It’s not just the “poor man” Matt Hancock who is out of his depth

It isn’t (just) that Matt Hancock is a grubby little man with the morals of a polecat that matters. If moral rectitude was a requirement for senior office the current incumbent in Number 10 would be nowhere near the place. No, Hancock’s manifest failings relate mainly to his lack of competence and his shameless mendacity rather than his adultery.

Political commentators with long memories struggle to find any parallels to the weakness of the current Cabinet – arguably Hancock wasn’t even the worst of this gruesome crew. The hard Right blog site ConservativeHome has regular surveys to produce ranking tables of the members of the Cabinet. In recent times Liz Truss has been at the top. See what I mean?

A political job is not like a normal job, especially at the top. It must be uncomfortable to be constantly in the public eye – but fame no doubt brings its rewards and makes it worthwhile. Egomania is a driver of political ambition along with, in some cases, ideological fanaticism.

Matt Hancock has no discernible political ideology and to understand him you have to see only his “Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself”. Like Macbeth Hancock was sucked into the belief that ambitions can be undisturbed by realities. In 2019 he briefly ran to be Leader of the Conservative Party. He alone believed he had the qualities needed in the job. But, to be fair, he must have looked at the other candidates and thought “Why not?”.

Before becoming Health Secretary Hancock’s brief political career was full of minor infelicities and a few pretty disreputable actions. His Wikipedia entry lists some of these. But being appointed to what turned out to be Britain’s most important political job in 2020 was soon to reveal how “hopeless” he was. As we know that was the Prime Minister’s description of him. Though he kept him in the job.

Confident, able men and women generally don’t need to lie nor indulge in cover up. Perhaps Matt Hancock realised that he was a classic example of the “Peter Principle” and then tried to bluff and bluster his way through. His boss is, of course, the true master of that dark art.

Under stress people do odd things sometimes and that is true of the Prime Minister and his cabinet. It isn’t just Hancock who was “hopeless”. Stress magnifies our insecurity so, for example, Priti Patel has become more illiberal and more bullying in her certainty since her dysfunctional leadership style was exposed. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is visibly under huge pressure as well with public spending out of control and inflation rising. Not to mention working for a Prime Minister who wants to spaff £200m on a vainglorious yacht.

The Hancock affair could be the beginning of a realisation that we just don’t have people of quality at the top. For example compare and contrast the preposterous Lord Frost, a dithering confused mess of a man, with his suave and clearly able EU counterparts.

Perhaps Hancock’s ex Cabinet colleagues will in a perverse way be encouraged by his very public failure. It’s quite likely that in their private moments they say to their loved ones “But I’m not as bad as Matt”

Maybe the blogger and broadcaster Sophie Eggleton (above) has got it right. It’s not just the “poor man” Matt Hancock who is out of his depth.

The Germans no longer want to be “Uber Alles” – whilst we still think that we are

I will, of course, be supporting England against Germany on Tuesday. But that doesn’t make me even remotely anti German. On the contrary it is a country I have come to love, as well as admire.

My first trip abroad on my own, I had just left school, was in 1964. On a student rail pass I traveled by train along the Rhine to the Nurburgring to see the German Grand Prix. Since then I have been back countless times – I met my future wife in Berlin in 1968. After reunification we walked through the Brandenburg Gate – something that thirty years earlier in a divided city we had been unable to do.

I have visited Germany frequently on business and in more recent times I have enjoyed concerts and opera across the country. I have taken an interest in German culture and history. The most remarkable part of the history of modern Germany is the post war recovery – not just economic but moral. The book “Learning from the Germans” by Susan Neiman shows how the Germans have addressed their past by being open about it. She suggests that the United States (slavery and racism) and the United Kingdom (Empire) could do the same. I agree.

Today Germany sets Britain a model that we could do well to follow. They embrace their Europeaness whilst we reject ours. They are a civilised, modern country which copes well with the challenges inherent in their multiculturalism. They have marginalised their Right Wing extremists whilst some of ours are in power , or close to it. They are welcoming whilst we close doors and, understandably, they eschew nationalism whilst we embrace it more every day. They have learned from their past ( Aus Schaden wird man klug*) whilst too often we are still living in ours.

*Failure makes you smarter.

In the 300+ years since the English Civil War we have never known a situation where one half of the population has such open contempt for the other half

The divisive dynamic in British life is not Left/Right, which seems quite benign these days, but much more insidious. It has been caused, inevitably, by Brexit and if we look at the opinions of those who voted “Leave” and those who voted “Remain” we can see how polarised it is. There are two tribes with little or no overlap between them.

The Tribes of modern Britain

The table above is, of course, indicative and incomplete. I am not arguing that it is definitive. But broadly there is a consistency of opinion within the tribes which is remarkable. As is the absence of compromise and unwillingness to engage.

The principal characteristic of modern British political opinion is dogmatism. This is, I think, because Brexit was binary. It required us to make a Yes/No choice. This has spilled over into a raft of other issues in public life. The “If you’re not with us you’re against us” meme is everywhere. It is utterly un-nuanced. The gospel of St Matthew is the originator of the “for or against” idea: “He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.” it says in the King James bible.

In the bible translation I don’t think “abroad” actually meant in a different country – just away from where I am. Here we are very much into tribes. The hostile tribe is distanced from my tribe – geographically, socially, intellectually, racially and (especially) generationally. My Baby Boomer generation is broadly in the “Leave” tribe. The older you get the more conservative and often reactionary you get in all respects.

For the avoidance of doubt let me re-emphasise that I am generalising here. I know Conservative voters who are strong “Remainers” and young people who voted “Leave” and/or who are members of the Boris fan club. But broadly what I describe here is valid for the majority.

No common ground between the two tribes exists

Most modern issues are complex and do not lend themselves to simple or populist conclusions. So when you have a contest between the informed and cerebral on the one hand and the populist and gut feel on the other the two tribes are both ill-equipped for constructive debate. As Disraeli put it in “Sybil” “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.” Disraeli was writing about the Rich and the Poor in Victorian England. But the quote is no less applicable to the “Leave” and “Remain” tribes today.

When the debates were mainly Left/Right not only was there room for movement but compromise was almost inevitable. So though the Conservatives opposed state control over many aspects of our lives in the late 1940s they actually left most of Attlee’s nationalisations in place when they regained power 1951-1964. Similarly the Blair/Brown governments of 1997-2010 unravelled few of Thatcher’s changes of the 1980s. Arguably from 1945-2015 there was a broad commonality of goal and purpose, even method, wholly absent today.

As I have said it was Brexit that drove us apart and the warring Brexit tribes which still divide us. There is no intercourse and no sympathy between them. In the 300+ years since the English Civil War we have never known a situation where one half of the population has such open contempt for the other half.

The LibDems cannot appeal to the gut and to self-interest – they can only be decent, cerebral and liberal

In The Times today Danny Finkelstein is rather rude about the LibDems – “There is no point to the Liberal Democrats.

I have a couple of things in common with Lord Finkelstein (maybe more, you never know). One is that with both joined the SDP back in the early 1980s. The other is that neither of us joined the Liberal Democrats, that strange hybrid party that saw Roy Jenkins embrace David Steel. Not in pragmatic electoral alliance but in undissolvable union. I stuck with David Owen for a while in the “Continuing SDP” , until he was very rude the only time I met him. Since then I’ve not been a member of any political party.

For years when I’ve voted it’s been AGAINST Tories not really FOR anything. Blair’s New Labour was the SDP with a new name. Owen wanted nothing of it, nor they him. Shirley stayed with the LibDems, and Roy went off to write fine books and be the great European we loved him for being.

The LibDems did really well for a time and it is churlish not to recognise this. But with New Labour being, really, the New SDP there was no ideological logic to them. Essentially they became the party that middle class people like me, living in leafy constituencies with a social conscience, voted for. Twickenham in my case. Richmond and Kingston down the road. Charles Kennedy briefly created a role to the left of New Labour. He opposed the Iraq War and I greatly admired him for it. But under Clegg they became light Blue and even entered a Public Schoolboys’ Coalition with the Conservatives. Ugh.

When the preposterous Jeremy Corbyn hijacked Labour and surrounded himself with dinosaurs the LibDems weakened by the Coalition could not step in. They had been humiliated by the 2015 General Election and in the Referendum the next year. Ill led, they faded into insignificance. But I’ve kept voting for them because anything that however ineffectually opposes Johnson’s gang has to be done. Twickenham has stayed loyal. The awful Zac Goldsmith was booted out in Richmond. Good.

And now in Chesham and Amersham it seems that the “Blue Wall” has been busted open. Good again. There is perhaps a place for an effective “Woke” party unencumbranced by outdated hard Left ideology to fight the Conservatives on their traditional territory. I wish them well.

Alf Garnett

Frankly the recovery of Labour under Keir Starmer is the only big political game in town. And that’s really tough going. That the Tories are becoming the Party of the patriotic Working Classes is vaguely comical – the ultimate triumph of the Alf Garnetts. But actually it’s not a joke if people vote for politicians who deep down neither understand nor care about them. That’s how Trump came to power and what delivered Johnson his 2019 victory.

The LibDems cannot appeal to the gut and to self-interest – they can only be decent, cerebral and liberal. Not a bad mix you might think. But it won’t lead to a landslide shift however pleasing results like Chesham and Amersham might be. I think that there will be quite a few more, but not enough really to make much difference.

The good burghers of Chesham and Amersham have done an “Orpington” !

Sarah Green’s magnificent win in the Chesham and Amersham by-election prompts thoughts in ageing liberals like me of the Orpington by-election of 1962.

Eric Lubbock wins the Orpington by-election of 1962 for the Liberal Party

I first started taking an interest in politics in 1960 with the US Presidential contest between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. It was glamorous (or JFK was) and played out , for the first time, under the glare of the television lights. The winner was as much “made” like a consumer brand as he was elected. Contrast this with the British General Election of 1959 when my parents and the rest of our conservative and supine electorate elected another Victorian born Tory into Number 10.

But in 1962 things began to change and it happened, of all places, in my home town of Orpington. Now Orpington was, and no doubt still is, a sleepy commuter suburb devoid of any merit except it’s good rail connection to London. My parents only lived there, and I had only been born there as a post war baby boomer, because of its commuter convenience.

In March 1962 Orpington had a by-election which was confidently expected to elect another Conservative MP in this quintessentially middle class West Kent town. But in Harold Macmillan’s government there was a nasty whiff of mendacity and corruption exemplified by the “Profumo Affair” in 1961. “Supermac” was losing his allure and beginning to look what he was – a figure from another age. Born in 1894 he was only a few years younger than my Grandparents. Other factors played a part. Interest rates has been rising and home ownership was becoming a challenge for younger voters.

The first time voters in 1962 had been born in 1940 and many were struggling to get their feet on the property ladder. Their political expectations were more likely to be formed by the youthful John Kennedy than the aging Tory in a three piece suit in Downing Street especially as there was a bit of a nasty smell about him.

The beneficiary of this moment of disgruntlement was the thirty-four year old Eric Lubbock the Liberal Party’s candidate. A likeable sociable man Lubbock was hardly a revolutionary. He was the heir to a peerage and had been educated at Harrow and Balliol. He was the right man in the right place at the right time. The Liberals from the nadir of the 1959 election when they won only six seats (on six percent of the vote) were showing national signs of recovery. Lubbock in a seat where the Labour vote was there to be squeezed did just that, as well as winning over thousands of disgruntled Tory voters.

Lubbock’s win was seen as a first post-war challenge to the two party system – a system which was underpinned by the undemocratic First Past the Post electoral method. To some extent it was a false dawn, though Eric Lubbock held his seat until the 1970 election it was to be a while before any third party revival happened. Stymied as ever by FPTP. But they were heady days back in 1962 and it’s good to remember them.

Taking the knee is not “gesture politics” , it’s a cry for human rights.

In The Times today Trevor Philips argues that in Britain class is a bigger discriminator than race. I don’t want to rank prejudices and for what it’s worth see all too many cultural dividers around. Race, Class, Gender – and a dozen more. But Class is certainly high up this gruesome list.

Shaw rightly said how we speak is a huge divider. Accents are not infallible evidence of social class, but they are pretty good. Factor in dress and manners and you can pretty precisely place someone’s background in a few minutes. Joan Bakewell, from a working class background changed her speech on the train from Liverpool. My employer back in the 1960s unquestionably discriminated and selected white middle class males ahead of any other group.

Let’s not be mealy-mouthed about discrimination. Race is important. You can, like Bakewell, change how you speak. You can educate yourself to smarten your intelligence. You can adopt behaviour that the culture you’re in sees as the norm. But you can’t change your race.

The hair straighteners and skin whiteners don’t work. And race brings a culture with it including, sometimes, religion and family norms. The various anti discrimination movements try to make us believe that those who are different from us matter. They are right, black lives do matter and we need more activism, not less. More “taking the knee” not less. And those at the top, especially those who are themselves from a minority, should be in the front line.

Priti Patel has made her position clear. She is of course of East African Asian heritage. Her family fled discrimination to make a home in Britain. She grew up in a Hindu household so she will be quite aware what being an immigrant and not of the mainstream religion, as well as not of the dominant white middle class, means.

I don’t want to discuss Patel here – I find her Hard Right stance on everything puzzling (given her background) but that’s not the key point about discrimination.

That point is the irrationally of prejudice combined with the fact that it is inculcated into British society. If people are different far too many of us denigrate them. Perhaps it’s idealism but I welcome multiculturalism and believe it enriches our society. And if a group is marginalised because of their colour we should all protest – it’s not “gesture politics” , it’s a cry for human rights.

The rise and rise of “Cultural Conservatism”

From the “Sunday Times” today

I cannot recall seeing the descriptor “culturally conservative “ before but it is excellent. There is a very illuminating article in the Sunday Times today by Tim Shipman which shows how the populist appeal to cultural conservatism – the Anti-Woke imperative – is being managed. A shadowy figure called Dougie Smith is the crown Prince of populism – a credo which places popularity of statements and actions not only ahead of truthfulness but ahead of efficacy. The question asked then becomes not “What is the right thing to do?” but “How will this play in Hartlepool?”

Cultural conservatism is something of a throwback and clearly the Right’s response to social liberalism. In the post war years Britain gradually liberalised its attitudes and its laws. It took a while but in key areas like the Death Penalty, the laws on abortion, homosexuality, race and gender discrimination we changed. Membership of the project to unite the previously warring tribes in Europe played a significant part culminating in the four Freedoms of the European Union – especially Freedom of Movement – which changed the cultural aspects of society, considerably in some areas. Substantial immigration from Commonwealth countries, notably from the Caribbean and South Asia, did the same.

The move to a more liberal and pluralist society was never universally accepted of course – those opposing it had mixed reasons for doing so (often religious reasons) but they couldn’t stop the trend, only delay it in some cases. An example is the changing norms and laws on smoking in public. Gradually we changed from allowing smoking everywhere to allowing it nowhere. A social change now enshrined in law, as it had to be. But libertarians have always characterised this as an impingement on personal freedom.

Modern cultural conservatism does not generally argue for the repeal of socially liberal laws (though in some cases they do) but in the main chooses to fight a culture war about the past. They are self-proclaimed patriots defending Empire and, sometimes, excusing slavery. The conservatives do not, to be fair, generally start the fight though they certainly engage in it. To be “Anti-Woke” there has to be a “Woke” to be against. So movements which focus on discrimination like “Black Lives Matter” become a target. Sometimes whilst it is easy to see what the cultural conservatives are against it is harder to see what they are for.

A key element of cultural conservatism is an anti Metropolitan bias. London is too liberal by half , too multicultural, too elitist and too wealthy. But the towns and cities of the Midlands and the north are a rich breeding ground for the campaigners for reaction. The conservatives approach to the BBC is very similar – the Corporation is too politically correct (a cardinal sin) and of course too Woke.

The cultural conservatives are addicted to symbols. The Union Flag, portraits of the Queen, the statue of Winston Churchill and many other symbols become quasi-religious icons. Even statues of highly questionable Victorian entrepreneurs are defended because the Woke warriors are against them.

The binary divide between Woke and anti-Woke is not the same as the conventional divide of Left v Right, though there is some overlap. It is in the DNA of conservatives to oppose change – that’s what the word “conservative” means. However if change reinforces the iconography of cultural conservatism it is, of course, promulgated. The campaign for Brexit was an overwhelmingly cultural conservative and reactionary nationalist movement. The centres of its support were very distanced from the metropolis. It was above all a backlash against multiculturalism. In short “Remain” was “Woke” and “Leave” was culturally conservative and “Anti-Woke”.

The success of the Brexit campaign also fundamentally changed the Conservative Party. It became clear that there were more votes in cultural conservatism and narrow nationalism than there were in the traditional “One Nation” and internationalist positioning. Members of Parliament on the Conservative side have never been so united nor so culturally conservative. For Labour there is a huge dilemma. The very basis of modern democratic socialism was societal liberalism. The driving force for social change in the 75 years of post war Britain was always Labour governments. But now to espouse further improvements in human rights and to argue for improvements in the position of minorities is seen as “Woke” and is not a vote winner. Similarly to argue that the problem of Brexit is not how it is implemented but that it was fundamentally the wrong thing to do won’t play well behind the Red Wall.

Britain is low in the list of priorities for President Biden.

With the US we will be drawing up a new Atlantic Charter, 80 years after Churchill and Roosevelt agreed the first.” Boris Johnson in The Times today

If there’s to be an “Atlantic Charter” it will be between the US and the leaders of a united Europe

A crucial element of the “Atlantic charter” in 1941 was that it marked formally the end of Britain’s historic “Great Power” role. That role had been underpinned by Empire for a century or more but Roosevelt knew, and reluctantly Churchill was forced to accept, that a withdrawal from Empire was essential in the post war world. It was the main bargaining chip the US played in acceding to Britain’s request for help in the war in Europe, and later in the Far East.

When the various tripartite allied summits with the Soviet Union took place Britain was increasingly the junior partner. And in the post war creation of a new world order essentially a duopoly of power emerged. Britain was an ally of the US but not really a significant world player in its own right.

Once Britain lost its Empire – it took much longer than it should have – it began its search for a role. The defeated Axis nations – especially Germany, Japan and Italy – made economically and politically better progress in recovery than Britain. The 1950s saw a Britain struggling still with its imperial fantasies best illustrated by the preposterous delusion of Suez. Dean Acheson, former US Secretary of State, effectively told us in 1962 to stop pretending we were a big player anymore and to turn to Europe.

Any new Atlantic Charter will exclude Britain – President Biden knows that this side of the Atlantic economic and political power is centred in Brussels not London. Cooperation between the United States and Europe is one of the major geopolitical plays of our times. Post Trump the auguries are good. Biden treasures his Irish heritage and today that heritage is a European one as well And Ireland, mostly free of British imperial rule, is a good example of a positive outcome from the 1941 “Atlantic Charter”.

So whilst Boris Johnson can pretend that he can be Churchill to Biden’s Roosevelt the President will be looking at the united nations in the EU rather than the offshore oddity that is the United Kingdom. Europe’s economy is around ten times of that of the U.K. Britain is a legitimate member of the G7 but with the EU an integrated economy and trading entity it will be on the leading EU countries that Biden will be focusing.

Johnson’s blather about a new “Atlantic Charter” is meaningless flimflam. Britain, notwithstanding our historical links and our common language, is low in the list of priorities for President Biden. This side of the Atlantic there are thirty European nations which collectively and in many cases severally are pragmatically and emotionally well ahead of Little England.

The bad guys do win – Nixon, Trump, Johnson – but in the end their faults can catch up with them.

There is a good piece on Sir Keir Starmer by Charlotte Ivers in the Sunday Times today. How can Starmer persuade people to vote for him?

Most our decisions, including how we vote, are driven in part by logic and reason and in part by gut feel and emotion. Both sides of the brain are at work, sometimes in cranial conflict. How often do we hear , or use, an expression that contrasts head and heart?

Rational man would never have voted for Brexit, or for Jeremy Corbyn. We avoided the latter but our emotions regrettably gave us the former. It’s complex. In 1945 the genuine emotional admiration for Churchill surely made him a shoe-in to be elected? But the then rational men and women of Britain thought and voted otherwise.

In 1960 America experienced the first election where a candidate became a brand. The marketing of JFK was so skilled that a deeply conservative nation just chose him, but only just. Brands are most successful when they have emotional appeal. If there’s a “reason to believe” all the better. I agree with Ms Ivers that Keir Starmer is a decent man and a clever and successful one. But in politics today that isn’t enough.

The opposite of a preferred brand is a rejected one. That actually is Keir Starmer’s best chance. The bad guys do win – Nixon, Trump, Johnson – but in the end their faults can catch up with them. Rational man would not buy the Boris brand. But emotional man seems to like the old fraud. But if the British public starts to think again, as it did in 1945 (and, arguably, in 1964, 1979 and 1997) that’s Sir Keir’s best chance.

Understanding the reasons people rose up against an Imperial oppressor in Ireland

You don’t need to look far to find evidence of the evils of imperialism – just across the Irish sea. The Act of Union theoretically uniting Great Britain and Ireland was a sham. Had there from the start been an understanding from the British that John Bull’s other island urgently needed help things might have been different. But there wasn’t. Ireland was a resource to be exploited and the people an irritant to be brutally suppressed.

Joe Biden and before him John Kennedy are symbols of Britain’s losses in Ireland being America’s gain. The depopulation of Ireland in the nineteenth century was an inevitable consequence of Britain’s neglect. But for many leaving their homes for ever by emigrating was not possible, so they chose to try and overthrow their oppressor.

A new book about the Phoenix Park murders, “The Irish Assassins” is reviewed in The Times Today. The revelations are shocking and the story is illustrative of what repression and illiberalism can lead to. The Empire was peppered with protest and Ireland was just the closest to home example of the fact that if you suppress the human rights of a people some of them will rise up against you.

The murders in Phoenix Park in 1882

One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. The consequences of Britain’s total failure to keep the Union together are, of course, still with us. Justifying the violence of Phoenix Park leads us down some very dark byways – but understanding the reasons for it, as this new book seems to do, is another matter.

The eventual triumph of the Irish was real, but partial. The north of the island of Ireland remains a quasi-imperial possession. Whilst the south has become a successful and principled independent European state the north still lingers in sectarianism. The bitter bigotry and the provocative marches remain. The stench of imperialism lives on.