is not, ‘we must just get on’ but rather ‘stop! we are going the wrong way! we must turn back!’

What I saw last night, I think, was the  realisation dawning on all five candidates that the moment when any of them might have said that has passed: each is now committed to following a course that none of them believes in.

Remain in good heart

The general representation of the recent European election results shows a lack of penetration on the part of our media which has become sadly familiar. The election is presented as a remarkable triumph for the newly-formed Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, which captured nearly 32% of the votes and won 29 of the 73 seats.

Leaving aside for the present the corollary that if less than a third voted for the Brexit party, more than two-thirds of the votes must have gone elsewhere, let us consider first where Brexit’s votes came from.

In the previous European election in 2014, UKIP, the party then led by Farage, took nearly 27% of the vote, winning 24 out of 73 seats, the result that terrified the Conservatives into making a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on EU membership. In the same election, Labour (20) and Conservative (19) took a combined total of 39 seats and had just over 48% of the vote between them, while the Liberal Democrats (1 ) Greens (3) and SNP (2) won a total of 6 seats and took nearly 17% of the vote.

In the present election, UKIP won no seats and took only 3.56% of the vote, a drop of over 23%. If we assume, not unreasonably, that Farage’s Brexit Party has effectively replaced his earlier UKIP party in the eyes of his followers, then his gain in this election amounts to 5 seats (29 against the 24 of UKIP last time) and a vote-share increase of nearly 5% (just under 32% compared to UKIP’s near 27% last time).

At the same time, the combined Conservative (4) and Labour (10) share of seats fell to 14, and their combined vote (8.68+14.08 ) to just under 23%, a loss of 25 seats and 25% of the votes.

Since there are strong Leave factions among both Conservative and Labour voters, it is reasonable to assume that Farage’s gain of 5 seats and 5% in 2019 came from them.

At the same time, three parties which had an unequivocal pro-Remain stance – Liberal Democrat (16 seats, 18.53% of the votes) Green (7 seats, 11.1% ) SNP (3 seats, 3.34%) took a combined total of 26 seats and 33% of the vote, an improvement over their 2014 showing of 21 seats and 16% of the votes.

In fact, every party with an unequivocal pro-Remain stance improved their share of the vote (with the exception of Sinn Fein, fractionally down) and combined to take a total of 29 seats (the additions being Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein and the Alliance party, 1 apiece) and some 39% of the vote (with the addition of Change UK and the SDLP, who took no seats).

By comparison, Brexit’s gain was, as we have seen, largely UKIP’s loss, and even with the addition of various sorts of Ulster Unionist, the unequivocally pro-Leave vote amounted to around 36%.

So, Remain in good heart. There is not now, nor has there ever been, a majority of the British people in favour of leaving the EU.

 

Speech for an imagined leader

‘Mr Speaker, it is past time for someone to tell the truth to this House, and the British people, in the face of the tide of falsehood that has engulfed us since 2016.

Much has been made in recent months of the fact that 80% of the electorate voted in the last election for parties that made a manifesto commitment to honour the result of the referendum. Leaving aside the fact that it has been the norm for the past hundred years for the great majority to vote for the same two parties, let us start by doing something that everyone here on a daily basis claims to do yet few if any have actually ever done, namely, respect the referendum. 

If you respect someone, you pay attention to what they tell you – the same rule, I suggest, can be applied to referendums.

What the referendum of 2016 tells us is that the majority of the electorate – some 62% – expressed no desire to leave the European Union. In other words – despite what many in the House have asserted to the contrary – there was not then, nor is there now – nor indeed has there ever been – a majority of the British people in favour of leaving the European Union, an institution from which this country, along with all our European neighbours, has benefited economically, culturally and in terms of national security for the last 45 years to an extent that far outweighs any drawbacks, real or imagined, that may be attributed to it.

That is the truth that this House must acknowledge.

While we are on the subject of telling the truth, let me say in passing that the 2016 referendum was not, by any measure, ‘the greatest democratic exercise in our history,’ whatever others may claim. Numerically, more people took part in the 1992 election – 33.6 million; proportionally, a far greater percentage of the electorate – 83.9% – voted in the 1951 election, and indeed the 2016 referendum, at 72.2%, is very slightly below the average for UK votes from 1918 to 2017. 

2016 is not even the greatest single-issue vote in our history, short though that history is – there have only been three such. In 1974, some 17.4 million people – 43% of the electorate – voted to remain in Europe; the same number voting to leave in 2016 was less than 38% of the electorate.

I mention this only because day in and day out, members of the ERG and their cronies assert this falsehood and media commentators uncritically repeat it; as recently as last week, the Prime Minister herself broadcast the same false claim in her speech to the nation from 10 Downing St. It is no light matter to mislead the people in this fashion, and those who do so should be ashamed of themselves.

So just before it is too late, Mr Speaker, let us now agree that, in what was not, in fact, the greatest democratic exercise in our history, the overwhelming majority of the British people did not, in fact, vote for Brexit: the reverse is true. Only a minority – 17.4 million out of an electorate of 46.5 million, a population of 65.5 million – expressed a desire to leave at that time.

Mr Speaker, I would suggest that the figure now is smaller still, since the reality of Brexit has begun to dawn on everyone: it does not mean 350 million pounds a week for the NHS any more than remaining in Europe meant 80 million Turks joining the EU – two falsehoods that can be directly attributed to a leading member of the ERG, the member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. It has not proved ‘quick and easy’ – as the member for Wokingham said it would – because, contrary to what he claimed, the UK did not ‘hold most of the cards in any negotiation’. Nor has the Free Trade Agreement proved ‘the easiest in human history’ as the member for North Somerset said it would. On the contrary, two and a half years of misdirected effort has seen us arrive at a stalemate that makes the government and this House look ineffectual to the point of ridicule.

In the meantime, billions have been spent – and some of it misspent – in preparing for the no-deal scenario that most are agreed will be economically disastrous for the country and will leave our citizens considerably worse off than they ever were in Europe. In anticipation of this disaster, large-scale enterprises are abandoning us in droves, while businesses that cannot afford the luxury of removing face the prospect of chaos and possible ruin as we cut ourselves off from our largest single trading partner – and all because no-one in this House has had the courage to give the lie to the oft-repeated claim that this is what the British people voted for.

Mr Speaker, they did not.

And if the Prime Minister is sincere in her intention to break the deadlock – and she may be – then she could do worse than to heed the wise words of the member for North East Somerset,  spoken in this House, that ‘we could have a second referendum – that it might make more sense to have one when the renegotiation is completed’.

Mr Speaker, there is one further falsehood we need to expose and then we are done. The referendum of 2016 was not – as some in this House have foolishly asserted – like a football match or similar contest where the winner takes all. Its nature is quite other – to quote Commons briefing paper 7212  (which I take it you are all familiar with, since it gives the background to the European referendum bill)  ‘It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions.’

That is critical: the value of the referendum is as an index of public opinion on a specific matter; in itself, it is nothing – its worth is entirely in what it points to. But what does it point to? From the outset, some have maintained vigorously, even violently, that it tells us that the British people – and always they use that all-encompassing phrase, so resonant of national unity – that the British people, rather than 17.4 million of the British people, who number 65.5 million –  that the British people voted to leave the EU.

Yet strangely, the same people who are so keen to assert that the British people voted to leave the EU are adamant in their refusal to allow the British people any further say on the matter. Why is that?

If you claim that leaving the EU is what the British people want, why would you shy away from the easiest means of demonstrating that your claim is true? Surely, at this critical time, you should be clamouring for a second referendum which – if what you say is true – would serve only to confirm the first?

Aye, Mr Speaker – there’s the rub: a second referendum would indeed confirm what the first has already told us, that the great majority of the British people have no desire to leave the European Union.

The reason why we must have a second referendum – a People’s Vote, if you like – is not that the people have changed their minds, but that they still think the same: that despite the dishonesty and venality of some sections of the press (and, I am sorry to say, of this House) and the pusillanimity of those in this House and the media who have failed to challenge the false narrative promoted by the Brexit propagandists, the British people are still convinced that we will be far better off remaining in the European Union than leaving it.

And, unlike those yammering on the benches opposite, that is a claim I will gladly put to the test. Let us ask the British people what they want – without delay.’

‘All the world’s a stage –’

Screen Shot 2018-09-11 at 13.10.53

Say, rather, that it is a toy theatre, much like the one above. We should picture a child making it, putting the various players on stage (or in the wings, ready to make their entrances), preparing backdrops for the changes of scene, so that all seems ready to begin–

but there is a problem.

The child looms gigantically over the tiny theatre and the little cut-out figures  – how is she to relate to them? she is much too large for their little world. With a child’s ingenuity, she solves it – taking a spare piece of card, she cuts out another figure and colours it in, setting it down before the stage, an ideal spectator.

‘That’s me,’ she says.

The Platonic-Aristotelian worldview – the standard Western model still in use today – has a similar flaw: our actual experience is of being in the world and responding to it emotionally as it is made known to us by our senses, but the Platonic worldview is expressly designed to exclude the testimony of the senses (as unreliable), and with it, the Subject.

Instead, the world must be apprehended intellectually as a transcendent reality of unchanging forms or ideas of which the myriad variety we experience by our senses are mere instances – or, put more simply, we should view the world in general terms, through language, setting aside the specific detail.

But where do we, as experiencing subjects, fit in?

The short answer is that we do not: instead, we project ourselves into the model, as the child puts her representation into the theatre, but in doing so we cease to be Subjects and become objectified along with the rest of the model, ideal spectators, the passive observers of an independent reality that exists whether we are there or not.

The place of the Subject (what each of us experiences from moment to moment) is taken in the Platonic model by the general idea of an onlooker, whose role is passive apprehension.

 

A picture of past and present

A man stands at the head of a pass looking back over the way he has come. In the plain spread out below him, he sees in sunlight the farm where he spent his childhood.

Later, he descends the other side and looking back sees the hills mounting one behind another and outlined against the sky the notch that he knows to be the head of the pass where he stood earlier.

What he sees bears no resemblance to the landscape he experienced earlier, but what he feels can take him right back there.

This expresses something I want to say about our concept of the past – which being a concept is perceived by the intellect, not through feeling or intuition – namely that it is always from the perspective of the present, and is no more than the painted backcloth in the theatre. ‘Ancient times’ are so only to us; our ancestors lived in the present, just as we do; which is why the briefest scrap of poetry can unite us with them:

Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow,
The small raine down can raine.
Cryst, if my love were in my armes
And I in my bedde again!