Archive for the 'General' Category


65 years of Tory Prime Ministers – their educational backgrounds

Thursday, July 30th, 2020

And EVERY LAB winner of a general election majority winner went to Oxford

One of my little obsessions over the years has been the very narrow base from which political leaders come from in the UK. The table above shows the educational backgrounds of every Tory PM since Churchill stood aside in 1955 and as can be seen all but one of them went to Oxford – the exception being John Major who did not go to university.

Labour doesn’t do any better. Only three leaders have ever led their party to general election majorities and all of them went to Oxford. There was Attlee at GE1945 and GE1950, Wilson GE1964, GE1966, GE1974 Oct and of course Tony Blair at GE1997, GE2001 and GE2005.

Keir Starmer went to Leeds University but did a post-grad degree at Oxford.

Non-Grad James Callaghan lost to the Tories at GE1979. Gordon Brown who was LAB leader from 2007-2010 did not go to Oxford but never won a general election.

The extraordinary thing is that the last CON PM who didn’t go to Oxford was Baldwin at GE1935. The nearest the light blues have got to Number 10 in recent times was Cambridge grad Michael Howard who lost to Tony Blair at GE2005.

Will this trend continue?

Mike Smithson


Privileged lives matter: the British opponents of cancel culture and their very debatable motives

Sunday, July 19th, 2020

Isn’t it a disgrace that you can’t express all your half-baked saloon bar prejudices without someone wanting to make a deal out of it? This is not the way that the self-declared opponents of cancel culture put their case of course, but then, they are being pretty incoherent.

Let me help Sarah Vine and Adam Boulton, though both of them really should know better, being eminent political journalists and all that. A libertarian approach to this question would run as follows. Anyone could say whatever they liked. Any employer could sack any employee for whatever reason it chose, including whatever he or she might have said in the past. And anyone else could either lobby the employer to sack the employee or boycott the employer for having sacked the employee.

This is pretty much the system that operates in the USA. It has much to commend it as a system, but it has to be accepted that it has led to some ferocious culture wars. Off the back of a similar imagined threat, Toby Young has set up something that he grandly calls the Free Speech Union, supposedly offering to protect the livelihoods of those who come under similar attacks here.

There are Indian street hawkers who buy tattered banknotes for a discount off the naive who don’t realise that they retain their full face value. The Free Speech Union appears to be pulling a similar stunt.

Because this is not America. The employment relationship in the UK is highly regulated and the UK is separately subject to human rights legislation (though since the shrillest opponents of what they deem to be cancel culture are all on the reactionary right, it’s no surprise that they don’t advertise the way in which this helps them). Employers can’t just channel the spirit of Ayn Rand and dismiss employees. The employment tribunal awaits such cavalier employers. It would not deal with them kindly.

Dismissed employees can claim unfair dismissal in relation to either the process or the substantive reason for their sacking. The list of fair reasons is finite and short, and the only one that could normally apply is “some other substantial reason”.

Following a case in the European Court of Human Rights in 2012, the ECHR made it clear that a proper balancing act would need to be carried out that fully weighed the right to freedom of speech. It’s worth noting that the case, Redfearn v UK, was a pretty unattractive case. Mr Redfearn was a bus driver for SERCO. He was also a member of the BNP. 70-80 percent of SERCO’s customer base and 35 percent of its workforce were of Asian origin. Mr Redfearn was elected as a local councillor for the BNP, following which SERCO summarily dismissed him.  

The ECHR by a majority held that the British government had, by limiting claims of unfair dismissal to those who had served a qualifying period of employment, failed to protect Mr Redfearn’s right to freedom of association in its employment law protections (It did not need to decide whether his right to freedom of speech had similarly been breached, but it seems apparent that its logic would have been identical if it had). Its starting point was “there is also a positive obligation on the authorities to provide protection against dismissal by private employers where the dismissal is motivated solely by the fact that an employee belongs to a particular political party”. The essential part of its decision was as follows:

“Even if the Court were to acknowledge the legitimacy of Serco’s interest in dismissing the applicant from its workforce having regard to the nature of his political beliefs, the policies pursued by the BNP and his public identification with those policies through his election as a councillor, the fact remains that Article 11 is applicable not only to persons or associations whose views are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also those whose views offend, shock or disturb… For the Court, what is decisive in such cases is that the domestic courts or tribunals be allowed to pronounce on whether or not, in the circumstances of a particular case, the interests of the employer should prevail over the Article 11 rights asserted by the employee, regardless of the length of the latter’s period of employment.”

In other words, it will be unfair dismissal unless the employer has such a substantial reason that the desirability of protecting the employee’s human right to free expression is overridden. That is a pretty high bar.  

In reality, most employers are not going to be interested anyway. If you’re otherwise adequate at your job and you haven’t got the company’s three main clients on the phone screaming blue murder, why would they care? I mean, really? Most of you can carry on tweeting to your 803 followers, secure that you aren’t going to bring the temple down on your own head.

The Free Speech Union has been going for quite long enough for its founders to be fully aware of all this. So why are they screeching ever louder? Sherlock Holmes would deduce that this bell-pull was a rope. It certainly doesn’t seem to be for its stated aim. 

The most public sacking for political views in the last few months was of a Labour mayor who expressed the (extremely tasteless) view that Boris Johnson deserved to get coronavirus. The Free Speech Union was apparently mute when her employer dispensed with her services. Only some free speech matters, it seems.

Entry level cynics would assume that it was merely a star vehicle for Toby Young. That seems too guileless to me. There is a much bigger play going on here. What’s really concerning this army of eminent journalists, who are in absolutely no danger of losing their jobs, is that to date they have formed part of an elite that determines the range of acceptable views. For the first time, they’re being bypassed. Worse, they and some of their chums in the public eye are being directly challenged.

They don’t like that. They’ve become accustomed to being opinion-formers.  They’re not ready to become opinion-takers. So, in a cowardy-custard last stand, they’re affecting concern for the little people at supposed risk when expressing their views.

It won’t wash. First, the little people who are actually losing their jobs for expressing their views are conspicuously few in number and that number is not obviously growing. Secondly, it’s hardly a new problem (but these commentators were apparently entirely unconcerned when it was ethical vegans, loony lefties, CND-supporters and gay rights activists whose employment was threatened in previous generations). And thirdly, as a matter of simple observation, the ability of little people to express their views and to communicate them to a wider world, no matter how crazed, outré or offensive those views might be, has never been greater.

So the commentariat need to stop using the general public as human shields to avoid accountability. This whole fake row is simply a sign that the great and the good of the fourth estate feel the hot breath of an articulate and newly-empowered public on their necks.  Good.

Alastair Meeks


Rewards for Failure

Tuesday, June 16th, 2020

John Bercow, Tom Watson and Karie Murphy should be feeling quite aggrieved, having apparently been blackballed from receiving peerages because of ongoing investigations into allegations about past behaviour. What is this novel concept of holding people accountable for their actions? It hasn’t been like this for ages – ever since lying, lustful Profumo went into the library with the metaphorical whisky and revolver. Soo unfair!

Consider: Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner in charge when the Met made a fool of itself over the Carl Beech affair (in which Watson played a critical role), and for which he (and Watson) eventually apologised. He was in charge when this misconceived investigation happened, misconceived not just because the accuser turned out to be a lying paedophile (a fact which might have been ascertained sooner had the police bothered inspecting his computer) but because it showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the burden of proof and the nature of a criminal investigation. Pretty serious errors, one might have thought. These were not the only problems during his time in charge: his force’s treatment of journalists does not bear close examination (50 arrests, 3 convictions, the misuse of anti-terror legislation to obtain journalists’ sources and hack their calls). Nor did its treatment of mentally disabled people under arrest, where again he refused to apologise until forced to (though action was later taken to improve matters).

His reward? Elevation to the Lords and now a job as a non-executive Board Member to the Cabinet Office, on the audit and risk committee no less. What is he expected to do? Bring his “wealth of experience and expertise” to help “focus on the Government’s priorities” apparently. Just to remind you, these are: “responding to the coronavirus pandemic, preparing for the end of the EU exit transition period on 31 December 2020, strengthening the integrity of the Union, and improving the efficiency of the public sector.” All going swimmingly no doubt.

Whatever else he has been doing, he forgot to tell his successor, Cressida Dick, that having scores of policemen lined up close together on Westminster Bridge (along with others) applauding the NHS was perhaps not the most sensible approach to risk in the middle of a pandemic and in defiance of the government’s guidelines and rules. Still, Cressida has been almost as lucky as Bernard. Being in charge when an innocent Brazilian was shot dead is no bar to promotion to the top job, it seems.

Example 2: Chris Grayling, whose longevity as a Minister is simply unfathomable. Some Ministers achieve nothing. Others fail to do stuff that needs doing. Others preside over problems and disasters, not all of them of their own making. Yet others achieve changes which more or less work. Grayling is in a class of his own. Pretty much every change he made in Justice and Transport has been disastrous (the privatisation of the Probation Service, now reversed), ill-considered (pretty much everything at Justice), unkind (the ban on books for prisoners) or has cost the taxpayer money (Seaborne Freight and Eurotunnel). Most of them have had to be undone in pretty short order, those that weren’t declared illegal, that is. If Grayling were a dog being shown at Crufts, his owner would be running after him with a poop scoop while simultaneously trying to relay the carpet that his hound was chewing up on his way to the podium.

This record has resulted in him being nominated to chair the Commons’ Intelligence and Security Committee (yet to meet some six months after the election and despite some obvious issues for it to review – China, for instance) and to become a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery. Why?

Think the private sector is better? Think again. A CEO of a major European investment bank, under whose leadership the bank became the object of the UK’s biggest fraud by one of its traders and was heavily fined for its activities in the Libor-fixing and FX-rigging scandals (ca. $1.8 billion) would, you’d have thought, counted himself lucky to be allowed to fold his tent and creep off into the night. No. Both German and British regulators thought him suitable to be in charge of the proposed merged London and German stock exchange. (Stock exchanges are not simply businesses; they also have a regulatory function, something you’d hope the Boards and regulators would bear in mind when making and approving appointments.) Fortunately – in this case anyway – Brexit happened, the proposed merger collapsed and the CEO resigned. (The coda to this was the three-year investigation by German prosecutors into dealing by the CEO in the exchange’s shares, all eventually resolved with a fine for the exchange and repayment of €4.8 million by the CEO.) Such a bother for all concerned! Was there really no-one else available? The CEO is now chairing another FCA-regulated asset management firm and on the Board of a US wealth management company. Remember this when regulators tell you they have learnt lessons and the financial sector’s culture has improved.

So we come to the Post Office, its disastrous Horizon accounting system and the ca. 900 sub-postmasters hounded out of their jobs, prosecuted or made bankrupt as a result of Post Office management being unable or unwilling to entertain the possibility that its IT system was not fit for purpose, followed by years of denial (and worse). It is an astonishing scandal which went on for years from 2000 onwards, in part because of senior management’s refusal to realise that it had an issue or, once realised, to deal with it effectively. So blatant was this, that in his judgment last December, Mr Justice Fraser described the organisation’s approach as “institutional obstinacy” amounting to “denials that ignore what has actually occurred…….It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat.”Oof!

So what happened to the CEO in charge between 2012 – 2019? One Paula Vennalls, an Anglican priest as well as businesswoman (Paul Flowers – remember his inglorious period at the Co-op Bank – waves hello). She left (having earned £4.9 million during her time as CEO), got a CBE for services to the Post Office, a non-executive post with the Cabinet office (now rescinded) and sits on various other Boards. Is this entirely fitting for the person who for 7 years presided over behaviour which was last week described in the Commons by MPs as leading to “one of the largest miscarriages of justice in the UK’s history”?

What will it take for those in leadership positions to realise that being a leader is not about taking the money and the glory, not about using one position to lever yourself into other lucrative, high profile positions, not about walking away with a mealy-mouthed apology or self-exculpatory explanation but about taking responsibility for what happens when you are in charge?

For all the management books, courses, training, policies and procedures which infest corporate and public life these days, too many people in positions of responsibility behave as if they do not understand this fundamental fact. Too many behave like small children coming up with implausible stories for why their behaviour should be excused. Or think that somehow it has nothing to do with them. Too many don’t care because they know they will be indulged and get their sweeties no matter what. We wonder why the performance of so many of our institutions and services and companies is really rather mediocre. Is this any surprise when the tone from the top is, too often, “nothing to do with me” and “let me get out while the going’s good”?

There has been much talk lately of why we should not honour bad people from the 18th century because our values are better now. Quite right. But we have not moved on quite as much as we might think. The way those at the top seem to move smoothly from sinecure to sinecure, being showered with baubles en route, certainly has an 18th century vibe. Perhaps we could adopt another 18th century practice and sack – rather than reward – a few of these poor performers pour encourager les autres?



Weeping angels. On moving statues

Wednesday, June 10th, 2020

“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley

Far in the south of Vietnam lies the city of Can Tho, sitting near the mouth of the Mekong delta, the muddy brown waters of that majestic river washing past a hot humid city.  Once a sleepy river port, Can Tho is now a fast-growing city of over a million people, the fourth largest city in Vietnam.  On the banks of the Mekong, right in the heart of the city, a mighty golden statue of Ho Chi Minh towers over it.  This statue, the tallest statue of Ho Chi Minh anywhere in the world, tells the city that was the last to surrender to the Viet Cong exactly who is in charge.

Statues are intensely political symbols.  They are designed to be permanent statements to the people of authority and values.  Forever, is, as Prince wisely observed, a mighty long time.  That means that you either need to be very sure that your power is going to be permanent or that your statement is going to be permanently accepted, or at least acceptable, if you want your statue to stay up indefinitely.

All around the world you can find the traces of toppled statues.  A statue of George III was pulled off its pedestal in Manhattan in 1776.  The Bolsheviks destroyed the monument to Alexander II in 1918.  Salazar’s statue in the city of his birth was blown up with dynamite in Portugal in 1974.  The Taliban destroyed statues of Buddha in 2001.  Saddam Hussein’s statue was torn down in 2003. Cecil Rhodes fell in Cape Town in 2015.  In each case, opponents had achieved sufficient power to clear the hated icon from public space.

Pulling down statues is often not conducted by public vote, but by brute force or mob rule.  Why is this?  Statues are designed to be permanent. Public spaces are the responsibility of public authorities.  Public authorities operate within the orthodoxy in which that assumed permanence was established.  It is relatively rare for public authorities to shift so dramatically in their points of view that they abandon allegiance to a previously-held orthodoxy without a discontinuity in the powerbase of that authority.  In other words, if a new political force has not swept to power at an election (or by other means), any action taken in relation to statues is going to have been taken on an impromptu basis – ie by a mob.

So what we saw in Bristol is, in the context of statue-toppling, pretty normal.  It’s also a sign that something has gone very wrong.  For it shows that Bristol has been unable to reach an accommodation that satisfies a broad consensus of its civic society sufficiently to deal with the matter in an orderly way.  This assault on the statue of Edward Colston did not come from a clear blue sky: there had been a long-standing campaign against it, to which the city authorities had paid little regard.  

There was absolutely no sign of any meaningful attempt to address the reasoned concerns of campaigners, or even to give reasoned objections.  There had been discussion about updating the inscription on the statue, but even this modest step had been stymied.  The Monument, when erected, was inscribed with an anti-Catholic conspiracy theory.  This was chiselled out in 1830, following Catholic emancipation.  But Bristol in 2020 was not as able to move with the times as 19th century London.

If the statue had not been tossed in the water this week, it would probably have stood there indefinitely.  You might well think such direct action is not just unlawful, but wrong.  But if, as the protesters no doubt sincerely believed, the statue was a standing affront that was not going to be dealt with, this was an opportunity too good to be missed.  If not then, when?

In a democracy with a complex and long past, how should we approach our civic public statements?  We need to differentiate between what is already installed and what is under consideration.  Public sculptures under consideration should at the very least command the acceptance of a broad section of the public and not be actively offensive to a substantial minority.  This is not a difficult test, though it risks blandness or a retreat into meaningless abstraction.  The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square has been successful precisely because it has been able to confront public perceptions for short periods.  There is much to be said for impermanent public art.

Meanwhile, Britain is already strewn with public statuary erected to figures distinguished, undistinguished and sometimes completely forgotten, of varying qualities of artistic merit.  Much of it spoke to a Britain that long since vanished.  The great age of statue-erecting in Britain was the late nineteenth century.  Empire was something that Britain’s inhabitants did, not something that was done to them.  Many of those honoured then would nowadays struggle to pass vetting for a UKIP parliamentary candidacy.

What test should we apply when deciding which statues we should retain?  I suggest that the test we should apply is whether someone’s fame is directly derived from what we now regard as crimes or whether their crimes are merely incidental to their achievements.  Heroes may have feet of clay.  They cannot be corrupt to the core.

Applying this test to some of the statues argued about this week, Rhodes must fall and Clive’s statue should be moved, but Churchill, Nelson and Earl Grey would all survive.  Cromwell and Smuts would need to be argued over carefully.  Cromwell would perhaps appreciate the irony, given his own rule coincided with England’s most intense period of statue-destruction.  At least we should be able to move the most controversial statues to designated parks and museums where their historical context could be considered coolly.

Curiously, one man who would probably have been satisfied with his fall from his pedestal was Edward Colston himself.  In his will he had stated that he wished to be buried simply without pomp.  He shared this wish in common with Ho Chi Minh, who also did not want any statue erected of himself.  One day, no doubt, Uncle Ho will get his wish too.  The dead should be left to rest in peace.

Alastair Meeks


Can You Guess Which Country It is Yet?

Monday, April 27th, 2020

It is not as obvious as it seems

Imagine a European country. A militarily successful one. One which, however annoying – and, oh, did it make a nuisance of itself in many varied ways – could not be ignored. One led by a self-regarding, popular leader (with a penchant for mistresses) around whom government revolved. A leader who, after a period of stasis, took action, to the delight of those around him. A leader who seemed set fair to revive the country’s fortunes.

A country which decided to revoke a Treaty which had been around for decades, entered into after a period of vicious communal in-fighting. This decision, taken in order to revive and enhance the country’s fortunes, caused consternation both inside and outside the country and damaged its reputation in the eyes of some. Other countries felt that the leadership could not be trusted. Generations who had been taught – and felt – that diverse communities could live side by side now felt unwanted and insecure. Many skilled workers left and fled to other more welcoming countries, to their enduring benefit and a loss for the country they left.

Not long after these events this country faced serious opposition from a league of other European countries. It fatally underestimated this league and what it could or would do. It imagined that its members would fall into disunity. It disregarded the ambitions and determination of a near neighbour. This underestimation has been described by historians as its greatest geopolitical failure in its history. (Strong words, indeed, when you think what happened next.)

Around the same time, a natural disaster befell this country. About 1.5 million people died of disease and starvation. Circa 600,000 died in a second wave. There was an economic crisis: few were producing, few were consuming, few were paying tax.

Over time the country fell into decline. The leadership’s natural supporters no longer felt quite so enamoured of those who governed them. When the leadership’s fall came, it was sudden and brutal. Eventually, the country was eclipsed by its close neighbour.

Go on. Admit it. You thought I was describing Brexit Britain and its future. But no. Look no further than Louis XIV, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the flight of the Huguenots, the two Grandes Famines of the 1690’s and 1710’s and their short and long-term consequences.

Still, as the French might say: “Plus ça change…..”.



Amber Warnings – What might be the signals that all is not well in a democracy?

Thursday, March 12th, 2020

How much should we be concerned about extremism?

Just as it is easy to be complacent about a country’s immunity to extremism (“If it didn’t happen before, it won’t happen now”), it is all too easy for any suggested change to the existing constitutional or political set up to be described as the first step towards whichever form of extremism most worries the commentator, especially if from a political opponent. 

This focus on who is behind a proposal – rather than on what it is – is itself an example of a worrying personalisation of politics, as if the value of policies is only dependant on who supports them rather than on anything intrinsic. It is suggestive of a potentially dangerous flight from any sort of grounded principles against which ideas can be tested. If the only real test becomes “My side right, yours wrong” how can anything be sensibly judged? 

It is worth remembering that change, per se, is not a bad thing. If voters are dissatisfied, that dissatisfaction should be addressed, not ignored. Describing an attempt to respond to such concerns as populism, as if this were a complete answer, is lazy. Some level of popularity with the voting public is surely essential in a democracy. The concerns arise when other factors are present:-

  • People feeling that they are no longer top dog, as they should be, or are unnecessarily restricted in some way and seeking something or someone to blame.
  • Politicians promoting the “X is to blame” narrative rather than explaining what the causes are, why they may be a little more complicated and not so easily solved as voters – or politicians would like voters to – think.
  • A refusal to acknowledge the complexities of, or trade-offs required by, any solutions or, indeed, that there may be no easy, quick or cost-free solutions.
  • Impatience with any difficulties or restraints and a wish to remove obstacles. This can be admirable, indeed essential, inertia always being easier than action. It’s when it develops into a refusal to listen to any sort of advice or alternative views or even to admit to the possibility of compromise that it risks becoming dangerous. Developing a healthy balance between fresh thinking and a “can do” approach and listening to experience, advice and knowledge is one of the hardest tasks for governments. When talk turns to “traitors”, “quislings”, “saboteurs”, “Enemies of the People or “enemies within” that balance has been lost.
  • A tendency to fetishise “The People”, their “Willthe “People’s Government”. Or to see one party as their one and only true representative, a tendency going back to the 1994 Labour manifesto describing Labour as “the political arm of none other than the British people as a whole”.
  • It is often accompanied by admiration for a strong decisive leader, whose record, instincts or behaviours (however doubtful) must not be questioned. It is an understandable reaction to weak leadership. Even so, the indispensability of individual leaders – as opposed to good leadership – is overrated.
  • An unwillingness to tolerate any sort of dissent or divergence of view, either within parties or more widely. Diversity – at least of opinion and perspective (in truth, the only kind worth valuing) – is not valued at all in reality.  

Crucially, there seems much more willingness to believe that the end justifies the means. Look at the way there is a blind eye to behaviour from the side a politician/commentator/voter supports that would be severely criticised were it done by – or even alleged against – a political opponent. See, for instance, the different reactions to bullying allegations against John Bercow and Priti Patel. The one step which might shed some light on matters – investigation – is all but ignored. Culpability or otherwise is less important than the level of support a politician has and the importance of the work they are doing. Indispensability not integrity matters. Principles or any over-arching moral framework thus become expendable or endlessly elastic.

The best – and most alarming example of this – was the manner in which Labour succumbed to the virus of anti-semitism in a very short time frame, despite – or perhaps because of – its conviction that it was a moral, anti-racist and therefore “good” party. Having satisfied itself of its impeccably anti-racist position, it felt no need to ask itself any questions about the leader it elected, the people he attracted, those he made his closest advisors and why, despite his repeated claims to be doing so, he was unable to deal with the issue. The default instinct was to attack those who pointed this out, describe the concerns as smears and generally behave like an aggrieved victim. Corbyn is on his way out but his time as leader is an example of how easily apparently important and long-held principles can be abandoned, especially when hatred and defeat of some Other (the Tories, in this case) is all that matters. 

This is not just a lesson for Labour. It is a lesson for voters too. Over 10 million of them rationalised away any queasiness they may have felt and voted for a party which shares the unenviable claim of being, like the neo-Nazi BNP, investigated by the EHRC for anti-semitism and institutional racism. This was not a deal-breaker. 

If this can happen to a party of government, it can happen to the country. We cannot say with confidence that Britain has some sort of innate antipathy to extremism or hatred of minorities. And note one other lesson: when the EHRC inquiry was announced, some in Labour questioned whether the EHRC’s role should be reviewed. How telling. Attack the very concept of being judged by an independent body. How like the response of the government to court judgments which limited what it can do. The reaction was not to reflect on why they were in such a position but to attack any body which dared question their behaviour. Judges ruling on the law, the sole purpose of a judge, was repurposed as “judicial activism”, sounding altogether more sinister and therefore to be stopped or limited. 

It is time to be wary when those in power – or wanting it – seek to restrict any sort of external scrutiny, whether by the press or the people through the courts. If governments cannot be trusted to obey the law or think they should be above it or make it practically more difficult to challenge them, it is worth asking why they are doing this and what it means for us and our rights. How will these be protected? And by whom?



Political rights and wrongs

Wednesday, March 11th, 2020

Worrying signs of moves towards illiberalism

Opposition parties often complain about the unfairness of the rules of the political game. Until they win a majority. Even the Tories have sung this song. Given their attachment to FPTP – which has delivered Tory governments for 45 out of the last 75 years – they have presented self-interest in more technical (unfair boundaries) or high-flown terms. It was Lord Hailsham who popularised the phrase “elective dictatorship” to describe the ability of a government with a Commons majority to pass laws without having a wide enough support in the country (“wide enough support” left conveniently undefined). This objection, raised during a Labour government, disappeared from view as soon as the Tories won power, also with a limited range of support in the country. It was not the rules Hailsham objected to, it seems, more that the wrong chaps were able to benefit from them.

Setting the cynicism aside, what does stop governments using a Parliamentary majority to do something quite unconscionable (and, no, I don’t mean Brexit)? For instance, the removal of citizenship or other liberties normally enjoyed in a free society from certain groups? Or – a real example – the use of interrogation techniques amounting to torture to defeat an armed insurgency in the state. Does it even matter if it does, if that is what people voted for?

Rulers’ self-restraint is one of the most important – if less formal – ways by which governments control themselves. The belief that there are some limits, generally understood and shared despite political differences, beyond which you do not go because it is not the “done thing”, not the British way, not least because when you are out of power you don’t want to be on the receiving end. It is the “good chaps” theory of government. Coupled with that is a belief that even a democratic system requires checks and balances, that the system of government has a value which should be preserved and endure beyond the needs or desires of those in power at any one time. 

Two unacknowledged – or maybe forgotten – reasons for self-restraint were the memories of WW2 and the examples of Communist societies. The horrors perpetrated by governments claiming to represent (and in some cases doing so) the People’s Will were a reminder of the importance of boundaries for rulers, of independent civic and other institutions able to challenge government, of what happens when civilised norms are abandoned, of the importance of realising that “might” does not make “right”, of the differences between democracy and despotism and the value of freedom and liberties under the former. 

Those lived historical memories have faded. Western democracy is generally seen as having won the battle with Russian-inspired Communism. Chinese totalitarianism is not (yet) seen as a threat. Indeed, some aspects of Chinese control may be seen, in some circumstances, as necessary. There are new battles to be fought; politicians are either from a new generation or consider themselves responsible for different priorities. The distinction between democracy and despotism, the ability or willingness of even democratic governments to limit or disregard freedoms or rights in favour of some apparently more important purpose is not perhaps as well understood – or feared – as it ought to be. Even countries which only recently escaped Communist rule are willing to embrace the idea of “illiberal democracy”, an explicit challenge to the basic assumptions underpinning Western political norms since the war – that even democratically elected governments need independent institutions as a safeguard against government excesses, against a “tyranny of the majority”.

It is easy to take what we have – and have had for so long – for granted. The British conventions governing democracy and the consensus around them endure for as long as they are understood, believed and accepted. They become vulnerable, their weaknesses exposed when the reasons for them are forgotten or not valued or not understood. What if it is not “good chaps” who are elected? What if they are seen as stultifying by those impatient to effect change and willing to get rid of anything in their way? Or if checks and balances are simply described as obstruction and not seen as having any inherent value? Some do think that a government with a Parliamentary majority should be free to do whatever it wants and can get through Parliament: electoral might is right. It is certainly an attractive doctrine to those in power and those sharing that government’s aims. Whether it is wise, quite another matter.

All too easy to see such concerns as an overreaction to even the most modest proposals for change. Yes, this is a danger. No system should be immune from challenge. Some changes can be for the better, can help achieve the intended purpose of the convention or rule more easily, particularly in different circumstances. 

But beware: such arguments are often presented disingenuously by those with more interest in dismantling such checks, even as they claim to want their improvement. A certain amount of scepticism about what such changes will actually achieve – not merely what is loudly trumpeted – is always necessary when those impatient for change make such claims. Political revolutionaries, let alone self-proclaimed “disruptors”, should no more be trusted than commission-hungry salesmen selling the latest complicated financial product. The small print should always be very carefully reviewed.

One paradoxical result of Britain being on the victors’ side in WW2 is not a sensitivity to how easily civilised or democratic counties can fall prey to darker forces. Rather, it is a complacent belief that it is automatically and absolutely on the right side of the democracy vs authoritarianism argument. Illiberal, authoritarian, totalitarian movements came from Them. They were not for Us. (The irony of using a Them and Us meme, so beloved of such illiberal movements, seems lost on those agitating for Freedom, especially when praising the superior British way to those with real life experience of despotic regimes.) There is a belief in an English exceptionalism (often based on a very partial and often superficial understanding of British history: our political system, culture and civic values were better than in those countries which did not resist totalitarianism. What then could Britain have to learn? 

Well, one important lesson is that no country is automatically immune to illiberal forces. Countries change; it is unwise to assume they have a permanent “character” or that it is only the better angels of their nature which will rule. If Germany can change, so too can Britain. The factors which gave rise to illiberalism or worse in past times can occur again, even if they present themselves differently. 

If such factors exist, if similar political tactics are used as before, this does not automatically mean that tyranny and despotism are about to be unleashed on a country. But it does mean that there are warning signals that all may not be well. We should pay more attention to such signals than we do.



Almost all the front pages are about the virus

Thursday, February 27th, 2020

Is now the time to panic?

This is probably the first big test for the Johnson government. How to handle the growing concern about the virus which is sweeping many parts of the world.

So far this has been less in UK than in some other European countries particularly Italy. But we live in a world where people do travel and interact and things can happen so fast.

It is starting to impact on things like the Rugby Six Nations which are taking place at the moment. The weekend’s match between Ireland and Italy has been postponed and you can can see it soon impacting on football particularly the top Premiership clubs with European interests. Then there are the Olympic games which are due to take place in Japan later in the year and which would normally command a worldwide audience and of course the Japanese have invested huge amounts in getting ready. Could that be postponed or cancelled?

As an ageing male I’m in the demographic that appears most vulnerable.

One thing we know is that this is an area where what governments do and do not do can have a big impact which is where politics comes in.

Mike Smithson