It is rarely commented on, but I wonder if there is something which should be said about the fact that two of our recent Labour prime ministers and one of their chief factotum's constituencies have fallen to opposition parties? I always assumed that senior figures would preside over rock solid majorities and their ‘personal’ vote would hold up such majorities even as their tenure ceased. But not in the case of Blair, Brown and Mandelson, the chief architects of New Labour. I wonder what lessons these grandees have taken from the fact that their seats are now held by unknowns from the opposition? Apparently none, and Labour’s current leader, seemingly so bereft of ideas and it seems memory has clearly embraced the trio’s long gone unlamented wisdom.
I am prompted to consider this legacy and its current regurgitation after reading of Gordon Brown’s ongoing battle to stop another Scottish independence referendum. Gordon is very fixated on the ‘union.’ Perhaps with his profound knowledge of economics he has grasped an essential truth, viz. that economics trumps democracy. So how important is the Union? I wonder what our forebears in the Labour Party said about previous dangers to this wonderful, wealth generating marriage of disparate parts?
An article in History Ireland paints a picture of 1920s Labour attitudes to Irish independence as being somewhat dependent on the party’s desire not to be associated with ‘emotional’ or ‘irrational’ elements lest these might impair its standing with the mainland electorate at a time when Labour was poised to win power. In 1920 the party conference (in Scarborough, where all the big decisions were made) had voted to support Irish independence, if determined by the will of the Irish people. But Ramsay MacDonald sought successfully to ensure that the policy didn’t interfere with the party’s domestic electoral focus, which was chiefly to prove its managerial credibility. In the words of History Ireland:
“MacDonald’s overriding ambition for his party was to extend its political attraction beyond trade-unionised workers, to attract progressive voters and thus to replace the Liberal Party as the alternative governing party to the Conservatives. To achieve this it had to demonstrate its moderation, reliability and patriotism so that at some stage in the near future it could be entrusted with the reins of political office. This meant distancing itself from extremism, militancy and, above all, absolving itself from accusations that, in Churchill’s famous phrase, it was not ‘fit for office’.
To MacDonald an increasingly militant Irish politics fell into this category of emotive, irrational and unpredictable activity, with which Labour associated at its peril. This could endanger the whole Labour project of seeking to secure the confidence of the British electorate with the intention of becoming a future government. Between 1918 and 1924, when the first Labour government was elected, MacDonald skilfully manoeuvred Labour policy on Ireland so that the party could never be accused of flirting with extreme Irish nationalism.”
MacDonald’s caution may have paid off for the party but it also meant that Labour became more of a bystander on the Irish question and merely accepted Irish independence as a fait accompli rather than something that it helped fashion. Irish independence came about precisely through seeming ‘emotive, irrational and unpredictable activity,’ the hallmarks of most independence convulsions which so offend the establishment.
Had he been around in 1920 I wonder whether Gordon Brown would have used the same arguments against Irish independence as he does against Scottish independence today? He clearly thinks an independent Scotland would become an economic basket case without the overwhelming might of the British economy propping it up. By the same token, you might imagine that Ireland should have gone belly-up a long time ago. But as we have seen, despite a shaky start, the impact of the Great Depression and the 1930s Anglo-Irish Trade War, the republic eventually prospered. Latterly, since it joined the then Common Market in 1973 it prospered more than it ever did under British rule (part of the ‘economic war’ with Britain centred round De Valera’s demand of the UK government that it should repay £400 million he claimed the Brits had overtaxed them between 1801 and 1922). It is perhaps one argument against Scottish independence that the London government might seek to penalise Scotland for going its own way, echoing the Irish experience.
This surely does not form part of Brown’s argument as it would be entirely self-destructive, although such a fear could dent a pro-independence vote, along the lines of ‘project fear.’ But nor is Brown suggesting that Ireland would now be better off it were to be repatriated into Britain (leastways I very much doubt he would say anything quite so daft). And it is impossible to imagine any Irish wishing to undo their century old independence.
What connects this ramble with the loss of those Labour leaders’ seats? Not Tory or SNP populism, but the rejection of dominance by remote, unaccountable forces, be it ‘London’ in the case of Scotland or ‘Brussels’ in the case of England. These names in inverted commas are shorthand for being out of touch. Clinging on to old constitutional arrangements offers no inspirational vision for the future, and Labour seems incapable of surmounting the challenge of Boris Johnson’s empty rhetoric about ‘levelling up.’ Just as MacDonald sought to be classed as a ‘safe pair of hands’ so Labour's current leader merely stands for better managerialism (this isn’t much of an ambition given how low the bar has been set under Johnson’s incompetent government).
Corbyn, despite his evident weaknesses at least challenged Labour’s longstanding inertia. Something has to be said in praise of that, even if it led to the opprobrium of the establishment and the blizzard of lies issued by its media satraps.
Getting stuck in again
I am pleased to say that I have resumed my ‘Perambulations’ of thumbnail sketches of art exhibitions visited. The latest of these can be found in the Henry Moore Institute, (Leeds) page under the aforementioned sub-heading. A must-read for dilettantes everywhere! As subscribers to the e-flux art news service will know artists have been toiling away throughout the pandemic, keeping the fabric of society intact. They should be given ‘essential worker’ status and possibly even paid.
+On the train to Leeds yesterday, and despite repeated requests over the tannoy for passengers to wear face masks (for everyone’s safety) unless exempt, at least half on board chose not to. Clearly they are a) completely immune to Covid and b) couldn’t care less about anybody else. But it’s not just idiots on a train. Watching the BBC Proms last night shots of the audience revealed that roughly the same proportion of them fitted conditions (a) and (b). I’m glad no-one sat next to me maskless, I might have had to ask them if they’re immune to a fat lip.
+The latest victim of UK supply chain pressures, largely brought on by Brexit, is a shortage of vials for blood tests, with GPs being told to restrict their use by the NHS until mid-September. Who could have guessed Brexit had so many benefits?
I am in awe of Prof. Brian Cox, he of various interstellar escapades and New Labour’s theme tune Things Can Only Get Better, and most recently the repeated series The Planets on the Beeb. Sat here on our lonely orb looking at close-ups of our sisters in the solar system with a warm mug of coffee in hand has been very relaxing. It seems that everything in the solar system has more or less settled down to a humdrum routine, although in the years (millions or billions of them) to come stuff will get a lot more interesting. Bezos’s Amazon will definitely have to retire to Mars to stand any chance of surviving the Sun turning into a red giant. Also, it seems that Saturn’s rings will disappear under the command of that giant’s gravity.
I loved the visuals, although it might be better if the series’ producers could have captioned the shots to tell us which were real and which were computer generated, although a clue could always be found when one saw a picture of say Voyager 2 sailing past Neptune. Did NASA send up another mission to film the first? That observation can only lead to moon landing conspiracy theorists exclaiming how right they were—it’s all fabricated!
Anyway, it seems that our sister planets are untroubled by life (that has to be said with caveats of course). But if there were intelligent forms of life out there looking at us they would be bound to say give that place a miss, it’s teeming with horrible self-destructive bacteria. This is in contrast to some of the wealthier members of our species wishing to spread our bacterial infection to the outer reaches.
One of the endearing features of The Planets is how our amiable guide places himself in some of the most inhospitable landscapes on Earth. Whether it’s the searing heat of the desert or the frozen waste of the north, Prof. Cox always has a smile and some handy ways of illustrating the immense distances involved in his narrative, often employing rocks and pebbles. It’s all rather enchanting. The Solar System. The Universe. I wonder if the Taliban (one variety of our bacteria) have ever dreamt of such things?
Perhaps it will stop the Taliban in its tracks, perhaps it won’t. The recall of the UK parliament next week will give many an MP the opportunity to spout off about the situation in Afghanistan as if we were some Victorian tribe of colonial overlords. The debate may of course have the side benefit of affording the Labour leader Kier Starmer an opportunity to say something meaningful, but I feel in my bones that it will be Sir Kier Equivocation who will be the one to rise to the opposition Dispatch Box. It is an interesting situation for a Labour leader 20 years after Tony Blair took us into this territory—albeit with UN approval (which is one reason why I felt I could support the 2001 war). Now, Starmer can’t say it was all a mistake, and he has to formulate his words carefully to say that the deaths of hundreds of UK troops was not in vain. He might also feel compelled to toe the Biden line, and to pretend that this isn’t another Saigon moment (at least the South Vietnamese government lasted a wee bit longer than the current set of muppets in Kabul). Biden has made it clear that in his view the US intervention in Afghanistan was all about fighting terrorism, and considers the battle won. It was never about nation building. Tony Blair probably still differs on this point, although the website for his Institute for Global Change does not yet appear to have caught up with the fast changing reality in Afghanistan, concerned as he is with the question of peace building with colonial Israel in a hostile region. It was in 2003 that the Labour party conference heard in person from Hamid Karzai, the first torch-holder for the post-invasion Afghanistan puppet government, and who sat not on a solid democratic renaissance but a corrupt regime living on the back of the dollar flood-feed. As in Iraq, corruption and the betrayal of the people went hand-in-hand with turning a blind eye to our hired ‘democratic’ nabobs who by definition were incapable of instilling genuine loyalty or co-operation in the task of nation building.
One financial aspect of this whole affair is troubling. The US spent one trillion dollars on its Afghanistan escapade, but now finding that kind of money would be seen as a disaster for the economy if it were devoted to tackling climate change. But a trillion dollars spent on a war doesn't seem to have hurt the American economy at all.
Kier, the vet
At long last, the leader of the Labour Party, Sir Kier Starmer has shown true, decisive leadership with unequivocal positions taken on the things that matter. In a kind of three buses all come along at once moment we have learnt that a) Sir Kier wants to see an Alpaca slaughtered because it has TB (disputed, but Kier’s veterinary skills must have helped to form his clear cut opinion); b) he has said he would only allow Corbyn to be readmitted to the Parliamentary Labour Party if Jeremy makes a fulsome apology for anything he might have said about anything ever (which translated means licking the soles of Margaret Hodge’s (aka Enver Hodga’s) feet; and finally c) under Starmer’s brilliant leadership, we have just seen a true friend of working people, the film director Ken Loach kicked out of the party. All this adds up to a winning formula for Labour, which with its mass redundancy programme for party staff is demonstrating that it’s got a spring in its step and is serious about destroying itself. Is this the only power it has? With membership levels dropping like a lead balloon (and hence opposition to its woeful leader) the party is devising a whole new way of doing politics! Meanwhile the world is burning.
In it for the money
+The big UN climate report, which grabbed the headlines yesterday has faded away faster than a used Olympic torch. Is it enough to say in a scientific report that things are getting worse, and that this is our last chance? At long last it is possible to imagine that many people can see it with their own eyes, which means of course that we have passed the turning point. Even the UK’s COP26 president, Tory minister Alok Sharma has been quoted as saying that the race now is simply to avoid the worst case scenario. I wonder what he means by that?
+Not every former UK prime minister before Thatcher automatically accepted a peerage. Since 1990 however we have had four of them who have preferred to stay out of the Lords. I don’t think that’s just about the company they would keep. It most probably has a lot to do with them not wishing to declare their earnings. In the case of David Cameron, who has trousered (allegedly) $7,000,000 for his efforts on behalf of failed finance business Greensill, his office have said that what he took was a ’private’ matter. I would humbly suggest that in future, all PMs (and ministers too) should be legally required to not only declare their earnings and from whom, but also the taxes paid on them, for a period of at least ten years after leaving office (should they live that long). Johnson it has been suggested wants to move on to make wads of cash as soon as he can relieve himself of the burden of running the country (sic).
Spaffing bosh twallop
Lord Deben (Chair of the Climate Change Committee and John ‘Let them eat hamburgers’ Gummer as was) has told the BBC that there needs to be a ‘mechanism’ for richer countries to help poorer ones meet the climate change crisis. Good for him, he’s been aware of such a mechanism for donkeys’ years, it’s called Contraction and Convergence, and for political reasons it’s been rejected over and over again. He was briefly interviewed after today’s release of the latest UN report on climate change science, which it turns out is our final, final warning, or ‘Code Red’ as the UN secretary general described it. Deben says on the one hand that he has absolutely no doubt that Johnson is committed to addressing the climate crisis, but then goes on to say that targets have to be met with action. In other words, Johnson’s action is inadequate, and as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. But of course Deben is a Tory, and he has to mince his words if he wants to sound in the least bit credible to his colleagues. That’s just one way in which everything is watered down. Deben might just about justify his existence if he called out Johnson and Co. for what they are. Wankers. Still, we can’t have it all, can we?
I sent a letter to the Guardian a few days ago, but it’s not been published. Self explanatory, I think:
Kier Starmer is quite right to say that Boris Johnson is ‘missing in action’ in dealing with climate change. But in terms of Labour’s commitments, I was left wondering precisely how these would address the global crisis. Yes, of course we want a Green New Deal, with all that that entails in speeding up new technology and the development of skills. But how often have we heard that? Starmer seems to have missed the point of Labour’s Climate Change Act 2008 which was based on the notion that these commitments relate to our share of the global problem. The Act was based on the principle that without a fully equitable solution, other countries will simply assume that the West will do what it feels necessary for itself and neglect to help others. This is precisely why India walked away from the most recent talks. The point is to recognise per capita carbon emissions (or lack of them) and ensure that any climate change framework takes into account the global imbalance.
As things stand Johnson is no worse than any other western leader, who promises great things and then doesn’t deliver. Hence, the climate change fund promised at the Copenhagen COP meeting in 2009 hasn’t been delivered, and as the crisis has become critical there is still no likelihood it will be, as developed countries will face greater pressures to spend on domestic adaptation. The principle behind the Climate Change Act, that is our underlying acknowledgement of what our global responsibility really is and most importantly how that is to be calculated, should be at the heart of the COP26 talks. As it is, Kier Starmer didn’t even mention it.
They’re all running scared.
In the papers
Kier Starmer had an article in this morning’s Guardian about climate change. He’s gone up to Glasgow prior to COP26, to achieve what I’m not quite sure. The conference doesn’t start until November. What does he say? Nothing new I’m afraid. Such articles usually have three components: how serious the problem is; how badly the government is responding and a hint of what we would do. Not always in that order. It seems Johnson is ‘missing in action’ on climate change which is, sad to say something we all learnt a while back. As regards Labour’s plans, it’s the usual commendable stuff about skills and technology. I don’t deprecate that but it isn’t enough. The situation is now so dire it needs behavioural change too, brought on by carbon rationing (but we don’t have to use the word ration, ‘allowance’ would serve equally as well). Naturally this will not happen (yet) since despite being very fair (the wealthy would have to give up the most) it is assumed nobody would vote for it. I notice Starmer didn’t mention Labour’s introduction of the Climate Change Act in 2008. The Act was a step in the right direction, but maybe Starmer reckons it’s a bit old Labour now. That would be ironic.
At least the letter I co-signed to the Financial Times which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago got published today.
The end is in sight
Old misery guts here welcomes the thousands of holiday makers descending on Scarborough, the premier seaside resort of Europe. The crowds look entirely normal, with all impositions of mask wearing and social distancing a barely retrievable memory. Who could blame people for wanting to put Covid behind them? It’s only a matter of time before our prime minister offers everyone a candy floss. To add to the general sense of recovery is the success of our Olympic team, who seem to be picking up medals like confetti (not that anyone picks up confetti, sorry for the inadequate metaphor). What a relief! Normal has returned! Except it hasn’t. Anyone who can lift their eyes above the receding misery of Covid (at least in the developed world) will know the bigger shit storm is with us already. There’s no immediate remedy for that. I noticed in my local branch of supermarket Lidl today that the emptiest shelves were those normally laden with confectionery, whilst those with toilet paper were well stocked. What does this mean? Is it significant?