The Preying Fiends of Eton

The idea of a homogeneous, nation state is a comparatively recent development in history. Originally, mankind organised itself into a few empires, a herd of city statelets and a myriad of tribal lands with simpler cultures sprawling across the globe.

States that advanced accrued power, which they exercised over those that did not. Prior to the mid-18th century, the most successful organisation of government to best achieve this was a rigid (and therefore stable) hierarchy, consisting of:

  • a hereditary potentate ruling over…
  • an elite of nobles who, in turn, controlled…
  • a mass of peasant workers and soldiers

Flawed though simple class hierarchy may seem, it worked, leading to a variety of increasingly developed civilisations from Cuzco to Beijing to Delhi to Venice.

Half a millennium ago, the Spanish and Portuguese turned maritime adventure into an inflow of wealth by tapping into the riches of the Americas and Orient,. Thus wealth served mainly to enrich the upper class. It was not invested to catalyse development, nor to benefit the lower class masses. As elsewhere, noblesse oblige was a rarity..

Other Europeans tried to get in on this lucrative act, with France, the Netherlands and England having the geography and maritime technology to do so. The French and Dutch soon elbowed into the lucrative Portuguese spice trade with the Indies. The English started—with their Queen’s blessing—by plundering Spanish gold on its way home from the Caribbean. Though ennobled later, captains like Drake, Frobisher and Hawkins were brigands who set the tone for much of subsequent English exploitation of global trade opportunities. In colonising North America and the Caribbean, their plantations soon thrived on a trade in sugar and tobacco. What choked rapid growth was insufficient labour among colonists and indentured servants available.

The Portuguese ‘solved’ their labour problem by rounding up Africans from explorations there and transporting them to Brasil as slaves. The English soon followed, as James II & VII founded the Royal Africa Company. The RAC became so proficient that the largest portion of the 12 million Africans shipped to the Americas were transported by them and English plantations boomed.

The English also came late to the East with their East India Company. Competition on the spice trade was fierce, so they approached the Mughal Empire to permit modest trading posts on the Indian coast.

The EIC operated very different from colonisation elsewhere. The Mughal Empire was at its peak, more sophisticated in culture, manufacturing one quarter of the world’s goods. It was in no way inferior to that of the Europeans. Unlike in America, here respect, patience and humility were essential for success. EIC ‘writers’ (clerks) and merchants learned languages, adopted customs to trade cotton, calico, silks and indigo. The only aristocrats involved were investors and directors back in London.

Meanwhile, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 brought Protestantism, William III, and sophisticated banking to England from the Netherlands. Flexible access to capital accelerated economic growth: plantations and ambition overseas: factories to process the goods and canals to distribute them.. The revolution became industrial.

New wealth enriched the whole king/noble/peasant model, But it was split between the aristocracy and anew middle class of business men inserted below them.

A wealthy middle class challenged the aristocracy, never historically ones to relinquish prestige, wealth and the power they conferred. They did not meet this challenge head-on, but in five more subtle ways:

  1. invested in these new enterprises.
  2. restructured the land holdings they had, enclosing common lands, adopting methods of the agricultural revolution, like mechanisation and day hiring.
  3. exploited their estates for industry, building mines, factories, canals and railways of their own.
  4. built country mansions to impress, surrounding them with ornate parkland few could afford.
  5. circled their wagons linguistically by developing speech as an indelible badge of noble rank.

This last may seem inconsequential, but has proved to be the most durably effective.

For years, aristocracy and peasantry in each area of Britain all spoke a local dialect in common. But in the 18th century, English aristocracy developed a speech unique to them, known today as ‘received pronunciation’ (RP) or standard or BBC English. It is defined in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as “the standard accent of English as spoken in the South of England”.

But it has a strange distribution. The vast majority of Southern England speaks a variety of dialects—Cockney,, Dorset, ‘Zummerzet’, and so on. RP occurs in this are in pockets: Belgravia; Oxford; Tunbridge Wells; Cheltenham. But it occurs still in pockets all across Britain, some as small as a country estates, some as large as Harrogate or St Andrews.

All accents have a range of intensity from mild to abrasively unintelligible. Broad Scots has a terrible reputation but most people find David Tennant or Nicola Benedetti pleasant to listen to. Similarly, the RP spoken by Helen Mirren or Jeremy Irons is mellifluous and engaging.

But, before getting there, RP went through a century or so of being the medium of authoritative command that expected obedience, at worst becoming a braying drawl that the Scots deride as “bools in the mooth”.. Remains of this exist to this day. Decent chap though he is, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP verges on the incomprehensible and quite deserves his moniker of “Member for the 16th century.”

Class distinction by accent blossomed the 18th century becoming a rigid pillar of society by the 19th. This was underpinned by elite education. Choice public (i.e. very private) schools—Eton; Harrow; Winchester; Sevenoaks; Charterhouse, Westminster and few others—dinned stiff upper lips as much as knowledge into would-be patricians. It was boot camp without the rifles..

Thus groomed, few outsiders could penetrate the ‘old boy’ network that resulted. To them as such, doors opened, careers bloomed—for the more adept as directorships; judges, bankers; civil servants.

For the less adept and younger scions of nobility, the Army, Navy and colonies offered more risk, but more rewards than staying home. Those who survived often became generals, admirals or governors. But. no matter the career followed, effortless, mannered superiority inculcated at school carried them through with the same authority.

By 1800, a linguistically unmistakable aristocrats had seen off middle class ambition for equality. Now it was now hard to tell where any of them hailed from; Kent or Cork, Sussex or Sutherland. All spoke an affected RP”. See almost any British film from the 1930s for reference.

At first, RP was seldom heard in the colonies, where stropily classless pioneers, artisans ad indentured servants were not given to forelock-tugging. India was distinct, with no colonists and just a few merchants clinging on under Mughal suffrage..

Then came Robert Clive.

Taking advantage of unrest in the rich Moghul province of Bengal, he used a stunning victory at Plassey to annex the place in 1757. This changed everything.

Despite Warren Harding’s best efforts to restore amity, a Bengal colony, driven purely by profit led to the serial pillage of others. The repatriation of eye-popping loot (an Indian word that came to English from this action) instigated by Clive continued over the next fifty years.

Prime Minister Peel sought to curtail excesses by posting aristocrats like Cornwallis, Wellesley and Dalhousie as governors tried to moderate actions as callouslt predatory as the slave trade in Africa. But they were steeped in class ascendency, amplified by racial bias of other British colonies where non-whites formed a slave class below even the peasant/working class. The idea of humble supplication to the Mughals was intolerable. The Moghul Empire’s fall was hastened by through EIS perfidy which learned to play its factions off one another to seize its riches.

So pernicious was this and subsequent treatment of Indian sensitivities, culture, language and taboos so disdainful that the 1857 Mutiny seems inevitable. The brutal suppression that followed brought a direct takeover by the British crown.

The leadership of a series of Viceroys under the Raj was paternalistic racism, peddled both in India and at home bringing enlightenment to the benighted. It was taken as axiomatic that, only when the Indians learned English, wore proper clothes and imbibed Shakespeare could they become civilised. To cling to the Qu’ran or the Bhagavad-gītā was to stay mired in the primitive past.

In the 1820s, Macaulay and Trevelyan started imposing English language, Englidh law and arrogant attitudes. The Raj built magnificent residences, exclusive clubs, polo fields and tennis courts. Pith helmeted white nabobs each dominated the lives of millions for the next century.

Under the Viceroy stretched a hierarchy of collectors and other administrators, who lived like lords, with a houseful of servants from factor to the punkah-wallah who pulled the fan. The complex Indian caste system was ignored and submerged beneath the lowest white sahib.

An objective observer might think that two world wars, Indian independence and the economic decline of Britain would have eroded its aristocracy and its identifying accent. But not a bit of it. While aristocracies across Europe crumbled into historic irrelevance, the English variety has survived, retained power as mandarins in key callings.

As when threatened by an upstart middle class, they have adapted. In the swinging sixties, Tory governments were still peppered with peers, bowler-hatted gents crammed the Waterloo & City line; debutante ‘coming out’ balls glittered; the Duke of Westminster still owned most of Mayfair and Belgravia.

In our egalitarian age, initiative, enlightenment and success are to be welcomed. , no matter what their starting point. But the inbred culture of a dew thousand English aristocrats have ruled the roost across Britain throughout centuries of transformation that sank their less adaptive peers elsewhere

Today, the old school tie may be less obvious, but RP still predominates where it matters. There is obviously still good reason why it worth paying £45,000 a year to attend Eton and the rest; is an investment, not an expense.

With a mere 7% of children in Britain attending public school, only 10,000 at the ‘good’ half-dozen, is it not amazing that, a half century beyond the end of empire, they still groom:

  • 62% of senior armed forces officers
  • 63% of diplomats
  • 50% of the House of Lords
  • 55% of Junior Ministers & 35% of the Cabinet
  • 55% of Permanent Secretaries
  • 53^ of newspaper columnists
  • 56% of public body chairs
  • 71% of senior judges
  • 44% of the Sunday Times Rich List
  • 54% of the Top 100 Media Professionals

It’s democracy, Jim—but not as we know it.



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There is a typically pithy American phrase about losing focus:

“When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember that the original plan was to drain the swamp.”

Unfortunately, governments seem particularly prone to suffer such distractions, perhaps because they are so fixated on popularity and appearing competent. Their short-termism can be even worse than companies whose horizons seem limited by the next quarterly results.

In this context, the Covid-19 virus appears to be having a particularly malevolent effect on the UK and Scottish governments in equal measure. Neither appears able to even recall matters on which they were fixated less than six months ago. For the UK government, four years of obsession with Brexit seems to have submerged beneath their attention like a blue whale diving, leaving only ripples on the surface. This may turn out to be a tactical ploy, concealing from public gaze a deliberate willingness to suddenly present a no-deal fait accompli as we approach the cliff edge of December 31st.

The Scottish government’s virus fixation is less easy to explain. Not quite following the UK government approach to exiting lock down without demonstrating a clearly superior strategy to do so gives more of a rabbit-in-headlights inertia, rather than any smart and effective alternative. More than that, they have yet to strike a credible pose to counter the obvious intransigence of Boris and his phalanx of a unionist majority who can look forward to another for years of stonewalling any constitutional adjustment, which is the raison d’etre for Ms Sturgeon and her impatient legions of party members, living on a thin gruel of hope for the last six years.

Other than among SNP faithful, independence is not on everyone’s lips and she is smart to accept that.  Meanwhile, her senior team seems swamped. .Jean Freeman bumbling over health and John Swinney unimpressively passive over education look like dutiful deputies out of their depth.. Weakest of all is Fiona Hyslop fluffing the key economy brief. Former SNP MP Geirge Kerevan was scathing about her efforts:

Setting up an advisory commission looks like activity when not a lot is happening”…” more a PR person’s attempt to pretend there is a strategy when there isn’t”

The impression of strong leadership that would drive Scotland toward its own sunlit uplands of prosperity when this is all over is sorely lacking.

Westminster and the Tories who run it have an abysmal record of seeing anything outside London as happy provinces in awe of the imperial Capital. Their record of understanding their needs, let alone taking any action to meet them, is abysmal too.

Exactly a century ago, the Fourth (!) Home Rule Bill was marched through Parliament. This was for Ireland, not Scotland but indicates just how obtrise Westminster can be when it wants to drag its feet. By the fourth time, you’d think they might get it right. But this resulted in revolt, repression by the Black and Tans, the entire cohort of 128 Irish MPs elected in 1921 refusing to go near Westminster and setting up the Irish Free State. The only part of the Bill that did not crash and burn even before take-off set up Stormont and the Six Counties as a sop to Protestants. That lopsided artificial institution limped along until disabled by the Troubles fifty years later and was finally put out of its misery by the Good Friday Agreement.

So, even if Boris the Blusterer and his Cabinet of Clones were to have a Damascene conversion and acknowledge that Scotland’s elected government reflects Scots’ aspirations with as much authority as his reflects England’s, his track record on this is bad. As my grandmother would say smacking my spoon away as it neared what she was cooking: “If you can’t be a help, don’t be an unhelp!”

So, Nicola’s Nats may have a majority, even of MP’s… but they’re on their own. With Westminster fixated on the minutiae of the pandemic in England, this is Nicola’s big chance to seize the initiative beyond lock down. Today is the time to rise above the humdrum daily dose of statistics and homilies. It’s time to get radical, rally the troops and reach out for friends who can help. If she sticks to her present caution, not only will May 2021 be unwinnable but so will any Indy referendum in the next decade—assuming she can conjure one.

So, how does Nicola drain the swamp? Wake up the slumbering place-holders around her who have the nerve to draw salaries as members of her Cabinet. Specifically

  • Put John Swinney back at Finance/Economy and give him his considerable numeric head to exercise fiscal powers to fund economic recovery. He is a disappointment at Education.
  • Replace John at Education with Mike Russell. He has the necessary experience, urbane nous and articulation. With a mandate to hold EIS’s feet to the fire to co-operate finding public spaces to get the maximum number of 15-pupil classrooms by mid August, staffed by retirees, trainees and disclosure-certified volunteers. Create a good cop/bad cop’ team with Kevin Stewart, who should round up the more creative Council directors of education and use COSLA as a forum for developing best practice in commandeering libraries, sports centres, halls, etc. for school use. Working with John to revise Council tax should occupy his spare time when he is not working with;
  • Joe Fitzpatrick on a wave of council house building to rival the post WW2 period. Not only would this undercut private property speculators but would help bump-start the building industry.
  • Lock Fiona Hyslop in a room with Fergus Ewing and let them out only when they have come up with a way to salvage the 2020 summer tourist season before mid-July. This must include indoor and outdoor attractions (with testing at entrance), as well as economic levels of occupancy for B&Bs and hotels. This should be in conjunction with;
  • Jean Freeman and NHS targeted testing to declare Covid-19-free areas. That aside, Jean must implement a rigorous and widespread test and track system including the app used in most of Europe because we’ll all be dead before Boris’ “world class” one is effective. In her spare time, she should get proper media training so she can look credible. To date, she acts wooden and starts every response to a question she does not want to answer with “So…”
  • Stop being so tribal, confiding in just an inner clique. The SNP is in desperate need of a proper think tank like Fraser of Allander Institute. There isn’t even the Business for Scotland outside experience advice Alec had 20 years ago when the stakes were not so high.
  • Send a high-powered delegation (preferably from the aforementioned think tank) to Eire, Denmark and Norway to learn how similar countries successfully dealt with the pandemic. While there , forge trade and cultural links for the future. The modern equivalent of Neil MacCormick, Stephen Maxwell and David McCarthy of 20 years ago (not fresh-faced SPADs on a jolly) are what is required. Use the info gleaned to forge innovative policies to trail this winter—and also upstage Boris and his incompetent minions in as statesperson-like a manner as possible.

After 13 years in power, it’s easy to lose perspective and focus on holding on, rather than moving on. Given the carnage in Labour support and ineffectiveness of a series of Leaders of the Opposition (Ruth Davidson being an honourable exception), there has been little incentive for the SNP government to stay alert, innovative and on its toes.

If the future is not brought into sharp and dynamic focus this summer, regret at a decimating election result this time next year will do little to salve the conscience, lat alone the cause.


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The Past is a Foreign Country

News in both the UK and the USA has recently highlighted demonstrations revolving around the Black Lives Matter campaign. The focus of this has been around for some time without any satisfactory resolution. The sentiment is strongest in the USA, despite the march on Selma and civil rights achieved in the 1960s, Treatment of black citizens—especially by white police officers—flares repeatedly into civil unrest there: Rodney King in South Central LA in  1991; Michael Brown in Ferguson MO in 2015; now George Floyd in Minneapolis MN.

With the continuing disparity in demographics between typically affluent white and typically impoverished black areas in many US cities, this is not about to go away by itself. The UK may have seen less violence since Toxteth and Brixton in the 1980s but our problems are similar. .However justified the frustration and intractable the problem, the cause is being damaged by by some asherents using the protest to deface, damage and even destroy icons of the past, such as statues. While not taking such direct action, many more want all such idons removed because they believe they symbolise the problem . This is where the laudable Black Lives Matter movement may be in danger of losing its way, if not the needs..

The phrase “those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it” carries a lesson here. History is full of odious figures. For every Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King,, you may choose from a panoply of flawed individuals. Regarded highly in their day, all were flawed and human, especially when taken out of their time and judged by modern ethics.

The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans laid the foundations of Western civilisation, bequeathing us science, and philosophy, architecture and culture we still admire and use. But they were bloodily warlike. They all kept slaves. They were racist and sexist. But does that mean we should denigrate Tutankhamun or Alexander or Caesar because they beat up the Israelites, Trojans or Gaul? Should we demolish the Pyramids or the Parthenon or the Colosseum because they were products of oppression?

Fast forward nearer our own times. There are some pretty iffy characters cast in bronze or hewn in stone populating our streets whom we might take to task for their behaviour. But we would be wrong to judge them by today’s morals. Clive and Raffles and Rhodes may have been cheerleaders of colonialism. But they were cheered to the rafters in their day. Would you put the entire Georgian or Victorian or Edwardian population in the dock when everyone then bought into Kipling’s “white man’s burden” mission and were grateful for the hand-up out of poverty it brought with it?

Certainly, the most obnoxious aspect of all this was the slave trade. It was started by the Spanish but, from Drake on, the British made a thriving business out of it during the 17th and 18th centuries. The cities of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow were built on its proceeds. Though voices like Wilberforce were raised against it, everyone else from government to seaman were for it. Even the African chieftains were complicit in lining up subjects ready for sale.

There were few heroes. You can pick on Edward Colston in Bristol, or Joseph Brooks in Liverpool, or John Glasford in Glasgow,, all of whom made generous—if not entirely selfless—contributions to their respective cities. Beyond them, there were dozens of others, as well as ships’ crews, plantation owners HM exchequer, etc, who lived from the trade in sugar, cotton, rum and tobacco. This catalised the British Empire as the leading power on the planet—as the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all were in their time..

And, while we’re at it, why not condemn Thomas Cromwell for so enthusiastically seizing all the monasteries and abbeys for his master Henry VIII, so he could profit from his break with Rome, as well as marry his mistress? And why not the other Cromwell, who burnt the abbeys his namesake had seized? There is an endles catalogue of celebrated misceants to choose from.

Choose any era and you find the past is indeed a foreign country, whose customs, mores and morals clash violently with what you would consider civilised and acceptable behaviour today.

Condemning those who lived in the past is more likely to lead to frustration and dissent. We have no time machine to go back and correct shortcomings, even if we were so superior today that we might improve anything. Rather, we should be grateful that those who lived than—flawed as many were—contributed to the prosperity we enjoy today, where many more are enlightened and none of us are slaves.

More importantly, we should study those flaws, understand the motivation that bred them and get an insight they never had.

So that we avoid making the same mistakes as history.


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A Second Dunkirk

“Wars are not won by evacuations”—Winston Churchill, June 4th 1940

In the daily wringing of political hands over Covid-19 and unending media coverage of “our worst crisis since World War 2: we seem to have lost much balance and perspective from history, The 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation seems forgotten, ley alone earlier lessons learned from our long—and often prickly—relations with our continental neighbours.

But what does an embarrassung military defeat from another century have to do with our present pandemic crisis? They are both chapters in a long, long story. Because of the national psyche involved —largely formed by the dominant culture of south-east England and centred on London—rather a lot.

For over a millennium, the South-East’s wealth and numberrs dominated other regions and nations of Britain. The proximity of continental powers shaped foreign polocy infused with mistrust and paranoia towards neighbours. From the Norman Conquest, through the Angevin Empire, the ambitions of Luis XIV to Napoleon, a dense folk history looked askance at what lay across the Channel. Interludes when the Spanish, Dutch or Germans usurped the French as the bogey-man-di-jour did nothing to dispel belief that sea routes of the world offered far more reward than involvement on the continent.

The carnage and mediocre French leadership in WW1 did nothing to dispel such beliefs. British focus was on the Empire and a navy to secure it.  At the outbreak of WW2, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) sent to France included all five regular divisions, plus five reservist. Though the best Britain had, they were trained for positional war. Like the French, their commanders thought passively. After eight months of ‘Sitzkreig‘, or ‘phony war’, Lord Gort’s command had still not absorbed the lessons of the Spanish Civil War, nor the swift obliteration of Poland, let alone those of their own advanced military thinkers like Hobart and Fuller.

As a result, on May 10th 1940, the BEF, flanked by the French 1st and 9th armies marched into Belgium to counter the German thrust there. It was a feint. They were completely flat-footed by three German Panzer Corps, led by experts like Guderian, Rommel and Hoepner, lancing through the Ardennes, overwhelming a sluggish French 2nd Army at Sedan and thrusting on to the Channel at Abbeville by May 20th. Neither the French, nor the British could react to prevent this, nor assemble a effective counter-measures.

Pocketed and squeezed within a shrinking perimeter with backs to the Channel, the British blamed the French and organised Operation Dynamo without telling them, It involved dozens of destroyers and smaller flotilla craft, plus hundreds of civilian small ships to lift their shattered army from the port and beaches of Dunkirk

This began on May 26th, rescuing over 300,000 troops being evacuated by June 4th. Initially, no French troops were embarked. It was only when Churchill discovered this that surrounded French Allies were included. The only British amoured division was dispatched to late to help and much of its equipment, along with all of the BEF’s and the entire 51st division trapped at St Valery, were captured by the Germans.

Dunkirk became the latest in a long line of lessons learned by the establishment  that involvement in the continent was both painful and unprofitable.  And so it was that thirty years and the total loss of empire was necessary before Britain would steel itself to join what would become the European Union—and then only after a confirmatory referendum in 1975. It was the last major nation to do so

But the establishment—and especially a major section of the Conservative party—never resigned itself to this fate. The largely right-wing and jingoistic British press kept things omn the boil, fulminating against EU rules, interference in things British, enforcing metric measures, drowning in wine lakes, pillorying invasive Spanish fishermen, deprecating inefficiency of French farmers. Thatcher’s regular hand-bagging of EU meetings caused resentment among what could have been friends. A growing chorus of Euroskeptic Tories caused on-going grief to Major with his wafer-thin majority.

From then on, various Tory splinter groups from the Referendum Party though UKIP to the Brexit Party  kept up a relentless drum-beat for glorious isolation that was a direct descendant of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Walpole, Pitt and Disraeli to disdain intrigues across the Channel and decline to be in any way controlled by them.

Britain’s gesture of involvement that led to Dunkirk underlay the same tentativeness prevarication leadung to 1992’s ERM debacle and the refusal to have any truck with the Euro. Seen from such long-held, ingrained bias, the over-promising enthusiasm of the 2016 NO campaign and the feverish flurry to “get Brexit done” follow as both logically and inevitably.

Though it would be churlish to describe all this as simple xenophobia, there is more than a whiff of the Tarot card of The Fool, stepping blithely into the unknown. Whether Brritain can rregain its Victoriam status of a standalone economic titam seems unproven It is clear that the 300 million people of Europe do not need Britain. Whether the reverse is true is yet to be determined.

It may not represent what the future holds, but in one respect, we already have an example of Britain going its own way—in our health services. The NHS is a fully British creation, always independent of the EU. As the Covid-19 pandemic enters its sixth month,  Britain is showing the second-highest total number of cases and the second-highest number of deaths per million people. Worse than that, we are running at 8,000 new cases each day when other countries are less than 1,000, made worse by there being no full test-and-trace system in place before the end of June.

If being medically independent means becoming the Covid epicentre of Europe, what does this portend if we puill off independent-as a moderrn Dunkirk rescuing our economy from the EU? What detritus of prosperity will we leave wrecked on continental beaches? When all the viral dust has settled how will we deal with £2,500,000,000,000 (£76,000 per household)of debt?

Alone, in our glorious isolation.


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Shadow of the Sombrero—3

The Four Horse(manure)men of the Apocalypse

It’s a wonder the UK government’s daily press briefing retains any audience at all, beside the journalists paid to be there. It breaks all known rules of audience engagement,  being pompous and repetitive. Flanked by flags and behind  a slogan-strewn rostrum, another of a carousel of suits posing as cabinet minsters presents statistics in numbing detail and dutifully stonewalls any hard questions that follow, as they have three-score-and-more days.

To call it “unedifying” is to flatter the event.

The idea itself is fine: daily updates to keep an anxious public informed of progress combating the worst crisis in 75 years. Recovering from a dose of Covid-19 himself,  Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised “open and transparent communication”. That was three weeks ago. Even senior medical experts—especially those in the thick of epidemiology—are speaking out.

“The UK Government is dangerously deluded. They may be kidding themselves, but it is entirely irresponsible and profoundly shocking that the UK’s leaders are so blind and misguided on Covid-19.” —Prof. Gabriel Scally, Bristol University

What is going on? Tony Blair’s former adviser Alastair Campbell (who knows more than most about spin) has observed:

“Boris thinks he is fighting a campaign, not a crisis.”

Even if the carousel of  suits, each media-trained within an inch of their lives by Boris’ Chief Puppetmaster, Dominic Cummings, are soft-soaping us, is criticism fair? Might this  ‘handling’ of the public simply conceal a masterminding of brilliant solutions to the virus problem behind the scenes?

One way to find out is to compare UK progress with other countries. But, when asked, the  suit in question demurs, claiming that other countries count statistics differently so comparisons are not meaningful.

The apparent pin-point accuracy of the statistical cataract at each daily briefing, makes this seems plausible.. But UK figures for deaths don’t bear scrutiny. The figure of 35,704 deaths given on May 20th is dwarfed by the 55,000 extra ‘unexplained’ deaths over what would be expected for the period, we are, therefore,  dealing with qualitative, not quantitative figures here. Selecting comparable countries should therefore be valid guides, despite what the puppets say..

To list comparable countries, they need to have developed affluence, have open governments and a robust health care system. Such a list should therefore exclude:

  • untrustworthy statistics—e.g. Russia;
  • states making scant control efforts—e,g, Brazil
  • states with even profound problems—e.g. Syria
  • undeveloped/Third World states

The table below compares nine other states by three key statistics, adjusted for population by quantifying them per million inhabitants. (Source: worldometers)


Xovid-19 Statistics for Selected Countries, May 20th 2020

The ranking by total cases is useful to indicate where Covid-19 infection is worst, but not for comparison of country’s performance in dealing with it.

At first glance, the UK’s position between Italy and Spain—the worst-hit countries in Europe—is not good. These two countries were the bulk of the ‘PIGS’,—member states carpeted by the EU for fiscal mismanagement in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis. Despite what the carousel of suits claim, several key lessons for the UK’s future can be gleaned from this table alone:

  1. South Korea came through with flying colours. This is because, in the wake of the SARS epidemic, they planned for and invested in a simular epidemic. They performed massive Testing and Tracing (T&T) from the word go. The UK had no such plan.
  2. New Zealand performed almost as well. Besides prompt T&T, they shut down access to the country promptly and tested everyone who did arrive. The UK let over half a million people enter freely, including 40,000 from Italy and the Dolomite ski resorts origin of early outbreaks in Europe.
  3. Germany had significant T&T resources already in place and deployed them rigorously. The UK had little but delayed and already inadequate effort by insisting on centralised testing and ignoring >100 private labs They also abandoned tracing for over two months.
  4. Although Singapore suffered a resurgence (i.e. “second peak”) it was traced to a migrant worker suburb and the outbreaj targeted and contained. The UK has no equivalent regional task force to deal with local anolmalies.
  5. Sweden was chastised for taking a voluntary approach to lockdown, with most business and most retail staying open. Their economy has not suffered far anything like the 25% GDP drop and £62bn month borrowing in the UK.the

None of this offers a shred of justification for the UK government to wilfully   ignore experience hard-won by comparable countries, still less to argue they lead a ‘world-beating’ strategy by “following the science”, when they have done no such thing. It resembles more of a seat-of the-pants snow jobb

So, if neither our neighbours, nor our own scientists are responsible for shoddy national  performance that will cost dear in prosperity, as well as lives, then who is? Though justice may come slow—certainly not in time, and perhaps not ever— in the  scapegoat hunt that follows, the prime candidates must be:

  1. Boris Johnson, where the buck must inevitably stop. He may be bright and affable but he is lazy, lightweight and lacks even the echo of his hero Churchill.
  2. Dominic Cumming. You may not have seen him but his baleful and malevolent hand steering a positive message has been behind most of the mis-steps and the odious side-stepping of responsibility.
  3. Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive, Public Health England and therefore responsible for the flawed UK medical strategy, including tardy lockdown, abandoning early T&T, centralised (=slow) testing, absence of tracking system, scupperimg the economy through ssevere lockdown and not being prepared for ant pandemic
  4. The Seven Dwarfs, viz Dominic Raab, Matt Hancock, Grant Shaps and the rest of the suit carousel, all of whom dutifully mouthed indistinguishablr  rent-a-quote performances mouthpieces. The country deserved better in its hour of need.

What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his soul? But for Wales, Richard...for Wakes.” —Sir Thomas Moore‚A Man for All Seasons


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Shadow of the Sombrero—2

The Care Home Tragedy

It is always easier to criticise with hindsight but we are nowhere near the end of the present Covid-19 pandemic to analyse properly with full facts and objectivity. But, even allowing that all governments were faced with novel and unprecedented and harsh decision to be made, the UK Government already earned opprobrium for making two flawed and reprehensible decisions, viz:

  • neglecting care homes and;
  • lying about it.

Whether the mantra that drove their strategy—”stay home/protect the NHS/save lives”—was correct is not the issue. There are around418,000 people in care homes, almost all elderly, many with a wide variety of ailments and all to be considered ‘vulnerable/ Once it became clear in early February that the virus would strike Britain, the support for and advice to vulnerable people outside the NHS was, at best, misguided and made worse both by their policies mandated to the general public and the manner in which they published statistics on the pandemic..

Misguided Advice

Until March 13th, government advice to care homes was clear and comforting:

  • there is no need for care homes to change procedures
  • care homes residents were isolated from the general population
  • residents in care homes were therefore not under threat

Such glib presumptions were not withdrawn until April 5th after outbreaks in care homes were logged, many staff were self-isolating at home and others declining to come to work because of fear of infection. It would seem that homes were infected by patients being forcibly discharged from hospitals by NHS administrators to clear beds. This was made such high prioroty that discharges were made without testing for virus infection. Even where tests were made, test results were often not known before the patient entered the care home.

Staff  and visitors bringing in contagion from outside were a minor cause.  Attempts by care homes to secure tests or protective equipment (PPE) were generally unsuccessful, made worse by suppliers responding that they were instructed to supply only to the NHS.

The first positive response to address this was elicited  by a Sky News reporter rom Health Minister Matt Hancock at the daily press briefing when he assured the country that both testing and PPE would be made available to care homes as a priority. This was during the month-long effort to ramp testing up to 100,000 a day. As testing was available only at a limited number of sites, some of them drive-through, the many care home staff living far from the sites or without  cars were not able to be tested. By May 5th, thrree weeks after the promise was made, many care homes were without PPE and had received only partial testing.

Bogus Statistics

While tests were not happening care homes were not appearing in the daily avalanche of precise statistics and colourful charts that appeared at each daily government press briefing. It particular, the exact numbers of Covod-19 related deaths were only for deaths in hospitals. Only in late April did Office of National Statistics (ONS) data for other deaths, particularly in care homes, become available—and then only weekly. and delayed by two week.

Even then, it was a gross underestimate, placing the estimate at under 15%.of all related deaths. As a result, care homes continued to struggle for equal priority with the NHS for tests and PPE, suffering acute staff shortages and having to deal with the trauma of resident dying without any family in attendance, due to lockdown.

It was only when the new Labour leader Kier Stalmer started to ask pointed questions about the true figures that reality finally emerged.

ONS statistics for the month of April showed 18,000 more deaths than would normally be expected for that month and allocated 8,152 to the virus n care homes. Bad though this was, the other 10,000 remained unexplained, until it was realised that a further 2,500 were actually care home residents who had been hospitalised and died there. Revision of the numbers showed that some 40% of the 34,366 virus-related deaths were from care homes.

That’s about 13,700 people out of 418,000 care home residents, or a death rate per million of 33,000. Given that the current UK death rate (already one of the worst in the world) has just passed 500 per million, this factor of 66 for mortality among the vulnerable elderly in our care homes is both scandalous and reprehensible.

Some Must Get Their Jotters

The middle of the pandemic may be no time for the brutal recriminations necessary. But the glib assertions made at daily press that all is well needs to stop immediately and someone’s political career needs to end in contrition, apology and resignation,

Investigation of the degree to which clinical advice in hospitals was overridden by NJS administrators to ‘save the SNS’ by clearing beds under government instruction also needs to be made.

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Shadow of the Sombrero—1

Boris Johnson, back in the saddle for two weeks after three of learning first-hand what Covid-19 is all about, has just had the roughest 24 hours of his premiership. His first attempt to ease the lockdown has been widely lambssted as muddled, posing more questions than it answered and provoking negative briefings from loyal Tory backbenchers and cabinet colleagues alike. He appears, in he words of Blair’s former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, to be “running a campaign, not a crisis“,

The change of mantra from “stay at home” to “stay alert” represents slogans winning out over substance at Westminster. This goes much deeper than politics. True Kier Stalmer and all three devolved governments have dissociated themselves from this latest move. But when Unite’s Len McClusky sounds reasonable pleading for clarity so people can return to work and former government chief scientist David King questions whether science is driving such policies or scientists are being told what to advise, both objective soundness and consequential trust in it by the people seem under threat, Dominic Cummings attendance at SAGE meetings seems more than a straw in the wind.

From the start, Boris presented the lockdown as “flattening the sombrero”  and  thereby saving lives. What he was referring to was a chart of hospital admissions,, plotted day by day, would approximate a “Standard deviation Gaussian bell curve” This curves steep;y to a peak and down again, looking rather like a sombrero. Such a curve would be approximated  bt plotting infection versus over time without any medical intervention, as shown in Chart 1.


Chart 1—Active Covid Cases, Unimpeded

What Boris meant was that the number of people requiring hospitalisation at the peak would swamp NHS resources. Chart 1 suggests a peak of almost 8m in a UK population of  65m.Note that herd immunity means the epidemic would effectively over by September.

Avoiding such overwhelming case numbers requires a long-term strategy, in which a lockdown is just a part. Even today’s 50-page follow-up detail to Boris’ announcement does not provide it—even a Tory committee chairs admits:

“We need far deeper strategic thinking. Lockdown was never part of our plan for dealing with pandemics. If an academic had proposed it, he would have been peer-reviewed away from such a conclusion.”

Nobody doubts the difficulty facing the government, but a muddled launch, using graphics drawn as if by a five-year-old is disappointing,  giveb seven weeks of daily condescension which neither inspires the people with vision, nor treats them as adults.  A more plausible “squashed sombrero” is shown in Chart 2.


Chart 2—The Flattened Sombrero from Lockdown & Gradual Release

In this chart, a lockdown on March 23rd is presumed to pull the R factor from 3 down to below 1, causing a peak of 300,000 cases (the probable number in early May) and a subsequent decline with “wobbles” back above 1 as the lockdown is released in stages. Note, however, that the trade-off is that cases are still running over 20,000 a year from now and that any relaxation would rapidly develop another peak.

There are a number of key factors that have yet to be dealt with that any successful strategy that seeks to change Chart 1 into Chart 2 (or better). The principal ten are::

  1. There is currently no cure, nor likely to be one this year —possibly ever.
  2. Release from lockdown is reckless, without testing and tracing.
  3. The ‘R’ factor us key but only  guess without comprehensive testing and tracing.
  4. Far from being overwhelmed, the NHS is not being fully used when all Nightingale hospitals are empty and over 3,000 ICU beds are unused.
  5. “Flattening the sombrero” doesn’t reduce deaths; without antidote, it delays them.
  6. Throwing so many NHS resources at dealing with Covid-19 has curtailed many critical treatments and dissuaded others attending in fear of infection.
  7. Death rates have increased, roughly doubling from 48,000 to 78,000 per month. But only 24,000 are Covid-19-related, leaving 14,000 unexplained occurrences, many the result of 6 above. Above.
  8. Other countries may count differently but that’s no reason not to adopt the strategy from South Korea, New Zealand, Germany or Sweden who have successful ones.
  9. Treating 65m people as one bloc prevents huge geographic and demographic differences in infection rates and deaths being exploited to give faster release to some.
  10. Economic damage from dither is severe, is mounting and cannot be countered by furlough and loans that are neither sustainable, nor affordable.

Subsequent blogs will expand on these ten headings, with the hope of invigorating debate on this pivotal issue for our future. There are already alternate strategies to the shilpit apology for one emanating from Westminster. One of the more stimulating, if radical, is Ten Reasons to End the Lockdown Now, published in The Spectator.

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Uncle Sam’s Covid

whole and unabridged from the Irish Times, April 25, 2020, By Fintan O’Toole


Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the US until now: pity.

However bad things are for most other rich democracies, it is hard not to feel sorry for Americans. Most of them did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Yet they are locked down with a malignant narcissist who, instead of protecting his people from Covid-19, has amplified its lethality. The country Trump promised to make great again has never in its history seemed so pitiful.

Will American prestige ever recover from this shameful episode? The US went into the coronavirus crisis with immense advantages: precious weeks of warning about what was coming, the world’s best concentration of medical and scientific expertise, effectively limitless financial resources, a military complex with stunning logistical capacity and most of the world’s leading technology corporations. Yet it managed to make itself the global epicentre of the pandemic.

As the American writer George Packer puts it in the current edition of the Atlantic, “The United States reacted … like Pakistan or Belarus – like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.”

It is one thing to be powerless in the face of a natural disaster, quite another to watch vast power being squandered in real time – wilfully, malevolently, vindictively. It is one thing for governments to fail (as, in one degree or another, most governments did), quite another to watch a ruler and his supporters actively spread a deadly virus. Trump, his party and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News became vectors of the pestilence.

The grotesque spectacle of the president openly inciting people (some of them armed) to take to the streets to oppose the restrictions that save lives is the manifestation of a political death wish. What are supposed to be daily briefings on the crisis, demonstrative of national unity in the face of a shared challenge, have been used by Trump merely to sow confusion and division. They provide a recurring horror show in which all the neuroses that haunt the American subconscious dance naked on live TV.

If the plague is a test, its ruling political nexus ensured that the US would fail it at a terrible cost in human lives. In the process, the idea of the US as the world’s leading nation – an idea that has shaped the past century – has all but evaporated.

Other than the Trump impersonator Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, who is now looking to the US as the exemplar of anything other than what not to do? How many people in Düsseldorf or Dublin are wishing they lived in Detroit or Dallas?

It is hard to remember now but, even in 2017, when Trump took office, the conventional wisdom in the US was that the Republican Party and the broader framework of US political institutions would prevent him from doing too much damage. This was always a delusion, but the pandemic has exposed it in the most savage ways.

Abject surrender

What used to be called mainstream conservatism has not absorbed Trump – he has absorbed it. Almost the entire right-wing half of American politics has surrendered abjectly to him. It has sacrificed on the altar of wanton stupidity the most basic ideas of responsibility, care and even safety.

Thus, even at the very end of March, 15 Republican governors had failed to order people to stay at home or to close non-essential businesses. In Alabama, for example, it was not until April 3rd that governor Kay Ivey finally issued a stay-at-home order.

In Florida, the state with the highest concentration of elderly people with underlying conditions, governor Ron DeSantis, a Trump mini-me, kept the beach resorts open to students travelling from all over the US for spring break parties. Even on April 1st, when he issued restrictions, DeSantis exempted religious services and “recreational activities”.

Georgia governor Brian Kemp, when he finally issued a stay-at-home order on April 1st, explained: “We didn’t know that [the virus can be spread by people without symptoms] until the last 24 hours.”

This is not mere ignorance – it is deliberate and homicidal stupidity. There is, as the demonstrations this week in US cities have shown, plenty of political mileage in denying the reality of the pandemic. It is fuelled by Fox News and far-right internet sites, and it reaps for these politicians millions of dollars in donations, mostly (in an ugly irony) from older people who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

It draws on a concoction of conspiracy theories, hatred of science, paranoia about the “deep state” and religious providentialism (God will protect the good folks) that is now very deeply infused in the mindset of the American right.

Trump embodies and enacts this mindset, but he did not invent it. The US response to the coronavirus crisis has been paralysed by a contradiction that the Republicans have inserted into the heart of US democracy. On the one hand, they want to control all the levers of governmental power. On the other they have created a popular base by playing on the notion that government is innately evil and must not be trusted.

The contradiction was made manifest in two of Trump’s statements on the pandemic: on the one hand that he has “total authority”, and on the other that “I don’t take responsibility at all”. Caught between authoritarian and anarchic impulses, he is incapable of coherence.

Fertile ground

But this is not just Donald Trump. The crisis has shown definitively that Trump’s presidency is not an aberration. It has grown on soil long prepared to receive it. The monstrous blossoming of misrule has structure and purpose and strategy behind it.

There are very powerful interests who demand “freedom” in order to do as they like with the environment, society and the economy. They have infused a very large part of American culture with the belief that “freedom” is literally more important than life. My freedom to own assault weapons trumps your right not to get shot at school. Now, my freedom to go to the barber (“I Need a Haircut” read one banner this week in St Paul, Minnesota) trumps your need to avoid infection.

Usually when this kind of outlandish idiocy is displaying itself, there is the comforting thought that, if things were really serious, it would all stop. People would sober up. Instead, a large part of the US has hit the bottle even harder.

And the president, his party and their media allies keep supplying the drinks. There has been no moment of truth, no shock of realisation that the antics have to end. No one of any substance on the US right has stepped in to say: get a grip, people are dying here.

That is the mark of how deep the trouble is for the US – it is not just that Trump has treated the crisis merely as a way to feed tribal hatreds but that this behaviour has become normalised. When the freak show is live on TV every evening, and the star is boasting about his ratings, it is not really a freak show any more. For a very large and solid bloc of Americans, it is reality.

And this will get worse before it gets better. Trump has at least eight more months in power. In his inaugural address in 2017, he evoked “American carnage” and promised to make it stop. But now that the real carnage has arrived, he is revelling in it. He is in his element.

As things get worse, he will pump more hatred and falsehood, more death-wish defiance of reason and decency, into the groundwater. If a new administration succeeds him in 2021, it will have to clean up the toxic dump he leaves behind. If he is re-elected, toxicity will have become the lifeblood of American politics.

Either way, it will be a long time before the rest of the world can imagine America being great again.

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Arranging Deckchairs on the Pandemic

The story of 2020 so far has been dominated by Corovirus-19. Despite global efforts to the contrary, the balance of the year will be the same. This story has been full of heroic efforts by those on the medical and supply front line; stoic acceptance by the public of drastic measures and a government prepared to throw away the fiscal rule book after a decade of austerity. But has the focus been wise, let alone effective?

The priority of saving the NHS from being overwhelmed has dominated. Since this has (so far) been avoided, media have focused on supply of protective equipment and, more recently, to the overlooking of serious infection rates in vulnerable care homes. Daily briefings have tried to keep the debate on flattening infection rates, hospital admissions and death statistics by a stringent ‘lock down’ of all but essential services. A ‘task force” to look into PPE supplies has been set up under Lord Dayton.

In itself, this all seems laudable. But plans for ending the lock-down and any timing for life to return to normal have been absent. The government gives the impression of having been caught unaware and more concerned with remaining on top of things than appears to be the case, claiming to be guided by science and simply repeating a simplistic mantra for public consumption. By this approach, deaths are not avoided, just delayed. The resulting economic damage from a long delay will likely cause more deaths.

This is simply not good enough. But, rather than curse their darkness, such a threat to everyone requires that we light a candle to guide them.

Strategy Lockdown in three week periods is not a strategy to address what will be required to sustain people over a year of hardship.

The epidemic will be mastered only when an antidote is administered to most people or herd immunity having around 65% of the population infected then recovered. This will require massive testing and rigorous tracking, rather than wait for an antidote. Before anything else, the provision of PPE and testing should be made to all care homes.

Testing & Tracking Despite ambition to test 100,000 each day, this is unlikely to occur without draconian, wartime efforts:

  • A task force of science, manufacture and distribution experts with sweeping powers, reporting to the PM similar to Beaverbrook’s Ministry of Aircraft Production in WW2.
  • International co-operation in developing an effective antidote
  • Recruitment and organisation of relevant laboratories, pharmaceutical manufacturing and devolved distribution centres.
  • Development, distribution and enforcement of a phone app to track people who have been in contact with anyone tested as infected.
  • Much more pragmatic and honest public briefing on this plan, its realistic time scale and progress made to achieve it to keep people on-side,

Release from Lockdown Though no clear timetable will be possible before progress on first mass testing/tracking and then mass inoculation, nonetheless there must be a clear intention given on how the present necessary but unacceptable state of affairs will be moved towards a staged exit from lockdown. This should be in at least three stages, with release on multiple parameters:

  1. Red or Full lockdown (insufficient T&T)—essential services only; population indoors except for food & exercise.
  2. Orange or Serious (sufficient T&T; unlikely before June)—release of manufacturing, garden centres, DIY stores, takeaways that can keep social distance; release 18-35 year-old workers who live alone to return to work; restart creches, primary and nursery schools with half class sizes if social distance not possible under blanket testing, fully release pilot areas where access can be controlled entirely (Western Isles, Northern Isles, Anglesey, Isle of Wight)
  3. Yellow or Partial (widespread T&T; unlikely before September)—release small businesses that can test staff and keep social distance and agree staggered business hours to spread rush hour; restart secondary schools, colleges & universities with half class sizes if social distance not possible; release 18 to 35 year-old parents and couples to work where tasting is available and distance can be kept; allow small retail to re-open; release rural and isolated areas with low through traffic and high T&T ability.
  4. Green or Complete (universal T&T or vaccine; unlikely before December)—complete release of all areas, possibly in stages, dependent on on-going infection rates. Only at this stage would pubs, clubs, cafes, sports venues, theatres, cinemas and other events involving crowds be permissible. Transport would return to normal, except foreign travel, which would depend on the situation in other countries.

Such a template clearly requires research and refinement. But while all focus has been on the NHS, the economy has shrunk by a third. However generous government schemes may be, they can’t create consumer demand or international trade and travel. Each month in lockdown, increasing numbers and increasing size of businesses will go under, damaging business demand and supply and extending the period after we attain “Green” to years, not months. We are not entering a ‘V’-shaped recession of swift recovery. We are entering a full-blown depression on the scale of the 1930s. We need vision, guts and a plan to compare with Roosevelt’s New Deal to survive it.

Or we are just arranging deckchairs on the Pandemic while our future drowns.


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Compassion As Self-Harm

President Donald J. Trump and I have never seen eye-to-eye—a fact that distresses neither of us. This should not surprise readers of this blog. But that certainty shattered when he declared the Covid19 pandemic.

“…should last weeks, not months; the cure must not be made worse than the disease.”

For once, he may be right. Almost all other G20 governments disagree, largely on the advice of their highest medical authorities. In Britain, we have been bombarded by a mantra based on the simplistic “Get Brexit done” that won BoJo the December election:

  • Stay home
  • Protect the NHS
  • Save lives

The whole purpose of this “Slow” approach is to avoid a rapid rise in those infected and needing hospitalisation that might swamp limited NHS Intensive Care Units. The G20 nations that drive the world’s economy are taking draconian steps, similar to Britain, which prohibits movement, the lives of citizens and the economy on which prosperity rests,

The strategy of shutdown and isolation is presented as “squishing the sombrero”. i.e. making the graph of infections over time have less of a sharp peak. It is presented as our only chance.

But is it? It may slow the rate of infection but, without an antidote, the same number of people will be infected, only more slowly: the sombrero may get lower, but it gets squished wider by the same point. Are we—to be brutal—by being a bunch of softies actually creating hardship and misery for our global future?

Were this the 23rd century, with tedious production done by robots, we could each return to our 4-D hologram floatarium knowing our needs would be met and prosperity glide seamlessly onward. But we are all still living in the fiendishly interdependent 21st century, whose global economy underpins the affluence of 3 billion and is the aspiration of the other 5 billion.

Our parents and grandparents who lived through the first half of the 20th century learned to be tough, self-reliant and endure hardships of many kinds. They suffered two world wars, a stock market crash, the Depression, the flu epidemic of 1918, scant medical care, risible pensions and no social safety net to catch those who stumbled.

In contrast, those living through the last 70 years have, in the 1957 words of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan “never had it so good”. Longevity, affluence, education, health and quality of life have all shown steady rises. Instead of bicycling through the rain to long shifts in factories or down mines, we drive in cars to offices with swivel chairs and espresso machines. Instead of holidaying in Ayr or Arbroath by train, we fly to vacation in Tenerife or Tampa.

Comfort has become widespread, equality, wealth and service standards have risen, fostering expectation of further rights and entitlement. All this would astonish our frugal, modest, class-ridden forebears of a century ago. Instead of former deference to doctors, a significant number now seem to treat docties as garage mechanics for their bodies; We expect miracles. Modern media focuses on “human interest” stories as news. Politicians respond to such opportunities to present themselves as champions of such causes, while avoiding anything that smacks of unpopularity. Modern life may not be “nasty, brutal and short”, but few seem to appreciate just how fragile the complex modern society that fulfils our many expectations has become.

As long as the great majority prosper, such a culture is stable. But, with little folk memory of personal resilience in the face of hardship (often referred to as “The Dunkirk Spirit”), what happens when the rigours of 1918 or 1929 or 1940 suddenly shock us all?

Such as now.

The Covid19 virus threatens the civilisation we enjoy much more than anything else since WW2. The Cold War, the 1970s slump, Black Monday, the 2008 bank crisis—all are trivial compared to this. By responding to squeamish sensitivities of modern society, have the UK and other governments made this shock worse than the “” approach of letting it run its course and get it over with?

We are not used to losing “loved ones”, except by natural causes. The NHS is our bulwark to prevent this. Our lockdown strategy is on the highest medical advice, given by doctors who have sworn a Hippocratic Oath to preserve life. Politicians wish to be seen to support this. But does this “Slow” strategy of compassion actually preserve lives in the long run?

Trump’s point is: if the cure is to lock down everyone, this may “squish the sombrero”, slowing the spread of those infected. Covid19’s fatality rate is 1%, highly concentrated among the elderly, those with respiratory disease or a weakened immune system. In Britain, that describes about 1,700,000 people. Of deaths recorded so far, roughly 2/3rds were expected to die within the next year from other causes, most being from those vulnerable categories.

Nobody wants to lose family or friends. With no vaccine against Covid19, nor any likely within a year, fatalities among the vulnerable will be severe, whether hospitalised or not.. Even with global travel curtailed and most people staying at home, the virus will spread most places within a year anyway, Essential services, food shopping and people ignoring isolation is still enough to spread infection among the population within a year. Based on statistics from Italy that the vulnerable who catch a severe case seldom recover because all hospitals can do is keep them breathing, lockdown simply delays the point at which hospitals are overwhelmed. The same number of people will die, just later. Once roughly 2/3rds of the population have caught it and survived, the immunity this confers will end the spread by so-called “herd immunity”.

At that point, 1.2m (2/3rds of the vulnerable 1.7m) will have caught the virus, with 80% recovering without hospitalisation and 240,000 requiring hospitalisation. As many as 200,000 of those will die. But 2/3rds of those would have died within a year from their vulnerabilities, leaving 66,000 extra deaths from the virus itself. Assuming 42m (2/3reds of 63,) will be exposed to reach herd immunity, and taking the German 0.4% fatality rate for non-vulnerable gives 168,000 Covid19-related deaths in the rest of the population. Tragic and severe as 243,000 additional deaths appear, this is one third of the 595,000 people who die from all causes in Britain each year—or about 1 in 300 people.

In other words, deaths will rise by a third for one year to 1.2% of the population, rather than 0.9%. All that lockdown will do is make this happen more slowly.

But the ‘Fast” and ‘Slow’ strategies do not result in equivalent outcomes. The fast approach lets the virus run rampant. 44m could get sick, 12m seriously, of which 0.6m would die within weeks. Bit it would soon be over. Though our economy would go into recession as people were sick and purchase less, by summer, the herd effect would have taken over and recovery both physically and economically would follow by autumn. This is the strategy chosen by South Korea, Singapore and Sweden, of which our media tells us little.

But we have chosen the ‘Slow’ approach. Hospitals in London are already close to overwhelmed, production is down by 13%. Airlines, catering, hospitality, retail, tradesmen, etc. are all shut down. Our £50bn car industry is at a standstill. The stock market has dropped 28%. The £ sterling is worth $1.15. This, after one month, with most of a year to go.

It doesn’t matter how profligate the Chancellor is to keep the economy afloat. People were already financially stretched. HMRC was already understaffed and will not move fast enough to stop businesses and families going under. Shell-shocked consumers will run scared for some time. Any recovery will be long and slow.

Worse than that, those hit hardest will be those on the margins, in service industries, on zero-hours contracts. The rescue package deferred mortgage, rent, VAT, etc. payment; it did not cancel them. So, we are likely to see a lot more poor, a bigger income gap, and more social isolation, unrest, or even deaths. And such will not be over by this time next year.

Such internal distress in Britain will absorb us just at a time when an international outlook will be most needed. For, if Britain stumbles into such a trap of economic self-harm, the Third World will run in full tilt.

If the NHS is unable to cope with even a flattened sombrero, what will it be like when health systems scarcely exist and people living on top of one another cannot isolate? Brazil’s 210m, India’s 1,349m, Nigeria’s 204m, Indonesia’s 263m all include unsanitary slums surrounding their cities where virus can spread like wildfire and medical help does not exist. Once Covid19 takes a hold there, the travails of our 600,000 extra British losses will be swamped by an epidemic surpassing the Spanish Flu.

Our media has forgotten about Idlib province, about the war in Yemen, about mass drowning of refugees in the Aegean while they recite fatalities that will seem trivial when frustration breaks into rioting in the favelas of Sao Paulo or Dharavi in Mumbai.

Is the UK Government hiding behind medical excuses to pander to public sensitivities that we can’t afford? Not only is a recession now inevitable, but a full-scale depression (GDP falling by more than 10% is now on the cards. Dropping interest rates or giving people money had little effect when people can’t spend it. And if, as seems likely, the lockdown lasts most of this year, so many businesses will go to the wall that the much-touted ‘V’ shaped recession is unlikely and recovery slow and painful under the burden of massive government debt from their giveaways.

Many will die in developing countries because we are in no position to help, as we will have to support massive unemployment, poverty and social unrest among our own citizens.

Which a Fast strategy might have avoided.

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