Johnson is under no threat despite his mendacity and ineptitude

We don’t expect balance from James Forsyth (the Times today) or from The Spectator and the Hard Right think tank world he inhabits. In the shadows to the vast majority of the population these people, largely unelected, do more than pull the puppet’s strings – they provide cover for him to shelter in. Dominic Cummings was for some time part of the conspiracy. Now he is a Trotsky type figure – once at the centre now in exile. He’d do well to look out for pickaxes.

The Conservative Right’s hard line ideologues are the masters new – and Johnson is under no threat despite his mendacity and ineptitude

Students of history know that revolution doesn’t require people actually to take to the streets, just to vote when you need them. To get the vote in image management is much more important than policy. This doesn’t mean you don’t need ideology-driven policy. It’s there in spades, but you don’t need to use it when attacking the Red Wall.

If image management requires lies and cover-up so be it. You don’t need conventionally able people even in the highest offices of State, just those that are compliant. There are not only no dissidents in the Cabinet – there are none in Parliament nor the Conservative Party at large either. You don’t have to be very good – just very loyal.

One trick is to get the opposition to descend to abuse. Every cry of “Fascist dictatorship” reinforces the governing cabal’s power rather than threatening it. But, ironically, painting opponents as extremists is part of the Rightist strategy. Remember the attacks on Corbyn as a “Marxist” spread, of course, by the lickspittle media that has been a crucial element in the Making of Johnson.

Keeping it simple is the key. Issues as complex as Britain’s role in Europe or the management of the Pandemic cannot be reduced to binary you would think – but the evidence of the last five years challenges that. If there’s opposition bulldoze it – after you’ve prepared the ground first by lying of course. The battle between Johnson and Cummings? The same ! Only one winner. Take cover Dom, and stay clear of Mexico City.

The boasting about “British Values” is as delusional as it is pompous

Writing in The Times today Culture (sic) Secretary Oliver Dowden, predictably, uses the “British Values” banality to tell the BBC what it should do. This is yet another bit of flag- waving idiocy from a Government that daily proves Dr Johnson’s truism that patriotism is the last recourse of the scoundrel.

That there are “values” at the heart of a civilised society – any civilised society – is of course true. That any nation, let alone Britain, has a unique value set which sets it apart is highly questionable.

In reality if we check the United Kingdom against a template of generic values it has, for some time , fallen short – woefully so in many cases. Take overseas aid. If a value of a rich country is generosity to those in need Britain’s swingeing cuts to its international development budget are shameful. A modern British Value seems to be to do not what is generous but what is popular. Whatever positive values we may once have had are absent in today’s “Broken Britain”.

Another value that we seem to have discarded is the understanding that no country is an island entire in itself. Brexit was the apotheosis of this. Aside from the self harm it was a profoundly selfish and arrogant act. The arrogance was the presumption that we know best – better than twenty-seven other nations whose values are to work together cooperatively rather than drive themselves apart.

Across British society privilege and advantage set the rich apart – in healthcare, education and employment opportunities the more money you have the better the services you can buy. “Levelling up” is a chimera. Social division is a venal British Value that these days our leaders entrench rather than attack. To those that have more is given – the allocation of Government contracts and Honours to cronies shows that a British Value today is moral corruption.

If honesty in action and in reporting are worthwhile national values we fall woefully short on both. We have the gruesome double whammy of a lying government and lying media. How can you hold your leaders to account when fawning mendacity and bias is inculcated in much of the media?

British Values ?

How we are as a nation is as much a reflection of our past as our present. One of the key elements of our past was a predilection for cultural destruction. It is sometimes forgotten that our imperial adventures killed off first nation cultures and supplanted them with our own. Aboriginal societies – from native Americans to first nation Australians – were marginalised, infected and eventually destroyed by we Brits and some of us, Dowden included, have the audacity to boast about it !

A commitment to democracy, a drive to have equality of opportunity, an acknowledgment that we don’t have a monopoly of wisdom or morality in our past or present are values I would endorse. A fair society cannot be an institutionally divided one. But above all a society that aspires to set standards for others needs to be open and international not closed and inward looking. We fall so far short that we are now at best a laughing-stock at worst deserving of contempt.

Religious teaching ought not to need visual symbols. But those of us who are faithless often marvel at the monuments to faith that previous generations left us

Rubens Adoration of the Magi

An anthropologist can probably advise what Jesus might have looked like given what we do know about his origins and parentage. No doubt they have. One thing is sure and that is all the portrayals of Jesus, his mother and his disciples are wrong, comprehensively so in most cases. Is there anything more preposterous than the many Madonna and Child portraits, for example?

Does it all matter? If you have the faith to buy the whole New Testament Christian story then you won’t be much bothered by the visual fairy tales which purport to illustrate it. But the imagery is so ingrained in the belief system of Christianity that to eliminate it because it is self evidently false is inconceivable . Is anyone going to go to the Vatican and tell the Pope to take down his pictures?

Islam generally prohibits the portrayal of Mohammed or Allah in art. So a muslim’s view of God or the prophet (PBUH) resides in his or her own mind. The portrayals of God and Jesus Christians have been used to for a millennium or more are totally dominated by the white western culture that produced them. There is no such problem in Islam.

Religious teaching ought not to need visual symbols. But those of us who are faithless often marvel at the monuments to faith that previous generations left us. I will join the believers in admiring the art of a Pieta even though the imagery is at best an illusion and at worst a lie. I will wander in awe around a thousand year old cathedral likewise. Art transcends belief.

Art is subjective. I was at school in Cambridge in the 1960s and visited Kings College Chapel many times. When Rubens “The Adoration of the Magi” was later installed I visited the Chapel again and marvelled at it. That it is fiction didn’t trouble me then and it doesn’t trouble me now. I can’t quite explain this. There is something profoundly spiritual about great religious buildings and Art that transcends faith. Even more so historical accuracy.

Modern Britain – a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing

What country, friends, is this?” says Viola in “Twelfth Night” as she escapes the shipwreck and drags herself onto an unknown shore. The metaphor for Britain in 2021 is apposite in a way unimaginable a few short years ago.

The Home Secretary

Yesterday the Secretary of State for the Home Department, Priti Patel, joined the National Crime Agency in an operation to apprehend alleged people smugglers in East London. She did so in a specially made uniform with “Home Secretary” visible on a label on the jacket.

To say that Ms Patel’s self-promoting stunt is unprecedented goes without saying as does, unfortunately, that it’s pretty much par for the course in Boris Johnson’s Government which, when it is not lying through its teeth, trivialises everything it touches.

Johnson is a showman – a sort of Archie Rice on the stage of a dying Music Hall telling the same old jokes. There is no depth to Archie just pathos. As the “The Entertainer” progresses you see that Archie gradually realises that he is a fraud – something that the audience has realised much earlier. I’m not sure that Johnson has noticed yet.

Laurence Olivier as Archie Rice, Boris Johnson as Boris Johnson

So “What country friends is this?” misgoverned by low grade actors on a stage once bestrode by giants or, if not that, by those who gave a credible, respectable performance. Can you imagine a previous Home Secretary so delighting in her decisions that she insinuates herself in the action ? Ms Patel has in the past expressed support for the Death Penalty – as here in a performance of gruesome gormlessness. No doubt if she secured the return of hanging she’d be up there on the scaffold arranging the noose.

It’s the old substance versus show debate. During the Second World War Churchill got the balance right. Yes he couldn’t resist landing on a Normandy beach not long after D Day. But that bit of showing off was reasonable, even inspired, in the context of his courageous leadership in times of extraordinary stress.

Leadership is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. It may be fuelled by “Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself” as in Macbeth. Here the Peter Principle is relevant. Ambition is not in itself a bad thing of course only when it “o’erleaps itself”. The Peter Principle holds that people are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. Macbeth could not reach his goals by fair means, so he resorted to foul ones. Boris Johnson could never have become Prime Minister without dissembling and lying.

The Cabinet of Fools, presided over by our failing Music Hall performer, is a vivid illustration of the Peter Principle pretty much without exception. Priti Patel the most obvious and disturbing example. Her dressing up looks like “Spitting Image” – it is certainly comic until you realise that this is not for laughs, it’s for real.

To adapt L.P. Hartley we can say that the “present is a foreign country – they do things differently here.” What country it is I’ve frankly absolutely no idea. I don’t recall being shipwrecked here and I struggle even to recognise it at times.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

The liberal foundations are wobbling

There is a splendid article in The Times today by David Aaronovitch about the threat to a woman’s right to choose an abortion in the United States. To those of my early baby boomer generation this is sad as well as shocking. More evidence that the liberal foundations we thought we’d help build 50 years ago are wobbling.

Liberalism under attack

As students in the 1960s we protested against a number of iniquities and eventually won, or thought we had. The Vietnam War. The Death Penalty. Civil Rights. Gay Rights. Apartheid. Abortion reform. I don’t think that I took to the streets on all of them, but on some I did.

Then a little later I was an activist in favour of unity in Europe. By 1975 I had joined Edward Heath and Roy Jenkins in campaigning in favour of Britain taking a definitive and final decision to be an active member of the European Community. We won that one as well. For me the model in all this was Tony Crosland who had argued that the “Future of Socialism” lay in Social Reform and internationalism not nationalism and ideology driven public ownership.

Jenkins was to be the political leader par excellence for this liberal and social democratic revolution. The reforms, including on Europe, I mention here seemed final at the time. Opponents of change didn’t go away – we even had more debates on capital punishment in parliament for a while after abolition. But the ground seemed to have shifted and there was no turning back. But reaction and bigotry never goes away it seems.

Abortion has not gone away as a battleground. The decision we took to respect a woman’s freedom of choice is under threat again. 😱

If there are to be limits to Freedom of Speech who decides ?

Cancel culture” is a trite and unhelpful descriptor suggesting that there is an organised movement to deny the past. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden used the phrase recently in his faux-patriotic “I am proud of my country’s history” article in The Times. It was pure populist bombast.

Like “Woke” the “Cancel Culture” phrase is used only abusively in an insulting context. It is largely meaningless because of its all-pervasive generality. The question is not “should the views of “X” (insert name of polemicist of your choice) be heard” but “ Is it legal to express these views in public”.

Limits to “Freedom of Speech” ? Who decides?

The film “Denial” about Holocaust denier David Irving was a masterpiece as a depiction of the strengths and weaknesses of Freedom of Speech. What Irving had said and written was in Britain not illegal. He had the legal right to express these views abhorrent though they were. Some other countries make Holocaust Denial a crime, we choose not to. Irving was peddling lies, but what if someone you don’t like is peddling truths or has opinions you’re uncomfortable with ?

The 1919 Amritsar massacre

Back to Mr Dowden. It’s pretty clear that he thinks it’s improper to tell uncomfortable truths. So if we tell the truth about one of the horrors of Empire, like Amritsar, there is like to be a call for “balance”. Otherwise we are unpatriotic. There is no contentious subject today where someone won’t lie about it. Truth has many faces, but surely freedom of speech should illuminate it. Banning debate turns the lights off.

Don’t assume that we are all motivated primarily by the need for ever more wealth and power

Laura Freeman writes engagingly about the life choices of Generation Z in The Times today. As someone who is comfortably more than twice the age of the author I am unapologetically part of the Baby Boomer lucky generation. Once vaccination had sorted the risk of polio and other nasties in the early 1950s my prospects for a long life were good. My schooling was sufficiently good for me to be the first in my family to get a degree and employment opportunities were, if not unlimited, not that restricted.

So then it came down to ambition. It never occurred to me to try and be rich, I did want to be fulfilled though. A 40 year career with a multinational did the fulfilment bit. The money was good along the way – not “fat cat” good but there were never wolves at the door.

My motivation all along was job satisfaction. On one occasion I chose a job that was technically a demotion because it was so interesting. On another I chose a very challenging assignment overseas where I would have to work in a language I didn’t speak. Foolhardy ? Maybe a bit. Fulfilling? You bet !

I mostly worked 40 hour weeks, though as an ex-pat from time to time this was difficult. I never quite got the need for a good work/life balance – if you enjoy your job why would you worry if it impinges upon your non work life a bit? I always needed to be stretched and rarely repeated myself. A new challenge was always available it seemed.

I was never a head honcho at the highest level. I didn’t have that ambition and nor did I have the the drive for power and wealth that many who “made it” did have. Yes I was lucky that my more modest achievements matched my modest ambition. And that I was well paid to do jobs I always enjoyed. Never once did I look for nor accept a job I didn’t want to do – even if the promotion would move me a step up the ladder.

My career is not a model for anyone and I was lucky that my opportunities were not limited by my slightly perverse approach. It may not be the same today – it probably isn’t. But employing organisations should not assume that we are all motivated primarily by the need for ever more wealth and power.

Oliver Dowden is trapped in a faux-patriotic and simplistic view of Britain’s past – as he confirms in the opening sentence of his Telegraph piece: “I am proud of our nation’s heritage”

Writing in the Daily Telegraph Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden says that the Government “…won’t allow Britain’s history to be cancelled”. His argument is critical of the “Cancel Culture” whereby (in his words) “… a small but vocal group of people claim to have a monopoly on virtue and seek to bully those who disagree”.

Mr Dowden argues that it is “right that we reassess and interpret events as our understanding evolves” and that we should tell “… a balanced, nuanced and academically rigorous story – one that doesn’t automatically start from a position of guilt and shame and denigration of this country’s past”.

The problem with all this is that the past, foreign country that it is, is open to interpretation and the process of reassessment, as Dowden calls it, will lead people, including historians, to different conclusions. The British Empire, the subject of much of the “Cancel Culture” debate, especially. Niall Ferguson, seen by many as a historian of the Right, concluded in his 2003 history “Empire” that the “… British sacrificed her Empire to stop the Germans, Japanese and Italians from keeping theirs. Did that sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire’s other sins”. The answer to Ferguson’s question is, of course, emphatically “No it didn’t”!

Amritsar

Ferguson is very much relevant to the “Cancel Culture” debate. His description of the 1919 Amritsar massacre, one of Empire’s darkest hours, cannot be faulted. It is neither defensive nor lacking in accuracy. He tells it as it was and further draws interesting parallels with Ireland saying that Amritsar was “India’s Easter Rising, creating nationalist martyrs on one side and a crisis of confidence on the other”. Both examples of Imperial excess defy Dowden’s call for balance. If we do not have “guilt and shame” about them (along with countless other Imperial horrors) we are either ignorant or deluded.

Niall Ferguson’s historian’s instincts also allow him to venture into territory that I suspect Mr Dowden would shudder to consider. Between the wars in Britain, in part fuelled by India’s call for Independence as well as Ireland’s fight for freedom, there was “anxiety” about the Empire. However, Ferguson reveals. There was “one man who continued to believe in the British Empire” and who praised the British for “…holding the reins so lightly withal, that the natives do not notice… I claim that the English have governed India very well…”.    That man was not, as you might think, Winston Churchill but Adolf Hitler writing in Mein Kampf! James Baldwin said that “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them”. In criticising the “Cancel Culture” Oliver Dowden seems to me to be wanting a distorted view of history to be promulgated, whatever he may try and say to the contrary. He himself is trapped in a faux-patriotic and simplistic view of Britain’s past as he confirms in the opening sentence of his Telegraph piece: “I am proud of our nation’s heritage”.

In the main proper historians do not do “pride”. Pride is subjective and partisan and if you try and write history with those things as your drivers you do not do history – you do propaganda. If Oliver Dowden genuinely wants, as he claims, to “expand the conversation” about our heritage I have a serious tip for him. Create an extensive, academically robust, nonpartisan museum of the “British Empire”. Let the historians report on the facts of our Imperial history warts and all. Tell the story as it was not as you might want it to be. This is not an argument for political correctness or for peddling self-regard. It’s an argument for truth. I agree with Dowden that “totalitarian moral certainty” is a bad thing. But much of it at present emanates from him and people like him who seem to want to hide forever behind the pomp and the circumstance of our past and the Union Flag.  

Freedom of Movement is about about cultural sharing and learning as well as the economic benefits

James Kirkup in The Times today tries to argue that Priti Patel is “winnng the argument on immigration”. Well maybe she is but any argument this most illiberal of Home Secretaries wins is a cause for concern.

The most squeamish Brexiteers (there are a few) like to claim that the “Leave” vote was primarily about “Sovereignty”. They do this, of course, because it absolves them from telling a truth they find uncomfortable. The truth is that Brexit has happened because the forces of intolerance, nationalism and xenophobia outvoted the forces of economic logic, internationalism and openness. Little England triumphed.

Freedom of Movement in Europe is so beneficial that even as distinctly an individualistic nation as Switzerland has embraced it although it is not even an EU member.

Many of us had long since thought ourselves European, were proud that we were European citizens and took advantage of the status. And we welcomed the thousands of citizens from other European countries who came to live and work amongst us. Some were immigrants, some guest workers. All from the Polish plumber to the Italian anaesthetist, the Slovakian waitress to the Dutch geologist enriched our lives.

An important point missed here, and comprehensively missed by the fatuous “points based” system being introduced, is that freedom of movement is about so much more than just the “qualifications” of the potential immigrant or guest worker. It’s about cultural sharing and learning. The narrower and more inward looking we are the less effective in all aspects of our lives we become. That’s one of the reasons we like to travel – or it is for those of us who see travel as being about more than lying on a sun lounger.

We need an education revolution if we are serious about “Levelling up”

Funding of education is certainly a problem, but far more important is the lack of consistency across our education system as a whole. We have a plethora of types of schools and, inevitably, of teaching and learning as a result. The teaching profession battles hard to raise the standards everywhere, but the postcode lottery remains.

The core problems include the anachronistic preponderance of faith schools. Education should be secular – the place for religion is in the home and church and mosque not in the classroom. Next find a way to raise standards by incentivising teachers to work where the need to level up is greatest. At present many of the best teachers go into the private sector where the money is. Pay them more , much more, to work where the educational challenges are greatest.

We have a government where 65% of the cabinet went to independent schools. Frankly the difference between the education offered to the 7% in the private sector and the rest is enormous and socially divisive. Can a cabinet like the one we have understand that ? 

Independent schools set a high standard in teaching and facilities – the state sector should aspire to do the same. Equality of opportunity starts at the schools, or should. But in fact it’s privilege that begins on the playing fields of the independent schools – many state schools don’t even have playing fields. And the housing market is skewed by education with property commanding premium prices in areas with better schools. Money buys advantage throughout our society, and especially in education.

A simple , maybe too simple, goal definition for educators is to release the full potential of their pupils. Of course these pupils vary in ability and attitude. But a good school with good teachers will measure the capabilities of their pupils and adapt their teaching accordingly. Mixing academic focus for the brightest with more practical teaching for those with more limited exam-passing potential makes sense.

The Education Act of 1944, a “triumph for progressive reform,” genuinely predicated a good education for all. That lofty ambition has been watered down over the years as market forces have increasingly dictated the quality of teaching a child gets and church schools, madrassas and yeshivas have confused the need for learning with religious indoctrination.

We need an education revolution if we are serious about “Levelling up”. Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that if society is to change we need to start in the schools. It’s in part about funding, but it’s as much about attitude and understanding.