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.

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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.

CategoriesPolitics

Liar-In-Chief

To accuse anyone of lying one must be sure of the facts, even if that person is Donald Trump. Of course, no thinking person could conclude that the President is a “nice guy”, but is he a liar? Well, that’s another thing.

Though examples of his chicanery are numerous, I want to focus on a recent Trump tweet which I instantaneously knew was a falsehood.

Let’s consider the recent episode with James Mattis, a Four-Star US General, who made his name in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. Famously, Mattis made some pretty brutal comments about the conduct of war. No doubt based on his uncompromising approach, Trump appointed Mattis to be Secretary of Defence, even though he was within the 7-year period which prevented former military personnel from serving in office. His appointment required the approval of the Senate and Congress, passing with ease. Mattis assumed office in 2017.

In 2019, Mattis resigned because of Trump’s foaming-at-the-mouth mad policy towards Syria and NATO. Until recently, he has kept his mouth shut, as is the norm for retired generals.

Why write about Mattis today? Because of the below tweet from Trump:

tweet

In it, Trump declared that he nicknamed Mattis “Mad Dog”. But Mattis has endured – because he doesn’t like it – this nickname since at least 2004, if not before. This 2013 article – 6 years before Trump approached him – refers to “Mad Dog Mattis”. And this clipping from the Los Angeles Times dated 2004 – a mere twelve years before Trump selected him – also refers to the “Mad Dog” nickname. Trump’s tweet – like many of them – is a provable lie.

But proving that Trump lies is like shooting fish in a barrel. What’s more interesting is why Trump has a penchant for untruths. In this particular case, no votes could be won in declaiming that he came up with the nickname. Lying about a Four-Star General will not go down with his base, most of whom will have heard of Mad Dog Mattis before he became Secretary of Defence. Frightening, dangerous behaviour by anyone, let alone someone in the highest of office. He has no concept of truth. Perilous times are ahead.

CategoriesPolitics

George Floyd and Donald Trump

For posterity, I am posting the video which gruesomely shows the murder of George Floyd here. It needs to be seen to be believed.

For posterity, I am posting a memo, dated 2 June 2020, from General Mark Milley in which he reminds all military personnel their duty to uphold the US constitution.

letter2

Quoting Jim Mattis, Trump’s former Defence Secretary: “When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens -much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”

Writing in ForeignPolicy.com here, Retired Marine Corp four-star General John Allen, stated.

“The slide of the United States into illiberalism may well have begun on June 1, 2020. Remember the date. It may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.”

We will see.

CategoriesPolitics

PMQs on 3 June 2020

In PMQs today, Reckless Boris (RB) was in defensive mood, despatching Starmer’s attacks with consummate ease. The PM – king of winging it – knew what was coming because Starmer’s attack-piece in The Guardian was published the previous evening. Poor politicking from Starmer. Starmer must familiarise himself with The Art of War: attack your enemy when he is unprepared, not when he’s had 18 hours of prep time.

______________

Again at PMQs, startingly for an ethics-obsessed lawyer, Starmer appeared to breach any confidence that he had built with Reckless Boris (RB) by referring to a letter (below) which he sent to the PM on 18 May. Starmer complained that RB hadn’t had the courtesy to write back. Incensed, RB retorted something like: “But I called you and we discussed it on the phone”. Contrary to RB’s penchant for untruths, I have heard nothing to suggest that RB misled us on this. If so, naughty, naughty Mr Starmer. Apologise!

letter

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Avid readers of my blog might recall my suggestion that RB would attempt to bring Starmer into the General’s Tent – a move designed to share collective blame when the economy plummets into a depression. Sure, Starmer made the first move and, sure, RB telephoned. But who knows if RB’s emissaries had been previously sounded Starmer out, probably via a deniable back-channel. Await the autobiographies!

Regardless, with trust in the Government understandably evaporating, Starmer wouldn’t want to tether himself to this disaster. RB knows that. Tory knives are already out for RB and they know how to terminate a loser. Let RB own this one, backbench Tories are thinking.

CategoriesPolitics

Blairism and Borism

Saddo political anorak that I am, on what was a yet another gorgeous day (has the weather ever been better?), I cantered through – in awe – A Journey by Tony Blair. Never a fan of his, I want to know what made him tick; how did he get to the top; what were his routines, his secrets of success; and did he have a moral compass. Living through the Reckless Boris (RB) and Dominic Cummings age, what parallels could I draw from the Blair and Campbell time?

Slaloming through his early years, his ascendency and of course the 1997 win, nothing caused me greater dismay than how he managed his time whilst PM. Candidly, Blair explained that he would tell people what they wanted to hear – that he would meet them – when he knew that this was a lie. Blair’s words must be read:

“We used to have a phrase in the office called, in mock severity, ‘SO’, which stood for ‘sackable offence’. It applied to scheduling a meeting with people who were never to cross the threshold. It applied even if I had agreed to the meeting. It applied – I am a little ashamed to say – even if I had expressed to the individual concerned my deep frustration with my own office for defying my wishes and not scheduling the meeting.”

Dissecting these words, there are three elements to the lie. First, that he would meet this or that politician, usually a Labour backbencher. Second, when the thwarted MP asks when the meeting would take place, Blair would blame his office. And third, Blair must have briefed his office about the lies that he had told, preparing them to thwart the MP once more. Feigning anger to a Member of Parliament is stomach-churning stuff; deception of an advanced level.

Whilst unsurprised that this was Blair’s modus operandi, for someone so smart, it’s puzzling that he declared his innumerous deceptions in his book. And he wasn’t lying to the likes of you and me, oh no, he routinely lied to elected politicians, who just wanted to provide wise counsel. Blair could have omitted the anecdote. Perhaps writing his memoirs was cathartic, expunging the stains on his conscience.

Like any muscle, the “lie muscle”, if there is such a collection of cells, becomes stronger with repetition – just a little one here and another one there, the mind is readied to deceive. After a while, truth and fiction become inextricably entangled. President Jefferson nailed it when he wrote in 1785:

“He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.”

The origins of our participation in the Iraq War can be traced to his routine use of the white lie. Today, we are experiencing Reckless Boris at his worst. Sacked by The Daily Telegraph for making up a source, sacked by Michael Howard for lying to him about an affair, we knew what we were getting: a charlatan who would mislead on the big stuff. His former boss, Max Hasting, wrote of RB before his coronation: “Johnson would not recognise truth, whether about his private or political life, if confronted by it in an identity parade.”

But must politicians lie to get to the top? And does the end justify the means? I don’t know. But what I do know is that Quakerism, like most religions, abhors a lie, and I’m a Quaker.