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 –’

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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!

A dead-end design and a template for the future

In 2009 the British Steam Car Challenge vehicle Inspiration set a new World Land Speed Record for a steam-powered car. The team behind it were awarded the Simms Medal by the Royal Automobile Club, named for its founder Frederick Simms, intended to recognise ‘a genuine contribution to motoring innovation by individuals or small companies that also exemplify the spirit of adventure.’

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The citation by John Wood, Chairman of the Royal Automobile Club’s Awards Sub-Committee, is interesting:

“No one is going to suggest that this vehicle represents a major technical breakthrough, a relatively small improvement has been won at a cost of enormous complexity but it is unquestionably a triumph of determination, persistence and absolute refusal to give up in the face of adversity. Does it exemplify the “spirit of adventure”? Unquestionably! And that is why the British Steam Car Challenge Team, in memory of the late Frank Swanston, has been awarded the Simms Medal 2009.”

There is an implicit admission here that the award is not actually merited: while the courage, gallantry and dedication of the team cannot be questioned, the other criterion for the award has not been met. This was not a ‘genuine contribution to motoring innovation’ .

In the words of the citation, ‘a relatively small improvement has been won at a cost of enormous complexity.’ The scale of both the improvement and the complexity we will consider shortly, but first we need to look at the value (or otherwise) of land speed records.

For some, travelling supremely fast is an achievement in itself, but the main justification for trying to go as fast as possible has always been that the technical development it entails has a broader application that can be of general benefit. Creating a car that will travel safely at tremendous speed challenges engineers and designers on every front and the solutions they come up with, whether in terms of materials, streamlining, or the design of the engine and ancillary systems, can often, within a few years, find their place in mainstream manufacture.

Conversely, if they remain ad hoc solutions for the sole purpose of record breaking, their value is questionable – for instance, the use of jet propulsion may have raised the absolute LSR to supersonic levels (763 mph in 1997) with the ultimate aim of attaining 1000mph in the near future, but it is difficult to see what practical benefits this will bring – no-one considers jet propulsion as suitable for cars, and in any case, the cutting edge of jet propulsion is in its aeronautical applications, which already exceed anything that might be attempted on land. While there might be some peripheral benefits (in terms of materials and tyre technology, say, though of course the tyres are not driven) much of the technical effort, somewhat perversely, is directed to overcoming the inherent unsuitability of the power unit for this application.

Against this background, let us consider both the ‘enormous complexity’ of Inspiration and the ‘relatively small improvement’ won by it.

Inspiration weighs in at a hefty 3 tonnes. It is 7.66 m long by 1.7m wide and 1.7m tall. It is powered by a two stage turbine rotating at 13000 rpm for which steam is generated in 12 watertube boilers with 3km of tubing. This requires 3 Megawatts of heat from Liquid Petroleum Gas burners, enough to heat 1500 kettles or make 23 cups of tea per second. This complexity is clad in a combination of carbon composite to the front and aluminium panels to the rear.

Generating a relatively modest 360bhp, the car had a design top speed of 170 mph (for comparison, the Bentley Continental GT, a luxury production car, produces 626 bhp and is capable of 207 mph)

In the event, it took the record with a run of 139.843mph for a measured mile, subsequently raised to 148.308mph in two runs over the measured kilometre.

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The previous record stood at 127.659 mph. It was set in 1906 by the redoubtable Fred Marriott driving the Rocket, a modified version of the production Stanley Steam Car. Its two-cylinder double-acting steam reciprocating engine generated around 150bhp and required 350 revolutions to travel a mile – so that 350 rpm would be a mile a minute, 700rpm would be twice that – 120 mph – and the record would require 740 rpm (for comparison, this equates to the typical idle speed of an internal combustion engine – 600-1000rpm – at which it generates sufficient power to run smoothly and operate various ancillaries like pumps etc. but not enough to move the car).

Rocket weighed in at 1675 lbs, with the entire power plant – boiler, engine, burner and firebox, pumps, tanks etc – contributing just under half the total (835 lbs). Its body was, in effect, an upturned canoe, consisting of canvas stretched over a cedar frame. It was 16′ long and 3′ wide and was made by a noted Boston canoe builder. The car was steered with a tiller.

In sum, a one-off vehicle weighing four times as much with an engine of far greater complexity (twelve times as many boilers!) and generating twice the power, managed to better the record set by a modified production car over a century before by  –

a little more than 20mph, at the second attempt.

Unlike Inspiration’s, the record set by Rocket was absolute – Marriott was the fastest man on the planet, by any means. The following year, he went faster still, but the car crashed when it hit two ruts in the sand at Florida beach. At the time of the crash, he is conservatively reported as having reached a speed of between 140 and 150mph (i.e. the same as the record set by Inspiration) though Marriott himself – who survived the wreck – said that it was timed at ‘a hair under 190 mph’. 

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A couple of decades later, in 1925, the young Howard Hughes reportedly drove his Doble E20 roadster at 133mph. Hughes’s car was no record-breaking special, but a lightly modified standard production car in full road-going trim, with a huge flat condenser at the front, which can hardly have contributed to its aerodynamics. It is still on the road today, in the care of Jay Leno

My point is a simple one. As with the jet-powered. Bloodhound SSC, much of the design effort in the British Steam Car Challenge Inspiration was devoted to overcoming the inherent unsuitability of the power unit for its intended purpose. Steam turbines are best suited to running at constant high speed under heavy load, which makes them ideal for marine propulsion and generating electricity but ill-suited to use in cars. Although Rover experimented with a gas-turbine car in the fifties, no-one to my knowledge had successfully put a steam turbine in a car before Inspiration.

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On the other hand, the one proven aspect of Rocket was the power unit. The motor-car was in its infancy but steam had been around as a motive force for nearly two centuries and by then drove shipping, railways, pumping stations and power plants. The steam reciprocating engine was well understood, simple and robust – the Stanley boasted a total of thirteen moving parts and its relatively low running-speed meant that it was unstressed and highly durable.

It was at its zenith in that first decade of the century when the motor-car was still a rich man’s plaything, so that the superior smoothness and quietness of the steam engine outweighed its expense initially, in running and in maintenance; the fact that it took a good half-hour or so to raise steam mattered little if you could pay a chauffeur to do that for you. By the time Abner Doble had overcome most of these difficulties in the 1920s, it was too late: Henry Ford had already established the internal combustion engine as reliable, robust and cheap to run.

Nonetheless, the advance in performance and design that Doble’s car demonstrated in rather less than twenty tears surely make it a far better template for a record-breaking car than the one chosen by the British Steam car Challenge. And while Inspiration is a dead-end, as far as practical application goes, a Doble-based car that took advantage of the advances in design and materials in the last ninety years could be just what the world is looking for.

Many countries in Europe have already fixed dates for the end of internal combustion as a motive force in cars, and most people think that the future lies with electricity. But with improvements in burner technology, sustainable fuels, economic high-pressure steam generation, ultra-low friction engine materials (such as ceramics) and improvements to condensers and autonomous systems, a strong case could be made for steam.

It is certainly an experiment worth trying.

A man deceiving himself in the hope of deceiving others

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This curious speech by Alistair Darling bears listening to twice. If you wish to have the text in front of you, here it is:

‘I do not believe there will be another Scottish referendum in the foreseeable future, possibly not in my lifetime.

I’ll tell you why not.

Firstly, the public don’t want it. Most of the British public, never mind the Scottish public, are heartily sick of referendums. They divide, they turn people against each other – the scars are deep, they’re still there in Scotland. And people don’t want to go through that again.

Secondly, the emotion of what happened in 2014, it’s still there, but the economics have got worse. Oil prices are a case in point. It’s interesting that the nationalists now openly talk about the virtual fraudulent nature of the document they produced in 2013 which set out the economic case. None of them will stand by it now, yet there’s another one coming out on Friday. What seems to be different is we’re now going to have a Scottish pound: sharing the pound is off the agenda. They’ve probably noticed that if you spend a lifetime abusing the people that you don’t like and then you break away and say, now can we have a close relationship with you, it doesn’t somehow work. Look for example at what’s going on at the present time. But the economic argument has changed, and to make the economic case I think will be very difficult. But to assume therefore that’s it, is a huge mistake – not just because I said there is a core of people in Scotland who do believe that independence is the right course of action but because if people come to believe that the union is not delivering for them what is important then the argument for breaking away will gather strength.’

I used to like Alistair Darling well enough; I even met him once, in a surreal moment at the height of the economic crisis in Autumn 2008, when he as Chancellor of the Exchequer was for some reason touring the BBC in Glasgow, where I was part of a group of writers learning about writing for radio.

But I do not believe, on the strength of that speech, that I will be able to trust Alistair Darling, now or in the foreseeable future, possibly not in my lifetime.

I’ll tell you why not.

Firstly, he equates democratic debate with civil war: here we have a politician asserting that people do not want to have their say on matters that concern them, that they are fed up with being asked, because it just provokes strife. It is assertions like this that distinguish the career politician from the genuine democrat, the time-server from the public servant. I wonder which the people of the Balkans would have preferred – a divisive referendum on the future of Yugoslavia, and the figurative scars that went with it, or what actually happened to them?

Secondly, the dishonesty that was there in 2014, it’s still there, but it’s got worse. Oil prices are a case in point: at the very time Mr Darling was giving this speech, oil prices were at the highest they have been for four years, and are set to rise still further . Yet he implies the opposite. I am not aware of any nationalists talking openly about the ‘virtual fraudulent nature’ of their 2013 document [what does that actually mean? that it wasn’t fraudulent? that it wasn’t an actual document?] but I certainly don’t hear Mr Darling acknowledging the blatant dishonesty of his own campaign – that Scotland would be left without a currency, that Scotland would have to leave the EU unless it voted ‘No’ (how did that one work out, Alistair?).

At the very time the pro-union coalition were asserting that they would never enter a currency union, each of them knew that in the event of a ‘yes’ vote, the first thing that would happen would be a round-table negotiation on that and related matters – that, after all, is how politics works.

(In fact, it was the sheer ineptitude of the ‘better together’ campaign – fronted (one can hardly say ‘led’) by the same Mr Darling – that led me to shift from an initial ‘No’ to an increasingly certain ‘Yes’ as time went on:
https://jfmward.wordpress.com/2014/09/10/how-to-squander-a-winning-hand/)

(And while we’re on the matter of currency unions between countries where one breaks away after a long history of friction and indeed open rebellion, we might ask if Alistair has any knowledge of our financial relations with the Republic of Ireland – Eire –- from its inception in 1937 as successor to the Free State. The Irish Pound, which was tied to sterling for 40 years – how did that work out, Alistair?)

Finally, there is the strange incoherence that lies below the polished rhetoric: which referendum is he actually talking about? From the initial conflation of the British public with the Scottish (but never mind them) through his reference to deep, scarring division, to that curious statement about wanting a close relationship with people you have broken away from having spent a lifetime abusing them and the invitation to ‘look… at what’s going on at the present time’ it is almost as if he had forgotten the intended subject of his speech and switched to talking about Brexit instead.

And what on earth is he trying to say in that final paragraph?

‘But the economic argument has changed, and to make the economic case I think will be very difficult. But to assume therefore that’s it, is a huge mistake – not just because I said there is a core of people in Scotland who do believe that independence is the right course of action but because if people come to believe that the union is not delivering for them what is important then the argument for breaking away will gather strength.’

From emphatically telling us at the outset that no-one wants to talk about independence, let alone be asked to vote on it, he now makes the astonishing concession that ‘there is a core of people in Scotland who do believe that independence is the right course of action’ (and let us remember that ‘core’ means ‘heart’) and furthermore ‘if people come to believe that the union is not delivering for them what is important then the argument for breaking away will gather strength.’

And there, if you like, he lets the cat out of the bag. He senses (as I do) that in the wake of Brexit – where Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain* only to be told that they must accept the desire of a large minority of the British electorate (17.4 million out of 46.5) – there is a growing feeling that we would be better not shackled to an England heading resolutely in the wrong direction, trying to revive an idea of itself as a major player on a world stage that has changed out of all recognition (do not forget that we joined the EEC precisely because the old order had changed).

I think that Darling senses, as I do, that the Scottish people would rather like to revisit the question of independence, not because they are dyed-in-the-wool nationalists – I certainly am not – but because they would prefer to be a small nation acting in concert with our neighbours in the largest trading bloc in an interdependent world than part of a larger nation pursuing a solo course with neither economic nor strategic power to sustain it.

I may be wrong, of course; but I would be perfectly happy to ask the people again what they think now, on both matters – Scottish Independence and Membership of the EU. Isn’t that how democracy is meant to work?

Never trust a politician who says that people do not want to be consulted on matters that concern them.

*interestingly, the Scottish vote exactly mirrors the percentage of the electorate who did not vote to leave (i.e. those who voted remain plus those who did not vote) to those who voted to leave – 62% to 38% in both cases.

 

 

 

Ch. 28 – Past, present, future

105 years ago today it was Easter Sunday. My father was born. Half a year ago, the arrival of my grand-daughter, Miss Izzy Flaws, put paid to my chances of hitching a ride on the book event of the year, the launch of Shaun Bythell’s Diary of a Bookseller.

Granny P

Izzy Flaws at one day old, with her Granny

Instead of heading South-West to Wigtown, I was going in the diametrically opposite direction, North-East to Aberdeen.

It is only in looking back at my notes that I am reminded of how close-run a thing making McAvinchey was. I may have given the impression that all was proceeding serenely to a close by now, but this contemporary note, made two days before the Wigtown Festival was due to start (and, as it turned out, the day before Izzy was born) shows otherwise:

Endpapered 66 books, which appears to be total sewn so far. Stamp arrived. Need to rig up some sort of mask and decide best position for it. See if it is feasible to stamp in two colours., black and gold.
Need to guillotine then mull endpapered books.
20 remaining books sawn – so where are the missing 14??

Raised total endpapered to 70 plus one book sewn (no more papers)
guillotined all 70 top edge, some fore-edge.

mulled 46.

I am startled to realise that I was not only still sewing books at this point, but was yet to stamp a cover (and that I appeared to have mislaid 14 books – which I must have found  eventually). I was faced with the possibility of making an extraordinary effort to get all the books finished for the Friday or else delaying till a more realistic date the following week. Since I had got where I was by working steadily and carefully, I thought it wiser to carry on in the same way, rather than push myself and risk producing sub-standard work, which tends to happen when you hurry. And, as we have seen, I got there in the end:

 

So what are my reflections on this grand adventure? For all its incidental stresses and occasional frustrations, it was as enjoyable a time as I had spent in years. I would certainly repeat it, drawing on the many lessons I have learned.

But could such a venture ever be more than a glorified publicity stunt, staged in the ultimate hope that it might catch a conventional publisher’s eye?

I was awake to that possibility – would not be averse from it even now – but it was far from being my sole or even my main hope. I do think there are possibilities in ‘extreme self publishing.’

For a parallel, I would look to the Slow Food Movement and its associated local markets which have come to the fore in this country as part of farmers’ recovery from the horrors of BSE compounded by the foot-and-mouth epidemic. Taking its inspiration from continental models, where local produce and associated markets are strong, it is premised on promoting local identity through locally-sourced high quality produce, so seeking to establish regional diversity within a national framework.

A line that occurs in The McAvinchey Codex is actually lifted straight from my notes in the days when I was on the committee of the Society of Authors in Scotland and occasionally attended a body called the Scottish Literature Forum (which supplied the inspiration for ‘The Forum’ described in the prologue, though its proceedings are not so dramatic):

‘This momentous meeting opens with some brief remarks anent the role of literature in the Scottish economy. Its contribution is significant, greater than many realise – ‘more than golf and cashmere put together’ as one wag succinctly puts it.’

Literary festivals flourish the length and breadth of Scotland. It would not be worthwhile for any mainstream publisher to produce a unique edition tailored to a particular festival, but an extreme self-publisher could:

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Wigtown is somewhat remote – hence the heading: ‘the back of beyond’

And for the festival-goer, what better souvenir than a book produced expressly for the festival, and quite possibly made before their very eyes in the course of it? It would be no great task to set up a temporary book-making operation on site, a sort of pop-up publisher. And as my ingenious friend Dougie Macdonald points out, mass-produced books are now so commonplace that they lack that ‘special’ quality that is sought in a present – not so a hand-made limited edition.

Perhaps, in this age of ‘value added’, the present is the future of the book.

I have long thought that writers should do more to invest in themselves and so reap the rewards from their own work that publishers presently do, commanding the various resources of production themselves, rather than going cap in hand to agents and others to arrange it all for them. ‘Extreme self-publishing’ seems to me to offer the possibility of doing something like that.

It takes no great leap of the imagination to envisage small bands of writers pooling their resources to run small self-publishing operations expressly geared to work with literary festivals – we have micro-breweries, why not micro-publishers? The model also holds out the prospect of co-operative work with local artists and printers and has the potential to be an event in itself, at the heart of its own festival rather than simply on the edge of others.

Anyone fancy it? It could be fun.

For now, farewell – but I’ll be back, depend upon it.

The End.

or, the beginning…

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