Thoughts from a neo-psephologist

Until now, I’ve never really been in favor of proportional representation in elections. But as I get older (though probably not a lot wiser) I’m coming round to the idea, and electoral reform in general (not only in the UK but elsewhere). The UK’s First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system is no longer fit for purpose. It’s not as though we’ve never had a stab at proportional representation. Elections to the European Parliament were run in this way.

So what has brought about this Damascene experience? Well, you only have to examine the consequences of the 19 December 2019 General Election here in the UK or the recent presidential election in the USA to realise that something is rotten in the state of Denmark (Hamlet, Act I, Scene IV). The current parliamentary makeup is not serving the people adequately here.

I’m surely not the only person who feels that the current Boris Johnson-led Conservative Government is the most inept, corrupt even, of any government they have had to live under. During my lifetime (I’m 72), the UK has had fifteen Prime Ministers (Harold Wilson served twice; there was a gap of almost four years between his first administration ending in June 1970, and returning to power in March 1974), eleven were Oxford educated, one at Edinburgh, and the other three (including Sir Winston Churchill) did not go to university.

Without a shadow of a doubt, in my opinion, classics scholar (a term I deploy advisedly) Boris Johnson is in a league of his own as perhaps the worst Prime Minister of the lot. I admit that my Twitter feed is full of tweets from like-minded individuals. And cronyism is definitely on the rise during this Covid-19 pandemic, as analysis of the award of contracts, for example, to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) has clearly indicated. What I find hard to understand is why Johnson isn’t doing worse in the polls.

Opposition parties in Parliament are there to hold the government of the day to account. But with an overall majority of more than 80, this Tory government is essentially unassailable. Yes, it has had a few wobbles when Eurosceptic Tories have voted against their own party. But with Brexit [1] out of the way, so to speak, Johnson and his cohorts essentially have unlimited licence over the next four years until the next mandated General Election to do whatever they like. And we should all be worried about that.

Taking the UK out of the European Union has already eroded a number of significant rights and privileges that membership gave all citizens of the UK. I simply don’t trust Johnson to legislate for the greater good.

So, let’s look at the last General Election.

Voter turnout was greater than 67% (of a registered electorate of more than 47.5 million). I don’t claim to have access to a significant amount of data or to be anything like an expert. These are just some of my observations that reflect my concerns about electoral reform.

Of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, the Conservatives won 365, on a 43.6% share of the votes cast.

That means that more than 56% of the voting public supported parties other than the Conservatives. Labour’s share was 32.1%, giving them only 202 seats. The next biggest party (with just 3.9% of the national vote) was the Scottish National Party (SNP) with 48 seats, all in Scotland of course. Scotland is now an SNP monopoly after winning just a 45% share of the votes across the 59 Scottish constituencies. The Greens attracted 2.7% of the national vote but gained just a single seat. As for the Liberal Democrats, the situation was even more dire: 11.6% share of the votes resulting in only 11 seats in Parliament. No wonder the Lib Dems have long advocated a change to proportional representation.

If seats were allocated based on their share of the vote, the Conservatives would have just 283, Labour 208, and the Lib Dems, 75. I voted Lib Dem at the last election, but it was essentially a wasted vote, as would have been a vote for the Labour candidate in my constituency at the time, Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, that was retained by former Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid, who retained his seat with a slightly increased share of the votes cast, at 63.4%.

Now in constituencies that have long enjoyed domination by one party or another, such as Conservative Bromsgrove for example or Labour-held Knowsley on Merseyside (with an almost 40,000 majority, >80% of votes cast), proportional representation is hardly likely to change that sort of result. However, where the number of votes cast per candidate is more evenly spread, and where the FPTP winner actually has a minority share of the vote, then proportional representation is going to have a much more significant effect.

How the constituencies could be re-designated to better reflect current demographics I’ll leave to others better qualified to propose. But I do believe that ‘voting areas’ should be larger than the current constituencies, say counties with each’county’ returning the same number of MPs as they do in total now. But for each there could be a slate of candidates, and the seats would be allocated by the total number of votes cast per political party (similar to how the MEP elections were held in the past). There needs to be a thorough discussion about the actual system of proportional representation, and I’m not qualified to comment on that particular aspect.

I do feel strongly that we need a House of Commons that better reflects how the UK population votes. FPTP does not do that, and given the increasing polarization in political stances and viewpoints, I think we need a more nuanced approach to policy development and implementation. Yes, I appreciate that proportional representation is likely to lead to more coalition governments. Is that such a bad thing? I personally think that the Lib Dems were right to go into coalition with the Conservatives after the 2010 General Election. I don’t think they had much choice given that the country was trying to rebuild itself following the 2008/2009 financial crash.

Northern Ireland First Minister (of the DUP) Arlene Foster and then Prime Minister Theresa May after the June 2017 election.

Coalitions do come with disadvantages, however as seen in some countries that take months to form new coalition governments. Small (and maybe even extreme) parties can hold the balance. Take the religious parties in Israel, or more recently in the UK where the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) entered into a ‘confidence and supply’ deal with the Conservatives following the 2017 General Election that saw then Prime Minister Theresa May lose her majority, and therefore needed the backing of a ‘friendly’ party to keep Corbyn’s Labour at bay.

Given the current state of politics in the UK I believe the call for electoral reform will become a clamour in the not-too-distant future. Or maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part.


Let me turn my attention to what’s been happening on the other side of the Atlantic.

Can you imagine that American politics would ever come to this? An incumbent President defeated decisively in a general election then, even more than two months on, not accepting that defeat, and going as far as trying to subvert the outcome.

From my UK perspective, the USA seems to have a crazier electoral system than we ‘enjoy’ over here. A House of Representatives that is elected every two years (with all the financial dangers of corruption to remain in power), gerrymandering across the country (especially in Republican-held districts), the billions of dollars that are raised and spent on political campaigns, and an election of the President every four years that does not take account directly of the popular vote.

Given the role of the Electoral College, election campaigns will always focus primarily on those so-called battleground states that ultimately give the winning candidate the 270 votes needed in the Electoral College to win the race.

Let’s look at the results of the 2016 General Election in the US, won by Trump in the Electoral College by 304 votes to 227, even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 2.9 million votes.

Here is a series of maps that show the 2016 FPTP election results for President, county by county. It’s a sea of Republican red, right across the country, but with significant Democrat concentrations on the East and West Coasts, and some parts of the Mid-West.

But does that map reflect the distribution of party allegiances? Since the USA is essentially a two party nation, Republicans and Democrats, it’s straight forward to provide a rather more nuanced visualization of how everyone voted, with shades of purple reflecting the proportion of votes for each party. (This sort of map would be harder to compile for UK election results, since there were nine parties contesting the 2019 election, albeit some were regional parties like the SNP or DUP).

Even better perhaps is the same map, county by county, that shows the votes based on population, as its author stated: ‘Land doesn’t vote. People do.’ Check the visualization here. The Republican Party is primarily rural, and in those states and counties with  rather low population densities.

It’s incredible that two months on from last November’s election, which Joe Biden won with 51.4% of the popular vote (and a margin of more than 7 million votes) that Trump is still trying to game the system. Perhaps even more incredible that Trump himself won more than 74 million votes. A country divided!

This result gave Biden 306 votes to Trump’s 232. And, since he hates losers, Trump just cannot accept that he lost the election. And keeps ranting on about it.

The Electoral College does, in the 21st century, seem an anachronism. If the votes for Arizona (11), Wisconsin (10), Michigan (16), Pennsylvania (20), and Georgia (16) are discounted, then Biden and Trump would have essentially the same number of college votes, 233 to 232. No wonder Trump is futilely trying to overturn the results from these states. If just over half of the people that voted for Biden in these five states had voted the other way, Trump would remain President. That means the election was essentially determined on just under 140,000 votes. From a popular vote of over 155 million (the highest turnout in over a century), to have an election resolved by less than 0.1% of those who voted seems a shaky basis for electing someone to ostensibly the most powerful office in the world.

Trump can cry foul at every turn, that the election was stolen from him, that the Democrats cheated, the election was a fraud. Funny how fraud only occurred in states that the Democrats won. This had crossed my mind several times. Today I saw it articulated publicly. Not sure who this is. I recognise the face but can’t put a name to it. I’m sure someone will enlighten me.

We think that Johnson and his pals have brought the UK into disrepute with their handling of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. Media in the EU are openly mocking this government. In the same vein, Donald Trump has eroded respect for the USA globally. Although I’m not sure the MAGA Trumpists see it that way. Poor misguided fools . . .


[1] The 2016 Brexit referendum was won by the Leave campaign on 52% of the votes cast (but only 37% of the electorate). The FPTP system really failed us on this occasion, in my opinion. For something that had such constitutional, financial, social, and political consequences the referendum rules should have been tighter. I have long argued that not only should there be a minimum turnout (it was actually quite high at 72%), but that the winning margin needed to be 50% +1 of the persons eligible to vote, not those that actually voted. We have been forced to leave the European Union on the whims of less than 40% of the electorate, a substantial number of whom now say they regret having voted that way knowing now what they didn’t then, when they were promised ‘unicorns’ and ‘sunlit uplands’.


 

Once this Covid-19 business is over . . .

The past year has been for many the most difficult year in living memory. As I have written before, Steph and I managed to cope remarkably well with the Covid-19 restrictions, simply because we are retired (in our early 70s), and already had several hobbies to keep us occupied. We didn’t have a lifestyle that demanded regular visits to restaurants or pubs. And once we were allowed out for regular exercise, and eventually some trips further afield, we could enjoy the summer months outdoors, and even visit some of the National Trust properties that had been closed to visitors early on in the pandemic.

We even managed to sell our house in Bromsgrove in Worcestershire and move north to the North Tyneside area of Newcastle upon Tyne, where we are in the final stages of purchasing a new home. The difficulties we experienced in selling our house had little to do with the pandemic per se, rather the idiosyncrasies of the solicitors in the chain of sellers/buyers. It was a most frustrating period of our lives, but made more so by the uncertainties around the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, and whether we would even be able to move.

But here we are, and looking forward—with one major reservation—to a better 2021. So let’s address that ‘reservation’ straightaway.

It’s Brexit of course! At 11 pm last night (midnight Brussels time—we couldn’t even take control of that), the United Kingdom finally left the European Union. As a committed Remainer, I thoroughly deplore the decision that was reached in the 2016 referendum. Unfortunately, a majority of those who voted (but only about 37% of the population as such) swallowed the unicorn promises and lies of those leading the Leave campaign. Now the consequences of finally leaving and what it means for this country constitutionally, socially, economically, even culturally has to be owned by those individuals (too many to mention) led by that mendacious buffoon, Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Yes, we finally left the EU, but with a trade deal signed into law at the eleventh hour on Wednesday. But that won’t be the end of it. Far from it. It’s undoubtedly a bad deal, but it has to be better than no deal at all. It will impoverish us as a nation. We have lost so many of the advantages of EU membership. Okay. Membership was far from perfect in several respects, but we were a stronger and more influential nation by being one of the twenty eight.

That paragon of civil liberties, Home Secretary Priti Patel, loves to crow that we ended ‘free movement’. Only for ourselves, but not for citizens of the remaining 27 countries. But hey, we have one consolation: blue passports!

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer has taken a lot of stick for supporting ratification of the trade deal when it came before Parliament a couple of days ago. It seems to me that he took a page out of Otto von Bismarck’s book: Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the next best.

Personally, I don’t think he had much choice, having to play the long game. He made it clear that this was, indeed, a bad deal, and why. Because no deal would have been so much worse for the country. Maybe he could have waited to see how Boris Johnson Tory Eurosceptics were likely to vote before committing the Labour Party to vote in favor instead of abstaining or voting against. But then he ran the risk that the deal might be defeated, which would have been even more damaging to the country. I don’t think that voting for the deal will do him much damage in the long run, because he clearly spelled why the deal was such a poor option, while accepting that things have to move forward. He was between a rock and a hard place. I don’t believe that Johnson will be able to taunt him about this in the future. Starmer has the Prime Minister’s measure, after all.

Even former Prime Minister Theresa May said the deal that has just been approved was worse than the one she brought before Parliament two years ago and that was rejected. Hey ho.

Whatever lies ahead, it is important that the Tories (and all Brexiters) are held accountable for whatever goes wrong now that we have left the EU.


Let’s draw a line under Brexit, and look to the positives of 2021.

Let’s celebrate science, specifically the glorious science and the outstanding teams of scientists that has brought several vaccines to market within the space of 10 months or so. Already almost 1,000,000 people in the UK have been vaccinated using the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine, and now that the Oxford/ AstraZeneca vaccine has just been approved, it looks like a mass vaccination program will be launched from 4 January. I hope we are on the list to be vaccinated soon. Even though glitches to the program have been announced and a shortage of actual vaccine!

Hopefully mass vaccination (notwithstanding the idiotic perspectives of the anti-vaxxers) will bring this awful pandemic under control. I don’t say defeat. I believe we are a long way from that eventuality, but at least we can anticipate that life will return to some sort of normality this year. With all the opportunities of being with family once more. We moved to Newcastle to be nearer to our younger daughter and her family. But because of coronavirus, we’ve hardly seen them, and then at a safe social distance outside. We even spent an hour on Christmas morning exchanging presents around a pit fire in the garden.

Then it was home to have lunch by ourselves.

We have the first months of 2021 to look forward to as we settle into our new home, hopefully by the end of March. Then we can expect to explore the north of England further afield than we have been able to until now. And, in August, we look forward to seeing our elder daughter Hannah and her family from Minnesota over here in the UK. Since 2010 we have been making an annual visit to the USA, but that was put on hold this past year. I doubt we’ll make it in 2021. There’s just too much recovery from the pandemic needed in the USA before we would feel really safe making the journey.

But there is also hope in that respect, on the horizon when, in less than three weeks, the losing incumbent moron and Cockwomble-in-Chief in the White House, President Donald Trump has to relinquish office and make way for his successor and No. 46, Joe Biden. After four years of upheaval and frankly idiotic behaviour in someone who is supposed to be the most powerful person on the planet, sanity will return to the White House, and we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. Hopefully, and very quickly, the USA will begin to engage with the rest of the world, something that has been sadly absent during the Trump years.


I guess the release of Covid vaccines and the election of Joe Biden are the two main things from 2020 that give hope for 2021. My fingers are crossed. I remain an optimist (although my optimism did take a bit of battering in 2020). My glass remains half full.

 

 

 

I don’t need a ‘world-beater’ system

My take on and with credit to the creator, ‘Radcliffe’, of a WW2 poster, probably post-1940.

Nor do I need weasel words.

Frankly, I’m sick to death of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic not taking leadership seriously.

This Covid-19 pandemic seems to have brought out the worst in Boris Johnson and his sycophantic cohorts. And what can I say about the biggest liar in politics today, POTUS 45, Donald J. Trump? I certainly don’t want to hear his dangerous ‘advice’.

And that’s before I turn my attention to the latest Westminster comings and goings. No apologies for the ‘deliberate’ pun.

What has got my particular goat this time? Well, during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons last Wednesday (20 May), Boris Johnson was asked about the government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis by the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer. Johnson replied that a ‘world-beating test, track and trace system’ would be in place by 1 June. That’s now less than a week away, and there’s little evidence that delivery of this system is on track at the same pace as Johnson’s hyperbole.

World-beating system? For expletive deleted’s sake! What a typical fatuous answer to a reasonable question to a government that has, so far, made a real hash of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, including (but by no means limited to) lack of testing, shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and, until forced into a memorable U-turn last week, insistence that foreign workers in the National Health Service (NHS) would still be required to pay a surcharge for the very service they help to keep running.

Anyway, returning to Johnson’s ‘world-beating’ system. Just think about those meaningless words. What do they bring to mind? What, in reality, do they mean, and under the present circumstances what relevance do they have to anything that is taking place as we struggle to bring this pandemic under control. It’s a typical politician response (like ‘ramping up the efforts’, or ‘working around the clock’) to make it appear that things are moving faster and better than they really are.

I don’t need to be world beating [1]. I need to believe that the measures the government has or is putting in place are fit for purpose. I’ve blogged about this ‘fit for purpose’ fixation of mine before.

It’s interesting to note that until recently the government was keen on trumpeting (in its daily press conferences) about how well the UK was doing compared to other countries in terms of the number of deaths reported. Until, that is, the UK move to the top of the league table. Suddenly that statistic was no longer welcome.

From the outset, the government’s message seemed to be clear. We had to work together to defeat the virus by staying at home. This was the message, repeated almost ad nauseam at every opportunity . . .

Being over 70, my wife and I have self isolated since mid-March, taking just one permitted short period of exercise outside each day and, in my case, doing a weekly shop at our nearest supermarket. I would have preferred home deliveries to protect myself from the risk of infection while shopping. We could never get a delivery slot.

It seems that the government’s focus at the beginning of the pandemic was to protect the National Health Service (NHS) so that it was not overwhelmed. However, care homes have been hit hard during the pandemic, with a disproportionately high number of Covid-19 related deaths among residents.

Anyway, ‘stay at home’ was the message being pushed by the government.

Until it no longer was. Then we were asked to stay alert and control the virus. Whatever that ambiguous message meant . . .

Until this change in emphasis in government message, the guidelines were clear: break the rules and everyone would suffer the consequences.

Unless, of course, your name happens to be Dominic Cummings (below), Senior Adviser to Boris Johnson in No 10 Downing St.

On Friday evening last, the news broke that Cummings had, at the beginning of lockdown in March (and before the government’s message changed), driven more than 250 miles north of London to ‘self isolate’ at a property in Durham owned by his parents, taking his wife (who had Covid-19 symptoms) and his four year old son. Furthermore, and this point is disputed (‘palpably false’, according to Johnson), is that Cummings was seen at Barnard Castle, about 30 miles from Durham, during his self-professed isolation.

One rule for them, and one for us? Just when the government has begun to plot a course to bring the country out of lockdown, while still encouraging everyone to obey the ‘stay at home’ rules if showing Covid-19 symptoms, the actions taken by his Senior Adviser have, according to public opinion, undermined the very policy that Cummings himself (it is believed) helped to put together.

And, in response to the inevitable backlash from a tired public that had faithfully stuck to the guidelines under circumstances far more challenging than those that prompted Cummings to up sticks and head north, several senior politicians (Cabinet Minister Michael Gove, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak) tweeted support (now deleted it seems) of Cummings, at the behest it is reported of government whips, and promptly had their faces covered in egg . . .

Yet more weasel words, only added to by Johnson himself at a car crash of a press conference yesterday, Sunday evening, claiming that Cummings had acted responsibly, legally and with integrity, adding disingenuously that he followed the instincts of every father and every parent, and I do not mark him down for that.

Even as Johnson was responding to questions from journalists, Twitter was alive with condemnation, including some choice comments from me . . .

Almost immediately I tweeted this . . .

Followed shortly after by . . .

I thought I’d contact my local Bromsgrove MP, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, who famously resigned on 13 February this year . . .

It’s remarkable how quickly the condemnation of both Johnson and Cummings spread on social media, including from some Conservative MPs. And an anonymous civil servant who, having access to the Civil Service’s official Twitter account, posted this . . .

The tweet was quickly deleted after ten minutes, but not before it had been seen and retweeted more than 32,000 times, and even broadcast on the BBC’s afternoon Covid-19 news special.

Undoubtedly it will be career end for this (so far) anonymous civil servant, whose action was widely praised, even leading Harry Potter author JK Rowling to tweet . . .

Today (25 May) the newspapers are full of the Cummings debacle. Almost. Tory-supporting The Sun decided to focus on the back-to-school policy that the government is pushing, and which was re-emphasised shortly after Johnson’s disastrous press conference.

While two other right wing rags, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express published headlines supporting Johnson, surprisingly the Daily Mail (that is so far right it meets itself coming the other way) came out against the Prime Minister’s stance. Click on the image below to enlarge.

After three days, Cummmings has become the story. I suspect he’ll be gone by the end of the week. Johnson also, perhaps? One can hope. While our system of government depends on collective cabinet responsibility, being at the helm the buck stops with Johnson. I wonder when collective responsibility will begin to fracture?

At the onset of the pandemic, Johnson had just won his Brexit vote in Parliament, and the UK formally left the European Union on 31 January. His long-awaited Brexit agenda was about to be fulfilled, even though we are in a transition arrangement until the end of the year. Unless there’s an extension. I have the strong opinion that, obsessed by Brexit, Johnson simply took his eye off the pandemic ball.

He is reportedly not a details person. A characteristic, along with constant bad hair days, he has in common with Donald Trump.

Covid-19 could be the nemesis for both despicable individuals. This Cummings affair could see the demise of Johnson sooner rather than later, but with so many mediocre politicians surrounding him, I worry about who might replace him.

Hopefully the US electorate will vote overwhelmingly blue come the November election, and oust DJT, only the third president to be impeached, and also to have won an election by losing the popular poll by more than 3 million votes.

We demand better leadership to beat this insidious virus. That’s not something that Johnson and Trump are interested in, it seems, or even understand.  Time to say bye-bye.


But to finish on a lighter note . . .

Last Friday, as the Cummings story broke, this Song for Dominic Cummings video was released by Dillie Keane, a member of the trio Fascinating Aïda. Enjoy, but watch out for some ‘serious’ language (especially in any other of their videos that might follow on).


[1] Since I wrote this piece a few days ago (it’s now Saturday 30 May), the so-called ‘world beating system’ was launched last Thursday. From all accounts the launch has been a shambles, and indeed there are calls for lockdown to remain in place much longer.

This appeared in today’s The Guardian from one of the ‘tracers’ about the launch of the track and trace system. Damning!


 

‘Selfie’ has just taken on a new meaning . . .

Self isolation—the new ‘selfie’! Social distancing. New words to add to our vocabularies. How our lives have changed in just two weeks.

These are indeed extraordinary times, unlike most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. And all due to the emergence in central China and subsequent pandemic spread of a previously unknown zoonotic coronavirus, now named SARS-CoV-2, that is causing an acute (and deadly for vulnerable individuals) respiratory infection, Covid-19. And while I am a biologist, this blog post is NOT about the virus and its biology. Rather, I’m focusing on some of the issues around and consequences of this pandemic.

I was born in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. I never personally experienced the horrors of that man-made conflict nor indeed any conflict. I find it offensive that politicians, some journalists, and others on social media make comparisons to a conflict that most were born after. I’m not the only one to feel this way. I just came across this opinion piece in yesterday’s The Guardian by Simon Tisdall.

I remember (just) the exigencies of rationing that continued for many years after the end of the war. Also, the difficulties endured during the petrol rationing of the 1956 Suez Crisis. Since then we have not experienced any serious rationing in the UK that I can recall.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic is on a different scale. It’s not that the total number of patients infected with the virus has yet come anywhere near the 1918 flu pandemic, for example. But this virus is new, it’s very infectious, and lethality apparently high. The worry is that without appropriate control, the pandemic will outrun the capacity of health services to provide care for those who suffer from an acute infection. Whole countries are closing down. And while some ‘draconian’ measures (including curfews) have been introduced in some countries, these have yet to be imposed in the UK. ‘Yet’ being the appropriate word.

Having seen the shortages of some products in the supermarkets such as rice and pasta, hand sanitizers, cleaning products, and, inexplicably, toilet paper, I do wonder when rationing across the board will become the norm. How this pandemic pans out, everyone will have to become accustomed to a changed world. I’ll return to that theme later on.


Cometh the hour, cometh the man . . .

Or woman for that matter.

[Disclaimer: My politics are center left. If I’d had the chance (I didn’t as I was working overseas), I would have voted for Tony Blair’s New Labour. So any criticism of politicians below is not aimed at them because of their right wing political stance (which is anathema to me), but simply because I do not believe they are the right people in this time of crisis.]

As President Franklin D Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address on 4 March 1933, ‘. . . the only thing we have to fear is . . . fear itself‘. It’s apt to remember this under the present circumstances. We fear the unknown. In times of crisis, everyone needs reassurance. And, as Simon Tisdall commented in his opinion piece that I referred to above, the war and wartime analogies only stoke fear.

Step up to the plate our political leaders. Or not, as the case may be.

It’s really unfortunate that in these trying times that the governments of both the UK and USA are led by insincere populists, men who are more concerned about their own image.

Sound-bite Boris Johnson (Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done) is resorting to the same sort of rhetoric in his daily Covid-19 briefings (with the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientist often standing either side) as he did during the Brexit campaign. Making claims he cannot substantiate, such as we’d defeat the disease in the next 12 weeks. Evidence? That doesn’t seem to matter to this charlatan, whose attention span and lack of interest are legendary. It doesn’t help that at critical points in any press conference and the like his body language betrays his insecurity. Such as rubbing his hand through his shaggy hair. Not the most reassuring action.

As a question from ITV correspondent Robert Peston unfolded just the other day at a No. 10 briefing, Johnson’s habitual smirk evaporated to be replaced by various degrees of alarm, bewilderment, fear even, and not the look of a Prime Minister at the top of his game. This is not what he expected after his December electoral victory giving him an insurmountable 80 seat majority, and the opportunity, he must have believed, to do just whatever his fancy lighted on.

Here is a damning opinion piece from The Guardian by Marina Hyde on 20 March, who writes ‘We are being asked to put our trust – our lives – in the hands of a man whose entire career, journalistic and political, has been built on a series of lies.’

It seems to me that the UK government has not developed a coherent Covid-19 communications strategy. Have a read of this 21 March piece from BuzzFeed about the behind-the-scenes debates, arguments even, between politicians and experts. At the beginning of the outbreak in the UK, Johnson used his press briefing to suggest, albeit perhaps by accident rather than design, that the old and vulnerable were ‘collateral damage’ during the epidemic. “It is going to spread further“, he said, “and I must level with you, I must level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” Yes, that’s indeed a strong possibility. But emanating from the mouth of a politician who is widely mistrusted, and who comes across as callous and self-centered, whatever issue he addresses, it was a communications disaster.

What a message to send out to an already fearful population. Read about that press conference here.

And this appeared in the Sunday Times today.

Dominic Cummings

If true, this is an appalling perspective from the Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser Dominic Cummings (whose credibility among a large swathe of the population has already taken a dive).

And, I’m afraid, Johnson’s often blustering delivery, and lack of clarity on issues that should be unambiguous (his classical references, his use of language that most never use or at the very least understand) have probably exacerbated a situation that was rapidly spiralling out of control.

Communications strategies should deliver straightforward messages in plain language. No ifs or buts. Johnson has catastrophically failed in this respect.

Take the issue of social distancing and whether pubs, clubs and other venues should remain open (until last Friday night when the government finally enforced closure). Clearly millennials (and men in particular) had heard the message that they would be less impacted by Covid-19. They ignored the social distancing advice. And it hasn’t helped that Tim Martin, CEO of pub chain Wetherspoons (arch-Brexiteer and now self-proclaimed ‘epidemiologist’ apparently) could see no reason for pubs to close and went public with his criticism of the decision.

But if I think that the situation is grave here in the UK, just take a look at what is happening on the other side of the Atlantic, a country without a public healthcare system that takes care of the sick, elderly and vulnerable, come what may. Given the behavior and responses of POTUS #45, Donald J Trump, it’s surely time to seriously consider invoking Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. Why he is still in power is the question asked in this article on the Slate website.

Here is a leader (a term I use very lightly indeed) who has ‘hunches’ or ‘feels good’ about the situation, ignoring facts, scientific advice and stating things that are palpably false, claiming originally that coronavirus was a hoax dreamed up by the Democrats, and then later stating, once the situation had deteriorated, that he knew all along that it was a pandemic. No change in behavior there. Every press briefing becomes a campaign opportunity. And when challenged, even by the simplest and most straightforward of questions, Trump’s reaction is unbelievable. Just watch him throw a tantrum and verbally attack a journalist a couple of days ago when asked how he would reassure the American people, following a comment from Trump recommending the use of chloroquine against the virus. Extraordinary!

And so, here is another piece from Rolling Stone (from 20 March) that Trump’s live briefings are a danger to public health.

And now, Trump is being hailed as a ‘wartime President’, hoping that it will boost his electability in November’s election — assuming that goes ahead as expected. For heaven’s sake! Just read this article from today’s The Guardian.

But if you want to see how any leader should behave, just take a look at this address to the people of Scotland by First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on 20 March. What a contrast from Johnson and Trump. I’m no particular fan of Nicola Sturgeon, but she got this just right.


It’s interesting—but also concerning—to think what a changed world will look like. Already, a group of 34 ‘big thinkers’ have waxed lyrical on this very topic just a couple of days ago in the Politico Magazine online.

Just click this link to read their predictions.


At the beginning of this post I suggested that ‘selfie’ had taken on a new meaning: self isolation. Here’s me, taking a selfie while taking a selfie.

Steph and I are self isolating since we are in that elderly, over 70 demographic. But if the weather is fine (like earlier today) we have gone out for a walk. We need the fresh air. So we went along the Worcester and Birmingham Canal a few miles from home, and encountered only one or two other walkers while maintaining the necessary social distance.


I came across this the other day. Maybe our antipodean friends will soon be evolving some pandemic language variants.


Stay safe everyone. WASH YOUR HANDS – repeatedly, and thoroughly. Here’s the best demo I’ve yet seen on how to wash your hands properly, using black ink in place of soap to illustrate just how it should be done. Never mind that the commentary is in Spanish. That’s not needed.


 

It’s hard to be an optimist right now

I am an optimist by nature. But perhaps not to the same extent as these Monty Python characters from the 1979 film Life of Brian.

Mostly, my glass is half full. But, in recent months, and particularly over the past four weeks, my natural optimism has been severely challenged.

It has been a perfect storm, if you’ll excuse the pun, of bad news and events.

My faith in human nature took a serious dent on 12 December last year when Boris Johnson’s Conservatives (or Tories) won a thumping parliamentary majority, taking seats (mainly in the north of England) from Labour in constituencies that had either never voted Tory, or hadn’t for a generation or more. That was the signal for the Tory Brexiteers to push through the legislation on the EU Withdrawal Act and take us out of the EU on 31 January. Get Brexit Done! was the slogan. But we are just at the end of the beginning. And, it seems, Johnson has drawn so many hard red lines prior to new free trade negotiations that a No Deal Brexit at the end of this year seems evermore likely.

So what’s causing a drop in my spirits, apart from the obvious Brexit catastrophe?

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson

First of all, we now have a seemingly amoral Prime Minister in No 10 Downing Street in the shape of Boris Johnson—someone for whom I have utter contempt, as you will realise if you refer back to an earlier Brexit-related post I published in June last year.

But what tipped me over the edge from optimism to pessimism yesterday (1 March, the first day of meteorological Spring, when we should be thinking more positively) was the adulation in the Tory-supporting press over the news that Johnson and his fiancée Carrie Symonds (presumably his former mistress since he is/was still married to his second wife of 27 years) were expecting a baby later this year. Can you imagine, The Mail on Sunday published an ‘exclusive’ six page special? Could this really be more important news than anything else that’s going on right now? [1]

For weeks now, since the General Election, Johnson has been our ‘invisible Prime Minister’. And that at a time when the world faces a serious public health challenge in the form of Covid-19, which marches on inexorably it seems. Indeed, I just read an item in today’s The Guardian online reporting that a senior health official here in the UK has now stated that we must expect widespread infection with the coronavirus fairly soon. And yet, Johnson decided only a few days ago to call a meeting—today—of the COBRA committee to coordinate the government’s response to this threat.

Already there has been a calamitous impact on the financial markets, which plunged worldwide last week by 10-13%, marking the end of a sustained bull market, and threatening all our pension prospects.

Then, in the UK, we’ve had four consecutive weekends of storms, three of them named: Ciara, Dennis, and Jorge (the last named by the Spanish meteorological service). These storms come after significant amounts of rain at the end of 2019. February was the wettest month on record. On record! And many parts of the country have suffered catastrophic flooding. Just a few miles to the south and west of where I live in Worcestershire, the River Severn rose to unprecedented levels.

Where was Boris Johnson? Nowhere to be seen or heard. Nor letting any of his ministers appear on one of the BBC’s flagship newscasts, Radio 4’s Today to answer any questions. Outrageous! It’s also been reported today that No. 10 has forbidden Department of Health officials from attending an EU-coordination meeting to address the potential Covid-19 pandemic. So much for taking back control. “We’re doomed, doomed I tell ye“, as Private Frazer from Dad’s Army would have commented.

He’s presiding over a dysfunctional government, even though it was elected under three months ago. Just a fortnight ago, the Chancellor the Exchequer and MP for my local Bromsgrove constituency, Sajid Javid, resigned after being presented with reappointment terms he could not accept. Over this past weekend, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office (Interior ministry), Sir Philip Rutnam resigned after accusing the Secretary of State, Priti Patel (#PritiAwful, #PritiPathetic) of appalling behaviour.

At the heart of government is the unelected Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister, the sinister Dominic Cummings (who made his name as an architect of the Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum). Unelected and unaccountable it seems!

On top of all these things, we have the climate change deniers. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a case in point. Not to mention POTUS45, Donald Trump. I said not to mention him!

And what depresses me more about that moron, each and every day, are not just the lies that he spews and the inanities that issue forth from his mouth, and his politicization of the coronavirus crisis, but the fact that he may well be re-elected for a further four-year term come the election in November. What has the US electorate brought on itself, and the rest of us for that matter?

I haven’t even got round to commenting on the escalating humanitarian crisis on the Turkey-Syria border, the conflict in Idlib Province in Syria, or what is happening currently on the border between Turkey and Greece.

No wonder my optimism levels are low. Having got these concerns off my chest, do I feel better? Not really.

Better go wash my hands . . . and you too.


[1] This point of view appeared in The Guardian (online) today (3 March 2020) and is completely in line with what I wrote in this blog post a day earlier.

Taking back control?

It seems that the [Dis]United Kingdom is inexorably on the path to the ‘Brexit Promised Land’, the Conservative’s ‘Land of Milk and Honey’, as we prepare to leave the European Union (EU) less than one year from now (at 23:00 on Friday 29 March 2019 to be precise, midnight Brussels time). Can that Brexit rollercoaster be stopped in its tracks? Regrettably, I’m less sanguine about that prospect than I was just a month or so back. The UK’s place should be in Europe, taking an active and leading role, bringing our renowned pragmatism to bear on the issues of the day.

What have we done over the past 40 years? Carped and whinged from the sidelines.

As I read online the other day, we spent decades seeking various opt-outs under the terms of the various EU treaties. Now that we are on course to leave, our negotiators are seeking to secure various opt-ins—the cherished ‘bespoke’ agreement that Prime Minister ‘Come What’ May tells us is the government’s end game. Ironic.

Recently, Brexit was knocked off the headlines. Why? Russia! While I agree that there is considerable (circumstantial) evidence linking the Russian government to the recent poisoning by nerve agent of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Salisbury in the west of England, the government has done its best to exploit that incident, in my opinion, to remove Brexit from daily headlines. Isn’t that what all politicians do when faced with internal dissent. They try to galvanize support around an actual or perceived external threat. Result? Brexit hasn’t been hitting the headlines so much. Until yesterday, that is.

Woe is me! What have I done?

With one year to go, the Prime Minister embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the nation, visiting locations in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland to spread the good word about our bright future once we have left the EU. She even raised, once again, the prospect of a ‘Brexit dividend‘ that would permit us to spend more on the National Health Service (NHS) and education. For my readers outside the UK, let me explain. During the 2016 referendum campaign, the Leave side toured the country in a bright red bus with this slogan emblazoned on its side:

Before the referendum, the UK had the fastest-growing economy among the G7 countries; now it’s the slowest, and we haven’t even left the EU yet.

It’s easy to quantify what we will lose when we leave the EU. What has not been spelled out without equivocation is what we stand to gain. Apart from the usual platitudes negotiating free trade agreements with nations around the world (assuming that they want to have agreements with us), the main driving force seems to be ‘taking back control’. But of what?

Of our borders, our laws, and our money, apparently. After 45 years of being a member of the EU (and the EEC/EC before that), our economy and fabric of the nation is intimately tied to Europe. Unraveling those close ties is complex and a daunting challenge.

The immigration card was played unashamedly by the Leavers during the referendum campaign, the despicable Nigel Farage (of UKIP) chief among them. Yes, membership of the Single Market does mean that citizens of other EU countries have the right to come to live and work in the UK. Many did come, and occupied jobs that UK citizens were often unwilling to take on (such as in the agricultural/horticultural and service/hospitality industries). They also paid their taxes and National Insurance (Social Security) contributions.

Already there has been a negative Brexit effect with EU citizens returning home, leaving vacancies that are hard to fill from local labor pools. The government has been and is obsessed by the immigration statistics, harking back surely to the time when Theresa May was Secretary of State for the Home Office. However, the data show that there has been more immigration from nations from outside the EU than from within.

What about our laws? I haven’t seen the British Parliament sitting on their laurels or out of a job since we joined the EU. Parliamentarians are constantly enacting new legislation. The bugbear of arch-Brexiteers such as Ian Duncan-Smith, Bernard Jenkin, Bill Cash, John Redwood, Peter Bone, and the pompous and inimitable Jacob Rees-Mogg, is the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Being a member of the European club, we are subject to its rules and regulations but benefit from common rights, and any infringements come under the jurisdiction of the ECJ which is anathema to Brexiteers. The worry for Remainers is that when we leave the EU, and powers are repatriated to the British Parliament, there will be a wholesale ditching of many of these hard-won rights. Time will tell, but will be resisted fiercely.

DaDa, LiFo, and BoJo – the three Brexiteers

The UK is one of the top financial contributors to the EU budget, and there will be a black hole when we leave. That’s why, in the Brexit negotiations, the EU has (rightly) insisted that the UK meets its financial contributions to commitments it has already made. These stretch into decades in the future and amount to tens of billions of pounds. So much for the ‘Brexit dividend’ that the delusional Boris Johnson promoted (and successfully duped a section of the electorate) on the Leave campaign bus. As our economy slows, as the tax base declines, as trading possibly becomes more difficult, what will be the real economic outcome for us all? I cannot believe it can be as rosy as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis has indicated, or the number of free trade agreements lined up as International Trade Secretary Liam Fox seems to believe.

At almost 70, I’m part of the demographic that overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU. Which I didn’t, I hasten to add, something you must have realized by now reading this blog post.

The next years outside the EU are likely to be tough economically and financially. There will be inconveniences that I guess we will cope with, albeit grumbling all the time. I have fewer years ahead of me than I have enjoyed. I fear for the younger generations, and how life outside the EU will impact on them. Our younger daughter and husband live in the northeast, one of the areas that is predicted to be most negatively impacted by Brexit (even though a majority there voted to leave). They have two young boys, six and four. What does the future hold for them. Our elder daughter lives in the USA and will soon become a US citizen. There again, the USA is going through its own Trumpian dystopia right now.

Listening to pro-Leave supporters interviewed on various news channels yesterday, it seems to me that they haven’t yet fully understood the impact of their fateful voting decisions two years ago. It’s hard to appreciate just what factors drove their agendas. Even regions of the nation that have benefited from EU regional development funds voted to leave. Extraordinary! But it will come home to them in due course in a very personal way, when they make plans for their annual summer vacations in Spain or Portugal, the south of France or sunny Greece. No more reciprocal health cover arrangements probably, possible airline and flights issues, long queues to pass through immigration, unexpected mobile phone roaming charges, among many others. Once their pockets are hit—and hard—for things they have come to expect, they will complain that they never signed up for these restrictions when they voted Leave.

Of course, everything is going to be fine, say May & Co. Even though we are leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, we will eventually come to agreement with the EU for a sensible solution, if they would just stop bullying us. Or are we going to face that oft-quoted ‘cliff edge’ Here are two views.

And still nothing appropriate is said about the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK that has a land border with another EU country. David Davis seems to be in ‘La-La Land’ on this issue.

The real negotiations for our future prosperity and security have yet to start. Liam Fox and others talk about free trade talks and agreements as if they are a one-way ticket. It is about arriving at a position acceptable to both parties to the negotiation. Compromise, give-and-take is the name of the game. Win some, lose some. That probably means that more of the so-called ‘red lines’ will be crossed, positions abandoned in the interests of an overall agreement. The fishermen (and their parliamentary supporters like Farage and Rees-Mogg) who were so enraged last week when the transition agreement was announced, and which did not exclude access to British territorial waters by boats from other EU countries, will probably find that in order to secure a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, fishing rights will be sacrificed. That’s just the reality.

Here are some more broken promises. Just click on the image below to read the article in The Guardian from a couple of days ago.

Another concern is that the UK just not have the technical capacity to negotiate multiple trade agreements. The government is frantically recruiting trade negotiators. Surely, heavyweights like the USA (with whom we have been ‘promised’ a quick and comprehensive free trade agreement after Brexit, notwithstanding Trump’s current protectionist stance) will flex their muscles, to ensure access by US corporations to UK markets and the NHS, the former for food produced under lower standards than we currently enjoy through the EU, and the latter with the aim of privatizing health cover. I envisage our government just rolling over in its desperation to secure the deal.

Will there be a second referendum to vote on the actual terms of the final agreement with the EU? While I hope there will be, I’m not optimistic, although I will continue to support efforts to make one a reality.

With less than a year to go before Brexit, and almost two years after the referendum, we are still no closer to knowing, never mind understanding, what a post-Brexit relationship with the EU (or the rest of the world for that matter) will look like. Either the Theresa May, David Davis et al. are playing their cards very close to their chests, or they simply have no idea, nor have effectively planned for the future. I fear the latter. The sooner the Conservatives are voted out of power the better. Unfortunately, the Labour alternative under left-wing Jeremy Corbin looks no more rosy. Where is the middle ground of politics? Where are the statesmen and women who are more concerned about the fate of the nation rather than their own political party or career? I despair of politics in the UK today, and I despair that the country is meandering down a path to its own economic decline.

Taking back control? Humbug! This must be the first time, as someone wrote recently, that a government is actively working to bring about a decline in the nation’s prosperity rather than the reverse.