As a dutiful citizen I devoted some time yesterday to reading the Guardian’s ‘long read’ about the Thoughts of the Philosopher King Dominic Cummings. The Prime Minister's serially brained right-hand man clearly deserves a long read. But I wondered, it has to be said, whether this Oxford history graduate had somehow missed out on doing a PPE, and in his rejection made a virtue of his more obscure learning. It seems he is fond of citing all the names in intellectual history to bolster his present dominion over all he surveys. Thucydides (that’s Thucky did e’s where I cum from) through Hume, Descartes, Heraclitus, Anaximander, Smith, Darwin, Hayek, Joe Bloggs, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau, Bentham, Mill, Mrs Gubbins — they all get a mention in this great man’s synthesis of world thought. This no doubt gives him the insolent authority to slouch around No. 10 dressed with the sartorial elegance of Jimmy Saville,* a person whose proximity is accepted in the PM’s residence like an honoured, beneficent presence, bestowing his generosity on the unfortunates who without him couldn’t wheel their own trolley. The splashing around of his gravitas reminds me of American generals with their breasts splattered in medals, some of which will have been earned merely for assiduously flicking the switch off at lights out at West Point. The important lesson that Dominic has to learn here is that like Steve Bannon, supplicating a boss with a massive ego can be a short lived experience. When the shit hits the fan, the Svengali will be the first to feel the heat. And like Rasputin one has to be constantly on guard against those who are right behind you. I would like to think it’s only a matter of time. The only thing working against my optimism is Johnson’s sheer laziness. And in some regards I wouldn’t accuse Trump of being lazy.
*I do not imply here anything more than a reference to ‘sartorial style.’
+If you get into Who’s Who, you’re in there for life. Hence, even if you only served one day as an MP, your entry is assured (yeah, and why not?). And each year you are asked to update your entry. In my case I now describe myself as an artist, which obviously is not the reason my name appears in Who’s Who. So far as Who really is Who, I am very happy to accept that even a passing reference to me in the past tense might be a flattery too far. But as things stand if I were currently working as a shelf stacker at B&Q, that could appear as the first line of my entry. I quite like the idea that such an iconic record of the supposed ‘great and the good’ could permit such a levelling down, such that the first line of one’s entry could be for outstanding shelf stacking services at B&Q. The chances of this observation being of note are slim. The next volume of Who’s Who is priced at £330.
+Harvey Weinstein must be cursing that he can’t be tried by the US Senate. Perhaps he needs to call in some favours.
+I feel reassured that the Coronavirus has not merited a call from Johnson to the Chinese, as revealed by an email sent by his dad by mistake to the BBC. If it’s not that important, it’s not that important. Nothing to worry about. But I wonder. Is this an illness that’s covered by private health insurance? Or will BUPA beds be made available to all and sundry? That’ll be another test of how serious this really is.
+It’s been a couple of weeks since I sent a reminder to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to send me the actual definition of anti-Semitism they will use in determining whether the Labour Party is anti-Semitic. A response seems overdue. I will have to jolt their memory. Interesting to note that according to the Labour Party General Secretary Jennie Formby, one third of all complaints came from just one individual.
+I had to struggle through my supper tonight, accompanied by the BBC PM Programme. I could have choked several times. First up was Andrea Leadsom, a Cabinet minister (no less) for business and energy. She was explaining the government’s newly announced ‘policy’ to phase out the sale of new diesel and electric cars five years early in 2035. Turns out it’s not a policy at all, but merely the start of a consultation. The period of this chat with the car industry will no doubt extend well beyond the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow later this year. Following the sacking of former junior minister Claire O’Neill as the UK nominated president of the summit there’s now a good chance that Leadsom could take the role. The name of the messiah comes to mind, many times over.
+Then, forcing me to rise from my healthy pizza eating came an interview with a health minister about the case of the surgeon who was imprisoned for his criminal activities, particularly for his unnecessary treatment of women suspected of having breast cancer. This health minister is none other than Nadine Dorries, previously notable for taking off from her duties as an MP to appear on ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.’ The name of the messiah comes to mind again. What a state of affairs. The anti freedom for women to chose campaigner earned the title ‘Nadine Bonkers’ when I had an office on the same floor as hers back in the noughties. Just before I switched the radio off she was extending her condemnations to the health service generally, even though the surgeon in question also worked in the private sector.
+With some justification Trump can have a good laugh at the Democrat’s inability to count the votes in the Iowa primary. If there’s one thing the Republicans have learnt it is how to count votes at the local level. The former speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill is credited with the phrase ‘all politics is local.’ This really means ‘all vote counting is local’ and never was there a truer statement in the context of US politics, where the Republicans have embraced gerrymandering whilst the Democrats have comparatively been too sniffy about such tricks. These lessons are being learnt post-haste with our own new administration, we can expect to see a free trade deal on this front very soon.
+Part of my studies as an elderly student of fine art has led me to the work of Alfred Jarry, the strange avant garde figure of fin de siécle France, who invented Pataphysics, wrote ground breaking plays and novels, lived life to its alcoholic extremes in a largely impoverished (financially) existence and died at the age of 34 in 1907. He was both a pain in the arse yet a good companion in equal measure it seems. Thinking about a trip to Paris, I wondered about visiting the site of one famous occasion when he and his friends had a riotous time at the Taverne du Pantheon, on Rue Saint-Michel. The book I'm reading gave the precise location so I looked it up on Google Maps to see if the establishment was still there. The result couldn’t be worse. Instead of a classic Parisian taverne, there is now nothing more than a Burger King. It is impossible to imagine anyone having a riotous time in a Burger King, least of all in Paris, least of all on the Left Bank.
The UK is now in limbo. I’m trying to think of an analogy. Perhaps it’s going to be like Californians wondering whether (if ever) the San Andreas fault is going to do its worst. The earthquake must be overdue by now, but in the meantime nobody pays too much attention to the threat. Or perhaps it’s like being Robert Redford in All Is Lost, in which his yacht sinks and eventually he exhausts every diminishing option of saving himself and eventually gives up. But yay! Let’s not get too depressed about this (reading the Guardian’s commemorative supplement this morning was a very depressing experience). We can now look forward to a future beyond the immediate wreckage. As Johnson said in his homily to the nation last night, the curtain is going up on a new act in 'our great national drama' . . . ‘to deliver the changes people voted for. Whether that is by controlling immigration or creating freeports or liberating our fishing industry . . . ’ Creating FREEPORTS?! When did freeports ever come up in the referendum campaign? Fishing did (not least here in Scarborough) but since fishing represents just 0.01% of the UK economy it is purely symbolic, and being so will be sacrificed at the first sniff of hoped-for bigger fish to fry elsewhere.
I received a final report from Yorkshire and Humber Labour MEP Richard Corbett. Here’s a small taste of what 'taking back control' means:
On the economy: EITHER we distance ourselves from the EU (our neighbours and main trading partners), causing huge damage to our economy, losing thousands of jobs and hurting our public finances. OR we stay close to the EU, especially the customs union and the single market (both of which have non-EU countries participating), but then have to follow the rules without having a say on them anymore. Neither is good for Britain, although the second is less economically damaging. The government currently says it wants the former.
On security: EITHER we leave the joint police databases, the shared criminal records, the common efforts to find and catch crossborder gangs, traffickers and terrorists, etc. OR we ask the EU to let us stay in them anyway, but we’d not have a say anymore on how they’re run or the rules and safeguards that apply.
It’s the same choice again on the EU technical agencies where we currently pool resources to cut costs on things like the testing of medicines (European Medicines Agency), of chemicals (European Chemicals Agency) or of aircraft (European Air Safety Agency): EITHER we set up our own separate agencies, at great cost, recruiting the necessary expertise, duplicating work already done and having to get them recognised across the world. OR we ask if we can stay in the EU agencies anyway, but without a say anymore on how they’re run or the standards they apply.
Taking back control? What a delusion.
Here we are on the eve of a new era. It is so profound a revolutionary step, we English should mark it with a new calendar, but until that’s sorted let’s adopt the French Revolutionary model, so today is 11 Pluviôse (apologies if I haven’t got the date quite spot on, we’re in a real democracy now so I can say what I like without Brussels telling me off. So there.) Eventually, we will devise our own Faragian calendar, which will be non-metric and far superior to anything the Europeans have got, as will be our new currency. Tentative, infant steps have already begun on the latter course with the issue of the new 10 shilling coins although due to some Bank of England (ENGERLAND!) incompetence they still have ‘50p’ written on them. Have no fear, Britannia will be back soon and it will once again, triumphally take 144 pennies to make a pound.
I was in Whitby today, famous for its being the (near) birthplace of Captain Cook, who did his bit to create the British Empire; of course Whitby now, a la Dracula has its other existence, which I feel certain some people believe is as real as Capt. Cook. Funny how Dracula has benefited the town when all he fictitiously did was come here to suck the blood out of people. But hey, that’s free movement for you. So it was with some amusement to me at least, in these last hours of our membership of that blood-sucking EU that I came across the sign above, which boldly credits the EU with supporting the repair and rebuilding of Whitby’s iconic piers. How such a sign has survived un-vandalised in a constituency that voted strongly for Brexit I don’t know. I suspect that most people are more interested in a symbolic departure from the EU than the real thing. If that’s the case they may be in for a shock. Thank God we have a Prime Minister who has thought it all through.
In the pub tonight I cracked a joke. After Brexit, don't use your mobile in Italy. You'll be stung for Roman charges. Sorry.
+The Labour leadership race is not exactly setting the house on fire. We are in a period where the whole thing looks rather irrelevant—and this despite the fact that party membership is at an all-time high of 580,000. Membership of the Party seems to be in inverse ratio to its influence. This will change, it’s not quite like what happened after 2010, when the Tories could lay the blame for Brexit on Labour ‘profligacy.’ This time round the Tories own everything that is going to befall the UK, and Johnson in particular will have absolutely nowhere to hide. Even Michael Gove in an interview yesterday seemed to acknowledge this fact. If things go the wrong way up the creek without a paddle neither the EU nor the Labour Party will be to blame. So what qualities will Labour’s new leader bring to bear on this agenda? As things stand at least for me the jury is out, but since the elephant in the room is climate change the candidate who speaks most strongly on that will likely get my vote. Having said which, this is still not a subject that sets the house on fire in the UK, even if it does literally elsewhere.
+I had a good opportunity to speak to the Russian people about all of this yesterday in a half-hour interview on Channel 5 (St. Petersburg). I’m not sure why they have me down as a go-to person to spout off on Brexit, etc., but it’s fun to imagine viewers in Russia listening attentively to my views, as if they may be representative of what we Brits are thinking. I have to admit, not being a regular Skype user what fun it was, to the extent of trying to set things up beforehand so as not to look too amateurish. Then, seeking out the Russian Channel 5 website and having the whole thing translated into English at the touch of a button. There are some things about the internet that should aid international understanding—one wonders why it doesn’t work out quite like that.
+I think I’m mixing up catch phrases here. Was it Neville Chamberlain who said ‘This is the deal of the century?’ And was it Donald J. Trump who said ‘This is peace in our time?’ Or is it Benjamin Netanyahu who’s mixed things up? Funny that both Don and Ben are now facing trial. At least Neville didn’t fall into that trap, although his unfailing innocence didn’t do anything for his reputation. Trump’s so-called Israel/Palestine peace deal is as crap as anything he’s ever produced, most of which has ended up with bankruptcy, it seems (the last two words added for legal reasons).
+What I’m reading at the moment: Duty Free Art : Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War by Hito Steyerl (Verso, 2017). If you’re not into art don’t be put off by the title—this is a book which digs deeper into the deep shit culture we’re mired in today than practically anything else I’ve read lately. And who wants us to read books about that anymore?
+Heads up: I had an article published in Lobster last year looking at the number of Labour peers who have taken up an interest in cyber security companies. I just thought it was all a bit coincidental, although I’m not entirely sure what the coincidence was/is. But in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books there’s an article which in passing comments on the role of a couple of cyber security businesses having an involvement in the Harvey Weinstein affair, that is seeking to provide information against his accusers. This is something that needs digging into. Somebody more au fait than me has perhaps already been there, and if so it would be interesting to see what is going on. I should add that my starting interest in cyber security firms was the Labour connection, but that doesn’t lead us into this latest territory. The companies mentioned in the NYRB article are Black Cube and K2.
With near perfect timing I received an e-mail last week from an outfit called ALERT (Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers) with the attention grabbing subject ‘Are You Racist If You Avoid MSG?’ It seems a big debate is raging in the US about Monosodium Glutamate and its connection to so-called ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ (CRS). The whole background is here. A campaign has been started by Far Eastern food manufacturers to counteract the ‘myth’ that MSG is bad for you—and part of this campaign is to suggest that prejudice underpins avoidance of Chinese food (I wasn’t aware that Americans did avoid Chinese food, but there we are). The campaign wants to remove a reference to CRS in a well known American dictionary. It is claimed that MSG is harmless and has been unjustly maligned. From my own experience I used to love eating Bombay Mix liberally coated in MSG and I am not aware of any ill effects. That’s the limit of my expertise.
So we now have something which may be described as culinary racism. If you don’t like a certain foreign food, could you be racist? Could there be a slippery slope between taste and racism? Perhaps one reinforces the other. But now we have the Coronavirus epidemic might such thoughts be compounded a million-fold? It seems the virus leapt to humans from an animal source in Wuhan, where live meat is traded and reading between the lines of British reportage, health standards are not high. The story feeds a narrative that these people eat strange things and aren’t as finicky about food standards as we like to believe ourselves to be. The whole thing reinforces the idea of the Other, face masks and all. Another variation of this theme is Halal. How soon will it be before all the new vegans are accused of being racist should they protest the Muslim method of animal slaughter? Perhaps it all puts chlorinated chicken in a new light . . .
In writing the following I want to make it clear from the very start that I have no issue with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) carrying out an investigation into alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour Party They received complaints and they have the legal discretion to investigate them. What I am concerned with is whether such an investigation could be ’weaponised.’ In the context of our current state of politics and rabid tabloid media an investigation in itself suggests that there cannot be smoke with out fire, and in the billionaire-owned media’s hands, guilt on the part of the accused is an automatic assumption. Hillary Clinton, despite her many faults fell prey to the CIA ‘investigation’ into her emails, regardless of the result of that investigation - which more or less exonerated her. So, in the hands of Jeremy Corbyn’s enemies, one might argue that this case, politically was analogous in the way that it was capitalised by his foes.
In this light, I (acting alone) sought to dig deeper into the EHRC’s justification for launching its inquiry. I sent them an email on 6th January asking the following questions, under the FOI Act:
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.
In asking these questions (a to c), I was trying to flush out what it takes to get the EHRC to launch an inquiry. Admittedly a purely numerical answer would be insufficient, some complaints about racial discrimination could be small in number but egregious in seriousness. But one has to start somewhere. Question (d) was aimed at finding out what the EHRC actually understood to be the legal basis of its definition. The EHRC can only act under the powers it is given by Parliament, and if that means it has a wide latitude, fine—but let’s be clear what that latitude entails for the accused.
On the 23rd January, I received a reply from the EHRC which claimed that my request would be too expensive to comply with. The relevant part of their response said:
Following consideration of your request we have determined that the
Commission will hold information relevant to your request, but the cost of
complying with your request would exceed the £450 / 18 hour limit.
Your email dated 6 January consists of a series of requests with an overarching
theme / common thread running throughout. As such we have aggregated the
costs of complying with these requests as permitted by the Fees Regulations.
We have determined that it will take well in excess of 18 hours to locate,
retrieve and extract the requested information. This is due to the extensive
nature of the searches required. We have outlined below how we have
calculated this estimate.
Section 12 search strategy
Between 1st January 2015 and 31st December 2019, we did not have a
centralised case management system for legal/enforcement work. As such, it
will be necessary to go back to a number of different documents and files to
determine the breakdowns you have requested. For example, with regards
question (b) above, we would need to consider a number of folders, including:
1. Allocations for 2015-2016; 2016-2017; 2017-2018; 2018-2019; and 2019-
2020 (9 months);
2. Pre-allocations for 2015-2016; 2016-2017; 2017-2018; 2018-2019; and
2019-2020 (9 months);
3. Legal requests for 2015-2016; 2016-2017; 2017-2018; 2018-2019; and
2019-2020 (9 months);
4. EASS for 2015-2016; 2016-2017; 2017-2018; 2018-2019; and 2019-2020
5. Notices of commencement for 2015-2016; 2016-2017; 2017-2018; 2018-
2019; and 2019-2020 (9 months); and
6. General correspondence complaints for 2015-2016; 2016-2017; 2017-
2018; 2018-2019; and 2019-2020 (9 months).
We are conscious that in some instances information may not have been
recorded in and we will need to go back to the original case file.
To try to obtain an estimate of locating the information requested, we have
conducted the following sampling exercise:
I. Allocations: In 2018-2019, there were 29 race cases recorded through
Allocations. We estimate that to locate and extract the information will
take 4 minutes per case. Therefore, 29 cases x 4 minutes would take 116
minutes. As you have asked for 5 years’ worth of data, we have calculated
that this could take 580 minutes (116 minutes x 5 years). However, this
is a very conservative estimate as it is likely to be substantially longer for
the years 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 as records were not kept as
thoroughly and we would likely need to go back to the original files.
II. Pre-allocations: In 2018-2019, there were 10 race cases recorded
through Pre-Allocations. Again, it would likely take 4 minutes per case.
Based on a 5 year period, this would amount to 200 minutes ((10 cases x
4 minutes per case) x 5 years). Again, this is a very conservative
estimate as it is likely to be substantially longer for the years 2015-2016
and 2016-2017, as records were not kept as thoroughly and we would
likely need to go back to the original files.
III. Correspondence: From 1st January 2015 to 31st December 2019, there
were 1403 issues returned by the enquiry strand ‘race’, recorded in our
general correspondence tracker. In order to determine whether these
were complaints about race and, if they were, break them down as
requested, it would take approximately 2 minutes per issue. This amounts
to approximately 2806 minutes (46.76 hours).
So, without considering the information from Legal Requests, EASS or Notices
of Commencement (3-5 above), we are already at 3,586 minutes (59.7 hours).
My first reaction to this detailed breakdown of how costly it would be to answer some (in my mind) perfectly simple and reasonable questions is yes, maybe it is a big ask. But on second thoughts, maybe not. The period I am seeking information on is well within the era of computers. It may be noted that in the same period under review (2015 to 2019, with more or less equivalent financial year end periods) the EHRC’s income from the taxpayer was around £76 million. In that context, I am astounded that they do not have systems in place (as they acknowledge in their response above) to simply draw out the information requested at the touch of a button. Presumably they have a system of indexation?
What I find interesting here is that a body with possibly inadequate information systems, which finds it difficult to dig out relatively simple information ('records were not kept . . thoroughly') is now tasked to consider whether another body—the Labour Party—is better equipped to deal with complaints which may need a considerable time to consider. Judge not lest ye be judged may be a suitable working premise.
The observant reader will have noticed that the above answers—which are the complete actual substance of their response to my questions do not even tackle question (d), which is about their actual definition of anti-Semitism. This could be an oversight, but it is possibly a revealing one. I have asked the EHRC again to answer my question, which surely would not require more than five pound’s worth of anybody’s time to answer. The EHRC operates with the authority of law and it should not be acceptable, particularly in controversial circumstances to arbitrarily choose what definitions may or may not apply in its deliberations. I await their answer on that one.
CORRECTION (made 26th January 2020) - it was the FBI not the CIA that investigated Clinton's emails - thanks to a comment on the JVL website for this correction. It doesn't alter my substantive point.
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.