91-Divoc: The UK Has It Backward

The furore over quarantine for all passengers in flights from Spain sprung on hapless vacationers on July 26th seems not just ill-timed but ill-judged. If, as the UK Government claims their sole concern is ensuring the health of British citizens, they seem to have this , as the Americans say, “bass ackwards” .If they are indeed”following the science” to achieve this,, why aren’t they following the facts?

  • Daily average Covid cases in the Balearics: 1 =  0.9 per million inhabitants
  • Daily average Covid cases in the Canaries: 7 =  3.3 per million inhabitants
  • Daily average Covid cases, in Britain: 741 =  10.5 per million inhabitants

So, in its  concern for its citizens, does the UK Government not have things backward? Should it not be encouraging folk to vacation on the Spanish islands, where they would be between 3 and 11 times safer than staying at home? Travel firms, airlines and desperate Spanish hospitality businesses would all benefit.

Moreover, since they have had to borrow a stiff £180,000,000,000 already to deal with the 300,000 UK cases, the Government could afford to subsidise each citizen who avoided UK Covid by vacationing on the Spanish islands to the tune of £1,000 each—and still come out £599,000 ahead on each deal.


Posted in Politics, Transport | Tagged | 6 Comments

Nippy Sweetie’s Nifty Fifty

July is an intense month for dates ready-registered in your e-diary. From American independence (4th) through Battle of the Boyne (12th_ to Bastille Day (14th) and even the Plot to Assassinate Hitler (20th). Today (19th) is something of a non-day, with not much to celebrate. But that will change.
Because today is Nicola Sturgeon’s 50th birthday and she stands on the verge of achieving the goal to which she has dedicated her life: Independence for Scotland. Regular readers will know this reporter shares that goal, and might comment “he would say that, wouldn’t he?” But there is more to the assertion that that. For the first time ever, objective and even unionist scribes are sharing that view. It is not just veteran political observers like Ian MacWhirter, but respected academics like Professor. John Curtice and equally respected card-carrying sceptics like the Spectator‘s Fraser Nelson and Alex Massie.
In the barrage of issues that have charaterised the five months of Covid hogging the media spotlight so much that even the previous blitz of Brexit news has struggled for air time, a steady drift of public opinion in Scotland has gone largely unreported. This has been further muffled by a tendency—especially in the BBC—to talk of the success in the battle against the virus as being comparable between Scotland and England. When differences are mentioned, it tends to be assertion that care home deaths have been higher in Scotland. Much of the coverage blurs the distinction between UK and England. Even social media has missed what is going on, as evidenced by this:


Nicola is absent from the second group. She deserves to be there. While UK media was trying to follow Boris’ administration bumbling England into the mody disorganised Covid handling in Europe, Nicola, after a bad start from following England, built a strategy, explained progress against it in front of the cameras herself, bringing the death rate down to single digits a week while England’s is still in the hundreds.

While British media may not have clocked this, the Scottish people have.  There is a UK poll on net approval rating done by YouGov that puts Boris at -4, compared to Nicola at -22. But a similar poll of Scots only, done by the Scotsman has Boris a -25, while Nicola romped home at +74.  This is going unreported.

Dealing with Covid dominates politics both sides of the border. Leadership shown in it is crucial and will influence Scottish Parliament elections, due in just over nine months . Ruth Davidson brought Scottish Tories back from the brink because she exuded competence. Her charisma reached beyond the Tory faithful. Jackson Carlaw lacks her breadth of appeal. Alex Massie has described him as “the kind of Tory you would find propping up a golf club bar in Newton Mearns”. Cutting and slightly unfair as this may be, it underscores the problems oppositions to Nicola’s SNP face next May.

If they contest the election on the union—their raison d’etre, Nicola will regard it a pre-referendum to justify a real one, The old argument that Scotland’s too poor can’t hold water, with UK debt at an unaffordable £2 trillion and climbing. She would be likely to win the election, make an undeniable case for and likely win “Indyref 2”. If the Tories fight on the SNP government performance on domestic issues, on which they have been lacklustre, that may be dismissed. Nicola remains popular, despite this,

People saw Boris as a shoddy journalist, a mediocre London mayor, a bumbling foreign secretary and a Brexiteer who fudged his facts. But his simple message, high recognition and ebullience won him a solid majority. Nicola is on track to do more than emulate him.

Even allowing for six months of wrangling,  referendum within two years and the actual separation within two more, this could make Nicola—provided the SNP won the first independence general election—Prime Minister before she was 55. Having clocked a decade leading the SNP at that point, it is unlikely she would serve another decade to full retirement. SO when she steps down in, say, 2028, don’t be surprised if July 19th becomes a national holiday.

Nicola came into Scottish politics when Labour dominated it but could do nothing against Thatcher with their ‘feeble fifty” MPs. My first sight of Nicola was at the 1993 SNP conference at Dunoon when, as a firebrand of the Young Scots for Independence, she railed against  Tory colonial rule , Trident on the Clyde and the poll tax. The SNP had just lost Govab…for a second time. She made it hers, fought it four times before she won and has held it since,

Clunking into National Executive meetings in sober suits and fashionable shoes, she does not exude Salmond’s lad o’ pairts bonhomie, nor John Swinney;s bookish earnestness but has presence. When she speaks, it is quietly forceful and well reasoned. She may not laugh as readily as her former Provost mother Joan, which has helped build her ‘nippy-sweetie’ moniker. But her humour is subtle and keeps a balanced view of herself

She would be successful even if husband Peter Murell did not run the party back office as Chief Executive. He is no Dominic Cummings, but that is a good thing. Let Boris and Dominic play fast and loose with a cranky and vulnerable English constitution. Nicola eschews such bluster, is ambitious for her country more than herself and is tough enough and smart enough to be awarded a holiday on her birthday.

It will be well earned.


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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 support.it 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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