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.

The Magic Money Tree: is Covid-19 a game-changer?

The idea of ‘convention’ and its associated activity of ‘deeming’ are fundamental to human activity, as I think I have said elsewhere.

By ‘convention’ I mean the agreement to be bound by something, to deem it to have a power which in reality resides with us.

The paradigm of this concept is when a child, in the course of a game, goes through the motions of tying you up with imaginary rope, then says, ‘there now, you’re my prisoner and you can’t escape’. Both child and adult know, on one level, that this is not the case (being called to the tea-table will dissolve it in an instant) but also that there is a space ‘in the game’ where it holds good, where you both agree to act as if you were bound.

There are two important things to note here: the paradox at the heart of this activity, and its origin in childhood, which suggests that it is ancient, instinctive and intuitive.

The paradox is that the power which we deem the external thing to have is actually our own: we are bound only by our own agreement to follow the rules; it is something which, in theory at least, we can shrug off at any time (though habit can be coercive). The fact that adult conventions are backed by a system of law and enforcement is proof of this: yes, I can be fined or sent to jail if I transgress certain rules that society has agreed, but that requirement for added enforcement is an admission that the conventions, of themselves, have no power to compel.

When children play games and set out the rules, they are not imitating adult behaviour; the reverse is actually the case – the use we make of convention and deeming in adult life derives, I would argue, from that instinctive childhood behaviour. Imposing order on the external world, structuring our lives by giving ourselves rules to follow, is, I would suggest, a method we have evolved that allows us to make sense of experience and manage the problem of existence; but how we do it is up to us.

And that brings us to the magic money tree and these extraordinary times we are living through. It was Theresa May, I think, who said that there was ‘no magic money tree’ in response to a question raised about funding the NHS. As many have since remarked in the recent turn of world events brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, the government now seems to have found an entire magic forest.

If we deconstruct the expression ‘magic money tree’ as Theresa May deployed it, we find it is shorthand for the notion that ‘no matter how worthy the cause (e.g. nurses’ pay) the government can’t just conjure up money to pay for it.’ The implication is that the government is bound by some iron necessity which it could not disobey no matter how much it wanted to; but that is simply not true – the necessity exists only within the conventions of the game – as recent events have shown, there is a magic money tree, if the game has reached a stage where one is needed to keep it going.

The truth is that our economy (by which I mean global free market capitalism, which obtains generally) has no basis in necessity: it is simply a grand and elaborate game, a set of conventions that can be reduced to the notion that people must work (in providing goods and services) in order to earn money to pay for the good and services which people work to produce, in order to earn money, etc. – but we do not have to live this way.

To be sure, there are necessities within the global freemarket economy (I must have money in order to survive) but those are – literally, not metaphorically – just the rules of the game: its logic is internal; it is not founded on any external necessity – there is, ultimately, no reason for it. The fact that we do not have to live this way is demonstrated by the fact that not everyone does, even now, and not so long ago, no-one did – civilisation, living in settled communities supported by agriculture, accounts for only ten thousand of the 200,000 years our particular species has been on earth; in other words, for 95% of human existence we have lived very differently from the way we do now.

Take the case of Richard Branson, one of those who have played the present economic game with such skill that they have amassed a vast pile of the magic leaves we call money, yet who is calling on his airline staff to make sacrifices, which led one Liam Young to tweet the other day

‘Virgin Atlantic have 8,500 employees and Branson has asked them to take 8 weeks unpaid leave. It would cost £4.2 million to pay all of these employees £500 a week to cover this leave. In total that’s a cost of £34 million for 8 weeks. Richard Branson is worth £4 billion.’

[in percentage terms, £34 million is 0.85% of £4 billion, so the implication is that even after doing this, Branson’s wealth would be 99.15% intact]

Now, there are various points for comment here: on the face of it, there seems a great unfairness to ask others to give up their income when you yourself have plenty, even if (as people have pointed out) having a net worth of £4 billion does not mean you have that amount at your immediate disposal; and it is the fact of people working at such and such a cost to provide such and such a service that makes that net worth what it is.

The most succinct summation of the matter was offered by the person who commented, ‘Branson didn’t get his £4 billion by paying staff any more than he absolutely had to.’

No doubt she meant this critically, but it expresses an important truth. For Branson to pay his employees for not working is to play a different game from the one that made him so absurdly rich. That game depends on paying the market rate (which is, by definition, as low as you can get away with) for people to provide goods and services which you sell at a profit. To pay them for unproductive activity is (again, literally, not metaphorically) as if the person who wins at Monopoly, having amassed all the money and ruined everyone else, then says ‘let’s just keep playing, and if you land on my property, I’ll pay you till you’ve all got some money again.’ And of course you can do that if you want, but it’s a different game (and one that completely subverts the point of the original).

I expect, when all this is done, that the world will settle into a new shape, and perhaps a surprising one: habits and customs, once broken, may not be resumed; we may come to see that we need not do what we always have. At the moment it is clear that the present game – global free market capitalism – is in serious danger of failing, so the various participants (i.e. national governments) are willing to abandon the rules, at least temporarily – hence the magic money forest – in order to maintain a semblance of economic activity till we are in a position to start again in earnest; but what they may find, after this, is that people don’t want to play that game any more.

 

Only the Conservative party can save us now

A catchpenny headline, I grant you, but I hope to persuade you of the truth of it.

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By any measure, yesterday in parliament was an extraordinary spectacle. Here we had the least successful prime minister of all time, whose government has not won a single vote since he came to office, who has lost his majority live on television then compounded that loss by expelling more than a score of his party’s most loyal members (a band later joined by a defector from his own cabinet) – thereby rendering himself incapable of governing – who had the day before been the subject of an utterly damning defeat in the Supreme Court which judged him to have acted unlawfully in proroguing parliament for five weeks instead of the usual few days at a time of national crisis, yet in the face of all that, he was brazenly unabashed.

The warm-up act was his loud-voiced Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who in an extraordinary demonstration of what psychiatrists call ‘negative projection’ attributed to the benches opposite every fault that was true, a fortiori, of his own government – that they were paralysed, incapable of coming to a decision, a dead parliament,  a disgrace, a zombie parliament without the moral authority to occupy the benches they sat on; he charged them with cowardice for failing to call a general election when his own government is so powerless that it cannot even do that for itself – he actually called on them to move a vote of confidence, not because he thought they would lose, but because he was sure his own government would be defeated.

Then came the main act. The tone was set early on when the Prime Minister asserted that he meant no disrespect to the Supreme Court when he said that they were wrong – this is a man who speaks in conundrums and contradictions, who likes nothing better than to deliver a sentence where the second part flatly contradicts the first and to move rapidly on while mouths are still gaping at the sheer brazenness of it – did he really say that? It was the same with the most infamous episode, where he dismissed as ‘humbug’ the plea by Jo Cox’s successor to moderate his language because it would inflame violence and put MPs’ lives at risk; while people were still fuming at that, he went on to suggest that the best way of honouring Jo Cox was ‘to get Brexit done’.

Given that Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death in the street, in the run-up to the 2016 referendum, by a man who shouted ‘Britain First’ as he murdered her and later gave his name in court as ‘Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain’, it is difficult to find a scale of inappropriateness on which the Prime Minister’s remark can be measured.

And yet there will have been those looking on who thought, not in spite of this shocking behaviour but because of it, that here was a man who could win an election.

In that they will have been emboldened by the success of Donald Trump on whose behaviour Boris Johnson has increasingly modelled his own, as last night’s performance demonstrates – and be in no doubt that a performance is what it was, cynically calculated to play well with pro-leave voters as it is conveyed to them through the sewers of The Daily Mail and The Sun and the other conduits of feculence that form their views. Those rags will present it as ‘the people’s champion’ standing up to the ‘Liberal Remainer Establishment’ – a term that encompasses Parliament, the Supreme Court, experts and anyone who is capable of articulating a reasoned argument to show that we are better off in the EU.

And this is where the Conservative party faces a stark choice. Across the Atlantic, the Republican Party ushered in the reign of chaos by throwing in their lot with a man they knew to be dangerously unfit for office, whose political credentials as a genuine Republican were doubtful at best, all because they thought he could win and keep them in power. That act of ignoble self-interest has not only served their country badly, it has made the world a more dangerous, unstable place.

If the Conservative party back Johnson because they think he can win and he does, then they will find themselves prisoners of their choice in precisely the way that the Republicans have in backing Trump: we will be out of Europe (on bad and economically-damaging terms), trying to stand alone against economic superpowers – China, USA, India and indeed the EU – and our government will be in the pockets of a small band of very rich men. It will suit the likes of Mogg, Duncan Smith, Johnson and the wealthy, privileged elite they count as friends but the notion that it will be a victory for ‘the people’ is a very sick joke indeed.

Para. 55 of the Supreme Court’s judgement opens with a timely reminder:

‘Let us remind ourselves of the foundations of our constitution. We live in a representative democracy. The House of Commons exists because the people have elected its members. The Government is not directly elected by the people (unlike the position in some other democracies). The Government exists because it has the confidence of the House of Commons. It has no democratic legitimacy other than that.’

 

Once you start talking, as an MP,  in terms of ‘people versus parliament’ you are disavowing the very thing that gave you authority to speak in the first place and espousing gangsterism – the gangsterism of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Putin and Trump. There are, I am sure, enough decent Conservatives who are deeply worried by the direction in which Johnson and his advisers are taking their party, and who are as appalled as any decent people would be by his shameful and cynical conduct last night.

Now is the time for them to put Country before Party. Johnson has to go, and it is they who should take the lead in ousting him.

 

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.

Hijacking the common speech: A bad deal is better than a worse one, but no deal is better than both.

The use and abuse of language has been critical to the continuing political crisis initiated by David Cameron’s ill-judged and badly-executed attempt to stem the flow of votes from his party to UKIP in the 2015 General Election.

Recently I remarked on how ‘just get on with it’ and kindred expressions had been subverted to serve the Brexit cause. There are, I suggested, a great many ordinary people  – burden bearers, we might call them – who are the ones who keep things going from day to day, who make sure the mundane things happen – that the bills are paid, that there is food on the table, that the children are clothed and fed and got off to school. For them, the phrase ‘just get on with it’ has a peculiar resonance – it is what they do, day in, day out; it carries with it an implication that a whole lot of other things might be all very well if there was time to indulge in them, but life being as it is, we must just get on with it and get what needs doing done. As I pointed out, the phrase might well be one that we would agree with in everyday circumstances, but not in the particular case where you found yourself on a strange road in the fog with the growing sense that you might be about to walk over a precipice.

In the same way, an expression central to the debate (it may even have featured in Mrs May’s manifesto in 2017) has been hijacked from the everyday context where it makes sense and slyly introduced to one where it makes no sense at all, with deliberate intent to deceive: I mean the oft-repeated mantra ‘no deal is better than a bad deal.’

When is no deal better than a bad deal?

Always, I would say with confidence – and that is what makes the particular use to which the term has been put recently so pernicious, cynical and downright wicked.

Consider an instance. I set off for Italy because there is a special car there that I want to buy – an old classic Lancia, perhaps. The owner knows that I have come from abroad so can gauge the extent of my commitment – I am serious about wanting this car. He considers that this puts him in a strong bargaining position so holds out for a far higher price than he would otherwise ask because he is confident that I will not walk away, having come so far. But I consider that at this price I would be paying way over the odds – the car needs work done and further expenditure to make it presentable, so the price should reflect that. As it stands, this is a bad deal. I say as much. ‘Then it’s no deal,’ says the owner, in a last attempt to persuade me. ‘No deal is better than a bad deal,’ I say, and walk away.

There has been no transaction: the situation remains as it was – he has the car, I have my money (though I have to put down my expenditure to experience, the price I am willing to pay to achieve my desire). I tell myself that there will be other cars, or indeed that I could learn to live without one.

If we try to map this case onto our present one – leaving the EU – a peculiar thing emerges: no deal is indeed better than a bad deal, but only provided we resume the status quo – in other words, that we walk away, not from the EU, but from the idea of leaving it – on the very good ground that we cannot get a deal better than the one we already have, so we’ll just stick with what we’ve got, thanks, and put the time and money we have spent down to experience.

But that is not what is on offer here: rather it is a choice between a bad deal that is at least orderly and leaves us on good terms with our neighbours (though not as good as those we currently enjoy, which is what makes it bad) and a deal that is a great deal worse, because it involves our crashing out in a disorderly fashion, breaking all sorts of commitments in the process (such as paying our debts)and tying ourselves to WTO rules that will prove economically disastrous for the country as a whole and will ruin many businesses individually.

So yes, no deal is better than a bad deal and very much better than a worse one. So let us not make any deal to leave, but rather stay as we are.

This way to the oligarchy

An odd collocation: I came home from a visit to Stanley Mills to find that Dominic Cummings had said he wanted to ‘get away from rich remainers’ and ‘talk to ordinary people.’ As many were quick to point out, Cummings himself is exceedingly wealthy, as are his closest allies in the Brexit camp; so this was clearly a bit of ‘projection’ on his part, the device where you attribute to your enemies the very fault you yourself are guilty of – if one thing is evident from the whole affair, it is that Brexit is being driven by wealthy men. But what is the connection with Stanley Mills?

Stanley Mills typify a period in the early industrial revolution, when energetic entrepreneurs saw the moneymaking potential of the mechanisation of weaving that happened in the 18th century. This led to the construction of vast multi-storey mills which were essentially huge complex machines for processing cotton from raw material to finished goods under one roof, generally driven by water power.

These mills required a numerous workforce so their construction was accompanied by the building of houses and related infrastructure for the workers and their families (many of the millworkers were young children, small enough and nimble enough to get in below the machinery to help keep it working by clearing away waste, etc.). 

Thus, the construction of a mill was also the creation of a community, with the millowners providing not only housing but schools, shops and churches. There was no doubt that the living conditions (and pay) were an improvement on anything the workers had known previously – most of them would have been agricultural workers – though the working conditions were in a variety of ways hazardous to health, from the perils of unguarded machinery, the deafening noise of the mill and the atmosphere thick with lung-threatening dust.

However, it was certainly possible for the millowners to consider themselves benefactors, giving their workforce clean, modern housing with sanitation, providing education and meeting their spiritual and material needs; and it is probable that many of their workers would have shared that opinion, especially if they still had relations toiling on the land and living in primitive conditions. But another aspect of this set-up was that the relationship between community and millowner was one of total dependence – they were relatively well-off and certainly well-provided-for, and as long as they did what the mill-owner wanted (working hard and causing no trouble) it would stay that way. And of course the millowner had a vested interest in treating his workforce well, since they in turn made him rich.

This looks, from some angles, to be what the Americans call a ‘win-win situation’: the workers get a secure livelihood and all sorts of benefits while the owner not only gets rich, but gets to feel good about doing so – ‘what’s not to like?’ as they say.

Well, the inherent inequality of the relationship, which for all its apparent modernity has a strong whiff of the feudal about it – the mill-owner holds the lives of his workers (and they are ‘his’ in every sense of the word) in the palm of his hand: all is in his gift.

The counter-argument is to say that this is all right as long as the owner is well-disposed, as he has every incentive to be – the better he treats his work-force, the more the rewards for him; and in any case, are there not strong social constraints among the mill-owners as a body, who see themselves not only as enlightened men who are benefitting the whole country through the application of modern ideas but generally as pious, upright Christians, with a strong sense of decency?

We will leave aside what happens when forces beyond the owner’s control – the American Civil War and its effect on the supply of cotton, for instance – lead to an economic downturn which imperils the livelihoods of the millworkers, and concentrate instead on the relationship between these two distinct classes of people, one of which is responsible for the livelihood – indeed, in many ways, the very lives – of the other.

It is an old-fashioned patriarchal model: the father provides for his children, who in turn do him proper respect and give him his place – which is in charge, naturally enough: the responsibility for direction and decision-making falls to him.  It seems obvious: after all, has he not created all this through his own acumen, built it up by his shrewdness, to the benefit of all (though most of all himself)? And everyone does well out of it, as long as they all know their place in the scheme of things.

This, I think, is the model that Johnson, Cummings and his fellow wealthy ‘Brexiteers’ are aiming for (and doesn’t the swagger of that title, ‘Brexiteer’, with its echo of ‘musketeer’ and ‘buccaneer’, fit perfectly here?). Look at recent history: the painful wake of the collapse of Soviet communism led not to the promised democracy but an oligarchy allied to political dictatorship – and did so by allowing the seizure of what were hitherto state assets (in theory, at least, the people’s assets) by private individuals, who have profited massively from exploiting them. [though advocates of free-market capitalism will doubtless recast this as proof that what becomes moribund under the dead hand of state control has its potential realised by enterprising individuals]

Look at what Trump is doing: weakening legislative power and state regulation in every direction, and benefitting the super-rich who already control so much of the American economy. He aims to revive the days of the ‘Robber Barons’  – Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller et al. before anti-trust laws brought them under some sort of control. The ambiguity with which America still regards the effects of concentrated wealth is neatly expressed in this lesson plan, quoted in the Wikipedia article on ‘Robber Barons’:

‘In this lesson, you and your students will attempt to establish a distinction between robber barons and captains of industry. Students will uncover some of the less honorable deeds as well as the shrewd business moves and highly charitable acts of the great industrialists and financiers. It has been argued that only because such people were able to amass great amounts of capital could our country become the world’s greatest industrial power. Some of the actions of these men, which could only happen in a period of economic laissez faire, resulted in poor conditions for workers, but in the end, may also have enabled our present day standard of living.’

The key that links all these groups – from eighteenth century mill-owners to Cummings and the gang – is the sense that large affairs of state are best left in the hands of a few wealthy individuals, as untrammelled as possible by any state regulation or legislation, whom the great mass of ordinary people (who know little of such things) should trust to do what is best. Of course they will get even richer as a result, but we should not worry about that – isn’t it their just reward? In any case, doesn’t it mean we’ll all be better off in the long term (just as long as we all remember our proper place in the scheme of things and don’t get ideas above our station)?

Viewed in that light, that bastion of democratically-agreed legislation and regulation, the European Union, for all its faults, looks very much the safest refuge in an increasingly dangerous world for ‘ordinary people’ who ‘just want to get on with it’.

If what they say is true, then how did we get here?

A Dutch view of prorogation

A useful test is to ask whether the account that people give of events is consistent with the events themselves.

If it were really the case that in the 2016 referendum ‘the country voted overwhelmingly to leave’ (to quote the chronically untruthful Bernard Jenkin, MP*) is that at all consistent with the point we have now reached, and the path we have followed to get there?

If that were the case, is it conceivable that Theresa May, boldly flying her banner with a strange device – ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – would have lost her majority when she called an election expressly to increase it, so finding herself reliant on the ‘support’ of the DUP, which proved fatal not only to her Brexit deal, but ultimately to her premiership?

Would we not rather have expected her to be swept to power by the 80% of the electorate that supposedly support Brexit, according to the convoluted casuistry of the congenitally mendacious Jake Mogg? ** 

From such a position of strength, her deal would have passed first time, complete with Irish backstop, and we would have left the EU on the date originally intended.

But Mrs May did lose her majority, her Brexit deal and finally her job; yet if all this was the fault of a treacherous Remainer parliament determined to thwart the will of the British people, why did Mrs May and her successor consistently rule out a ‘People’s Vote’, i.e. a second referendum on the subject of EU membership?

If it were the case that ‘the country voted overwhelmingly to leave’ then a second referendum could only confirm the first, leaving those Remainer elite MPs without a leg to stand on, nor any rag to cover their shame. Surely – if the facts were as Jenkin, Johnson, Mogg, Gove and the rest pretend – it would be the Leavers who would take to the street in their millions demanding a People’s Vote? Why would the Remainers call for something that would only confirm once more that theirs was a lost cause?

And if there really was a solid majority in favour of leaving the EU would we not already have left in an orderly fashion under Mrs May, rather than have reached the present pass where a Prime Minister appointed by 92,153 people to lead a population of 65.5 million issues a public statement that “the claim that the govt is considering proroguing parliament in Sept … is entirely false.’’ when in fact he has already decided to do so (as was demonstrated at the Court of Session in Scotland today)?

And would the same Prime Minister have to maintain the threadbare pretence that, by ruling out the Irish backstop – which the EU have made clear is not negotiable – and by taking the position that the UK will leave on 31 October ‘with or without a deal’, he is genuinely engaged in trying to negotiate a better deal with EU rather than intentionally precipitating a no-deal Brexit? (an outcome that is generally agreed to be calamitous for the country)

I suggest that, if Messrs Jenkin, Johnson, Gove, Mogg and the rest were actually telling the truth when they said (as they have repeatedly) that the British people voted for Brexit, then events would not have played out as they have to bring us to our present predicament. I therefore conclude that those ‘honourable gentlemen’ have not been telling the truth and that our present situation is quite the opposite from what they claim it to be: far from a recalcitrant Remainer elite group of MPs  attempting to thwart the will of the people, the reality is that a small gang of unscrupulous and self-interested MPs have hijacked the government of our country and are determined to force through an outcome that has only ever been supported in any form by a minority of people and in this latest form – a disorderly Brexit with no arrangements in place – has few supporters if any.***

They appear to be hellbent on steering the ship of state onto the rocks, in some cases at least (the egregious Mogg) for personal gain: it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that their behaviour is both criminal and treasonable.

*as I have pointed out many times before, there are around 65.5 million British people, of whom 46.5 million were eligible to vote in the 2016 referendum. Only 17.4 million expressed a desire to leave the EU and so change a status quo that is all that half the population has known since birth (according to the most recent census data (2011) over half the population were 39 or younger at a time when Britain had been in the EU for 38 years; it is safe to say that it was certainly the case that by 2016 more than half the British people had grown up as EU citizens) It is therefore impossible to sustain with any truth the claim that the British people (or even a majority of them) voted to leave. The great majority of the electorate (62%) expressed no desire to do so. For a closer examination of this point, see ‘Liars in Public Places‘.

**In a brief interview of extraordinary mendacity, the egregious Mogg attempted to claim that there was no need of a further referendum because ‘We had an election in 2017 where over 80% of people voted for parties committed to leaving’. He conveniently overlooks the fact that it has been the norm for the last hundred years for the great majority to vote for the same two parties, and also that many who voted for those parties did so for reasons other than their Brexit stance.

***No less an authority than the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster himself, plucky Michael Gove, has assured us that ‘no-one voted for no deal

Ow! yaroo! Stop it, you beasts!

Yaroo

I have remarked before that the level at which Boris Johnson operates – and those about him – is ‘school debating society’. That is why the majority of EU politicians, who are serious-minded, grown-up types who see politics in terms of public service (as we once did in this country) cannot comprehend him.

Today’s proroguing of parliament epitomises this: it is the kind of thing only a schoolboy would think clever.

First we have the wording of this response given by Downing St. to Iain Watson, BBC political correspondent, regarding the Observer article that broke the story about the government checking out the legality of such a move:

“the claim that the govt is considering proroguing parliament in Sept in order to stop MPs debating Brexit is entirely false.’’ [my italics]

You can just picture the tittering behind hands that accompanied this – ‘we just have to say we prorogued it for a different reason and that will make it true! Aren’t we clever?’

Then we have (with more schoolboy sniggers, no doubt) the devising of the story to be given out when questions are asked: this is perfectly normal, entirely usual, nothing at all to do with Brexit – so far I have heard this in various forms from messrs Redwood, Mogg, Dung-can Smith and of course Johnson himself (who rather overstepped the mark with typical bungling exuberance when he dishonestly claimed to be leading ‘a new government’ – did you win a General Election then, Boris?)

Picture the smirking self-congratulation –  ‘all we have to do is to stick to saying that the reason is nothing to do with Brexit and just about allowing time for a new programme of legislation and they can’t get us!’

well, as the Walrus of Westminster, the redoubtable John Pienaar (BBC deputy political editor) succinctly puts it, 

“If you wholly and unquestionably believe that, you will wholly and unquestionably believe anything.”

And there, I think, he puts his finger on the major flaw in the Johnson gang’s merry prank. 

People do not like being taken for fools, particulary by smug public schoolboys like Jake Mogg and Boris Johnson. The entire country knows that this is about stifling debate on Brexit and that what they are being offered is a knowingly false account.

But there is something else: behind the smug, dishonest facade – ‘nothing to see here, not to do with Brexit at all, just move along’ I catch the rank smell of fear. Johnson is desperate, as today’s measure demonstrates: one of the few true things he has said is that he will do anything to get Brexit done by 31 October.

But that does not mean he will succeed.

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.