Friday 21 October 2022

Where we are now


The Conservative party has a death wish. It’s the only credible explanation.

Its MPs no longer know what they want, what they believe, or what they’re for. They just want it to stop. All of it. Now. Please.

Look at what they have been through. 

The supreme folly of the Brexit referendum, foisted on them by David Cameron, a dilettante prime minister who had neither the skill, the courage nor the strength to see off his party’s ultras. 

The ramshackle chaos of the May administration, blown onto the rocks by those same ultras who thought the moment had finally come for their Reaganite, free-market ideology.

The shameful immorality of Boris Johnson, who broke the law, broke the rules and told so many lies that even his own MPs could take no more of him.

Let’s be merciful and cast a veil over what came next. 

And now, yet again, Tory MPs have to make a decision. Do they continue their slide into political oblivion, reaching such depths of electoral unpopularity that the pollsters are left gasping for air?

Or do they, somehow, step back from the brink and start the long, painful process of reinventing themselves as a serious political force?

It has come to something when a former Russian president greets the resignation of a British prime minister by sending his congratulations to the lettuce which had come to symbolise the utter humiliation of the UK government. (Dmitri Medvedev tweeted on Thursday: ‘Bye bye, Liz Truss, congrats to lettuce.’)

Four prime ministers in six years. Each one a Tory, and each one worse than the one they replaced. They have done immense damage to the UK economy, to its political structures and to the very fabric of British democracy. And now, it seems, many Tory MPs seriously believe that the answer to their problems – the best way to confront the existential threat to their party – is to turn the clock back and reinstate the pound-shop wannabe Churchill whom they kicked out less than six months ago. 

The definition of insanity, as Einstein never said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. 

The Conservative party used to be the epitome of un-ideology. Remember the old joke? ‘I’m not political at all, I just vote Conservative.’ Now, unless they reverse course, they are about to be dragged over the cliff edge by the very people who have inflicted so much damage both on their party and on the country.

Boris Johnson is no ideologue. But he is perfectly happy to indulge the ideologues if they help him further his own interests. 

Nor is Rishi Sunak a cuddly social democrat. But neither, as we saw from his response to the Covid pandemic, is he blinded by ideology. 

After the European parliament elections in May 2019, when the Brexit party won thirty per cent of the vote and the Tories slumped to fourth place, behind Labour and the Lib Dems, with less than ten per cent of votes cast, I suggested that it might be time for a realignment of the British political party system. 

Let’s have four main parties, I suggested: English Nationalists, Conservative Democrats, Social Democrats, and Socialists. ‘It is possible,’ I wrote, ‘that we are observing the beginning of the end of the Conservative party as we know it.’

The Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland argues that the Liz Truss experiment marks the end of what he calls Brexitism, ‘the view that reality, including the laws of economic gravity, can be wished away, so long as you screw your eyes tight shut and believe.’

On the other hand, perhaps Brexitism still has some life left in it, and we really are closer now to the end of the end of the Conservative party than we were three short years ago. We’ll know by the end of next week at the latest.

Friday 16 September 2022

Why all those people in The Queue are, er, a bit odd

For the past week, I have been out of London, away from home. Far from the madding crowds – and, of course, far from The Queue.

I have been with people who were getting on with their daily lives: shop-keepers, restaurant-owners, dog-walkers and holiday-makers.  (Thérèse Coffey, please note: no Oxford comma.)

It has all been wonderfully, refreshingly, normal. It has been, you might say, as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened.

True, I have spotted a few – very few, to be honest – Union flags flying at half mast. And the local bakers have put a sign in their window saying that ‘after much deliberation’, they have decided not to open on Monday.

In the evenings, I have been watching the TV news. News from afar, from a different country. A country where countless journalists and broadcast executives have at last seen all their years – decades – of preparation pay off. Who can blame them for wanting to make the most of it?

TV cameras love crowds. They love spectacle, especially spectacle for which they can plan so meticulously so far in advance. Uniforms, bands, men in fancy dress wearing Gilbert & Sullivan medals. It’s all totally irresistible.

But I don’t mean to sneer. The death of a monarch, especially the death of the only monarch most of us have ever known, is of course an event of major national importance. It is perfectly right and proper that the event itself, its implications, the ceremonial that accompanies it, should all be reported on and analysed.

Yet something has been not quite right. I have been barely 130 miles from London, on the north Norfolk coast – not on Mars, or in the furthest reaches of the Scottish Highlands. But it has felt as if the Britain I have been seeing on the TV each evening has not been the same Britain in which I have been enjoying walks along the beach or delicious pub lunches.

I fully acknowledge that for many people – probably millions of people – the death of the Queen has been an event of deep sorrow. I also acknowledge that it is a moment of real significance in the history of our realm.

But how do we best reflect the true state of a nation in which there are so many different reactions to the same event? It is an unfortunate fact of life that journalists always tend to ignore the mundane, the ordinary – what’s news-worthy about the thousands of planes that don’t crash? The hundreds of MPs who go about their business unsung, uncorrupt? The thousands of NHS patients who, despite everything, get treated promptly and efficiently by caring health workers?

By definition, what we see on the news is the unusual, the out-of-the-ordinary. The people queuing up for countless hours to file past the Queen’s catafalque in Westminster Hall are not ‘ordinary Britons’. They are the opposite. They are – and I hope they won’t mind me saying so – a bit odd.

I use the word odd to mean unusual, not to imply that there is anything suspect or untoward about all those men, women and children, young and old, who have been shuffling patiently along the banks of the Thames to the Palace of Westminster. Each will have had their own reasons for being there: a genuine affection for the late Queen; fond memories of a dead grandmother of whom she reminded them; a simple wish to ‘be there’, to create a memory that can be shared with future generations.

But they do not represent an entire nation. They are not typical, they do not symbolise a ‘nation united in grief’, or whatever is today’s cliché du jour.

Somehow, and I don’t know how, we reporters need to reflect that reality without appearing to mock or belittle. 

I reported for the BBC during that crazy week in September twenty-five years ago when the people of Britain seemed to have lost their heads following the death of Princess Diana. Yes, some of them did go completely bonkers – but most did not.

I think we failed to realise it at the time, or to reflect it – and I fear we’re making the same mistake again. 

Wednesday 17 August 2022

Another 'nasty piece of work' in Downing Street?

 It now seems all but certain that the Conservative party are about to elect another unprincipled opportunist as their leader and our prime minister.

Once a Lib Dem, now a Tory. Once a Remainer, now an arch-Brexiteer. A woman who wears flip-flops in her head, not on her feet. And as if all that isn’t bad enough, an out-and-out admirer – or so she says – of the King of Unprincipled Opportunists himself, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson himself.

He was, she says, an ‘excellent prime minister.’ He did ‘a fantastic job.’ Which tells us everything we need to know about the soundness of her judgement. She has positioned herself so far from the political mainstream that if the earth were flat, she’d be clinging onto the edge by her fingertips. (Come to think of it, if there were enough flat-earthers in the Tory party to win her the leadership, she’d emerge overnight as a flat-earther herself.)

You have to admire, though, her novel approach to winning the support of voters as they face the worst cost of living crisis in living memory. Call them bone idle shirkers, afraid of doing a decent day’s work. Accuse them of having the wrong attitude, especially if they have the misfortune to live outside London. Even Norman ‘Get on yer bike’ Tebbit didn’t go that far.

I bet it goes down a treat in the so-called Red Wall seats, where all those traditional Labour voters turned to the Tories in 2019 because they suddenly realised that Johnson, Rees-Mogg et al were horny-handed sons of toil who chanted ‘Up The Workers’ in their sleep.

Just as they cheered her to the rafters when she came up with the truly genius idea that teachers, nurses and police officers outside London should be paid less than their counterparts in the capital. So unbridled was their enthusiasm that she abandoned the policy within 24 hours. Truly, a woman of conviction.

I can see the election billboards now: ‘We’re a nation full of lazy buggers who don’t deserve what they’re paid. Vote Conservative.’

Thank goodness the man whom she admires so much knows the meaning of hard work and is still grafting away at his desk in Downing Street. Who could possibly believe the fake news that he’s jetted off on his second overseas holiday this month, even as the removal vans are pictured outside Number 10?

What do you mean you’ve seen photos of him shopping in a Greek supermarket? Don’t you know it was the media that forced him to quit? Surely you don’t buy all that stuff about dysfunctional government, rebellious ministers and ungrateful backbenchers? 

What is it about Conservative party members that so attracts them to obvious wrong ’uns? Are they all piling into bitcoins and non-fungible tokens, convinced that they have stumbled on the best sure-fire winner since Tulip Mania swept the Netherlands in the 17th century, when a single bulb was valued at 10,000 times the price of an average house? (Mind you, if NFTs are good enough for Mike Tyson, who am I to quibble?)

Liz Truss prides herself on her plain speaking. She is, she says, a proud Yorkshire woman, it apparently having slipped her mind that she was born in Oxford and went to primary school in Scotland before moving to Leeds and then to Canada. (She now represents a constituency in Norfolk, which last time I looked, isn’t in Yorkshire either.) 

She has learned well at the feet of her mentor. Not Margaret Thatcher, as she would have had us believe when she posed on board that British tank in Estonia. It is Boris Johnson, who developed the art of political shape-shifting so successfully, who has taught her everything she needed to know.

Always tell the punters what they want to hear. Insist that two plus two equal five if it seems politically expedient. Tomorrow, when you are forced to admit that they don’t, claim that it’s only because you always got the big decisions right and delivered on your promises. 

Back in 2013, my former BBC colleague Eddie Mair called Boris Johnson, to his face, ‘a nasty piece of work’. On all the available evidence, Liz Truss is another one.

Thursday 26 May 2022

Sorry, not sorry

 Look. He said he was sorry, didn’t he? He didn’t mean it, of course, but at least he said it. What more do you want?

He said he took full responsibility. He didn’t mean that either, but hey, what else could he say?

In fact, there’s a simple rule to follow whenever he opens his mouth. If the sentence begins with the first person pronoun, insert the word ‘not’ before the verb that follows to work out what he actually means.

‘I will [not] learn lessons from what has happened.’

‘I do [not] fully understand people’s anger.’

‘I have [not] been as surprised and disappointed as everyone else at what has been revealed.’

What the hell did you expect? This is a man, don’t forget, about whom one of his school teachers once wrote: ‘[He] sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility … I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone else.’

He is now nearly 58 years old. Do you really think he’s going to change the habits of a lifetime? A man on his third marriage, who has fathered an indeterminate number of children, who has never bothered to buy a suit that actually fits him, and who lies as frequently as he ruffles his hair.

He insists that he has always said what he believes to be true. Translation: he has always said what he wants us to believe to be true, but not much caring whether we believe him or not. He has been sacked twice for lying, he has a total lack of interest in what most people would regard as basic standards of human decency, yet … Well, you know the rest, don’t you?

Napoleon is sometimes quoted – or more likely misquoted – as having said that he would rather have a general who was lucky than one who was good. Our man has an unshakeable faith in his own luck, his luck without end, and he has good reason to. Misdeeds that would have sunk virtually anyone else in public life have left him seemingly untouched, the greased piglet who has slipped through everyone’s hands time and time again.

He can preside over serial law-breaking, day after day, week after week, disgraceful carryings-on under his own nose, yet claim to have had no idea how the ill-disciplined youngsters in his charge were misbehaving after lights out. Yes, from time to time, he would pop his head round the door of the dorms as the kids were having their cocoa but he was shocked – shocked, I tell you -- to discover what mischief they got up to while he was translating ancient Greek texts upstairs.

He thought he was running a monastic order. How was he to know it was really St Trinians?

He is what he has always been, and he will do what he has always done. Anything and everything that he needs to do or say to get through tomorrow. It’s worked perfectly for him up till now – so why shouldn’t it go on working?

At first, as you may recall, his story was that nothing had happened. Then it morphed into, well, some of it might have happened, but there was nothing wrong with it. Now, we’ve got to yes, it was awful, but I wasn’t there at the time.

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
He’s broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!

Ah. I’ve just realised. I haven’t made clear who this is about. But of course, I didn’t need to, because you’ve known all along, haven’t you? 

Thursday 14 April 2022

'If you were me, what would you do?'

Dear Mr Johnson

I am a 19-year-old medical student from Sudan. I have just been released from jail, where I spent six months being severely tortured. My passport has been confiscated and I have been warned that because of my political activities as a critic of the current military dictatorship in my country, my life is at risk.

My father was murdered by members of a pro-government militia group ten years ago. But my uncle is a successful cardiologist who has been living and working in London for many years, and he has offered to sponsor me and support me if I seek asylum in the UK.

As I no longer have a passport – and as I have no means of obtaining a replacement – the only way I can leave Sudan is by paying smugglers to help me get out illegally. My uncle says he will pay whatever the smugglers charge to bring me to the UK, but I know that the final stage of the journey will be in a rubber boat across the English Channel.

I also know that the UK does not accept asylum applications made from outside the UK, and I have read that you now intend to deport asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via ‘unofficial’ routes to Rwanda.

I have no wish to live in Rwanda, so my question to you is this: if you were me, what would you do? As far as I can see, your government has provided no ‘safe and legal way’ for me to apply for asylum in the UK. 

In other words, you have made it totally impossible for me – and for thousands like me – to seek sanctuary in your country. I can only conclude that even though the UK is a founding signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, this has been your deliberate intention all along.

But here’s the thing: I’m still going to try. I shall just have to hope that the smugglers will find some way to get me into the UK without anyone noticing. I’ll stay with my uncle, out of sight, and hope that somehow I’ll be able to make a new life for myself. Despair does that to people: it convinces us that anything is better than giving up hope.

So please, Mr Johnson, think again. Your plan won’t work, it won’t keep us out. It probably means I’ll never be a doctor, though. 

Which is a shame, both for you and for me.

(Author’s note: this is an imagined case study based on current UK government policy as I understand it.)

Tuesday 5 April 2022

Refugees' Tales

The following article appears in the latest newsletter of the human rights organisation Waging Peace, which campaigns on behalf of Sudanese asylum-seekers and refugees. To find out more about their work, click here.

Imagine an 18-year-old girl, living alone with her mother, desperate to flee to safety to escape a genocidal regime.

She and her mother both apply for asylum in the UK. The 18-year-old is lucky: a relative in London offers to sponsor her, but her mother, aged 42, is ruled to be too old to be allowed in. 

The teenage girl was my mother, who fled from Nazi Germany in July 1939. I have her German passport in front of me as I write. It was issued by the Nazis with a large red J for Jew on the first page. Inside is a stamp that reads ‘Leave to land granted at Southampton this day on condition that the holder registers at once with the police and does not enter any employment other than as a resident in service in a private household.’

Her mother had to stay behind in Germany. War broke out five weeks later, and in 1942, she was deported to Lithuania and murdered. I thought of her when I heard Michael Gove boast in the House of Commons the other day that ‘our country has a long and proud history of supporting the most vulnerable during their darkest hour.’

Here’s another story: this time, the refugee is a 20-year-old man who arrives in England on his own from Berlin, having left his parents behind. With the help of a relative, he finds a family of academics in Cambridge who take him in and arrange a job for him as a builder’s labourer. Fourteen months later he is arrested and interned on the Isle of Man as an ‘enemy alien.’ 

After just six weeks, he is released and allowed to enlist in the British army. He ends up working in a top-secret military intelligence unit, which is where he meets his wife-to-be.

That man was my father, and in 1989, fifty years after he and my mother arrived in England, they threw a huge ‘thank you’ party for all their friends. They never forgot that they owed their lives to Britain – but nor did they forget the thousands of others who never made it. (Footnote: my father’s parents managed to get out of Germany in 1940, and spent the war years in Portugal.)

Now fast forward to 2003, when a 42-year-old man – the same age as my German Jewish grandmother – fled from his homeland after being captured and tortured by another genocidal regime. He made it to the UK, where, like my parents, he made a life for himself and eventually became a British citizen. His wife and two sons, who had stayed behind, were all murdered, and in January last year, on a return visit to his home country, he was shot dead during an armed attack by a pro-government militia.

His name was Sharif Barko and he came from the Darfur region of western Sudan. (You may remember that at one time the Darfur genocide was a big news story, but by the time Sharif died, it had been all but forgotten.) 

And in case you’re wondering what’s happening in Sudan now, there are still more than two million people displaced by the Darfur war; the UN has just warned that up to 18 million people could be facing extreme hunger within months, and there’s been an upsurge in violence since the military coup last October. 

Today, an alleged former commander of the notorious Janjaweed militia is due to go on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, facing 31 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-al-Rahman is accused of being implicated in the murders of more than 300 people.

But now, of course, it’s Ukraine that is in the headlines. More than four million – four million! – refugees have fled the country since Russia invaded in February: two million of them are in Poland; 640,000 in Romania; 370,000 in Moldova, the poorest country in Europe; 270,000 in the Czech Republic; and 240,000 in Germany.

Like my parents, and like Sharif Barko, they all fled in fear of their lives. They sought sanctuary wherever they could find it – and to their immense credit, the 27 members of the European Union threw open their doors and offered unrestricted access to all of them, including residence and work permits, housing, health care and education.

Not the UK, though. By the end of last month, the UK had issued a desultory 25,000 visas. The government’s record is utterly shameful, and it stands in sharp contrast to the outpouring of support from the British people: nearly 200,000 offers of accommodation and more than £260 million raised for the Disasters Emergency Committee Ukraine appeal.

Instead of welcoming refugees, which Michael Gove would have us believe is our ‘long and proud history’, the government is now proposing to make it all but impossible for them to get here. Under the terms of its controversial Nationality and Borders Bill (aka the Anti-Refugee Bill), many of those fleeing from war or persecution would be sent to off-shore camps to wait for their asylum applications to be processed, or even stripped of their right to seek asylum if they are deemed to have arrived in the UK by ‘irregular’ means.

So why one rule for Ukrainians and another for everyone else? Take a bow, Sir Bill Wiggin, the old Etonian Tory MP for North Herefordshire. ‘We want Ukrainians and we want Qataris, but we don’t want people in rubber boats,’ he said last week. No one from Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan in other words. No one from Eritrea or Syria.

And no one, of course, from Sudan. No one like Sharif Barko. No one – how can I put it? – who doesn’t have white skin.  Or a few million dollars in the bank.

Saturday 5 March 2022

Ukraine: the best and the worst of us

 Wars – all wars – inevitably show humanity at its worst. They show that we are capable of unimaginable cruelty and barbarity, causing unimaginable grief and suffering.

But wars also show humanity at its best. Thousands, tens of thousands, of ordinary people, men and women, reaching out to help their fellow humans in their hour of need.

The war in Ukraine is no different, and it has set me thinking about past wars, in particular the last war that rendered Europe asunder, the one that consumed our continent between 1939 and 1945.

Only the very oldest among us now remember that war, but most of us will have heard the stories, from parents or grandparents who lived through it. Stories of bravery, fortitude, and defiance, as well as of death and destruction on an unprecedented scale.

The stories today that fill our screens and front pages are no different. We see the smoking rubble of destroyed cities, and the tear-stained faces of terrified civilians. 

But we also see the volunteers at the Ukrainian-Polish border, welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees with offers of food and shelter. We see the hundreds of Berliners waiting at the city’s main railway station with cardboard signs offering accommodation to fleeing Ukrainian families.

And we see the grim humour of Ukrainians under attack, exactly the same humour that in another age, in another place, was called the ‘Blitz spirit’. The short wave radio hackers blasting out the Ukrainian national anthem on wavelengths being used by the Russian military; the Ukrainian motorist helpfully offering to tow a broken-down Russian tank back to Russia.

At an institutional level, we see the EU lifting all visa restrictions for Ukrainian refugees. We see British MPs giving a standing ovation to the Ukrainian ambassador, even as the UK government proves shamefully incapable of rising to the occasion.

Both my parents were refugees. They fled from Nazi Germany in 1939, made their homes in the UK and never failed to voice their gratitude for the welcome they found here. But nor did they forget the hostility they also encountered: the visit from the police when my mother was denounced by someone in a pub who had heard her talking with a German accent, the abuse from local people on the Isle of Man when my father was interned there as an ‘enemy alien’.

My maternal grandmother was refused asylum in the UK, was deported to Lithuania by the Nazis in 1941 and murdered at the Ninth Fort in Kaunas, shot by an execution squad made up of Lithuanian partisans. (Many Lithuanians backed the Nazis because they believed that they would restore their independence after the Soviet invasion in 1940.)

When I visited the site of my grandmother’s murder some years ago, my guide was one of the very few Lithuanian Jews still left in the country. (Before the war, Jews made up about 7% of Lithuania’s population. Today, they are estimated to total 0.1%.)

And he told me how his mother and her family had spent the war years being sheltered by non-Jewish farmers, who hid them in the full knowledge that if they were discovered, they would all be killed.

The best of humanity, and the worst, side by side.