CategoriesEducationPoliticsThought of The Day

Comment Piece in The Yorkshire Post

With the children returning to school on 7 September, The Yorkshire Post published my blog, originally entitled “Carpe Diem, Gavin Williamson” in reference to the Government’s introduction of Latin. The article was trailed on page 2 (not page 3, as my friends have suggested!).

In it, I outline some obvious changes which ought to be implemented to education. If I was allowed more words, I could have gone on, for there is so much which is broken with the system. Because we are a rich country – due to historical reasons – it seems to me that we do not often question why it is that we do certain things. Why do children have ludicrously long school holidays? Because, historically, it allowed them to harvest. There are countless other examples of such poor thinking and poor governance.

The titles of the online and print versions vary. The online version can be found here.

Page 2 of Yorkshire Post on 7 September 2021

Andrew Gray

Page 15 Yorkshire Post 7.9.21
Article by Andrew Gray
CategoriesEnvironmentInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Us and Them

Accompanying the scenes of the Kabul evacuation, Pink Floyd’s Us and Them plays on a continuous loop in my head.

“Us (us, us, us, us) and them (them, them, them, them)
And after all we’re only ordinary men.”

In recent weeks, this troubling issue – of ‘them’ and ‘us’ – has dominated my thoughts. Why do some people matter to us, but others do not? Imperilled people at Kabul airport who have had our help, are just as important as humans in, say, sub-Saharan Africa who have not, right? Former soldier and Tory MP, Patrick Mercer, wrote in The Yorkshire Post on 29 August 2021:

“If ever there was an unimpeachable reason for offering safety and sanctuary to our friends, this is it. We need to get those people out – all of them – and help them here in Britain just as they stood by our boys when the bullets were flying over there.”

Since the invasion of Afghanistan twenty years ago, I do not recall the British media suggesting that any Afghan was on our “side”. Deaths of Afghans – either in “collateral damage” or otherwise – didn’t seem to matter much. Only the deaths of our unfortunate soldiers ever made the news. Until now. Now, Afghans who worked on our side, or who benefitted from our presence, have quickly become ‘us’ in a matter of weeks.

Perhaps we now care for some Afghans because “our” people got to know some of them, fighting and dying together. Because those Afghans picked our tribe over “theirs”, they are now friends for life, as Mercer says. Our tribe owes their tribe, goes the logic. Difficult shared experiences develop strong bonds between people.

As I hope to treat all people equally, this rapid volte face in the media, though welcome, causes me concern. And if these Afghans can quickly change sides in our consciousness, are there any useful lessons for how we could shine a spotlight on other unfortunate people, equally deserving of our help? What methodology and logic should we use for determining who deserves our assistance?

Yuval Noah Harari’s magnum opus – Sapiens – which ought to be compulsory reading for all – traces the development of our species. Like many of his readers, I now understand myself better because I recognise my DNA code. Harari spends much time explaining the ‘them’ and ‘us’ phenomenon. He writes:

“Evolution has made homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Us’ is people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for ‘them’. We were always distinct from them, and owe them nothing. We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory. They are barely even human.”

A challenging read, because it is true for many people.

In 2016, at the suggestion of a Quaker friend, I travelled with him to the Calais refugee camp – The Jungle – together with some members of a Pentecostal church in Leeds. Our mission was to distribute food and other assorted items.

At that time, in the British gutter press, The Jungle had become notorious. If France was so civilised, why not stay there? – went the narrative. The gutter press’s answer: only because Britain was a soft-touch, ready to help others rather than “our own”. Charity begins at home, they intoned.

In The Jungle lived Afghans, Syrians and many other nationalities – mainly young men – who wanted a better life, escaping war and poverty. If, through fate, I had been in their position, I imagine I would have done likewise.

Here are some photos of that trip.

You might expect that such an experience would leave a lasting impression, but it did not. Rarely do I think about The Jungle, however, frequently I think about the people whom we travelled with: they became part of my tribe. Perhaps this is because I did not (frankly, because of fear), spend any meaningful time with any of the inhabitants of The Jungle: it was intense, overwhelming experience – one that I do not wish to have again. I cannot tell you any of their names of the people we helped. In my head, they didn’t enter my tribe.

Harari’s work helps humans to understand our still-primitive minds. If we are all encoded to really only care about ‘us’, if we want to break-free from such thinking, answers can be found in religion and ideology (taken as one) and philosophy.

Although religion unquestionably sows division, it is also a great unifer, by increasing the size of the ‘us’ pool, extending the size of our tribe. Don’t just care about Christians in your town in affluent Harrogate – goes the logic – care about the plight of Christians in Kurdistan, too. Furthermore, if an omnisicient creator gave all things life, assuming that humans are at the zenith of the importance hierarchy (which is quite an assumption), then religions are a helpful antidote to humans only caring about the people whom they know. For example, the Christians from Leeds, who led The Jungle odyssey, were inspired by their faith to help those in need. And for these Leeds Christians, upliftingly they did not care for the religion for those whom they helped.

Similarly, communism encouraged the working classes to care about the class struggle throughout the world, extending the working class tribe. Communism and the reaction to it certainly caused much bloodshed, but it also spawned human connection.

In philosophy, I draw great strength from Peter Singer – the inspiration behind the animal rights movement. Together with my instinctual predilection for utilitarianism, Singer’s Drowning Child Experiment has shaped how I see the world. His thought experiment goes as follows:

Imagine that you are walking through an empty village – empty except for a young child. That child is about to drown in the village pond. You are the only person who can save it. If you wade into the water, through the mud, to make a rescue, then you will permanently ruin your best clothes. The financial cost would be modest. Morally, should you wade in?

To which everyone answers – of course! Singer asks why it is, then, that most people in rich countries would not spend only a small sum of money to save the life of a child – or perhaps a few children – in a developing country, a country that we will in all likelihood never visit. Why does it matter that we cannot see, in the flesh, the child drowning in another land? Singer challenges us to ignore distance, to apply logic – a life is a life wherever it is – and to make that donation.

Inspired by Singer’s reasoning, the organisation – The Life That You Can Save – ranks charities who make the greatest contribution to saving lives. I encourage all readers to subscribe to their newsletter.

Drawing lessons from Harari, religion and philosophy, how should we, in rich countries, act? My personal recipe is to get to know one developing country – in my personal case, Myanmar – and give a fair proportion of your wealth (including your time) to achieving the maximum return. We cannot know all people, or we would exhaust ourselves. Alternatively, we could let the Life That You Can Save direct our giving, but you will never get the warm feeling of knowing the people your money helps, perhaps leading us to give to the local donkey sanctuary instead when we get bored.

Perhaps more intelligently and compassionately still, our money and time ought to be focussed on environmental matters: allowing us to be both local as well as global, acting in the knowledge that the people who will be hit worst by environmental collapse are always the most needy. This requires long-term thinking, something which does not come naturally to most of us.

CategoriesInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Taliban 2.0?

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, my good friend went to the Iranian Embassy in London to collect our visas. In what was a foreboding experience, we had completed the requisite paperwork in the embassy several weeks before. With our plane tickets booked to Athens, the plan was that we were to make it overland – from Greece to Thailand, flying home from Bangkok. By this point, we had obtained visas for Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. The back-of-a-fag-packet plan was to apply for a Burmese visa when in Bangladesh. The Iranian visa was the missing piece.

Due to 9/11, with the world in a pickle, with travel insurance invalidated for Iran, we were only able to safely visit India.

Watching the Taliban press conference, a few days ago, I thought I would revisit my Lonely Planet Guidebook to Central Asia, printed in 2000. My friend and I would have ventured into Afghanistan, had it been safe at that time. The guidebook reads:

At the time of writing the sound of gunfire and shelling still reverberates over parts of Afghanistan as it has done with depressing regularity since the late 1970s. Hopes are high that the latest faction to win control over the war-torn capital, the Islamist Taliban fighters, may eventually succeed in bringing peace but for the time being Afghanistan is unsafe to visit.

The 19th century was a period of often comic book confrontation with the British, who were afraid of the effects of unruly neighbours on its great Indian colony. The rise of Great Game tensions and the internal weakness of the Afghan Kingdom resulted in a series of remarkably unsuccessful and bloody, preventative wars being fought on extremely flimsy pretexts.

In 1841 the British Garrison in Kabul found itself under attack after Alexander ‘Bokhara’ Burnes was hacked to pieces by an Afghan mob. The British attempted to retreat to India and were almost totally wiped out in the Khyber Pass – out of 16,000 persons only one man survived. The British managed to re-occupy Kabul and carried out little razing and burning to show who was boss, but Dost Mohammed ended up back in power, just as he had been before the war.

Following local wars, from 1878 to 1880, Afghanistan agreed to become more or less a protectorate of the British, happily accepted an annual payment to keep things in shape and agreed to a British resident in Kabul. No sooner had this diplomatic mission being installed in Kabul than all of its members were murdered. This time the British decided to keep control of Afghanistan’s external affairs, but to leave the internal matters strictly to the Afghans themselves.”

History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes, so said Mark Twain.

……………………………………………….

In strict legal terms, the initial war in Afghanistan in 2001 was lawful. Morally, there was a casus belli – just cause. The “occupation” also had legal cover, as the foreign troops were invited to remain in situ by the Afghan Government. But was there a duty to nation-build – and, if so, at what cost and for how long?

My view is that our shameful colonial legacy, rather than the invasion of 2001, obliged us to help. The boundaries drawn by colonial officials many years ago split communities, artificially creating this country and that country, sowing generations of division. As a former Burma/Myanmar expert, this pattern is familiar.

With regards to the US, any obligation to the Afghans stems not from their invasion in 2001, rather from their proxy war fought against the Soviet Union during the 1980s, flooding Afghanistan with weapons. Such obligation does not last twenty years, nor should it cost $2 trillion, 2442 dead and 20,660 wounded.

President Biden has come under sustained criticism due to the manner of the collapse, but he was elected on a pledge of ending the “forever wars”. I shall not join in with the condemnation, for he was democratically elected, with his rival – Trump, who made the deal with Taliban – also promising likewise. Had the US remained, in breach of the presidential promises, the US taxpayer would have shouldered additional considerable expense. If such cost had been met by the UN, fairly split across the G20 countries, given that no US soldier had died in 18 months, such continued involvement would have been equitable to the US, but it was not. Expecting the US to act as the world policeman, with the expectation that the US spends a higher proportion of her GDP on defence than other NATO allies, is the root cause of the scenes at Kabul airport. Look to Germany, France, other NATO countries and to the UN, if you want to allocate blame.

Certainly, the intelligence assessment of the capability and durability of the Afghan National Army (ANA) proved wildly inaccurate, but such predictions were always educated guesses. Just as the intelligence errors which led to Pearl Harbour did not bury Roosevelt, the CIA assessment of the ANA shouldn’t finish Biden. In fact, the speed with which the ANA collapsed, when faced with an inferior force, gives credence to Biden’s position – that the US job in Afghanistan could never be complete, leading to many more trillions to be spent to little strategic or economic gain.

However, politics is an unfair business. Images of Taliban fighters in US fighter planes and driving around Kabul in Humvees, which will drip-drip for years to come, will pummel Biden on a daily basis. Given his age, Biden will not seek re-election, paving the way for Harris. Harris’ success may rest on her ability to distance herself from the withdrawal. This may wash with the US electorate, who know that Biden has always been opposed to US military adventurism. As the Taliban always say, “You may have the watches, but we have the time.” Foreign expeditions on behalf of a democratically elected Government – in this case, the US – can only ever be time-limited affairs.

………………………………..

Combined with the angst that we in the West feel for those caught up in these unfortunate circumstances, my (likely unpopular) view is that we feel embarrassed – humiliated even – that “our side” were so easily swatted away, often without a fight, by fighters whom many regard as primitive. Furthermore, the Taliban leaders whom we now see on TV, do not so far appear to be the monsters which we were led to believe that they were. This is not to ignore their multiple atrocities, rather it is comment on their appearance and actions as de facto rulers thus far.

My sense is that many people in the West feel discombobulated: everything that we thought we knew was wrong. To make matters more disorientating, my view is that many in the West now feel unsafe: our soldiers were beaten (when they were not); our allies are incompetent and untrustworthy; refugees and terrorism will soon be brought to a street near you; our prestige, shattered.  As George Orwell wrote: “We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” Our “rough men” have gone, though most of them left years ago.

…………………………………………………

Watching the Taliban take Kabul without a fight, pondering the reason why it was an effortless coup d’état, instantly I thought of my favourite organisational thinker, Simon Sinek. Sinek created the third most-watched TED Talk of all time. Sinek’s simple message is that organisations need a shared Why: i.e. a culture – a mission – that all participants subscribe to. Through adhering to that vision, an organisation can achieve great things.

Sinek highlights how the little-known Wright Brothers somehow managed to fly the first plane despite being pitted against Samuel Pierpont Langley – an eminent astronomer who was bankrolled by the US Government and who assembled the brightest minds of the day. As Sinek states about the Wright Brothers, “they were able to inspire those around them and truly lead their team to develop a technology that would change the world.”

My view as a non-expert (though with some foreign policy acumen – I submitted written evidence to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee) is that the ANA were without a mission that the foot soldiers and their leadership bought into. Though well-trained and well-armed, they were no match for purpose-driven Taliban fighters. Without purpose – because Afghanistan, though a nation state in legal terms, has little cohesivity. This mountainous country, with few roads, makes for insular, autonomous areas, rather than a joined-up whole. This is not to criticise the Afghan people, for a national identity cannot be forced. Why, then, as an ANA solder would you risk your life for an idea that you do not – to your core – believe in?

……………………………………………………

Do we in the West have a moral or legal duty to evacuate anyone who is queuing at the airport? Have “we” spent enough? Should we aid the brain and financial drain, which is taking place, hampering the country for years to come? If so, who do we bring over and for how long? Because our taxpayers funded Afghan engineers, should we take their whole families with us, depriving Afghanistan of their skills?

The moral answer perhaps lies in our analysis of what may happen to such people if they stay, but then we have already witnessed the issues with predicting what will happen in Afghanistan. Applying a risk-assessment methodology, temporary residency should be provided for those with cause. If Afghanistan does not descend into reprisals, then Afghans would need to return, supported by turbo-charged foreign aid. Whilst in the UK, all Afghan should have the right to work – a right that refugees have but asylum-seekers do not. If safe, Afghanistan will need most of the people back who are now departing.

……………………………………………………….

But has the Taliban changed in twenty years? Early indications suggests that they have. The world has changed in that time. Their leaders have experienced life in other countries. A generation of Afghans has experienced democracy, women’s rights, and the internet. The country they now govern is a different prospect from what they knew. Taliban leaders will still scan the sky for drones, perhaps tempering some of their activities.

Sadly, what I expect to see is some reprisals and a dramatic reduction in women’s rights. I expect that the West will make it difficult for the Taliban to access banking and international aid, so I expect to see – as has happened in Burma/Myanmar – the march of the Chinese into Afghanistan. Iran, Russia and Pakistan too will all look to curry favour, with minerals to exploit and border zones to influence. The Great Games – as mentioned in the extract from my guidebook above – continue. Everything changes, but nothing changes.

CategoriesPoliticsEssaysThought of The Day

Carpe diem, Gavin Williamson

At the request of The Yorkshire Post, for whom I occasionally write, I have penned this comment piece. Perhaps they will publish it. Time will tell. I was limited to 750 words, but there is far more that I could say on this subject! Enjoy.

 

I’ll admit it: middle-class parents, like my wife and I, had a good pandemic. Working from home, deliveries, Zoom and a garden, we never had it so good. Our children – girl and a boy – aged 11 and 9, fared well, thanks to devices and internet. To supplement the lamentable online “schooling” from their state school, we hired a teacher for daily online lessons. When one child was learning live, the other was completing homework.

Encouraged, we challenged our children to find an additional tutor – in any subject, in any country. Using an app, my son selected an Argentinian-based coding teacher, whereas my daughter instructed a drama tutor, all the way from Lancashire. (The pound goes further in Argentina!). These weekly lessons continue. Through making their own choices, our children have reconfigured their view of education.

Naturally, I have inexhaustible sorrow for the children whom Covid eternally penalised. The gulf has widened. So, what to do?

Treat Covid as an opportunity. Historians will declare this time – revolutionary: a promiscuous, Catholic Prime Minister; furlough extravaganza; exodus from the cities; Brexit; amber lists; space races; UFOs; wild climate; Tories in Hartlepool; national sporting success; and Natwest in profit.

Meanwhile, over at the Department for Education, for Gavin from Scarborough it’s business-as-usual.

The aftermath of WW1 delivered women’s suffrage. WW2 spawned the welfare state. Post-Covid, here is my uncosted education bucket-list, emanating from a new Education Rights Bill.

First, fundamentally restructure education and the status of educators: teachers should be atop the status hierarchy. Education should become a life-long process. Double the pay of state schoolteachers and make it harder to qualify. Private school advantage will haemorrhage. Empower the teaching regulator. Looking back, all of us remember a teacher who saw something in us that nobody else did. Similarly, most of us remain embittered by a poor teacher, who caused our shameful grades. In future, those who can, teach. Then, pay school governors, encouraging the best to apply, removing the cosy relationship with the Head.

Lengthen the school day. I recommend six terms. Half the summer holidays, given that children no longer harvest. To improve traffic flow in an area, vary school start times. Country-wide, to end the extortionate cost of foreign holidays, term times should vary. And scrap fines for taking children out of school, too, if under ten days. To foster a better balance of genders and ages of staff in primary schools, legalise positive discrimination.

Each child – state school or private – should be given a budget, managed by their carers, to purchase their schooling, as well as any extracurricular activities, additional lessons, clothing and school meals. Want to learn fencing or horse riding, fine. Higher budgets for poorer children and those with special needs. Parents can add to the pot, as they do already. Granny can buy Latin lessons as a gift. The State should have a statutory obligation to provide a free device with free internet.

Each citizen – not just children – should be given an encrypted, personalised education dashboard – a repository for all our educational activities and results, from cradle to grave. One-third of lessons ought to be streamed, available for anyone in the world. If children are poorly, isolating or on holiday, they can watch later. Private schools could maintain their charitable status, only if they stream one-third of their lessons. Want to know what Eton is like, then attend their lessons, either live or watch on-demand later. Didn’t understand the lesson, then go over it again in your own time.

Whilst a British education remains prized, with English the world’s lingua franca, by exporting our online lessons for free to our former colonies, and at cost to others, we can culturally lead. A bulwark against Chinese domination, with its impenetrable Mandarin. To offset the drop in our foreign aid budget, newly qualified teachers must spend their first-year teaching abroad.

Trip-advisor-style reviews from pupils and carers should inform school rankings. With so many online lessons for anyone to view, the best teachers will become celebrities. Scrap Ofsted, SATs and GCSEs. Employers which received furlough cash must provide work experience, allocated by lottery, opening-up the professions. On top of that, I want to see mandatory CPR, sign language, and philosophy lessons, with Shakespeare the preserve of higher education.

School buildings and playing fields must be opened-up to their communities. And like at Hogwarts, children should be allocated a House, with online competitions. Finally, as a right, our children demand clean air, both inside and outside of school.

 

CategoriesLegalPoliticsEssaysThought of The Day

The Middle Class Advantage?

(I would prefer never to speak of any particular “class”, but as the term retains utility, I shall use it.)

On Friday evening, I had an emergency telephone consultation with a GP. Her advice was unequivocal: go to A & E. Not what I wanted to hear – of course – but I appreciated the clarity.

What I think I needed was for my blood pressure to be checked. Attending A & E alone was a non-starter, as I couldn’t stand up. We therefore asked our wonderful neighbours for an emergency babysitter. In that chat group was a GP.

Now I can assure my readers that I did not want our friend to check in on me, but check on me she did. (As I thought, my blood pressure was too low on standing, flooring me. A & E was spared my needless presence). For our friend, I feel immense gratitude, and I hope that she never needs to check on my again. But such fortuitousness (or not) gave me pause for reflection at the reason for my “luck”.

During my teens, my middle class, wonderful parents secured me two weeks of legal work experience. Unpaid, of course, as such work experience always is. These two weeks not only set me on my career trajectory, but then made it easier for me to find my first job in law. During my gruelling interviews to become a trainee solicitor, I remember citing my work experience as evidence that I understood the profession.

Today, routinely I help my friends and family with their legal problems. No question. Like me, most of my friends and family are “middle class”. Candidly, in the past, I was more likely to sanction a work experience placement if I knew the family.

But let me confess: over the years, I have joined in the pillorying of Old Etonians – particularly the Bullingdon Club boys – for using their upper class connections to further their interests. Even recently, Reckless Boris appointed yet another “Buller” to – believe it or not – take a seat on the Whitehall sleaze watchdog. And let’s not forget Matt Hancock, who appointed his “friend” from Oxford as a non-executive at his department. They soon got to know each other better.

Writing in The Times, Matthew Syed notes:

“The American data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz estimates that the son of a president is 1.4 million times more likely to become president than an average American. He also shows that the sons of governors have a 6,000 times greater chance of reaching high office, and the sons of senators have an 8,500 times greater chance.”

Such statistics will be similar in the UK. Locally, my former colleague, Richard Burgon, MP for Leeds East, is the nephew of former local MP, Colin Burgon. More famously, in the next constituency – in Leeds Central – we find Hilary Benn MP, son of Tony Benn. Tony Blair’s father stood for the Conservatives, although usually most Labour MPs are drawn from unions – another club of sorts.

Witnessing the building work carried out on our house, it is clear that tradespeople, on the whole, have their own code of honour, able to call on each other whenever they need to. I envy it. Just as when I give free legal advice to friends or family, or when Reckless Boris appoints another mate, tradespeople often go to who they know; whom they trust; who is any good.

In the same Times piece, Syed also notes that the world’s greatest sport – football – is immune from nepotism. Billions play it, because all you need is a football and two jumpers for goalposts. Very few barriers to entry. In football, family ties mean almost nothing: you need ability to succeed. Connections won’t get you far. Unquestionably, the quality of football improves each season. No Premier League Winner in the 1990s would make a Premier League-winning team in the 2020s.

Whilst I am sure that we would all like to live in a more meritocratic world – a world which is mercifully becoming more meritocratic – it would pay us all dividends to consider how we use our own networks to get on, and to help “our own” to get on. The Etonians of this world are just doing what the rest of us do. The only difference being is that they usually control the levers of power. Our GP friend checked up on me – to my advantage – because we live in the same leafy suburbs. I live in a leafy suburb, thanks in large part to the advantages bestowed upon me from childhood. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with such opportunities being passed down the generations– that I should have rejected our friend’s generosity, due to an acknowledgement of historic injustices – but it is right that I realise that most people cannot call upon a friendly GP on a Friday evening.

Turning to our “clan” is what we have always done as a species. In football, we can see a brighter future, where all our talents are deployed to the benefit of the collective; a nirvana to aspire to. In the meantime, next time I contemplate decrying Reckless Boris, I shall first consider my own hypocrisies.

CategoriesPoliticsThought of The Day

In Cummings We Believe

This evening, Cummings enjoyed a one-hour prime-time slot, interviewed by his chum, Laura Kuenessberg.

In this blog, I’ll set out Cummings’ broad thesis.

  1. The party system is flawed.

As Cummings put it, any political system which provides Johnson and Corbyn as the only realistic options is – without doubt – broken. Hobson’s Choice, he says. Cummings highlights that, for MPs to climb the ladder, then they must play the party political game. This game does not promote the best people that the country has to offer.

  1. Whitehall is broken.

One plank of Cummings’ three-pronged deal with Reckless Boris – or “The Trolley” as he prefers to call him (noting that, like me, and unlike Starmer, Cummings wants a name to stick in the mind of the people) – was that he would only enter government if he could smash and then rebuild the civil service. His other demands were: that he could “get Brexit done”; and that he could heavily promote science.

  1. People are generally either competent or incompetent

Time and again, either in interviews or in his meandering tweets (rarely seized upon by the media, so frenzied they read), Cummings takes the view that either you’ve got it, or you haven’t. Accepting that it’s an unfashionable view, Cummings’ elitist position will win him few friends. For it is he and his coterie of “a few dozen Vote Leave key personnel”, he says, who make these decisions of far-reaching consequence for the rest of us. This Illuminati of British politics, he reckons, determine a key person’s ability to govern, casting aside “losers” and promoting their own.

  1. Johnson is clueless and dangerous

Devoid of any plan to govern, and “ludicrous”, said Boris of himself, that he was PM, Cummings admitted that his intention was to steer The Trolley. Post-2019 General Election, however, Cummings says that Carrie – Reckless Boris’ umpteenth partner – commenced a purge to remove all of the Vote Leave executives, supplanting them with her friends.

  1. To make an omelette, eggs need breaking

Explaining the nadir to which our politics sunk, with the unlawful prorogation of Parliament, the misleading of the Queen and the firing of multiple high-ranking Tory MPs, Cummings defended his tactics. His view was that he was without options: that the establishment had lined up to thwart Brexit and, in a political war, no prisoners could be taken.

Let’s quickly examine his positions.

Incontrovertibly, on counts 1, 2 and-4, Cummings is right. And he may well be correct on point 5, too. With point 3, surely people are on a sliding scale of competency.

The party system rejects the independent-minded. The brightest and the best don’t apply. Wannabe MPs have to fight unwinnable seats to prove their mettle, often taking decades to secure election, finding themselves in a seat which they don’t know. Once an MP, though the salary is double the national average, for many MPs it’s a pay cut – a pay cut coupled with a schizophrenic existence: Parliament and the constituency. Few sane people would wish for such an existence, all the while pilloried on social media, or under constant scrutiny, or threat of real danger, as what happened to Jo Cox MP.

Unlike in Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand and other countries, the British response to Covid was lamentable, almost genocidal in its effects. At the feet of Reckless Boris, I lay a good chunk of the blame. Time and again his instincts and slow decision-making costs thousands of lives. The last 11 years of Tory mismanagement of healthcare must shoulder a sizeable amount of blame, too, with the rest lying squarely at the door of the senior civil servants. As Cummings points out, when Covid came, the plans were deficient. The wrong stats were used to determine policy. Senior mandarins have had centuries to improve this process, failing us all at the most urgent of times. The deliberately delayed inquest into this carnage will not be kind to the zenith of our civil service.

Reckless Boris’ every key move during Covid has been wrong, or wrong as well as being too late. What Reckless Boris somehow has evaded blame for – though he should face trial for – was ramming home Brexit in the midst of this pandemic. Not even Farage could have blamed him had he pushed it back one year. Worse still, he threatened a No-Deal Brexit at this time, with the concomitant upsetting of our EU friends. When we needed cooperation, Boris sowed division. This is reckless in the extreme, utterly unconscionable, though brilliant. Such malevolent shenanigans unidentifiable through the Covid fog.

To make the omelette – to “get Brexit done” – essentially Cummings took the view that this was war; that the moral political equivalent of carpet bombing was permissible in the circumstances. On this, I shall ponder his view, which has the hallmarks of Machiavelli’s recommendations to statesmen in The Prince, together with Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Whilst considering the ethics of Cummings’ approach, I shall also contemplate the possible return of one, Tony Blair.

CategoriesPolitics

Goodbye to the Lib Dems

This week, I resigned from the Liberal Democrats as my membership expired. It’s hard to dislike a Lib Dem: they are good people. Usually ideology-free, the Lib Dems wants the best for their local. Localism is what defines them, which often leads to different political positions dependent upon the ward or constituency. This, in turn, irks the other parties, who fairly accuse the Libs of flip-flopping.

My criticism/observation of Libs is that their North Star – their guiding principle – is to disagree with the Conservative Party. Essentially, their identity is not to be the Tories. That was my view before I became a member and remains my view. In recent polling, they are marooned on 5%.

Sadly, most of the Lib Dems I know frown upon any prospect of an electoral pact with other parties, but this is their only route to electoral success, barring a Covid and/or Brexit seismic political event. Disappointingly, tribalism is alive and well in the Libs. Tribalism is of course a base, pathetic instinct from another era.

Nearly everyone that I have met in politics wants the best for their country, yet each side denigrates the motivations of the other. Party politics unnecessarily pits good people against each other. With the antiquated whipping system, good politicians vote for bad laws – like against Marcus Rashford’s free school meals plea – in order to survive, thrive and to climb the ladder.

The representative system is flawed. Constitutional reform is the order of the day, but how to achieve it when the incumbent system benefits those in power? E-democracy – like Polis from Taiwan – could shake things up.

CategoriesPolitics

Perfect is the Enemy of Good: Part One

So said Voltaire, with similar versions from Shakespeare and Confucius.

Throughout lockdown, the lack of schooling for my kids – and to millions of other children less fortunate than mine – has incensed me.

Generally, private schools have moved their lessons online, doing so at pace. State schools, however, have largely failed their children, though there are outliers, by mostly shunning online lessons.

For the sake of posterity, and so that my children know that I tried to make a difference. I offered constructive help to my kids’ school, even offering to pay for an IT consultant to help – which remains unacknowledged. I explained that the Information Commissioner has stated that they will take a common sense (read: generous) approach to data protection regulation during the pandemic. Sadly, my generous, helpful letter was rebuffed.

Broadly, the response from the school was:

  • Teachers are forbidden to check on their pupils by telephone, unless they attend school to make the calls. Hogwash.
  • Given that not all children have devices, we will not offer any online tuition. But we will make no effort to pool resources from other parents.
  • We will send numerous emails with work to be completed, with parents and carers having to sit with them all day, even if they are working full-time and don’t know how to teach.
  • We haven’t sought feedback from parents as to what they want: we know best.
  • Teachers aren’t trained to give lessons online, so we won’t experiment.

Given the disastrous, Delphic way that schools are managed – a hodgepodge of Local Authorities, Academies, powerless governors, Ofsted policeman, Department for Education, trade union involvement, with omnipotent, overworked Heads – not one organisation or person is responsible for the mess: but of course, all failures rest with the Government. Gavin Williamson must be fired.

Because it’s tricky to offer a proper education in lockdown, many State schools have taken the view that because online education can’t be perfect, nor equitable, they won’t try. Of course, the losers won’t be the privileged kids, rather it will be children who are less fortunate. Educational attainment levels will further widen.

I predict (yes, another prediction) that Boris will shortly launch a war against the teaching unions, which will, because of the failure to provide online education, enjoy popular support in the country. You have to admire Boris’ Machiavellian approach: tarnish the unions, even though millions of children have been deprived of an education since March, in order to crush them, permanently.

CategoriesPolitics

Return of the Lawyer Jokes

With Black Lives Matter rightly front and centre of debate, yesterday Keir Starmer commenced his PMQs by referring to the Lammy Report and the Windrush Report, highlighting what he said were recommendations contained therein which hadn’t been implemented by the Tories. Replying, Reckless Boris even muttered “Black Lives Matters”, and argued that recommendations contained in the reports – commissioned by the Tories – were in the process of being implemented. Watch this space.

Turning to the numbers of deaths, Starmer told the Commons that the “numbers haunt us” and that the death count is amongst the highest in the world. Challenging RB, Starmer asked whether there could be any pride in those numbers. RB deployed his usual refrain: it’s too early for international comparisons. Hogwash. We are a basket-case and everyone knows it.

Then to school re-openings, Starmer asked whether RB would work with him to determine the best way to get children back. Again, RB retorted that he had telephoned Starmer – same response as last week – to discuss this. Replying, Starmer essentially accused RB of lying – that RB hadn’t spoken to him about the re-opening of schools, instructing RB “to please drop that”.

This running sore is yet to be picked up by the parliamentary sketch-writers: Starmer is accusing RB of lying. As a lawyer myself, nothing riles us more than when your opponent plays fast and loose with the truth. Drilled into lawyers is the notion that we shouldn’t accuse anyone of deceit unless a high threshold is passed.

“I understand how the legal profession works” retorted Reckless Boris – yes, adhering to our code of ethics; never lying; upholding the rule of law; acting in our client’s best interests – all the traits which any public servant should hold dear.

Guaranteed: more lawyer jibes from RB.

Possible: more predictable questions from Starmer.

Unknown: how will a QC cope with an opponent whom he believes – with justification – has a penchant for falsehoods.

CategoriesPolitics

Double Praise for Boris Johnson

Parking Covid for a moment, frequently people on ‘the left’ chastise Reckless Boris (RB) – as I like to call him but not for the rest of this blog – for his countless misdemeanours. It’s a good sport, with plenty to go at. For my part, I’ll certainly highlight incidences of his numerous errors, most of which stem from his character flaws. Levelled at our Prime Minister by many is the accusation that he is racist.

Undeniably, as a provocative journalist he has written some truly ugly words, so ugly that I won’t repeat them here. I can’t and I won’t forget the words and descriptions he has deployed over the years. But it’s a non sequitur to conclude that journalists who use such terms are, ipso facto, racists. There is a strong correlation, of course, and I won’t defend the practice.

No doubt Boris will say almost anything to anyone in order to get what he wants, but what can we learn about his actions rather than his words. I’ll give you a recent example, one which he didn’t get enough credit for; one that I wholeheartedly support.

Plugged-in followers of international affairs will be aware of the on-going unrest in Hong Kong, triggered by China’s attempts to dominate the populous, scrapping the one country, two systems principle which has governed the quasi-state since independence.

With Brexit proper just months away, with the world orientating towards Beijing – as the US self-destructs – Boris has just done the unthinkable – unthinkable if you paint him as a racist – and offered nearly 3 million inhabitants of Hong Kong a path to British citizenship should China enact the Hong Kong-grabbing legislation. Not only is this brave, bold leadership at a time when we are de-coupling from the EU and the laughingstock of the world for our Covid horror show, but this policy squashes the notion that Boris is racist.

Boris’ essay appeared in the South China Morning Post and The Times under the heading “For Hongkongers fearing for their way of life, Britain will provide an alternative.” Here’s the key Boris offer:

“Today, about 350,000 of the territory’s people hold British National Overseas passports and another 2.5 million would be eligible to apply for them. At present, these passports allow visa-free access to the United Kingdom for up to six months.

If China imposes its national security law, the British government will change our immigration rules and allow any holder of these passports from Hong Kong to come to the UK for a renewable period of 12 months and be given further immigration rights, including the right to work, which could place them on a route to citizenship.

This would amount to one of the biggest changes in our visa system in British history. If it proves necessary, the British government will take this step and take it willingly.”

Boris has made me proud. He has done the right thing. Those who will be most troubled by this are people for whom Brexit was all about curtailing immigration. To them I say, “Ha, ha”. Boris isn’t a xenophobe, he’s one of the most cosmopolitan Prime Ministers we have had. Xenophobes don’t become London Mayor.

_________________________

Inspired by the famous Blair v Christopher Hitchens debate, some years ago I ran Harrogate Debate – an Oxford Union-style debating chamber here in Harrogate. Assisted by others, I hosted debates such as: Is Religion a Force For Good In the World? This House Would Ban Faith Schools; Assisted Dying; and of course, our most attended debate: Brexit.

Each time, the format was that the audience would vote on the motion upon entry to the chamber and then again after hearing the debate. The winner was the debater who persuaded the most people to switch to their position.

Today I watched the debate: Ancient Greece v Ancient Rome, which used the same debating format. Debated in London in 2015, chaired by Andrew Marr, Boris Johnson – who read Classics – argued that Ancient Greece was more impressive, more influential than Rome, with Cambridge Don, Beard, arguing the counter. On entry, the audience were broadly even, with some “don’t knows”. In the end, Beard won. (If I had attended, I would have voted for Ancient Greece on entry and at the end).

Hardly was it a fair fight. Boris read his degree in the mid-1980s and was London Mayor at that time of the debate – i.e. he had other things to do than prepare for a charity debate. Mary Beard was a current professor of classics. Watch it. For the first ten minutes Boris meanders without purpose, occasionally impressing the audience with his smattering of ancient Greek, before then springing into life, cogently arguing his case, predicated on two simple points.

First, Greece was the midwife to Rome: without Ancient Greece, there could be no Ancient Rome. Second, Rome was far crueller than Greece – no crucifixions nor gladiatorial shows. When Beard takes her turn, she eviscerates Boris for being – you guessed it – casual with the truth.

After their position statements are over, when they spar, Boris displays his quick-wittedness and deep understanding of his subject, recounting the years that this or that ancient event occurred. Regardless of who won, regardless of whether Boris accurately portrayed Ancient Greece, we – perhaps begrudgingly, depending on your position – must accept that we are governed by a very capable person.