Saturday, 16 November 2019

Things Fall Apart : one week in the disintegration of Boris Johnson

"All this has happened before and will happen again."

Whether this line brings to mind Peter Pan or Battlestar Galactica may perhaps indicate your age or taste in the fantastic, but this week it seems relevant to what was once called the "Brexit Election" in which Theresa May was going to take apart Corbyn's Labour Party.


...the "Brexit Election" in which Boris Johnson was going to take apart Corbyn's Labour Party.

Sooo last Saturday, isn't it? Harold Wilson, Corbyn's urbane predecessor back the the swinging sixties, is held to have said a week is a long time in politics and this week has been no exception.

Seven days ago, Prime Minister Johnson was poised to see off his upstart Brexit challengers from the Farage Fan Club through a concerted programme of threats and promises and could look forward to patriotically heading up the Remembrance Day ceremony at the London Cenotaph for the first time as PM.

But now, one week on, for all his bravado, Johnson must be gazing fitfully and misty-eyed into his cups as he contemplates the week it all went wrong. While still holding a substantial poll lead, it has now nearly halved with almost a month to go to polling day, and if he isn't ruminating on how pride comes before a fall, he should be.

Straight off the block, last Sunday morning, there he was lined up at the annual commemoration of the war dead, his tie askew, his pale face distracted, his steps distinctly off kilter as he stumbled forward ahead of cue to place his wreath upside down in front of the monument to the Unknown Soldier. While the Sun newspaper concentrated on claiming Jeremy Corbyn's head when he bowed to the Cenotaph was clearly at a treasonous, Bolshevist angle of inclination, Johnson temporarily got away with looking as if he had just stumbled out a taxi with a cold kebab in one hand and a bag of his own sick in the other.

However, for whatever reason - and we can speculate, given the tortuous explanation eventually provided - the BBC Breakfast programme the next morning ran footage of Johnson at the Remembrance ceremony back in 2016, when he was rather better turned out, and failed to note the fact on any of the three times it ran it. Viewers and the Labour-leaning Daily Mirror were soon highlighting the fact and commentary on the Premier's messy appearance and attitude was soon widespread on social media and many mainstream outlets.

So far so bad, but it soon got worse.

As his opponents criticised Tory cuts to river and canal defences in the light of widespread flooding in Doncaster, the PM rather languidly journeyed to South Yorkshire to be pictured pretending to mop a sodden shop floor before attempting to sympathise with rather disgruntled soaked locals. "Where have you been?" they demanded irately as he refused to declare the risen waters an emergency. Asked what she thought of him after a chat, one elderly resident gave her considered opinion of the PM: "One word.... Arsehole!"

From PR disaster to turning water into wee came next. Hassled by his funders, Farage caved in to demands that he stand down Brexit Party candidates in Tory-held seats after he watched a video in which Johnson promised no extension to the Brexit transition deadline on 1 January 2021 - raising the prospect of an eventual possible No Deal departure after all. However, between the Brexit leader's announcement and the close of nominations, Johnson's acolytes pompously over-reached their own egoes by seeking to push the Brexit Party to drop candidates from seats where Tories are challenging sitting Labour MPs.

This proved too much for the stripe-suited lounge lizard Farage and he responded with a blistering series of complaints that the Tories were offering bribes in the form of public appointments and peerages to his waivering candidates. The Tories denied it, but if true it would be a clear abuse of office. And so now, after former Labour Lord Chancellor, Charlie Falconer, formally reported the claims, the Tory Party is under police investigation for possible offences under the Representation of the People Act.

Facing off against him has been Labour's Jeremy Corbyn, issuing a mouth-watering range of eye-catchingly imaginative policy proposals - massive new funding for the NHS alongside an end to health privatisation; free dental checks; taking rail and energy back into public hands; a 32 hour working week without pay reduction; free broadband for all by 2030; a big extension of employment rights; and a Green New Deal to transform Britain and slash our carbon emissions.

Against this, Johnson has floundered ever more, now quite incapable of keeping the debate anywhere near his "oven ready" Brexit deal (a blatant lie, as even Farage has pointed out). Free broadband would be "communism", he gasped as his aides struggled to come up with something bad about it.

Umm, wow, should I touch him? What do I say?
Next up, there he was, smirking in an internet video showing him pacing the offices of his campaign, awkwardly greeting a carefully placed BME guy who had evidently been told to walk past him. Next he was making tea and claiming to like The Clash (whose fans were not amused) before explaining in what may have been a bizarre attempt to sound "ordinary" that he starts his day by taking his dog for a poo.

And then a new low: a visit to a nursery school where he sat with mothers and toddlers and, Redwood-like, pretended to know the words of "The Wheels on the Bus", but apparently didn't and so sat looking distinctly uncomfortable. Perhaps he was wishing he was at home where, as we know, he very truthfully passes his time making model buses. By Friday, his exposure was being restricted to film of him talking to staff on a boat, all stage-managed - the Great Communicator and Man of the People no more.

Meantime, his party Chairman, James (not-so) Cleverly, became so confused on one radio programme that he wasn't allowed by his own party to appear on a TV interview. Finally, aping 2017's social care payments disaster, the Government finished the week by bringing forward its plans to raise the retirement age for women to  68 seven years earlier than previously planned to head off Labour's intention to stop them.

It is still early days, but the whole ambience is very familiar - 2017 revisited but at coke-speed. The

Corbyn - slowly, slowly...
opportunism of the Tories is evident in almost every pronouncement, yet still like a reverse Midas Effect everything Johnson touches seems to turn to sh*t. Theresa May must be gleefully running through every imaginary wheatfield in her head.

With the Lib Dems now fading into well-deserved irrelevance after Ed Davey's economically illiterate declaration today that they will work to a permanent budget surplus, a.k.a. continue austerity, the path seems increasingly clear for Corbyn's Labour - and the polls are now showing this, with an average 5% rise in support over the last week to ten days. Since the start of the month, the Tory lead has declined from as much as 16% in one opinion poll (Opinium, 1 November) to as low as 6% in another(Survation, 8 November).

Things fall apart, seems an apt line to summarise Johnson's week. Yet the Yeats poem from which it comes is probably rather too optimistic for our bumbling PM as he perhaps nurses his bruised sense of superiority tonight, hoping against hope that he may yet have a "Second Coming".

Taxi for Johnson.
Hold the kebab please...

The Loneliness of the Short-attentioned Ar**hole

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Be Like Vasili: personal reflections 30 years after the Fall of the Wall

I nearly died before I was born. I have a man I never met to thank for my life - and so do you.

It can be difficult to remember sometimes how the world has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, thirty years ago today. It is almost easy to forget what was a fixed world with rigidly set boundaries between the Communist East and capitalist West held in a perpetual state of uneasy tension by literally thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at each other under the appallingly apt doctrine of M.A.D. - mutually assured destruction.

The Man Who Saved The World
My Mum was pregnant with me during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, fourteen days when the world teetered on the edge of Armageddon as Kennedy and Khrushchev eyeballed each other over the Mexican Gulf. Although they eventually blinked and found a diplomatic solution, we now know that atomic war was only avoided by the personal action of Vasili Arkhipov, a Deputy Commander of a Soviet submarine that was caught in the blockade of Cuba by the US Navy.

After several days out of radio contact with Moscow, his commander and the Political Officer concluded that nuclear war had begun and wanted to fire an  atomic warhead at the American ships. A unanimous decision was required between the three of them and after a long and heated argument with his superiors, Arkhipov courageously vetoed the attack. Had he not done so, it is unlikely that I would be alive to be writing this now, and nor would you or anyone else be around to read it.

The world is probably in many ways more dangerous now that during the Cold War - but perhaps the sense of an underpinning threat of potentially imminent existential destruction that was always in the background before 1989 has at least abated. I can't quite recall when I first became aware of atomic weapons, but growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, our culture was soaked in the propaganda of the Cold War. It might seem hard to believe, but for our "Boomer" generation "Europe" stopped at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and behind the Wall and indeed the whole "Iron Curtain" lay a mysterious, closed Soviet hinterland of untold threat and misery.

Aside from the news and political line that we could be overwhelmed in days by the gigantic muscle of the Red Army or alternatively wiped out within a couple of hours in a nuclear exchange, much popular culture was founded on the Soviet Menace. Whether on the cinema screen in films like "From Russia With Love" or the publications from shadowy right-wing employers groups like the mid-70's Aims of Industry's "Reds Under The Bed" attempt to smear socialist trade unions with treason, we were to accept the need for eternal vigilance in the form of Poseidon nuclear submarines patrolling the seas from their Scottish base and American Cruise missiles deployed in the heart of England.

Bizarre booklets like 1980's "Protect and Survive" informed householders how to survive the radioactive holocaust by unscrewing an interior door, laying it length-ways against your lounge wall and then sitting behind it for two weeks with some cartons of water and boxes of biscuits. The equivalent of tens of billions of pounds poured into subterranean bunkers. There, national and local government officials and the bizarre volunteer force of the Royal Observer Corps - folk who spent their evenings and weekends watching for war - would monitor the nuclear exchange and subsequent fallout above their heads and then hilariously "re-establish normal service".

There were of course plenty of parodies of this mix of cynical propaganda and wild naivete - from the early 1960s classic "Dr Strangelove" through to the 1980s "Whoops Apocalypse" and the nauseatingly haunting "Threads". Raymond Briggs' powerful picture book "When The Wind Blows" devastatingly recounted the tragically unquestioning faith of an elderly couple in the authorities' promises of their ability to survive the end of the world. In music, Frankie Goes To Hollywood's No.1 "Two Tribes" satirised the government emergency broadcast to provide advice on disposing of your dead grandmother outside your fallout shelter.

The dark humour was pervasive, but so too was the sense that, one day, any day, it would all go so quickly and badly wrong for us.

People protested of course - the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marched from the 1950s onwards and women's peace camps appeared most memorably outside Greenham Common airbase, and at a number of other military sites too. Spied on by the authorities and dismissed as troublemakers and traitors, the zeitgeist was that it was only institutions like NATO that stood between us and the plans of conquest of the Soviet Empire. And of course for freedom loving peoples, the obliteration of the planet was infinitely preferable to living under Communism.

The Soviet Empire was, of course, just like any other Empire - it exploited its vassal territories and oppressed its subjects. And yet, the idea that it sought world domination in anything other than its ideology is far-fetched. The concept of World Revolution was cast out when Stalin expelled Trotsky in 1929 and by the late 1960s the Soviet leadership was mostly about stagnant stability rather than fomenting world war. It was in this context that, again and again, they were willing to talk and make treaties - any revolutionary dynamism was long gone, replaced by a weary bureaucracy.

Tanked in post-revolution Prague, 1990
The truth lies perhaps more in what happened after 9 November 1989 rather than before it. For when the Wall came down that evening, it was like a window opening. The world got bigger for sure - by summer 1990 I was driving into former Communist Czechoslovakia with a couple of friends and photographing an overturned army tank in Wenceslas Square, scene of the "Velvet Revolution" that swept the Czech Communist regime from power barely a fortnight after their German comrades had faced their denouement.

Visiting the offices of Civic Forum, the group that had organised the crowds that brought the dissident playwrite Vaclav Havel to the Presidency, I remember buying a badge from an activist who asked me where we came from. When I told him Britain, he smiled enthusiastically and declared, "Long live the Iron Lady!", a reference to our then PM, Margaret Thatcher. He seemed a tad disconcerted when I responded with a grimace of dislike - but neither of us, I am sure, quite appreciated what was about to happen.

For what followed was the wholesale appropriation of public property in former Communist states by a handful of people, sometimes former Party officials, sometimes using violence and frequently deploying corrupt methods. Egged on directly by Thatcher and the "advisers" she sent to the East, the former Soviet block underwent massive economic dislocation that impoverished previously reasonably comfortably off citizens and left them prey to the populism and racism of the far right that has now manifested itself in places like Hungary and Poland.

Equally and notably, in a number of countries the former Communists have retained substantial followings and even occasionally have been re-elected to government. While no one would wish a return of the old Soviet Bloc, the truth is as ever not binary.

The USSR was responsible for some appalling things - just like any Imperial Power. Yet in its seven decades, it transformed a peasant state into a superpower, built homes for hundreds of millions, eradicated illiteracy, pioneered world-class, free public health systems and was the first state to put a satellite and a man and a woman into outer space. While there were queues for consumer goods (something apparently unknown in the UK!), the verified calorific intake of a Soviet citizen in the 1980s was on average higher than in the USA and Soviet leaders may have had their dachas, but they were modest affairs compared to the robber barons of the capitalist Russian mafia. By contrast, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian health indices declined substantially and average life expectancy fell by three years between 1990 and 2005 - though it has since recovered.

East Berlin misery - or my Gran's place?
Touring the DDR (East German) Museum in former East Berlin last year with my wife, we saw round a recreation of a typical Communist era flat from the early 1980s. Expecting something utterly miserable and basic, what I actually encountered was something close to, but slightly bigger, than my grandparents' ground-floor flat in Scotland around the same time.

Years earlier, visiting Prague with my friends in 1990, we lodged with a Czech family in a comfortable, well-equipped flat, one of many similar ones in the suburbs, as the father of the house lamented the "changes". We forget that the education, work and lifestyles available under Communism represented huge progress for many groups, families and individuals who would have been kept consigned to the bottom of the previous capitalist societies they had lived in. Being able to choose between Jo Swinson and Boris Johnson wasn't perhaps as important as some liberals like to think.

Freedom fries at Checkpoint Charlie (the
author did not partake!)
For we assume, of course, that because it's what we are used to, everyone wants to live like us. I remember a particularly crass 1989 British TV commentator droolingly reducing the significance of the fall of the Wall to the opportunity it now gave to East Berliners to sample the dubious delights of Big Macs and fries. Last year, travelling to look at the former crossing of Checkpoint Charlie, well, there we were: a giant Big Mac sign and restaurant gracing the former gateway to freedom.

If there is any lesson from all of this, I think it is that as in so many cases, we are all so more alike than we often understand. Much was wrong, but Eastern Europe was not shrouded in a veil of overwhelming misery for 70 years any more than Western Europe was a land of milk and honey.

And because Stalinist State Communism failed, it doesn't mean that any and all forms of socialism and communism can't work, or aren't in fact needed if we are to avoid the ruin of our world in the years ahead.

Above all, be like Vasili Arkhipov: always question the official narrative and the judgement of your would-be superiors.

One day, you might save the world.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Not The Brexit Election

Sick and tired of Brexit?
Sticking to the Tory script, Sky News is running every single new bulletin with a "Brexit Election" tagline, even when the subject doesn't feature on the news for a rare change. Similarly, the one-trick ponies that are the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats feature their respective demands on Europe prominently, if not in their actual name then at least on the side of their bus.

Yet, after almost four years of relentless debate about our EU membership, are the public really aflame and up for another five weeks of intensive debate about it? As Jo Swinson hypes her mission to save us from ourselves, Johnson bumbles about unleashing creative forces not even his grandiose imagination can comprehend and Farage drinks for England, they need to hope that everyone else is ready to squeeze into their Brexit Bubble, where nothing matters more than whether we are outside a trade block pissing in or inside pissing out.

The Green Party co-leader Sian Berry yesterday argued that "some things are even bigger than Brexit" as she declared this to be the Climate Election and outlined ambitious plans to tackle the global warming crisis with £900 billions of investment over ten years to make the UK carbon neutral by 2030. It is perhaps surprising that just a day later her party has made a deal with the Lib Dems, who, as well as accepting funding from frackers, take a much more leisurely approach to the climate crisis with a net zero target put well back to 2045. This is just a mere five years ahead of their former Tory partners' mid-century "objective". Nevertheless the Greens' core point is well-made and the urgency palpable.

Her words echoed the declaration a few days earlier by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, that "This election is our last chance to tackle the climate emergency with a Green Industrial Revolution at the heart of Labour's plan to transform Britain." Backing this up was a pledge to insulate every house in the UK to cut energy costs and carbon emissions, as well as massive investment in clean public transport and bringing the energy companies back into public control. Labour have also dwelt heavily on a range of other issues including ending austerity, redistributing wealth, ending student fees and investing in the health service.

It might be argued of course that Labour wouldn't want to talk about Brexit given their complex history on the issue. Yet Corbyn has devoted a speech to this too - reflecting on the need to talk to "the 99" rather than "the 48%" or "the 52%" he accused the other parties of focusing on to the exclusion of roughly half the UK. But it is clear that his strategy is to campaign on a much wider range of issues - the General Election should be just that, a general election on a variety of policies and initiatives stretching across the next 4 or 5 years. It should plainly not be a substitute referendum - Corbyn has made clear that Labour will hold a real one if they become the government.

So are Labour ignoring reality by moving on from Brexit to other issues?

Possibly, but probably not. Already several polls show that the NHS is seen as a bigger issue than Brexit by most votersand this is an area where Labour remain more trusted than any other party and where the Tories and Lib Dems are vulnerable given their opening up of front line services to private providers from 2012 onwards. And while it doesn't register as the highest concern, there is little doubt that climate change is a much higher priority for many voters than previously - and 56% of voters back the Green and Labour 2030 date as the zero carbon deadline. Even 47% of Tories support that compared to 16% for the official 2050 one. A YouGov survey shows that 25% of voters view the environment as one of the top three issues compared to just 8% at the 2017 election.

Similarly, crime has risen substantially as a concern with 26% rating it compared to 11% previously, and the Tory/Lib Dem slashing of police numbers back in the Coalition days make them vulnerable. So too the fallout from the initial Grenfall report has highlighted a range of concerns from cuts to fire services from austerity through slum housing, underhand contract deals and Tory elitism to the rampant inequality that stains our country.

Faced with this battery of critical issues, although it remains a key issue for now, it seems that a public that is palpably sick to death of Brexit is less than likely to want to think of nothing but Brexit for the next month and a bit. Given this, Labour have everything to play for and their slow but steady trend upwards in the polls, matched by a slow but evident decline for the Lib Dems, is evidence for this.

Heath's winter election gamble
Boris Johnson claims to be a historian. So he might want to dust down the archives from winter 1973 when one of his predecessor Tory Prime Ministers, Ted Heath (ironically the man who took us into Europe), faced a crisis when a national miners' strike left electricity power plants short of coal. Simultaneously, after the Yom Kippur war between Israel and the Arab states, oil and petrol prices were rising sharply, offering little in the way of any affordable or practical alternative to coal for much of Britain's energy.

Heath dramatically declared a State of Emergency.  His Chancellor, Anthony Barber, implemented a crisis budget just before Christmas. A three-day working week was introduced, TV stations were compelled to stop broadcasting at 1030 pm each night to reduce energy consumption and regular power cuts were implemented with householders huddling round candles to keep warm. All in the middle of winter.

In spite of the crisis, the Tories' poll ratings were generally favourable and a much-trumpeted "Liberal surge" seemed to damage Harold Wilson's Labour Party most. Enjoying as much as an 11% lead, Heath was convinced that because of Labour's close relationship with the trade unions, he would be able to sweep to victory.

So far, so familiar.

And so he went to the country in our last winter election (February 1974) believing that he could triumph on the single question he pompously put to the nation in a Prime Ministerial broadcast: "Who Governs Britain?"

The voters' answer, when it came?
"Not you."

March 1974 - Labour's Harold Wilson began his third term as Prime Minister