Simon Jenkins writes in the Guardian today ‘all hail to the chief’ in a rapturous welcome for Johnson’s (or is that Cummings’) idea to shift the House of Lords maybe to York (see yesterday’s blog). Jenkins is not usually so delusional and he seems to have lost touch with reality on this one. Hence a letter to the editor:
Of course Johnson would love to shift Parliament into the regions - the further away from the seat of power the better. It seems he's already learning similar tricks by diminishing the power of the lobby ('Parliament's lobby system now at the heart of the battle,' 20th Jan.) If Parliament is to hold government to account, then it needs to be sitting on top of Whitehall. Moving the House of Lords to York would just be theatrics, and it's not as if York hasn't got enough visitors already. The obvious alternative, so far as Yorkshire is concerned is to devolve power to a Yorkshire Parliament, but the slogan 'power to the regions' rarely leads to genuine devolution.
I’m not about to jump ship to the Yorkshire Party. Genuine devolution should be available for all English regions. The last time ’devolution’ was offered, to the North East in 2004 it was swiftly kicked into touch by the electorate in a referendum with 78% against. I think they saw through the shallowness of New Labour’s then proposal and weren’t enthused about the thought of having a new tier of politicians elected merely to talk about spatial development strategies. The idea was deservedly sunk, it was quite plainly not worth the paper it was written on. Nor is the current proposal.
The Sunday press today, when not going overboard with their ‘Megxit’ rampage are ramping up a story that the government is considering moving the House of Lords to York, as some kind of sop to Johnson’s new northern Tory ‘heartlands.’ Apparently, a site has even been identified not far from York railway station. This is all part of a plan to bring democracy ‘closer to the people’ and it’s all bollocks of course, no more credible as the ‘big society’ and every other Tory commitment 'to the people' ever is. If there is any truth in it, it would only happen to assist in the further de-democratisation of the UK.
That’s not because the Lords is a democratic institution, but because it does at least have a majority of non-Tory peers. Move them away from the centre of power and their influence will diminish. Then there’s the suggestion that the Commons itself could move around the country in some peripatetic caravan. This could all begin happening by 2025 we’re told, when the Palace of Westminster is closed for its multi-billion refurbishment. Once again, get MPs away from Whitehall—and the attention will increasingly focus on No. 10—another step on our road to a fully fledged presidency. Move the elected element away from the seat of power. That’s the intention, but I suspect it won’t happen. The logistical challenges are enormous. Even those Coalition efforts to show the people real democracy in action, with PR stunt ‘Cabinet’ meetings held in places like Leeds fizzled out. But such talk now helps embed the idea that Johnson actually cares.
The formula is the same as Osborn’s in 2010, which is to promote a false narrative whilst Labour involves itself in a period of self-reflection with a leadership battle. This plays out this time around as ’look at us, we care about you compared to them (Labour) who only care about themselves.’
The first test of Johnson’s government’s environmental credentials didn’t take long to materialise. The prospect of bailing out airline Flybe with a relaxation of Air Passenger Duty (APD) demonstrates the power of the short term over the long term. Twas ever thus. It won’t be long before the fracking moratorium is ended, as the government’s ‘review’ discovers that all is well. Other big decisions, on Heathrow 3 and HS2 will no doubt proceed along similar lines.
But perhaps we have in all this found a new friend who rails against the billionaires’ club. Step forward Michael O’Leary CEO of Ryanair, who said ‘This government bail-out of the billionaire-owned Flybe is in breach of both competition and state aid laws. The Flybe model is not viable, which is why its billionaire owners are looking for a state subsidy for their failed investment.’ (Guardian, 17th January) Ouch! Shouldn’t this kind of critique be coming from Labour’s transport team? It seems not. Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald told the House of Commons: ‘There is clearly a case for government intervention and I trust the government will learn the lessons from their inept response to the Thomas Cook collapse, which saw other nation states being prepared to step in while this government sat on their hands and contacted the company only after it was too late.’ Mr McDonald noted how ‘important’ the airline was for regional connectivity but then went on to say ‘Slashing air passenger duty across the board would make a mockery of the Government’s supposed commitment to climate emissions. It would also benefit a wealthy minority. Some 70% of UK flights are made by a wealthy 15% of the population, with the great majority of people not flying at all. Aviation is set to be the biggest source of emissions by 2050, with Ministers planning for demand to double.’ (Hansard, 14th January) So, it looks like regional connectivity is important—but mainly for the top 15% of the population. And what is this regional connectivity all about? It seems the ‘billionaires’ only want this hallowed concept in order feed the hubs for their international routes, thus compounding the environmental problem. This is all just business as usual, and in the absence of Labour saying what exactly ‘government intervention’ means, it’s hard to see much of a distinction between HM Opposition and HM Government.
+At some point I must have browsed the Daily Telegraph’s website, since I now get regular emails from them inviting me to subscribe. Hell would freeze over first of course. I got this from them the other day: ‘A curated selection of shock Sussex stories.’ This makes it sound like an exclusive box of chocolates from an upmarket chocolatier. Delicious centres! How about a taste of ‘Step back if you want to, but snubbing the Queen is unforgivable’ with its nutty crunch or why not try ‘I said to Meghan: 'Why don't you just jack it all in?' I didn't expect an answer’ for its fruity, gooey tongue tingling centre? So, the news is now ‘curated.’ Presumably all news is susceptible to this misapplication of the word. How about curating a selection of news about some famine, or perhaps the Australian bush fires?’ What would our old friend Clive James have to say about that I wonder?
+I heard on the radio this morning that Trump had sent out tweets in both English and Persian. If (as a rule) the former is anything to go by, the latter will be indecipherable.
+The Labour leadership contest is about to go through a silly phase, in the media at least, of finding the candidate with the best working class credentials. So far as the media is concerned, this will be about setting somebody up merely to knock them down again. I remember the late lamented Michael Meacher getting involved in something similar, which came down to the question of whether he was entitled to wear a flat cap or not. Thinking about it, I can’t recollect Tony Blair or Gordon Brown ever wearing a flat cap. It’s a big issue.
+The leadership contenders will necessarily have to confront the issue of alleged anti-Semitism in the Party (and elsewhere in the country, although that’s rarely mentioned). The news on this front is that the Board of Jewish Deputies have issued a list of 10 pledges they demand candidates adopt, namely:
‘ . . . to resolve outstanding cases of alleged antisemitism, to devolve the disciplinary process to an independent agent and to ensure transparency in the complaints process.
The remaining pledges are:
· Prevent re-admittance of prominent offenders
· Provide no platform for those who have been suspended or expelled for antisemitism
· The full adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism “with all its examples and clauses and without any caveats”
· To deliver anti-racism education programmes that have been approved by the Jewish Labour Movement, which would lead training
· To engage with the Jewish community via its “main representative groups and not through fringe organisations” such as Jewish Voice for Labour
· To replace “bland, generic statements” on anti-Jewish racism with “condemnation of specific harmful behaviours”
· For the Labour leader to take personal responsibility for ending the “antisemitism crisis”
(from the Jewish Chronicle website, 12th January)
I don’t take issue with most of this, whilst sadly acknowledging that the heavily flawed IHRA definition of anti-Semitism has already been adopted. I note that the word ‘alleged’ has at least crept into the narrative and indeed the words 'anti-Semitism crisis' appear in quotation marks. A minor acknowledgement there I think, of the questionable nature of this ‘crisis.’ What surely cannot be accepted by anyone who wishes to lead a broad based party is the thought that an outside body can dictate which groups it may engage with. It is well-known that the Board of Jewish Deputies does not represent the Jewish community in its entirety (Jewish Voice for Labour makes no such claim for itself). The Jewish Labour Movement too was distinctly anti-Labour in the recent general election, which does not make it an automatic choice for an educational role. Also, I have nothing against an independent body looking at cases of alleged anti-Semitism within the party—but then it should have a similar duty to consider all forms of alleged racism, not just one variety. Finally, I would comment how interesting it is that the Board has not made any mention of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s investigation. Do they fear it won’t deliver the result they desire?
There’s to be a big Andy Warhol retrospective at Tate Modern this spring. They say it’s the first Warhol exhibition there for 20 years, although as a Tate member for around 20 years it seems to me that he’s never been far away, and of course exhibitions can be dressed up in different guises (all to pull the crowds in). This time round we’re promised new insights, and no doubt for non-members the £22 ticket price will produce all sorts of fascinating glimpses into the man’s creativity for those who see him as a latter-day Messiah. But I’ve lost interest in Pop Art—its baleful influence has been to license veneer as depth, immediacy as significance. This is not to say one can’t appreciate a powerful image, but context free powerful images dim our sensibilities and denude aesthetic appreciation.
I agree with the art critic Hilton Kramer on this:
As a movement Pop Art came and went in a flash, but it was the kind flash that left everything changed. The art public was now a different public—larger, to be sure, but less serious, less introspective, less willing or able to distinguish between achievement and its trashy simulacrum. Moreover, everything connected with the life of art—everything, anyway that might have been expected to offer some resistance to this wholesale vulgarisation and demoralisation—was now cheapened and corrupted. The museums began their rapid descent into show biz and the retail trade. Their exhibitions were now mounted like Broadway shows, complete with set designers and lighting consultants, and their directors pressed into service as hucksters, promoting their wares in radio and television spots and selling their facilities for cocktail parties and other entertainments . . .
(Hilton Kramer, The Triumph of Modernism, The art world, 1987-2005, Rowman and Littlefield, Maryland, 2013 pp 146/7)
Yes, Warhol has a lot to answer for, but his defenders would no doubt argue that his ‘Factory’ democratised art and helped blow apart the elitist clique who considered art the preserve of connoisseurs. But the clique has merely refashioned itself in new clothes and its portals are more expensive than ever as artists seek to relocate themselves in the world of designer labels. Looking at an ‘original’ Warhol (is there such a thing?) one is more likely to ask ‘what’s it worth?’ rather than ‘what does it say?’
As we perch on the edge of the abyss, along comes Harry and Meghan to take our minds off things. Is this pair the first to become republicans and actually do something about it since Charles I was beheaded? Now the news has emerged that they’ve been separated from the rest of the Windsors in Madame Tussaud’s London display. On the orders of the Palace presumably. To their credit, they want to earn their own crust. Harry could start by becoming a director of Harry’s Razors ™ although this would necessitate a change of appearance. Not to their credit is their professed desire to live equally in the UK and North America. This would constitute a high carbon lifestyle, running counter to all the greenwash royals of a certain ilk are prone to.
There was some jerk from the Daily Mail on the radio this morning spouting off about how it was all such a shock to the Firm, and essentially how disloyal the ’Sussex’s’ were to all and sundry. It must be the fate of all royal correspondents to keep their dream of a gong alive, even if they are seen as a pathetic herd of ungrateful lickspittles by their subjects.
Back in early December I complained to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) about the fact that their launch of an investigation into alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour Party could be seen as lacking impartiality. This reflected the fact that complaints about alleged Islamaphobia in the Tory Party were rife at the time. Why single out one party for an inquiry into racism? I received the EHRC’s response a couple of days ago. After a lengthy discourse on their strategic aims and concerns for a civilised political discourse, one paragraph towards the end got round to telling me that my complaint was not upheld. This is one of those non-explanation explanations:
The current investigation is defined by its Terms of Reference. The type of inquiry you are suggesting, including all political parties, would clearly be very different to the current investigation in scope and timescale. We therefore do not consider it would be appropriate to widen it in the way you suggest.
So change the bloody terms of reference! Oh dear, the 11th commandment decrees that Thou Shalt Not Change The Terms Of Reference. Transparency and balance doesn’t come in to it. Consequently I am forced to pursue my own investigation into the EHRC. This begins today with an FOI request:
a) Between 1st January 2015 and 31st December 2019, how many complaints about racism has the Commission received for each of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties, broken down by month and by the form of racism complained of (e.g. anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, etc.)
b) Over the same period, how many complaints about racism has the Commission received about other bodies, public or private, broken down as in (a).
c) Over the same period, how many investigations into allegations of racism (broken down as in (a) above) has the Commission launched regarding other bodies, public or private.
d) The terms of reference of the Commission's investigation into the Labour Party states (Paragraph 8) that the Commission 'may' have regard to the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism whilst recognising that this definition is not legally binding. Please provide the legal definition of anti-Semitism the Commission WILL use in this investigation whether or not it chooses to use the IHRA non-legally binding definition. I note that this investigation is being carried out by the Commission using its legal powers provided by the 2006 Act.
We haven’t heard the last about this.
In my mother’s final months, when she was totally immobile and couldn’t read, she asked me to read to her from Dante’s Divine Comedy. I chose the recent translation by Clive James, hoping it would not be dry and dull. We got well into Paradise before she went on her final journey, so I hope that turned out well. Thus I have a lot of time for the late Mr James.
But I have just discovered that something was missing from his obituaries: he was a prominent climate change sceptic. To be precise, he was sceptical of there being anthropogenic climate change, and perhaps entertained the possibility of ‘natural variations’ in the climate system. At least that is what I have divined from an essay he wrote in 2017 and which has been republished by the comic Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF, prop. Nigel Lawson). This essay was originally published by the right-wing Australian ’think tank’ the Institute of Public Affairs in a collection called ’Climate Change: the facts 2017.’ Sadly, Clive’s contribution though lengthy was short on facts and long on his trademark sardonic take on life, with an overly emphasised look at how the subject of climate change is treated in the media. This can be summed up with the suggestion that supporters of the science of anthropogenic climate change are making a mint out of their media prominence and this necessarily relies on their overstating the case—in other words, being alarmist.
All this is well and good if you are a comedian, but I doubt that there will be that many people in Australia at this moment in time happy to find relief in a bit of knockabout Jamesian humour whilst their house is in danger of burning down. But Clive is dead, so we won’t know what his analysis is of the worst fires in Australia’s history. And so far, we don’t know what the Institute of Public Affairs has to say about it either. Judging by their website, they’re all still on holiday. The Clive James essay is here.
Let Dante have the final word (The Divine Comedy, Canto 29, tr. Clive James, Picador 2013 p139)
[Virgil] “The time permitted to us now is short,
And there is more to look at than will meet
Your eyes here.” I said, “Had you given thought
To why I looked, you might have granted me
A longer stay.”
After weeks of development, I have finally come up with Labour’s election slogan for the 2019 general election: ‘Take Back Control.’ It is so blindingly obvious I wonder why no-one else has thought of it. I know it was used by the Brexit crowd during the referendum, but I don’t think they copyrighted it. Why would it have been good for 2019? So far as Brexit is concerned, Labour could have portrayed the Tory Brexit mess in a different light, and inter alia our solution—a second referendum. But the slogan’s use could have extended well beyond Brexit. At every opportunity Corbyn could have prefaced his answers with take back control—of rogue landlords, or chaotic rail services, multinational rip offs—the list is endless and would under this single motto have demonstrated what real control means. Particularly so since in the last three years Brexiteers have signally failed to show what ‘control’ really means. More power to people or more power to elites? Thinking about it, it should be the driving mission statement of Labour in this coming year. Now we can’t stop Brexit, so we must define what taking control means—and contrast that with the pro-elite version which will be pursued by Johnson (with or without his bribes to the North).
Labour should now promote with vigour some of the key elements of its manifesto, e.g. the green transformation, some re-nationalisations (particularly rail and water) and the housing agenda. It should discard policies which no matter how desirable did not convince voters of our seriousness. Very expensive pledges on WASPI women, tuition fees and free broadband did not sound thought out and were presented half heartedly. No-one believed in them. Some policies will unite the party quickly, particularly on housing. After watching a clip of a recent, post-election speech by Tony Blair, predictably excoriating Corbyn’s Labour (despite the fact he did better in votes than in 2005 when Blair won) I thought I would take a look to see what magical remedies the Tony Blair Institute (TBI) was coming up with. Here’s one proposal for housing: ‘A new Sovereign Property Fund to support property acquisition by local councils for the express purpose of housing construction and rehabilitation.’ That appears on the TBI website and was dated 2017. What appeared in Labour’s 2019 Manifesto? What a co-incidence: [in the first 100 days] ‘Set up a new English Sovereign Land Trust to buy, assemble and co-ordinate the delivery of new homes.’ I suspect that sprinkled though the 2019 manifesto there may be other examples of such policy sharing with bodies like TBI. There is room here to create a dialogue which does not rely on simplistic criticisms, in which I include Blair’s reference in his speech to voters not liking Corbyn’s alleged dislike of ‘western values’ (whatever they are) or his parroting of the anti-Semitism smear.
Well, we can live in hope.
The Pope delivered his message. The Archbishop of Canterbury delivered his. Many other patriarchs have put their self-serving hopes for the new year ahead to bed. Now, if you’ll forgive me, it’s my turn as we come to the end of the second decade of the 21st century and look forward to what the 2020s and beyond beckon. Yes, I’m being a little presumptuous here, placing myself alongside such notable personages, but since they’ve only generally spouted their usual platitudes, it’s fair game. Let me say first of all, happy new year to all of you not only here in the UK but arrrrround the worrrrld!
I have chosen as my inspiration for this missive Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, a work of science fiction penned nearly one hundred years ago which made a lasting impression on me as a teenager. In a nutshell, it considered the future of humanity not just in the near future (which is the next ten thousand years, maybe?) but in millions of years’ time, to the point when whatever humans might be so far ahead had left planet Earth. The singular point of the book and perhaps what made it revolutionary for me is that it looked so far into the future, well beyond our temporal parochialism. Today (by way of contrast) as the latest Star Wars iteration demonstrates, popular science fiction has only modernised eighteenth century concerns with a dose of souped-up technology. Or to look at Star Trek, whilst acknowledging ethnic diversity, its star kit was still the USS Enterprise, captained of course by an American. Do we think nationalities will survive the next five thousand years? Even another hundred? That’s a good question not just about some long distant time in the future but about today, when nationalism seems to be the flavour of the month on this little planet of ours, and of course threatens our continued existence for the daftest of reasons.
So to take the Stapledon long view, what will humans be like in one billion years’ time? To ask the question assumes our species will survive climate/biosphere change (many times), asteroid collisions, earthly ruptions, resource depletions and so on. I feel quite sure our species will not resemble anything like we are today, and our existence will likely be extra-planetary. The resource we will need most—energy—will be found elsewhere. Perhaps ‘humanity’ will have morphed into a nomadic floating gassy cloud, without a destination, pointless in fact, but living in an intelligent form. Naturally I acknowledge that the physics of this possibility do not currently exist, but science has a long way to go. If we think we’ve nailed all the laws of the universe after 10,000 years or so of civilisation, the next billion years are going to be quite boring on that front.
How we develop will be more down to sentient evolution rather than the rather accidental kind posited by Charles Darwin. Evolutionary development relied on probabilities and connections which were nevertheless purposeless—one development could always be outmatched or destroyed. Dinosaurs were for hundreds of millions of years perfectly evolved for their circumstances, but they couldn’t adjust to circumstances they couldn’t foresee and consequently were wiped out. Sentient evolution makes it possible to conjecture how we could develop, and make allowances for unintended consequences. We can now envisage how we might avert that asteroid strike (but without Bruce Willis would it work?). This is not to say every possible retrograde development could be avoided. Sentient evolution is struggling with climate change for example. But if we survive this, and many of our species will, then our evolutionary path will accelerate.
An important component of this which seems inevitable is the spread of artificial intelligence (AI). Stephen Hawking and others have seen in AI an existential threat, in contrast James Lovelock has seen positives. We are at the very dawn of this revolution, but if it does play out positively then AI will become a chief tool of sentient evolution. It will not remain external to humans, but will become part of our very being, just as all sorts of bits and pieces of our body can be replaced today. AI one day will make a grand entry into that last bastion of our organic structure—the brain. Not in our lifetimes though, so no need to immediately worry.
Having said which I predicted 20 years ago (to a meeting of the Morley Labour Rooms luncheon club) that the reduction in the size of mobile telephony would lead to mobile phone implants inside the skull, in effect creating real telepathy. It hasn’t happened yet (so far as I know) - probably the right connections have yet to be sussed out.
Technology as we know develops at a much faster pace than the legislation required to regulate it. This is especially so today, when so many politicians simply do not understand the technology and because of the power of the tech giants are prone to imagine that ‘self regulation’ is sufficient. One possible approach to dealing with this ever present time lag is to pass a ‘public good’ test, which is to say that any technology brought to the market must demonstrate its value (or harm) to the public good. This is no more revolutionary than the rules already in existence which are designed to ensure drugs are safe. As ever (c.f. the US opioid crisis) such rules are not a panacea but they do provide the foundations for enforcement, if they are enforced.
One of the tests humanity will have to grapple with in the not too distant future (in perhaps just a few hundred years) will be living in a more mono-cultural world, which is to say as is already happening, with the decimation of species, resources, land, crops, water, borders, living space and whatever else we think this planet is super-abundant in. This will be the next big test for sentient evolution, all things being equal. Will serious preparations begin in 2020?
Once again, happy new year!