(1) I have received a message from Virgin Trains East Coast which says: "You may be aware that Virgin Trains East Coast is transitioning to become London North Eastern Railway (LNER) on 24 June 2018." Transitioning? This must be the most moronic use of the English language to emerge from this disaster of a rail franchise yet. Their complete and utter failure to do what they said they would do is merely leading to a transition to something called LNER - as if it were just a fresh coat of paint. Awesome! Good to go!
(2) Theresa May never looks more shifty than when she's having to answer questions, even the soft and somewhat sympathetic ones that Andrew Marr throws her. It's not her fault I suppose that she can't smile without turning her mouth into a lop-sided smirk, nor that this form of tic is getting worse as every day passes. It makes her look ever more dishonest, which doesn't help when she's trying to convince us that her announcement of £20 billion more a year for the NHS is anything more than a rather shallow ruse to grab a headline. The trouble with Marr, who is ever so polite is that he doesn't pursue his own questions when she doesn't answer them. There were a number of times when he could simply have said "Could you be more specific?" and Theresa's smirk would have swallowed her whole body. Where does this figure of £20 billion come from? Everybody is asking that question now. What did she mean when she said that since 2010 the government had put more money into the NHS, when we know it's less than the annual pre-2010 average? Following each of her waffling generalisations, Marr should simply have said "Could you be more specific?" The answer of course is that she can't, because the whole exercise was a back of the fag packet exercise which, by the time sometime in the future when the dosh is meant to flow, it will be well forgotten - just another piece of specious Tory NHS gaming. Having said that, and for the sake of fairness, the figure of £20 billion does ring a bell. I seem to recall in New Labour's early days Gordon Brown making hay with such a figure, which I believe was a rehash of a previous announcement. But despite that slip, Labour did put more money into the NHS. It is unlikely that this government will follow suit.
The American political scene is surely becoming more challenging, and not just in the U.S. Interpreting what's going on and speculating where things will end up defies customary rules of engagement. That's why I made this little film called 'The Fog Of Knowledge' to assist your understanding of these uncertain times. I hope you find it useful.
Some infamous person said that all political careers end in failure. There is some truth in it. But who makes that judgement? It seems rather harsh. But then it can't be any harsher say, than Winston Churchill's rejection at the hands of the electorate in 1945, when to cap that humiliation said voters delivered a landslide to the man Churchill famously described as being 'modest, with so much to be modest about.'
I am minded to think of the issue of political failure having just read a review by John Booth on the Lobster website of An Inconvenient Death: How the Establishment Covered Up the David Kelly Affair by Miles Goslett. I was an MP at the time of Kelly's death and looking back, I now regret not having done anything about it. Others did of course, raising questions, etc. I may have signed Early Day Motions on the subject but that would be about it.
I think much of what goes on in parliament is delegated by colleagues to those MPs who take an interest in particular issues. Most MPs have their specialities, and of course no individual can specialise in everything. My specialisation became climate change, and I found that developing a reputation in that field led to a certain amount of delegation to me by other MPs who trusted me to get on with it. This form of trust is endemic, to the rather obvious point where you simply have to trust 'your side' to do the right thing, by and large. Most MPs (possibly all, but I can't say that for sure) will troop through the lobbies voting for or against legislation they haven't the vaguest idea what it's about. Indeed, much of their understanding where it exists, particularly on the more contentious issues will have been gleaned from lobbying from pressure groups or special interests.
Reading John Booth's review (I haven't yet had the chance to read the book) I would now support the call for a proper inquest into Kelly's death. There are too many unanswered questions - questions which perhaps were not raised in parliament at the time. I wish I had raised them, and regret I didn't. But to support the call for an inquest now is one way to make amends. 38 Degrees have a live petition on the subject here. It has about 7,000 signatories so far.
HM Government's shambolic efforts to reform the welfare system with the creation of 'Universal Credit' (UC) have been savaged today by the National Audit Office. As ever, some hapless junior minister is put up to defend the indefensible. Rather than admit that their baby has so far proven as disposable as the bathwater, we heard, for example, that UC claimants had 'double the chance of finding work' than those not on UC. What we're not told is whether that is double as in 1% to 2% or half of one percent to one percent. Later I heard some policy wonk from Iain Duncan Smith's policy think tank, the Centre for Social Studies saying that the fact that UC is costing a hell of a lot more to administer was never a central part of its inception. Of course not - that's 'millions of miles away' from the real intent, which has left thousands relying on food banks. My question is this: how was it that the United Kingdom ever fell under the spell of such a useless plank as IDS? How is it that this behemoth of stupidity is given regular airspace to ventilate his asinine Brexit bleatings when his record in office is humiliatingly dismal? Or is that part of a BBC plot to keep us in the EU?
I don't envy the Nobel Peace Prize Committee their job this year. What if Trump's meeting with Kim Jong Um is a success? Success in this context could mean anything of course, even just getting some kind of process started, which is what Trump himself has now downgraded the talks to. One tangible thing that most likely could emerge as a success would be the ending of the technical state of war between North and South Korea. Given that the Nobel Prize went to Obama, so far as I can see merely for being elected, I could well understand it if Trump, following his meeting with Kim tomorrow, did not get the prize. But where would his getting it leave the prize? As someone said, when Kissinger got it, satire died. Can satire die twice? Or should we be forced to reassess the Donald?
I almost forgot - if the Tony Awards in New York last night are anything to go by - then no reassessment will be required soon. Robert De Niro, on the stage said he had only one thing to say: 'Fuck Trump.' In fact he repeated it, and got a standing ovation. Since Oprah appears to have ruled herself out of the next presidential race, perhaps De Niro could take up the baton. He's only three years older than Trump. You lookin' at me?
When we look at Canada it's either because of a royal visit, or some Justin Trudeau story. So, if you want a more in-depth take on the non-Trump part of North America, take a look here. This is the blog of my old friend and parliamentary colleague Gordon Prentice, who now lives in Ontario. Gordon's view comes from being embedded in the community but brings with it the detached perspective of an incomer. Well worth reading.
So the story continues. Another nasty, right-wing tubthumper has won an election. Doug Ford, the unpleasant Trump-soundalike ‘non-politician’ has won the provincial parliamentary election in Ontario, winning an overall majority. What’s going on? Populism certainly has a spring in its step, but it’s more than that. Although contexts differ, I believe there is a common thread – which is to say that a huge reaction is developing against a social democratic model which sought to dance with the devil neo-liberalism. The combination of laissez faire economics with a so-called ‘equality of opportunity’ layer on top seemed a marketable idea before the great recession of the noughties but its inner contradictions have now been exposed. Those contradictions were kept as much as possible out of sight when Labour was in power. When it was OK to talk about the filthy rich, it was not OK to talk about redistribution – like it was a dirty secret. So many of the good things Labour did were never acknowledged, and can thus be easily swept aside. The same is true of the EU. The same now seems to be true of the left-leaning Liberal former government of Ontario.
Skripal – what’s happened to the government’s case?
Things seem to have gone quiet on the Skripal front. The conclusive evidence that Russia carried out the nerve agent attack in Salisbury has not yet emerged. A quick survey of the web has thrown up more questions than answers, and some of the questions are pertinent, e.g. why would the Russians choose to attack Skripal so long after his arrival in the UK? It has been reported that when he originally came he continued to work with MI6 and foreign government agencies, advising on Russian military intelligence operations and techniques. Was he still at it 12 years later? If he was, and the government considered him to be a target (particularly after the Litvinenko affair) wasn’t it a little careless of them not to have provided protection, especially since the alleged murder weapon could have killed innocent civilians in Salisbury?
OFCOM – no need to reply?
I wrote to OFCOM’s chief executive on the 11th May, suggesting that their investigation into Russia Today’s (RT) broadcast license should take into account my right to hear different views and indeed biases, as well as the broadcasters’ freedom to express them. It’s now the 8th June and I still haven’t had a reply, nor even an acknowledgement. Perhaps such courtesies are outwith OFCOM’s statutory responsibilities. I have sent a reminder.
I have just returned from a self-funded fact finding mission to North America. Some of my itinerary involved studying new developments in art, of which more under ‘Perambulations.’ And some of my demanding daily schedule required a close examination of the election scene in Ontario, where provincial elections are taking place. Of course, my punishing schedule, which others might describe as a ‘holiday’ left no time for blogging, hence the silence on these pages since mid-May.
I doubt that the Ontario election has featured at all in the British media, but it may well do (the election is today, 7th June) if the slight favourite, Doug Ford, leader of the ‘Progressive’ Conservatives (PC) wins the provincial premiership. He is the brother of the late Rob Ford, who gained notoriety when he eventually admitted having crack cocaine sessions with gang members in his Toronto mayor’s office a few years ago. Doug Ford is a populist in the mould of Donald Trump and has been criticised for his vague financial plans but which of course include tax cuts and unspecified spending cuts.
What has particularly interested me in this election is whether the populist surge that gave us Brexit, Trump, probable chaos in Italy and for that matter another boost for Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France will reach Canada, often perceived as a stable if not staid liberal democracy not prone to making waves.* The form the populist surge may take here does not necessarily have to be right-wing of course. Ford’s PCs are neck and neck with Andrea Horwath’s NDP – the left-wing New Democratic Party, which once briefly ran Ontario back in the 1990s. The NDP’s closest cousin in British politics naturally is the Labour Party under Corbyn.
The outgoing Ontario government (and let’s not forget here that Ontario has a population of 13 million, over a third of Canada’s overall population and provides a huge part of the country’s economic base) is a Liberal party administration run by Kathleen Wynn. Days before the election she has already conceded defeat and is now merely concerned with damage limitation and the hope of stopping either of the other two parties forming a majority. It needs to be noted that in all the miles of column inches of commentary I have read in the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail, I have seen no real connection being made between the provincial Liberals and the federal Liberal government of Justin Trudeau. Maybe this is what happens in geographically large countries with strongly devolved provincial government. In the Ontario election, the focus is on the (relatively) local, and the fact that Trudeau has in the last week agreed to prop up the Alberta tar sands with the firesale purchase of the ‘Trans Mountain’ pipeline project doesn’t seem to have any traction in this vote. That may be because Ontario voters recognise that their ballot result can have no possible impact on the federal government position. If that is indeed the case, it contrasts sharply with the British political scene, where the parties would have no hesitation in dragging anything they could into the pot to damage the other side. It’s possible the Green candidate may make a little headway with this issue given Trudeau’s apparent volte face since being the darling of the Paris climate change conference. But it doesn’t look at all crucial.
One thing that clearly concerns many Ontario electors, including many PC supporters is the character of Doug Ford himself. He was elected PC leader in what I can only describe as inauspicious circumstances, in which (it seems) money played a major role. Of course, I can’t verify the truth of that, but the perception is well established. What is evident is that like Trump, he has little patience for democratic norms. He has been quoted as saying that he will not govern ‘by the government’ but by ‘the people,’ that wonderful amorphous body abused so fondly by demagogues down the ages. Ford doesn’t appear to enjoy scrutiny and despises the press. Given that Ontario is likely to be the part of Canada hardest hit by Trump’s protectionist tariffs and anti-free trade measures, it will be interesting to see – if Ford the bombast is elected - how he would respond to Trump the bombast’s belligerence.
As a sub-national general election, this election will be almost entirely overlooked on the international stage, but I shall be watching the results closely on the 7th June to see if there is further evidence, even here, of the abandonment of political centrism. After decades of being lectured that elections can only be fought (and won) on the centre ground – a ground of course which has always been further to the right than to the left, so is not really ‘central’ at all – then perhaps we should take notice of what is taking place this week in Ontario.
Sorry about the moire effect, but this electronic campaign poster in Newmarket, Ontario I thought was a rather poor example of messaging. It is on behalf of the Progressive Conservatives but doesn't mention them - and it's asking voters to remember 'what happened in the 90s, when the NDP were last in power. The picture on the left is of the NDP's 1990s leader, Bob Rae. The whole thing is a good example of how to waste money in political marketing.
The US House of Representatives Science, Space and Technology Committee is having hearings into what contribution technology will make in adapting to a warmer world. Thankfully, one of the committee's members has offered a different take on what might be causing sea level rise.
"Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) questioned . . . the factors that contribute to sea-level rise, pointing out that land subsidence plays a role, as well as human activity. Brooks then said that erosion plays a significant role in sea-level rise, which is not an idea embraced by mainstream climate researchers. He said the California coastline and the White Cliffs of Dover tumble into the sea every year, and that contributes to sea-level rise. He also said that silt washing into the ocean from the world's major rivers, including the Mississippi, the Amazon and the Nile, is contributing to sea-level rise." (reference here)
You couldn't make it up.
With the debate about euthanasia growing - and more moves to support the principle of dignity in death happening (e.g in Guernsey) - perhaps more needs to be said about the lives of people who are facing their imminent demise. I am sure that some who describe themselves as 'pro-life' believe that such periods in our lives give us the opportunity to repent, to seek atonement or at the least act as guinea pigs for the advancement of medical science. For many who face eternal annihilation the prospect will seem daunting - the very idea that our self will be extinguished for all time is on the surface a worrying thought, even if we won't be around to think it.
So I was inspired by a previously mentioned book I have just finished reading, Natural Causes by Barabara Ehrenreich which relates how trials in the US have found that giving the terminally ill LSD helps them release themselves from this attachment to the "I" and allows them to approach the inevitable with greater equanimity. It's a long time since I last dropped a tab of acid, and I have sometimes wondered what it would be like to try it again, nearly fifty years later. Of course, one thing that is off-putting is the possibility that in some way the LSD available today could be tampered with or suspect in some way. But if it were available in properly controlled conditions, might it not be preferable to morphine, say? When my time comes, I'd like something to look forward to, as well as dignity in death of course. But the starched shirt establishment wouldn't allow it. They'd fret that it might give us a bad trip.