A SORT OF BLOG

What follows is a collection of thoughts in response to daily events. Some of the conclusions and ideas might seem counter-intuitive, contrarian or oddly supportive, or critical of, groups and individuals who might naturally fall within, or beyond, my expected “bubble”. This is because the ideas all rest upon my analysis of how our society, culture and economy have developed over the past 60 years. This progression is explained in detail in my book “The Rise of Antisocialism”. It argues that we now live in a state of almost compulsory consumption – which equates to a catastrophic cycle of pollution and destruction. It is achieved through exploitation, with modern slavery and sweatshop labour commonplace – even in the UK – and is fed by maintaining a permanent state of dissatisfaction, self-interest and individualism throughout the population. Globalisation, technology and business principles applied to everything – and the complete capitulation of “socialist” ideas – have enhanced and accelerated this process. The recent lockdown and the focus on what matters, what is essential, and who our key workers are has offered us a small dummy run at what will be needed when we have successfully pillaged more of the Earth's resources than it can withstand. We could and should have learned much about what will be needed. This is the message I am trying to spread with the random thoughts below.

JULY 30 2022

BBC - THIS IS THE FINAL STRAW

Having watched what seemed like an 11-hour interview with Chris Hoy on BBC1 (and occasionally, of course, BBC2) yesterday, my last vestige of sympathy for the licence fee has evaporated. The BBC's coverage of the Commonwealth Games is disgraceful. Viewers want curated and edited coverage of every event, not fleeting glimpses of sport hidden between endless, boring and pointless chats around a coffee table. The red button actually makes the BBC coverage worse because it enables it to give the impression that the viewer need never miss a thing when, in fact, to watch real sports action, they have to disappear into an iPlayer channel to watch netball, boxing or rhythmic gymnastics, or whatever, without any idea of what other exciting action is taking place. The BBC used to brilliant at this: we never saw a presenter's face all day long, just constant, non-stop action, superbly edited and curated. That is how the viewer gets to avoid missing a thing.

And as for allowing a mediocre comedian to become entangled in the Games' opening ceremony and make ignorant and hate-filled remarks it simply beggars belief. Joe Lycett's disgraceful slur, claiming that he was going "to do something now that the British government doesn't always do" in "welcoming some foreigners", not only ignores the fact that our current administration is the most racially diverse in history, it ignores the fact that our government has recently put enormous efforts into providing for tens of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing their country, tens of thousands of Afghans and Syrians, tens of thousands of economic migrants welcomed into the country. A welcome of sorts is even extended to those forcing their way into the country illegally in the selfish pursuit of their own economic interests: they are at least treated humanely, which is more than can be said for the treatment they might receive elsewhere. And worse, Lycett's shameful stupidity has dragged every duh-brained knuckle-head out of the woodwork to vent their unthinking knee-jerk hatred of people with whom they happen to disagree. Are these fools seriously saying that every single person in the world who wishes to live in the UK should be welcomed with open arms? Have they not spent a single second wondering about the consequences of such lunacy? Lycett's appalling smear remains on the BBC iPlayer and, as far as I can see, no apology has been issued.

DO PANELLISTS HAVE TO PASS AN ANTI-INTELLIGENCE TEST?

Where do they find the guests for Any Questions on Radio 4? Do they have to take an intelligence test and only the failures are allowed on air? The dimmest panellist today, so-called "journalist" Ash Sarkar, talking about rising energy prices, demanded action because "right now you've got pensioners riding the bus just to keep warm". First, this single alleged incident was discredited as a political stunt long ago, and second, who is riding on buses "right now" when the temperatures are in the high 20s? Moron.

BAD BLOOD AND A FALSE DICHOTOMY

Three consecutive interviews this morning on the BBC's Radio 4 Today programme debated the subject of contaminated blood products administered in the 1970s and 80s and the need to compensate those affected. The first was with a woman who received blood transfusions from the age of a few months old to treat her haemophilia: she agreed that her physical side effects were relatively mild but that her mental health had suffered and so urged rapid compensation, as recommended by an interim report issued yesterday. The third interview was with a campaigner on behalf of the victims of the contamination, which could leave patients with Hepatitis or HIV. He called the affair a grave injustice and also demanded large payments be made immediately.

But was it "a grave injustice"? The second interview with an experienced and concerned specialist medical practitioner provided the necessary context and perspective and indeed several potential questions that should have been put to the campaigner but were not. The doctor explained that the risks of contamination in blood had been known about since the 1950s but that in the 1970s and 80s the tools did not yet exist to test and purify blood donations. It meant that every transfusion carried a degree of risk and every patient was treated on the basis of the lesser harm. The medical profession of the 1970s and 80s was not acting negligently or recklessly; it was not deliberately infecting patients: it was saving lives. The crude radio presentation therefore proposed a grotesquely false dichotomy: the choice faced by those patients, mostly haemophiliacs, was not a "normal life" versus an infection, it was a grave risk of death versus the hope of a cure. Patients face precisely this dilemma today when weighing up the risks of agreeing to experimental and pioneering treatments. Even after these issues were sensitively and clearly spelt out by the specialist, they were ignored by the interviewer who failed even to challenge the third interviewee's assertion that a "grave injustice" had been committed and failed to ask what the alternative life would have been for these "victims of injustice". The BBC is now routinely and casually referring to all this as "the scandal".

JULY 29 2022

Lionesses? The exciting England women's football team that has reached the final of the European Championships should surely be referred to as "lions with wombs" or some-such? I've lost track.

DIRECTION OF TRAVEL IS EVERYTHING

So many comparisons are made with times gone by: the hottest day/driest summer since 1976; the worst inflation since the 1970s; the homophobia/racism/sexism of the 70s, and so on. But do not forget the surge of change that was taking place during the 1960s and 70s: barriers were being broken down in every social sphere; the general population was collectively gaining power and influence; art and culture were vibrant. It was a phase through which we had to travel in order to progress from the conservative, narrow-minded, inequitable past. The second world war lit a flame that sparked a wildfire of reforms, almost a revolution, that laid down the rough template for a modern Britain before an attempt was made to stop it in 1980. But up to that point, the pace of improvement in so many fields was astonishing and the momentum so great that even 40 years of Tory rule failed to derail it completely. Of course, the 1960s and 70s look bleak from this distance. The country was still recovering from the costs of war and was in only the early stages of ridding itself of so many social ills. But any graph plotting the rate of social betterment over the past century would show a precipitously steep gradient during this period with a downwards blip through the early 1980s and then a slower and more gradual rise thereafter. Just think where we would have been now had the forces of change in the 1960s and 70s been allowed to blossom to their full potential.

JULY 27 2022

OH, HOW THE FRENCH LOVE A QUEUE

The French certainly love a queue. Anyone who's suffered the repeated and seemingly endless waits at peage booths will appreciate this Gallic passion. And when the opportunity arises to inflict an enormous queue on a neighbour, then so much the better. Never mind that the innocent holidaymakers trapped waiting to cross the Channel at Dover are bringing money to spend in France: the chance to poke a finger in the eye of Brexiteers is far too tempting. Of course, there is a minuscule chance that the unattended French passport booths in Kent resulted from a bizarre coincidence of sickness, train failures and suchlike. But Brexiteers and Remoaners alike know this to be nonsense the difference being that Brexiteers are outraged at the sabotaging of months of planning for this busy weekend, while Remoaners say "serves you right" you voted for it". But let us look at it as a divorce. If one party behaves reprehensibly, does that make the divorce a bad idea? Quite the opposite. most people would conclude.

It will, of course, be sorted out. Stamping passports has been one of the few airport functions not to have caused huge delays it is not difficult to do. And in my own experience of using ferries and the rail tunnel, the French border officials have always been slow and awkward in their work. The weekend's chaos does raise the question, however, as to why people working in such critical jobs in the UK are living in another country, leaving them vulnerable to a range of obstructions. If we have to conduct these checks in England, then a simple requirement that staff live nearby would at least remove one potential obstacle to turning up on time. Also, does it remain sensible to retain a French border control in the UK? If passports were dealt with in France, any queues would then clearly be their entire responsibility. But then, the reciprocal arrangement would be cancelled and the French would allow a constant stream of undocumented migrants to reach Kent.

The irony of this rigid and rigorous system being imposed on travellers from the UK should not be forgotten, either. Holidaymakers on one side of the country are made to suffer while the complete lack of restrictions on the other side of France allows economic migrants to pour in and seek illegal and lethal entry into Britain. Again, this suits France nicely, as it gives its odious politicians and civil servants another opportunity to rile a neighbour as they help blow up the inflatable rafts and give the migrants a little push into the deadly Channel.


JULY 22 2022

WHAT EXACTLY DO WOMEN WANT?

I have been a huge fan of actress Jodie Comer since watching the opening scenes of Killing Eve, the TV series that, for its first five episodes, was among the sharpest TV drama ever made. And she is undeniably extraordinary in portraying a barrister in the one-woman play, Prima Facie, which I saw last night streamed into the Everyman cinema in Esher to an audience largely made up of women. It is an undeniably powerful production, dealing with a raw and painful dilemma with an unrelenting intensity.

But I came away with several reservations and a little disappointment. The very relentlessness of Comer's performance meant it lacked light and shade: the very few quieter, reflective moments were fleeting before the polemical barrage resumed. She had presumably been directed this way and she was still fabulous to watch but it sapped its impact slightly.

What spoiled it for me, however, was when Comer's acting ceased to portray her character, a barrister who withdraws her consent during a sexual encounter and reports a rape, and began speaking the words of the playwright. When a character becomes the author, a play instantly loses its edge and this is precisely what happened towards the end. The art should be allowed to speak for itself: Leonardo da Vinci felt no need to scrawl captions across his paintings; Charles Dickens needed no appendix at the end of his novels declaiming social conditions and calling for change. Great art can do its own talking and is so much more powerful for it.

In spite of these relatively minor disappointments, the play achieved its goal of raising a vitally important issue: how society deals with this specific form of rape. This is not violent rape by strangers, which is clearly a vicious crime, but a situation where two people are together, each knowing and accepting that sex will, or is likely to, take place but where one party at some point changes their mind. In the play, two people went to a room expecting to have sex and sex took place; but not in the way it was intended, at least on the part of the victim. The motives of the alleged rapist were left unclear.

Either way, and as things stand, such a case can only be dealt with, if at all, via the legal system, which is hopelessly ill-equipped for the purpose. Such cases involve deeply subtle and nuanced points of view, misunderstandings, the nature of a relationship, trust, the point at which consent is withdrawn, and more; whereas the law, in its clumsy, binary approach, is interested more in how the alleged rapist held down his (always "his") victim, as highlighted in Prima Facie, and other largely irrelevant factual details. These cases involve two people who cared for and had feelings for each other, from simple, short-term lust, to a deeper, longer, more complex entanglement.

Rather than use specious statistics to claim that the legal system is failing rape victims, any debate on this issue ought to begin by asking "What is it that women want?" following an alleged rape in such "consent" cases. Is it years of detailed testimony and being examined and scrutinised by police, doctors and lawyers; years of hatred, wrangling and stress, followed by the destruction of the life of someone with whom they once had some sort of positive relationship? Or is it the establishment of the truth, an acceptance of wrong? Is it clarification over misunderstandings, apologies, reconciliation? In the particular circumstances outlined in the play, no one benefits: all are left scarred and damaged, as much by the legal processes as they were by the incident itself. It would seem that offering an alternative resolution process in the case of "relationship rape", aimed at truth and reconciliation, would provide significant benefits for all.

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE

Drug lords and dictators why do they lead such miserable lives? Take Pablo Escobar and Vladimir Putin: they are, or were, constantly in fear of their lives and those of their family, friends and associates; they have knowingly destroyed the lives of others; they have been responsible for thousands of deaths; they are hated and will enjoy notoriety throughout history – their legacy is revolting, and even their day-to-day activities are proscribed by fear and loathing. What a pointless and miserable life. It is a misery they deserve, of course, having killed and cheated their way to great riches. But we have to ask why on earth they continue with it once they have an opportunity to be better, smarter and decent?

JULY 16 2022

DUE DILIGENCE, MORAL HAZARD AND THE RIGHT TO MOAN

Cambridge undergraduates say the rise in suicides at the university is because of its high academic standards and demands. Er, yes. And what did you expect when you applied? Some students need support, help and guidance I myself felt slightly homesick and confused at times during my first term at LSE but I learned to adapt. I found friends (easy when sharing a treble room, now frowned upon) and by my first Easter would have been happy to skip the holidays and stay in London. It makes me wonder just how far hand-holding should go and how much damage society has done to its young by cosseting them, selling them false dreams and reassuring them that nothing horrid will ever happen. No wonder they have no coping mechanisms when encountering new and challenging environments. But to sign up for three years at one of the most prestigious and high-pressure universities in the world and then moan that it's all a bit academic and affecting students' mental health displays a remarkable degree of ignorance and absurd expectations.

Even actresses fall victim to their own self-obsession. Meghan Markle signed up to become part of one of the most regimented and documented firms in the world. To then complain afterwards that the organisation will not bend to accommodate you shows remarkably poor due diligence. Or outrageous arrogance and self-delusion.

Similarly, illegal migrants, via their spokesperson, the UK's chief inspector of prisons, seem to share these types of absurd expectations. Young, fit and enterprising young men decide to leave their home countries and walk, stow away or pay criminals to help them reach England's beaches. At which point the UK authorities are slated for failing to have booked them a nice hotel. These people are uninvited, have committed offences, many will have disposed of documents and lied about their age and backgrounds, risked their own lives and those of others, fuelled the human trafficking and people smuggling businesses, denied their home countries whatever skills and energies they possess, and reduced the chances of genuine refugees reaching safety. And the bad guys turn out to be those who fail to roll out the red carpet for them!

The red carpet has certainly been rolled out for a young man called Adnan, however. His cricketing prowess suspiciously extraordinary for a boy of 16 from a war zone – means he is feted as a star. He features in Freddie Flintoff's TV series about putting together a cricket team consisting of deprived young lads in Lancashire. But Adnan, who looks surprisingly mature for a 16-year-old, stands out. The story is that he somehow made his way to the UK from Afghanistan and now the UK is lucky to have him: phrases such as "It just shows what refugees can do for our country" are scattered throughout the episode I saw.

But this is surely a stupid, dangerous and counter-productive response to such a glaring trail of lies and deceit. If Adnan is 16, then I am 24; if he has never played cricket, as he claims, then I am Joe Root; and is he indeed from Afghanistan at all? His word simply goes unchallenged by the liberal, globalising programme makers. But they should remember this: when they say "good for Adnan", they are forgetting or ignoring the fact that there are another 2bn, 3bn, maybe 4bn more Adnans in the world. Why should this clever and resourceful Adnan be raised shoulder high because he has somehow managed to make his way into the UK by making himself part of the disgusting human trafficking business? Is it right and good that the UK harvests his talents that are now denied to the country he has left behind, a country desperately crying out for his contribution? And do we care about the people he will displace in this country, people who will continue to lose heart and hope? It's an incredibly short-sighted way of looking at migration: a typically individualistic and simplistic response to a global issue of failed governments around the word.

WE'VE SET THE WORLD ON FIRE

Almost every activity you read about on the business pages of newspapers and media sites is contributing hugely to global warming. And a huge amount of it is pointless. It has to stop and my book warned of this three years ago.

JULY 7 2022

WHAT A WIMP: IT WAS ONLY A FLESH WOUND...

So, Boris has gone. Inevitable, really. And a shame. He had some of the qualities required of a great prime minister, but sadly not enough. And his drawbacks became too big to excuse. I still maintain he was extremely careful to avoid lying. He perhaps evaded the truth at times but then all politicians do. He relied heavily on smoke and mirrors. But he was the man for a crisis, it's just that he couldn't be bothered with normality and so was leading us nowhere. He was also subjected to the most blatant, vicious and sustained media campaign. It was unfair, inaccurate and unprofessional. And it was epitomised by the glee so obviously emanating from the BBC Radio Four Today studio this morning as a wave of ministers resigned. It was revolting and amateurish. Mishal Husain was giggling with excitement as she announced one resignation and full of cloying and smug self-satisfaction when interviewing another minister.

So who next? I would choose Priti Patel. Not because she would make a good prime minister but because she has the hide of a rhino. I love watching, hearing, and reading about her responses to questions in the House of Commons it's hilarious. She is a potent mix of Jonny Bairstow and Nick Kyrgios. Ben Wallace is, apparently, loved by some but only because he has made a quick and recent splash over Ukraine. Who had heard of him before he began dishing out missiles? Liz Truss is a loose cannon and horribly inflexible; Penny Mordaunt cannot seriously be among the favourites; Nadhim Zahawi has far too much grubby-looking baggage; Sajid Javid is nowhere near bright enough; and Jeremy Hunt? You might as well have that dozy Starmer bloke. Steve Baker and Tom Tugendhat heaven forbid. Dominic Raab is undeniably clever but hardly a man of the people and has, in any case, ruled himself out. Mark Harper (who?) is said to be interested and carries the advantage of anonymity, while Grant Shapps appears too lightweight. Which brings us to Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman. Given that no one knows anything at all about Braverman, she stands a chance. And who knows what might then happen. We know more about Sunak, however. He was treated disgracefully by the media over his wife's perfectly rational financial affairs and he appeared to be an inventive and concerned chancellor of the exchequer – until his spring statement, which failed to hit the spot as far as ameliorating the cost of living was concerned. The removal of the £20 pandemic uplift in benefits also looked mean when so much money was sloshing around: his laser focus on the requirement to work shows a lack of understanding of real life. There is also Lord Frost, an excellent and sensible negotiator but far too conservative for the times. And then there's Michael Gove. I hated him when he wrote his column for The Times, calling him an ignorant pipsqueak. But he has shown deftness of touch, resilience as an under-fire interviewee and has impressed in key departments, such as law, education and now levelling up, especially with his attitude towards planning rules and guidance. Sadly, he appears not to want the highest office. He would have my serious vote. But regrettably, the winner will not be the best candidate, but the least worst the lowest common denominator. Of which there are a frightening number of frightening candidates.

JULY 6 2022

IS IT JUST A SCRATCH; A MERE FLESH WOUND?

Two Cabinet ministers resign from your government, saying the country cannot continue to be led in the way it has been. They, of course, have their individual agendas but that cannot disguise the perilous state in which it leaves the prime minister: Boris Johnson's days are now numbered. For the moment, he is toughing it out, making new appointments, filling gaps, fire-fighting. But the distasteful revelations surrounding Chris Pincher's behaviour and the way in which he was picked for the team prompted another apology from Boris and it is one apology too many. Daniel Finkelstein writes about Johnson in this morning's copy of The Times, saying he has many qualities along with many flaws. I agree that he is far from the worst prime minister the UK has endured in the past half century and he has certainly not been judged fairly or accurately by a baying anti-Brexit media and "liberal elite" determined to sabotage his leadership. But the balance of politics has now shifted from dealing with the change and chaos of "getting Brexit done" and seeing off the pandemic, which played to his strengths, to tackling the normal mundane issues of inflation, taxation, gas supplies and so on, in which he clearly has little interest. This explains his passion for fighting the Russians in Ukraine it's straightforward, easily understandable and easy to make an impact. For the sake of "business as usual" politics, which is beginning to go haywire, the country now needs a new leader, someone with a plan and vision for putting right the "small stuff" now that the "big stuff" has been done.

PRESENTER INFLATION GETS NOTICED AT LAST

I rarely read Martin Hemming's column in The Sunday Times, but this week he joined, without knowing it, my campaign to force the BBC Sport department to focus on sport, rather than its presenters. We'll skip over the fact that almost all of them are not professional presenters at all, but former players "having a go", and return to a theme I have been commenting on for many years: that the BBC seems determined to turn all sport into a ghastly sofa-based version of the appalling One Show. Olympics coverage consists predominantly of retired athletes sitting around a coffee table desperately trying to find things to talk about; Wimbledon coverage has similarly been teetering on the edge of absurdity for a very long time. I recall Sue Barker once almost apologising to viewers for having to return to live action following a rain delay, as if this refocusing on the sport was somehow depriving the audience. Hemming also launched an assault on the BBC's Glastonbury output, which required three presenters to gush over the wonders of the band they were introducing. I actually thought this was an improvement on recent years, when it was a challenge to find live music amid a sea of "presenting".

At least the BBC has a nursery playground in which it can nurture its crop of presenters: the red button. It should, of course, nurture, assess and test its budding voices, but that clearly does not happen how else would the utterly hopeless Marion Bartoli have slipped through quality control? But with iPlayer now showing play from all courts at Wimbledon, the demand for commentators and "analysts" has rocketed. Not long ago, there was very little commentary. Now, each match seems to have two old players describing what we can see with our own eyes. The costs must be eye-watering, too.

But for anyone still requiring proof of the BBC's incompetence over its sports scheduling, the constant switching of matches between BBC1, BBC2 and the fall-back option of the red button makes the case watertight. Last afternoon and evening, Cameron Norrie, a sort-of British player, was battling for a place in the singles semi-finals, the match being shown quite happily on BBC2. It had all the hallmarks of being a long struggle running into the early evening: anyone with a smattering of knowledge or understanding would have left it to run continuously and uninterrupted on that channel. After all, the alternative match featuring Djokovic and Sinner on BBC1 looked likely to finish in time for the early evening Six O'Clock News. But the incompetents at the Beeb decided to switch the matches at around 5.30pm. Any fool could see that this would necessitate another channel switch to accommodate the news. And lo, as 6pm approached, Sue Barker told us that the news would be delayed until the conclusion of the Norrie match a ridiculous suggestion, as it was quite likely to take an hour or more to complete. So the news was now disrupted as well. Having created this complete mess, the Norrie match returned to BBC2 at about 6.20 to allow the news to be broadcast. Heaven help anyone trying to record it. The BBC's Wimbledon coverage was criticised yesterday for looking old and tired and it is indeed hard to think of anything older, more tired and more stupid than the Beeb's bonkers fixation over the primacy of BBC1 – that channel has to show the "best" at all times, regardless of the viewer's experience or convenience, as if BBC2 is somehow inferior or doesn't work as well. Madness.

WIMBLEDON'S HORRIBLE DOUBLE FAULT

As if the BBC's idiocy was not enough, Wimbledon itself has been doing its bit to increase global levels of stupidity. Abandoning a rest day by playing on the middle Sunday might have seemed a good idea in theory. But in practice, it has spread out the matches to provide increasingly thin fare as we approach the semi-final stages. And even worse, the scheduling of the singles quarter-finals is a disgrace. I have always congratulated Wimbledon for ensuring a fair contest for all, in that no one is asked to play on consecutive days, as happens at the other grand slam events. This year, a fool somewhere in the organisation has ordered there to be two women's quarter-finals and two men's quarter-finals on each of the second Tuesday and Wednesday, copying the failed system used elsewhere. This means that the two triumphant women from Wednesday's quarters will have to play on consecutive days, with the final being on Saturday. The men are not so badly damaged, although two men will enjoy two rest days and two only a single day. And even worse than that debacle, the women's quarter-finals have all been played in the graveyard slot at lunchtime, when hundreds of corporate seats are empty, while all of the men's matches have taken place at peak viewing time in the mid afternoon and early evening. Wimbledon has therefore successfully sunk from running the best and fairest scheduling, with all women's quarter-finals on Tuesdays and men on Wednesdays, to copying the biggest failing of the other slam events, while adding in a grotesque sexist and discriminatory element. Well done, Wimbledon.

Then we come to the excruciatingly bad on-court interviews, often with exhausted players who want nothing more than to get off the court but invariably with players who have absolutely nothing of any value or interest to say. Perhaps this is why the interviewers are so atrocious at their job. But they could at least try to ask questions instead of making statements. The sweet Elena Rybakina, on securing her place in the semi-finals was told by her interviewer that her win was important for her country, among other things. Barely a question to be heard. If Wimbledon has to continue with these toe-curling sessions, then at least it could find someone who knows how to ask a question.

THE DANGER OF LOW INTEREST RATES

Low interest rates are wonderful, in one way, for those buying a property. The downside is that they tend to be associated with low inflation – and high inflation is the great debt-killer that enabled so many baby boomers to clear their mortgages swiftly. The Price of Time, a new book by Edward Chancellor explains an even more dangerous side to low interest rates: they lead individuals to invest in the impossible. Chancellor believes that rock bottom rates create asset bubbles as the wealthy make ever more desperate efforts to find a good return for their investments and, indeed, history would suggest he is on to something. The current example would, of course, be crypto currencies and non fungible tokens.

CAMILLA LONG PROVES NO ONE CAN BE WRONG ALL OF THE TIME

Well done Camilla Long for proving the theory that it is impossible for anyone to be wrong about everything all the time. She has said some terrible things and many dumb things in her Sunday Times column over the years but last Sunday's (July 3), about the real issues facing feminism, is very good. It falls apart slightly towards the end but the points she makes about how trivial nonsense is distracting campaigns away from what really matters are very well argued. It's worth seeking out on The Times website.

THE ALBUM IS TAKING SHAPE!

I am currently working on the recording of 10 original songs that will form an album called "All The Notes There Is". The aim is to have it finished before the end of the year and the song arrangements are developing well. They were all written at different times and with different songwriting partners, some during a songwriting retreat run by Chris Difford of Squeeze, some with old friends, one based on a poem fragment written by former colleague Allison Pearson and the rest solo efforts. Two tracks were given their first public airing in their studio-ready shape last night at the Hare and Hounds pub in Claygate. where Yasmine Giles and her husband Pete, a former member of King Crimson, had invited Derek Huff and me to be guests at their new series of "Planet Giles music club" events. A small audience seemed to find our songs acceptable. It was my first proper public performance of music since before Covid and was enough to remind me how addictive it is. Great fun – and thanks to everyone who came along.

JULY 2 2022

THE MISUNDERSTANDING OF MISS RADUCANU

Emma Raducanu, lovely tennis player and delightful person, I'm sure, played two matches at Wimbledon bedecked in expensive Tiffany jewellery. It all looked as extremely pretty as she does. But the teenager received plenty of criticism for accessorising her sporting whites in this way. And those critics were, in their turn, criticised for daring to question her choice of bling: one said, apparently, that everyone should stop going on about the jewellery, leave the poor girl alone and focus on her tennis. But I fear this is the last thing the young woman and her sponsoring jewellers are wishing for: Raducanu will tumble down the world rankings once she has been eliminated from the US Open; and the sole purpose of telling her to wear the pearls and diamonds was for them to be talked about. This was advertising, pure and simple: Raducanu is as much advertising hoarding as she is tennis player at the moment. I am not sure how this sits with Wimbledon's relatively strict rules on promotions and advertising, but we can be sure that unless Raducanu, who looks increasingly lost and clueless on and around the court, assembles a coaching team and concentrates on her tennis then advertisers' interest in her will quickly wane: exclusive brands tend to avoid too close an association with losers.

JUNE 30 2022

ONE RULE FOR CRICKET, ANOTHER FOR TENNIS

Michael Vaughan, former England cricket captain turned commentator, has stepped down from his broadcasting work having been cold shouldered by the BBC over comments he is alleged to have made. He strenuously denies any offence and has yet to be found guilty of anything. Meanwhile, over on Centre Court at Wimbledon, we have the BBC's very own supreme court judges Sue Barker and John McEnroe declaring their love for Boris Becker and telling him how much they miss him, followed by tennis's biggest dolt, Novak Djokovic, telling the world how he keeps in touch with his friend, the inmate of Cell Block H. Becker is a convicted criminal serving two and a half years in jail.

BIG MISTAKES NEED MORE THAN A TUCKED-AWAY CLARIFICATION

The Times confesses to its most heinous blunders in a tiny slot in the bottom corner of its letters page. While I applaud any media organisation that owns up to its mistakes, I am becoming extremely concerned at the nature of the errors being recorded. A story this week about the popularity of the prime minister among Conservative voters carried figures that were wrong; another admitted that a review of Scottish police was not connected to the fatal arrest of "Scotland's George Floyd", as its coverage had stated. Everybody makes mistakes, but when the mistake affects the meaning of the story then it needs a rather larger correction than a heavily disguised and barely noticeable "clarification". There are, after all, people still going around believing that a disabled old man died at Gatwick because of gross neglect.

JUNE 27 2022

Well, that's a big "Wow" to Glastonbury. There is usually enough entertainment on offer to outweigh the gushing BBC presenters and make it worthwhile tuning in. But this year, the presenters were kept to a brief gush before each act and there were terrific performances on all stages. It's impossible to catch everything, especially if you attend in person, but I must have watched about seven hours of TV coverage and enjoyed almost all of it. Paul McCartney's set, lasting nearly three hours, was history in the making, featuring sparkling songs from his 60-year career and the most dramatic opening to a set I have seen in a long time, with a dynamic three-part vocal harmony. First Aid Kit, the Swedish sisters performing with three extra musicians, were superb; Haim have developed into a highly watchable band, Sam Fender was well worth a listen and Celeste, serene in white, showed the power of her voice, although I needed a break after half an hour of it. But Olivia Rodrigo's naming and shaming of the grotesque US Supreme Court judges was the political highlight of the weekend. Her duet with Lily Allen was full of anger and disgust at the judges' decision to allow the banning of abortion – yet still managed to maintain the joyous, smiling, youthful tempo she had brought to the event.

This ruling on abortion, returning an advanced country to the dark days before the great social reforms of the late 1960s and early 1970s, is another example of how an appointed judiciary has taken it upon itself to make its own law. To be fair, in the US, this has always been the case – the abortion law itself stems from the Roe v Wade litigation of 1973. But when judge Clarence Thomas, an aged, right-wing bigot, threatens that he will now turn his attention to undoing laws governing same-sex marriage and the right to use contraceptives, it is time for elected politicians to step in and assert their democratic authority. The Americans' sclerotic political system means that this won't happen, however, especially with such a weak and doddering president. And so women in the US will have to endure enforced pregnancies, no matter what the circumstances, as the country slides ever closer to becoming Gilead, the dystopia predicted in The Handmaid's Tale.

The sadness is that this assault on common sense and decency is being launched by older people, who should have the experience, knowledge and intelligence to know better. It is important that wiser, more socially enlightened people of age loudly denounce the US Supreme Court judges as rotten apples, unrepresentative of the vast majority of senior citizens. The greater tragedy is that the wealth of understanding and perspective amassed by older people is more generally discarded. Those of us with first-hand experience of high inflation, high interest rates, conflicts, shortages and all sorts of crises take a calm view of the current economic blip; we are far less likely to share the panic of the young, stoked by media desperate to portray the UK as the world's basket case.

Similarly, with regard to "woke political correctness", those who have experienced the enormous social changes set in train by the victorious crusades of the 1960s and 70s, and can appreciate the continuing direction of travel and constant improvements in the levels of respect shown to all minorities, are far less likely to go to the barricades over such dubious, complex and highly personal and individual campaigns as the one mounted by the aggressive and bullying transgender lobby. It is almost as though the trans campaign is employing tactics used by terrorists – create a divide, create enough hatred and tension towards your own cause that it stirs sympathisers to extremes. Its latest atrocity demonstrates this: Julie Bindel, the noted feminist campaigner and powerful advocate on women's safety issues, was banned from debating women's safety by a council in Nottingham. It said her views ran counter to its "transgender rights policy" and fell foul of its "inclusion strategy". I hope there is someone associated with this Nottingham council who is bright enough to point out that being "inclusive" cannot include actively excluding anyone with whom you happen to disagree. This is shocking ignorance and hypocrisy; a council has to live a lie in order to appease a vicious minority. This is not how the great social reforms were achieved.

It is, however, a tried and tested terror tactic and it is certainly achieving at least some of its aims. Plenty of people are becoming sickened by the idiocy and illogic of the trans movement's complaints and nebulous demands, but most people have more pressing issues to concern them and so are less vulnerable to being stirred to rage by its provocations. The same applies to Greta Thunberg and her finger-pointing, accusatory style. She talks perfect sense on climate change but does so in such a divisive and deploring manner that she alienates so many who would otherwise applaud her. This is not the way to encourage people to make sacrifices to protect the planet.

Equally worrying is how those great social movements of the 60s and 70s are currently being portrayed. Back in Time for Birmingham is a BBC series in which the Sharma family experience 50 years of British Asian history, recreating the conditions of previous decades and re-living its news. I caught a glimpse of the family experiencing the 1970s but it was enough to persuade me that the programme could not be taken seriously. Old newsreel showing cards in windows barring people from ethnic minorities from applying for jobs, or rooms, was greeted with understandable horror by the family: these were hideous manifestations of widespread racism and the younger Sharmas could not believe that such discrimination was legal. What the commentary failed to point out, however, was that it was only legal in the sense that it had not yet been made illegal: no law had been passed declaring it to be acceptable. This was a new phenomenon that had arisen following a period of social disruption caused by large-scale immigration. Gradually, most people came to regard this brazen racism as completely unacceptable, so much so, that the various Immigration and Race Relations Acts of the 1970s outlawed it, beginning a steady and continuing process of tolerance. There will always be further to travel along this path but, for now, we are still heading in the right direction. We should all be very frightened, however, that misrepresentation of the past, along with political judges and the nastily divisive nature of current "debate", means this can no longer be guaranteed.

AN ARMED INVASION OF SPAIN

Extraordinary scenes broadcast on the internet showed armed men attacking the Spanish territory of Melilla on the north African coast this week. There are two ways of viewing this: it was an attempt at an armed incursion into another country and should be dealt with harshly; or this is a sign of things to come, as conditions deteriorate across Africa and Asia and the search for a better life in a wealthy nation becomes a genuinely desperate, life or death journey. We have to look ahead to the endgame here: as global warming causes parts of the world to become uninhabitable, how will we respond? With walls and soldiers to resist incursions? Or the destruction of our own economies, social structures and environments by accommodating every migrant? These are appalling, but very real, choices. A dystopian vision of warring continents us versus them is rearing its ugly head. The reality could be even worse, though, as the developed countries could also become uninhabitable, not just from the pressure of hugely unsustainable populations but from climate change. Developed nations are not immune: Rome has turned off its fountains because of drought and the UK has just seen Glastonbury take place in dust-bowl conditions. We have plenty of important things to worry us.

ACTUALLY, PERHAPS IT'S BEST TO STAY AWAY FROM KYIV...

I said last week that the re-settlement of people from western Ukraine might have been over-hasty when conditions there now seemed safe for many to return. I did also say that this situation was precarious and indeed, that has turned out to be the case, with Cruise missile attacks on Kyiv the capital.

JUNE 21 2022

Party or work event? You decide...

Not easy or obvious, is it?

JUNE 20 2022

SUMPTION GETS IT RIGHT AT LAST

I was heavily critical of the arch-arch-liberal Jonathan Sumption last year when he railed against vaccine passports. He also spouted some other daft views about vaccination and Covid. But as if to prove correct the rule that says even a fool cannot be wrong all the time, he wrote a startlingly sensible assessment of the verdict of the European Court of Human Rights on the UK government's Rwanda policy in yesterday's Sunday Times. He argued that the court "has little interest in the democratic legitimacy of a state’s internal decision-making processes. Apart from a very narrow discretion allowed to participating states (called the 'margin of appreciation' in Strasbourg-speak) the question for the European court is whether it approves of the outcome". He points out that this is an extremely undemocratic approach, especially when a single anonymous Strasbourg judge can overrule the careful deliberations of three UK courts, including our Supreme Court "behind closed doors, without any hearing at all". Lord Sumption, a former Supreme Court judge, is clearly riled by the arrogance of the Human Rights Court, saying it is where law and politics collide and that much of the law it imposes on signatory countries is its own precedent. He explains that this law has been "created by the court itself on the grounds that it is the sort of law that modern democracies ought to have, whether they have chosen it or not".

Sumption rightly argues that UK ministers are "politically responsible to a representative parliament and indirectly to the electorate for everything that they do". And he rightly asserts that it is "not [the court's] business to review the social, moral or economic merits of government policy. Responsibilities which are conferred by law on ministers politically answerable to parliament should not be shifted to judges politically answerable to no one. Every time this happens, it cuts across lines of responsibility which are fundamental to the democratic state. The current problem is that the UK courts understand this, but the Strasbourg court does not."

He concludes that we therefore have "two parallel and potentially conflicting judicial systems for giving effect to human rights: a domestic one which respects the proper limits of the judicial role and the proper claims of democratic politics, and an international one which has little regard for either".

While he does not explicitly call for the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights over this issue, he does play down the consequences of such a move: it "need not mean abrogating human rights. We can have all or any of the rights in the convention under ordinary domestic legislation without submitting to the expansive and self-promoting edicts of the Strasbourg court". Its abominable behaviour last week makes this very much my preferred option.

RWANDA POLICY NEEDS UNDERPINNING AT HOME

I have one further thought on the Rwanda policy, which I see as a penultimate resort to tackling people trafficking, the final option being detention centres for processing asylum applications offering little hope of acceptance but plenty of discomfort. A deterrent is urgently required and the Rwanda solution looks a perfectly humane alternative. I said recently that all other possibilities have been tried to stop the flow of illegal entrants crossing the Channel, and, indeed, most have. However, I was reminded on Sunday that the UK's lax labour regulations enable a flourishing underground sector to accommodate all-comers, regardless of legitimacy. A strenuous tightening of employment rules, with strict enforcement, accompanied by the introduction of identity cards for all, would eliminate, or at least limit, the scope for abuse, exploitation and illegality and reduce the attraction of a dangerous voyage across lethal shipping lanes.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE WORKERS GONE?

An old friend posted on Facebook last week that he had been saying for months that the structure of employment was changing. He said: "We move from a society where we live to work to one when we choose to cease to work and can expect leisure and retirement to last a fair proportion of the time we worked. If we are among the lucky ones, and this trend only accelerates social inequality. Implications for the economy and for the way we live are pretty extraordinary."

Coincidentally, I have been arguing along these lines for several years, the proof of which can be seen in my book, published in 2019 but written some time before, obviously. I doubt whether Martin has read it; I certainly didn't spot it among the thousands of books on his extensive and beautiful new bookshelves. This is why I haven't commented on his Facebook post: I take the view that if you can't be bothered to read my book then you're unlikely to have much interest in my take on the matters it analyses. He is also never going to read this blog post.

In that light, let us ponder for a moment the "economic inactivity" conundrum to which he referred on Facebook, a topic studied by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, with its findings published in a report this month. First, we must set aside the fact that older people are not entirely economically inactive they do, of course, spend heavily, a vital economic activity. But, bearing that in mind, it is an interesting piece of work. Its summary stated: "Overall, the rise in economic inactivity among 50- to 69-year-olds does not look to be driven primarily either by poor health or by low labour demand leading to people being unable to find work and becoming discouraged. It looks more consistent with a lifestyle choice to retire in light of changed preferences or priorities, possibly in combination with changes in the nature of work post-pandemic (in particular more remote work) which reduce the appeal of staying in employment."

It listed several other possible factors, including changes to the state pension age: since 2010, when inactivity among this age group stood at 42 per cent, the pension age has been rising, meaning more people remaining economically active for longer, leading to a gradual decline in inactivity. In 2021 this fall was always expected to slow, it being the first year in which the state pension was not rising. But the report says that this, and events such as lockdowns and ill-health resulting from Covid, do not fully account for an unexpected rise in inactivity from 35.4 per cent in the first quarter of 2020 to 36.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2022. And the most recent official figures for pension withdrawals, published in April 2021, show that more than £45bn had been accessed since 2015 giving a clue as to how this early retirement and economic inactivity is being financed.

For me, not working has always been my lifestyle of choice: I have many other interests and projects with which to occupy my time, and so I chose retirement as soon as it came available. I quit while I was ahead: I was loving my job, my high-calibre colleagues and the many successes and triumphs we enjoyed together. I always took the view that work should be enjoyable. It is, after all, how we spend many of our waking hours. As a boss, I like to think I was encouraging of individual responsibility and enjoyment. But as good as it all was, I thought I could do better, and I was right. I wrote in my book that I believed many people would choose to spend more time on family, leisure, creativity and fulfilment than on a pointless task, being poorly treated and subject to the increasing interference of human resource departments and the strictures of an intrusive and bullying woke agenda. It seems that Covid lockdowns have revealed the truth of my suspicions: workers have certainly disappeared in their droves. And no matter how hard Remoaners might wish it, Brexit is not the reason. Across Europe and the developed world, employees have awoken to the realisation that there is more to life than work. In Berlin recently, the hotel bar was closed due to a lack of staff, airports across Europe are cancelling flights because there are insufficient people to run the essential services. In France, hotels and restaurants are reported to have turned to the Tinder dating app to help overcome a shortage of seasonal workers, caused by a simple shortage of people seeking work. Businesses need waiters, kitchen staff, hotel receptionists, sales staff and other seasonal workers. These are precisely the problems that in the UK some are desperate to blame on Brexit yet Brexit could only be responsible for France's difficulties if it had resulted in French workers all relocating to Britain! The industry in France says 150,000 people left the sector during the pandemic, which begs the question of why and where have they gone? If the IFS is right, and the same conditions prevail in France, then they have sensibly given up on world of unappreciated labour and are enjoying themselves.

All across the more advanced countries, the story is the same. And governments and businesses are clueless as to how to respond. In the UK, the government is seeking more teachers by removing limits on the states from they can be sourced, opening up jobs to the whole world. This is a ridiculous and short-sighted policy bound to do little more than accelerate the revolving door through which staff are spinning. Because the problem is not recruitment, it's retention. The Times reports that "one in three teachers left the classroom within five years of qualifying and one in eight left after one year". Simply extending the recruitment field does nothing to stem this exodus and merely adds to the churn. The answer can only be to train teachers locally, treat them well, pay them better and do everything possible to encourage them to stay for their whole career.

Fortunately, there are signs that this shortage of workers is forcing employers to adapt. James Kirkup, director of the Social Market Foundation, a cross-party think tank, wrote in The Times that there could be up to a million "missing workers" in Britain today, and that a lack of migrants is not a factor, given the government's liberal post-Brexit immigration policy. No, he says these missing workers are Brits. And his damning verdict is that "the experience of work has been getting worse for many people for several years". And it is not a deterioration that can be cured simply by throwing more pay at the problem: staff are demanding flexibility, time and happiness at work. He says Britain's "inactivity rate" at 22 per cent, is well below France's 29 per cent, but is rising fast. He says: "That rise must be stopped, in part by making work a nicer, less arduous experience more compatible with other parts of our lives."

This, of course, is music to my ears: I believe work should be fun; I have always found it so, even in the most dull and dour-sounding roles. And it can be for everyone. A richer work-life balance that involves an equitable sharing of necessary work will not only make work fun but will be necessary as the self-indulgent western way of life falls apart in the face of climate change. The greatest challenge the world faces is how to transition from a consumption economic model to a needs-based one that requires economic activity to shrink rather than grow aimlessly in perpetuity. Economic inactivity must be encouraged; unnecessary functions must be eradicated, rewards must be shared equally, along with the distribution of essential work. All this will become essential once global warming begins to fry, freeze or submerge parts of the world.

CRASS JOURNALISM

On June 17, I questioned the quality of journalism that had allowed what I called "a partial story", full of holes, unanswered questions and absurdities, to reach the pages of The Times. It concerned a man who had reportedly been left stranded on an aeroplane at Gatwick and, in desperation, had taken himself into the airport, where he died as a result of an escalator accident. The inevitable apology and correction appeared today: almost every pertinent fact in the story was wrong. This can happen, of course, and honest mistakes should be forgiven. But in this case, the story was such obvious errant nonsense that it should never have survived even the most cursory scrutiny on its way into print. This is truly unforgivable: any journalist reading this article should have immediately hit the panic button, spiked the drivel, and summoned the reporter to their desk for a severe dressing down.

EBAY – FRIEND OF THE FRAUDSTER AND PUNISHER OF THE INNOCENT

Once again, eBay features on the consumer pages, with a user complaining that it punishes innocent sellers while rewarding criminal buyers. This is very much in line with my experience of the trading website. And is why I steer well clear of it.

JUNE 17 2022

JUST BECAUSE YOU'RE 'NICE', DOESN'T MEAN YOU'RE RIGHT

I went to church last night: St Michael's, Cornhill, in the City. It was full. I sang the hymns lustily and together we made a glorious sound, accompanied by one of the world's great church organs. I listened to the readings and lessons. And the sermon. This might sound a strange thing for an atheist an anti-theist, actually to do. But I justify singing hymns by saying I love singing, and I attach as much meaning to the lyrics as when I sing "Honky Tonk Women": I have never even been to Memphis, let alone met a gin-soaked bar-room queen there. As testimony it is meaningless.

But the chaplain conducting the service seemed at first a decent chap: confident and clear and not spooning on the religion. And all through his sermon, he was witty, asking us to think of the most irritating person we knew and extolling the virtues of being an irritant: a necessary function in turning a grain of sand to a pearl and in guiding all of us to the right path through questioning and mild conflict. The inevitable and overt political denouement could have gone either way: were Boris and Priti the necessary irritants, tackling important issues in the face of vicious opposition by "nice people"? Or were their critics the benevolent irritants? It was, of course, the bishops and their unthinking condemnation of the government's Rwanda agreement. It was also, of course, Prince Charles and his unconstitutional and simplistic labelling of the Rwanda policy as "immoral" if that is even what he really said. (If his political interference in government continues, he will make a very bad king indeed, which will pose a real threat to the monarchy.) At this juncture, the chaplain himself became a serious irritant. Politics from the pulpit leaves a nasty taste: the "niceness" wears thin.

The test, as ever, is whether the most vehement critics have any alternatives. And they do not. The only vacant plea now forthcoming from the likes of bishops and princes is that the UK provides "safe legal" routes into the country as if there weren't any. The reason illegal entrants choose the lethal Channel crossing is because they know they would fail the tests required to reach Britain legally. A 22-year-old male Albanian or Nigerian would rightly be sent away from British embassies and consuls, unless there were extraordinary special circumstances. This specious "safe legal" argument is meant to sully the UK's reputation for compassion and human rights, whereas its record before the European Court of Human Rights is exemplary and it is renowned globally as being compassionate, decent and fair.

Every other possible means of stemming the tide if illegal entrants has been tried and scuppered by oppositions various: the unco-operative French who are more than happy to give each inflatable boat a little push on its way; the intransigent EU and its open door policy enabling tens of thousands of economic migrants to wander freely; the do-good human rights lawyers; the multinational courts with their recklessly broad definitions of a human right; and all those with placards who fail to spot the difference between a refugee and a chancer seeking to better his life at the expense of others.

Friends of ours posted pictures of themselves at what looked a small rally holding placards that carried the most uncontroversial message ever daubed on cardboard: "Refugees welcome here"! Of course they are. Britain is famous for its welcome to refugees. It has taken in tens of thousands in the past year from Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine alone welcoming them and helping them to assimilate as best can be managed in a small, crowded island with what almpst everyone seems to agree is a housing shortage. This week, it was reported that British schools are wrestling with integrating and teaching 20,000 child refugees. And that's without counting children of illegal entrants.

A Times 2 feature on June 13 also hopelessly missed the point. Its front page headline read: "Refugees shouldn't be sent to Rwanda." Again, this is completely uncontroversial as no one is suggesting a single refugee will ever be sent to Rwanda. The introduction to the feature inside, written by someone who should know better called Hilary Rose, begins by claiming the home secretary "announced plans to deport refugees to Rwanda". This is not true. She did not. You could only be confused about this if you fail – or refuse – to grasp what a refugee actually is. The feature then claims "there is no route to safety that is legal or safe". Again, this is completely untrue: there are many safe and legal routes to safety. The interviewee claims people say "Britain has no more room for refugees". Again, who is saying this? Hardly anyone. Refugees are offered places in their tens of thousands each year. Perhaps he was really suggesting there should be no limit at all? And the notion had clearly crossed the interviewee's mind as he was forced to admit, with reference to Afghanistan: "Of course, we can't get 40 million people out." The entire feature was a travesty of misinformation and ignorance, echoing, sadly, some widely held views – subscribed to by good, nice, well-meaning, but misguided, people.

Those banners completely missed the point that the real choice facing genuine refugees is between "a safe place or death", not "the UK or death". One idiotic banner pictured in The Times on June 13 screamed: "If fleeing danger is illegal, the law is wrong". Fleeing danger is one thing; fleeing France in a dangerously deflating kayak is quite the opposite. There are almost 200 countries in the world, and even taking into account those upon whose soil no sensible human being would wish to set foot, there are plenty that offer safety. All migrants crossing from France are choosing the risk of death over the safety of a developed country and so, no matter what their background, have comprehensively trampled all over any right they had to call themselves a refugee. They are economic migrants entering a country illegally. If I did it in the US or Australia, for example, I would anticipate punishment. Of course, every arrival claims asylum and lawyers have to represent them and processes are dragged out until the prospect of ever being removed from this land of milk and honey diminishes to zero.

There is only one further policy that could be implemented, and opposition to every other attempt to thwart the deadly people traffickers is bringing it closer: detention camps, on land or at sea. This would be far less humane than the relatively benign Rwanda initiative. Indeed, despite the UN and the clergy railing against the policy, the UK courts could not find any legal impediment to this week's flight of deportees taking off. Even the European Court of Human Rights, which acted in secrecy, without considering evidence or argument, just paper documents, and is still refusing to say which judges made the decision, or how many it could even have been one did not rule against the policy but bizarrely insisted on a random delay of three weeks. A more political judgment you would have to search hard to find. Home secretary Priti Patel, showing all the nonchalant aggression and bravado of England's batsmen against New Zealand on Tuesday, whacked away all criticism in the House of Commons to stake her claim to being the cabinet's answer to Jonny Bairstow. Like her or loath her, you can't fail to be impressed when she launches another off drive into the top tier of the stands.

The only negative mark against the Rwanda policy appears to be its effectiveness. Israel has tried something similar, without enormous success; Denmark is trying to do the same. It needs to be sufficiently draconian to persuade those in France that staying there, or elsewhere, is a better option, but comfortable enough to quieten those who will always unthinkingly prefer open borders, the only alternative on offer. Either way, placed in their position I would prefer Rwanda to a summer of slaving in a British agricultural labour camp.

USELESS AMERICA

I love America, but how can we explain the desperately poor quality of its leaders? Is it down to money? Only stupid rich people can afford to run for high office? In Joe Biden, they have a president who is about 30 years past his use-by date and is proving to be utterly useless and worse, with his ignorant and one-sided meddling in Ireland. And Donald Trump, a dangerous and arrogant idiot. Come on America, get your act together. This cannot possibly be the best you can do

THE HIDDEN DANGERS OF DIGITAL COMMUNICATION

Using digital technology to communicate not only removes inhibitions and enables bullying and worse, it also slows down communication. The paradox is that lightning fast connections lengthen the period in which an exchange takes place dramatically so when compared with face-to-face debate. One person tries to deal with a problem by firing off a message, and then waits for the response. While waiting, they dwell upon the outcome, they fret, they worry, they feel stress, as does the recipient and those copied in. Being in the same room offers the possibility of instant resolution with incidents forgotten; being digitally connected by high-speed broadband can be frustratingly slow and encourages festering.

MY KINGSTON BOYCOTT CONTINUES

I'm losing track of the number of years since I began my boycott of Kingston commercial centre. It must be five by now. It was over the council's disgraceful decision to install confusing and misleading signs as part of a cycle route, and then fining everyone it managed to trick into using an allegedly closed piece of road. It collected millions of pounds from innocent motorists not me, luckily and has refused to pay back what it owes. I don't know how Kingston's commercial centre is faring, and I do not wish harm on any of the equally innocent shops or other attractions there. But if I have contributed in any small way to shaming or embarrassing the council, or encouraging businesses to see it in its true light, then my boycott has been worthwhile.

SHEILA HANCOCK: NATIONAL TREASURE OR NASTY OLD HYPOCRITE?

Is Sheila Hancock a national treasure? I don't think so. She's more like a nasty old hypocrite. It's fair enough being a nasty old hypocrite if you keep quiet about it. But if you parade your ignorance and double standards in a book and expect intelligent people to find you a treasure, then think again.

MICHAEL OWEN, NATIONAL TREASURE OR AN EMBARRASSMENT?

Michael Owen deleted Tweets promoting an unlicensed cryptocurrency casino. They breached rules on gambling advertising. It was also a disgusting thing to do. Has he not heard of the numbers committing suicide thanks to the addiction that he is promoting? And what knowledge and experience qualifies him to be promoting "the power of crypto". National treasure? More a disgrace and an embarrassment.

HOW CAN YOU WIN?

A headline in The Times told us that "Minority staff are being put off by diversity". You just can't win. And then that slightly annoying national treasure Lenny Henry started moaning about the lack of black faces at Glastonbury and similar festivals. Look, Lenny, you can't force people to go to a rock concert. If they don't like the music on offer, there are festivals catering to every taste. Would anyone bleat about the lack of white faces at a rap or bhangra gig?

MORE EXAMPLES OF ATROCIOUS JOURNALISM

It's a terrible indictment of my beloved profession that the most comprehensive serious daily newspaper, The Times, can churn out articles full of lazy and incorrect assumptions, exaggerations, misunderstandings, omissions, ignorance and downright untruths. I am flicking through editions from two recent days Friday June 10 and Monday June t3, and perhaps one or two horrors since.

One of the most heinous crimes is publishing the findings of a "report" without revealing the nature of the organisation behind it. The headline in The Times read: "Brexit and Covid 'leave UK trailing behind rivals'." The report on which this article was based blamed the UK's economic woes on Brexit. It was produced by the Centre for European Reform, which the paper called a think tank. Yet nowhere did the journalist bother to mention that this body focuses on matters of European integration and is devoted to making the EU work better and strengthening its role in the world. It is therefore a campaigning organisation, biased, and with an agenda. It must have been delighted to see its views, presented as objective facts and running unchallenged and unquestioned, in The Times.

● In a Q&A on fuel prices, the writer casually claims "the pound has slumped". This was not true. At the time of publishing it had not slumped and was roughly where it was several weeks or months ago. Figures on the paper's own statistics pages showed this.

● An article alleging that nurses were "paying to go to work" allowed this ludicrous claim to run in both the headline and the introduction. No effort was made to point out that a nurse driving 10,000 miles a year would be reclaiming 32.6p a mile to run their own cars, compared with the average car costing about 22p a mile to run. On top of this there is a monthly wear and tear allowance. I believe nurses should be paid a fortune and treated as national heroes. But The Times still has a duty to work out such figures before writing ridiculous headlines. It smacks of simply reproducing the campaign press release.

● A long feature on the Grenfell fire anniversary amounted to little more than a first-hand recounting of events that happened five years ago. If I had approached the Financial Times news desk with a story that was five years old and that shed no new light on the subject, I would have expected to be laughed at.

● News by anecdote: it's one of the BBC's favourite tricks. Find a malcontent and present their tale of woe as representative of the entire country. Similarly, reading The Times, you would have assumed that no one was able to renew their passport, or fly from a British airport, this spring. Yet I have been abroad three times already this year without significant disturbance. And the anecdotal evidence reaching me concerning passport renewals is full of praise for how efficient and fast it is. Indeed, the minister responsible claimed this week that 98.5 per cent of passports were returned within the advertised time and that applications had risen, because of the pandemic hiatus, from about 5 million a year to 9.5 million so far this year. If accurate, it helps explain why one or two cases might slip through the net. To be fair, some of the airport bias was corrected in one news story admitting that almost half of Europe's flight delays were "caused by 'capacity and staffing' issues at European airports". It pointed out that in one week, 45 per cent of air traffic flow management delays originated in Germany, with just 9 per cent in the UK. Even so, these facts were tucked away, with the headline on the piece giving the strong impression of uniquely British chaos: "Gatwick suffers nightly meltdown".

A Comment piece in The Times on access to the housing market by James Coney was headlined: "The problem is not the lack of mortgages, it's the lack of homes". And indeed, the article did try to sustain this argument. But it is nonsense. It might be true that the problem is not the lack of mortgages, but neither is it the case that house prices are necessarily affected to any great degree by a so-called shortage of housing. Had I unlimited wealth I could buy thousands of houses, flats and palaces tomorrow (there are today nearly 40,000 properties for sale on Rightmove in London alone). When those who fail to understand the housing market claim there is a shortage of homes what they actually mean is that there is a shortage of homes they can afford. And given that in many instances, repaying a mortgage is cheaper than paying a private rent, it is the deposit requirement that stands in their way. And deposit demands have become so onerous because of the 2007 crash, led by the champions of the loosest possible mortgage market, such as Gordon Brown and American financiers. This Comment article was accompanied by two first-hand accounts from youngsters aged around 30 who could not find anywhere within their price range to buy in their chosen areas one in Putney, the other in Surbiton. One said: "£450,000 won't get the two of us much at all in London." The other said: "Interest rates are mental at the moment." Today, there nearly 300 entire houses in London for sale at less than £450,000 just on Rightmove alone; and well over 10,000 flats. And those "mental" interest rates? Our mortgage rate went up to around 15 per cent at one time. Forgive me for thinking that 2.5 or 3 per cent is unusually and unsustainably low. (The repercussions of low interest rates are explained in my book; the complexities do mean I have some slight sympathy for the confused state of the interviewee's mind.) But read these pieces uncritically, swallowing whole their message, and the myth of a housing shortage is perpetuated.

These are examples of dreadfully misleading journalism. But the malaise is widespread and I encounter shocking examples every day. Occasionally, I am asked for advice from young would-be journalists. As recently as Tuesday, I was placed in the invidious situation of having to disillusion a student pondering a career in journalism. I had to advise that if he had ambitions to be on camera as a presenter, he should focus on sport: reaching international level and perhaps winning a medal or trophy or two has become the necessary qualification for broadcast "journalists" (see June 3). Equally important is a fresh-faced gullibility and a determination to avoid asking pertinent questions. These qualities will enable a journalist's written pieces to be as full of holes, or as laughably absurd, as so many we read. This morning's papers, for example, brought us two hysterical screamers: the Surrey Advertiser took seriously the nonsensical tale of Elsie, the elderly woman who claimed she kept herself warm by riding on a bus all day: it sent a reporter to spend a day on a bus, and he found it far from comfortable. The story also repeated a ridiculous allegation that Elsie's energy bills jumped from £17 to £85 a month. What on earth was she doing?

This is an example of how an urban myth Elsie was outed long ago as a Labour party activist can become "fact": it is the journalist's most fundamental function to confront such nonsense. A second example is the partial story of the man who died at Gatwick airport. We know little about the facts of this case, as the omissions in the story are huge and glaring: questions have clearly not been asked. How did the man leave the flight cabin? How did he reach an escalator? Where was he? What actually happened? We have answers to none of these basic questions but are expected to absorb this sad tale into our negative view of airports, airlines and transport, perhaps spicing it up a little. This is not even poor work; it is bad.

KYIV: WE WERE PERHAPS A BIT HASTY...

A lovely picture of young people frolicking in the sunshine by a river in Kyiv appeared in the news this week. It was a delight to behold. But it begs a rather large question: would it have been more sensible to wait before re-settling western Ukrainians in western Europe? They would have endured several weeks of discomfort in camps in Poland and other neighbouring countries. But by now, they could have returned as the war moved east many weeks ago. Instead, because of the furore and accusations of heartlessness and dithering, those fleeing war are becoming embedded in alien societies, perhaps never to return home. This is a far worse option on many counts. The Russian invasion could, of course, refocus on western Ukraine, necessitating a renewed evacuation. But for now, western Europe's emotional and over-hasty reaction is looking just that: emotional and over-hasty.

LLOYD-WEBBER, PERHAPS YOU WERE A BIT HASTY

Poor Andrew Lloyd-Webber: he was booed on the closing night of his musical, Cinderella. He drew the final curtain on the production despite claiming it had garnered him his "best reviews". It seems that financial difficulties resulting from early opening while the pandemic was still raging was the cause of its demise. Poor Andrew, there he was hectoring and lecturing the government on how he could sidestep Covid-19 by spraying his audiences. If only he hadn't been so hasty – all he had to do was wait a few more months.

THAT PROTOCOL AND TWO DIFFERENT MINDSETS

The row over the Northern Ireland Protocol highlights the fundamental and irreconcilable differences between UK and EU ways of thinking. The Protocol is failing, of that there is no doubt even the EU accepts that changes are needed. The impasse arises because the EU refuses to revisit the wording of the Protocol itself, whereas the UK is demanding that this is necessary for trade and government policies to be carried out legitimately. Continental EU countries have a tradition of turning a blind eye to EU rules that they don't like; the UK does not. Part of the reason for the permanently uncomfortable relationship between the UK and the EU is because the UK has always shown determination to follow the rules: it would rather commit absurdities by following rules than show common sense and ignore them. The UK has therefore always campaigned for EU rules to be altered to match reality, whereas other nations skirt round them. Only a day or so ago, a German minister admitted that his country had introduced differential taxation, thereby suggesting that the UK could and should do the same in Northern Ireland if it so wished. For Britain, the rules says it can't, so it won't, and the rules have to be changed. The EU says, never mind the rules, we'll just add a few get-outs. The EU mindset is focused much more on the over-arching ideology than detailed instructions. A letter in The Times this week also spelled out these differing mindsets in response to accusations that the UK government was being confrontational towards the EU. It pointed out that EU intransigence and insistence on ideological purity forced David Cameron into the Brexit referendum in the first place.

And there is the further example today of companies' response to bans on trading with Russia. A survey suggests that just one British company is continuing to trade with Russia, while 26 French and 23 German companies have failed to heed the embargo. Again, the UK sticks to the rules, EU countries and their businesses allow themselves plenty of wiggle-room. But there appears little room for compromise when the two sides have such a fundamentally different way of thinking.

EVERYONE'S BURNING PPE

The government is accused of wastefulness in burning excess PPE, which it costs £3.5 million a week to store. For a few weeks in 2020 it was accused of not having enough, a situation that was quickly resolved in the UK, while EU countries had to wait for its common procurement system to creak into gear. We have equipment left over because the vaccination programme was so incredibly successful, bringing an end to lockdowns months ahead of the rest of the world. Burning it seems a sensible option. However, if France had known there was a pandemic on the way, perhaps it would not have thought it sensible to burn vast quantities of PPE just before the Covid outbreak.

AT LEAST LABOUR IS GIVING US A LAUGH

Now that Labour is back in the hands of the liberals, it is at least entertaining to watch it squirm when working people choose to go on strike. The party is tying itself in knots over the train dispute, with shadow ministers having to apologise for supporting the workers. Andy Burnham, Manchester mayor, is today reported to have attacked the leadership for being too scared to support the striking workers; and Rachel Reeves, shadow chancellor, says Labour is ready for office because it now takes business seriously which can only mean, sod the workers. There's nothing like a strike to prove that Labour can't be all things to all people, no matter how firmly it refuses to reveal a single policy on anything.

THE GREAT STONEWALL TAKEOVER

I fail to understand why so many organisations have fallen under the spell of the increasingly ludicrous Stonewall campaign group. Parts of the NHS, we are told, include questions set by Stonewall, in their procurement documents. One trust, it is reported, includes five questions titled "Stonewall UK Workplace Equality Index". Bidders are asked whether they are members of Stonewall's Equality Index and whether they have a "transitioning at work" policy and these questions carry the same weight as health-related questions. This is extraordinary. As the whistleblower who revealed this outrage said: "The NHS is willing to compromise on patient safety care to promote Stonewall." This is a fantastic achievement for Stonewall, but a shameful travesty for everyone else.

JUNE 6 2022

Reflection is a marvellous thing. And having had time to come down from the high of the immediate and powerful sentiment of the Queen's Platinum Jubilee concert on Saturday night and having discussed it with respected peers and read a review or two – I can now see one or two more flaws in the line-up of artistes. While my congratulations to the organising committee on choosing a list that spanned sufficient generations and genres still stands, it does seem to have taken its eye off any geographical representation. It is a significant criticism that while there were big-name Americans (why?), there were too few stars, or indeed none, from the UK's home nations and the Commonwealth. Could Tom Jones not have been persuaded to be the headliner? Was the adorable Nicola Benedetti not asked to join in? Or those Northern Irish performers so adept at winning the Eurovision Song Contest? They would have felt completely at home on that giant set outside Buckingham Palace. The Times' reviewer this morning also asks whether Diana Ross was miming, which I commented on at the time as there certainly appeared to be several mismatches between what we saw and what we heard. If so, the inclusion of Ross was a gross mistake and utterly pointless. I do disagree with the reviewer's damning verdict on Celeste's performance, though. OK, it was not exactly party fare, but it was poignant and compelling immediately on the heels of Prince William's green speech.

NO ONE COULD SURVIVE THIS VICIOUS TROLLING EXERCISE

The prime minister will not survive long now. Tory MPs are increasingly worried that their seats are in jeopardy and even if they support him in this evening's vote of confidence, there will be a renewed, and probably successful, drive to oust him after the forthcoming by-election defeats. In the circumstances, they are probably right to do so: Boris Johnson has gone from being an electoral asset to serious liability. This is in no small measure down to the scandalous campaign mounted against him by Brexit-hating sections of the media, notably the BBC. The Times is equally culpable, with its succession of recent "cartoons" libellously depicting Boris as an alcoholic. Times cartoonists are always pathetic, unfunny and ill-informed but this attack is as bad as any online trolling or bullying. No one could survive the incessant barrage Boris has faced: the drip effect of unsubstantiated accusations, grossly disfiguring caricatures, and yes, lies, was inevitably going to have an effect sooner or later. As mentioned a few days ago, when a newspaper so passionately desperate to damage the prime minister as The Guardian decides to list his "lies" and can only muster one that actually amounts to a proper bare-faced lie you start to see how vicious this campaign has been.

It seems to be the alleged Downing Street "parties" that have whipped away his public support, along with the claim – now an adopted fact – that he lied to Parliament. My riposte to this is that if you had asked me on the day I left the FT whether parties had taken place there, I would have replied No. The fact that a subsequent Metropolitan Police investigation used a different definition of what a "party" is would not make me a liar. And so the Boris-haters will get their way. Perhaps the time is right: despite several sensible policy initiatives, delivery is slow and in some cases, such as the removal of illegal migrants, defeatist. The move to reintroduce some imperial measurements, a trivial and meaningless gesture, smacks of desperation. I believe his tenure and legacy will be viewed positively by future historians – even those Tory MPs preparing to ditch him mostly believe in his programme – and the fates have certainly been unkind. But wavering policies in such areas as gambling and planning, and fumbling on tax and benefits and economic management, have all undermined the sense of purpose and progress. There is no obvious successor. But then I was astounded when Boris was chosen. It's a one-off task and impossible to tell who will excel – or fail – at it until it's too late.

THE 1970s – OH, THE SUFFERING! OH, THE MISERY!

It's interesting to discover just how awful the 1970s were – from youngsters who have not the first clue what they're talking about. There are, of course, plenty of people who did live through the seventies who are happy to make it out to be the worst decade imaginable. They tend to be professionals and business people who felt the power balance between bosses and workers was skewed too far towards the latter and were thus relieved when Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair put executives and owners firmly back in charge. But for the vast majority of working class and the lower middle classes – by far the biggest proportion of the population, the 1970s were not at all bad. You won't hear this said very often because the writing of history is the prerogative of the victorious and the myth of 1970s awfulness is now dominant and all-pervasive.

But just occasionally someone will break ranks and paint a truer picture. Having not heard a good word said about the 1970s for what seems like decades, it came as a surprise that two writers in The Times stable managed it in the past few days. First, columnist Carol Midgley wrote: "Boris Johnson has complained that his crèche, sorry 'cabinet', which includes an attorney-general aged 42 and a chief secretary to the Treasury aged 37, is too young to remember the 'pain' of the 1970s. Well, prime minister, I’m not. And while yes, the strikes and the blackouts weren’t ideal, especially since your mum had to light lots of cheap Woolworths candles and when you blew your nose into a hanky it went black, it wasn’t all bad. In fact much of it was hilarious and should be brought back immediately."

Among the positives, she listed: "No fretting about bulky children’s car seats when driving on holiday they just tipped us all in the hatchback with a few cola cubes, the sun burning through the rear windscreen on to the scratchy poncho knitted by your nan. If you wanted to see your friend you didn’t snapchat them from bed, you walked round on your actual legs and knocked on the actual door. Which meant that children then were thin, not pavement crackers in 46in-waist school trousers (I’m not exaggerating; that’s a true story). No one wore seatbelts or thought twice about balancing a baby on their knee while driving, possibly after a few brown ales (not condoning it, just saying). No one seemed to think that paedophiles had been invented (Jimmy Savile was a national hero), so you’d be left outside a pub in the car with bottles of pop and Salt & Shake crisps feeling, genuinely, as though life couldn’t get any better.

"Politicians always evoke the Seventies as a bogeyman but for some of us that doesn’t work, because it was also a thrilling time filled with David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, Tiswas, Vesta curries, cassette tape recorders, waterbeds, sausages and beans in a tin." And she concluded: "What was nice about the Seventies was that youthful innocence still, just about, existed. We could laugh for days over one saucy seaside postcard, such as a picture of a busty barmaid misplacing two flagons of orange squash and asking: 'Have you seen my big jugs?' Imagine kids of today raised on internet porn seeing anything subversive enough to laugh at in a cartoon of a swimming instructor asking a woman in a bikini: 'Now, would you like to try a length underwater?' Those were the days, my friend."

She is, of course, right. Every decade has its pros and cons but the seventies is only allowed to be seen through the lens marked "cons". This s because it flies in the face of today's consumer obsession, its business-first culture and its greed, selfishness and alienation from real society. Do those who ritually condemn the seventies not understand that the best ever music was created, that it contained the best-loved year (1976) and that life for the vast majority was one of gradual improvement. We went to concerts, just like today; we went on holidays, just like today. We ate better food because it was made from ingredients, not pre-packaged by someone desperate to make a profit; and we were greener, in that there was no central heating and baths once a week. We were all fine. Honestly. But most important of all, and very unlike today, participatory democracy was in action. As Midgley writes, it was exciting.

Even that old grump Rod Liddle is on board. He wrote in his Sunday Times column: "Perhaps it was a simpler age. If the UK was stagnating, it was a comfortable stagnation, with gradually rising living standards and, since Elizabeth’s accession, peace in our time. Yes, we had endured power cuts, the three-day week, almost perpetual strikes and real, proper, inflation. But the growing affluence and the absence of real war, as opposed to the Cold War, made us a rather cosseted generation, one which demanded change with a certain irresponsible petulance." He was writing about the thrilling but individualistic and nihilistic explosion of punk rock, which he, probably correctly, calls a right-wing, anti-society movement. They were such interesting times when, in order to be heard you had to have something worthwhile to say, not just a vacuous social media platform from which to utter a vile brew of inanities, hatred and ugliness. My snapshot view of subsequent decades shows how alike they all are in their pros and cons: the 1980s violent suppression of miners and the starving of their communities to force them into obedience; the 1990s – economic mismanagement and financial scandals, with Middle East wars thrown in; the 2000s – more wars, Blair's betrayal of the working class and Gordon Brown's destruction of the world's best pension system, his sell-off of gold reserves and his laying the foundations for the inevitable crash; 2010s – when we have to start paying the price for living beyond our means in a fool's paradise for the past decade or more. And the 2020s – we already have war, disease and the same old political in-fighting. Give me the 1970s any day.

JUNE 5 2022

Nice concert last night. Outside Buckingham Palace. Queen's Platinum Jubilee. Duran Duran misfired by choosing two dirges instead of party songs, George Ezra misfired by removing all traces of groove from his anthemic Shotgun, and Craig David was....just Craig David. But the mix was right, covering all ages and generations, and as many genres as would be bearable in a single evening. Highlights for me were Celeste singing a powerful and dramatic "Wonderful World"; the wonderful Alicia Keys belting out "New York", slightly inappropriately and for the millionth time; the incredible drones; and, bizarrely, Diversity's energetic three-minute history of British dance music, which featured some clever tricks. What struck me about many of the brief sets, however, was that I had seen something very similar only a few weeks ago. Anyone who says they enjoyed the Jubilee concert performers but claims the Eurovision Song Contest is unwatchable needs to alternate between watching Mimi Webb, Mabel and several of the other acts from last night and watching the best dozen Eurovision acts and then try to describe the differences between them.

Overall, however, there was a difference last night: this was a show with a purpose, a party and celebration for an entire nation. And in this regard, too, it was a huge success in that it offered something for most people, from opera and ballet via old rockers to young stars. I suspect this was a result of a diverse commissioning panel. Had the selection of artists been left to a committee of old folks, it would have alienated the young, and vice versa.

And there is a lesson here for all selection panels, be they hiring employees or choosing a leader for high office. There is currently an assumption that unconscious bias, from which every single human being suffers and will always suffer, must be countered by ever more extreme and absurd levels of anonymity in the filtering process, to the point where decision-makers know virtually nothing about the candidates. This is obviously ridiculous: at lunch in the FT canteen a decade ago we used to joke about how far this removal of information in order to avoid discrimination would go. It has already gone way beyond any of the ludicrous scenarios we came up with. Given that the whole purpose of a selection process is to discriminate between different candidates, the panel must have all available information before it. Of course, each member will have their own unconscious biases to contend with, although these are now relatively trivial compared with the days when certain categories of candidate needn't even bother to apply. Even so, we can do better and the way to achieve it is to appoint a diverse panel. Just as the Jubilee party programme must have been the product of diverse input, so all choices would and should benefit from diverse input. That is the smart way to resist bias.

So many organisations get this hopelessly wrong. The Crown Prosecution Service provided the perfect example last week, when it announced the appointment of Sophie Cook to a new role of "speak-out champion”. Cook is transgender and has supported the replacement of the word woman with “womxn” and used the abusive acronym “terf” trans-exclusionary radical feminist. On her website she calls herself a "self-harm and suicide survivor". As a trans activist she sounds aggressively extremist and has already struck fear into the minds of prosecutors who are now waiting to be attacked and hounded for their reasonably held views. Cook sounds a deeply troubled individual, as far as it is possible to gather from a few hundred words, and surely a controversial choice for even this daft role. It will inevitably lead to conflict, because of the intolerant and bullying methods of the extremist trans lobby to which, bafflingly, so few seem prepared to stand up. Perhaps it's something to do with its vicious social media cancelling policy.

Unlike the trans extremists, I believe all views should be heard and considered. Even Cook's. But she should not be in charge, making judgments and pronouncements: her views appear so fanatically narrow that she is completely unqualified to evaluate others. If the CPS is using Cook to establish a new culture it is making an enormous mistake. Her views represent the very tip of the tail of the dog that she might now be able to wag. If the CPS allows Cook the sort of level of influence her new title suggests, then its new-look culture might look less like an increasingly perfect dog and more like a gigantic tail.

JUNE 3 2022

When I call in at the surgery to see a doctor, I am always relieved when the doctor has the sort of training and experience that qualifies them for the job. If I need legal advice, I hope the lawyer has studied and been through the required career progression, one that confers knowledge and top-class judgment. If I were ever to be an axe thrower's stooge in a circus performance, I would check their CV with a fair degree of intensity. But employers seeking television presenters or sports event tournament directors couldn't care less about competence, training, knowledge, experience or judgment: all they seek is a "name", usually from sport or light entertainment. And so we have former footballers sitting on the BBC's early evening snore-fest, The One Show, and even taking part in coverage of the Queen's Jubilee celebrations. We have a former tennis player running the French Open event in Paris. And we have the likes of Clare Balding, Alan Titchmarsh, some boy-band singer, and even runner Seb Coe organising things and presenting things when they are not even in the top million candidates for the job. This wouldn't hurt so much, were it not for the fact that properly trained and experienced professionals, for whom these prestige jobs should be the highlights of their careers, are ignored in favour of Jermaine "Yeah, I'll give it a go, thank you very much" Jenas.

This is not to heap all the blame on to the likes of Jenas, Alex Scott and the boy-band bloke. Some are reasonably competent: Jenas is OK and likeable enough but has occasionally been caught out when the fairly easy One Show job turns tricky and he has no tools with which to respond. This is why employers with brains choose professionals. Who would you trust in a crisis Jenas or Kirsty Young, Alex Scott or Huw Edwards? Similarly, how can it be fair to have thrust the equally likeable Scott into front-line coverage of the Olympics, with the inevitably embarrassing results? Meanwhile, seasoned professionals sat at home, justifiably fuming. The BBC's most heinous crime in this regard is allowing the utterly clueless Marion Bartoli near a microphone. Presenting on screen might look like a job anyone can do, and to some extent it is. But to do it well takes aptitude, skill, training, experience and more. This is not to deny that there can be spectacular successes: two of the greatest sports broadcasters, David Coleman and Kenneth Wolstenholme, were both career communicators, but a third, Dan Maskell, was first a tennis player. Several cricketers have been successfully converted into broadcasters. But there has been a big switch: former players identified as excellent communicators were once the exception among professional broadcasters; today, they barely need to be average to take the place of an excellent professional.

If that applies to broadcasting, it is even more crucial in organising major events. London 2012 was mostly a success but the mess made over the future of the Olympic Stadium, for which Londoners might be paying for ever, was caused by appointing an amateur to run the show. Seb Coe might have made a name for himself by running fast, but running an Olympics might better have been left to a professional. The stadium might then have been designed for future use as a football ground the only possible outcome. Coe's idiotic and naive insistence that it would remain an athletics stadium meant this did not happen and handed West Ham United the deal of the century when they eventually agreed to take it over.

The French, of course, take things to another level. Under a headline containing the phrase "staggering incompetence", The Times sports pages yesterday let readers know how well former tennis player Amélie Mauresmo was getting on in her terrific new job as French Open tournament director. This would be the 2022 French Open, at which hundreds of spectators were left stranded outside the Roland Garros stadium in the early hours of Wednesday morning after watching Rafa Nadal beat Novak Djokovic a match that everyone knew could not finish before midnight and in fact finished much later. Stuart Fraser reports in The Times that there were people desperately trying to find a taxi and paying through the nose if they did.

Fraser, The Times tennis writer, then wrote: "Asked about these problems at a press conference on Wednesday morning, the response of Mauresmo beggared belief." And indeed it did. She said: "That’s actually a key issue that needs to be settled and that will be one of our priorities in the future. We haven’t planned anything yet, but obviously we need to organise ourselves differently with the department of transport of Paris, with bus systems and the underground system. Obviously it’s not simple. It’s the first year that I’m the tournament director. I’m learning a lot of things regarding the scheduling of the tournament. Having such late matches could actually trigger some questions. I’m wondering about it myself, to be honest."

Fraser then wrote: "This is astonishing. French Open organisers specifically sold a separate night session rights package to Amazon Prime for approximately £12m a year, guaranteeing that a match would start at 8.45pm, but seemingly did not have the foresight to consider what may happen if it does not finish until after midnight. Not for the first time, it is an example of staggering incompetence on the part of a tennis governing body." It is equally important to ask what on earth the governing body thought it was doing appointing an amateur and a complete beginner to run such an event. If I was seeking someone to direct a grand slam tennis tournament, I would choose a qualified and experienced tournament director, not someone who is humiliatingly forced to admit "I'm learning a lot of things".

Sadly, this is not Mauresmo's only display of incompetence this week. She also enraged female players by saying their short matches were not worthy of the prime time evening slot. I'm sure she is likeable and capable of many things. Andy Murray employed her as his coach for a while. But who could have been stupid enough to offer her work experience in the top job? Are there really no qualified and experienced tournament directors in France? And if there are, will they be able to resist a wry and resentful smile at Mauresmo's abject failure?


JUNE 1 2022

Incredible isn't it. For almost 30 years my wife and I have been keeping an eye out for the supposedly "in-need" people who live opposite us in "charity" housing – it's owned by some sort of housing association, which claims that everyone it takes in exhibits some level of "need". The residents used to be elderly, now they are all ages, some with multiple vehicles. There are currently several motorcycles in the car park. Over the years, we have picked up the old residents when they've fallen over, rescued them when stuck on the steps, seen them home, carried their shopping, comforted them, delivered them meals on wheels, taken them to medical appointments (only this week I arranged for a lady to receive a lift for a pneumonia jab appointment), chatted to them and invited them to join our road's occasional street parties. The older residents appreciate this; the newer, younger and far less needy intake and their relatives largely fail to.

Last evening, as I was putting out the bins, an angry, aggressive and unpleasant looking man stormed up my driveway and accosted me, accusing me of placing a log on the grass verge opposite. He was right, but no sane person would have admitted it immediately in the face of such an assault. I told him, as I ushered him off my property, that while it was up to him whether he parked illegally on the double yellow lines or not, we were simply asking him not to destroy the grass verge by driving on it. He claimed to park there for only a few minutes while picking up his mother but I pointed out that this made no difference to the damage caused to the grass. It is also true that his car has spent up to an hour parked illegally at times. Without enforcement in this area, he is able to do so with impunity.

So, in return for nearly three decades of care, admittedly low level for the most part, we are attacked and left feeling vulnerable to any reprisals this visitor decides to inflict. It is not the first abuse we have been subjected to by residents or family of those housed over the road. One couple, who have since left, had at least three vehicles, one of them an open-backed truck, often full of rubbish, that the chap had no qualms about parking outside our front door. On one occasion he parked blocking the road and reacted threateningly to a neighbour when she asked him to move. I was also abused by a small man with a hideously coloured minibus that regularly darkened our front window. He saw me looking at the van when parking one afternoon as I was walking our dog and launched into a rant. I was super-humanly restrained in my response as, again, I could not trust this horrible little person not to harm our property in some way. He has also moved on, thank goodness. But the problem inhabitants just keep coming. We will, however, continue to pick up the ones that collapse, assist those in need and keep guiding the incoherent alcoholic to his door in spite of the rotten apples letting the side down.

'SHE RAPED YOU WITH HER PENIS'

As Ricky Gervais pointed out, there is now humour in the most unlikely places. No one thought even a decade ago that it would be possible to joke about such a statement as "she raped you with her penis" because it would have been thought stupid, too absurd. No one could even have thought it. Yet here we are. Similarly, the idea that airline passengers would be allowed to take pigs and peacocks into the cabin to "comfort them" would have been too ridiculous to think up 20 years ago. Even the Monty Python team, those masters of the absurd, would have drawn the line at such idiocy. I always felt the dafter aspects of the world were Pythonesque, but we are now beyond even their imaginings in a world so preposterous I long for the sanity and common sense of a Python episode.

THE BBC AND ITS PRONOUN MANIA

If The Times' reporting is to be believed, the BBC website changed a rape victim's quotes, after she accused her attacker of being a him and using his penis, to the assailant's preferred gender neutral pronouns of they and their. Quite extraordinarily bad journalism.

THE BBC AND ITS 'NEWS BY ANECDOTE' MANIA

"And after the news summary we'll be talking to a poor person about how hard it is being poor." This interview was meant to show that the current "cost of living crisis" is having a devastating impact despite the government handing out tens of billions of pounds left, right and centre. What it actually showed is how a heart-rending chat with "a poor person", which could have been recorded with "a poor person" at almost any time in the past millennium, can be used to contort world events so that they appear purely local. But they are only of interest to the BBC when they can be useful: when they can suggest that the government has abandoned them to a living hell.

THE COST OF LIVING CRISIS WHAT CRISIS?

We all know that the disgracefully lop-sided distribution of wealth in capitalist "societies" means poor people have a miserable time. They suffer at all times, as explained above. Thankfully, they are a minority and with better targeting of tax-payer support could be helped and we must hope this happens. Instead, for now, everyone is being bunged £400, or more, whether they need it or not. As we were sitting in a traffic jam on the M25 on the way to my mother's on Friday night, my mind wandered into thoughts of how we might begin excluding sections of society from receiving this cash so that more of it might reach those genuinely in need of it. The obvious first thought was that anyone who can afford to sit and burn money in a stationary car should be struck off. When we began moving freely on the M40, I then thought that anyone happy to waste fuel by driving at more than 75mph might also manage without their £400. The holiday hordes, causing so much bother for travel companies and airlines, provide more candidates. The list goes on.

AT LEAST IT'S POSSIBLE TO SAVE MONEY THESE DAYS

A mother complained on the lunchtime news that she has to shove her three children into the shower together as she can't afford for them to shower separately. I didn't catch their ages and I don't think she was asked how often they shower quite an important question. But saving money in this way, as unpalatable as it is, was not even possible in the 1960s and 70s without risking widespread disease. Because reducing our single weekly bath would have had potentially dangerous consequences. Similarly, we had no mobile phones to give up not even a land-line in our house; few, if any, electric appliances to unplug – not even a fridge in either of my grandparents' houses. We didn't eat out, didn't smoke, didn't bet, had no central heating, never went abroad, and hardly ever went to the cinema or theatre or football matches; we drove old cars, and not often at that, and rarely bought anything other than food and clothes. And we considered ourselves reasonably well off! These are different times, of course, and the very poorest will struggle desperately. I aim to find a charity that will collect and redistribute unneeded government fuel handouts so that our £400 might be re-routed in that way. But for the vast majority, cutting back might be painful, but at least it's possible.

SUNDAY TIMES, YOU ARE CHARGED WITH...

What an appalling paper. Why do we still read it? These are a few of the charges to be laid against it this week:

● The splash headline: "Gray 'diluted' parties report after pressure". On close reading, the article makes clear that Sue Gray published what she wanted to publish. She was required to allow those criticised in it to respond: those are the rules. Had she been under undue pressure, she could have insisted on having her say. The first named reporters, the always-wrong Tim Shipman and Caroline Wheeler, seem to have confused the obligation to consult with "applying pressure". It suits their narrative. But they are, once again, completely wrong.

● Page 2, and it's Caroline Wheeler attacking the government again. This time it's over watering down its planned gambling restrictions. If this does indeed turn out to be the case, then it is scandal and should prompt every right-thinking citizen to castigate their MP. But we're still some way off seeing a white paper.

● Page 8. An attack on the Rwandan government is made by the country's opposition leader. How unsurprising is that? Not news.

● But capping it all was the Business section report on bitcoin investment. This appeared in the Money section, where great care needs to be taken not to mislead readers into losing their money. Which, judging by the clueless buffoons profiled, is what crypto currencies are all about. The writer says of one: "Paula McMullan, 60, a careers coach who works with lawyers, unwittingly became a bitcoin investor in August 2020." This is not true. She did not "unwittingly" invest she knowingly bought £300 worth of bitcoin. The £300 rose in value to £1,500 but then was "lost" somehow. Instead of steering clear, however, she ploughed in another £2,500, which shrank to £1,000. Would you seek financial advice from this woman? Well you can – she gave up her job to trade full time and creates YouTube videos about investing. Her overall portfolio has "tumbled 22 per cent this year". I would call the paper's endorsement of her dangerous. Next is Hannah Jones, a 30-year-old accountant from London, who is reported to have lost half her crypto investment but "is still considering buying more". Hardly a role model, surely. And then there's Hugh Falcon who has lost about 10 per cent of his £4,000 investment. "It doesn't look too bad," he says. This is all so irresponsible.

MAY 26 2022

If the BBC's highest profile journalists were not so blinded by hatred and could focus on doing their job properly, Boris would have been out of office by now. Presenters play directly into the hands of the master manipulator by losing their cool and giving their loathing a prominent display. This morning on the Today programme, Nick Robinson became so consumed by bitterness and malice towards his interviewee, a Downing Street spokesperson, that he spat out accusations so incorrect and incoherent that he later had to apologise. And in the same interview he displayed such an appalling ignorance of the Covid restrictions that the interviewee was able easily to draw distinctions between events, people, groups, what was said and when, and what it all meant. And the interviewee was not even that good! So much for Tim Davie's "fairness" edict. He should be saying to his staff: be objective, throw out your preconceptions, ditch your underlying assumptions, and take nothing at face value including your revulsion for a prime minister who delivered Brexit. You can't do your job when weighed down by detestation and prejudice.

MASS HYSTERIA AND THE BRILLIANCE OF RICKY GERVAIS

On the one hand, you have one of the UK's funniest people: clever, witty, thoughtful, brave. On the other, you have blinkered bigots deciding that anything with which they disagree is offensive (which is, remember, a subjective state) and should be cancelled. It is therefore well within the natural order of things that Ricky Gervais should be attacked for his new hour-long stand-up routine, Super Nature. A story in The Times this morning listed a few phrases from Gervais's act that were said to offend the humourless trans campaigners. Reading them, it was instantly clear that even written down there was nothing that need offend a sensible, thinking person. But even so, I decided to turn on Netflix and watch his show. I have not laughed so much in a very long time  along with an audience clearly loving every second of it.

Judging Gervais's jokes by reading them on a page is like deciding how good a song is by only reading the lyrics. His timing, his delivery, his humanity, his intelligence, his rapport with an audience, and his sheer comic genius transform the bare words into something truly magical. He takes a stance, yes. But a perfectly rational and well-informed one: he, and millions of others, have every right to express such legitimate opinions. Humour is society's way of allowing steam to escape from the kettle: block it, as the small-minded religious dogmatists insist should happen, and an explosion will inevitably follow. I found it hard to accept the baby's funeral joke was funny and I'm not a fan of the "c" word; the "Hitler masturbation" room gag was gross. But the rest was simply a comedy genius at work. I highly recommend Gervais's show. It is hilarious and I saw absolutely nothing that would genuinely offend a reasonable person. Unreasonable people – now that's another matter.

MAY 25 2022

WHAT'S ALL THIS RUBBISH ABOUT 'PROGRESSIVES'?

Who and what are "progressives"? They seem to have sprouted up wildly in discussion of political alignments. But what on earth are they? Macron, the French president, seems to be being called one; and some commentators call for a "progressive alliance" of Labour and LibDem parties. In reality, what "progressive" appears to mean is "centrist" a conservative-liberal stance that longs to return to the Blairite "holiday from history" years at the start of this century. It might sound trendy and go-ahead to throw around the "progressive" label – but what's progressive about a backwards-looking yearning for a former status quo that suited you best?

BLOOD ON THEIR HANDS. NO QUESTION.

American gun lobbyists have the blood of yet more dead children on their hands. This is no longer up for debate: America could stop this happening but its politicians choose not to because of the moronic but powerful pro-gun activists. This is the choice the US takes every day: it says that it prefers dead children to the control of lethal weapons. Gun lobbyists, you are just as much murderers as the poor, now dead, halfwit who rampaged around slaughtering the innocents. You could stop next week's massacre – but you won't.

CHASING MONEY IT'S ALL THAT MATTERS

The Times today reports that convicted drug dealers and all manner of other inappropriate and completely unqualified dregs of society have become owners of children's care homes. Not because they care one jot about children, but because it's a frighteningly easy way to make money. As with pretty much every single pursuit, as soon as you introduce market incentives, business principles and the greedy hunger for profit, you open the door to crooks, conmen, danger and gruesome mismatches between the stated aims and function of an organisation and its reality. Care of children was passed from local authorities to the private sector and it has been a disaster. Energy retail was liberalised to create a competitive market and it has been a disaster, with the only requirement to setting up a company being possession of a laptop. Just two glaring examples from a litany of market disasters.

SPEND THE WINDFALL TAX – AND THEN WHAT?

The debate over whether to impose a one-off windfall tax on energy companies in order to help the poorest cope with rising fossil fuel costs still rumbles along. There are arguments for and against: people need money and the energy companies have a huge surplus of it because of rising prices; but there is also an urgent need to develop alternative sources to avoid dependency, reduce costs, stop children breathing fumes, and save the planet. The latter requires huge and rapid investment and so the idea of grabbing the money that would be used for this seems perverse. Indeed, the UK's biggest economic problem of the past 20 years has been a preference for cheap labour at the expense of investment. I, and many experienced economic commentators, would agree the arguments are finely balanced. But there is a clincher: a windfall tax would not raise a large enough sum to make a significant difference to the millions who would share it; and once you've handed it out and discovered that it was not the panacea you were expecting, what then?

TAKE NOTHING AT FACE VALUE

My journalist instinct to take nothing at face value remains intact. When the casual assumption that "Boris tells lies" was reiterated at the dinner table by friends last night, I could not help myself pointing out that The Guardian had recently listed what it called Boris's 12 lies. The paper hates Boris with a passion and does everything it can to undermine him and his government. And yet of its 12 lies, only one can truly be said to be a outright lie an untrue denial of his affair with Petronella Wyatt. The rest amount to possible misunderstandings, controversial statements, "cock-ups", and perhaps being misleading. But whether he means to be or not, Boris is a master of not lying, of speaking in ambiguities, of covering himself in the event of challenge, and yes, of being open and cavalier about what he says at the same time. It's a heady mix and quite an art. It led me to read an article by a philosopher on what constitutes lying, which included a discussion of what amounts to misinformation, disinformation and malinformation. How lying is defined makes a world of difference. Afterwards, I could only conclude that while Boris might sail close to the wind at times, he makes it extremely difficult for the relentless accusations of constant lying to stand up to scrutiny.

MAY 24 2022

I received a message from an Australian friend yesterday. It contained two attachments regarding last weekend's general election there and calling for a more decent public debate, free of the pathetic and vicious "gotcha" questioning that infects journalism there. I replied that it's not just Australia suffering from sub-standard reporting. Our press including the BBC has also thoroughly disgraced itself over the past few years with vacuous "gotcha" nonsense. Standards of journalism have plummeted to the point where basic questions go unasked because they would interfere with the government-bashing narrative. I don't like having a Tory government but I detest even more the unfair, biased, inaccurate and inadequate "journalism" that seeks to undermine it even during a national emergency and now an "almost-war"!

Even in today's "news", we have a huge "scandal" over a photograph of a "party", which looks exactly like what you would expect a work leaving do to look like and precisely like hundreds of what were clearly work events that I attended at the FT. Unnecessary work gatherings such as this were supposed to be "avoided" under lockdown restrictions but were never made illegal. The Met police had to decide at what point a work event switches to a social event. And made a total hash of it inevitably because it's a stupid question that was foisted upon it after relentless campaigning by the government-hating section of the media, notably the BBC.

We also have an absurd non-story presented as a government scandal concerning Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. She was forced to sign a false confession before being allowed to leave Iran - but because there was a UK official present, who very sensibly did not intervene and risk having her sent back to jail, this is portrayed as an appalling failure. Presumably, Zaghari-Ratcliffe herself resisted signing but thought better of it. Official intervention might have been a disaster at that point. It was a meaningless gesture by the incredibly stupid and nasty Iranian "authorities" and the UK official clearly did the right thing. But not if you read British media or listen to the BBC. Again, I'm no fan of the government, but this is indefensibly rotten, crass journalism.

And the unions get it, too. Today's media are happy to reveal their hatred and bias quite openly. This has always been the case in the poorer sections of the press but the rot has set in everywhere. The RMT leadership, about to cause mayhem with rail strikes, is trashed in today's Times for making perfectly reasonable statements and for what they earn and the homes they own. One is called a "Putin apologist" for a valuable and sensible contribution he made to the debate over dealing with Russia in 2015. Seven years ago! It says the union leader has earned £763,000 in salary a very odd and pejorative way of describing his pay over a seven-year period. And it says, accusingly, that he lives in a "west London home worth about £730,000" as if this was a mansion. At that valuation, it's more likely to be smallish flat in west London.

We have reached the point where the press absolutely cannot be trusted. As Matthew Syed rightly said in The Sunday Times a few weeks ago, public discourse has become so bitter and vicious that it is virtually non-existent. Closed minds, social media bubbles and a "burn-the-witch" mass hysteria and madness has replaced intelligent discussion. You have to be careful who's listening when expressing any opinion today.

MAY 14 2022

OH, COME OFF IT...

A "survey" is under way in Claygate this morning. At the end of the Parade, a board has been placed asking passers-by how their lives have been affected by Brexit. I refused to have anything to do with it, realising quickly that this "opinion poll" is loaded and will produce exactly the result the "pollsters" some sort of re-join the EU campaign are seeking. I didn't read the precise questions but they were along the lines of "have prices risen since Brexit?"; "have you endured a pandemic since Brexit?"; "has there been war in Europe since Brexit?"; "Have Norwich City been relegated from the Premier League since Brexit?" Given that the only answers allowed are "yes" or "no", some of the cause-and-effect subtleties might be lost in the responses. But no matter. This little slice of "democracy" will deliver a resounding boo for Brexit, just as intended.


MAY 13 2022

Millions of pounds are being squandered on the a court case in which no one has done anything of any significance whatsoever. Lawyers' time and effort, the cost of running the court, all wasted on vacuous "Wagatha Christie" litigation upon which no one seems able to pin a purpose. Protection of reputation has been suggested, presumably as a jest. It's the event for which the phrase "more money than sense" was coined. If I had been the judge I would have ushered the lot of them out of my court on day one and ordered them to settle matters in a more appropriate environment perhaps the gutter?

MAY 12 2022

So much has become "individualised" and atomised in the past 40 years, a trend that began with "greed is good" and the denial of the existence of society by Margaret Thatcher, and is (hopefully) reaching its zenith with ultra-liberal identity politics, that it is inevitable news would become similarly infected. Individuals have always been asked to "tell their stories" as a means of illustrating and personalising a particular event or trend; today, they are the news. Every day, over and over again, an individual is dragged in front of a microphone to tell their hard luck story, which is always the present government's fault and its duty to fix. Not everyone is dragged, of course: political activists regularly put themselves forward for such a role, thereby destroying the last vestiges of trust in so much media output. The most recent case was the elderly woman who claimed to have to ride the bus all day to keep warm: this nonsense spouted by a Labour party campaigner is now regularly quoted as fact by careless commentators.

But even the genuine cases tell us little or nothing. For example, a woman was interviewed this morning about the hard choices she faces as global energy prices rise and inflation takes hold around the world. Yet a broadcaster could have recorded an identical interview at any time in the past century or millennium. Poverty is not new. It is not right and the number one political priority of every politician should be to find long-term and lasting ways to eradicate it. But there are no immediate solutions to such people's plight, other than slipping bank notes into their purses which would require vastly higher taxation, which in turn is claimed to squeeze household budgets, too. And in any case, taxation is designed to be lop-sided: a few pounds contributed by millions creates a large pool of cash, but distribute it back out again and it returns to being just a few pounds each. Either way, our understanding of global inflation and worldwide energy price rises is not assisted one iota by listening to a hard-pressed woman telling us she is hard pressed. We already know this. The only purpose of such an interview can be to provide the sort of "gotcha" moment of which Matthew Syed speaks when interviewing a minister immediately after.

THE ALTERNATIVE VOICE IS IGNORED

As I said a couple of days ago, the boss of Tesco leapt to the top of the BBC's news headlines by calling for an energy windfall tax but anyone with an opposing view was ignored. Yesterday, the boss of Centrica, an actual energy company, convincingly explained why a windfall tax would be a terrible idea. Were his views going to make headlines on BBC radio news? Not on your life.

MAY 11 2022

Matthew Syed is once again the voice of intelligence, reason and sense. His column this week in The Sunday Times makes several points that I have been making in this blog for more than two years, pointing out that the government did a decent job in the face of the pandemic; he even says the honesty with which the UK presented the statistics should be a source of pride. It is such a superb article, it deserves quoting at length. Syed goes on to comment on how ministers' efforts were portrayed: "What strikes me most about the past two years is the abject, often irrational nature of public discourse. At times it was as if social media and some of its mainstream equivalents were observing an entirely different crisis. Far from a government doing its best in challenging circumstances, left-wing pundits glimpsed an evil cabal that failed to lock down early in March 2020 because it revelled in the mass deaths of the elderly and vulnerable and perhaps wanted to euthanise them. 'Eugenics' trended so often that I almost lost count. Consider this from The Guardian in the summer of 2020: 'The Luftwaffe did not chalk up such a gruesome death toll.' Or a piece from the same period speaking of 'a daily mortality rate far deadlier than the Nazi onslaught on British towns and cities between September 1940 and May 1941'."

I recall the ghastly Hugh Pimm beginning a "question" to Rishi Sunak with the words "Are you ashamed...?" It is quite something that we are now talking about something of which we can be proud.

The trigger for Syed's column was the World Health Organisation's report that assessed the actual number of Covid deaths around the world by examining "excess deaths" over the period. The UK is revealed to have been on a par with comparable countries; its statistics were startlingly accurate and honest; and many other countries were hopelessly dishonest or confused. Again, I have been saying precisely this since the start.

Syed continues, and this is all so important: "In short, what the Covid era reveals is the shocking decline in the standard and probity of public discourse. It is hardly novel to place the social media at the centre of this malaise, but we perhaps fail to grasp how it has infected other areas of our lives. Think back to how television functioned during the pandemic – the constant attempts to ask 'gotcha' questions rather than elicit information. This was not because interviewers were superficial but because they had an eye to how the clip might go viral later in the day.

"A few days ago I came across a video that showed an interview of Harold Wilson after the 1970 general election, and it was almost shocking to behold probing questions and direct answers. David Dimbleby was actually seeking to extract information on behalf of viewers, and the prime minister was doing his best to oblige. Political discourse was by no means perfect back then, but a cursory glance at these fragments of history reveals the vivid contrast with the sewers we occupy today.

"But let me suggest that it is no good blaming social media for the rise of the divisive and sensational. It is time for the public to take responsibility, too. I am talking about those who mindlessly retweeted 'eugenics' hashtags; those who amplified the rants of mouthy radio presenters on the one hand and lockdown sceptics on the other; and those who danced on the graves of elected officials who succumbed to gotcha questions, revelling in their discomfort without a scrap of empathy.

"It has become de rigueur to condemn the shiftiness and evasiveness of politicians, but can you blame them when they are beset with these elephant traps? Can you blame them when they see Twitter mobs circling, hoping for another kill? Can you blame them when they make difficult decisions in what they perceive to be the public interest only to be condemned as Nazis by one side and fascists by the other?

"Honesty? Integrity? Yesterday I trawled the internet feeds of those who most aggressively attacked the government, particularly those on the left who condemned the 'high' death rate. Do you think these fearless pursuers of truth acknowledged the new evidence from the WHO? Do you think they informed their followers that the UK wasn’t the worst performer in Europe after all? Did Independent Sage scientists revise their criticisms, too? Not a bit of it.

"I disagree with many policies of this government, but that doesn’t mean I feel moved to disagree with everything. Like many, I have become weary of the bad-faith attacks, the inability to offer even a soupçon of credit for policy successes, the exhausting criticisms that do nothing for democracy and everything to inflame the cynicism that has become a democratic disease. The truth is that on the whole, and with only a few exceptions, ministers did their best in unenviable circumstances. And to think otherwise is not a reflection of them, but a truly devastating one of us."

I could not agree more. And I say that everything I have written on this subject over the past two years absolves me completely from the shame that so many should be feeling today. I also point out that it does not make me a Tory.

SO WHY WERE MINISTERS SO WEAK?

Given all of the above, why did ministers remain so meek when being harangued and bullied by know-all yobbish questioners such as Nick Robinson? There were so many times that an easy and obvious riposte would have silenced the bullies, yet government spokespeople remained painfully polite. When Hugh Pimm began his notorious question to Rishi Sunak by saying "Are you ashamed...", why did the chancellor not interrupt and say: "Let me stop you there. No, I am not ashamed. Can we move on to the next questioner, please." A bully will not stop until they meet resistance: my approach at work was always that I abhor bullying, but I made it a rule that the only bully I would ever tolerate in the room was me: if you sense someone is being bullied, then bully the bully back and the results are usually instant and satisfying. A more robust attitude by ministers would have helped prevent some of the worst excesses of the bad-faith attacks and helped everyone understand the reality of what was actually happening.

MAY 10 2022

IT'S NOT FAKE NEWS – IT'S NOT ACTUALLY NEWS AT ALL...

Step one: choose an interviewee you know to be critical of the government and strongly supportive of a windfall tax on the energy companies. Step two: ask him the obvious questions and secure the predicted replies. Step three: use the freshly expressed opinions as part of the lead item in your next main news bulletin. Job done: your headline news now says the government is undermined for getting it wrong again. Even though this is not news at all merely what one person thinks. Never mind that there are as many economists and commentators out there who believe the opposite they were not interviewed. Nor will they ever be by a biased media organisation. Who on earth would sink to such depths? The BBC's Radio Four Today programme, of course.

PLEASE, LET HIM BE FINED

The cavalier promise by Keir Starmer to resign if he is fined over "beer-gate" perhaps indicates that he has had word that no fine will be issued. It certainly places a huge burden on Durham police, now knowing that they hold in their hands the career of a politician, albeit an extremely dull and annoying one. The facts are that this case and those of the alleged Downing Street breaches are absolutely on all fours. I think it was not a lie for Starmer to have said he believed he was attending a work event, but then neither was it a lie when Boris said precisely the same. Subsequent reinterpretation of events that were reported on at the time and caused not a ripple of interest then has made political "liars" of many. What was a damned lie, however, is that the Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner was not present: she was, and her name was on the plan. I believe it is an idiotic political farce to pursue any of these "offences", one that was initiated and encouraged by Labour, the BBC and the Boris-hating half of the country. But I now fervently hope that Starmer gets his just desserts and is handed a fine – for hypocrisy, lying and being such a diabolical leader of what is supposed to be a Labour party.

MAY 7 2022

The typical Tory voter is now a deprived working class socialist seeking a fairer deal in life. The typical Labour voter is now a privileged middle class London liberal wishing for a return to the free-wheeling fun days of "New Labour". Yesterday's local election results showed this more clearly than ever and confirm that the biggest divide in Britain is still Brexit versus Remain. Labour under Keir Starmer can be nothing but a Remain/Rejoin juggernaut, trundling over the needs of his party's former core supporters who had suffered economically and culturally from uncontrolled migration, while cheer-leading madly for the return of cheap labour. This appeals to the Islington wing of the party, hence its success in London and a few other trendy urban areas. The Conservatives delivered Brexit, as democratically instructed by the electorate and, apart from the impossible-to-avoid Irish question, did a pretty good job. This shifted the workplace power balance back towards labour and the workers remain grateful and hopeful. Starmer's pathetic response to the "beer-gate" allegations his defence is almost identical, word-for-word, to that of Boris and Rishi Sunak should take the absurd party-gate and "lies" campaign out of the equation. The political question then becomes, how deep and strong is the workers' gratitude over Brexit and how will they weigh its effects against the government's response to the impact of the pandemic and the global economic squeeze? And all this will have to be assessed through the distorted prism of loaded media coverage. So far, Labour, with every possible advantage handed to it on a plate, is screwing up horrifically because of its total disconnect with labour in favour of liberal Remainers. It's going to be interesting.

A FEW DAYS IN GERMANY

A city break in Berlin over the early May bank holiday weekend was fascinating in many ways. The city is fantastic, jammed with the most extraordinary history that many of us remember and actually lived through. It was also instructive in revealing just how misleading the UK media's newly found passion for self-flagellation has made its coverage. According to the British output, the country is the only one with struggling airports, the only one with labour shortages, the only one wrestling with inflation, the only one facing fuel price rises, the worst in the world regarding Covid-19 deaths, the list goes on and on. This outrageous parochialism and lack of perspective is partly aimed at undermining the much-hated prime minister, along with being a natural consequence of focusing on national news, to be fair.

This is why I was so much happier working for an international newspaper, the Financial Times: it provided a vital global perspective that enabled a reader to make sense of the worldwide reality. Today, lacking that daily immersion in international affairs, it is travel that provides the balance. And in Germany, I found labour shortages. Our hotel had closed its bar because of a lack of staff and apologised that some services were withdrawn. It was still a very nice hotel experience. There were several signs about the city appealing for workers. The country is also facing fuel price rises and inflation and the recent WHO assessment of Covid death tallies rates it "worse" than Britain. Berlin's shiny new airport functioned well – but then so did Gatwick despite coping with far, far more passengers. Heathrow was similarly impressive on a return from France in early April.

Try another country. Surely quiet Canada is running smoothly while the UK collapses. My daughter flew to Vancouver yesterday and her messages about the appalling shambles at the airport on arrival can barely be repeated. This contrasts with her having whizzed over all the hurdles at Gatwick so quickly that she had ages to wait at the gate – and she hates wasting time. The truth is, we are not alone.

FIXED IT!

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson's novel, has been adapted into an exquisite four-part series for television. Everything about it – the acting, the filming, the beautiful use of a narrator, the imagery, the music – was outstanding. I cannot recommend it highly enough. And, without wishing to give too much away, the plot, the conceit, the ideas and the philosophical underpinning are outstanding, too. Briefly, we see Ursula's life many times over as the fatal mistakes she makes each time provide her with a sense of deja vu, enabling her to avoid that same mistake – but go on to make a different one. She hears the words "The world is a very dangerous place" many times.

Coincidentally, her lives become entangled with Nazism and the Second World War. Having just spent several hours on a Third Reich walking tour in Berlin, learning about the rise of the Nazis and the many plots to kill Hitler, it struck a chord when Ursula asked "What if?", echoing the words of our excellent guide Chloe: "What if Hitler had been admitted to art school? What if one of the plots to kill him had succeeded?"

The brilliant cleverness of Life After Life is that it debunks the myth that humans can learn from their mistakes. Every era, every age, epoch and civilisation believes that it has overcome the errors that led to war, pestilence, famine, destruction in the past. Our era certainly carries the aura of a know-all invincibility that will prevent disaster; it oozes a sheen of sophistication and superiority that suggests we have more important things to concern us than fighting or mere survival and more effective tools to combat strife. The swift defeat of the latest coronavirus mutations will have fuelled this belief. Yet today's obsession with consumption, which was supposed to have tamed the vicious streak in human nature around the world, has failed dismally. The fear that one lone maverick psychopath could lead the world to destruction is also allayed by our experience of Hitler and our alleged understanding of how to prevent it happening again or, if it does, the contagion it brings. And yet we have Vladimir Putin, and Alexander Lukashenko, crazed dictators who care nothing for the future of their own people, let alone the planet, creating mayhem. Their behaviour is primitive, basic and unstoppable. And it is fundamental human nature it's the lizard within us, as celebrated English psychiatrist Peter C Whybrow would say. Sadly, it is as much a part of human nature as our complete inability to learn from previous mistakes. As Ursula discovers when intuition tells her avoid this boy, this window or this infected housemaid, the impossibility of remembering and learning leads her directly towards new dangers. The circle of life has us trapped in its spin.

APRIL 22 2022

One day, it is believed, the Earth's magnetic poles will flip, with devastating consequences for life on the planet. It seems that such a flip has already occurred in the world of western politics, where left is now right and right is left and the universe is flipped upside down. And it is having similarly disturbing consequences for politicians and voters.

An excellent essay on the UnHerd website by Thomas Fazi, a journalist and translator, highlights precisely this phenomenon as it is affecting the French presidential election. He is bemused by Jean-Luc Melenchon's call for French voters to support Emmanuel Macron in the two-horse run-off for president, rather than Marine Le Pen. He goes on to point out the strong similarities between Melenchon's manifesto and Le Pen's, and how different the right-wing neoliberal policies of Macron are from both. Macron's appalling track record of destroying workers' rights and rewarding the super-rich should repel any left-wing voter, he says, quoting one who said he would vote Melenchon in Round One and Le Pen in Round Two. I would do the same. Le Pen's reputation and background are her biggest handicap; her policies are left of centre, according to the old, traditional spectrum, yet she is seen as racist and almost fascist. Most of this stems from her firm anti-immigration stance, which is actually very similar to that of many ruling parties in Europe and elsewhere. Fazi makes this point forcefully by saying: "The notion that a state should prioritise the well-being of its own citizens would have been considered self-evident up until not too long ago even among Left-wing parties and voters." He concludes that absurd and misleading political labels will deliver a win for Macron, much to the delight of France's ruling classes, and greatly to the cost of the workers.

The same bizarre mislabelling is occurring in UK politics. And labels stick. Just as Le Pen was blithely dismissed as "far right" four times in a two-minute BBC Radio News report this evening, Boris Johnson is blithely dismissed as "a liar", without further explanation or evidence ever being required. Johnson is, on many counts, the UK's most left-wing prime minister since Harold Wilson, or perhaps James Callaghan at a pinch. He pursues green policies, has increased taxation, has pushed spending towards deprived areas and is enthusiastically supportive of public services. Given a free rein over the government finances, he gives the impression that he would spend freely on trying to ensure a fairer society. And yet he is labelled a "populist", a term used by neoliberals to describe what they see as a rise in right-wing fascism – a force that can easily be confused with a working class revolt over long-standing abuse and exploitation.

This means that if Boris is hounded out of office by a baying lynch mob of liberal politicians and media Remoaners on trumped up and ludicrous "partygate" charges we will have lost the most progressive leader we have seen since the 1970s. It is probable now that the witch hunt will succeed – not because it is right; it is demonstrably wrong, as one glance at the lockdown rules makes clear – but because Conservative MPs are caught in a dilemma over Johnson. They have chosen a leftist leader who appeals to working class voters and who delivered them a thumping majority, but many want a return to more traditional Toryism. They don't care a jot about "partygate" – neither does beer-drinking Keir Starmer, despite his insistence on wasting five hours of parliamentary time on debating it yesterday – they are concerned about how the relentless bombardment aimed at Downing Street is affecting the party's popularity and their own hold on their seats.

A witch hunt on this scale will inevitably damage anyone caught in its glare. The power of the media is being clearly demonstrated in Russia, where the public has been persuaded to see black as white. Readers and listeners everywhere should beware of believing that something is true simply because the media say it is so. For example, we see at home that Johnson faces all manner of spurious accusations and is constantly dismissed as a serial liar. I was interested yesterday to know just what these lies were and consulted The Guardian, a publication that hates the prime minister with a fevered passion. It, surely, would reel off a history of calumny. And indeed, it did have such a list – the definitive list of Boris's lies, apparently. Yet it actually included only one indisputable lie – relating to an extra-marital affair many years ago. The rest were debatable, at best, or lies in themselves: confusion over who paid for Downing Street wallpaper, a harsh judgment of Liverpool fans, and then The Guardian's own lie about what was written on the side of the Brexit bus. This is all it takes to be labelled a "serial liar" in the upside-down land of modern politics.

APRIL 19 2022

I have just listened to the most extraordinary piece of propaganda, presented as "an insider tracing the story of Covid-19". In truth, it is a simplistic and distorted trashing of the UK government's approach to fighting the pandemic. With glorious hindsight, Devi Sridhar, an "American public health researcher" (I can't believe she is a professor), pushes herself to the front of the queue of Boris-haters desperate to sink their hatchets into the prime minister. Claiming perfect impartiality and objectivity and an unwillingness to be even the teeniest bit political, she describes how she sat on the Scottish government's Covid-19 advisory group and witnessed the tensions between London and Edinburgh as the two countries took "opposite paths" in containing the coronavirus. Smarter people would describe the differences as slightly nuanced at best, as Nicola Sturgeon made frantic attempts to appear distinctive. The facts are that the strategies were identical, with Scotland adopting policies a day or two earlier or later simply to strike a pose. But the awful Sridhar gives the game away when she declares her devotion to Sturgeon during her party political broadcast, presenting the Scottish first minister as a genius, a paragon of virtue, and a divine visionary, or words to that effect. She claims Scotland's strategy saved countless lives, while England's killed swathes of the population. Sturgeon was clear and trustworthy, while no one trusted Boris and his lying henchman Cummings and so lockdown measures were ineffective. She grudgingly accepts that the UK investment in science was world-leading but says it happened despite the frustrations with Johnson, rather than because of his enthusiastic support. How could this bilge and bile have been broadcast? Why not just give Sturgeon herself 13 minutes of prime national radio time to describe how wonderful she is and how awful and incompetent Boris is? Perhaps it's unfair to heap the entire blame for this absolute disgrace on to Sridhar when there are plenty more Boris-haters prepared to hold the same beliefs. The BBC lynch mob, now baying for Boris's blood is equally culpable and shamed for this shocking lapse of judgment.

LEARNING HOW TO FIND THE TRUTH

In my early days at LSE, I would read a book full of ideas and sit back in wonderment, swayed by the debate. It was only when my friend and room-mate Kevin, now Professor Theakston, suggested I challenge what I was reading that I began to find a path to understanding reality. "Assume the opposite is true," he said, and see where it leads. It led to an intellectual breakthrough. While the opposite is not always true, taking a contrarian stance is an excellent test of the rigour of any assumption, belief, claim or argument. This is especially true in questioning the "wisdom of crowds", which could equally be described as the madness of the mob. This is why the more the popular mob screams and wails for Boris to burned at the stake, the more I am driven to consider the opposite. The mob's assumption is that everything Boris does or touches is evil and contaminated. With the intellectual tool gifted to me by Kevin, I begin by assuming this is not the case and then see how far that argument can run. In the current climate of closed minds and lynch-mob mania, it runs an awfully long way.

APRIL 18 2022

MIGRATION: MAKE YOUR CHOICE BETWEEN RWANDA OR SUPPORTING PEOPLE TRAFFICKERS

If the Archbishop of Canterbury says one thing, it is pretty safe to assume the opposite is true or sensible. And so it goes with this poor old dunce's Easter sermon denouncing the anti people trafficking agreement with Rwanda as "ungodly". Why any church leader's opinions on delicate political issues are front page news is beyond me, but when they show such an ignorance of the facts, such a disregard for the realities, and are entirely negative then they really have no place in the debate at all. Justin Welby makes himself look ever more foolish by failing to define his terms: he appears unable or unwilling to distinguish between refugees and those seeking to improve their own personal situation at the expense of others. He also fails to understand that the issue of uncontrolled mass migration, after decades of resistance to every possible solution, now boils down to a binary choice: a Rwanda-style deal or approval of the status quo which enables people smugglers to make fortunes out of death and misery. For me, the latter is the "ungodly" option. Is Welby really too dim to see this, or is he a political activist in favour of free and unfettered global migration, aided and abetted by vicious criminals? He certainly puts forward no alternative suggestions. Indeed, no one condemning the government seems to have the first clue how to tackle the criminal racket that is killing people and undermining societies and communities.

As I said in "The Rise of Antisocialism" three years ago, the only way to deal with this issue is to implement Australian-style measures that have proved to be effective. I fear the reason the Rwanda plan will be opposed, without any alternatives being suggested, is because the liberal-conservative middle class believes there is no issue to be tackled. This strata is only affected positively by mass immigration: its coffee served with a smile; its plumbing fixed cheaply. It is the working classes who experience the negative effects: wages and conditions reduced to meet the lowest bidder; swathes of jobs rendered unviable for local people seeking even the most modest lifestyle.

Clare Foges, a former Downing Street insider turned astute columnist for The Times, makes a series of excellent points in her article this morning, saying the government might not care too much if the Rwanda deal flounders under the inevitable weight of legal challenges: it is happy that just the idea of it is triggering angry, unconsidered knee-jerk reactions from all the right people, from Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott to the lawyers who make a fortune from the tawdry asylum trade and the likes of Welby. She also takes a dismissive swipe at the idiotic parallels drawn between the "processing" of migrants in comfortable camps in Rwanda with the behaviour of the Nazis. As far as anyone can recall, no one was paying criminals in order to break in to any concentration camp. A correspondent on the Letters Page makes the further point that the vast majority of those seeking asylum in Britain are not fleeing from danger in their home country, they are fleeing from France and Belgium. In short, the whole debate is a hotch-potch of half-truths, downright lies, misrepresentations, criminality and complete nonsense.

Ditto "partygate". The Brexit-haters' PR machine is in overdrive on this issue, but every absurd allegations merely highlights how shallow and vindictive this campaign has always been. Sadly, the western world, and especially its politics, has become little more than a giant PR exercise, a bare-knuckled fight using smoke and mirrors, so that nothing is ever what it seems, or as it really is. For example, many of the so-called Downing Street "parties" were work events, but in PR world they are whatever the police decide they are. Of all the reporting on this subject in The Times this morning, the only parts that make any sense are those pointing out that opening a bottle of beer or wine at 2pm in the office to drink for a few minutes alongside people with whom you have been sharing an office and working frantically all day at the height of a national emergency is a highly bizarre description of a "party". Add in the fact that Boris's birthday cake "celebration" was reported in the press on the following day and no one at the time thought it even worth questioning and we can see how disingenuous and opportunistic the accusations of law-breaking truly are. Pure and empty politics, without substance or meaning.

If the UK loses the most effective and constructive prime minister it has had for more than 40 years because of some trumped up "party" allegations, those responsible will one day be held to account. No prime minister can ever be judged while in office and time will only swell and embellish Johnson's record, just as it did his spell as London mayor. I thought it impossible for Boris ever to become PM: he's too chaotic, clumsy, flippant, scruffy, uncaring, incompetent, etc etc. But I have been astonished at how effective and bold he has been, taking on issues that his predecessors have skirted, and putting Britain at the forefront of the fight against both Covid-19 and Putin. No one has dared to tackle social care until now. It might not be a particularly good plan, but at least it's something, compared with nothing from the rest. No one has dared to take on the people trafficking business and unfettered mass migration. He delivered Brexit, as mandated by the electorate a monumentally complicated task. And there is a host of legislation – some good, some bad – making its way through Parliament. If you had asked me five years ago whether I could possibly have had a good word to say about a Boris Johnson premiership, I would have answered loudly in the negative, perhaps adding that it might at least be entertaining for a short while until it collapsed. I would have said, short-sightedly, that he lacked the integrity and moral compass to be a good prime minister. But that would have been said in the mistaken belief that those are essential qualities of a good leader whereas, in fact, the reverse is more true.

APRIL 14 2022

We have squirrels in our loft. Hundreds of them. All cheeky little characters and a joy to watch but they do cause problems for other wildlife in the area and more than a little damage. It started when the trees in our garden began to perform better than the trees in the gardens along the road and accelerated when our neighbour removed all of his doors and windows and knocked a hole through from his loft to ours. The squirrels poured in, some of them looking dazed and confused, many dragged by larger squirrels.

Everyone agrees that this state of affairs is intolerable, causing suffering to the squirrels some die on the perilous journey through the roof space – as well as problems for us, our neighbours and for the countless squirrels in far worse predicaments than the fit ones able to reach our loft. And so solutions have been sought. We tried selecting a few deserving squirrels and giving them priority, but this merely exacerbated the problem. We tried to turn the creatures back but were accused of gross cruelty. We asked that our neighbour reinstall his doors and windows to prevent so many creatures reaching his loft but that was against some odd, almost religious, set of principles to which he claimed to adhere. We also gave him large sums of money to repair the gaping hole in the loft, which he accepted with glee. But he did nothing apart from shovelling squirrels through to our side at an ever faster rate.

We also tried removing the creatures already in our loft but were told this would be inhumane, especially as some had had babies while on our premises. We challenged this but became embroiled in an endless legal labyrinth from which we could only retreat. This large-scale movement of squirrels had grown tentacles and become embedded. We even thought of removing the huge bag of nuts from our loft that we feared might have been attracting so many squirrels but were again told this would be cruel and vindictive and leave us with a reputation of being "anti-squirrel".

We were thwarted at every turn. And, in an ultimate irony, the very people demanding that we find effective solutions to this squirrel crisis were precisely the same ones standing in the way of even the slightest improvement. In desperation, we concocted a scheme whereby male squirrels passing through the hole in the loft wall uninvited would be caught and sent to a forest in need of more squirrels. The idea was that as soon as the worst of the disruptive squirrels realised they would never reach the sack of nuts in our loft they would pass word back along the trail and it would dry up. This, of course, did not find favour with pro-squirrel campaigners who insisted that every last one of them should be welcome in our loft and had a right to stake their claim to a nut.

Admittedly, the technicalities were complex but we thought it worth a try, especially after the long succession of simpler initiatives had been crushed. We heard that removing the incentive to travel had worked elsewhere – and it worked for us after a few teething troubles and plenty of opposition. The overwhelming cascade of creatures dwindled to the point where no one noticed when we removed the sack of nuts, reducing the flow still further. There are still squirrels in our loft, of course, but at a level we can cope with and live happily alongside. And now we are able to focus on those most genuinely in immediate, life-threatening danger and those in most desperate need of help.

APRIL 13 2022

What an incredible bore these "partygate" allegations are. They are made interesting only when we remember that party politics in most wealthy nations is merely a game played between a few liberal-conservative tribes, each seeking to score points and perhaps achieving "power", with which they reassuringly promise to change absolutely nothing of importance. In this light, we can see that the Boris-hating liberal-conservative parties are scoring decent points with their sustained but spurious accusations that Boris's attendance, or otherwise, at a "party" or two in Downing Street during lockdown was as heinous as Putin's despicable war on Ukraine.

We can also derive some mild amusement from the turn of events that have resulted in the Metropolitan Police becoming the ultimate arbiters over the exact moment at which a normally functioning office has completely transitioned into a fully fledged social event, formerly known as a party but now redefined, it seems to include any gathering at which alcohol is consumed. More entertainment is provided by the lynch mob peopling the BBC's Radio Four Today programme as they disgracefully and disrespectfully dredge up recordings from a couple of years ago of grieving relatives as if they were anything to do with Boris and Co's transgressions of workplace guidance rules. Replaying the complaints of an exploited and vulnerable Covid-positive migrant worker in a shameful meat processing plant and comparing them with the jollity and frivolity of Downing Street's atrocities would make slightly more sense.

This is because the lockdown legislation sensibly and necessarily drew a clear distinction between the regulations applicable in a social context and those pertaining to workplaces: social events were subject to laws, work events to the less prescriptive "guidance", which sought to maintain social distancing in those organisations that could not function without using a workplace. It is therefore of the utmost importance to know when an obvious workplace event a leaving do, say mutates into a social event in order to know which set of rules might apply. Accept that the subjective assessment of some attendees is relevant and the water is muddied beyond parody. And spending their days studying all this historic nonsense in minute detail and drawing conclusions that have enormous repercussions are many many officers within the Metropolitan police force. When they have done, perhaps they would like to share with the rest of us their finely honed definition of where a workplace event ends and a social function begins. Having worked for more than a quarter of a century in an environment where drinks and socialising were heavily used to further the business, I would apply a very broad definition to "work event" and an extremely strict one to "social event" if it concerned a gathering for work purposes attended exclusively by colleagues in the workplace. Although I can see that a karaoke machine and music and singing into the small hours might well drag a workplace function across the "party" line.

THE OTHER END OF THE TELESCOPE

It is quite extraordinary how people once in broad agreement regarding their fundamental political beliefs can veer apart. Almost everyone with whom I come into contact hates Brexit and therefore hates Boris and seems to be under the weird illusion that if Boris is sacked, forced to resign, or suffers a dreadful accident then Brexit will just magically go away. Rather than get over it and seek out the benefits of the new order of which there are plenty they prefer to blame every slight mishap on Brexit, regardless of its relevance: my flight is late it must be down to Brexit; the price of milk is rising thanks to Brexit; I've lost my sunglasses – bloody Brexit. It would be as meaningful simply to replace the world Brexit in these contexts with "Catholics", or "journalists", or "Manchester United".

This disconnect stems, I fear, from us peering through opposite ends of the telescope. One Remoaning friend worries that businesses unable to replace their migrant workers will collapse. Looking from the other end of the telescope, I am happy that migrant workers are no longer being exploited and that if businesses only able to exist by paying minimum wages and using zero hours contracts go to the wall, then so-be-it. If they are good enough businesses to be able to adjust their prices and offer wages high enough to sustain a reasonable livelihood for local workers, then we should all offer thanks to Brexit.

The strangeness I behold extends to others' visions of "populism", interpreted by some as an inevitable precursor to fascism. Brexit, of course, is held up as a nasty and vicious manifestation of this extreme right "populism" – even though it ignores the fact that the vast majority of those voting for Brexit were left-leaning working class families betrayed by an Islington-based Labour party. To refer to this disenfranchised majority as an evil "populist" movement is an outrage. Similarly, the forthcoming French shoot-out for president between the two grotesques, Macron and Le Pen, offers a binary choice between a ghastly status quo that robs the poor to feed the rich and a disruptive force that might bring about substantive change – for better or worse, but who cares given that the prevailing state of affairs is so appalling and shameful. What a hideous choice. Rather than stigmatise the silenced, ignored and suffering majority by labelling them "populists", it might serve all parties better to listen to their complaints and address them. Gaze through the telescope from the end marked "socialist", rather than "middle-class liberal-conservative", and things begin to look very different.

APRIL 5 2022

THE TIMES SHAMED INTO SILENCE?

It is now more than a week since The Times handed over its Thunderer column to a snivelling apologist for the betting industry. And in that time, not a single letter has been published challenging his disgraceful view that grieving families should stop trying to curb his industry because they were spoiling other people's fun. I can only think it it because even The Times realises how appalling an act this was, is hanging its head in shame, and wants to forget the vile incident ever took place.

POLITICS MADE SIMPLE

As the politics of hatred continues to scar UK society, I offer the simplest possible guide to where most people stand. Politics has been reduced almost to a binary choice between two broad camps: liberal or socialist. Liberals love the EU, globalisation, migration. They love freedom to trade, to live as they choose, to garner great wealth, they accept the freedom to exploit. They love rights, individualism, free expression and being able to access whatever they desire at a competitive price. Socialists love localism, communities, seasonality. They love responsibilities, egalitarianism, fairness, equal opportunities, protection of the vulnerable. They love collective action for the good of all, sharing and valuing those things that matter most. Liberals hate Brexit and anything that stands in the way of individuals wishing to move, express themselves or make money. Socialists hate consumption, free trade, the EU, and the freedom given to the powerful and greedy to exploit others.

It's odd that 40 years ago I would have put most of the people I knew in the socialist camp. Now, I hardly know anyone I could define as a socialist. There are certainly no mainstream political parties that offer anything even approaching socialism. Instead, we have a rag-bag collection of parties offering near-identical shades of liberalism, with slightly differing, but always minimal, safeguards  depending on how "nice" a liberal party they wish to appear. And there are virtually no traces of socialism in what used to be called "quality journalism".

These two diametrically opposed ways of viewing the world have been able to co-exist for decades because the liberal philosophy has dominated, as I describe in my book, The Rise of Antisocialism. But the Brexit referendum, the pandemic, and now war in Europe have come as serious shocks and setbacks to the liberal ideology – and it has reacted with fury, lashing out at anyone daring to contradict its fundamental beliefs. The deep hatreds that have formed in the past five years or so run deep and might never be healed. Unless global warming forces a radical re-think and society has to reconsider what it values.

APRIL 4 2022

"NOT HEARD LOUD ENOUGH" AND "SYSTEM DOESN'T LISTEN" DO THEY MEAN THE SAME THING?

Woman's Hour on Radio 4 a few moments ago played a clip from an interview with the Minister for Women's Health, Maria Caulfield, as a preface to an item about the NHS. When pressed to say whether the NHS was sexist or not, she replied: "I don't think it's a sexist system. But the voice of women is not heard loud enough." Presenter Emma Barnett then reinterpreted this as: "Not sexist. But women's voices not being heard." Later she said: "Or do you agree with the minister...that the NHS is a system that doesn't listen to women's voices." But are they the same? As an old-school journalist who built his career on integrity, I can safely say that they are not. I am sure the minister herself would have been cringing at the reinterpretation of what she actually said, especially as it was done to magnify undeniable problems within the NHS. Add to the mix the phrase Barnett used to highlight the quotes and you have a clear case of manipulation and politicking, very far from a journalistic exercise to establish facts and the truth: Barnett called the minister's answer an "extraordinary admission". By any standards this is clearly absurd and can only be explained by taking sides, campaigning and failing to do your job properly. 

I suppose one riposte might be that Woman's Hour is a campaigning programme. In which case, I would argue that it should not degrade and undermine its arguments by using inaccuracies and absurdities. Honesty and integrity speak far louder than distortions.

FROM TENTED CITY TO TENTED CITY

Well-meaning and warm-hearted friends still fail to grasp the fundamental realities of the Ukrainian refugee crisis. In Ukraine, civilians are being bombed. They cannot be reached. They cannot be what the media are talking about. Civilians managing to flee to a safe country become refugees. There will be millions close to the border, notably in Poland. They are now relatively safe, but uncomfortable, traumatised and extremely vulnerable to the vermin who take advantage of people displaced by war. They are likely to be sheltered in temporary tented villages, billets, town halls and the like. They have food and shelter and the primary concern now is to protect them from the many predatory people traffickers and slave traders.

The third stage in managing refugees is to move them to more comfortable and stable environments, where they can process their trauma, settle, continue education or work and await a return to their home country. This must be handled cautiously and with proper checks and necessary bureaucracy, to safeguard both refugees and hosts from exploitation or abuse: among the hordes seeking to settle in western European countries will be many seeking to cause harm; among those offering themselves as hosts, there will be many potential abusers, many without proper accommodation or facilities, and many merely playing the system. There have already been reports of UK "hosts" in one-bedroom flats volunteering for the government hand-outs and then leaving their Ukrainian guests homeless and at the mercy of a local authority already unable to cope with previous waves of refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

The idea that the UK relax all visa requirements and carry out checks once Ukrainian refugees are in the country is also extremely unwise: where are the people to go? They would simply be swapping a tented city in Poland for a tented city in Britain. Or they would simply be moving from perfect safety in The Netherlands, France or Italy to a worse situation of homelessness and dependency in the UK. And what terrible things are these other host countries doing that makes so many feel the need to get away and seek sanctuary in the UK anyway? It also seems to be the case that most Ukrainians are eager to remain close to their own country, especially as Russia moves its troops eastwards. In all of this, the best approach is slow and cautious; get it right; ensure hosts and their guests are genuine and can cope. By far the worst mistakes will be made when trying to do too much too soon and shifting refugees from frying pan to fire.

CITY STILL LOVES ITS BARGAIN BASEMENT MIGRANT WORKERS

The trend towards cheapness, begun in 1980 and rapidly accelerated over the past 20 years through globalisation and unfettered migration, has already brought us the drastic erosion of UK workers' rights, Brexit, and the disgraceful sacking of P&O's loyal staff. Our values have been distorted, as we allow gamblers in financial instruments to hoard enormous wealth and care staff to claim in-work benefits and rely on food banks all in the name of keeping down costs. Brexit did at least promise to reverse some of these ghastly trends, but then came the pandemic and disrupted all sense of cause and effect. But old habits die hard and employers are eager to get their hands on cheap foreign workers again. P&O is the most hideous example, but it merely reflects what has been happening in the UK labour market for two decades. Supermarkets were even quick to hold out a warm welcome to any unsuspecting Ukrainian refugees they could lay their hands on.

And the finance sector is also hiring abroad again at quite a rate. It claims to be seeking unique talent, unavailable in Britain which sounds to me like an insult to the people of the UK. Let us accept, however, that there will always be a few rare talents and pools of expertise – a shortage of IT experts is mentioned – that makes some migration understandable. But once it reaches the point at which hiring decisions are made on the basis of costs, it surely becomes unacceptable.

This hiring phenomenon also debunks the idiotic myth that the country's finance sector would be wrecked by departures of people and money by voting for Brexit. As The Times reported this morning: "The numbers appear to contrast with the worst fears expressed at the time of the Brexit referendum, when City firms warned of an exodus of talent." I heard such bogus cries of wolf from the City so many times during my decades at the FT that I was able to discount these claims at the time. Some might even have called them lies.

UNIONS CALL FOR AN END TO "DISPOSABLE LABOUR"!

In one of its most dramatic ever U-turns, the TUC has called for a law banning "disposable labour". It says dropping an employment bill from the Queen's Speech would expose workers to "rogue employers". I'm not sure where the TUC has been looking for the past 20 years. Frances O'Grady, TUC general secretary, who I have met a few times and like very much, is quoted in The Times today as saying: "After the scandalous events at P&O, which have exposed gaping holes in employment law, the need for new legislation has never been more urgent." If this is a belated realisation of how the UK labour market has been run and regulated for the past 20 years then it is to be welcomed. For a full explanation of how the whole middle class labour movement leadership has sold out the British working class to the cheapest bidder for the past four decades, Frances should read my book, The Rise of Antisocialism.

IN TWO MINDS ABOUT HUNGARY

I am left ambivalent towards Viktor Orban's victory in the Hungarian general election. He is clearly a nasty right-wing piece of work; on the other hand he spells trouble for the European Union. The EU has had a terrible pandemic and is having a terrible war – all pretty much in line with its many terrible responses to crises near and far. Were there to be referendums in each member state, the entire project would collapse: it plainly lacks the consent of the majority of people in many countries, especially those in the east. Orban's victory is as much a poll on attitudes towards the EU as it is an endorsement of his grotesque policies. But the accession states, who suck vast fortunes from EU coffers that are filled by the western nations, cannot afford to break free and so remain as a thorn in its side. I am not unhappy at that. But as I said in relation to being called a Tory – sharing a common opponent does not necessarily place us in the same team.

OSCARS FISTICUFFS

One small afterthought on Will Smith's assault on Chris Rock at the ghastly Oscars ceremony: I have already said that if he felt so insulted and angry at Rock's jibe, he should have walked out. It could also be argued that anyone attending an event in the full knowledge that they are likely to be subjected to incredibly lame "jokes", embarrassment, humiliation and personal insults, perhaps ought just to sit there and take it when their turn comes.

MARCH 30 2022

The word "choose" has been used in connection with Ukrainian refugees in several stories and letters in The Times this week. It was used to castigate the UK government for placing bureaucracy in the way of those "choosing" to settle in Britain, having reached the safety of Poland or France or Italy or The Netherlands. But we should just ask: what if 2m Ukrainian refugees "chose" to come to the UK? Would the government then still be evil (in the eyes of those who already hate it) for seeking some filter, along with sensible safeguards for both refugees and their hosts?

The same applies to so many topics currently reported on. The UK is unique in demanding visas for refugees when every other EU country welcomes them all without question. Yet other countries also seem surprisingly keen to get rid of the refugees and the refugees keen to leave. Are they not receiving the "fairytale welcome" described by one of the UK's early settlers under the government's spare room scheme? Judging by what we learn this morning from The Netherlands, they are not. It is hard to assess, because our news coverage has become so desperately parochial and partial. Similarly, has the UK been slow and feeble in its response to the Russian invasion? Yes, if you only pay heed to our national news media. No, if you listen to the assessments of both Zelensky and Putin.

Another stick being used to beat the much-hated government is the rate of UK inflation and the impending cost of living squeeze, so gleefully raised by Remoaning liberals. Does this mean Britain is facing these pressures alone, through its own incompetence and vice? Or are all western economies facing precisely the same forces, many of them much worse than the UK? The latter is true, of course, although anyone relying on British news would have no idea. Pointing this out is not "being a Tory". It is "being a journalist". It is understanding that biased news is, fundamentally, fake news.

OPPOSITION ISN'T ABOUT LABELLING REAL SUCCESS A FAILURE

The most extraordinary and unbelievable story I've read so far today is the one in which the Labour Party attacks the government for having ordered "too much" PPE! First, who knew how much was needed at the time? Second, the government makes the perfectly sensible riposte that it was preparing for a protracted battle against Covid-19. Third, huge amounts were ordered partly because of the hysterical shrieking from the opposition (including the BBC's Nick Robinson) that we had no PPE, the EU had an amazingly brilliant procurement scheme (it didn't), that we needed more more more, and the government was doing "too little, too late". Fourth, the fact that we have excess PPE is a tribute to the government's Covid-19 strategy and early and rapid vaccination research, investment and delivery, rendering much PPE thankfully redundant. There are two sides to every story – so why are we only ever hearing one of them?

MARCH 28 2022

THE END OF THE WORLD IS NIGH...

I don't have a sandwich board with those words written on it, but there is a deeply depressing fin de siecle feeling abroad. The world does seem to have gone mad and in some cases turned inside out and upside down.

One personal example came yesterday with a drive to Hampshire to visit relatives. The behaviour of some drivers was so appalling that it amounted to nihilism. The driver who stopped in front of us in the middle lane of the A3 so that he could jump the queue at the M25 junction certainly could not care a jot for the safety of his passengers or other road users. We were trapped behind him for quite some time as those patiently queuing to his left understandably refused to let him shove in. Traffic came flying up behind us and was forced to swerve into the third lane to avoid a pile-up that would definitely have resulted in deaths. Had it been a weekday, a truck would have found it hard to avoid a smash and we would have taken the force, not the irresponsible vermin causing the blockage. The sneering grin on the ugly face of that selfish moron once he eventually forced his way into the queue said it all.

Later, on the A303, a lone driver in a black German car travelling at what must have been at least 120mph suddenly leapt up to our rear bumper as we were overtaking slow traffic. Despite being entirely in the wrong on many counts driving illegally in several ways he seemed to assume all other vehicles ought to move aside. The vile attitudes of people such as these two dreadful road users are spreading: my warnings about the reprehensible Rise of Antisocialism are continuing to be proved right.

HOORAY! BABY BOOMERS ARE TO BLAME FOR EVERYTHING!

A laughably stupid piece of "research" by someone connected to Norway (I don't want to be specific as it might only encourage them) claims that the Baby Boomer generation is by far the worst when it comes to environmental damage, because they are well off. What it fails to work out even though it is glaringly obvious is that the correlation is between wealth and pollution, not age and pollution. Rich households of all ages are the worst polluters, well-off consumers are killing the planet whatever their age. And taking their life-time pollution, younger people will be enormously more damaging than older generations who spent the first decades of their lives using virtually no power at all. The survey is so dumb it is hard to understand how it came to be reported on by The Times this morning. But then it was not the only offensive item to insult the intelligence of readers today...

"YOU GRIEVING SPOILSPORTS ARE JUST TRYING TO STOP US HAVING FUN!"

How on earth could The Times have given over its Thunderer column today to Michael Dugher, chief executive of the Betting and Gaming Council, to tell bereaved and grieving parents, relatives and friends that their opposition to his filthy trade is spoiling others' fun?

ARE JOURNALISTS NO LONGER ALLOWED TO ASK "WHY"?

The Times was truly shocking and appalling in several departments this morning. Its "news" story claiming that fewer than half of those eligible for a second booster had received it never bothered to ask why this might be. It merely trotted out what looked like a press release from a charity attacking the government (of course) for still failing to protect those at risk, months after it made the jabs available. If a journalist always assumes the worst of the government then it's a quick and easy space filler to churn out this complaint and present it as news: no bothersome questions such as "why?". I strongly suspect that the answer would be that while everyone in the high-risk category has been offered another (free) booster, the reason coverage appears low is due to slow take-up. If there is another reason, I would like to hear about that, too. As it is, this sloppy and prejudicial piece of journalism raised far more questions than it answered.

NOT EVERYTHING BAD IS ILLEGAL

The Metropolitan police are still getting it in the neck for prosecuting well-meaning people for crimes and failing to prosecute questionable people for being not nice. The actor Noel Clarke, it appears, will not face prosecution for behaving badly towards women. Lots who have worked with him agree that he is not nice and have told the police what he did to them. Unfortunately for them, being not nice does not necessarily make you a criminal if it did, there are at least two disgusting drivers who would be behind bars this morning. These are judgments that law enforcement bodies have to make all the time and there will always be marginal cases. And maybe the law needs changing but that it another matter. And a minefield.

As things stand, I might think that Clarke's behaviour was disgraceful as he himself seems to have admitted while also accepting that it did not cross the border into criminality. This is not good enough for the pressure group pursuing him, however. Its spokesperson is given plenty of space to vent her fury; the Met just has to take another blow to its reputation, right or wrong.

WHO IS SUFFERING MORE IN THIS REFUGEE KERFUFFLE?

Gradually, we are beginning to see who are the real sufferers in the fall-out from the Russian invasion of Ukraine: the British. The terrible bureaucracy placed in the way of their generosity is driving so many to distraction and the media.

More seriously, there seems to be a widespread misunderstanding of what it means to be in danger and fleeing for your life: it is not something that happens in France or any other EU country. The Times today is littered with well-meaning people using phrases such as "choosing to come to Britain". Refugees do not "choose" a destination: refugees are fleeing from danger to a place of safety. Any able to come to the UK have already achieved that. This places them in a completely different category needing temporary comfortable longer-term resettlement. This ought to require careful consideration, paperwork, consultation and checks, both on the refugees and their self-selected hosts. This will take time; it should take time: rush it and get it wrong and people on both sides will be placed in danger. The vast majority of refugees are relieved to be billeted in Poland, close to home and ready to return; those now "choosing" the UK are also already safe, though perhaps uncomfortable and insecure as they travel freely around Europe. It cannot be unreasonable to ensure that when they eventually arrive they are who they say they are and can be well looked after.

DRAMA AT THE OSCARS AT LAST

I always wish for some embarrassing incident to mar ridiculous awards ceremonies, except when Ricky Jervais is presenting, and they usually oblige. But last night's Oscars drama was off the scale. Not the scale of world events, of course in this context it was piffling, barely worth a mention, despite the hopeless BBC radio news editors deciding to make it the lead item.

But why oh why did Will Smith have to hit Chris Rock for insulting his wife? He was acting in the heat of the moment and I am sure on reflection would have behaved differently. Indeed, he has apologised to the whole world (except Rock). In such a situation you have to cause maximum damage to the offender and the least damage to yourself and violence is rarely the best way to achieve this though the urge is fearsomely difficult to overcome. All Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith had to do was ostentatiously get up and walk out, perhaps wagging an angry finger towards Rock. This leaves Rock floundering and humiliated and the Smith party on the moral high ground, being chased by reporters eager to tell their story. The organisers, too, will have to act quickly to make reparations so that Smith can return and calmly collect his Oscar to the rapturous applause of a sympathetic crowd. In the event, significant damage is done, extending beyond the immediate spat: at least one fellow black actor has despairingly pointed out that it could fuel the racist view that "this is how black men settle things". I might wish for bad things to happen at the Oscars but certainly not this.

WHY THE OPPOSITION CAN ONLY FOCUS ON TRIVIA...

It happened again on Saturday night: I was mistaken for a Tory. Please, let us get this straight. Just because I loathe and speak out against the lies, anger, misinformation, ignorance, self-righteousness, malice, arrogance and the superiority complex of one brand of business-first ultra-liberals does not mean that I support the very similar target of their ire. Their attacks on the Tories are wrong and extremely unhelpful in so many ways but pointing that out does not make me a Conservative party supporter. Anyone who has read my book will know that the reality is quite the opposite. Being appalled by the same thing does not necessarily put us on the same team.

Having said that, I am in a permanent state of surprise at what the Tories are doing: increasing taxation and spending lavishly. Yes, you can criticise the Chancellor for doing little in the spring statement to help those on benefits but anyone looking at the total package of support for individuals and businesses over the past two years should find it hard to believe these are a Tory chancellor's doing. Billions have been allocated to levelling up, saving jobs, saving businesses, helping schoolchildren catch up, protecting people from the pandemic. Does it really matter that he waved his bank card at the wrong part of the payment machine? Haven't we all done that? Is that more important than the £16bn the Treasury spent on cancelling business rates for the hospitality sector during lockdown? Or the £5bn the Education Secretary says he has at his disposal to ensure pupils catch up on learning? Indeed, Boris Johnson is labelled "spendthrift" in a leader column in today's copy of The Times.

The truly astonishing fact is that this is all being done by people calling themselves Tories. But taxing and spending on such a scale has always been the province of the Labour Party. Tory MP Steve Baker even used two words long deleted from the Conservative dictionary: "social" and "co-operation". The reason, therefore, that Labour's opposition is so feeble and so heavily focused on trivia and niceties (wallpaper, the definition of a "party", a few out-of-context quotes and video clips, etc) is that the Tories are doing perhaps in some cases being forced to do precisely what Labour would do.

MARCH 26 2022

NAIVETTE COOPER STILL FAILING TO GRASP THE ISSUE

She's still at it after three decades. When will Yvette Cooper learn that she needs to understand a subject fully before she can pronounce on it. I first became aware of her failure to grasp issues when she was sharing her views on the housing market in the mid-1990s. She plainly hadn't the first clue what she was talking about. To be fair, it's a very common problem when it comes to housing. Yesterday, her topic was visas for refugees, telling the world via friendly BBC Radio that the UK is appalling in placing near-impossible bureaucracy in the way of those seeking to reach the UK. This morning in The Times, however, we learn that more than 20,000 Ukrainians have been granted visas to settle here in less than three weeks, with thousands more in the pipeline.

That same story in The Times also displays its own tragic ignorance by pointing out that the total of refugees reaching Britain is minuscule compared to the millions in Poland. This is as intelligent as saying that were there to be a crisis in Ireland it would be surprising and scandalous to find half a million refugees in Northern Ireland and just a handful in Poland. It's brainless. Both Poland and Ukraine have stated repeatedly that most Ukrainians wish to stay near the border so that they can return as soon as possible. What Poland wants is help in creating temporary cities. And this, it says, is not forthcoming. At least from the EU.

I have also yet to hear any politician or commentator pointing out the difference between refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants. Neither have they articulated the difference between people in Ukraine being bombed and unable to escape, refugees requiring temporary billeting across the border and those seeking longer term settlement in a more distant country of their choosing. All of these are lumped together in one category even though they are vastly different. No wonder rational debate on these subjects is impossible.

EVERY POSSIBLE SOLUTION IS BLOCKED AND THEN THE BLAME FOR INACTION BEGINS

"Something must be done!" "People are dying!" "They're desperate!" "Criminal gangs are killing people!" Fine, says the government. We'll turn back the migrants' boats in the Channel. We'll pay France a fortune to fight the criminality that it is hosting on its soil. We'll criminalise those who break into the UK illegally. We'll process their asylum applications offshore (especially as we know a high proportion are bogus). We'll try to curb vexatious legal challenges that cause interminable delays to deportations. And more.... Oh no you won't, says the House of Lords and every well-meaning liberal. In that case, the numbers risking their lives to cross the Channel, with the connivance of a France unable to control its own borders, will continue to grow; and the enormous costs and disruption of dealing with them will continue to rise. Just don't complain when people die and the costs limit the amount the Chancellor can spend on other things. More likely, of course, is that the very same people who have blocked every move to tackle this appalling situation will hammer the Home Secretary for failing to deal with it!

THIS IS GOING TO HURT

The short-sighted criticism of Rishi Sunak's spring statement ignores the larger picture. In isolation, it did indeed sound a mean package. But looking more widely, we see billions already devoted to helping households as energy bills rise and global inflation washes over us, too. Some might like to tinker with the precise targeting I would certainly have looked at benefits and VAT rates, rather than fuel duty and a future tax cut, nether of which will make much impact. But the bigger point remains that there is little the Exchequer can do to ensure that every household is unaffected by a vicious combination of global events. The basic rule of taxation is that everyone being charged a barely noticeable extra penny creates a huge fund, but using that huge fund to benefit everyone amounts to barely noticeable penny each!

So why did Sunak make the point more forcefully that this is going to hurt. His opponents are  they are pointing to the impending fall in living standards with glee! It will hurt some more than others, but it will hurt everyone. It is global and it is inevitable. As we move from pestilence to war with barely a break, and have to deal with an energy crisis and resulting inflation, should we simply forget the billions spent on fighting the pandemic and saving people's jobs and businesses? Should we ignore the billions that our powerful opposition to Russia will cost us in many ways? Of course living standards will fall just do the sums. The focus now has to be on accepting this and protecting the most vulnerable. The one saving grace is that if this does turn out to be the steepest fall in living standards for 70 years, then at least it is from a far higher base for the vast majority than in the post-war 1950s.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO CONTEXT?

Jonny Dymond, the BBC's royal correspondent, seemed to go slightly off the rails yesterday. He reported that the one image the world would remember of William and Kate's visit to the Caribbean would be the moment they reached out to shake hands with black youngsters behind a wire fence. It was not a "good optic", he said and castigated the royal PR machine for failing to steer the couple away. William and Kate could not win, of course. Ignore the children and they would have been condemned for that. Dymond argues they should not have been put in this invidious position. It would certainly have been nice to avoid it. But in reality it was a joyous, spontaneous moment that should be celebrated. Can such moments not be allowed to happen any more?

It is only when the picture is used out of context that it becomes an issue. To its credit, The Times did not use the picture this morning and I have no idea to what extent it is being spread elsewhere. But anyone who uses it to damage the reputation of William and Kate or the royal family is simply malicious and a liar.

Context is everything and taking words and pictures out of context has been used in so many despicable cases of misrepresentation recently, examples of which have become disastrously absorbed into the national consciousness. Boris's discussion of the shared values of freedom and self-determination of the British and Ukrainian people is a prime example. Taking what he actually said out of context is malicious and misleading. But it is all too easy to make such misrepresentations stick, to be repeated by columnists, comedians and commentators and become "fact". Another appalling example is the misinformation spread by an out-of-context and short clip of Boris at this week's Nato meeting in Brussels, suggesting no one would talk to him. The rest of the footage shows him talking happily with others; even the poisonous brief section shows other leaders similarly not talking. To broadcast such a misleading clip out of context displays a level of malice that devalues every argument that accompanies it. 

MARCH 25 2022

AT LAST A BALANCED AND FAIR RADIO INTERVIEW

I am so fed up and disgusted with the BBC's blatantly partisan interviewing Mishal Husain's seething anger at Rishi Sunak was downright embarrassing yesterday morning that I have switched my bathroom radio to Times Radio. It's the only functioning digital radio in the house now that both the Pure and the big Roberts have broken down and Times Radio is only available on digital or online. And this lunchtime I heard the best interview I've heard for years. It concerned the Chancellor's spring statement. I had no idea who the two involved were, but the interviewer was fair, asked intelligent questions, and avoided snide asides and negative re-interpretations of what the interviewee had just said. This immediately made it dramatically different from a BBC radio interview. The interviewee, too, was calm and rational, and allowed to speak at length to complete a viewpoint, rather than be hustled into a pre-prepared ambush, or interrupted without reason. He also sounded intelligent, considered and balanced, criticising Sunak on some grounds but appreciating his difficulties overall.

So who could these paragons of journalism be? An interviewer with integrity and a thoughtful interviewee – possibly a correspondent? The interviewer was Ruth Davidson, former member of the Scottish Parliament, the interviewee David Gauke, former Lord High Chancellor – and odious Brexit denier who, through his despicable abuse of parliamentary procedures, protracted the UK's EU departure, causing lasting divisions in society that are festering to this day. Yet these two politicians, when placed in the position of interviewer and expert commentator were exemplary. It really highlights the rotten state of the journalism profession when it takes two politicians to sound like impartial journalists.

WHAT IS THE EU PLAYING AT?

Is the EU heading for an existential crisis – or at least a further contraction? Its pathetic response to the invasion of Ukraine becomes ever more starkly exposed as the UK's toughens. Poland and the eastern states will surely be itching to quit this club that, according to Poland, has so far failed to provide a single cent in humanitarian support. The selfish, comfortable western nations are showing more concern for their power supplies than Ukrainians within or without Ukraine, and the conflict is resulting in the EU's usual dither, indecision, delay and farce. Tensions between the bossy, self-righteous Eurocrats of the west and the eastern, non-PC awkward squad were already high before this. When the dust settles, the eastern countries might decide that enough is enough.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson continues to earn extravagant plaudits from Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials for acting decisively, sensibly and generously and has even won the ultimate accolade of being hailed as Russia's most active opponent among western leaders – by Russia. Had we remained in the EU, we, too, would have been part of the dithering and division. No credit must be given for this, of course.

HOW MANY MORE LIBERAL PARTIES CAN WE PUT UP WITH?

One minute you're accused of being a socialist, the next a Tory – make your minds up, folks. I guess it might be confusing trying to assess the politics of someone who holds fundamentally different beliefs to any of the current mainstream political parties, which are all almost identical in their liberal outlook. I do not believe in liberalism, nor ever have, because it is the antithesis of socialism, which is where my politics are rooted. I suppose the nearest "party" or movement to my own views would be Extinction Rebellion, but it is more pressure group than realistic seeker of power. And so I remain unrepresented, surveying a political scene dominated by Conservatives, Labour and LibDems – three parties I struggle to tell apart.

I suspect the reason I was asked whether I was Tory is because I feel no allegiance to any party – I judge each issue on its merits. And I suspect the reason there have been no sensible alternatives proposed to much that has happened in the past three years is because when faced with pandemic, war and now inflation, there are no substantive rational alternatives for any opposition parties to come up with. Into this vacuum have slipped liberal journalists, universally anti-Brexit and therefore anti-Boris, who have abused their position to paint a picture of relentless negativity and failure by the government. They have resorted to an absurd parochialism, as if every evil in the world is uniquely the product of Boris Johnson, while everywhere else is in rosy health. The latest example of this is the complete disregard for international rates of inflation. The UK's is not as bad as in most other comparable countries but when viewed in isolation it can be presented as a home-grown disaster. Whether you like Boris or not – and I don't particularly – this is grossly misleading and biased.

In truth, nothing is as good as it seems, nor is it anywhere near as bad; and there has not been a single potent, credible suggestion from any opposition party that I, or any other objective observer, could fall in behind. I have judged the government's actions in the past three years by racking my brains to think of what I would have done differently. And on almost every issue of note, neither I, nor anyone reported in the media, has had any superior alternative. It's hard, of course, when policy is dictated by science, as during the height of the pandemic, and it must be hard for the New New Labour liberals to complain when the government steals its only real slight differentiator and increases taxes. All they can do is bleat about different taxes or a different time-scale. How about a windfall tax on the energy companies? But even this is dubious, given that a lack of investment across swathes of business has caused low productivity, poor wages and, in the case of energy, slowed our conversion to renewable sources.

To be fair, it must be difficult to oppose when there is little scope for credible alternatives, which is why politics today is so bitter, personal, nasty and negative.

For my part, I believe the government acted as well as any nation in the face of the pandemic – better than many when it came to vaccines and unwinding the safety measures early this year. It has excelled in its response to the Russian invasion. And within the confines of established politics and liberal, business-based social structures, it is managing the economy tolerably well and probably better than any other party – who knows? But these are not my politics. I value workers performing essential tasks, such as those in the medical and caring professions; I place little value on gambling in the City. It is the liberal business world that rewards workers involved in the worthless trading of obscure financial instruments and reluctantly leaves scraps for those dedicated to securing our health and well-being. In the upside down world of misplaced value, it is perhaps no wonder that friends fail to appreciate where I stand on the established political spectrum – because I am not really on it at all.

MARCH 24 2022

There's a strange view doing the rounds that Brexit somehow emboldened, or made it easier, for Putin to resort to violence and invade Ukraine. Well, first, this same train of thought also maintains that Putin's aggression and military strategy has been in place for decades. It also ignores the fact that Putin invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. So Brexit's impact on Putin's long-term planning can only have been zero. And even if we accept that it somehow "emboldened" him in his current thinking, it was a huge miscalculation on his part. Because while the UK has been acting quickly and decisively in providing a vast arsenal to Ukraine's forces and earning heaps of praise and gratitude from Ukrainian officials from President Zelensky down, the EU has been its usual dithering self, split between the reluctant western countries dependent upon Russian energy supplies and the threatened states in the east. It has been slow to provide humanitarian financial support to Poland, slow in providing the weapons it promised and has been roundly criticised by Zelensky over and over again. If the UK had been subject to "acting as one" with the always ineffective EU, Putin might well have walked right across Ukraine by now.

MARCH 22 2022

At last, Remoaners have something to cheer about! Their dismay at so many migrant workers leaving the UK labour market must surely now be turned to joy at the sight of coach-loads of migrants now returning to take up jobs at P&O. See! You needn't have worried. They're back already! Add to this the many employers screaming for Ukrainian refugees to be admitted to Britain not so that they can escape the hardship of camps in Poland or France, but so they can provide more cheap labour. The supermarkets were on to this straight away. Well done, Morrisons, you were among the first. And now Parliament is to debate changing the rules allowing asylum seekers to work, reducing the waiting period from a year to six months. This is marvellous news for those desperate to see more workers enjoying disgraceful pay and conditions but providing wonderful service with a smile (or else!). All the employer groups are behind it, claiming it gives economic migrants something to do, plugs skills gaps, fills shortages, and lightens the support burden. Wonderful! No long-term down sides (continuing low productivity, low investment, low pay, low retention of home-trained staff, and all the repercussions that inevitably flow) at all!

BORIS AND UKRAINE

At least the Ukrainians appreciate what this country is doing to support their fight. The country's president continues to heap praise on our government's efforts and its ambassador sat smiling and applauding Boris Johnson's speech at the weekend, even though, according to some, it insulted and belittled Ukraine's fight against the sickening Russian invasion. I was unsurprised at how the Boris-hating liberal media took a sentence or two of that speech out of context and stirred up an artificial cauldron of fury among like-minded Brexit haters. But I did check just how disgusting their tactics were by watching the whole of the relevant section of Johnson's speech. And at no point did he equate standing in front of Russian tanks or being bombed by Russian jets as comparable with voting for Brexit. What he actually said was that our two peoples share a love a love of freedom and self-determination: we were able to display that through voting to make our own decisions and choosing to become vaccinated in order to escape the imposition of safety measures. He said the people of Ukraine also held those values and would be appalled at the thought of losing their freedom and self-determination to the gradual encroachment of Russia. As an illustration of what freedom and self-determination means to people and, in particular, the man giving the speech, it made perfect sense. Only a desperate political activist could see it otherwise. The BBC's "journalists", now having implanted this gross misinterpretation into the minds of the population, were clearly listening to Boris with a very different ear from the Ukrainian delegation in the front row.

MARCH 21 2022

P&O: WHY ONLY COMPLAIN WHEN IT HAPPENS IN MINUTES?

What actually happened at P&O Ferries? The local unionised workforce loyal, skilled and seemingly secure in its employment, and in its support for families and communities and its modest but decent lifestyles was replaced by cheaper foreign imports. To those who have cared to look over the past 40 years, and especially since 2004, this is a horribly familiar tale.

Ever since the application of crude and vicious business "principles" to every walk of life in the UK in 1980, this labour replacement process has been happening across Britain, as foreign investment and ownership of British companies and firms, combined with race-to-the-bottom trends in offshoring, brought dramatic cuts in costs at the expense of workers. Admission of the eastern European "Accession countries" to the border-free EU in 2004 turbo-charged this decline by allowing "near-shoring", or the employment of cheap east European labour at home without hindrance or paperwork.

Extending the British labour market to the border with Russia and Belarus swept jobs away from local workers in business's desperate downwards plunge towards rock bottom cheapness. Any unskilled, and even some skilled and semi-skilled, sectors were almost emptied of local staff construction, hospitality, social care, transport, agriculture, food processing, supermarkets and more allowing products and services to be sold at unrealistically low prices for decades and enabling many broken businesses to survive thanks to pay and conditions ranging from outright modern slavery to appalling zero hours contracts with no work benefits. Communities unable to compete on price for their own jobs unforgivably labelled as "lazy" by some ignorant commentators have either had to adapt or rot.

What happened at P&O is precisely the same, the only difference being that it took place over a few hours, rather than many years. Yet there are many who hail the "success" of migrant labour and who desperately long for the return of exploited east Europeans to serve them artificially cheap coffee with a smile. In the next breath those same people condemn the disgusting behaviour of the Dubai-owned P&O. To me, it makes no difference whether it takes 20 years or a few hours: using migrant labour to break the local workforce is wrong; exploiting impoverished foreigners to cut business costs is wrong; allowing unfettered foreign ownership of important UK businesses is wrong.

RADIO GA GA

The radio is silent in our kitchen. Why would I want to listen to the utterly obnoxious Nick Robinson for one more second? Playing his idiot game of "false comparisons", he reminds me in so many ways of Putin, showing similar levels of charm, honesty and decency, and an identical attitude towards the truth.

Repeating the fallacious nonsense around Boris's speech on freedom, he failed to mention that Zelensky and Ukraine continue to heap praise on Boris and Britain. This, of course, barely merits a mention on the treacherous BBC.

THAT "TORY" THING

Of course it hurts when a friend suggests you sound like a Tory, when you are anything but as I explained yesterday. But a further thought on this: in this crazy era of all political parties holding the same fundamental beliefs, Boris is no more a Tory than Blair was Labour. It is bizarre that in his utterances and his actions, Johnson clearly stands well to the left of that charlatan and champion of business and consumption, Tony Blair. Keir Starmer as well.


MARCH 20 2022

We can praise the BBC for much of its Ukraine invasion coverage and it does indeed still have a few first-class journalists working under terrifying bombardment. Whatever drivel Putin comes out with, we know Russian bombs are destroying formerly peaceful cities because we can see them with our own eyes, thanks to the bravery of committed reporters and crews. The BBC and other media organisations also have many disgraceful staff who do not deserve to be called journalists. Many times I have had to turn off the radio, most recently when the UK-hating Nick Robinson virtually spat at a minister while attacking him over a rumoured figure of a mere "50 refugees" being admitted to Britain and declared that this amounted to "national shame". If I had been the interviewee that day I would have replied with a furious "You know NOTHING. How DARE you..." and ended the interview immediately.

At least The Times that day, less than three weeks ago, had the decency to point out that if this "50" rumour was indeed true it was only because the process of documenting and identifying those refugees most suited to life in Britain ie, having family here, for a start was just getting under way, just hours old, and the number would rise rapidly. Which is precisely what happened.

Unfortunately, the barrage of ignorant abuse and insults hurled at the government caused it to make a series of concessions, culminating in a hastily cobbled together plea for spare bedrooms. Would there be checks on those volunteering to share their homes with Ukrainians for at least six months, to weed our abusers and the like, or not? The government could not win: apply sensible safeguards and Keir Starmer bleats on about it all being "too little, too late"; take a light touch and it is accused of recklessness and will be held accountable for every case of harm that follows.

It's easy to oppose when you feel under no pressure to offer an alternative. Starmer's stock response to everything the government does is: "It's too little, too late." When asked what he would do instead, the answer is invariably: "We will have come up with a proposal in three years." Ed Davey, the latest hapless little twerp to lead the LibDems, has his own style: "Well, that's an important question and it requires very close scrutiny and examination. We shall be reviewing it and considering all the options. It's vital that we consider this. And that's precisely what needs to be done and is what we will be doing, etc, etc, ad nauseum...."

Being the opposition, they face no opposition themselves to this stream of obfuscation, indecision and lack of commitment. Meanwhile, the government is busy having its own decisions and commitments re-written by the liberal media. A prime example is today's cover of The Sunday Times, with three stories attacking Boris Johnson in different ways, and all partly written by a writer hell-bent on sticking knives into Boris at every opportunity, deserved or not. The smallest and most bizarre story is Caroline Wheeler's condemnation of Boris for being at a Conservative party event the evening before the Russians invaded Ukraine. The article states that despite days of warnings of an imminent invasion, the prime minister fulfilled diary commitments. It does not say what he should have done instead sit by the phone for 24 hours a day for several weeks in case the tanks suddenly started to roll? The fighting did not begin until the following morning; Boris's attendance at the event was a complete irrelevance, yet he is castigated. Only a journalist without judgment or integrity could put their name to such a piece. Next, again involving the toxic Caroline Wheeler, is a veiled slur that the prime minister knew all about the despicable sacking of P&O workers in advance and that ministers only criticised P&O after seeing the ferocity of the backlash against this disgusting company. Neither allegation fits the facts as currently known: ministers have already said they only heard about the sacking plan a few hours before it was implemented at the crack of dawn last Thursday; and ministers were among the first voices raised against it when the news of what had happened became apparent at lunchtime. Two completely manufactured stories designed to malign and harm the government. The third, and biggest, is the most glaringly concocted: Boris's supposed attack on the EU and supposed likening of the Ukrainian people's struggle to the Brexit vote.

It's an object lesson in how to create news: take a few out-of-context sentences from a speech (although it actually sounded more like an off-the-cuff discussion) and seek the opinions of a few people you know to hate the prime minister as much as you do yourself in this case, the EU's Donald Tusk and Guy Verhofstadt, a horribly unprincipled man who can be relied upon to assault Boris and Brexit any day of the year, and the odious half-wit SNP dunce Ian Blackford. They duly trot out their shock and fury and the item becomes second most important on the BBC's main radio news bulletins, to be followed up on every front page of the Sundays. No one cares to ask what Johnson was actually saying, or whether it matters. As my friend Roger puts it: "I have been enjoying Remoan Central having apoplexy about Boris making a very Boris-like sweeping observation about the desire for freedom and the instinct that tells us running our own country is better than letting foreigners do it for us. How dare he?!"

A more fair and accurate assessment of the UK's policies over Ukraine came this week from unexpected sources: an Irish minister and Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president. The Irish representative (I didn't catch his name or title) even had the temerity to disagree with the BBC interviewer's interpretation of events when he was assured that Britain's response to the refugee crisis was pathetic and embarrassing. He replied that that was not the way Ireland saw matters at all: the UK had reacted with generosity and speed in every respect, notably in regard to refugees, sanctions and military help. This, of course, floored the bewildered interviewer who was unable to comprehend such a deviation from the one and only accepted liberal narrative. Worse was to come when Zelensky, having praised Johnson's efforts to the skies, rounded on Germany for its hesitant, faltering and self-serving lack of support. None of this received much prominent coverage.

Neither did the momentous negotiations that freed Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from her Iranian hell. Yes, she had served her time and should have been released, but the Iranians would not have hesitated to jail her again on more nonsensical charges had it suited them. That she is now home is the result of painstaking work by the UK's negotiators under the leadership of Liz Truss who has suddenly and surprisingly transformed herself into a force to be reckoned with. The government's extremely delicate work in settling its long-standing debt with Iran opened the jail door, yet the short-lived coverage of this triumph of diplomacy and concern focused heavily on how it had upset the US and on Nazanin and her family before rapidly sliding down the news agenda. Positive news does fit the liberal globalisers' narrative and is therefore not wanted here. The mantra goes: Brexit = BAD; Boris = BAD; therefore the government = BAD; therefore what the country does = BAD; therefore the country = BAD. What a miserable view to take of your own country when so many with experience of other nations are desperate to come here to share the rights, freedoms, privileges, opportunities and welfare that we take for granted.

But returning to my friend Roger's satisfaction at the fulminations of the Remoaners, I can say that I, too, would enjoy their frothing were it not for the fact that I hate appearing to stand up for Tories. I only have to do so because the attacks on them are made without integrity or fairness; they are partisan and built on a blind hate that can see no credit even where it is due, and that interprets every action, no matter how successful, as catastrophic. A friend suggested yesterday that I sounded like a Tory. I assured him I am an old style genuine socialist who believes the world is playing the wrong game completely. I liken my stance on "support" for Tories, Labour, Greens or whatever to that of a neutral dragged along to a game of American football between two minor teams and who is therefore able to make objective, unbiased assessments of how each team is playing. Acknowledging that one team appears particularly skilled or that the team's quarter-back made a marvellous interception does not in any way make me a supporter of American football, which I cannot abide. Yet I am forced to sit and watch, bemused as to why anyone would think it a good idea to play this awful game when Aussie Rules is so marvellous. Running a world on the business principles of growth, consumption, greed and selfishness is clearly the wrong game; yet all three of the UK's main political parties are indistinguishable in their fundamental stance and belief that this is the right game. And this makes the vehement, all-consuming hatred that liberals have of the Tories all the more difficult for me to understand, given that they are virtually identical to Labour and to every other conservative-liberal government in Europe: the similarities are astounding, the differences trivial a few pence here or there. If I were to hate anyone which I don't because it denies integrity and objective analysis it would be Labour for its abandonment and betrayal of working class people. Its liberal, business-led leadership really has no understanding at all of what workers want and need. And we know this: the Brexit vote proved it beyond any doubt.

MARCH 3 2022

A short hiatus caused by an excursion to Sri Lanka. It's a fascinating country with an enviable history and culture, but I fear it might have peaked too soon. It's water management systems, for example, consisting of "tanks" (huge reservoirs) and an ingenious means of moving water from one to another, date back to the fourth century BC. Today, it is busy and claustrophobic and in danger of masking its natural beauty with desperate and ramshackle commerce: ribbon development is taken to the extreme as stalls line every main road without interruption. We even bought drinks at a smallholding beside the railway line just outside the trendy mountain town of Ella. I would sum up Sri Lanka as a cross between the Garden of Eden and the Leatherhead Community Municipal Tip: the misty hills and glorious beaches are breath-taking but where humans seek to sell each other hub caps or the front halves of vans it becomes extremely messy. I suspect, as a first and brief impression, that the Buddhist culture of mutual caring and respect provides the lubrication necessary for people to co-exist on an island the size of Ireland with four times the population. This certainly looks to be the case on the roads, where traffic flows freely thanks to the mixture of cars, tuk-tuks and scooters narrowly avoiding each other. I would love to visit again, but might have higher travel priorities. Either way, I would hesitate to fly with Sri Lankan Airlines, which is still messing us about and holding on to money it owes us several weeks after the event.

WAR

And so we move seamlessly from pestilence to war. Putin is clearly deluding himself if he truly believes in his justification for invading Ukraine. But then, this is what warmongering world leaders do. Putin himself points out that the West invaded Iraq on equally criminally spurious grounds and left the country devastated. The Russian president also notes that the US has military bases around the world, while Russia does not. This rather overlooks Russia's more covert foreign interventions, however, as it resorts to murder with impunity wherever it sees fit. Each of these examples is, of course, a case of two wrongs not making a right. Putin is wrong on all counts, quite probably a war criminal and it is right that his country, its people and its dirty money should be labelled as unwanted; the world's pariah.

Dealing with all this is complicated, however. Yet there are still fools who support the declaration by the West of a "no-fly" zone over Ukraine, a move that would inevitably lead to World War Three and the real possibility of a nuclear exchange. Putin likes to make clear his willingness to initiate global Armageddon, which makes responding to his madness a tightrope act. He must be resisted militarily by Ukraine but Nato cannot become directly involved and sanctions must hurt the people of Russia so that they turn against their dictator. But Putin must be given, at all times, a way out, a route by which he can save face. As soon as he feels the game is up and he is cornered, whether militarily or by unrest at home or complaints from his oligarchs and henchmen, then he will surely consider reaching for the nuclear button. In reality, the only people who can stop Putin are the Russian people, but before they will rise and rid themselves of this monster they themselves will need to feel they have nothing more to lose in taking on his fascist regime.


FEBRUARY 4 2022

THE WORLD AND ITS DEATH WISH

Putin lures the world into war. aided and abetted by China; religious fanatics bully, kill, maim and control huge areas of the planet; glaciers melt on the slopes of Everest; poverty and greed spark vast global migrations. Humankind plainly has a serious death wish. Meanwhile, in central London, the overwhelmingly dominant topic for debate is an accusation – a "theory", no less! – that Keir Starmer was Director of Public Prosecutions, and thereby head of the Crown Prosecution Service, at the time it was deciding whether or not to prosecute Jimmy Savile for sex offences. Starmer has accepted responsibility for this failing and apologised after an inquiry, even though he was found to have no personal involvement. Which begs the question as to why not. But even so, were anyone to suggest he was the person in charge when opportunities to proceed against Savile were missed, it ought to be completely uncontroversial. Yet the outrage over Boris Johnson's alleged implication that Starmer made the decision has almost achieved the impossible of relegating "partygate" to a footnote this week.

What Starmer levelled at Johnson is, of course, ignored. Here's what he said on Monday: "But people shouldn’t feel guilty. They should feel pride in themselves and in their country. Because by abiding by those rules. They have saved the lives of people they will probably never meet." Does this not imply that Johnson caused deaths? That would be an outrageous slur against anyone. He continued: "They have shown the deep public spirit. And the love and respect for others that has always characterised this nation at its best." Again, implying that Johnson has no public spirit or respect for others – a debatable point at the very least. "He is a man without shame...And just as he has done throughout his life. He is damaging everyone and everything around him along the way." This is seriously nasty and underhand personal abuse, nothing more.

He went on: "That his behaviour and character don’t matter. I have never accepted that. And I never will accept that. Whatever your politics. Whatever party you vote for. Honesty and decency matter. Our great democracy depends on it. And cherishing and nurturing British democracy is what it means to be patriotic. There are members opposite who know that. And they know the Prime Minister is incapable of it." Incapable of being patriotic? Seriously?

Obviously, Johnson was livid. Visibly so. He had, apparently, been advised not to dredge up Starmer's difficult time as DPP and perhaps had not intended to. But in the heat of rage after a stream of highly personal vitriol, he let loose with all barrels. I can understand that. I have said things pretty rarely, I should add in a fury that I have regretted and apologised for. Johnson might well have regretted raising the subject but once said, in such a public forum, there is no going back. And as regrettable as it might have been, it felt perfectly fair and reasonable when seen live and in the context of battle. Even in the cool aftermath, it hardly seems outrageous or even wrong. Starmer took responsibility for, and apologised for, his department's failure to prosecute Savile. To make reference to that during a slanging match over the relative integrity of party leaders is well above the belt. To claim that it was really an implied reference to something else some sort of poorly explained conspiracy theory that Starmer was personally and directly involved in the Savile decisions – goes well beyond the words actually used. How this tiny affair can have captured the news headlines for several days is utterly absurd.

Sadly, the excellent Munira Mirza, Johnson's closest policy adviser, used the manufactured furore as her excuse for leaving the prime minister's team. Everything I have read of her is impressive, her background and thinking seem to have shaped the left-of-centre initiatives levelling up, climate change measures, the need to tackle social care that have put Labour to shame and that secured a positive popular response to his time as London mayor. I cannot believe that this insignificant parliamentary kerfuffle was her main reason for quitting: it appears to have followed a period of relative distancing and frustration in her work with the prime minister. The final straw, perhaps, at a convenient moment. But of all the accusations, allegations, controversies, resignations and witch-hunting, losing Mirza looks to be the most serious. Without her his days must surely be numbered.

If the end of the Johnson era is nigh and I cannot recall a more sustained, meticulously engineered and vitriolic persecution of a politician – there can only be one priority when it comes to choosing a replacement. It has to be a committed Brexiteer. This is the defining characteristic of our current politics and to allow a Remoaner prime minister to subject once again the poorest UK workers to direct competition from even poorer East Europeans would remove the primary benefit of leaving the EU, as far as working class people are concerned. It would truly place us in the worst of all possible worlds.

FEBRUARY 1 2022

LISTEN TO YOURSELF, LISA

Lisa Nandy opposes a tax rise that is aimed at supporting the NHS! How can the Labour Party have tied itself in such ludicrous knots?

And another poor Lisa gaffe: Labour has taken a free and easy ride on the relentless Boris/Brexit-hating witch-hunt aimed at undermining and distracting a prime minister battling a global crisis – and then Nandy accuses him of being distracted! And Keir Starmer had the nerve to say the same thing himself when yesterday in the House of Commons he was ranting at the prime minister in a sordid, deeply personal diatribe while Boris Johnson would otherwise have been on the phone discussing the prospect of war with the Russian president. It's a pity. I had hopes Nandy would lead Labour towards the realm of socialism. I have no hopes whatever for the ridiculous puffed-up Starmer.


HITLER WOULD HAVE BEEN PROUD OF THESE FELLOW TRAVELLERS

The thought police are now telling us ever more frequently what words we are not allowed to use (they never indicate what IS acceptable). The latest onslaught is aimed at the heroic Kate Clanchy and the schoolchildren she teaches. Clanchy won awards and heaps of praise for her beautiful-sounding books (I confess I have not read them – yet) of children's verse and her priceless observations on, and experiences of, teaching in "Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me". Then suddenly she was attacked by bigots, piling on to accuse her of racism. Racism! This is a teacher devoting her life to nurturing youngsters in a multilingual, multi-race school. She could hardly be LESS racist. But she made the unforgivable mistake of describing an Afghan girl as having "almond eyes" a beautiful and appropriate description with which Shukria Rezaei, the subject of the compliment, whole-heartedly agreed, going so far as to write an article in The Times expressing her disappointment at those attacking Clanchy under the headline: "I do have ‘almond-shaped eyes’. My teacher Kate Clanchy described me beautifully".

Similarly, Clanchy made the awful mistake of describing chocolate coloured skin as "chocolate coloured" – another perfectly apt and accurate description. And if these words are "offensive", someone needs to tell the countless websites using precisely the same term. Just Google "chocolate-coloured skin" or similar. Or is it only "offensive" when used by a white teacher? What if she had written the words "porcelain white skin", as used so often in classic novels? Or if she had quoted Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder by saying "ebony and ivory"? Are adjectives, similes, metaphors all things creative now banned by these self-appointed thought police?

Other allegations against Clanchy complain of her use of "unselfconsciously odd" when describing the demeanour of a child with autism. She has apologised for this. I think she should not have done. It resonates precisely with my experience of working with youngsters with Down's Syndrome – the "unselfconsciously odd" nature of some of their characters is endlessly appealing. Perhaps "odd" could be seen as mildly pejorative by the hyper-sensitive but in the context of autism it is accurate and helpful in understanding what are often odd and inexplicable behaviours. The same applies to another of her phrases: "jarring company". Critics should be made to spend a day with a child with autism and deny their company was "jarring".

The feeble, craven fools running Picador, the publishing house that pathetically chose to throw Clanchy to the wolves once the heat rose, rather than standing by its principles and defending her against the irrational mob, ought to be thoroughly ashamed of itself. It has even dumped "England: Poems From a School", a despicable assault on those children and their work. For an ignorant clique to cancel, deny, and silence a truly heroic teacher and her pupils who are expressing themselves so beautifully on the grounds that they deem some of the words used not to be their taste is pure fascism. The same applies to the right-wing religious fanatics in the US who are calling for books to be banned that offend their obnoxious hyper-sensibilities. With books being burned at both ends of the spectrum, there will soon be nothing worthwhile left. Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Big Brother in 1984 – they would be so proud of you all.


HOW DO PARLIAMENTARY REPORTERS STAND IT?

I have worked with many Parliamentary reporters on the Financial Times and rarely given much thought to the torture they must endure to gather their stories. Having just watched Boris Johnson give his statement to the house regarding the still relatively trivial "party" allegations, in the light of Sue Gray's partial report, I am more than ever in awe of their patience and forbearance. Boris's statement was fine it made sense, it was a reasoned response to the findings and it tried to shift the focus forward on to weightier matters than who was in which room on which date and at what time holding what drink next to whom etc etc a year and a half ago. Unfortunately, I left the TV on for another 45 minutes to be enraged, bewildered and bored by the crass stupidity of the "questions" supposedly being put to the prime minister. Keir Starmer's contribution was little more than a stream of unpleasant personal abuse; the nasty little Ian Blackford, SNP leader, was forced to leave before he was thrown out by the Speaker for making an unsubstantiated accusation; and MP after MP mithered on about the irrelevant issues of unvisited care homes and unattended funerals, lacing their complaints with vague allegations of all manner of wrong-doing. It was repetitive, unintelligent, unproven, unoriginal and a discredit to the House. In spite of all this, the only insult thrown in the debate yesterday that merited a mention on this lunchtime's BBC Radio Four news was the one from an understandably furious Johnson who mentioned that Starmer was head of the DPP when it declined to prosecute Jimmy Savile. Much play was made today of the fact that Starmer was not personally involved in that decision. But as head of the organisation, it is surely fair to ask questions regarding his leadership and judgment!

Whatever the "facts" of the Downing Street gatherings, which will now be decided upon by the police's investigation, a debate of this magnitude about a subject so relatively minor can only be a waste of valuable parliamentary time. Indeed, as mentioned above, Johnson was supposed to have been speaking to Vladimir Putin about the build-up to war while this pantomime was taking place. Boris-haters claim these matters matter because they show the PM's true character that he is a liar, a man of little integrity and that he misled the House by denying there were "parties". From what we have seen of Gray's report so far, she appears to have diligently avoided the word "party" and used "gathering" instead. In reality, the exact details about the gatherings matters little. It is what Boris said about them that matters in Parliamentary terms. But the fact that this is all the Opposition has to offer is far more damning of Starmer and his team than it is of the government. And the more shrill and desperate their pleadings for him to resign, the more pathetic they look and the more I am convinced that Boris is right to remain.

The key issue of whether Boris misled the House comes down to whether he was attending "parties" or not or more precisely, whether he thought he was attending parties or not. Pure social gatherings were, at various times during lockdowns, a breach of the criminal law, punishable by a fixed penalty notice; workplace gatherings are far more complicated. The guidelines bear repeating, as they merely require employers to ensure that "different teams should usually avoid mixing as far as possible"; that meetings should usually be limited to “only absolutely necessary participants”; and that these should be held outdoors or in well ventilated areas when possible. A separate document said “workers should try to minimise all meetings and other gatherings in the workplace". The guidelines also said that breaks in common areas should usually be staggered. Lots of "usually", "minimise", "try to", "necessary", "when possible", "should" and so on.

As I and others have said before, in some workplaces, such as national newspaper offices and, it seems, political establishments, the boundaries between work and purely "social" events can be extremely unclear: a large proportion of the work is carried out in social settings. Added to that, Nikki da Costa, former director of legislative affairs at No.10, wrote in The Times yesterday: "Within No.10 it was different. Staff were needed in the office and were required to suppress their personal anxiety. Many of the staff voluntarily cut themselves off as far as possible from even immediate family or housemates because they knew there was a high risk they might be asymptomatic. The inevitable happened: most in the building then got Covid. Having faced the worst, I can understand how many became more relaxed. And the ethos that had made remarkable efforts possible led to a bunker mentality, a feeling of being cut off from the world. In such conditions it is also easy to become distanced from the impact of the policy you are making." This aspect of her column was not highlighted only her fair criticism of the culture that allowed possible rule-breaking.

It is in this light that the "party" allegations should be assessed. Gray's report makes reference to 16 gatherings, four of which seem to have been dismissed as minor, with 12 being deemed worthy of further investigation. So what will further inquiries find?

May 15 2020

An accusation of drinking in the No.10 garden. Even Dominic Cummings says this was work. But then he was present. It is also the case that Boris and Carrie Johnson were in their own garden, which is not a public space. This does not even seem to breach the loose workplace safety guidelines.

May 20 2020

A Downing Street private secretary asks colleagues to take a break in the garden, with an instruction to "bring your own bottle". This took place in work time, on work premises, with work colleagues, with the purpose of motivating and thanking staff for their sacrifices and efforts in fighting the pandemic. It seems perfectly reasonable to see this as a work event, albeit in fairly clear breach of the loose workplace safety guidelines.

June 19 2020

This is a shocker but for different reasons. Boris attended a school event during the day at which he was presented with a birthday cake. It is then claimed that later on, about 30 people gathered in Downing Street to present him with another birthday cake an extremely common occurrence in workspaces across the land. No one would sensibly describe such an event in the office during work hours as a "party". Which is probably why a story about it in The Times the next day by Steven Swinford, deputy political editor, and Oliver Wright, policy editor, caused not the slightest political ripple. The manufactured fuss only began 18 months later when ITV News repeated the story as if it was a fresh "scandal". And this is the most shocking aspect: Oliver Wright then ran the story again in The Times, pretending it was a new outrage just unearthed by ITV News! In my day as a journalist, this fabrication and subterfuge or incompetence would have led to a reprimand or sacking. He is still writing. There may be bad news for Boris to come on this one, though, as he might become dragged into the repercussions of a party that Carrie might, or might not, have arranged in the Downing Street flat that evening. This event with family friends has been denied. This denial could prove awkward.

November 13 2020

A leaving speech for Lee Cain, former director of communications. Clearly not a party. Allegations of a short gathering in the Downing Street flat are denied, do not appear to be considered significant, but have been referred to the police.

November 27 2020

Cleo Watson's leaving speech. Cummings called this a "red herring". Funny that. He's said to be close to Watson. But there have been allegations of drinking late into the night. If it had turned purely social by this stage, then at what point did it transition? This could have become a party and be both in breach of the criminal law and workplace guidelines. It took place less than week before the second lockdown was eased. And was Boris there? No further inquiry.

December 15 2020

A Christmas quiz was held via Zoom. While Johnson was on screen, some colleagues appeared to be sharing a screen elsewhere. It is totally unclear who or to what extent rules on workplace closeness might have been broken, if at all. But clearly not by Boris. No investigation.

December 17 2020

Two leaving events, plus a Christmas quiz held by Simon Case, cabinet secretary, for members of his office. Being investigated by police, though it is hard to see why.

December 18 2020

A party in the Downing Street press office. Few details but it could well have been a party. Police investigating. No mention of the prime minister being involved.

January 14 2020

Another double leaving do. Again, it's being investigated by police, though it is hard to see why. At worst it was a breach of workplace guidelines.

April 16 2021

Two leaving events came together. Dancing into the early hours is alleged. It sounds as though it ended up very much like a party. There is no mention of Boris attending but he and Carrie are believed to have been in Downing Street.

May 26 2021

Another leaving presentation in the workplace. Clearly not a party by any rational definition. There were also one or two others, barely worthy of mention

In summary, it is pretty clear there were multiple breaches of workplace safety guidelines. But these are not police matters and are not criminal offences. One or two might have crossed the line but Boris himself was either not present, or has a fair excuse for attending the worst. But all of these events were unwise in the circumstances and Sue Gray is right to accuse Johnson of a failure of leadership and judgment. The image created is one of a highly informal and relaxed working environment – nothing wrong with that. Some might view it as juvenile, not serious. But having worked in such an environment it is actually quite the opposite: it requires great maturity and high levels of personal responsibility and initiative to be successful. It results from a flat, democratic structure in which everyone is held individually accountable and responds accordingly and is commonly found in grown-up newspaper offices. It is effective, stimulating, challenging and sometimes stressful; professional life blurs into social life and it is a culture with which Boris would have been very familiar. Perhaps he tried to recreate this way of working in City Hall as mayor of London and, if so, it worked. His tenure is celebrated as a success – with an almost unheard-of 52 per cent approval rating. If Johnson thought this way of working would bring out the best in the hundreds of civil servants and advisers based in Downing Street then it might have been a worthwhile experiment but was sadly an abject failure during pandemic conditions that required greater restraint and sharper self-discipline. That's not to say the attempt was wrong, but it was certainly inappropriate during lockdown and can rightly be called an error of judgment and leadership. If he is able to deliver on his promise of tightening up and the police find no reason to issue a notice against him, then Boris can justifiably continue and should be supported by his party. For my part, a life-long socialist and mostly Labour-supporting, I despair of the current Labour leadership's pathetic style of opposition: I want policies, not infantile name-calling; I want a positive agenda for levelling up, reforming social care, countering climate change, not personal slurs and a witch hunt aimed at disrupting and undermining the functioning of government at a time of multiple global crises.

JANUARY 19 2022

BBC'S HUSAIN – JUDGE, JURY, EXPERT WITNESS AND EXECUTIONER

War, inflation, pandemic. Never mind that. Let us focus solely on what Boris Johnson might, or might not, have known about an alleged party nearly two years ago. To the BBC's radio news presenters, it's crystal clear, black and white, an open and shut case: the prime minister is a lying scoundrel and no one can rest until we have fulfilled Dominic Cummings' mission and ousted him. The increasingly vicious Mishal Husain treated listeners to more of her thoughts and opinions this morning on the Today programme: ignorance is no excuse; he must have known; it's "just not good enough". Her pretext was a supposed interview with James Heappey, armed Forces minister, lured on air to discuss a review of the impact of the long-standing ban on LGBT military personnel. She began: "But first of all..." Heappey must have been expecting it and made no protest, answering the few questions that were put to him amid a barrage of accusations, put-downs and Husain's own notions of how a prime minister's time is spent. He said that having worked in No.10 he could see how the PM would not have known the nature of the event he was about to attend. He pointed out that a prime minister's diary is extraordinarily congested and they spend their day bouncing from one high level meeting to another. Heappey said, quite reasonably, that having seen how No.10 works, Johnson would have been briefed on the event to which he was going only as he was being led to it – because of the hectic schedule, most preparations could only take place immediately beforehand. It was therefore perfectly likely that Johnson did not know the nature of the event when on his way and therefore could not know whether it would break the government's workplace guidelines. He has since accepted that once he arrived, he should have realised it was a breach of guidance and should have shut it down straight away, something he regrets and for which he has apologised.

If all this rings true, it was not to the satisfaction of Husain who dismissed it out of hand. No attempt was made to explore the subtleties of the prime minister's workload, diary, briefings or preparations in an attempt to assess the validity of the explanations given by Johnson – and several others. Husain's mind is made up; there are no shades of grey, no nuances to explore, no minor errors of judgment, no accounting for human nature. As judge, jury, expert witness and executioner, Husain delivered her verdict and sentence – "guilty of whatever I choose".

LUCKY CHRISTIAN WAKEFORD – SO MANY CONSERVATIVE PARTIES!

The elected Conservative MP for Bury South has crossed the house to join the Labour benches. We can only hope he'll be happy with his new friends. The likelihood is, however, that he will find no difference whatever between them and his old friends. He is just lucky that he has so many conservative parties to choose from. Would he have found the slightly more socialist version of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn equally palatable?

ROMEO AND JULIET

An interesting pub garden discussion took place this lunchtime. The presence at the table of a retired top level theatre critic led to consideration of trigger warnings issued before a growing number of works, such as Romeo and Juliet – "Warning: graphic descriptions of self-harming behaviour such as suicide." Fair enough. It's a minor and meaningless irritation to the vast majority of those about to watch the centuries-old drama but if it means something to just one person and steers them away from potential danger, then that has to be good. Never mind about gambling and betting adverts and sponsorships, though. They can be rammed down the throats of impressionable young men before, during and after almost every sporting event. Betting is said to be responsible for one suicide a day; the most common cause of death among young men is suicide; there are no trigger warning associated with this bombardment of poison, just momentary and inane phrases such as "bet responsibly" or "when the fun stops, stop". Good to know woke-world has its sights set on the deadliest targets.

The dangers of allowing random and naive woke agendas to set policy was also shown in a short debate about the discrimination of various minorities. One example cited was the dearth of senior black lawyers. My counter argument was that deprived white youngsters are in similarly short supply at the top of the legal profession. There are still elements of racism and other prejudices, of course, but these have been so dramatically reduced over the past half century that they are now vastly overshadowed by background. A poor and disadvantaged white kid stands roughly the same chance of becoming a top lawyer as a poor and disadvantaged black kid – virtually none.

JANUARY 18 2022

HELL HATH NO FURY...

Hell hath no fury like a Cummings scorned. In the most egregious waste of political intellect and energy in recent years, the mad genius Dominic Cummings now seems to be focused solely on destroying the figurehead he constructed by organising a giant puppet show. He is the master pulling all the strings, with Laura Kuenssberg, Nick Robinson, Mishal Husain and most of the BBC, plus The Times and virtually every other media organisation leaping manically and absurdly to his bitter and twisted tunes. And his message is being spread like wildfire. This is mean and nasty childish behaviour – a Chinese burn, a dead leg and a razor to the throat. I am sure Cummings feels Boris Johnson humiliated him twice: once when he forced him to face the press in the Downing Street garden to explain his lockdown exploits and again when he was forced to leave the inner circle of power. But none of this can possibly excuse the misinformation, manipulation and dangerously distracting sequence of vicious, yet mostly trivial, attacks he is inflicting upon the government and the country.

Today's accusation that he discussed the proposed "party" of May 2020 with Johnson, advising it be prevented, is typical. It is his word against the prime minister's who would you prefer to believe? It also seeks to reinforce the dubious claim that work events at which alcohol was present were always "parties". At this time, such functions were clearly in breach of the government's own guidelines on workplace safety, but were not against the emergency laws limiting social mixing. This is also why the Daily Telegraph's use of the picture of the Queen mourning alone was irrelevant, in that it was not comparing like with like.

Fortunately, we have the words of a former Downing Street insider to confirm what I have been saying from the start that it is far too simplistic to call any event with alcohol a "party". Sonia Khan, a former special adviser, previously a civil servant and now a political consultant, was interviewed on Radio Four's The World At One yesterday and confirmed what anyone who has worked in journalism or politics, and perhaps many other professions, already knows – work events with alcohol are commonplace and a useful tool in maintaining the smooth running of an organisation.

Admittedly, Clare Foges, another former Downing Street insider, claimed just the opposite in The Times yesterday – that she never saw drink being taken in Downing Street during her time there. And interestingly, Khan was fired, quite brutally by many accounts, from her Downing Street post by Cummings, giving her a motive to fight. But even so, what she said rings very true and very familiar. I tried to find some accurate reporting of what she said, to save me the bother of transcribing the interview myself, but while there were reports on several media streams, not one reported what she actually said. Shockingly, all the articles I found gave the opposite impression of her clear meaning and so here is perhaps the only place you will find a fair and accurate report.

Khan made it clear that drinks during a pandemic were ill-advised and that senior and intelligent people should have known better. But she explained why they went ahead: "They don't feel like parties – it feels like having drinks as part of your work day...it feels like a very very routine thing." She said drinks were "really used as a way to say thank you to everyone and to keep people motivated." And: "At No 10 people work very very long hours and they don't get paid very much compared to people in other departments. So often senior people at No 10 – and this had existed for a long time...would...use it as a way to kind of recognise people's hard work and to try and really foster a culture of teamwork and bringing people together and use it as a way to keep people in their jobs...There was a very strong sense that you should go." When asked why the gatherings went ahead during lockdown, she said: "That's because drinks at No 10 – they feel like such a normalised thing, so it doesn't feel like anything out of the ordinary." While the pandemic should have changed this culture, Khan said: "For them, for years and years, these drinks have happened and nobody has ever really cottoned on to them so they felt very very safe."

When asked whether the drinking culture should be stopped, she said no. "I think there's a really big risk associated with restricting alcohol at No 10. And that's primarily because people will always try and find a forum to kind of decompress from the week. And the benefit of No 10 is that it's quite secure, in that if anyone is a bit loose-lipped or has some documents with them it's not going to have a major impact."

In summary, this was an unequivocal rejection of the accusations of "partying at No 10" under Boris Johnson's regime (and solely under Johnson's regime); an explanation of the importance of such work events taking place in a controlled space; and a clear indication of the dangers of banning alcohol. It is both depressing and appalling that those media organisations reporting on her interview chose to present it as saying the opposite.

AT LEAST THE READERS' LETTERS MAKE SOME SENSE

The Times continues its headlong plummet away from serious journalism with a headline in today's edition saying Prisoner numbers will rocket under Raab's court backlog plan. I have not surrounded it with quotation marks, because there were none used in the paper: it was written a straightforward fact. This is an extraordinarily outrageous abuse of journalistic privilege: the story itself said nothing of the sort – merely mentioning that "critics had warned" such "rocketing" might result. Indeed, the Magistrates Association welcomed Raab's move, having first called for such a change nearly 20 years ago. This is a level of distortion and manipulation we have seen on a regular basis in the tabloid press, and it is now a regular feature of the tabloid Times.

Fortunately, the paper's readers (and some columnists) occasionally provide a counter-weight to the deluge of one-sided negativity on the news pages and in its ghastly, simple-minded and hopelessly unfunny "cartoons". A recent example was the reaction to the crown court jury's finding in the case of the four activists put on trial for heaving Colston's statue into the Bristol docks because of his links to the slave trade. A range of views on the Letters Page demonstrated precisely the balance that lies at the heart of the UK's political and judicial systems: at one end of the debate, a writer said that the acquittals could be seen as a victory for the mob; at the other, a correspondent pointed out that an obviously perverse jury verdict now and then was a small price to pay for keeping oppressive and authoritarian government at bay. The wisdom of a small, thinking crowd managed to sum up the constitution perfectly.

JANUARY 14 2022

IF YOU INSIST ON HANGING SOMEONE, AT LEAST HAVE THE DECENCY TO HANG THEM FOR THE RIGHT 'OFFENCE'

Sue Gray has a tricky task. Whatever her findings in the "partygate" inquiry, they will fail to prove acceptable to one warring faction or the other. Boris haters want him hanged, whatever the facts, and supporters want him cleared and able to move on to more important matters. Those, like me, who don't like him but believe he is performing as well, if not better, than most prime ministers of the past 40 years, would like to see truth and justice. And if The Times' report on Gray's latest thinking is anything to go by, a semblance of truth and justice might be on its way.

The newspaper's report – presumably based on spin – claims that Gray will find no "criminality", whether it is within her remit to do so or not. If this is accurate, then we will see at least one victory for common sense. The coverage goes on to say that she is likely to censure him for showing a lack of judgment in briefly attending the gathering in the garden at 10 Downing Street. Again, perfectly sensible: it was blatantly against the government's own workplace guidelines on keeping personnel safe at that time during the pandemic and he should have stayed away or, better still, told attendees to go back to work or go home.

More contentiously, she is expected to criticise the blurred lines between working and socialising. This is the nub of the issue in this latest furore. I cannot believe the Financial Times has been the only employer over the past 30 years deliberately to blur the lines between working and socialising. As I said before, gatherings at which alcohol was consumed and colleagues chatted were commonplace during my entire 27 years at the FT, providing opportunities for colleagues to share, or for managers to reward, and a plethora of other perfectly reasonable work purposes. My philosophy at work was always that it should be enjoyable, both for me and for anyone working under my management. I stayed at the FT for so long because I felt this ideology was very much in line with that of the organisation. And, of course, having fun at work and providing a varied and stimulating environment involved blurring those lines that are now, to many, so crystal clear. Take an example. During the 2010 world cup, the FT turned its sixth floor function space into a "pub/cinema" so that staff could watch an England match during the afternoon. The purpose was both to give employees enjoyment and to keep them in the office instead of finding excuses to disappear for the afternoon. I went along and Lucy Kellaway came and sat beside me: we very happily discussed the complexities of the offside rules, tactical manoeuvres and the noise made by vuvuzelas. Alcohol was sold, too. Was this a work event?

As far as I am concerned, that, and many hundred other similar occasions, were very clearly work events. There is inevitable blurring, as I've said before – and it's a very good, healthy, productive thing. I would therefore refuse to criticise any workplace that used such gatherings to motivate staff and make their employment more enjoyable. If it's organised by the employer, involves work colleagues, is in the workplace, is held within, or contiguously to, working hours, for work purposes – which can and should include motivation and enjoyment – then it is a work event. The fact that the "invitation" mentioned BYOB makes no difference in this case. First, BYOB to everyone of my, and the current civil service leadership's, generation refers to Bottle, not Booze. And second, on more than one occasion during lockdown we either took our own cutlery to outdoor meals, or asked guests to bring their own, as a sensible anti-virus precaution. I have no idea of No.10's motive for not providing drinks but anyone hating Boris will obviously choose the most damaging interpretation.

In all the hours and hours the BBC has devoted to this trivial topic, I have not heard one commentator consider these fundamental questions. The media monoculture is solely intent on securing Johnson's resignation and is happy to use any and every allegation, regardless of the truth, justice or facts, to create a groundswell of loathing. It isn't difficult to do. The BBC, especially, has enormous power: witness the fuel crisis it fomented with its misleading coverage. It's taken two years of constant undermining, but it is working.

CAN LIES ALWAYS GET EVERYONE OFF THE HOOK?

Any rebuttal of the endless sequence of carefully choreographed accusations against Boris Johnson, coming months, even years, after the event, is met with a simple accusation of lying. It's a tried and tested formula, akin to the "have you stopped beating your wife yet?" jibe. The process is: accuse, wait for the response, then denounce it as lies. Do it often enough and your version becomes "the truth". When the campaign fails to achieve its goal, you simply add that only corruption can be keeping the perpetrator in office, causing a further escalation. Yet since when has even obvious lying been enough to clear a wrong-doer? If lying was ever enough, then no criminal would be convicted, no cheat condemned.

So is it feasible that the holder of one of the most closely scrutinised public positions in the world could avoid censure simply by repeated lying? Most prime ministers lie – they often have to; they have to use subterfuge at times: that's politics. But when those lies are clear, damaging and important, the prime minister has to go. That is patently not the case here: the accusations in themselves are trivial and ambiguous, seeking to paint a portrait of a flawed character; they can only become sufficiently important if they demonstrate that Boris misled parliament, which is where the hate campaign is headed, of course. But if two years of concerted hate campaigning has failed to land a knock-out blow, perhaps it's time to accept that life and politics is rather more complicated than "us and them", "good and evil", "work and social".

PLEASE STOP FORCING ME TO SIDE WITH THOSE I DO NOT LIKE

As I have said many times, I do not like Boris Johnson, though I do believe his attributes, abhorred by many and not necessarily in any way likeable, are precisely those that make a good prime minister. In addition, I am pressed into supporting him by the outrageously unreasonable, illogical and incorrect onslaught of accusations and allegations constantly hurled at him. He is far from perfect but those making him out to be two rungs below satan have driven me to point out their prejudice and hate, which has the effect of appearing to offer him defence and support.

The same is now happening over Prince Andrew and Novak Djokovic. The latter's treatment in Australia has been shocking. If he is not welcome, or a danger, then remove him, quickly. But with every passing day that he is allowed to mix and practise for the Australian Open, it becomes more obvious that he is not considered an imminent threat and that moves to throw him out of the country are becoming politically motivated. He should have been deported immediately upon arrival, or immediately after the perverse judge's ruling on Monday that allowed him entry on a ridiculous technicality, while ignoring the substantive factors. Neither opportunity was taken and so he should be allowed to stay and compete.

Prince Andrew is far murkier and he is much less easy to defend or support. Even his mother now appears to accept that, having severely downgraded him as a royal. But nothing of the little we know of his accuser is palatable. She herself is accused of being part of Jeffrey Epstein's procurement team and of merely seeking to profit from a court case she might well have signed away her right to bring. I care little for Prince Andrew but it seems that he, too, is to be hanged by hate before the trial has even begun. Which to me does not seem fair.

JANUARY 12 2022

WOW! WHAT A PARTY-GOER I WAS!

It suddenly turns out that I attended hundreds of parties at the Financial Times, where I worked as a senior journalist for 27 years. Every budget day, drinks and nibbles would be provided; every success throughout the year (and there were many) would be marked by drinks, as would the departure of a colleague. Special demands or efforts would be similarly noted and visitors to the office would also be offered refreshments of various kinds, depending on the time of day. That these were all parties comes to me as an enormous surprise – I understood them at the time to be workplace events, taking place in the workplace, during the very long and flexible work hours a journalist might work, with some appearing to be voluntary, others compulsory and others much-needed. What I thought were the few actual FT parties I attended mostly took place elsewhere. As for the countless functions held by other organisations at which drinking of alcohol took place, I never for a moment considered them to be parties, and neither would anyone else. I always tried to draw a clear distinction between what was a work event and what was a genuinely social event, but even then there were grey areas: the FT rock band performing at the Menier Theatre in Southwark Street was clearly social; the budget-night drinks and office celebrations and thank yous clearly not; the fabulous annual Weekend FT contributors' party lay somewhere between the two. A rough rule of thumb might have been whether I considered myself to be a guest or an attendee.

To talk, therefore, of Boris Johnson having broken the law by walking in his garden in May 2020 where an alleged "party" was taking place is grossly simplistic. And yet all of those speaking on BBC Radio Four's World At One programme today were happy to accept this simplistic opinion. The questions that were not asked – perhaps carefully avoided – were: could the gathering be considered a work event? And if it was, what laws or guidance should be used to evaluate its legitimacy? Only when these two questions are settled does it make any sense at all to assess the level of wrong-doing. Yet they were not even asked.

By any reasonable definition, this was clearly a work event: the only people invited were colleagues, it was held in the workplace, almost certainly during the long and flexible working hours of at least some of those invited or attending, and its purpose was as work related as the FT's budget day refreshments – except in this case, the colleagues were asked to provide their own drinks. The "invitation" referred to it being a "socially distanced event" and implied that alcohol would not be provided. Some party! Furthermore, would those invited consider themselves to be "guests" or "attendees"? I would have been in no doubt that this was a workplace event and would say that the staff's vital work in controlling a pandemic required them to be in the office during the month in question.

This being the case, what then was the state of the law and government guidelines relating to such occasions? Even a cursory investigation reveals that there were no laws applicable to workplace mixing at the time, but there were guidelines. These are neatly summarised by the Full Fact website: the advice was that different teams should usually avoid mixing as far as possible; that meetings should usually be limited to “only absolutely necessary participants”; and that these should be held outdoors or in well ventilated areas when possible. A separate document said “workers should try to minimise all meetings and other gatherings in the workplace". The guidelines also said that breaks in common areas should usually be staggered.

It is therefore crystal clear that the gathering was in breach of both the letter and the spirit of the government's own guidelines; it was extremely ill-advised. Upon that we can surely all agree. But it was clearly not "illegal", as so many commentators, who should have known better, were more than happy to assume. A police inquiry would be an absurd waste of public funds; better journalism and a focus on the vital, pertinent questions would make that clear. This was a silly error of judgment within the context of the workplace – similar to the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of non-workplace errors made by so many during that truly unprecedented period. Johnson has given a dignified apology, accepting responsibility whether he was the instigator or not, and that should be the end of the matter. Subject, of course, to anything fresh that Sue Gray's inquiry discovers.

This will not, however, be the end of the ridiculous saga, because it is not a mission to reach the truth and administer justice but a protracted, carefully calculated, scurrilous and vicious drip-fed campaign to undermine and discredit the elected prime minister and force him out of office. Those who hate Johnson are not only to be found on the opposition benches but on his own side: even those grateful to him for delivering a thumping Tory majority are divided over what they expect to gain from that victory. As I pointed out (that phrase used advisedly) in my book, there was a curious matrix of support for, and opposition to, Brexit, with Tory supporters divided between free-market liberal radicals and those opposed to the cheapening and exploitation of workers. These groups are irreconcilable but Johnson needs them both on his side, which suggests his days are numbered. But those who hate him on the Labour side need to be careful what they wish for – Truss or Sunak would wipe the slate clean and would show up Keir Starmer for the confused dullard that he truly is. A smart socialist leader would quickly identify the gap in the political market, currently occupied by three very similar conservative parties, and push the communitarian, localist, ecological and pro-worker message to scoop back those northern "Red Wall" constituencies. But the arch-remoaner leading the Labour Party seems to care little for the plight of the working class that he should be representing and cannot see past his burning desire to reintroduce a failed relationship with the EU that resumes the erosion of British workers' pay – and beyond his blind hatred of the man who enacted the electorate's clearly stated wish for Brexit.

JANUARY 7 2022

SNIPPETS

● In today's Times we are warned to expect higher retail prices because of "soaring costs". These include energy and transport bills and wages. I have long argued that consumers have been force fed a diet of unrealistic and damagingly low prices, driven down by appalling wages and exploitation, a globalised race to the bottom, and business's need to drive consumption at the cost of everything else – even the planet. If higher prices mean we consume less and reward workers better, then it is surely to be greatly welcomed.

● A message arrived this morning from a committee member at our local tennis club, referring to the provision of new tennis balls each week. There has been some debate over whether players should continue to enjoy this benefit or buy their own. The balls are renewed each Saturday lunchtime in time for the club's weekly mix-in social tennis event in the afternoon, which means that by later in the week they are worn, dirty and have lost their bounce. This is frustrating to players on Thursdays and Fridays. The messager this morning called this system "old world" – a reference to the fact that the Saturday social mix-in has declined in popularity and so timing the replacement of balls around it is out of date. This might seem trivial but in fact it represents a huge shift in society over the past 40 years, from a community-focused social system to an individualistic one. The tennis mix-in has suffered because the next generation of club members do not see the club as a club, but as a facility; they feel no obligation to maintain any collective element and seek only to maximise their own personal interest. The disbanding of the club's social committee a few years ago was an earlier stark warning of the fractured and increasingly antisocial direction of travel. I have mentioned this before and it is another vital theme in my book, "The Rise of Antisocialism". I could say that I am pleased to see this work being proved right, day in, day out, by large events and small. But I am not. We should all be extremely concerned.

● History is being re-written at an alarming rate – and by the ignorant and biased. This morning in The Times' T2 section, that intellectual pipsqueak James Marriott sings the praises of the BBC's equally dim and equally sloppy Amol Rajan, who has been presenting a Radio Four series on demography. Pipsqueak seems to deduce from it that the UK needs a boom in births to correct a dramatic decline in birth rates (partly caused, he says, by a "housing crisis"!) that is leaving the hated "baby boomer" generation in the majority, which is distorting policy decisions. This is wrong and stupid on so many counts: there is no "right" balance to age in society; the birth rate declined decades ago; there is no housing crisis – only a housing finance crisis (see my book for details); success in society is not dependent upon generation but wealth, geography and status; from the baby boomers' perspective there are no policy privileges being handed out; Pipsqueak's generation is demonstrably the most pampered in history; and the list of uninformed blunders goes on. This is dangerous. Once such nonsense becomes accepted as history, learning and improving becomes impossible.

● Another aspect of this casual misinterpretation of history and recent events is the offhand remarks made by so-called professional journalists. Yesterday on the Radio Four Today programme, Nick Robinson claimed Boris Johnson had been "forced to acknowledge" the NHS was under strain. As a life-long journalist, I am sickened by such ill-informed and biased comment being introduced as if it were true: my generation of reporters were not even allowed to use phrases such as "they pointed out" because this implied that what the interviewee was saying was accurate. Johnson has been saying all along that his primary concern is to preserve a functioning NHS and has repeated many times that it is inevitably under severe stress. To say that he had been "forced to acknowledge" this is deliberately misleading and undermining – a blatantly political statement. And it is an indication of how easy it is to distort and manipulate the public discourse when bad people are controlling the message.

JANUARY 6 2022

ONLY AN IDIOT TALKS ABOUT 'THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY'

Had I been in Bristol on the day Edward Colston's statue was dumped in the dock, I might well have joined in. I would also have had the decency to accept that my behaviour was criminal, requiring me proudly to proclaim my guilt and accept any appropriate punishment. I would expect those who attacked the US Capitol building a year ago to do the same. It can sometimes feel right to express strong views in violence; but merely holding strong views places no one above the law. When any idealist or bigot is allowed to choose which laws they abide by and which they don't, then democracy and social cohesion dies. The "right side of history" is a many faceted thing – and being on it is far more complex than most simplistic activists appreciate.

HOORAY FOR DJOKOVIC

Poor old Novak Djokovic. Stuck in Melbourne limbo, unable to enter Australia and not yet allowed to go home. I dearly hope he is escorted on to a flight after losing his appeal over being refused entry by a judge on Monday. But the world's top male tennis player has done us all a favour in highlighting the way anti-vaxers and conspiracy theory loons operate – through subterfuge, double-speak and pretence. Macron in France has lashed out against his country's anti-vax fruitcakes (everyone, no matter how foolish or odious, inevitably gets something right occasionally, even the French president), and Italy plans to make vaccines compulsory. The UK, probably rightly, is sticking to persuasion and reason but is allowing some differentiation between the fully vaccinated and the foolish refuseniks, such as over quarantining and testing after travel. This might persuade a few to do the sensible thing. But now that anti-vaxers are clogging up hospitals, jumping the queue with their self-inflicted gasping for air, and causing operations for innocent patients to be postponed, prolonging their suffering, it is surely time to get a little tougher. If it would feel too draconian to deny them hospital treatment at all, might we not at least line them up on trolleys in a corridor and admit them only when there is spare capacity after all other commitments are met? Still too cruel? Then how about denying them free treatment? If you refuse to take the vaccine, then you will need to take out expensive insurance to cover the costs of your hospitalisation – or forgo it. Something is certainly needed to focus these feeble brains.

SOCIALIST EU? COME OFF IT

A friend posted a sort-of ironic allegation on Facebook that the NHS Covid vaccine was in fact a drug that makes us all love the EU – he quoted some jokey statistics to support it. He asked: "Why are you being forcibly injected with EU beliefs by the socialist-medical establishment?" Yes, all jolly funny. Except, I cannot think why any genuinely socialist organisation would wish to promote a liberal, business-led alliance of predominantly right-wing led nations? 

POP GOES FROM 'WE' TO 'ME'

I overheard an interesting aside on Radio Four this morning. The programme after the news at 9am. I wasn't listening properly as I cannot stand Amol Rajan's flippant, amateurish presenting. But one of his intelligent guests, a Japanese woman, I believe, was talking about the increasingly individualistic nature of Japanese society. She said pop song lyrics, once filled with references to "We, us, ourselves", were now found to be dominated by "I, me, myself". The reason I found it so interesting is that it is exactly one of the primary points I was making in my book, The Rise of Antisocialism.

JANUARY 2 2022

THE SHORTEST REVIEW OF THE YEAR YOU'LL SEE

My televisual moment of the year: Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice dancing to Clean Bandit's "Symphony" – this transcended the highest limits of Strictly Come Dancing to become a beautiful work of art in which everything melded together to reach sheer perfection. The music, the lyrics, the choreography, the originality, the creativity, the personalities, the spectacle and, of course, the dancing and movement, were sublime.

Little pet hate at the end of the year: I have plenty of big pet hates, as you will have read, but a repeated irritation is the indiscriminate use of fireworks by people who, quite literally, have money to burn. I cannot understand why fireworks – powerful explosives – are on sale to the general public at all, so that buyers can make complete nuisances of themselves night after night, terrifying wildlife and pets and annoying everyone else. If they were restricted to two or three nights a year (bonfire night and new year's eve, perhaps) they might be tolerable, but random bombardments through the whole of the autumn and winter is downright antisocial. Large organised displays? No problem.

JANUARY 1 2022

Happy New Year to all my readers! I do realise, of course, that I have no readers – and quite honestly, I would be slightly horrified to think I did. But should anyone stumble across these thoughts I hope they enjoy a wonderful 2022. And perhaps by focusing on the positives, rather than buying into the media's constant stream of negativity, we can help make it an even more wonderful year. Some have suffered through no fault of their own in 2021 and they have our heart-felt sympathy. But when my immediate family and a few friends looked back on the year, we realised what a richly fulfilling time it had been for us. We had enjoyed no extravagant tours of Australia or Africa, and endured plenty of frustrations while working at home, on Zoom calls, and eating outside in the early part of the year. But we recalled countless small and vivid events and interactions which we had given our full focus and deep appreciation. So a less dramatic year, but one that was concentrated, full-strength, creative and packed with flavours – even those chilly but wonderful outdoor meals.


DECEMBER 30 2021

A friend wrote an article on a website under this headline: "As Brexit continues to fail, the government – of former Vote Leave campaigners – is beginning to adopt the doublespeak of the former Soviet Union". He hates Boris and cannot accept the nation's decision over the EU and Brexit. This colours his entire view of current events. I could just as easily write, with equal credibility: "With the benefits of Brexit flowing and the government having brilliantly defeated Covid-19, it can at last turn its attentions to its two vital and worthy priorities – tackling climate change and ensuring a fairer allocation of the nation's resources to all the people in all the regions." Each is equally valid. I would argue that neither represents the whole truth or the facts – they are both absurdly opinion-laden. Somewhere between them lies reality. But that zone of accuracy, fairness and integrity is a barren no-man's-land today: political debate is now conducted almost exclusively at the extremes. And which extreme you take in the UK depends largely on your view of Brexit, the EU and Boris Johnson.

This is important, because my friend is a former journalist, just like me, and we are now free to speak our minds. As senior professional journalists we had our personal opinions but we did not allow them to colour our editorial judgements nor the impartiality of our writing. One of the biggest dangers we currently face is that journalists now act as my friend and I do now – not as we did when we were required to display balance and integrity. This explains the permanent negativity of all nearly news coverage and the inability or refusal of so-called journalists to focus on the most relevant and crucial questions.

Are thousands of people in Britain off work because they are ill or because they have tested positive and are required to isolate yet feel fine? Are those people who are genuinely and seriously ill vaccinated? How should those who willingly inflict Covid upon themselves be treated – if at all? And are most people not getting seriously ill because the virus is weakening or because we are so greatly strengthened by vaccination? These are some of the key questions journalists should be asking. But too many of them, both news reporters and columnists, are behaving as though they were politicians, with the majority still too blinded by their hatred of Boris even to think of digging deeply around these questions. This is because their assumptions are always negative and their research and inquiry devoted to damaging and undermining, rather than seeking a fair and accurate portrayal of the facts. Marina Hyde (The Guardian) is a prime and appalling example but even Jonny Dymond on The World at One on Wednesday glibly told Chloe Smith, a government minister, during an exchange about lateral flow tests that "there don't appear to be any". This is his – and his colleagues' – assumption, and it is wrong. There are tests available – I received one yesterday morning in the post and our next neighbours acquired a pack at a local chemist. It is also misleading to claim repeatedly that there is a supply shortage when, if there is an issue, it is one of enormous demand. It is the same principle as the so-called "fuel shortage", during which there was never an actual shortage of fuel, just a sudden demand by every car in the country to have its tank filled over the course of a day or two. The BBC, being largely responsible for triggering this phenomenon was, of course, never going to examine the true state of affairs and explain the news correctly. These are the distortions that affect journalistic output when a journalist becomes partisan – and no one can be a professional journalist and a political agitator at the same time.

More widely, the political debate is narrowing and becoming hideously blinkered – it is now little more than a case of "label and hate". Anyone deemed to be antisemitic, transphobic – whether they are not – or who is regarded as insufficiently enthusiastic in supporting "taking the knee", or questions the Black Lives Matter political demands (such as the idiotic call to "de-fund the police"), or who suggests Brexit might help Britain's poor, is immediately labelled and hated. There is rarely an attempt to understand or engage or debate. Simply label and hate. And if the indignant outbursts of hatred, no longer contained to a single of sheet of paper and green ink but broadcast via social media, happen to fall in line with a media organisation's narrative, they are quoted or interviewed as if they had reasonable and valuable points to make. When professional journalists used to come across such people, they dealt with them sensitively or brusquely, as appropriate; most were humoured and pacified. Today, they are used as evidence of failure and conflict and to justify negativity.

This labelling works on a larger scale, too, and brings us back to the question of what is currently deemed to be "left-wing" and "liberal". To a socialist, these are mutually exclusive terms and yet the BBC and The Guardian are often called "left-wing" and "liberal", as if the terms were interchangeable or even the same thing. The fact that they are opposites is lost: being left-wing involves a focus on contribution, community, society, caring and being inclusive; being liberal is to advocate individual rights and freedoms at the expense of others, as well as exclusivity and atomisation. Socialism seeks the best for all; liberalism the best for the individual.

SHIFTING THE COVID RISK FACTOR

Are we now less afraid of catching Covid than we are of testing positive for the virus? Obviously, no one wants to get Covid, especially with the risk of long-term symptoms, but we should ask how it might shift our individual risk assessments over our social behaviour were there to be no more isolating. And this must surely be the next goal. For example, we agreed that a relative should not join a lunch party after Christmas because she had spent the previous evening with someone who the next morning tested positive. Our relation had recently had Covid and was fully jabbed and boosted and so the risk of her becoming infected again and of passing on any infection to the rest of the party was extremely small. Had there been no requirement to isolate on testing positive, we would have treated her in the same way as we would anyone who calls and admits before a gathering that they have a cold – we would have taken the risk but been careful not to get too close. As things were, she didn't come because our concern over having to isolate, even the though the risk was minuscule, lightly tipped the scales in favour of caution.

THE SCOTS HAVE BECOME AN EXPENSIVE LUXURY

It is time for another Scottish referendum. This time, the English should be asked to vote on whether to jettison Scotland. The country has become an expensive luxury and we would be far better off, financially, without it. A further example of the cost is Nicola Sturgeon's latest political game of closing the hospitality industry over the new year period. Which has sparked a demand that UK taxpayers' cash be provided to subsidise this very industry. Sorry Scotland, we can no longer afford you. But you will be fine with Nicola, I'm sure. As for the Welsh Assemblage. Dear oh dear.

DECEMBER 19 2021

Thank you, anti-vaxers. As rumours of another severe and imminent lockdown swirl about us, we only have you to blame. Your belief in nonsensical conspiracies and irrational gibberish is turned into a religion, defying all common sense, logic and evidence and impervious to rational argument. But the UK, one of the most tolerant nations on the planet, allows you to propagate your ridiculous and dangerous foolishness: other countries have forced or coerced their dimwit refuseniks into being jabbed while the UK leaves it to each individual's conscience. Meanwhile, Covid-19 cares not a jot for how stupid its victims are and so our hospitals are filling up with idiots. And given that sensible government policy from day one has been to prevent the NHS from becoming overwhelmed by coronavirus cases, it is the sick and sickening anti-vaxers who are clogging up the wards, preventing genuine patients from being treated, and forcing the scientists and politicians to resort to the re-imposition of highly damaging safety measures that the rest of us no longer need. Well done.

FRANCE!

And as for France. I am so pleased that I placed on record my loathing of the fraudulent Macron right from the moment he became a candidate for the French presidency. His latest piece of nasty, self-harming and ludicrous politicking is to ban travel from Britain, on the grounds that it will keep the Omicron variant at bay for a time. This ignores the fact the the UK finds more cases than others because the population is busy testing itself umpteen times a week and our Omicron quota is high because we have the sequencing technology to identify it – unlike France. As with all virus transmission, it takes place in areas of high population density: from London to Manchester, along the M1/M6 corridor, throughout Belgium and parts of the Netherlands, in Paris, Madrid and northern Italy. The prevalence of Omicron in all these areas will be roughly similar; only the ability, will and honesty to discover and report it differs. Which makes France's brainless actions look even more vindictive and a continuation of its pathetic "you must suffer for Brexit" campaign.

BRING BACK HANCOCK

Many people complained that Matt Hancock, former health secretary, was not competent while dealing with the pandemic. I have said all along that he performed as well as anyone possibly could in the circumstances, made extraordinarily difficult decisions which, for the most part, were sensible and effective, and communicated clearly. I certainly heard no one at the time voicing any credible alternatives. As mentioned above, his stated goal from the beginning was to protect the NHS so that it could continue to serve everyone in the direst need while we awaited a vaccine that plenty of doubters claimed would be years away. He was proved right. Sadly, an unrelated indiscretion led to his resignation and we were left with Sajid Javid, who appears to have little understanding of the problem and inspires no confidence whatever. His biggest blunder was to allow a negative lateral flow test to remove all credibility and point from his vaccine passport policy for large events and nightclubs. No one comes out of this with credit. There was some merit in imposing a vaccine passport to encourage anti-vaxers and sceptics to get themselves protected, as has been shown to work well in other countries. But the addition of the negative lateral flow option left the move worthless – these tests are far too easy to forge and of only marginal use in such circumstances. The right-wing liberal extremist Tories who rebelled against the government proposals were therefore half right when they pointed out the ineffectiveness of the new regulation. And even the Labour opposition, voting with the government, was as dumb as Javid in thinking the measures would work and should have made its backing conditional upon the use of lateral flow evidence being struck out. Hancock would never have made such a hash of things.

DECEMBER 15 2021

I should point out that West Ham have been in the top four of the Premier League almost continuously since the start of the season. We are now 16 games in and it's nearly Christmas and the team is still there! I'm saying this now, before this evening's match against Arsenal spoils everything.

LIBERALS CANNOT BE LEFT-WING, MELANIE

Melanie Phillips wrote in The Times on Monday that California is going to the dogs because left-wing liberal views are allowing antisocial behaviour in the name of individual freedom. I sent this letter to the paper today:

"Dear Letters Editor, It is fair to argue that life in California is becoming squalid because of liberal attitudes and policies. But it is wrong to claim, as Melanie Phillips seeks to do (column, December 13), that these attitudes and policies come from the left of the political spectrum. Such extreme liberalism is, in fact, a very right-wing expression of individual freedom to harm others without heed for the consequences. While a leftist view might entail the conferring of some rights upon the individual, these would always be accompanied by corresponding duties and responsibilities. A socialist stance involves consideration for the greater society, for community, as I explain in my book, The Rise of Antisocialism. The liberal stance, as witnessed in California, plainly does not."

TRANS INSIGHTS

Every now and again, the BBC broadcasts a programme so out of keeping with its continually deplorable news coverage, that it shocks with its insight and wisdom. I listened to one such yesterday: "Many Different Lives", by Jon Ronson, part of the "Things Fell Apart" series. It spoke mostly to and about trans women and feminists about the complexities with which we are all wrestling except, of course, those who have made up their minds and wish to impose their views on everyone else. One striking illustration of the subtleties came when a trans woman told of how she had been excluded from a feminist festival because it was for "women born as women". She then took part in a rival, or complimentary, festival nearby for post-operative trans women. When pre-op trans women tried to gain entry, they were excluded on the grounds that women with penises were insufficiently transformed. Bizarrely, this debate was echoed in The Times this week with a story that one UK police force believes it is possible for one woman to use her penis to rape another woman. There is clearly a pressing need for humane discussion and debate (which, sadly is not being allowed to happen by trans extremists) but with this level of absurdity, is it any wonder that most people are utterly bemused by it.

COUNTING COLDS

Are we now just counting colds? The daily figures for reported Covid-19 cases are rising, inevitably as more and more testing takes place. But so what? I am of the very strong impression that no one is afraid of catching Covid-19 from a health point of view any more, especially not the Omicron variant. I know of many people who have tested positive but no one has had more than a baddish cold. Even the prime minister, in a bid to up the fear factor, could only rustle up one death of a patient WITH Omicron on Monday – which is very different from dying OF Omicron. We can fairly assume, therefore, that no one has yet died OF Omicron.

Yet despite this largely good news, the population is withdrawing again, disappearing into the safety of isolation – and we have to ask why. There are two connected reasons: one is that testing positive is hugely disruptive to daily life and planned events, particularly as we near Christmas. The second is that the news media, notably the BBC, is focused on almost nothing but absurd scaremongering statistics and pathetic moaning about shortages – of booster appointments and testing kits, mostly. The World at One today spent more than its first 30 minutes on ramping up the terror of what could turn out to be our saviour. One obscure body claims there are hundreds of thousands of cases of Omicron per day already, with millions more looming. This media campaign is pushing the government to react accordingly with ever more disruptive safety measures, regardless of the true facts. Which are that if Omicron continues to disappoint those wishing harm on the UK government by being mostly a mild sniffle, it should surely be encouraged to spread: we should be welcoming millions of Omicron cases a day, as we watch this friendly variant chase away and protect us from the nasty ones. This, surely, is how humankind has managed to survive for so long in the face of mutating viruses.

DECEMBER 13 2021

F1 DEBACLE IS PERHAPS FOR THE BEST

I gave Formula One a chance to win me over this season. An intense and dangerous rivalry between two aggressive drivers, backed by aggressive teams – VERY aggressive in one case – and an unfolding drama that pitched the two camps into a final showdown on equal points. And then the dim and dumb race controllers threw it away. I won't bother with F1 ever again – the people running the competition are idiots. Yesterday's finale saw Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes execute a perfect campaign, with the reigning champion just over 11 seconds ahead of Max Verstappen with nowhere near enough laps remaining for the Dutchman, on newer and faster tyres, to catch him. Suddenly, an unrelated incident – a crash into a wall – necessitated the safety car being used to slow drivers while the debris was cleared. This took a while and there was concern that the procession behind the safety car would continue until the chequered flag, making Hamilton the winner. There was also concern over whether lapped vehicles should remain between the two contenders or allowed to overtake the safety car. The issues were pretty simple and a fair solution very obvious that would have delivered a fair race to the finish. But in scenes of complete chaos, the upshot was that Verstappen was gifted an 11 second advantage, plus a pit stop and new set of soft, fast tyres. All other obstacles were removed and he was awarded a hollow, worthless victory in the most shambolic and unjust conclusion to a “sporting” event you could ever imagine.

Bizarrely, some commentators seemed to interpret this tawdry affair as “thrilling” and a dramatic last-minute turn-around. I would say it was as thrilling and dramatic as a referee or umpire in football, rugby or tennis demanding that the leading team or player be seated and motionless for the final 10 minutes or deciding set of a match. That was the level of competition involved in the denouement of this F1 season. A complete debacle and an opportunity to win back sports fans to this ugly polluting business thrown away. Perhaps it's for the best.

SO WHERE IS BETTER?

The people of the UK are some of the luckiest in the world. Watching the news on Aljazeera can open our eyes to the realities of what is really happening beyond our shores: famine, war, fires, floods, typhoons, destruction, persecution, slaughter, mass migrations, hardship and misery. Even in the more economically and technologically advanced areas there is adversity and grievance: accusations of “police state” behaviour in Australia and New Zealand, riots and unrest in several European countries and America, human rights abuses throughout the Middle East and parts of Asia.

Meanwhile at home, the news media is focused on who might have attended an alleged small office party a year ago and whether the prime minister knew who ultimately paid the bill for some tasteless redecorating of a flat. In the global context, especially during the heat of a global pandemic, these trivial matters – even though many argue they undermine the credibility and integrity of the prime minister – should make us realise how lucky we are. And for those who still insist on feeling appalled and hard done by, we might ask where they would prefer to live – the Middle East, Asia, Africa, locked-down Australia, a locked-down turbulent European country, or a chaotic South and Central America state where the people are desperate to reach a hostile US, itself struggling on many fronts. As so often, the UK's sensible middle-road strategy is serving us relatively well.

DECEMBER 10 2021

● Why is there so much apparent “badness” attached to the government, or more specifically to Boris? Wallpaper, parties, favouring friends, etc, etc. The main reason is that opponents – and among them I include the BBC and most other media – are looking for badness. Every utterance, payment, outing is placed under a microscope in the hope of finding some misdemeanour, trivial or otherwise. If Boris is seen talking to a cat he will be condemned as a witch and burnt at the stake. Meanwhile, no one is examining anyone else's past behaviour with such forensic eagerness. Has no one in any other political party breached social distancing at all?

● BBC Radio 4 Today presenter Justin Webb pressed Wes Streeting, Shadow Health Secretary, this morning on the subject of Covid-19 safety precautions. Very gently and supportively, of course. But Webb did sound exasperated when Streeting refused to comply with his wishes and promise to steer Labour to vote against extensions to mask-wearing etc in Parliament. Webb just stopped short of saying: “Come on, you've got to! This'll finish him!” but his meaning was clear enough from his anguished and imploring tones. To his credit, Streeting insisted that the safety of the public must come before silly political points scoring. Not sure Webb was convinced, though.

● On the subject of rules and parties, it is highly galling to find so many people who this time last year were moaning about a terrible “lack of clarity” in the rules governing gatherings are now experts in the intricacies of what was allowed and what was heinous (ie – anything that happened anywhere near Boris!). For example, Times writer Hilary Rose said on October 28 2020: “And the whole 'no mixing households indoors' rule is so half-arsed, with so many exceptions and ifs and buts depending on where you live, and whether it’s a leap year and there’s an R in the month, that with the best will in the world, who on earth can follow it all?” She was one of three Times columnists who proudly told the world that they would be breaching “arbitrary” Covid restrictions over Christmas, following in the wake of the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire. I rest my case.

● From recent reporting, it is becoming ever clearer that anti-vaxers are the only thing currently threatening to overwhelm the NHS. One country is said to be demanding the unvaccinated pay for their Covid medical treatment. It won't happen here, perhaps rightly, but the principle is sound.

DECEMBER 7 2021

EDGING VERY CLOSE TO TREASON AND TREACHERY

I really don't know how they stay so calm. Government minister after government minister puts themselves forward to be “interviewed” on the BBC Radio Four Today programme. It always – and I mean always – ends in an attempted political assassination; the presenters are acting just as anyone who wished to discredit, undermine and remove the government would. This is a barely civilised coup campaign. And even if elected representatives are happy to keep absorbing this daily abuse, I am not. I have had it with the seditionists Nick Robinson, Mishal Husain, Amol Rajan, Justin Webb and the other rag-bag of presenters.

The straw that finally broke the camel's back was Robinson's all-out attack on Justice Secretary Dominic Raab this morning. I am no fan of Raab but I am passionate about journalism and for an interviewer to end one section of an interview with a viciously inaccurate summation of previous answers – a daily occurrence on Today – is not journalism. Raab was being harangued – this was not inquisitive questioning aimed at enlightening, but a blatant assault, as so much “journalism now is – over the allegations of one whistle-blower who claimed last summer's flight from Kabul in the face of a Taliban take-over was chaotic. Well, yes, inevitably, as Raab quite correctly answered. Robinson claimed that Tom Tugendhat, the MP holding an inquiry into the evacuation, was “enraged” at how dysfunctional it was – and yet we had just heard Tugendhat calmly saying “if what the whistle-blower says is true” and making measured comments on this version of events. Having misrepresented Tugendhat, Robinson then demanded to know what lessons Raab had learnt since the flight from Afghanistan. He made a perfectly reasonable response, saying that the inquiry would highlight areas for improvement and that he was ready and willing to listen. This is when the odious Robinson cut in, saying he had allowed Raab several minutes to explain what he had learned and that as he hadn't listed any lessons, he had learnt nothing. Raab was not allowed to respond to this travesty as Robinson bulldozed straight into his next offensive on the subject of Covid-19. I switched to Aljazeera on the TV.

All this followed yesterday's astonishing contempt shown by Husain for ministers and others who commented on the alleged “party” in Downing Street last year during strict lockdown. Ostensibly “interviewing” Kit Malthouse about other matters, she turned the discussion to these Christmas bash allegations. Malthouse pointed out that he had not been there, had no first-hand knowledge and had been assured rules were followed. “And you believe them!” replied Husain – and with just four words gratuitously insulting ministers and clearly implying that they are liars. Surprisingly, Malthouse was not driven to fury. Why did he not ask Husain whether she was calling everyone a liar? Why did he not say that she clearly must know more about this party than he did and so should tell listeners what happened? I cannot understand why they remain so passive and accepting of these daily outrages. If I was Boris I would boycott the programme until its guerrilla rabble has been replaced with professional journalists.

SCREAMING IDIOTS

It seems the UK is dominated by two cohorts of screaming idiots when it comes to subjects such as migration. One side screams that illegal migration must be stopped; the other screams that any and all measures are an infringement of rights and must be dropped. In between is a government unable to solve an obvious and serious problem, thus upsetting one bunch of screaming idiots, while outraging the other bunch with its suggested and only workable solutions. And we wonder why no progress is made.

ACTING AND IMAGINATION

The greatest works of literature all stem from flights of the imagination: creativity abounds, minds are stretched, understanding is enhanced. Similarly, the very essence of acting is to be something you are not – to act, to place yourself in the position of otherness, to perceive, interpret, acknowledge, empathise, project. The absurd world of wokeness – which truly is political correctness gone literally mad – cannot countenance the use of imagination in writing, nor the concept of acting. Writers must stick to writing their own “lived experience” – bringing an end to inventive, visionary stories. And actors must only play themselves – bringing an end to acting. No white actor can play a black character, no straight actor can portray a gay character, etc, etc – this is the completely illogical orthodoxy now terrorising the most creative, expansive and exploratory minds into silence. Why is this absurd, sloppy and corrupt thinking not dismissed as the rubbish it so plainly is?

POWERLESS

It wouldn't be tolerated in London, yell the headlines, referring to the length of time many households in north-east England have been without power following the storm of a week ago. It wouldn't happen in Surrey scream those country dwellers unable to access high-speed broadband. These phenomena can be bracketed together on the grounds that they ignore reality. Those choosing to live in remote, inaccessible areas cannot then claim they are being denied services enjoyed by those who tolerate more crowded conditions. Similarly, the storm that tore down power lines in Scotland and north-east England was hugely destructive. In London, the devastation might well have been repaired far more quickly – geography, an urban urban environment, close proximity of people, materials and damage all reduce the complications, both for fixing the wreckage and delivering assistance to those affected. With today's media focusing more on giving a voice to the loudest moaners than on explaining real issues and the complex logistics, we hear nothing of the workers operating round the clock in horrible conditions to restore services – just how appalling and slow their response has been. This must really inspire them to greater efforts.

BRAINLESS

Brainless Brown is at it again, living up beautifully to the immortal song lyric “Gordon is a moron”. His repeated pleas for the UK to give away its vaccine supplies to poor countries – on the highly dubious grounds that until the world is safe, no one is safe – were made to look even more idiotic by the assertions of someone who actually knows what they are talking about. The Sunday Times interviewed the boss of a vaccine manufacturer in India who pointed out that there is, in truth, a surplus of vaccines in the world and that much is already going to waste in African countries who are unable to use it before it passes its use-by date. He assured the world that any country placing an order would receive as much as it wanted.

It has been plain all along that Brown is, characteristically, barking up the wrong tree. What the developing world is short of is not vaccine but the means of delivering it and populations willing to have it squirted into their arms. These are the areas in which poorer nations need help. Just dumping vaccine on to them is ludicrous.

Equally ludicrous is this “vaccinate the world” demand. Poorer nations claim, officially at least, to have low death rates from Covid-19 – and they cannot have it both ways. Vaccines should be concentrated where the biggest problems lie – such as the most densely populated areas of Europe. Similarly, the emergency instructions in every airline announcement stress the importance of attaching your own oxygen mask before helping others. The rich nations cannot help the poor by ripping off their own oxygen masks – especially when the would-be recipients appear not to know how to wear them.

SCIENTISTS AND THE TRUTH

It is vital that scientists tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Almost everyone is applauding those South African experts who alerted the world to the Omicron variant. And we should be applauding most governments for taking swift action to slow its spread until its threat level is known. One group not applauding either action are the people of southern Africa whose travel plans have been disrupted by this display of honesty and caution. We ourselves booked flights to Sri Lanka two days before news of Omicron emerged and for now, we're hoping the trip can go ahead. But it might not – and we accepted that when we booked, so we're not complaining. The best case scenario is that the South African scientists are continuing to tell the whole truth when they say the variant is mild – because if it takes over as the dominant form then Covid-19 is reduced to a mere cold. But because the scientists were pasted at home for telling the truth over the discovery in the first place they could now be playing down its effects to avoid a further battering. We hear that internal barriers to travel are being imposed within South Africa, suggesting that all might not be as rosy as they would have us believe. Until we have the whole truth, the approach has to be cautionary.

DECEMBER 4 2021

One small addition to yesterday's post on gender identity: Janice Turner points out in her column in today's edition of The Times that children, especially girls, are being fed on to the transition conveyor belt as the supposed answer to a vast array of symptoms. Youngsters suffering from stress, unhappiness, mental health issues, mental illness, bullying, poverty, anger management, and multiple other disorders of varying degrees are steered by social media and peer pressure towards the overwhelmingly powerful trans solution as the explanation for, and answer to, their perceived problems. Swathes of the NHS have now been pressured into going along with this diagnosis, giving underlying causes a cursory examination before focusing on gender identity and initiating dangerous and irreversible procedures. To claim that this is wrong, both in promising that gender is the cause and that transitioning will be the cure incites the wrath and rage of the extreme trans campaigners, who screech that anyone questioning their solution does not want trans people to exist. Sadly, this blatant and hysterical lie has bullied even level-headed professionals into playing down all other possible causes – including the most obvious that questioning sexuality is a common part of growing up that usually resolves itself naturally without intervention.

Only extremists on the other wing would want to ban transitioning or even place barriers around it; the most caring and thoughtful people I have encountered on this subject are simply calling for each case – each child – to be treated individually and looked at in the round. If transitioning is indeed the agreed solution, that, of course, is fine; but where it will leave the real causes untouched – or worsened – then other courses of action need to be considered. That's all the voices of reason are suggesting.

TAX CUTS AND SPENDING CUTS

Rishi Sunak is beginning to lose his way. If his plans for tax and spending cuts reported today are true and accurate then the Tories will lose the north of England vote, retreat to the leafy and comfortable home counties and open the door to the lumpen, lifeless and rather dim Sir Keir Rodney Starmer. When every social ill is now blamed on a lack of government funding, reducing it further has to be a massive loser. I had higher hopes for Sunak, but cutting taxes for the wealthy at a time like this is really not a good look, no matter how cleverly you package it.


DECEMBER 3 2021

HENS AND HENS AND FOXES AND HENS

Robert Crampton, a writer on The Times, says he now understands “Gen Z” (youngsters born between 1996 and 2010) – even on the subject of gender identity – having spent an evening with seven of them. In his feature in The Times magazine (November 27) he equates the young's welcoming of gender fluidity with his own generation's acceptance of gay relationships in the 1970s and 1980s: a realisation that, actually, this is no big deal. I'm sure the twenty-somethings were delightful, easy-going and tolerant – they certainly sounded that way from his depiction of them. But he is wrong to equate the two trends.

First, homosexuality, as it was known, was illegal – a sexual offence – until 1967, whereas sex changes have always been legal, if not always easy, with some celebrated cases, such as Roberta Cowell in the 1950s and, of course, the well-known travel writer Jan Morris. Indeed, I interviewed a woman chief executive who had once been a man for the Financial Times' Digital Business section: it raised numerous fascinating issues about the treatment of women but the transition itself raised very few eyebrows.

There are also deeper differences: for a man to say he loves another man affects no one else; but for a man simply to say he is now a woman and to then be entitled to all the protections and benefits that women have struggled to win for more than a century affects all women. The first example is akin to a hen saying she loves another hen; the second is a fox demanding entry to the hen coop. This does affect others and it gives them every right to state their case – a right that the extreme trans lobby is violently and threateningly desperate to deny them. It also affects men in that allowing gender by assertion seeks to change the very definition of men and women. And it affects gay people – a gay lover decides to identify as the opposite sex: where does that leave their partner? Straight? This might not matter, and there is almost certainly a spectrum of masculinity to femininity upon which we each place ourselves. There is also biological fact – X and Y chromosomes, chemistry, physical features, none of which can be summarily dismissed as irrelevant compared to how someone – even a child – feels. The arguments and repercussions are completely different to the acceptance of gay relationships half a century ago and need to be debated. And they would be, with the contentious issues melting away, were it not for the intolerance and brutality of the trans campaigners.

I'M SO CONFUSED

Oh this government is the very limit! I've been invited to two office Christmas parties – one for six people to be held by a small business and the other for 200 hundred pensioners packed into a boozy meeting room. But thanks to this baffling government, I have no idea which one – if either – to go to. One minister says you don't have to cancel the parties, another says be cautious, a scientist says be sensible, another says use common sense. How am I to decide when faced with this cascade of contradictory advice and appalling lack of clarity? I want the government to tell me how many people and in exactly what circumstances a Christmas party turns from being probably safe to probably dangerous.

I demand that it produces a matrix showing threat levels depending on the number of people attending, their ages, the size of the room, the distance they will have travelled, the amount of alcohol to be served and the minimum distance every attendee expects to maintain between themselves and others. It should clearly specify which parties are allowed and which not. This shouldn't be difficult with today's technology. And then everyone planning to hold a party or attend one could simply survey the giant spreadsheet and see whether their party is legal. There will still doubtless be people moaning that a party with 10 people is allowed but 11 is not and that a despicable police state is imposing arbitrary and draconian rules. But surely, putting up with such complaints is far better than forcing people to make their own decisions in a sensible and responsible way.

ARE WE NEARLY THERE YET?

My first reaction on learning of the Omicron Covid-19 variant a week or so ago was to hope that it had come to save us all. It could, of course, be a vicious, vaccine-evading killer that brings the world to the brink of collapse. Or it could be the virus that supplants previous variants, causing mild symptoms that in the olden days we would have called “just a bit of a cold”? Or it could be something in between? It's given the BBC and The Times (I keep criticising these two, because they are my predominant sources of news – others are just as bad, I know) fresh impetus for their “incompetent government” campaigns as they attack ministers for being too fast or too slow or not having answers to unanswerable questions.

No one can know how dangerous Omicron will prove to be until it has had the chance to work through the system. The government's middle path of introducing a few sensible precautions, without clamping down too hard on the nation's work and social life seems spot on. It can be adjusted in either direction should news from South Africa, where the variant was first identified, turn good or bad. So far, the news is promising. We hear there are many cases of the new variant but has anyone died from it? The South African scientists say it is mild. My hope its that they are correct and that in a couple of months we will be lauding Omicron as the variant that took the sting out of Covid-19.

AMOL RAJAN: AN APOLOGY

It's good to see that Amol Rajan has apologised for some stupid and nasty remarks he made about the royal family a few years ago. It was also interesting to read an article about him in last weekend's newspaper. What struck me hardest was the frighteningly meagre training, groundwork and discipline that had featured along Rajan's journalistic career path. There are many ways of entering the journalist profession today – and if we stretch the definition to include TV interviewers, then all that's required to work on the BBC's One Show is an averagely high-profile career in sport or pop music (Johanna Konta will be eyeing those sofas right now, you mark my words!) – and this can be a strength, but more often a weakness.

Almost everyone in the profession above a certain age will have been drilled, sharpened and educated not only in how to be a good journalist but also in what it means to be one. There is simply no substitute for being sent by a strict local paper's news editor to knock on a bereaved family's door as part of the learning experience; it creates a professional who understands the impact of their behaviour on a community, who understands that it is impossible and wrong simultaneously to be a reporter and a commentator, who understands that there is more to journalism than using it as a platform for your own opinions

. Working for an editor who values accuracy, impartiality, integrity and fairness above all else creates a professional able to prevent their own opinions from intruding and distorting the way they present the world to the public. These principles, once learned from respected senior colleagues and ingrained through strenuous coaching, last a life-time. They are essential, fundamental prerequisites for being a professional journalist.

But with the demise of local newspapers as training grounds and the avalanche of alternative media, we are now moving into an era in which the self-taught – or the untaught – are reaching senior roles, bringing their lack of professionalism with them. This trend can only worsen. And this is what we see with Rajan who, incredibly, has been given one of the BBC's most responsible jobs on the Today programme. The article last weekend suggested that Rajan's rise to this post was achieved mostly by sharp elbows, schmoozing and charm, with the overall impression being that he possessed few qualifications needed for several of the important roles he was handed by friends. His recent performances on Today, with his sloppy delivery and continual insertion of comment, and the embarrassment he has caused for the BBC over his dreadful assault on the royal family are a very strong indication that without being instilled with the right qualities at the start of their career, journalists can be dangerous. And most worrying of all – this is just the beginning of a catastrophic decline in standards that is already warping what should be intelligent and reasoned democratic debate.

NOVEMBER 23 2021

Now that the political fog caused by the pandemic is clearing, we can see more clearly how this government is faring. I believe it made some inevitable early errors in fighting Covid-19 – very similar to those made in other similar countries, such as protecting care homes, which caused early deaths in many European nations. But I do not believe it was a mistake to weigh up the pros and cons of how to deal with the virus, when precautionary approaches and scientific arguments varied from New Zealand's strict lockdown and total isolation to Sweden's herd immunity policy. Both were lauded as being better than the UK's middle road but, over time, their obvious drawbacks became clear to even the most extreme doubters. PPE shortages in the UK were dealt with as swiftly as in any comparable country; testing targets were hit and the UK now leads the world in the volume of tests; and the clearly stated policy of reliance on vaccines has proved, so far, to be a triumph. We have seen none of the violence now erupting across Europe, thanks to a softly-softly approach on compulsory vaccination which has kept the ridiculous conspiracy theorists at bay for now. It would have been perfectly reasonable to ask those refusing the vaccine to waive their rights to medical treatment in the event of catching Covid-19 – on the grounds that they are akin to the type of fool that climbs Ben Nevis in winter wearing a T-shirt and flip-flops and then expects others to risk their lives to save them. Yet they have been treated gently.

But then we come to the government's efforts to clean up long-standing messes that have foiled previous regimes. Social care has been crying out for reform and resources for decades – and at least a start is being made on the personal finance side. But this is only the lesser part of the equation – staffing, funding, provision of facilities, new types of accommodation and ways of living, these all need a radical overhaul, too. There is much more to do, but blaming the present government for the dreadful state of social care is short-sighted and unjust. Criticising it for failing to get to the heart of the problem is fair, however.

The national transport system is another long-standing failure that this government is trying to tackle. The plans for HS2 have been hopeless since the day they were published by Labour in 2009 and mangled by the Tories shortly after. In essence, they amounted to little more than an extension of London's hinterland beyond Birmingham to Manchester. Other routes and spurs looked cumbersome, inconvenient and poorly thought out. The London to Birmingham “phase” should have been struck off years ago, in favour of a revamped plan for the Northern Powerhouse, linking every city from Liverpool to Newcastle with superb services for passengers and freight. But as the monster project has hobbled along, costs have risen and resources slumped due to the costs of the pandemic and something had to be done. I believe the government has made poor choices: the cuts should all come in the south and new lines should be provided in the north. Cutting into fresh soil is unpopular with those affected but we all know what “upgrades” mean – years of weekend closures and Monday cancellations due to works overrunning. The mess we appear to be heading for at great speed will make public transport far worse in the north for a decade or more.

Another deep-seated problem that has defeated plenty of home secretaries is the unending and limitless flood of economic migrants fleeing France. The real reasons for the current incumbent's apparent impotence in dealing with this tide of criminality, misery, death and danger are the overwhelming weight of opposing forces, from well-meaning but gullible charities and those encouraging migration, such as the Labour party, to lawyers and the devious French, who are using migrants as a means of punishing the UK for Brexit while taking its money and laughing. Emmanual Macron is behaving as brutally as the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko in exploiting these poor folks. These are the real opponents Priti Patel has to defeat or circumvent; without them, she could easily thwart the people smugglers. But she has learned that the only way to make progress that will not be scuppered by the pro-illegal migrant lobby is offshore processing. It has worked for Australia. Of course there are push factors leading migrants to seek better lives in England and Keir Starmer was partly right to focus on these “upstream” issues in his BBC interview the other day. Where he is idiotically wrong is in suggesting there is anything this country can do in practice that would have even the smallest impact in the source nations. In the real world, we can only manage the pull factors by making it less desirable and cost-effective for economic migrants to hand large sums to criminals. Using offshore centres, already a proven success, is the last roll of the dice and could be scuppered if no overseas accommodation can be found. But in principle it ticks many boxes: applicants are not detained – they are free to leave the site but would simultaneously forfeit their application. This instantly weeds out those with no case, speeding matters for the few genuine refugees.

Of course, BBC Radio 4's Today programme tried to pin the blame on the government again yesterday morning but only managed to muddy the waters further. Rather than questioning a minister who knows the subject, the programme resorted to having presenter Justin Webb interview the know-all Mark Easton, a reporter who for many many years has always managed to get hold of the wrong end of every social policy stick. He, of course, following the familiar BBC group-think, blamed it all on Brexit and the consequent dropping of the Dublin Agreement which, in theory, allowed many migrants to be sent back to one of the countries they had passed through. In practice, the Dublin Agreement was completely useless and hardly anyone was sent anywhere; its passing has made not a jot of difference to the flow across the EU. But it's an easy way of blaming the government for an issue beyond its control – and beyond the control of many previous regimes.

And so Boris's scorecard is starting to look more blotched and tatty as normal service takes over from pandemic measures. He scores several “must try harders”, a few “good efforts” and a growing number of “oh dears”.

Finally, Boris is accused of having no vision, of not being a preacher in the manner of Thatcher or Blair, both of whom were obnoxious and pursued catastrophic policies, the fallout from which our politicians are still having to contend with today. But Boris talks of levelling up and going green, which are surely two pretty good visions. The question remains as to how genuine they are and how achievable? Again, it comes down to the interface between good intentions, reality and opposing forces who have not a coherent positive word to say between them. What is desperately needed is an alternative, a socialist party demanding a new way of living that rids us of deadbeat, mindless and always unsatisfying consumption and materialism, saving the planet and our sanity at the same time.

GENERATION BEDWETTER

We can thank goodness, at least, for controversial socialist Julie Burchill. She and I have not always seen eye to eye on every issue but our overall thinking has probably followed a similar course, believing as we do that democracy is best served when people have a genuine say in their everyday conditions and that the closest the UK has ever come to this was during the robust 1970s. She refers in her new book, “Welcome to the Woke Trials” to “Generation Bedwetter” – a typically smart and amusing label that speaks volumes. The sort of stupidity against which she rails is the dramatic U-turn made by Stonewall over the use of the term “mother, which it now grudgingly concedes is just about acceptable in company HR documents. Burchill is right about such people and would be justified in asking where they leave their brains when setting off for “work”. Similarly, in pre-Blair times, no university would ever have suggested its female students become prostitutes to pay for their fees. And yet that is virtually what some institutions are now promoting – safe sex work. I'm sure Burchill has a view on this, too. I look forward to reading her book.

EVERYTHING IS 'US AND THEM'

A medical device – the Oximeter – now stands accused of being racist, because it works less effectively on darker skin. This is interpreted by some as the inherently racist approach of science that makes things only for white people. So instead of seeing this simple device as having a limitation that should be dealt with in some way, the “Us and Them” warriors of society turn it into a sharpened chisel to be hammered between communities to create tension and division where there should be a united effort at improvement.

HAVE YOU SEEN GB NEWS LATELY?

Oh my, oh my. GB News has jumped the shark. It should be hauled before some standards body for masquerading as a news channel when it is nothing of the sort. It's dumb, toxic and horrible and in a sane world would be blasted from the airwaves.

AND CREDIT WHERE IT IS DUE

Rather embarrassingly, I allowed my passport to run out, so that when we came to try and book flights at the weekend, I was blocked. I had not needed to glance at the document for two years, with no foreign travel on the horizon. But we needed to book those seats quickly and I checked on the fastest way to renew. And it was done in just two days! I filled in the online form on Sunday, having spent an hour trying to take an acceptable photo, paid £100 more than a more leisurely application would have cost and booked an appointment to collect it today – Tuesday. The online process was quick, simple and extremely efficient and the collection, from a slightly spartan and depressing office across the road from Victoria station in central London, as easy as buying stamps. I turned up 10 minutes before my appointment time and was out two minutes after it. I can put up with spartan if it works as well as that.


NOVEMBER 20 2021

The debate over journalism grows ever more menacing. Andrew Marr has announced that he wishes to relieve himself of the draconian “filter” of alleged BBC impartiality; he strives to “get his own voice back”. This is, of course, appalling. First, as I have argued before, the BBC is already failing in its duty to remain objective, with many or most of its news presenters becoming more campaigner than journalist; and second, if Marr believes a journalist's role is to be partial, support campaigns and “have a voice” then it is a very sad day indeed. These are terribly disappointing words from a formerly respected journalist.

In another article in The Times this morning we find a similarly horrifying throw-away line that seems to condone the combination of journalism and lobbying. It describes The New European as a “weekly newspaper, set up by pro-EU journalists after the 2016 EU referendum”. How can a “journalist”, tasked with balanced, fair and credible reporting and analysis, be trusted when they are tainted with clear bias? A journalist can hold views privately, but a professional journalist must absolutely leave those biases at the door as soon as they pick up their notebook. Once at work their own views must remain irrelevant; they can only be credible and trusted if they are prepared to give a genuinely fair hearing to all sides in a debate. On this basis, there are no real professional journalists working for The New European and its output is of no more value than a party political broadcast.

This goes back to the point I made yesterday about BBC News's plummeting credibility. It cannot understand that more than half the country does not live in its thought bubble; the only voices its presenters listen to are those of like-minded ultra-liberal, middle class globalisers, which has created a narrow orthodoxy that makes this single world view the only world view. It is deeply distressing to witness these trends destroying respect for journalism, which should be a vital check and balance in the fight against the mono-think that can be a precursor of fascism.

NOVEMBER 19 2021

A columnist in The Guardian claims the present government is not being held properly to account by the media. I couldn't agree more – but not for the reasons the writer purports to have identified. He accuses the BBC of failing to stand up to the Tories and of playing down its “excesses and disasters” (he provides a list of so-called “failings”, all of which are laughably irrelevant). From my objective viewpoint – being a radical socialist who cannot stomach conservative business principles, materialism and rabid consumption and who retains the objectivity of a seasoned Financial Times journalist – what I hear every day on BBC radio is a persistent attack on everything the government does or says (and even on what it doesn't say) and a gentle, kid-gloved approach with opponents. The coverage is seriously biased but will, I am sure, be being seen by the BBC as the fulfilment of its role to scrutinise and hold power to account.

The reason it is missing the mark so horribly is not, as the Guardian's twerp alleges, because the BBC is the government's friend, but because the BBC itself is partial; it has lost its integrity and credibility by having its own agenda and inserting itself into the political debate, rather than standing on the touchline and providing accurate commentary and measured analysis. Its presenters make cases rather than ask questions. A prime example can be taken from yesterday's Today programme, when Amol Rajan, instead of asking Dominic Raab a question, presented him with his own version and interpretation of events. Raab quite reasonably replied that he did not recognise Rajan's “partial caricature”. A journalist would have apologised and asked a question but Rajan chose to compound his lopsidedness by demanding in a sneering tone: “OK – tell me what I'm missing then.” This is not holding power to account, it's becoming part of the opposition – a position from which proper scrutiny becomes impossible. Making this even worse, is that in a world made up of shades of grey, BBC presenters are just as prone to misjudgments and inaccuracies when mounting their case as the other side.

As further evidence, we can contrast this morning's lame questioning of Keir Starmer by Justin Webb. Starmer was merely seeking to score cheap political points when discussing the topic of migration, claiming the huge numbers illegally entering Britain could only be stemmed by tackling the problems “upstream” (meaning the push factors in the source countries). He argued that cutting the Overseas Aid budget was therefore a terrible mistake. A journalist on a mission to probe and challenge would immediately have asked how our relatively tiny aid budget could have any meaningful effect in these areas, and even if it were vastly increased, which countries should receive our investment first – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Vietnam, or in fact most of the northern half of Africa and nearly all of the Middle East and large tracts of Asia. Starmer should also have been asked precisely what we would do to persuade the citizens of these countries to stay put. So rather than going on to expose his simplistic proposition as absurd, we heard that solemn Today programme nod of agreement. An interviewer simply cannot be both an impartial interrogator and a participant in the debate at the same time. This is why the media checks and balances on power are increasingly failing to hit their mark.

And as if this isn't bad enough, we have the latest trend of predicting bad news and disasters – mostly on those days when reality is not quite bad enough to embarrass a hated regime. Sometimes they become self-fulfilling, such as the BBC-instigated “fuel crisis”. Today, a blazing headline tells us that Albania is angrily rejecting the UK's bid to create an offshore assessment centre for migrants in the country. I have not read that any named government representative has confirmed this was ever being sought. Quite the reverse: a speculative cover story in The Times yesterday admitted there had been official denials; this morning, Albanian officials said there had been no talks. And now, suddenly, this lightly sourced rumour has travelled 360 degrees to land as another curated fiasco/scandal.

This terrible journalism extends to other subjects, too. The Times yesterday ran a story headlined: “White working class needs college quotas, says actor”. We could excuse this rank nonsense as a misconceived means of advertising the paper's “Education Commission, whatever that might be, were it not for the fact that it was presented as news. An actor, of whom most people would have been blissfully unaware and who clearly possesses no expertise or even basic knowledge of the subject, as he himself appears to admit, calls for this and that. It amounts to complete rubbish. Beside it was an equally bonkers article about school exchange trips and how Brexit had caused a sharp decline. Only two lines at the very end were allocated to a voice of common sense at the Home Office, who pointed out that the decline was obviously due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, not new immigration rules.

NOVEMBER 17 2021

So much to add after a busy few weeks!

HOW LOW CAN JOURNALISM GO?

I am so sad to see how far journalism has sunk: local newspapers reduced to advertising sheets with minimal local content, leaving just syndicated celebrity gossip, TV listings and quizzes to fill the space; national newspapers publishing headlines and even whole stories that are unsupported by the facts in that very article; and what was once the bastion of accuracy, integrity and balance, the BBC, grovelling in the gutter of tainted, opinionated editorialising. I am relieved to find I am not the only one who believes this about the BBC: in agreement are former broadcasting role models Martin Bell, Neil Bennett, Tom Mangold and Baroness Stowell, former BBC head of corporate affairs, who all wrote to The Times in support of a column by James Kirkup, director of the Social Market Foundation.

One unnamed BBC insider was recently quoted as saying that talking to younger colleagues was like “explaining journalism to idiots” because of their ingrained partisanships, with which they could see no problem. Kirkup had already said just as much in his column, pointing out that an independent review of editorial practices had spurred its director-general Tim Davie to commit the corporation to impartiality and robust debate – scrutinising contested issues without taking sides. As Kirkup also said, the only controversial thing about this is that it needed saying at all, since those are the fundamentals of journalism. He then refers to several BBC editors and reporters who say many colleagues increasingly believe their own views and values should come before that impartiality.

This is an attitude that is glaringly on display every morning on Radio 4's Today programme. Just this morning, the sneering Nick Robinson pursued his virulent anti-government agenda in his bullying interrogation of a minister on the subject of MPs' jobs, while shortly afterwards he could almost be heard nodding with approval when a gullible representative of the church implied that the Home Office must be wrong in the case of the Liverpool bomber's alleged religious conversion because priests could tell “instinctively” whether future terrorists were just pretending to be good christians or not. No interrogation for her, no challenge to her faintly absurd contentions.

This ghastly trend has become blatant. Yet, as Kirkup argues: “To journalists, campaigning and reporting should be incompatible.” He points out that a failure to understand this simple rule suggests “a worrying failure to understand the purpose of journalism”. If “values” lead anyone to shy away from quoting or broadcasting people with whom they disagree – notably on topics such as gender and race – then they are patently not a journalist. And crumbling in the face of organised, concerted and extremist activists claiming that even factually accurate accounts should not be published or broadcast for fear of “upsetting trans people” would be a deplorable dereliction of duty.

So what does Martin Bell think of today's BBC: “Parts of the output are now so lopsided that they need serious review through the lens of the principles that guided us. These include BBC1's Six O'Clock News, which has come to resemble an extended medical bulletin, with space reserved in the second half for campaigns by sectional interests.” And Neil Bennett? “Generations of former BBC journalists will be alarmed at the apparent inability of more recent intakes to understand the concept of impartiality...Usually the real story was very clear without the need for BBC reporters to act as campaigners with microphones and laptops.” And Tom Mangold? “The line between total impartiality and comment has blurred almost beyond repair at BBC News.”

The lopsidedness to which Bell refers is seen in coverage of many issues. A recent example would be the one-sided presentation of the unfolding disaster inside Afghanistan (now oddly dropped from the news). The only views broadcast were those of campaigners for intervention. Yet despite the highly complex landscape, I heard no voices arguing that a massive humanitarian drive would be idiotic, unaffordable, counter-productive and make matters far worse. Even though this is a reasonable and widely held view. On another occasion, Gordon Brown faced a dutifully tame interviewer (if the Today programme can't find Tony Blair to share his dubious wisdom, they resort to the hapless Brown). Martha Kearney's attitude was far more “Oh, I see” and “Yes, that explains it” than “I have to put it to you, Mr Brown...”

LYNCH MOBS AND FASCISM

Related to the above is the extraordinary tale of Eddie Jones, the England rugby coach, who made the mildest of observations about Britain's new tennis darling, Emma Raducanu. This is a young woman who has it all: looks, personality and a prodigious skill honed through excellent coaching and her own determination and effort. Jones pointed out that she had become distracted since winning the US Open and had under-performed since. Pretty obvious stuff. Who wouldn't have been distracted by such instant fame and the demands of modelling assignments, dinners and planning the next step of her promising career by upgrading her old team. I haven't heard that she was particularly perturbed by this but the hyper-sensitive world of the oh-so-easily offended launched a huge hate campaign against the experienced and judicious Jones. And so today, even stating the blindingly obvious – interpreted by the naïve as unforgivable “negative comments” – can now be manufactured into a hate crime. In the face of the barrage, Jones even wrote to Raducanu to apologise or explain – why, I have no idea. And as Owen Slot, The Times' chief sports writer, said: “It isn’t actually unreasonable to ask: was Eddie Jones right?” No doubt Slot was then pilloried, too, for daring to question the lynch mob. This looks horribly like the beginnings of a fascist mentality which, if we don't stand up to it now, will only gain confidence and strength.

As for Kathleen Stock, the academic driven out of Sussex University for stating perfectly reasonable and widely held views on gender and sex. They might not be everyone's views, but the nasty, voluble and extreme minority holds the floor and to disagree with their beliefs, their orthodoxy, makes you, in their eyes, an enemy. Stock is reported to be joining a free-thinking, free-speaking university based in Austin, Texas. And good luck to her. This episode contains so much that is wrong, and so much failure. What was the university thinking in failing to defend its staff member? How have we lost a valuable thinker to a foreign university? This looks horribly like a business running scared of upsetting its loudest customers.

COMPULSORY JABS FOR NHS STAFF

The debate rumbles on. Forcing individuals to have a vaccine squirted into their arms is awkward and clumsy at best. But our Covid-19 infection rates remain high, with continuing deaths. It's a difficult balance to strike. France has leant towards compulsion, the UK takes a more libertarian approach. I would first ask how much of a danger unvaccinated medical staff are to anyone other than themselves? If small, then leave them alone to take the risk and suffer the potentially deadly consequences of their faith.

LESSONS UNLEARNED

Every generation could learn so much from history – but it doesn't, partly because each generation insists on making the same old mistakes and only realising when its own level of experience and knowledge becomes enormously valuable to its equally deaf successor. And it is partly because history is constantly being rewritten and reinterpreted, often ignorantly. So much for standing on the shoulders of giants: we are destined merely to spin in circles.

EDUCATING ED

At the FT, my former colleague Ed Balls was known by some as “two brains” because he was considered to be terribly clever. I never noticed, at first hand, the justification for such a glowing epithet, but he certainly came across as smart and was a bulldozer-like centre forward in the FT's football team. Having risen to the heights of shadow chancellor and being a star on Strictly Come Dancing, Ed is now multi-tasking, it seems, with his latest public venture, “Inside The Care Crisis”, a TV programme about social care. He spent time working in a care home and in home care, searching for evidence of a crisis, which the programme's title lazily assumed. There was plenty to see that was horrible and sad but nothing particularly surprising to anyone who has experienced the sector or cared to give it a moment's thought. That there is so much care at all in our society is a surprise to me. As I said in “The Rise of Antisocialism”, the rabid consumer world in which we subsist cares for little but consumption. This is what has led the government to view the “care crisis” as one of finance instead of addressing the wider inverse structure of worker rewards. While those in fundamentally easy and worthless jobs are paid handsomely, those performing vital tasks are given very little value.

OUR FIRST-WORLD SELF-LOATHING

The UK truly is a country defined by self-loathing. Yet compared to almost every other nation, Britain is amazing – with legal protection on grounds of race, age, gender, sexuality, religion and probably more. The people are largely tolerant of “difference” in all its forms. There are unfortunate empty-headed deviants but over recent decades they have grown markedly fewer. Liberal policies allow almost anything and the kindness and back-breaking self-sacrifices shown to various brands of law-breakers and fools is sometimes heart-warming and at other times infuriating.

And yet, amid this pampered throng, there are people so divorced from reality that they refer to Britain as a “wretched island”. I would invite such people to take their self-loathing elsewhere. If the UK's tolerant attitudes are not good enough, try anywhere in the easy-going Middle East, Asia or Africa. Or Russia, South and Latin America or any country in which a religion still has a political influence. This leaves a handful of states in which you are unlikely to speak the language and which might not be as universally user-friendly as you think – for example, France, with its hard line over islam and most Mediterranean countries' “robust” attitudes towards women. I cannot think there is another country that so safeguards and protects its countless minorities as the UK seeks to do. It might not be perfect, and when it comes to distribution of income and the work that it values it can be quite shockingly awful, but it's as good as it gets if you're “different”. But feel free to try elsewhere if you don't agree.

GONE TO THE DOGS?

The outcry over the government's attempt to clear former minister Owen Paterson was justified: he had clearly done wrong and could muster no plausible explanation nor mitigation (his wife's suicide was a tragedy but its true cause can never be known and is, in any case, not relevant). He was given ample time on BBC News channels to air his grounds for an appeal, which amounted to nothing new. The government was wrong to seek to let him off, even though there were complications, due to arguments over standards that needed to be considered. But it is comforting to know we have a potent system that exposes and investigates potential wrong-doing and equally reassuring to find our democratic processes bring about a swift change of heart and set us back on a more correct path.

Bizarrely, this is seen by some as proof that the country has gone to the dogs. To say that this sorry episode shows we've hit rock bottom is to ignore the facts, the issues, the rest of the world and our own history. Rod Liddle only had to mention the name Keith Vaz, the former Labour minister forced out of politics amid a plethora of allegations, to remind everyone that Paterson's behaviour was relatively mild. Fiona Onasanya and Claudia Webbe are Labour MPs who were found guilty of criminal offences. Tony Blair made himself supremely rich after leaving office. Harold Wilson's lavender honours list is still remembered by some. And outside Parliament, the public has been defrauded of millions, if not billions, of pounds by unscrupulous thieves cashing in on the government's anti-pandemic financial measures. It's all a sorry mixture of corruption and human nature. And in the grand scale, MPs behaving within the rules, but not quite as we would ideally like them to, is not a sign that the country has gone to the dogs. Everything is far messier than that. And that Owen Paterson was eventually ejected is a clear sign that we are far from rock bottom.

Similarly, almost every day, the BBC's news agenda is dominated by one appalling “crisis” after another. All are presented as being of the current government's making and all disappear from our screens and radios as quickly as they appear. From PPE shortages, failed testing regimes and fuel shortages to “scandals” and rows of every hue. But what they really show is that matters arise, are dealt with, and then go away. Many turn out to have been non-events from the start. What everyone should have learnt in recent months is that calling everything a “crisis” and a sign that we have hit rock bottom is simply ridiculous.

TWO BATHS A WEEK, GRETA

No matter how worthy her views, there is something deeply annoying abut Greta Thunberg, the well-heeled Swedish environmental campaigner. Of course she is right about most things. But she is, of course, hopelessly wrong to try and spark a war between the generations, by claiming that baby boomers and others are responsible for destroying the planet. The culprits are not ordinary, innocent, decent individuals but the relentless and unfettered forces of business, materialism and consumption, created by a hyper-capitalist creed unleashed by right-wing free-market economists and politicians in the 1980s. In pursuit of perpetual economic growth, these leaders handed our fates to greedy opportunists who relied on a cycle of innovation, marketing, unending dissatisfaction and widespread purchasing power to fill homes with goods, the skies with holidaymakers and the streets with “hospitality” venues. Yes, some of these things made life more comfortable, to the point that today's youngsters are unarguably the most pampered in history. But it was not like that when the baby boomer generation was growing up. And its members can surely be excused for wanting to provide greater comfort for their children than they experienced. So Greta needs to tell her teen supporters that to match the baby boomers, they must relinquish bottled water, give up their phones (and use phone boxes, as we did) and do without pre-pack sandwiches. They must stop buying exotic imported foods, buy no more new clothes, and own just one pair of shoes until they wear out. They must make do and mend, share rooms, say no to en suites and take no more than two baths a week in freezing bathrooms. Forget cosmetics. Only one room in their house should be heated, with just one light bulb per room, and they must learn new skills – sewing, darning, carpentry, etc. They will cycle or walk, and take no more foreign holidays. These are just the top few items from an extremely long list. The baby boomers might have enjoyed ever-increasing luxury but today's youngsters have been born into luxury without having had to endure the harsh realities of previous generations (not that we realised it at the time – we had plenty of simpler, non-damaging fun).

IF I WEAR A SOMBRERO...

If I wear a sombrero, I am liable to be pilloried for committing “cultural appropriation”. But if tens of thousands of people, availing themselves of expensive and criminal people-smuggling services, choose to force their way in to another country which they decide can make them better off, they are petted and patted and shown no scorn – just sympathy and kindness.

In the frightening stand-off at the Polish-Belarusian border, we are seeing what does now amount to an invasion (defined as “an incursion by a large number of people or things into a place or sphere of activity”; or “an unwelcome intrusion into another's domain”). This is an organised body of people, armed with primitive weapons but marshalled by military forces, attempting to force their way into the territory of others. At what point does sympathy and kindness expire? And for anyone unable to conceive that it ever might, perhaps their thinking might be made clearer if they were asked to state how many pretend refugees they would choose to accommodate in their vicinity. Because the numbers are limitless. One million? Ten million? Half a billion? As the planet heats, this is a question that will float inexorably to the top of the list.

LEAVE THEM ALONE

What would Poland and Hungary be like if left to their own devices? Would they be miserable Stalinist deserts out of choice? Or would they be right-wing reactionary states, as they are now? These countries, and others in Europe bordering Russia, have been puppets of the superpowers for about a century – no less so today than they were under Communism. Now, the EU has control and is enforcing its views, values and policies – pushing the local leaderships further towards the extremes. These are potentially progressive and enlightened countries, full of smart and hard-working people. They will progress if spared the burden of having to react to an outside power's mismanagement and being made dependent. Let's leave them alone.


OCTOBER 26 2021

I TOLD YOU SO

The main purpose of writing my book was to place on record my analysis of the past half century of UK history and to warn of the dangerous implications that followed from the underlying forces at work. Well, thanks to a mixture of Brexit and pandemic, I can say with complete clarity and certainty in so many areas – “I told you so”. It leaves potential readers with a choice – read it and know what is about to happen, or avoid reading it and be perpetually surprised at each day's events. Up to you.

LET'S GO LOCAL

One of the leading themes in the later part of my book concerned the need for localism and communitarianism to counter the forces of big business and the resulting climate catastrophe. And while good news on this front abounds, one heart-warming item in this morning's edition of The Times highlights the success that small independent butchers are enjoying. Their meat is roughly twice as expensive as the supermarkets' bland, plastic-packed alternatives but it is cleaner and greener (in a good way), involving relatively few food miles. And it creates skilled work – for which we should be happy to pay a premium: a small independent butcher will learn the full range of skills required to take a carcass and convert it into joints, chops etc. The supermarket alternative is from a production line staffed by, bored, underpaid and exploited mono-skilled workers, doomed to remain in place because their single “skill” is useless away from the conveyor belt.

We have an excellent butcher, fishmonger and grocer nearby: all are notably more expensive than Lidl but thrash any large chain when it comes to all-round value for money. The grocer's plums might go off after two or three days but taste juicy and delicious on the day they're bought; the supermarket's plums are dry and tasteless from the moment of purchase until they're binned two weeks later.

QUALITY JOURNALISM ON RADIO 4 – AT LAST!

Just when I'd written off the chances of hearing any decent journalism on Radio 4, the Food Programme on Sunday (October 24) checks in with a superb investigation of the so-called staffing crisis in the hospitality sector. It began perfectly, challenging itself to ask how this problem had arisen, what could be done about it, and even whether it was a problem at all. This last question is crucial to tackling the demise of so much of what is today mistakenly called “journalism”. A never-ending vox pop among the disaffected is not journalism – yet this is what BBC News is highly concentrated on. Barely a soul interviewed to air their grievances bothers to suggest a workable solution – merely demands that something be done to address their complaint. And worse, never is the question raised as to whether their outrage is justified or whether there is a problem here in the first place.

The Food Programme refused to take the lazy way out and simply interview restaurateur after restaurateur moaning about how their wonderful Romanians and Poles had all run away, implying that Brexit is a disaster. Instead, it examined working conditions, pay, recruitment issues, education, student behaviour, status, and more. For example, it revealed that large numbers of workers in the sector had learned from the respite provided by the pandemic that life can be different. It revealed the horror of “doubles” – shifts that begin at 8am and continue until close of play, which could be midnight. Staff returning from furlough were not happy with their hours and pay and had found alternatives. One relatively enlightened business owner admitted they were trying to reduce the number of doubles each staff member had to work during a week. It was hard to imagine how they had ever coped with more than one a week before. Another pointed out that there had been no recruitment for nearly two years, either locally or from abroad; another said students staying at home meant a further source of labour had vanished; and the sector has shown itself to be highly vulnerable to viral outbreaks and therefore insecure as a profession – East Europeans had left the UK to be with their families during the pandemic, rather than because of Brexit, the terms of which would actually have allowed them to stay had they chosen to. And the programme dared to ask why it was necessary for so many clearly thriving restaurants to be open seven days a week: this was the gripe of so many – that staff shortages meant they couldn't be open every day. But why should they? The answers to that question are all unpleasant.

Overall, the programme was balanced, objective and interesting. It didn't take the easy Nick Robinson line of blaming everything on the government and Brexit – it was more intelligent than that, seeming to understand that Brexit had shone a scorching spotlight into so many dark and seedy corners of British life. I maintain that none of the conversations taking place in this programme – and indeed in many other places – would have possible but for this Brexit spotlight. And to those who claim it's not Brexit but the pandemic that has caused this soul-searching, I say you can't have it both ways – if the pandemic has caused the soul-searching it must also have caused the so-called staffing “problem”, too, not Brexit.

HURRYING ALONG...

So many issues arising – here are a few quick observations:

● What a fabulous weekend of sport we have just witnessed: West Ham win to go fourth in the Premier League; the Cobblers win away against a promotion rival to go third in League Two; and the Saints run riot against Worcester – a wonderful hat trick. Following hard on the heels of Melbourne's extraordinary Aussie Rules triumph, it's all going too well to last!

● I'm boycotting Beckham. This poor useful idiot is being used to make positive noises about the World Cup in Qatar. There is nothing positive about allowing hundreds of migrant workers to be killed in the building of stadiums that will require cold air to be pumped out at a planet-destroying rate in order for the games to be playable. I've been boycotting this larger disgrace for some time; now Beckham has been added to the list.

● I'm also done with Oxfam. This craven, pathetic organisation has been in the news for the wrong reasons far too much lately – but its abject capitulation to the trans extremist fascists is the final straw. By withdrawing a game featuring role-model women it has crumbled before the forces of misogyny and bullying. The trans lobby is doing a grave disservice to genuine transgender people, just as the Taliban and Isis shame and embarrass the vast majority of muslims.

● A friend has found a New Zealand news story that says the country is laughing with glee at the trade deal just struck with the UK, implying that we have been taken for suckers. Disgruntled British farmers were mentioned – but when are they not disgruntled; they have much to be disgruntled about, constantly being fleeced by supermarkets. Not mentioned of course, was the fact that New Zealand already had a quota for meat exports to the UK – one that was significantly larger than the amount of meat actually sent. The Kiwis, in reality, are focused on Chinese markets. But it's good they are happy – as are we. It's the sign of a good deal when both sides are smiling.

● Why does it take so long? I scribbled on my copy of The Times a couple of weeks ago, asking why everyone over 50 should not be able to book their booster jab online two or three weeks before their due date, rather than have to wait until a week after they should have received their invitation. Thankfully – and eventually – someone has worked out how dumb they're being and how much cleverer it would be to get the vast supplies of vaccine into arms as soon as possible. Come on Sajiv Javid – wake up!

● Amid cries for the police to be more proactive in protecting the public and to bring their full weight to bear on every allegation or complaint, along comes the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, seeking to give officers greater powers to do just that. But hold hard – not everyone is convinced, and so Radio 4's Today programme wants to speak to them. It's a former top cop, and he is denouncing the new powers as amounting to the creation of “police state”. His solution? Education. OK everyone – are you happy to wait a generation or two while we educate crime out of society?

● Social media could have been a wonderful tool. But instead, it's been hijacked by big business as the most potent sales tool in history – notably through its direct access to youngsters' communication networks. An excellent account by an Oxford student in The Times T2 section today gives an idea of how pervasive this marketing tool has become: she cites the fake Kardashians, fake conversations about lip fillers, and the vicious bullying that greets teenagers as they fall asleep and when they wake. Social media has become vile and destructive – but then, that's big business.

● A friend hates Boris. Well, most of our friends seem to. They accuse of him of being unscrupulous, underhand, dishonest and worse: the most evil prime minister ever. It's hard to disagree with every charge, Johnson is no angel, but no prime minister ever is. Where I take issue is over the qualities required of a prime minister: fitness for the job is what matters. If politics was an afternoon tea party, I would suggest Mary Berry be our leader. But I see politics more like a bruising game of rugby. You would surely want the nastiest brutes on your side, whether you like them or not, and so were I to be picking the team, Boris would be one of my first choices.


OCTOBER 20 2021

FROM HUSTLING HANCOCK TO A VACCINE VACUUM

To all those who continue to ridicule and condemn Matt Hancock for his performance as Health Secretary during the global pandemic – I counter that we would be managing far better now were he still to be in post. The casual approach of his inadequate replacement has seen mask-wearing and other measures virtually disappear, the vaccine programme to decline and the virus to become reinvigorated. Reliance on the vaccine programme was always an experiment – one that required rigorous observation and adjustment should it not proceed as expected. Luckily, the first phase went beautifully, with 100 per cent of the willing and able adult population receiving their protection and hospitalisations and deaths under control. Disastrously, as evidence mounts that the vaccine's effects wear off more quickly than hoped, there has been no response from Sajiv Javid. In fact, he is nowhere to be seen. Hancock would have been bouncing in front of cameras and microphones, herding everyone into jab centres for their boosters ahead of the nominal six-month gap and pressing for more youngsters and all professional sportspeople to protect themselves and others. He might well have been mocked, but he would have been right – again.

Instead, the vacuum at the top is allowing anti-vaccine and conspiracy theory half-wits to harass schoolchildren and threaten ministers, and enabling prominent athletes, such as the appalling Djokovic, to set a terrible example without being challenged. These dangerously misguided fools are literally killing people by promoting the spread of a deadly disease. The relatively low proportion of the UK population accepting the vaccine, compared to several similar countries, is not the fault of government, the medical profession or the scientists – it is because the UK has a larger proportion of simpletons: the entire adult population was offered the jab several months ago. Some were unable to accept it; but most are just dumb, deranged and dangerous. Hancock kept up the programme's momentum; Javid has lost it completely and it will be extremely difficult to persuade the millions who now consider the pandemic to be over to bother with renewed safety precautions or extra jabs.

LOVE WORK, HATE JOBS

Yesterday's You And Yours phone-in, on Radio Four, was actually quite sensible. Normally, these sessions are dominated by aggrieved individuals moaning about a hardship entirely of their own making and which, after even light questioning, usually falls apart completely. This week's topic was “How has lockdown affected your attitude to work?” Admittedly, the featured responses came from a fairly narrow demographic, but the overwhelming message was that, contrary to the ludicrous myth that Britons won't work, British people are very keen to work; it is jobs that they object to. One caller after another explained that lockdown made them realise there was more to life than a job: some had switched to part-time work, some amended their small business to allow more free time, some had taken early retirement, and one family had decided to sell their home and travel the world. All spoke of enjoying the beauty of nature, of having time to appreciate their families and friends. One said he would prefer “15 years of bliss” to 30 years of bleakness. They all sought time to develop hobbies and crafts. They also spoke of the positive side of work – social interaction, a daily and weekly structure, a steady income. Indeed, none was opposed to working – quite the reverse. But many spoke of how hideous and pointless their employment was – penny-pinching pay cuts, mismanagement, dull and unsatisfying tasks. An employer spoke of how hard it was to find staff and how he needed to find ways to attract people. He didn't go so far as to say British people are work-shy, but one rogue correspondent did. And this is the point. If a baker is trying to sell cakes and no one buys them, would it be right to blame the public, to call them too lazy and entitled to eat cake? Or would it be right to look at what is being offered and ask whether it meets society's needs and desires? I considered these issues in some detail in The Rise of Antisocialism and came to exactly the same conclusions as those disillusioned phone-in callers. It is yet another example of how so many re-evaluations sparked by the pandemic have confirmed the arguments I, and others, have been pursuing for many years.

PUTTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT

Two first-rate articles caught my eye this week. The first, a highly justified demolition of the ghastly Blair and Brown BBC programme looked at the true legacy of the worst prime minister in living memory – Gordon Brown. It pointed out the inequities of his windfall tax on the privatised utilities (cancelled investments, unfair distribution of taxation); the disastrous impact of stripping supervision of commercial lenders from the Bank of England (allowing the free-for-all that precipitated the 2007 crisis); and, worst of all, his abolition of the tax credits on dividends that deprived pension funds of £5bn a year and wrecked the world's best occupational pension scheme. Ian King, a Sky News business presenter, wrote the piece for The Times, and concluded by saying: “Since his eviction by the voters in 2010, an attempt has been made to rehabilitate Brown as a dignified, almost cuddly, elder statesman. The truth, sadly airbrushed from this documentary, is that he did lasting damage to the UK economy.” And, I would add, to countless individuals.

The second is an excellent account of how the opponents of globalisation, of which I have been one for many years, have been proved right. It was always about cheapness and inevitably involved a huge downgrading of resilience – two factors that we are now facing head-on following the relatively mild shock of the pandemic. Two examples: mistreatment and exploitation of workers around the world is – in the ultimate irony – leading them to head for the very countries that have been exploiting them; the drive for cheaper energy is now leading to insecurities in supply and to rocketing prices. This superb wake-up call is on the UnHerd website (link below) and is a complete vindication of the decades-old left-wing campaign against globalisation. It is also amounts to a condemnation of the liberal conservative now leading the Labour Party. As the writer, Aris Roussinos, a former war reporter and a contributing editor at UnHerd. writes: “The Left has seemingly abandoned its commitment to localisation and the preservation of unionised, national labour in favour of cosmopolitan dreams of unfettered globalisation.” He's basically saying what I say in The Rise of Antisocialism and have said repeatedly in this blog. And for that reason – and for the sake of the planet – I'd say it's a must read!

https://unherd.com/2021/10/crisis-is-the-new-normal/?tl_inbound=1&tl_groups[0]=18743&tl_period_type=3&mc_cid=cb85415bb2&mc_eid=9be086e691


OCTOBER 15 2021

Got a problem? Could be personal or something to do with business? How about not being allowed to see your elderly relative in a care home – and risking passing on Covid, of course? Or not being able to find staff for your hotel? Well, all you have to do is call the BBC and they will interview you, giving air to your grievance and allowing you to blame whoever you choose. It's been going on for two or three years. Perhaps more. And you can concoct a story to make it more devastating – and don't worry, it won't be checked. BBC News has now reduced itself to cataloguing moans and whinges from all and sundry without taking the trouble to research, investigate or challenge. This is news as one long rolling vox pop reflecting only one side of the argument.

The latest topics to occupy the Beeb are dead pigs and living lorry drivers. With the country barely able to move as the mountains of smoking pork grow, we learn that this “crisis” is not one of our government's manufacturing, but possibly a scam by farmers to try and force the taxpayer to subsidise the losses they might face because China has stopped importing pork over Covid fears. With so little analysis of current events it is hard to know whether this explanation is fully valid or only partially. Either way, the BBC swallowed the farmers' story whole – and so far it has turned out to be complete rubbish.

Today, it was all about the scandalous minor technical adjustment regarding cabotage, made by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to enable visiting foreign lorry drivers to be more efficient while they are in the UK. This is for a six-month period and is yet another measure aimed at easing the post-pandemic haulage difficulties being experienced around the world. It all sounds terribly sensible. The Times reported the move appropriately – in a small space at the bottom of an inside page. But neither Today presenter Nick Robinson nor the haulage industry see things that way: the former absurdly accused Shapps of giving up on “high-skills, high-wage” at the first hurdle – as if the labour-market atrocities of the past four decades can be corrected in the blink of an eye; the latter accused Shapps of exposing British haulage firms to cheap foreign competition!

These assaults proved too feeble for a nimble operator such as the Transport Secretary – he pointed out to Robinson that this was a temporary measure and that these foreign drivers are visiting anyway. The move would give haulage firms a little breathing space to get their own act together as more newly trained applicants enter the profession. As for the idiotic haulage industry. For decades it has exploited its long-suffering drivers to the point that so many have left the industry it can barely function. This is its big chance to haul itself out of the cheap and nasty era with higher pay and improved facilities. For it to claim it is having to compete against low-cost east European firms who exploit their drivers is utterly astounding, given that until a few weeks ago it was doing precisely that itself. But never mind, its spokesperson was welcomed on to the airwaves to spout this nonsense, unchecked and unchallenged.

It was worth listening to Shapps. He is a politician and so, of course, is partial. But he did sound far more believable than the whining presenters and their obliging complainers when he put into perspective the appalling blockages at British ports. Again, with the BBC presenting this global shipping snarl-up purely as a parochial, home-made British issue, Shapps informed his host he had contacted Felixstowe last evening and established that there was just one ship waiting to dock, whereas there were 60 or so queuing outside Los Angeles and plenty more at Asian ports.

This is what journalism has become. And at the BBC, too. As a career-long journalist, it is deeply painful to witness this tragic decline. When the BBC shifts from informing and educating the public to merely providing it with a platform to air any grievance, no matter how spurious or self-inflicted, then news is in a perilous state. And where news standards fall, democracy is rarely too far behind.

OCTOBER 14 2021

And so, unleashed this week, is the first Covid-19 hindsight report. Produced by MPs – the Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee – it pretends to be a helpful exercise in learning lessons from the pandemic. In fact, it is a simplistic attack on Boris, Cummings, Whitty, Vallance and crew – one that we have heard repeatedly from Brexit-haters – claiming the government did “too little, too late” in locking the country down and that this killed many people unnecessarily.

One particularly nasty piece of work crawled out of the woodwork in the form of BBC Radio Four Today presenter, Amol Rajan. I'm not sure who he was “interviewing” on Tuesday morning – his casual, slurred delivery does not make for a good radio voice, and so I didn't catch the name – but it was someone from the government. Rajan hurled a volley of insults and allegations and then went on to claim ministers had learned nothing because they delayed the autumn lockdown, too, killing yet more people. He became quite shirty, bordering on charges of manslaughter as he accused them of not following the science. People died because there was no lockdown until November, he ranted.

If you are to investigate, explain and hold authority to account, as us journalists should, your first duty is to be fair, accurate and know what you are talking about. Rajan managed none of these. First, to say there was no lockdown until November is simply incorrect and playing with words. Safety measures in England were gradually ramped up from September – social distancing, the rule of six, working from home, a 10pm curfew and severe regional lockdowns, with a Tier system. It should also be noted that by this stage, every single person in the country should have been fully aware of how Covid-19 was being transmitted and how its spread could be prevented: the new year surge in cases, hospitalisations and deaths was the direct result of the bulk of the population knowingly choosing to take huge risks in order to celebrate Christmas. The government is not the only player in this game.

His second ignorant assumption was that the government was “not following the science” – even though ministers and scientists appeared together, united, at the daily press briefings. Moreover, as Rajan himself smugly pointed out in a subsequent debate, there is no single “science” – there are many opinions, stretching from one extreme to the other. Some scientists were indeed calling for early and severe lockdowns; other equally eminent scientists were shouting, very loudly, that “lockdowns kill people, too”. Every day for more than a year, BBC news presenters were seeking out malcontents keen to describe the misery and damage being done by lockdown. It, too, took its toll. Indeed, today we have been hearing how NHS waiting lists and waiting times deteriorated because of distancing, staying at home and other lockdown rules, as well as pressure on the system.

From the beginning, the exercise had to be a precarious balancing act – saving lives, protecting the NHS, avoiding social disorder, keeping the economy and essential services functioning. There was no right or wrong, no grand mistakes, no “worst failure ever”, just a rapidly evolving global disaster that was handled differently by every country in the world. Some parts suffered more or less than others; none escaped completely. But to compare the UK's response and outcome to that of countries such as Taiwan, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, as we heard on Tuesday, is laughable. And to claim the government's “slow response” was an act of “deliberate policy” in order to achieve herd immunity is to ignore a succession of facts: the full UK lockdown was announced just one day after Germany's – we were not slow; other countries, such as Sweden, were being lauded for their robust anti-lockdown approach – it might, for all anyone knew, have been the least damaging route in the long term; population density is one of the primary factors in determining death rates – just look at the almost precise correlation between deaths and density on the night-time weather map every evening; Australia and New Zealand are obviously special cases – small, isolated settlements – and still their protracted and severe lockdowns have failed to keep out the virus; and, as was stated clearly and correctly at the time, Asian countries are very different, both culturally and in their far greater experience of dangerous viruses.

Of course there will be scientists and opportunist politicians protesting, rightly or wrongly, that they were, all along, urging the government to take what would have turned out to be a better course. But for every one of those were many more calling for precisely the opposite. On balance, to say that the UK got it wrong, and more wrong than any other nation, is simply wrong. It is a misunderstanding and a misrepresentation of the issues as they arose. There were mistakes – how could there not be? But were they reckless, heartless, clueless? Of course not.

OCTOBER 6 2021

In early 2016, it felt as though Janice Turner and I were the only left-wing Brexiteers in the country – or at least with access to the media. The Times columnist wrote an excellent column headlined “The loneliness of the left-wing Brexiteer” (roughly). But when it came to the referendum, she changed her mind, leaving me feeling deserted and very alone, surrounded by liberal remainers. Now, suddenly, it's me and the Tory party leadership! How did that happen? Boris Johnson gives a conference speech that should have come from the lips of a Labour leader worth his salt, and ministers galore head to Radio 4 studios to trumpet their socialist credentials. Up the workers! Patience Wheatcroft – Baroness Wheatcroft, former journalist, if you must – also voiced her opinion on the radio – agreeing with the prompt from presenter Sarah Montague that this idea of “high wages-high skills” seems very new – saying she thought these slogans had been retro-fitted on to the policy to justify an awkward turn of events regarding labour shortages. Perhaps it is an afterthought; perhaps the Tory cabinet and I are only together in peddling socialist ideas because it suits them for the time being. If so, I am still a very lonely – but increasingly delighted – left-wing Brexiteer.

That's not to say everything will be plain sailing. There is a serious chicken and egg conundrum over which comes first – higher wages or improved productivity. How can you pay higher wages if productivity remains tragically low? For me, the answer is that you have to start somewhere or nothing ever improves. And if being forced to pay higher wages in order to secure staff leads to investment in technology and training that improves productivity, then that's as good as we can hope for.

It can't happen, of course, if the premise of higher pay is again undermined by resorting once more to free movement by the back door, as proposed by several sectors addicted to cheap exploitable labour. The government has rightly resisted such calls for the addict to be given one more shot of poison. But perhaps it should consider Lord Wolfson's proposals more carefully. The Brexiteer chief executive of Next is suggesting allowing migrant labour to plug gaps in the UK economy – but making it more expensive to do so than to use local workers. Forcing employers to pay the full rate for the job, plus a migrant worker tax on top, would focus the minds of businesses too ready to take the easy and cheap option. We would then see just how serious the labour “crisis” really is.

A PROFESSION IN TATTERS

We are awash with rubbish statistics: meaningless, misleading and just plain wrong. They're everywhere. Yet so many are treated as facts if they suit the narrative, or if they simply cause a little splash of attention. One example is a “survey” that “discovered” the colour of a house door affects its value – brown doors make a house worth a few hundred pounds less and a blue door a few thousand more. It's clearly absurd, yet it was broadcast uncritically on a BBC breakfast time programme. Thankfully, we have another BBC programme, More or Less, hosted by my former FT colleague Tim Harford, to put matters straight. It was, of course, just a ridiculous publicity stunt. But astonishingly, it had been accepted as fact.

Also in the past week or so, a feature on how to save money in a time of rapidly rising energy costs suggested that turning off the TV at the wall when not in use could save £35 a year. More or Less took the “expert's” figures, checked them and found that switching off a new TV at the wall would actually save just 40p a year, or 80p a year for an older one. This is a shocking and utterly damning indictment of what passes for journalism today. It has become such a catch-all title, covering showbiz presenters, former footballers, sofa-bound chat show non-entities gossiping, that it is has lost most of its meaning. Worse still is that extending the title “journalist” to cover anyone who simply has access to any form of media, for whatever purpose, is allowing all this nonsense to be peddled before a largely trusting public. Where is the rigour, the integrity, the scepticism, the investigation, and the checking in these programmes that care more about headlines and hits than facts and accuracy? Those vital and precious skills, honed by real journalists over centuries, are now being replaced by lazy and dim-witted sensationalism and abject gullibility.


OCTOBER 5 2021

TIME MAKES A MOCKERY OF SNAPSHOT JUDGMENTS

This is quite an extraordinary time in politics, society and culture. Not only is the Tory Party the champion of the working man and Labour the party of business, but the issues I discussed in The Rise of Antisocialism are now, having been largely ignored for years, suddenly being aired in every media conversation.

The first lesson we must learn from current events is that taking a snapshot in time is idiotic: change, for better or worse, takes time to manifest itself. Take, for example, the Covid-19 statistics and debates around them. The fear over a rising infection rate is now fading: a quarter of a million new cases per week are now shrugged off, as hospitalisations and deaths gradually fall. As I've said before, and as New Zealand's over-rated prime minister has had to admit, vaccination and learning to live with the virus is the only route out of pandemic. And as more and more people – a million a month in the UK – gain natural immunity to add to the protection afforded by the vaccine, the long-term policy is clearly working. Matt Hancock deserves credit for his relentless pursuit of this but doubtless will be written out of the success story. But the crucial point is that it was a long-term policy, dating back to the summer of 2020 – no quick fix was available despite the daily wailing and moaning that government should “do something”. There was nothing to do but work assiduously towards a vaccinated population, able to carry on largely as normal. We have now achieved maximum vaccination of the adult population – 100 per cent of those willing to be vaccinated. Refuseniks choosing to place themselves, and others, at risk cause a distortion to the statistics when comparing the UK to countries that have used force or bribery to persuade the unwilling to accept the jab. We await the final outcome, which could be blown off course by a change in the virus. But with a fair wind, the job appears to be done.

Change in the jobs market will take longer to produce such positive results but it would, again, be idiotic to judge trends on a single day in early October 2021. Putting right the blunders of the past four decades will take years – but the grand correction is now well under way. As it proceeds it will surely become as difficult for employers to keep harking back to the bad old days of cheap exploitable East European labour as it is for critics of the vaccination policy to complain that it isn't working. When Peter Tiede, chief political correspondent of Bild newspaper in Germany, wrote a hideously ugly and very stupid column in The Times last week, he clearly could not have even understood what he was saying when he boasted that Germany was happily motoring along, powered by the cheap, exploitable East Europeans, to whom we had closed the door. He failed to comprehend that Germany is pursuing a broken and outdated model, based on feeding unsustainable businesses on an unlimited diet of lowly paid, but diligent, workers performing vital tasks the comfortable local population won't touch. His column should be compulsory reading for every Pole or Romanian thinking of accepting a job in Germany: they can now easily be made aware of how they are being mocked and abused. Future generations will come to equate this treatment with the slave-owning plantation culture that seemed so efficient at producing crops for so long.

If Germany has yet even to identify the disease, let alone think of a cure, the UK is getting much right – and a few things wrong – in dealing with the deep-rooted problems and the consequences. Ministers talk of a “high skills, high wage” economy, which sounds marvellous as a sound bite and is a more than worthy aim – but which could be improved upon to reflect the reality of the challenges ahead. Because many of the jobs for which high pay will be required, in the name of fairness and “levelling up”, are not high skilled, nor ever will be. Hospitality, agriculture, food production and processing, logistics, care, and others – these sectors all require varying levels of skill but little that cannot be learned fairly speedily. What they are, though, are necessary. I categorised jobs as “necessary” or “unnecessary” in my book before they came to be labelled “essential” and “non-essential” during the pandemic, and I called for greater rewards and better treatment for those in necessary roles. What they require, as much as skills, is attitude and application, thoughtfulness and care, initiative and common sense. And so the vital categorisation is not between “high-skilled” and “low-skilled”, but evaluating which functions carry the highest levels of value – value to individuals and to society in general. Adjusting the sound bite to “high-wage, high value” would reflect reality and perhaps persuade youngsters to consider the wider value of a job when planning their careers, rather than simply its value to them.

This is a high hurdle to leap and, as before, will take time. The reckless and simplistic university ambitions imposed by Tony Blair compounded the growing issue of the undesirability of many necessary jobs: the vastly increased number of graduates would inevitably have ever higher expectations, unattainable in the existing societal structures and consumption culture. A profound change in the way necessary tasks are perceived and valued is therefore urgently required.

The pandemic brought about a spectacular start to this process. But whether it proves long lasting is dependent on the momentum being maintained – of which the current debate is a hopeful sign. Proper treatment of HGV drivers and others should have a ripple effect, as labour supply shortages feed through into training, investment, wages, conditions and status. Brexit, Covid-19 and the resulting shifts in power have together brought a shock to the system – almost as great a shock as hearing a Tory prime minister sounding like a Labour leader – and a socialist Labour leader at that – while the actual Labour leader talks the language of business and the continuation of a cheap, oppressed workforce.

In order to fuel the fears, talk in some media – and the BBC is a prime offender in this, especially after its irresponsible stoking of the petrol panic – is now focused on “empty supermarket shelves”, “Christmas shortages”, inflation, higher interest rates and a slowing of the economy. There is a danger of creating another self-fulfilling prophecy but it is more likely that such “dangers” will be, as Boris said this morning, signs of stress and strain as a higher grade workforce evolves. And some of those dire warnings do not withstand scrutiny anyway: surely, a slowing and shrinking economy means less pointless and polluting activity. Surely, it is good news that latest figures show fewer new cars being registered – they might be slightly cleaner than some older cars, but fewer cars in total ought to be welcomed as a benefit to humanity, rather than presented as a blow to business. As the economy shrinks – which is inevitable, whatever other choices we make, given the alarming acceleration of the damage caused by climate change – it is imperative that those taking on the least desirable but most necessary jobs are rewarded. There will be a cost, of course, and that must be carried by those best able. Any idea of “levelling up” must, of necessity, involve a significant element of “levelling down”. Over time, this will come to be seen as inevitable and eventually as desirable. I might be among those having to “level down” – a little – but I am more than happy for this development to begin.

COPING WITH CHAOS – THE FIRST QUALITY REQUIRED OF A PRIME MINISTER

I read an interesting insight into the quality of prime ministers at the weekend – apologies to whoever wrote it, as I didn't take a note. But it pointed out that Boris Johnson grew up in chaos – a picture of a wild childhood was painted in which pragmatism and invention were required to survive and flourish. The Johnson clan has clearly done well on it, with some punching enormously above their weight. So where does this place Boris? Looking back at the prime ministers of the past 40 years, they pretty much all had a plan, a programme, a vision. And they pretty much all failed miserably. Boris is accused of failing to having a plan, of “making it up as he goes along”, of reacting to events rather than carrying out a programme. Which raises the question as to whether these are the ideal qualities of a prime minister. Perhaps one that is able to chart a course through the chaos that is real life, that behaves pragmatically and responsively, is likely to be far more successful than one that sticks to the plan in the face of impossible obstacles and a constantly moving target. I wouldn't, though, accuse Boris of having no vision: he has a well-articulated and simple, two-pronged vision – “levelling up” and tackling climate change. As I've said before, they would be my top two as well. And it's also important to note that a “vision” is not the same as a plan or a programme – it's a goal that might be reached by any number of routes, depending upon the prevailing, and inevitably chaotic, circumstances.

This might be what infuriates highly opinionated commentators, such as the BBC's Nick Robinson. I would no longer call him a journalist; I was a journalist. And his recent Today programme interviews on Radio Four have hit new lows. Last week, he made the mistake of attacking the Shadow Lord Chancellor David Lammy, and lost. Robinson was his usual obnoxious and rude self – but Lammy was even more obnoxious and, like all bullies, Robinson immediately became obsequious and pathetic. Almost the same thing happened this morning when Robinson “interviewed”, or argued with, Boris and – incredible as it might seem – ordered him to “stop talking” in the middle of a perfectly sensibly answer. It was an extraordinary low in even this commentator's career, but it certainly had the desired effect of preventing the prime minister from explaining why Robinson's suppositions and premises were wrong. For the rest of the argument the commentator sounded slightly contrite, as though someone from the legitimate world of journalism – perhaps the programme editor – had told him he'd stumbled way over the mark.

TRAFFIC AT TERMINAL VOLUMES

Not to so long ago, the country was able to keep functioning, just about, with minimal use of the car. It was a wonderful glimpse of what might be. Last week, the country claimed to be unable to function at all without a full tank of petrol, while at the same time driving hither and thither on missions we managed without last year. Anyone who wonders just how much traffic there is on our roads should note what happens when an artery is blocked by misguided fools protesting about insulation or, as this morning, by a flood: Google maps shows dark red roads everywhere. Like our precarious “just-in-time” supply chains, levels of traffic are teetering on the brink.

A FEAT NEVER ATTEMPTED BY ANY PREVIOUS GENERATION...

Drums roll....it's daring, thrilling – and it's a trick that has never been attempted by any previous generation. But we now expect more; we believe we are entitled to more, and so young people today are having a crack at what was once thought almost impossible for the majority – buying a home on their own. The idea of a “home-owning democracy” is surprisingly new and certainly for well over half of the last century home ownership was only for a few, with renting the norm. And when buying did become more common, it was virtually always on the basis of a couple, who would have saved hard and pooled their resources. This seems no longer good enough, partly because of absurdly high expectations and partly because relationship formation seems to be on the decline, or at least occurring much later in life. A two-week series on housing began on Radio 4 at lunchtime yesterday and, contrary to my extremely low expectations, it did manage to acknowledge that home ownership is a relatively new concept. I shall listen again.

SEPTEMBER 30 2021

DON'T BLAME THE NEW DOCTOR FOR WHAT LIES BENEATH THE OLD STICKING PLASTER

I heard on BBC Radio 4 news last night that another three “energy suppliers” had gone bust. The Times repeated the story this morning. Luckily, the articles were not about energy suppliers at all – as in companies that actually supply gas and electricity – but about energy “retailers”, or “buy and sell” merchants, wheeler-dealers. In fact, many “companies” in this sector are barely even that – they are spivs with a couple of laptops operating from a back bedroom taking punts on moving market prices. Calling them “energy suppliers” is the equivalent of calling Del Boy Trotter a “car radio supplier” – except Del Boy would actually have some car radios.

This state of affairs is not new: it has been five or six years in the making as previous government decisions sought to increase competition in the market and make it ever easier for consumers to switch to lower prices with minimalist regulation over the quality of the many start-ups. It was a wound that was bound to become infected and burst open sooner or later.

So, too, was the long-term shortage of HGV drivers, as mentioned before – the dreadful pay and conditions have been nurturing it for decades. The UK's care system has also been in a sorry state for decades: no one knows what to do about it and the government's latest ineffectual efforts at reform are concerned only with how it is financed, with inheritances protected. Elsewhere, jobs for seasonal produce pickers have been shockingly awful for many years, teetering on the brink of slave labour in many cases, thanks to unscrupulous supermarket giants squeezing farm prices to artificially low levels. These jobs are so bad that no local people can or will take them on. Importing migrants is just another unsustainable sticking plaster covering another stinking sore. The broad hospitality sector is short of labour, too, with low pay and unsociable hours making it unattractive to those who have a choice. Again, exploiting migrants has been the misdiagnosed medicine, allowing the infection to fester.

Add in 40 years of mismanaging the nation's housing stock and the increase in personal wealth that enables multiple home ownership and rabid consumption, and it's easy to see why some young people are priced out of their native areas, furthering regional labour shortages.

Now, a pandemic and Brexit – yes, Brexit must take plenty of credit for helping to expose these ulcers – requires that the old dressings be removed and the underlying sicknesses remedied. In doing so, we have to ask whether it is fair or correct to place all the blame for the sorry condition of the patient upon the physicians exposing it. Either way, I am astonished at how quickly the fresh tonic is taking effect: wages are rising – by 60 per cent in the logistics sector, according to James Reed, boss of the Reed recruitment firm, and conditions are improving as well. Even more astonishing is that the Tory administration can see all this – how honest workers have taken the driving seat and it is actually encouraging and applauding this reversal of power in the labour market, while Labour whimpers about how badly business needs its cheap exploitable immigrants back. It beggars belief.

There will, of course, be repercussions. The most obvious of which is inflation, along with the more worrying prospect of higher interest rates, which will whack mortgage holders, leading to widespread repossessions unless steps are taken to help them. Inflation is inevitable because the increased costs of labour will eventually reach the consumer. There has been talk in news programmes today of prices rising in supermarkets and restaurants by about 10 per cent over the next few months. And this is right and proper. We live in a country and culture that has become addicted to consumption at unnaturally cheap prices – cheap because they do not allow for decent pay and conditions for the workforce. As I say in The Rise of Antisocialism, any business that fails to provide a good living for those sustaining it should not really be called a business at all. Thanks to Brexit, we might see an end to widespread bogus cheapness and the start of better lives for those carrying out the most arduous and sometimes least attractive jobs. And if higher prices means we consume less, as I said before, so much the better.

It has to be admitted, however, that there are special cases in the labour market and seasonal farm work is perhaps the largest. There is no guarantee that any level of improvements in pay and conditions would enable local people to take on seasonal jobs lasting just a few weeks or months in a tight labour market. However tight it becomes, there will always be a few unemployed people but assuming there are not enough, then how can this rural industry be serviced? One spur of the moment thought is that school holidays have historically been timed to coincide with the need for agricultural labourers. University terms could be tweaked even more easily. It's an old remedy to a disorder that has been plastered over for far too long: offer students a significant reduction on their loans if they spend eight or 10 weeks a year in the fields. Make the offer attractive enough and it treats two maladies at once. It seems too good to be true; I will need to give it some more thought.

SEPTEMBER 29 2021

LABOUR FOR BUSINESS, TORIES FOR THE WORKERS!

So Keir Starmer said it: Labour is “in business”. And never did he speak a truer word. His keynote speech at this week's Labour Party conference was at least clear on one thing: the political world is now turned upside down – with Labour now proudly standing as the party of business and the Tories the party of the worker. Labour, for all its “Brexit is done and dusted and we have to move on” rhetoric fully supports business's demands that the unlimited supply of cheap and exploitable workers be re-established, whereas the Tories argue that shortages in some industries open up opportunities for a market correction that will benefit the humble labourer with better wages and conditions. Indeed, we are seeing this already. Labour would, given the chance, allow freedom of movement to cruelly distort the UK labour market once more, papering over decades-old cracks in investment, productivity, training, technology, innovation, and retention of staff through decent pay and conditions. Its obsession with metropolitan liberal views leaves it with no clue as to how working people feel and are faring. Labour has become a ridiculous middle-class luxury that real-world labourers can ill afford. What is a genuine socialist to do?

CHICKENS COMING HOME TO ROOST

Ignorant and idiotic banners on social media suggest that Brexiteers (whoever they might be) are regretting their vote now that they're stuck in a self-inflicted queue for petrol. Well I am certainly not. Wages are rising for those performing the most worthwhile and essential tasks in our society – in caring, logistics (drivers), hospitality and the like. Their contribution is at last being recognised and valued. HGV drivers, for example, have suffered truly awful roadside conditions in the UK for decades, with dreadful, or non-existent, facilities. With poor pay failing hopelessly to compensate for the unsociable hours and lifestyle, and a badly timed tax change it is no wonder drivers are choosing to walk. Huge investment is needed in all these areas, meaning that the costs of moving goods around will rise sharply. How will these be paid for? In the normal way – pass them on, and pass them on again until they eventually reach the consumer. And if this means we consume less, so much the better for the planet. All socialists should celebrate this long-awaited and momentous change. We might experience several months of mild disruption but 40 years of foolishness will take quite some time to turn around. Would a cancer patient, experiencing side-effects, regret agreeing to life-saving chemotherapy after the first treatment proved that it was working?

EXPENSIVE PETROL VERSUS NO PETROL

The UnHerd website does it again with another fascinating argument that suggests radical pricing could be used to calm the panic buying at filling stations. It includes, of course, the inevitable complaint that this would hurt poorer people, who are often those who need it most. But it goes on to point out the false dichotomy contained in that scenario: the choice is not between expensive petrol and cheap petrol, it is between expensive petrol and no petrol. Allowing price gouging in the snow shovel market, for example, would enable a smart seller to amass a stock before a blizzard struck, to be sold expensively once everyone is at a standstill. Claiming this also discriminates against the poor ignores the fact that without the price adjustment no one would have snow shovels. I'm not totally convinced but it might be worth a try in a fuel context, for a limited period at least. Fuel hogs would be less likely to fill their tanks and plastic bottles unnecessarily if petrol was going to be three times its normal price for 10 days. It's a simple form of rationing. Yes, poorer people would struggle to pay a fiver a litre but they would buy no more than they absolutely needed – no one would. And at least there is a better chance fuel would be available.

POLITICAL LEADERS ARE ONLY PEOPLE

A Tory reshuffle and there are different people in the same old jobs. Some will be good, some bad. It is always thus. In the half century or so during which I have been politically aware, there has been one constant – those in government are just people. Intellectually ordinary, as prone to mistakes as anyone else, and only distinguished from the crowd by a ruthlessness in their pursuit of influence or power. The current freshly shuffled crop is no different. Some will get lucky and achieve, most will flounder as events continually dash them against the rocks. Making instant, contemporary judgments of a political cadre is hopeless: those rejoicing at the election of slick Tony Blair's regime in 1997 were made to appear most foolish within just a couple of years; the apparently bumbling John Major will be treated far more kindly by the history writers. The root of the problem is that nearly all policies and decisions hold within them repercussions that might take years, or decades, to emerge and so each cohort is wrestling with the ghastly mistakes of the past as well as their own limitations. The UK's catastrophic reliance on a globalised energy system, which dates back several decades, is a current example. It is a case of yet more chickens coming home to roost. While remaining seriously suspicious of the motivations of some high-profile political leaders, I see them, in the main, as well-meaning but hopelessly out of their depth – doing their best while drowning in an impossible storm of their predecessors' making. And I have learnt to avoid making contemporaneous judgments but try instead to project forward the consequences of our leaders' day-to-day decisions. In this way, we can assess slightly more accurately their intentions and the overall direction of travel.


SEPTEMBER 20 2021

Pay is rising. This is something the market should be able to understand: when a commodity is in limitless supply, its value will drop; in reduced supply, its value will rise. Simple. This is precisely what has happened in the UK labour market in the past year or so. But rather than accept this most basic of market principles, businesses in every sector prefer to moan and whine and beg for help.

Well done Iain Martin who used his column in The Times last week to bring the world's attention to this “good-for-the-workers” fact, hitherto presented as “bad-for-business”, usually couched in such terms as “businesses that rely on migrant labour”.

SHIPMAN SINKS AGAIN

Is there a journalist in history who has written so many glaringly incorrect and irrelevant “insights” as the hapless Tim Shipman? Week after week, The Sunday Times' political editor warns of some impending catastrophe, predicts some disastrous constitutional manoeuvring, or uses his vast powers of hindsight to analyse recent events and come to the most absurd conclusions. No other medium follows up; rarely does anyone even bother to contradict them; they are never heard of again. Again, yesterday, he wrote a long and barely readable or credible piece about the difference in attitudes between the under-25s and over-25s. He had found “research”, based on focus groups and a small survey, that listed the gravest concerns of those in the two age groups. Any sentient being of any age should have ticked every item, apart from the first one, “mental health”, because this was already covered by a concern for the NHS. In fact, several vital issues were strangely overlooked. Perhaps that is explained by the methodology; it was not instantly clear why so many people cared little for tackling climate change or gender equality.

But leaving that aside, the entire “shock” element of the feature evaporates for anyone who believes, as I do, that the young SHOULD hold challenging and radical views that baffle older generations. I certainly did, as did most of my contemporaries, and those opinions have largely remained with me but have been re-shaped by growing experience and wisdom. A feature that assumes all under-25s have fixed views that will never grow with greater understanding therefore ignores the fundamental and essential building block of growing up, rendering the whole exercise worthless.

The only difference between my formative years and now is that our younger selves were treated with contempt and aggression by older generations and “the establishment”; we had to throw things and occupy spaces to be heard. Today, twerps galore hang upon every word of every youngster struggling to make sense of the real world; they are treated as little gods.

And as a columnist points out in The Times today, this cycle will inevitably continue when today's pampered youngsters face identical accusations of “stolen futures” and mistaken priorities from their own offspring in this eternal “generation war”. It is perfectly normal, natural and entirely to be welcomed. Which is why Shipman's article will sink without trace, along with almost all of his other outpourings.

LEVELLING DOWN

I have spoken before of Alex Scott's diction and the debate continues. Scott is an insightful and interesting Match of the Day pundit; this does not make her a candidate for every BBC presenting job. As columnist Clare Foges points out in today's Times, the objection to her taking jobs fronting the Olympics coverage or The One Show is nothing to do with her accent, it is to do with the fact that she has poor diction – and good diction should surely be an essential attribute of any good communicator, especially one addressing an entire nation. Some academics, of course, claim that anything goes, that there is no right or wrong in language or communication as long as an individual can make themselves understood. I suppose if you give up on any idea of levelling up, then all that's left is levelling down. And, as ever, taking an argument to its logical conclusion or considering its reverse reveals its true strength – and this one collapses quickly: “Just grunt twice and we'll know what you mean.” Does this really cut it when it comes to national broadcasting?


SEPTEMBER 13 2021

The past few weeks away from the keyboard are explained by trips to England's east, south and west coasts. First to a truly idyllic Woodbridge in Suffolk and accommodation on a cabin cruiser moored to the end of a small jetty jutting into the Deben estuary. Surveying the wide sweep of mudflats at low tide, spattered with countless wading birds, was as peaceful and as exhilarating as watching the relentless tide creeping under our boat and lifting us twice a day five feet above its normal resting place. Woodbridge is a real town, a community, with the silent history of Sutton Hoo on one side and the chaotic present of Felixstowe on the other. We loved it. We also ventured north, to Lowestoft, a scruffy but enjoyably real town with potential galore. And then to Southwold, a ghastly mutant town; a Bicester Village-on-Sea full of shops selling toxic designer tat that no genuine local could ever find a use for, with claustrophobic huts crammed in behind a beach that disappears at high tide. The darkened four-by-fours, giving not a care for the safety of the shopping hordes, provide the final nail in its coffin. Aldeburgh appears similar but less so. I would happily never visit either again. But Woodbridge – we'll be back.

Like Woodbridge, the south coast somehow manages to combine the tourist takeover with keeping its feet on the ground. East Wittering, for example, offers a practical and convenient range of shops catering to a native population rather than pandering to money-to-burn wastrel incomers. And from there, we headed straight to wonderful Woolacombe in the west, as unspoilt a holiday village as you'll find close to a beach of this bay's quality. It has its caravan parks hidden in the leafy valleys so that they do not intrude and the village itself has hardly deteriorated in the 30 years we have been visiting.

What these remote and seasonal regions do lack, however, are the young people who grew up there. Those that can – a high proportion – migrate in search of better pay and conditions; few can afford to live in an area of high accommodation costs, fuelled by second (and third and fourth) property owners while businesses have exploited the cheap labour pools of eastern Europe, destroying the old but delicate equilibrium that once balanced supply and demand, costs and wages. Today, these businesses claim there are labour shortages, blaming local people for refusing to accept pay and conditions that might seem acceptable to those from rural parts of Poland or Bulgaria but are pitifully below the threshold for a reasonable existence for those already living there. As I say in The Rise of Antisocialism, any business that can only survive by exploiting its workforce is not a business at all – any more than a slave plantation could ever be considered one.

Brexit has at least made a small start in correcting the imbalances of recent decades and pay is beginning to rise. The costs will eventually have to be met by consumers – and if this encourages less consumption, then so much the better. It will be painful for some, for a while, and putting right the mistakes of the past will take a generation. But this cycle of cheap imported labour, exploitation by businesses, local workers being forced out, the wealthy hoovering up houses, and communities being wrecked has to be broken. “Labour shortages” are the equivalent of an itch that shows the cure is starting to work.

On the other hand, should we be giving Brexit so much of the credit for labour shortages and rising wages in the hospitality, logistics, agriculture and other sectors? The Times reports today that the ONS estimates only 100,000 EU nationals have left the UK as a result. This is an insignificant proportion of the labour force and, if true, must mean that the impact of the pandemic and the furlough schemes is also contributing. And if that is the case, the shortfall will be temporary – and the benefits to working people less than we might have expected. Let us hope these figures are a little misleading.

The repeated mantra that the UK is short of 100,000 HGV drivers – that magic figure again – and that Brexit is to “blame” also feels wrong and highly misleading. This is partly because other countries are experiencing similar issues and partly because 100,000 HGV drivers cannot just disappear: they are either not working (on furlough), have moved to other jobs, or have returned home if they were migrants. The biggest bottleneck in supply actually appears to be in training and testing of new drivers, put on hold by the pandemic. But the biggest bottleneck of all would be if there were another 100,000 lorries on our already chock-full roads. No one would be going anywhere.

And amid all this, one surprising person who seems to have been persuaded by the arguments in favour of local sovereignty is that cheer-leading doyen of EU unity, Michel Barnier. He was reported in The Times last week as speaking in favour of France extricating itself from the bonds of key EU institutions as he made his bid to be elected French president. Unless I missed the newspaper's correction, this is a most extraordinary conversion.

TALIBANNERY

First, it's really annoying that Dominic Lawson, in his Sunday Times column, also noticed (after I did) how the Taliban ruling council looks exactly like a meeting of a screwball Incel (Involuntary Celibates) sect. I once edited his Weekend FT columns, rarely finding much to agree with and often much to amend to spare his blushes. But he's spot on to have spotted this one. Sadly, the grotesque Taliban ethic extends even beyond fruitcake religionists and failures and dopes. We now also have the Texan Taliban, controlling women's lives in the name of religious purity. Hats off to the companies offering to evacuate their staff from this faith-based hell-hole.

And second, I heard an opposition politician saying on the radio during the peak of the west's flight from Kabul that “we owe a great responsibility to the Afghan people”, suggesting we must accommodate more. It's hard not to agree that our catastrophic meddling in Afghanistan, as opposed to constructive engagement, has seriously damaged the lives of the country's people and that this, along with so many of Tony Blair's blunderings, will take decades to repair. But anyone advocating a mass Afghan resettlement programme in the UK must suggest figures. Its population has roughly quadrupled since 1960 to 40m. A large proportion will be no less happy under Taliban rule than they were with the US in attendance – many (males) might even welcome a good dose of Islamic extremism – but there will still be many millions wishing to escape the misery of its fascism. So how many should we be prepared to absorb – if absorption is even possible? Ten million? Fifteen? Five? Surely anything less would be simply a gesture. Yes, we do owe some of the Afghan people a great responsibility. But real life is now rather getting in the way of us being able to do anything about it.

WARMING TO STOPPARD

I've always liked his plays, in the main, but have always been a little cautious about embracing Tom Stoppard himself. Perhaps it's a thing about fellow journalists being so successful – or perhaps it's because he always had a reputation for being anti-left, politically. However, watching Alan Yentob's excellent Imagine documentary on his life, I was completely charmed by him. It became apparent that the charges against him centre on his refusal to denigrate and disparage the country and the culture that gave him shelter as a Czech boy caught in an appalling moment in history. This one realisation sheds so much light. Of course Stoppard is not going to trash the people who saved him and made him. Overall, his philosophy emerged as one founded on a good joke, a glass half full, and a show of gratitude that he had enjoyed a life in a country full of opportunity, freedom and stability. But to anyone intent on radical change, as many traditional left-wingers are, this is anathema: why would you change anything that works so well? To the traditional left, the glass must always be half empty – you can only advocate radical change if you label the status quo as rubbish. Stoppard would not do that. And rightly so. Britain is one of, if not the, most desirable places to live; it punches well above its weight in many fields – science, politics, finance, innovation, arts, music and culture, sport, and many more. Millions of people from all over the world would choose to live here if they could. This places the new liberal urban leftist elite in a dilemma: it doesn't want too much to change at all, as it is the prime beneficiary of the status quo, yet it constantly has to moan and whine and demand change in order to maintain its credentials. This is not to say, of course, that the UK is perfect, nor that it can avoid the necessary changes being forced upon the world by climate change. The next era of politics must focus on how we allocate resources among individuals as we rapidly shrink the economy to minimise consumption and unnecessary pollution while creating a more fulfilling and time-rich culture. Fortunately, this Utopian vision of equality, community, richness and creativity is perfectly in line with the new-left politics described in The Rise of Antisocialism.

SNIPPETS

● Did I actually hear someone on Radio Four's Broadcasting House programme yesterday equate Emma Raducanu with an illegal migrant crossing the Channel in a bath tub? I hope not.

● And how much more stupid can Hilary Mantel become? She says she's ashamed of her country for its failure to welcome all-comers. She fails, however, to have a clue as to the difference between a genuine refugee and migrants deliberately breaking the law while feeding a vicious and deadly criminal network in order to enter another country illegally. They have virtually nothing in common, but Mantel can't see it. And if I did hear Broadcasting House right, she's not the only one.

● There are those who suggest us senior folks need to apologise to the coming generations for “stealing their future” with our pensions, properties and climate change. And then we see the mountains of rubbish left behind at the Reading rock festival. Absolutely disgusting. Hypocrites. And no apologies necessary from us. Quite the reverse, in fact.

AUGUST 18 2021

Incel and Taliban. (And indeed the other extreme Islamist nasties.) You MUST have noticed the similarities.


AUGUST 6 2021

A friend yesterday said that the UK has the most dishonest, reprehensible, amoral prime minister ever. Unfortunately I was driving at the time and, negotiating a tricky junction in Epsom, was unable to respond before the conversation moved on. I would have liked to make four points in reply. First, many prime ministers and senior politicians have been accused of being disreputable: Harold Wilson was embroiled in various scandals, Jeremy Thorpe plumbed extraordinary depths, John Major's government was dragged down by sleaze, Tony Blair was dubbed Tony Bliar, and so on. How much worse a character is Boris than some of these? Second, does being amoral and reprehensible necessarily make a bad prime minister? These could be the very qualities that make a successful leader. Third, the UK's system of cabinet government limits the PM's powers: a lazy premier can be just a recruitment officer or team selector and figurehead, delegating the serious work to able ministers (ideally). And fourth, Boris seems to have two main policies that concern him: the environment and “levelling up” the impoverished parts of the country with the rest. I think these would be my priorities, too. This is not to say that I like or even approve of Boris. But it is always too soon to reach a final judgment on a prime minister while they are still in situ.

AUGUST 5 2021

I WANT MY MONEY BACK

The BBC's shameful coverage of the Olympics is making me furious and, by the latest definition of the term, damaging my mental health. Those responsible should be made to pay and I should definitely be entitled to a refund on my licence fee. The only tiny positive to come out of it is that I am not listening to Radio 4's toxic and atrocious Today programme: raging – or should that be ragin' – at the sports department is as much as I can take in a single morning.

First, much as we all love – or loved – Alex Scott, there is one thing of which can be absolutely certain: she is not the best person in the country to present the main evening Olympics round-up. She is probably not even in the top million and even manages to make the cloying Clare Balding appear the ultimate professional. Dan Walker and Sam Quek in the morning repeatedly tell us that the BBC is only allowed to show two sports simultaneously – while showing us none at all on either of its dedicated channels. Over on Eurosport, Greg Rutherford bafflingly seems to have been promoted to a lead anchor role in the athletics stadium, using such phrases as: “Do you know what!” “I'll tell you what.” “I'm telling you.” “I would love them to be in contention.” “I've really enjoyed this evening.” And then insulting viewers by suggesting that anyone criticising an athlete is ignorant because they know nothing about the work that has been put in behind the scenes unless they've seen it for themselves. Other “presenters” often resort to “You know” or “What can you say?” (Er – that's what you're there for!). Our language has a new verb – to medal – and it can only be a matter of time before "medalling" is joined by "podiuming" (or podiumin'). 

I'm sure we can all agree that sports stars need to find a new career when they retire at a young age. But that should not entitle them to take away opportunities from professional journalists, broadcasters, presenters and editors who have themselves put in the hard work and training to make themselves excellent communicators. There must be hundreds of them spitting with fury and outraged at watching this rag-bag of recycled jumpers, throwers, runners and kickers doing a truly awful amateur job.

On the other hand, it is not entirely their fault. The producers, recruiters, editors and schedulers share the bulk of the shame for churning out such dross. For these people, the sport is never enough – they seek to create “personalities” to “liven it up” and to appeal to those with no interest in sport. In doing so they have made sports coverage unbearable for those who are truly interested in sport. Informality is fine but the cosy in-jokes and studio banter during Radio Five Live's morning programme on Tuesday left the listener completely excluded. Mark Chapman, Victoria Pendleton and others were having a bit of a laugh, casually contemptuous of the audience. At least they sounded vaguely as though they knew what was going: sadly the same could not be said of Naga Munchetty when she took over.

And at least we didn't have to see them. Anyone watching BBC1 will have seen more than their fill of Chris Hoy and Michael Johnson in the past few days, for example – yet during the countless hours they have been on screen they have uttered little other than banalities, inanities, hackneyed cliches and hopeless guesswork. Chris Boardman, on the hand, is superb at describing the intricacies of the many and varied cycle races, while on Eurosport Carlton Kirby achieves the same in a slightly more irritating manner. This might be partly because they actually have a race taking place in front of them, whereas the studio chat show is an end in itself. For the BBC, this is the holy grail – the chat show is the default option, only to be grudgingly interrupted by snippets of Brits in action. No competition is allowed to develop and capture the viewer: I have become enthralled by diving competitions, volleyball, the pole vault, none of which I would normally be drawn to, because they have been shown at length on Eurosport. Oh, thank goodness for Eurosport, which takes the opposite approach to the BBC – non-stop sport with an occasional presenter when there really is nothing going on. The point here is that presenters, commentators and pundits should rarely, if ever, be seen: I have not seen Boardman this week at all; I have no idea what Carlton Kirby even looks like; the great professionals, such as David Coleman, Harry Carpenter, Dan Maskell and the like, were hardly ever glimpsed. This evening, Balding and Scott will cram little more than 15 to 20 minutes of sport into a 90-minute “show” that is “all about them”. The whole hideous edifice is a monument to self-regard and self-absorption. As I've said before, I really like Scott as a football pundit but her permanently gleeful “look at me – I'm presentin'!” facade is becoming increasingly embarrassin'. Sports fans are being treated with contempt: that evening show should last one hour and show non-stop competition with a voice-over threading it together, creating the narrative. Money back. Please.

EVERYONE EXPERIENCES BUTTERFLIES

The Cubans make excellent boxers. Literally. They take children and feed them, stretch them and produce champion boxers by the score. They train right-handed boxers to adopt the southpaw stance rather than the orthodox left-leading stance. It's ruthless – but hugely successful. When talking about sporting sacrifice, the physical pain, the mental stress, the Cubans are – we must hope – towards one extreme of the spectrum. Employing coaches on the condition that they be “nice” to their charges lies at the other. In between is the land of compromise which pits dedication against apathy, aching and distress against comfort and calm, being a winner against losing. It's tough to be a winner but there are rewards – medals, acclaim, advertising contracts, and a top BBC presenter's job, for example.

Mental stress is an integral part of this equation: some athletes perform well in the big arena while other, perhaps better, athletes suffer. This is normal life, not a mental health issue: everyone experiences butterflies when faced with a daunting task – giving a speech, for example. This is the context in which I fully respect the decisions of the Simone Biles and Ben Stokes temporarily to step back from the front line. It makes perfect sense if they feel anguish at being away from home or fear disorientation while performing potentially dangerous gymnastic tumbles. The pressure at their elite level is enormous, the butterflies gigantic. Left unchecked, it could eventually and in extreme circumstances mutate into a genuine mental health issue. But in the meantime they should call it what it is – stress, pressure, fear. We can all understand that, show sympathy and respect their common sense; any mention of “mental health issues” is an attempt to stifle comment, leading to ridicule, as well as insulting those with genuine health problems.

AUGUST 2 2021

ALL (SUCCESSFUL) COACHES ARE BASTARDS

The Olympics are increasingly presenting themselves as a microcosm of current society – highlighting many of its worst ills and focusing our minds on many horribly familiar issues, from mental health to working class accents and winding everywhere in between. Let us begin with choice. In theory, having an unlimited number of television channels provides limitless choice – everyone can watch everything. In practice, it is a shambles, forcing viewers to channel hop endlessly in an effort to catch the key moments which, inevitably, clash in the schedules. This idea of individual consumer choice permeates modern culture: parents are offered a choice of schools for their children; commuters are offered a choice of transport provider; retailers promise a universe of choice; political parties differentiate themselves giving voters a choice; the list goes on. Yet almost every “choice” is fake: schools actually choose children; commuters are an exploited captive market; retailers feed off our carefully nurtured state of permanent dissatisfaction; the main political parties are, in reality, almost identical and in fundamental agreement on all but a few details.

And so the chimera of choice in coverage of the Olympics coverage results in confusion and, in my case, fury. In spite of its poor deal, there is plenty of action for the BBC to show. As previously mentioned, this is not the problem: the BBC's problem is its fixation on studio chat shows – which means sport coverage is now infested with hour after hour of inane, banal and meaningless nattering, with hopelessly wrong predictions thrown in. It veers between The One Show and Blue Peter, when a presenter sticks pieces of card on to a board; then the other one will read out viewers' emails: “We were up at 3am to watch the swimming, so we're all tired now. But it was worth it, although little Emily's got a cold, blah, blah, blah;” “We're still in our pyjamas” etc etc. This morning, while cyclists were speeding round the track, BBC1 viewers were only allowed to watch about half an hour of Chris Hoy saying nothing of the slightest interest. As I sit writing, all I can hear from the TV is the voice of Michael Johnson and the occasional laughter of the happy studio guests being paid a fortune to gibber. Later, while a live track final was taking place, one studio anchor was interviewing a reporter at the show jumping arena about his failure to interview someone else! Then on comes the news, the Olympics switches to BBC2 for no reason whatsoever and 30 minutes later you find yourself watching Flog It. One lunchtime session began with Gabby Logan, Denise Lewis and Jessica Ennis-Hill bubbling away over how funny it was that they had all chosen such a similar red/pink colour for their tops – even though they hadn't arranged it (blah, blah, blah) and weren't even allowed to get together outside of the studio (blah, blah, blah). It was a coincidence! And last night, Balding and Scott, in the deplorable evening “round-up”, babbled between themselves, completely disregarding the viewer for long stretches. What were we watching? This is how far sports coverage has fallen.

A serious, intelligent and experienced head of sport would know instantly how to fix it: BBC1 should provide a continuous narrative of all that matters while the red button channel provides extended coverage of the best live action at the time. This puts the viewer first. Even using professional broadcasters and journalists this is hard work – but it can never be achieved with amateurs and a bits-and-pieces lazy chat show approach. Getting it right involves top level editing and scheduling, informing viewers, managing their viewing, looking ahead, time-shifting the highlights so that nothing is missed, creating the story. No one can concentrate fully on more than one channel at a time, so one channel is plenty if you know what you are doing and are prepared to put in the effort. Paradoxically, professional editors are far cheaper than un-gifted amateur pundits, so there is also money to be saved in providing a worthwhile service. Even more paradoxically, it was once the case that Olympic Games were played by amateurs and broadcast by professionals – whereas now it is precisely the other way round.

Poor old Digby Jones walked into this mess up to his chest at the weekend by daring to criticise Alex Scott for her inability to sound the “g” at the end of gerunds (Priti Patel and Sadiq Khan and countless others suffer the same affliction): we are watchin' fightin', kickin', fencin', swimmin', etc etc. The ensuing Twitter storm reminded us that pointing out such obvious facts is beyond the pale; Digby was taken apart. And Scott herself hit back saying how proud she was of her working class background, how she had overcome hardship, and that she was who she was, and would always be so. Good for her. I really like Alex Scott. As a football pundit on Match of The Day, for example, she is one of the best (in an admittedly low-grade field); her comments bring a fresh perspective and her mannerisms are indeed part of who she is and her charm and appeal. But when she is presenting The One Show or the Olympics round-up programme to a general audience at peak viewing time, the “just being me” argument does not cut it: she often appears out of her depth, asking baffling questions and suddenly those idiosyncrasies insert themselves between her and the caring viewer. Although a pedant and a stickler for accuracy and propriety, I can just about put up with it but can fully understand why others might not: it hints at amateurism and tokenism. What I cannot stomach, however, is that there are professional journalists, broadcasters and presenters who have worked hard at their vocation and who would do the job immeasurably better but are swiped aside by the big name. If you disagree, ask yourself how you would feel if a group of under-qualified celebrities were brought in to take over the best parts of your profession. JK Rowling and David Walliams take the top book editor jobs; the Great Train Robbers take all the top criminal lawyer jobs; high-profile digital entrepreneur billionaires occupy the top posts in banking; famous astronauts take over the design of rockets; or George Osborne becomes a newspaper editor. This is the fastest route to amateurism and a cycle of lowered standards and gimmickry.

But dare to criticise, as Digby unwisely did, and the backlash will be severe. All must have opportunities and prizes, no matter how bogus those opportunities and prizes are. This, today, is seen as the surest way of guarding against upset, disappointment and concerns over mental health. It began on the primary school playing fields, where competition was frowned upon and co-operation pushed to the fore. As a design for life, I would be all in favour: life is not, as some friends of ours might aver, a competition – it is a co-operative venture if all are to benefit. Sport, however, is different. It is where co-operation is side-lined and competition is all. And this is fine because, fundamentally, sport does not matter: it is a safe environment in which we can push boundaries, experiment, test ourselves and find enjoyment and satisfaction. Losing hurts, of course it does, but it's meant to. Try harder next time, improve your technique and fitness, become resilient. We are seeing individuals who have achieved exactly this every day in Tokyo – their dedication, resilience and sheer hard work is a joy to behold, whether they win or not. Indeed, for me the most impressive performance of the Olympics so far has been Dina Asher-Smith's attempt to run in the 100 metres while badly injured and then giving the most heart-breaking of interviews. This wonderful young woman rises and rises in my estimation: she has placed winning in her sport at the centre of her being but she knows it is not everything. I do not fear for her mental health. She is too honest and wise.

Yet a succession of stars and celebrities ask us to take seriously their insinuations that their mental health has been damaged by the very thing that has made them famous, rich and comfortable. Simone Biles, Ben Stokes, Meghan Markle – these are just three of a host of idols citing mental issues as their motive for actions that might otherwise be questioned – even, in some cases, appear suspect, feeble or self-serving. It has become the catch-all, unchallengeable excuse for doing exactly as you wish without any fear of being confronted. Stokes, for example, must have suffered from being separated from his family while on Covid-proof cricket tours; home-sickness, sorrow, unhappiness, etc are all likely and understandable emotions, especially at a difficult time. But this is what everyone who is alive experiences – some people far more deeply and often than pampered celebrities. This has nothing to do with mental health in any meaningful sense, unless it is defined so broadly as to become pointless and hollow. If we see the term “mental health” as potentially stretching from serious mental illness to feeling slightly fed up then it is valueless and insulting and demeaning to those with genuine and severe difficulties. This applies equally to the hordes claiming damage to their mental health from Covid-19 safety measures and any other relatively trivial difficulty they face. Suffering, struggling, stress, pressure, overcoming adversity – these are natural, everyday conditions we all face. To concede that the hordes claiming to be mental health patients actually are is to condemn the whole of humanity to suffering from mental health issues. This might be fair and accurate at one level, but utterly unhelpful at a level worth concerning ourselves with.

The pressure of succeeding at the Olympics is, of course, huge. Athletes, coaches, families and the public, through funding and support, have made huge investments and when it goes wrong there are consequences. The British rowing team is currently embroiled in recriminations over the reasons for its meagre tally of medals in Japan last week. But one explanation stands out above all others: the coach focused on winning was “let go” a year ago; the new one is nicer, apparently. As argued above, sport is a safe environment in which to explore, express and challenge yourself because it doesn't really matter; losing hurts but isn't the end of the world. But if you want to beat the best there is a price to pay in terms of sacrifice, devotion and effort – and being prepared to be bullied, harassed and pushed to, and beyond, your limits by a ruthless coach is usually the only way to reach the summit. Those who don't like it can walk away – sport is not life; it's not compulsory. And it's striking how those singing the praises of Jurgen Grobler, the British team's former rowing coach, and those accusing him of being an unacceptable bully are roughly divided into winners and almost winners. As long as these practices are confined to safe, voluntary areas, such as sport, they can be a force for excellence. But they have little or no place beyond these realms: excellence through co-operation is the only tolerable path in most other worlds.

Indeed, while co-operation is the essence of team games and has its place in all sports, it can be taken too far. The sight of two high jumpers yesterday agreeing to share the gold medal after clearing the same height and failing three times each at the next level was presented as heart-warming. But it cannot have been right. These good friends (we were told) have added an extra gold medal to the ultimate tally and they have set a dangerous precedent: what could now prevent the seven golfers tied in third place on 15 under par yesterday from agreeing amongst themselves that all should be awarded a bronze medal? The essence of sport is pressure and competition; reducing it to a cosy, prizes-for-all primary school pursuit is to undermine its very purpose.

JULY 30 2021

'ALL COPPERS ARE BASTARDS'

Are all coppers bastards, or just some of them? Are as many of them bastards today as were bastards in the 1970s and 1980s? And at what point does the proportion of bastards to decent coppers cause a sea change in attitudes and behaviour by the police as a whole? Then there are more questions. Is there an irreducible minimum of bad apples that will always infect any organisation and do we have to learn to live with that? Or can they all be excised from the police force?

These questions arise from my just having watched Uprising, Steve McQueen's brilliant three-part documentary on the New Cross fire of 1981, and from hearing that in 2021 a number of officers have just been caught mocking the disabled son of Katie Price on WhatsApp. The answer to the first question is, and always has been, not all coppers are bastards. And the answer to the second is that there are clearly far fewer of them today than in 1981. Attitudes have changed dramatically, from a culture then that made it somewhere between extremely difficult and dangerously impossible to be anything other than a violent racist if you were a police officer operating in a predominantly black area to one in which it is no longer dangerous to be decent. And yet some officers continue to fail: taking photographs of dead bodies, mocking the disabled, stopping young black people because they are black – these are disgusting acts, bordering on criminality itself. They also undermine respect for the police and damage community relations which, today, are unrecognisably better than 40 years ago.

But do these improvements amount to a sea change? Are things as good as we can reasonably expect them to be? I think policing is qualitatively different now in the areas where it was once so embarrassingly atrocious. But given current misconduct by officers there is still obviously much more work to be done. There will always be bad apples but as many as possible must be thrown away; the culture of providing a service to everyone must be promoted; extending ethnic diversity within the force has to be a priority; and every new officer should be shown McQueen's Uprising series and asked to debate it. They should then be shown the social media thread mocking a severely disabled young man and debate that, too. Anyone showing even the glimmer of an inappropriate smile or a smirk during this process should be instantly drummed out of the force as unfit to practise. An enormous amount has been achieved: the protests that erupted in the early 1980s achieved many of their goals, to the point where the focus can now shift from fundamental rehabilitation of attitudes and behaviour aimed at eradicating what certainly was institutional racism within the police, to more measured reforms building on those achievements. It can never be perfect, but it can be better still. But what remains to be done needs to be seen in its true and full perspective.

RECKLESSLY RUDE AND INSULTING

Who knows how the great unlocking of Britain will unfold? Not me, not you, not the scientists, not the government, not the World Health Organisation, and not Keir Starmer, who stated on July 4 in his usual barrel-chested, all-knowing manner that lifting “all restrictions at once” (ignoring the fact that lifting had begun in March) in England was reckless. The WHO weighed in a couple days later, calling the UK action “epidemiological stupidity”. This was shortly before a steep plummet in the daily Covid cases figure. They are starting to rise again now as the cause of the fall (probably largely to do with testing of schoolchildren) works its way out of the system. But either way, the number of cases, as I've written several times below, is mostly irrelevant: all that matters now is knowing who is dying and what their vaccination status is (vital information that we are sadly denied). But as things stand today, England's policies are an enormous success and if the UK continues to defy the expectations (let us fervently hope they are no more than that) of the likes of Starmer and the WHO, then they must surely issue a grovelling apology for their reckless scaremongering.

WORST TV COVERAGE EVER

This has to be the worst television coverage of any major sporting event in history (if we exclude Channel Four's dismal efforts in sport's second tier a few years ago). Even when the BBC had only one channel it managed to present a coherent story, maintain excitement, ensure viewers knew when the key events were taking place, and communicate in recognisable English. One presenter on Radio Four this morning said something along the lines of “he's never swam better”; another commentator managed to get the GB's footballers' names wrong (I doubt this was a BBC commentator, though); and we are subjected to endless meaningless chatter and hopeless predictions that provides little or no insight. This lunchtime's coverage of the athletics is a case in point. After the moronic BBC schedulers switched the Olympic broadcast channel twice in a short time, we found our TV stuck on an antiques programme. Flicking back to BBC1, we found a studio stacked with talent – the increasingly beautiful Denise Lewis, Michael Johnson, Jessica Ennis-Hill, and Gabby Logan as MC. But the debate was dull. There must be action somewhere. And there was: Eurosport was showing the men's 10,000 metres final – with 20 minutes of it gone! Glancing back at BBC1, it was just moving to pictures of the track for the start of this same race, as if it was live. Having watched the whole race, the BBC then hopped back and forth between its heavyweight studio expertise and tiny snippets of excitement – the mixed 4x400 relay, women's 5,000 metres heats, field events. Viewers were given no idea of when these events took place. But it was clear there had been live athletics – with none of it shown on the BBC's main channel.

Earlier, the one dominant feature of the BBC's morning coverage of Tokyo 2020 (in 2021) is Hazel Irvine's face: avid viewers will by now know her every wrinkle and pimple. I appreciate that the Japanese time zone makes life difficult and that Irvine is one of the BBC's more professional presenters, but a spectator turning on their TV at 7am in the UK is tuning in to Tokyo at 3pm – for what should be the start of six or seven more hours of live sport. Of course, much will have taken place during our night – the events held in Tokyo between 6.30am and 3pm their time, which unfortunately seems to include most of the swimming and other water-based sports, as well as heat-sensitive contests, such as triathlon. We need a re-cap of those. But neither the BBC nor the Eurosport coverage achieves any narrative, either with its catching up, or its live output. The BBC focuses on presenters chatting and Eurosport on anything with “ball” at the end – volleyball, handball, basketball, football – plus tennis, judo and gymnastics and a smattering of others. But both are totally unpredictable: the TV guide and “info” often bear little relation to what Eurosport is actually showing on its 10 channels; and the BBC loves to time-shift, pretending that what you are seeing is live when you heard the result two hours earlier on the radio. And then it switches the action to another channel for absolutely no reason. Both also fail dismally to offer desperate viewers a timetable. Perhaps this will change when the athletics comes to the fore tomorrow. But if I miss seeing Dina Asher-Smith, my favourite ever athlete, in the 100 metres final because of the shambolic coverage, I will be campaigning for BBC Sport never to be allowed to cover a live event again.

HAMILTON REHABILITATED

I had gone off Lewis Hamilton when his success appeared to go to his head. Arrogance, smugness and self-regard overwhelmed his image as a hard-working and highly skilled driver. But I can see now that those unpleasant characteristics might be a necessary defence shield in the sorry world of Formula One. He won the Silverstone grand prix this month, fair and square: if the overtaking manoeuvre that saw his main rival Verstappen spin off the track was illegal then F1 is even more worthless as a competition that I thought – if that is indeed possible. They might just as well ban overtaking altogether. Either way, Red Bull lost that day – though it doesn't seem prepared to accept it. Christian Horner's team is whingeing and whining that Hamilton didn't play fair and should be punished with a ban. If the mildly obnoxious Hamilton is banned because of the F1 administration's incompetence and the grossly obnoxious behaviour of his opponents, I will feel sorry for him and see his worst characteristics as a product of the toxic environment in which he finds himself.

RNLI

A good point was made this morning regarding the RNLI's efforts at saving migrant lives in the English Channel – it does not draw any distinction between those in peril through misfortune, recklessness, their own stupidity, or criminality. This is fair enough. However, it cannot deny, too, that it has made itself a large part of the lethal, lucrative and criminal business of illegal migration from France. The UK's border force, for example, is reported to be regularly summoned by migrants to pick them up once they are at sea in their unsuitable crafts – a major selling point for the criminal gang operatives working in France. This clearly encourages more migrants to risk leaving France, and so we have to ask whether the RNLI is actually contributing more to the problem than its cure.

WE WERE WARNED

The spectrum of “mental health” stretches a long way these days – from severe disability to feeling a little upset. Much has been written of this in the past few days since American gymnast Simone Biles cited mental health issues in her withdrawal from competition. But this trend has been festering for years: books, such as The Coddling of the American Mind, have pointed out that any pursuit of perfection is doomed to failure and disappointment. Today, that disappointment and disillusion is not seen as growth, a learning opportunity, a step towards resilience – it is interpreted as a threat to mental health and well-being.

To promise that a perfect life is possible is, and always has been, irresponsible – but it is the mantra of modern business and consumption: “All you need is X and all will be ideal.” This ultimately self-regarding formula has created the “snowflake” generation, by stripping away its attachment to real life and removing its ability to cope with any other feeling than happiness and euphoria. It's being written about a lot at the moment – but we warned a long time ago.

JULY 27 2021

The nasty (ex)nurse; the bonkers BBC; the untrustworthy Taliban (who knew?); the social care crisis, what crisis? and so much more requiring analysis and perspective. Where to begin?

BBC AND THE OLYMPICS

Let's start with an easy one. Because it is obviously sheer madness for the BBC to pay anything at all to cover the Olympics. Why pay to show two simultaneous live events and then show none at all – just an endless stream of former athletes sitting in a studio chatting? Olympics coverage that resembles the One Show – but is even worse – is a criminal waste of licence-fee payers' money. And the final straw has to be the idiotic scheduling decision to keep the midday news bulletin on BBC1, shifting the sofa-thon to BBC2 for anything between 15 and 45 minutes – and then back again. Completely bonkers.

UNTRUSTWORTHY TALIBAN

The US thought it had a deal with those decent chaps in the Taliban – a bit less slaughtering, allow the women out for a few minutes of fresh air a day, that sort of thing. But it turns out that they are not men of their word! Who could have foreseen that?

CRISES? WHAT CRISES?

If you've read The Rise of Antisocialism, you will already know that the UK does not have, nor has ever had, in peacetime at least, a housing crisis. There are homes galore. What we do have, however, is a housing FINANCE crisis. If the housing crisis was actually a real and genuine crisis, the first thing the authorities would do would be to ensure that every available living space was indeed lived in. Instead, developers are allowed to construct towers of investment properties where the lights are never switched on. These dark monoliths are evidence enough of the absurd idea that housing shortages have pushed up prices. Yet there is more: the preponderance of second homes in so many coastal towns and villages. In this morning's Times we read that a 2018 survey of homes in Salcombe, Devon, worked out that 57 per cent were second properties – ie, not available to those wanting to live in them as a home. If supply really was an issue, it could therefore be greatly ameliorated very quickly. But it isn't, and so it isn't.

Precisely the same factors are at work in the field of social care. “It is in crisis”, is the unthinking, knee-jerk mantra. But what does this mean? Is there no social care? Of course there is. The crisis is over who pays for it. Again, it is a social care FINANCE crisis. Get financing right – it has to be an extra tax of some sort, surely – and the rest falls into place. “Crisis” over.

THE NASTY (EX)NURSE

Once again, the blank-eyed conspiracy theorist idiots have assembled a platform of speakers with fewer collective brain cells than they have heads: Piers Corbyn, David Icke, Vernon Coleman, Katie Hopkins and the deeply obnoxious Kate Shemirani, a nurse, apparently, until she was struck off recently. According to the Nursing Times, a fitness-to-practise panel of the Nursing and Midwifery Council ruled in June that after months of being suspended for spreading misinformation, Shemirani was no longer a “safe or effective” practitioner. Her own son, who sounds perfectly intelligent, says he agrees. As should we all: she is clearly dangerous and useless as a nurse if she believes the vile and absurd nonsense she rants about medical professionals and Nuremberg trials. There is no argument to be had with such fools – theirs is a religious fervour far beyond the reach of rational thought. Yet they are dangerous, because there are many gullible chumps around who might latch on to what they say, especially as their message is often disguised amid vaguely reasonable other statements and is not always so glaringly exposed as twaddle as it was on Saturday. This wouldn't matter too much, were in not for the danger to others they pose by refusing vaccines.

Because as the scientists continue to twist themselves into knots in an effort to explain the sharp fall in England's Covid-19 infection rate over the past six days, the key question we should all be asking is – who is dying? As I said a while ago, the infection rate only matters if we fear it could be creating an incubator for variants. What is vital is knowing who is dying, and who is in intensive care. If 60 people are reported to have died with Covid in a day and 55 of them had refused the vaccine, the real death figure is five. This is obviously simplistic, as some vaccinated people remain vulnerable, others cannot have the vaccine, and some young victims might not have been offered it yet or not had both doses. But the principle stands: everyone who needs the vaccine has now been offered it; those who refuse it must take their chances and should be stripped out of the statistics – because the carefully calibrated five-month unravelling of the pandemic safety measures was designed to show that vaccination protects us. Including the likes of Icke, Corbyn and Shemirani and the poor misguided suckers persuaded by them in the statistics creates a distortion in the headline totals. We therefore need to know the proportion of fully vaccinated people who are dying. And we are not receiving those figures.

Worse still, we need to know urgently how many of those given the vaccine early – the oldest and most vulnerable – are being hospitalised and dying. This is crucial information in assessing the effectiveness of the vaccine – and how long it guards against the disease. There is a suggestion that its effects wane after six months or so, which, if accurate, makes the need for booster jabs in this cohort a pressing priority.

And finally, almost as loathsome as the conspiracy theorist clowns are three of our supposedly distinguished “meritocracy”. Two of them, Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd-Webber, are theatre types. They have been whining and bleating for months about how the “government restrictions” (they mean “public safety measures”) are ruining their businesses – and that their businesses are the only thing that really matters. Now “restrictions” are lifted, they're still moaning. And the third, Jonathan Sumption, argued last week that it was too late to bother about vaccination passports because soon everyone could have one. I find it extremely odd that this so-called libertarian might have supported vaccine passports when he would have benefited but millions of others would not, and is now against them because they would free up everyone. Look, Jonathan, the reason passports were deemed unacceptable by thinking people a while ago was because not everyone had the chance of claiming one. And that would be grossly unfair – anti-libertarian, in fact. Now that everyone is eligible for a passport, one way or another, they have become far more acceptable. I would have thought that even a rabid libertarian could have understood that. (He prattled on about this on the BBC Today programme – and the “interviewer” did not challenge him in the slightest.) And if the likes of Shemirani, Icke and Corbyn never become eligible to visit a theatre, a shopping centre or nightclub for want of a passport, so much the better for the well informed and responsible among us.

WELL-MEANING BORIS

Boris-haters will never agree, but I am increasingly coming to believe that Johnson means well: he is championing climate change reversal and the “levelling up” of the poorer areas of Britain far more openly and passionately than any previous Prime Minister we can remember. His actions in tackling Covid (as opposed to what he is supposed to have said during heated debate over which path to take) have been both successful and well-intentioned. Ideas for tackling the social care finance crisis, crime and other issues all sound positive. Other ideas are disastrous, such as planning reform. You can't win 'em all. But overall, it appears not unreasonable to conclude that Boris is trying, at least, to do good work – he has big ideas and is tackling huge problems. The snag seems to be that he is pretty clueless as to how he can achieve many of his promising goals.

JULY 7 2021

I was happier with Matt Hancock at the wheel. Sajiv Javid has swanned in with a slightly alarming gung-ho attitude towards Covid-19 safety measures, lacking the nuance and subtlety shown by his predecessor as Health Secretary. Having said that, the direction of travel must surely be right: a further easing of restrictions should happen now because, as the prime minister said on Monday, if not, then when? Some might say never, others argued against there being any safety measures all along. Between these two extremes, this middle path seems sensible. What is not sensible is allowing a presenter to give the impression that restrictions are “all being lifted at once”. This, incredibly, is what Mishal Husein said on BBC Radio 4 this morning. Has she been hibernating for the past five months? Restrictions began to be lifted in early March and further easing has been gradual and accompanied by testing, checking, analysing and data collecting. And in practice and reality, even some of the further relaxations announced this week have already taken place: social distancing has been normalised for some time, large crowds have been gathering for sporting and other events, mostly under strict “test event” conditions, and the hospitality sector has been accommodating customers indoors, for example. The idea that restrictions are all being lifted at once is therefore laughable: in fact, the changes on July 19 amount to removing the legal requirement to wear a mask – the public is still being invited to wear one when and where appropriate – and entertainment and hospitality can extend their offerings. Hancock's carefully calibrated five-month programme is, so far, working well. The results are almost precisely what anyone should have anticipated and cautiously welcomed – a steep rise in infections with no corresponding leap in hospitalisations and deaths. This is evidence that the vaccines are doing their job. Yet the most vital piece of information we now need is not forthcoming. Whether it is because media organisations do not consider it important or whether official figures are not released, it is crucial to know exactly who is now falling seriously ill and dying. Yesterday's figure of 37 deaths does indeed, on the face of it, look alarming – perhaps the beginning of a trend towards more fatalities. But the figure alone is largely meaningless without us knowing the vaccination and health status of each individual. At the very least, we need to know the proportion of fully jabbed people making up these numbers. If it is small, better still tiny, then we are close to proving that vaccination works and the challenge then becomes one of persuading those choosing to remain vulnerable to take the vaccine, and offering help and shielding measures to those who cannot receive a vaccine or for whom it offers lower levels of protection. But we simply cannot remain in a state of suspended animation until every last refusenik has been hunted down and jabbed; living with Covid-19 is going to involve compromises and if that involves anti-vaxxers and the like voluntarily putting themselves at risk and inflating the casualty numbers, then what else can the majority do? Everyone in a vulnerable group, or over the age of 40, has now been invited to receive a free vaccination. Nationally, the take-up figures are impressive but there are areas where it has been low. This is not for want of effort on the part of those trying to save lives and quell the pandemic. We must, of course, continue to try and convince reluctant communities to accept the protection being offered but ultimately, without the use of coercion, anyone refusing a jab is choosing to take their chances. Good luck to them – they might well need it. But if they are the ones making up the vast bulk of the casualty statistics then we need to know. Our route to normality depends on it.

JULY 6 2021

SOUTHGATE GETTING IT ALL WRONG

This is the BBC News: England manager Gareth Southgate is leading England to humiliating defeat in tomorrow's semi-final of Euro 2020. A top sports psychologist says the team's inability to concede a goal means players are poorly prepared. “They will crumble as soon as the opposition scores. It's appallingly short-sighted of the manager to expect the players to cope. Their mental health will be severely damaged by this lack of clarity,” the top sports psychologist expert said. A former England player agreed: “Winning 4-3, or even losing 4-3, is far better in the long term. Our lions are being led by a donkey.” And now for more relentlessly negative interpretations of events....

It's interesting, isn't it, that last week the only people who could get their voices heard on the Beeb were nightclub owners, hospitality venues, festival organisers and the travel industry. Today, the only voices being given a hearing are terrified scientists and schoolkids pretending to be annoyed at missing lessons because someone in their year-group tested positive.


And so the conspiracy theorists were right! The government HAS been using Covid-19 as an excuse to control our every move. The final proof came yesterday with the announcement that the removal of almost all restrictions must be replaced by individuals' personal responsibility for the safety of others. This is the ultimate in government control – demanding that we make our own decisions!

JULY 5 2021

It's now a week since Matt Hancock was forced to resign and he has disappeared from the news. We have a new Health Secretary, who, as far as I can tell so far, is not as good as the last one – he seems dangerously simplistic and lacking in the nuance and balance that Hancock displayed so well. It's early days and he has a huge brief to digest but this switch does beg the question: could anyone else have done any better than Hancock? And from what I've seen and heard over the past 18 months, the answer is a resounding no.

I have listened to him being “interviewed” on the BBC's Today Programme many times and found it very hard to disagree with what he has said. He told us last spring that the government's strategy was to use safety measures to contain the pandemic as best we could until the white knight, in the form of a vaccine, came along to save us all. This is exactly what happened – it worked, or appears to be working, and must therefore be deemed a success.

In the early days there were severe problems with PPE; within weeks these were largely resolved. Other countries suffered exactly the same issues: there was a global shortage of protective equipment; France had recently destroyed enormous quantities; and no amount of vitriolic haranguing of the Health Secretary by radio presenters could alter that. But however it was done, the problem was quickly dealt with. Then came attacks over the lack of testing equipment: again, targets were set and largely met and within weeks the country was awash with testing capacity. The extraordinary vaccine programme speaks for itself.

All along, Hancock has been subject to appalling and bitter insults and absurd questioning but remained consistently and astonishingly calm and polite; he accepted responsibility for setbacks beyond his control; and above all, none of his accusers had any positive alternative suggestions or strategies. This has been the overwhelmingly depressing theme of the whole pandemic – the constant undermining of official strategy and measures without a single better positive idea being put forward. Loons, such as Lord Sumption or those with vested financial interests, such as Lloyd-Webber or every nightclub owner, travel company boss etc, were happy to suggest policies that suited them but were likely to have caused many deaths, and it is therefore to the minister's credit that these were ignored.

There were muddles and mistakes, of course: travel and border restrictions have appeared lax throughout and Christmas was a disastrous case of trying to please too many people too much of the time. It could also be argued that enshrining safety measures in law encouraged the population to place responsibility for every aspect of the pandemic on the government's shoulders. This could have been partly responsible for the changed behaviour in the lead-up to Christmas and new year and the holiday period itself. The suggestion of a five-day partial relaxation of safety measures was not enough for many commentators and comedians, such as Victoria Derbyshire, several Times' columnists and the likes of John Bishop – they mocked the rules and stated openly their intention to defy them. The resulting melting pot of people and virus triggered the huge third wave of hospitalisations and deaths in late January and early February. The second wave in October, caused by the increasingly virulent variant first identified in Kent, and that followed similar unexplained rises in infections in central Europe in September, was being brought under control by the Tier system before the festive season took hold. By this time, the public well understood what was required to contain the spread of infection but chose, collectively, to take the risk, with tragic consequences. Many individuals will have stuck rigidly to the rules, many more infringed them slightly, many simply ignored them – but more people were prepared to turn a blind eye for a few days than the system could withstand. I would include myself and almost everyone I know in that last category.

Could Hancock have taken a tougher stance over Christmas? It would probably have made little difference to people's behaviour. But I suspect the promise of a five-day relaxation, later reduced to two, and then largely ignored, will not have helped.

But this aside, I believe there is little that anyone else could have done better at the time. And what we know for a fact is that not a single person came up with anything different that was remotely convincing. For a final reckoning, look at where the UK is compared to almost every country in the world: the best and most coherent vaccination programme; a nation gradually and intelligently unwinding from a period of severe but necessary safety measures; and an economy in as reasonable shape as might be expected.

As for the manner of Hancock's demise, this is so difficult. Yes, his position became untenable after his admission of an affair and he had to go. I have no problem with the Prime Minister giving him a short time to reflect and make the decision himself; he was bound to go quickly, one way or the other, and to have sacked him summarily after all he has achieved would have been appallingly unjust. So again, the right outcome was reached but not without stirring indignation among those who hate this government on principle – and yes, that goes back to Brexit. As for his affair: they happen, it's human nature. It has its ugly side, of course, but condemnation of Hancock for giving way to his passion involves condemnation of countless others.

Yet all of this is still insufficient for some. Even the perfectly judge and balanced “road map” route out of safety measures is assailed – mostly, it should be added, by those with vested financial interests in having restrictions lifted earlier, by safety-first scientists who require ever-more data, and by the swivel-eyed haters who are automatically against everything a Johnson government says or does. It has produced some bizarre reactions: for example, two-thirds of the main BBC television news last night was focused on the revelation that legal restrictions would be lifted on July 19! This “news” is months old. It was announced in February that “lockdown” would end in June, subject to good progress with the vaccination programme and responses to it. This was sensibly amended in mid June to allow an assessment of any damage being caused by rising infections. Yet the odious little twerp Chris Mason and the lumbering great dolt Hugh Pym managed to peddle their agendas by conjuring up an air of astonishment that mask-wearing and distancing could end this month and that we would have to learn to live with Covid-19. This astounding non-news was followed by the more than day-old news that England had reached the semi-finals of Euro 2020 and that teenager Emma Raducanu was playing well at Wimbledon. But the implication throughout all of last evening's pandemic news was that the government is freshly embarking on a dangerously high-risk strategy, when until recently coverage was stressing excessive government caution and the damage being caused by the safety measures.

The absurdity continued this morning, with the nasty and opinionated Nick Robinson bombarding Helen Whately, the social care minister, with dumb questions about mask-wearing in care homes. Admittedly, she was unimpressive in dealing with the onslaught, but a simple question in return would have silenced the bully: “What then, Nick, is the alternative? Lockdown for ever?” This has been a constant theme of the atrocious news coverage of the pandemic: in addition to its narrow, parochial approach that fails to address context or perspective, it has never challenged the gain-sayers. A few more replies from those wrestling with the pandemic along the lines of: “And your alternative is?” should have diverted much of the half-witted aggression; and the same question posed to interviewees from the airline/restaurant/theatre/nightclub/etc sectors might have exposed their self-serving pleading for what it was – a campaign in support of their own financial interests.

This really is a sorry time for journalism and the portrait it is painting of the UK and its current leaders is distorting the views of even the intelligentsia, let alone the less interested. Even the brightest of people are happy to label the Prime Minister a liar, perhaps the biggest liar in political history. Yet this raises several questions, certainly concerning a ranking of lying prime ministers: where does Tony Bliar stand in all this? Was Harold Wilson the paragon of virtue his adherents claim today? A professor of politics and close friend provided some context recently during a debate by saying that the phrase “If his lips are moving he's telling a lie” had been applied to many leaders. It also raises the question as to whether lying is an altogether and universally undesirable characteristic to see in a prime minister. Diplomacy itself is the art of lying nicely – and when Just William attempted to tell nothing but the truth one Christmas his world quickly fell apart. It must depend on what lies are told and why. And this is something that much of the time we cannot know. I have no idea whether Johnson is more of a liar than anyone else. This is compounded by the demand that a prime minister comments on everything all the time: it may well be that any spokesman is giving their best account at the time in order to meet the demand. Deeper allegations of corruption are another matter and if it exists it will come to light in due course. All is compounded, too, by the constant barrage of “news” – the 24-hour channels with time to fill being forced to resort to speculation and prediction. Endless forecasts of what is about to happen makes politicians appear to have lied or be muddled when things turn out differently, and when it was not them who made the statement in the first place. Then there is the in-built extra scrutiny to which public figures and bodies are exposed: they are more watched than any corporate leader and the function of government more closely monitored than any private sector organisation's actions. As editor of FT Digital Business I saw how disastrously and expensively so many businesses' IT projects went wrong but that no one ever heard about, compared with public sector technology ventures that were pored over minutely and scathingly if they faltered.

This is not to say I approve of everything the government is doing. I believe its planning policies are shocking and its attitude towards leaseholders stuck in potentially unsafe blocks of flats feeble. I approve of measures to prevent criminals and frauds from taking over our border policy but I am baffled by the row over international aid: why is it a fixed amount? Let us spend as much money as is needed on worthy causes but stop wasting it on corrupt regimes and frivolous projects in rich countries. But overall, it is hard to see how anyone else could have steered a better course through this pandemic. I have certainly not heard any hint of it – and I have been listening hard.


● A friend, apparently now a member of the Labour Party, claimed “we” would have “walked” last week's Batley and Spen by-election had George Galloway not intervened by standing as a candidate himself. Well, that is one interpretation, I suppose. Another is that Galloway appealed to former Labour voters who under no circumstances were prepared to vote for the confused mess of a party that refuses to represent their interests and were looking for an alternative. Without Galloway they would have been far more likely to continue the dismantling of the “red wall” by voting for the Conservative candidate, who just missed out by a tiny number of votes.


● Celery salt: whoever invented it deserves every accolade going. Thank you. Builders' radios: whoever invented them should be condemned to being imprisoned in an eternal deafening disco and be denied the mercy of hearing loss.


● Most sports, with the glaring exception of football, have used technology well and have developed intelligent, mature rules around it. Tennis, however, which was one of the early adopters of IT, is making itself – and especially its umpires – look silly by denying officials access to simple replays. Today, Elena Rybakina served a perfect ace at Wimbledon. Her opponent raised her hand to challenge the lack of a call as the ball sped past her, far beyond her reach. Only then was the call of “fault” made. Rybakina then challenged and was proved correct – the serve was in. The umpire now has the discretion to award the point to the server or replay it, depending on whether the call interfered with the opponent's playing of the ball. In this case the call came long after the ball had passed the receiver, and the receiver had already raised her hand to challenge the lack of a call. She was also several yards away from being able to reach it. There were no grounds whatsoever for replaying the point. Yet, while viewers everywhere were able to reach this accurate conclusion after seeing the precise unfolding of events, the umpire incorrectly demanded the point be replayed – to the understandable fury of Rybakina, who rightly said her point had been taken away from her. If the whole world is able to see that an injustice is being done, why can't an off-court official watch the replay, too, and report the correct decision to the umpire. In this and many other instances, tennis is being fair neither to players nor umpires.

● And aaaargh! The total dimwits in the BBC scheduling department have made a complete hash of it again tonight by swapping their BBC1 and BBC2 schedules for no reason at all. It means viewers trying to record BBC1 programmes will have captured an hour or so of tennis, and those hoping to record Wimbledon will be able to watch EastEnders. The Beeb has been making this same crass mistake for years. Is there no one there with the capacity to learn? Do they not yet realise that no one, apart from BBC die-hards, cares one jot which channel they are watching?


JUNE 23 2021

A Letter to The Times

Dear Letters Editor, You report that “smart traffic lights” could smooth traffic flows and reduce carbon emissions. Why, then, is the policy across swathes of south-west London, and probably beyond (I try not to go there) to obstruct traffic flow by moving bus stops out of lay-bys and into the middle of the road? Any gains from “smart” traffic lights will be more than wiped out by the choking fumes emitted by the hordes stuck behind stationary buses.

And a Letter to The Sunday Times

Dear Letters Editor, You report that lovely “Little Hollands” are to spring up everywhere, making life safer and more joyful for cyclists. The appalling borough of Kingston upon Thames claimed to be doing this some years back, but making a complete hash of it from the point of view of both cyclists and drivers. I asked Kingston council, via a freedom of information request, how many of its designers had visited “Holland” to see how it should be done, and how many consultants from Holland had advised on the project. The answer in both instances: zero.

Neither was published.

JUNE 21 2021

It is no longer enough to publish the numbers of Covid-19 cases, hospitalisations and deaths: we need to know who these people are. We would expect to see a sharp rise in infections resulting from greater social interaction. If there is one thing a “confused” public must have learnt by now it is this simple equation – contact causes spread of disease, as happened quite dramatically just before and over the Christmas and new year period. And so as we “unlock” infections are rising again, just as we should have anticipated. The difference now is that the majority of the UK population is protected from the disease's worst effects, either by vaccination, prior infection or age. The numbers requiring hospital treatment are drastically lower than the number of infections would previously have caused – but they are still rising. Deaths are, statistically speaking, insignificant: each death is, of course, an enormous personal sadness but the numbers now dying from Covid are tiny compared to other causes. They could rise, of course, as could the hospitalisation rate. And this is where it becomes vital for the statistics to show precisely who is being hospitalised: if those with protection form only a tiny proportion of those taking hospital beds, then the link between infection and severe illness is sufficiently broken to allow greater social contact and, in due course, some overseas travel. In effect, if the overwhelming majority of those requiring hospital treatment are those who have chosen to risk their health – and indeed that of others – by refusing vaccination, then the pandemic is at an end.

There are three provisos: the first is that there will always be an unlucky few who have received the vaccine and still become ill and even die – few vaccines are 100 per cent effective. There are also those who cannot, for whatever reason, be vaccinated; they must continue to take self-preserving precautions, just as those who need to avoid the flu or other threats do. As long as the numbers in this category remain tiny, they cannot be a reason for continuing restrictions on social interaction.

The second is that while vaccine refuseniks should be stripped out of one set of hospitalisation/death figures on the grounds of irrelevance in controlling the pandemic, they are relevant in the context of NHS resources. If those falling ill after refusing vaccines begin to impede the efforts of the health service in dealing with its huge backlog of treatment then questions can justifiably be asked about the type and level of treatment they should receive.

The third proviso concerns new variants. Should a new variant appear that is able to side-step current vaccines, we might be forced to backtrack. The likelihood of this happening is greatly increased by international travel, which should remain strictly limited for the time being. And which should have been much more severely controlled throughout.

JUNE 18 2021

The Conservatives have lost a by-election in Buckinghamshire, a seat they have held comfortably for decades. Does this tell us anything about a great shift in political alliances? Not really. It is a clear and very traditional protest vote, with disaffected Remain-voting Tories siding with shire Labour voters to support the compromise challenger – the LibDem candidate. A detestation of the HS2 rail line, which passes through the constituency, and of the Tories' proposed free-for-all for developers in its planning reforms are said to have been the main issues. And if so, that's a positive sign – because the Conservative Party is completely and utterly wrong on both of those and needs to be forced to re-think. The result gives the hapless and confused LibDems something to cheer, briefly – but they also support HS2 and recklessly building hundreds of thousands of houses a year. Beyond that, it's little more than a good old-fashioned and well-deserved protest vote.

JUNE 17 2021

I tuned in last night to an excellent webinar by my friend Richard Busellato and his colleague Dr David Ko, both long-time players in the investment industry. The blurb for the event says they have recently come to realise how unsustainable policies and practices in their business are. They have co-written a book, “The Unsustainable Truth”, which looks at why sustainability has become incompatible with investing for the future. I was impressed by their passion and their arguments – perhaps largely because they fall precisely in line with the case I make in my own book, “The Rise of Antisocialism”, published in 2019. I mentioned the similarities to Richard and he replied that this was perhaps less surprising because of our similar age and backgrounds. This might be true but I feel there is far more than that: I put it down to our close and long-standing proximity to finance, economics, money and investment and using that experience to understand the forces that are destroying our planet.

I'll list here a few points the authors made during the presentation (paraphrased) and note how closely they match the analysis and conclusions I detail in my book:


The Unsustainable Truth”: There is far too much investment money in play – we are running out of things to spend it on. And so we resort to finding things that are dangerous for the environment.

The Rise of Antisocialism” includes most of a chapter talking about the developed world's inability to cope with its enormous wealth and how so much is spent on antisocial and dangerously polluting projects and materials.


The Unsustainable Truth”: Traditional economics has always assumed planetary resources are infinite and perpetual growth is possible. But because it relies on extraction, activity and borrowing from the future, this is clearly wrong.

The Rise of Antisocialism”: Traditional economics, and especially what passes for economic theories and studies today, encompass little more than business finance. The book says resources are finite and infinite growth impossible. It says exploitation and extraction are leading us towards environmental difficulties that we might not be able to overcome.


The Unsustainable Truth”: Without infinite resources to fund our lifestyles we have to find new ones – we need a new focus. The authors quote St Augustine, to the effect that “we always feel we don't have enough”.

The Rise of Antisocialism”: One of its main themes is that a business-led culture of materialism, individualism and consumption rests on creating a state of permanent dissatisfaction.


The Unsustainable Truth”: Policies are designed to protect portfolio wealth and little else. A culture change is required to update our view of what work is and what it means. Our ideas of ownership need to be updated to become custodianship and caretaking. We might have to accept less, which raises questions over “Who am I?” and “What do I do?” Our attitude has be one that avoids having to make to our future generations the same abject apology and failure of the last Labour Treasury: “Sorry, there is no money left.”

The Rise of Antisocialism”: The whole of the final chapter says that our culture has to change if we are to avoid an environmental catastrophe – we can choose to change or be forced to change. I take the pessimistic view that the victory of the forces of antisocialism has been so complete that we will have to be forced; the webinar moderator (and the two participants did nod in agreement) was more optimistic that younger people offer hope. I talk about work becoming “doing what is necessary”, and avoiding the activities associated with unnecessary and meaningless consumption (dubbed “non-essential” during the pandemic) to which we have all been made addicts. As Richard said, we need to find “more enjoyment and fulfilment in little things”. This is almost word-for-word what I say in my book. There are many pages on how the future might have to look, with a restoration of crafts and mutual help – a restoration of society, indeed. And it asks how we can shift from all-out consumption, selfishness and materialism to a simpler more satisfying life, while retaining the benefits of engineering and technology. The authors talked about innovation for future generations – precisely the topic of my final chapter.


The Unsustainable Truth”: Change must come from us. Politicians cannot tell an electorate they plan to make everyone “poorer”.

The Rise of Antisocialism” says change will either come from us – politicians can do nothing but protect the status quo – or it will come from necessity. Once the sea levels rise and the ice is gone and parts of the Earth are scorching and other parts drowning, only then will we act. And by then it will be too late.

Having quickly scanned the text of their (I believe as yet unpublished) book, I can see many many more parallels. They are telling the same story from an investment perspective – but it's exactly the same story.


MAY 26 2021

'AS I SAID AT THE TIME....'

Oh, this is going to be tedious. The raking over of what might have gone wrong, or not, since the start of the pandemic is going to be littered with individuals denying a reliance on hindsight and saying, or implying, that they told us all so. “As I said at the time...” is set to become the most commonly used phrase of 2021/22. Dominic Cummings, Angela Rayner, the BBC Radio Four Today programme presenters, and many more have whisked us off to a cracking start.

Indeed, listening to Rayner on the radio this morning was mildly amusing, given that the dose was mercifully small. She had two perfectly prepared answers to any and every question: “We have the worst death rate in Europe”. We don't, actually. And: “We don't know that lessons have been learned unless we have an inquiry now.” Even when it was pointed out that the majestic Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, has pleaded for patience over any investigation saying that any hearing this year could prove distracting and dangerous while the virus still rages, she merely repeated mantra part two: “We don't know that lessons have been learned unless we have an inquiry now.” Her simplistic and out-of-touch ranting shows just how damaging the lack of a constructive political Opposition has been over the past year.

THE MEANING OF 'DESPERATE'

When your level of poverty reduces you to theft or other degrading behaviour, you can be said to be “desperate”. When a rescue team cannot quite reach someone in deadly jeopardy, they might put themselves at risk to make one last truly “desperate” attempt at saving a life. When your bladder is full to bursting and you feel about to explode but there is no hope of speedy relief, you might justly call this being “desperate”. But I'm afraid that, according to all known definitions of the word, wanting to go on a foreign jaunt to sit by a pool in the sun does not come even close to qualifying as “desperate”. One interviewee on yesterday's lunchtime Radio Four, however, claimed people were “desperate” to go on holiday. We may laugh – especially when the interviewee is from the tourist industry and therefore has a vested financial interest in such ludicrous exaggeration.

And hearing him say “desperate” reminded me that a couple of weeks ago, Alex Jones and Jermaine Jenas were happily presenting the BBC's early evening One Show, when it included a short item about a migrant seeking to bypass legal channels of entry into the UK by illegally hiding in a car's roof box. Instead of being shocked at this flagrant breaking of the law and abuse of an unsuspecting family's vehicle, Jones said something along the lines of: “Well just imagine how desperate he must have been to do that.” Jenas nodded assent and I reached for the TV remote. Is was an abject failure to understand that most such migrants are not in the least desperate; they are chancers seeking an economic advantage for themselves at the expense of legitimate refugees. They have also come from France! Can a desire to flee France ever be said to be “desperate”, except for those who have been sentenced to the guillotine? We don't expect great intellect or intelligence from the presenters of such shows, but I believe we do have a right to be spared such crass, unthinking stupidity and ignorance.

MAY 26 2021

CUMMINGS

There are several things hopelessly wrong about Dominic Cummings' miserable whining attacks on the government's Covid-19 performance. First, he was one of the most senior decision-makers and “influencers” in government at the time to which he refers. This makes him among the most horribly guilty of whatever allegations he is laying. Second, it was only a year ago that those now treating his every word as gospel were saying Cummings was incapable of speaking a word of truth – a congenital and unrepentant liar. Now he has turned on Boris and Hancock, the arms of the government-hating community are opened to welcome him as a fount of all knowledge and correctness. Hypocrisy on a grand scale, surely. And third, his accusations amount to almost nothing: the now familiar “too little too late” nonsense; being unprepared for the unexpected; and a spattering of “he's a liar” claims, which, when examined are in reality a mixture of semantics, misunderstandings, wishful thinking, moral boosting and the inevitable output of a team dealing with a global crisis of an unknown nature and proportion at breakneck speed.

This is all a pity, as I have long had a sneaking admiration for Cummings as an intelligent and original thinker. I still feel he could be a force for good one day. But this witless, nasty and vindictive assault on his former colleagues suggests he has an awful lot to learn before he can be of any use to anybody.

GREENPEACE

So the ecological campaign group has spent what must be a small fortune on a very silly advert, called “Wasteminster”, that begins with model figures of Boris Johnson and the press in Downing Street. As Johnson states the need to protect the planet, a mountain of plastic pours from the sky on to those below, eventually bursting through the gates of Downing Street where models of sad-faced children stand fearing for their future. This plastic mountain is claimed to be the amount the people of the UK throw away every day. And I have no reason to disbelieve it: we are an enormously wasteful, rich society, built on consumption and individual self-interest, that will inevitably produce extraordinary amounts of plastic waste. I don't believe, however, that it is Boris Johnson who is discarding plastic in such Alpine proportions. I believe it is all of us: everyone who shops, all the smiling children who spend their early years surrounded by multi-coloured plastic, all the businesses that cut costs and corners through the use of convenient plastic. Ironically, Johnson appears to be the most ecologically determined prime minister the UK has so far elected; his announcements and targets go far beyond anything we have heard before. Not far enough for some, perhaps: indeed, in The Rise of Antisocialism I argue that our current unsustainable lifestyles will eventually require society to change radically and to adopt a new, green, economic model. But to make government entirely and solely responsible for people's rabid consumption of toxic plastics is stupid. It's just as stupid as saying that horrific levels of obesity and the awful impact it can have on health is an urgent wake-up call for, not obese people, but the government! It's always good to have someone else to blame and someone else who is expected to fix problems entirely of your own making.


MAY 22 2021

LABOUR – IT COMES IN ANY COLOUR YOU LIKE

The Labour Party is not just a different colour of the same product requiring a slightly different marketing strategy to sell itself to consumers. Failing to grasp this simple fact will leave it floundering in the shadows for years. Labour must have a distinct message, a distinct set of values. The trouble is that all of the main parties, including Labour, start from the same basic set of assumptions – the primacy of the economy, consumption, jobs, individual rights etc. All of my basic assumptions are the precise opposite – and so should Labour's be.


THE STATE OF JOURNALISM

On BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning, a spokesman claimed that the majority of the public retained trust in the BBC despite its latest scandal. I'm not sure from where this emanates. Hardly anyone I speak to has any respect for the “news” coverage of the pandemic by any media organisation, with many of the BBC's leading journalists (Kuenssberg, Pimm, Robinson, and many more) castigated for being completely out of touch.

And being completely out of touch is really the state the BBC has been in since the referendum campaign began in 2015. It misunderstood the mood of the nation then and it misunderstands its needs now. This is why it is imperative that any inquiry into the handling of the pandemic includes an examination of the role of the media, and specifically, the BBC, the national broadcaster. At its simplest, the media have three possible stances they could take with regard to the authorities during an emergency: blanket support to convey the official message; constructive questioning to hold government to account in a search for optimum performance; or opposition by undermining all government messaging, sowing confusion and damaging confidence.

The BBC has done little but the last of these. The Times and Sunday Times have not been so bad and their failings appear to have been caused largely by poor quality journalism. But too many of the BBC's big-name correspondents and presenters have adopted the role of political opposition. This might be because there has been little credible opposition from other politicians, or it could be because these journalists have allowed their own personal beliefs and opinions to colour their journalism – in my book, one of the most heinous crimes a professional journalist can commit. Also, because most of these journalists are of a like mind, they encounter few, if any, contrary views in either their work or private lives. And yet the results of both the referendum and the last few sets of elections show clearly that the views they hold are not shared by the majority of people in the UK. Writing and broadcasting with objectivity and integrity about ideas that are hated by your social “bubble” is the essence of the job – and it is not happening at the Beeb and elsewhere.

Instead, we witness daily the ambush interview: rather than seeking to inform, explain and elucidate, the interviewer is trying to trap the speaker into a contradiction, or to make them appear uncertain. For example, recent questioning of the Wales Minister on the details of foreign travel was not an effort to clarify but to confuse. The Today presenters do little else when interviewing ministers. The journalists' underlying assumptions also lead them to mock reasonably held views expressed by members of the public: a few days ago, people were asked how those refusing a vaccination should be treated and those who argued that there should be serious consequences for putting society at risk and needlessly taking up valuable health resources were actually laughed at. This ridiculing was then re-played on the lunchtime Radio 4 news. Even where government advice is crystal clear it is presented as “confusing”: the gov.uk website categorically states that no one should be travelling to amber list countries, yet most media, instead of seeking to clarify and inform, have deliberately sought to exacerbate a serious concern that is almost entirely of their own making.

This constant drive to undermine, which has surely put many lives in jeopardy, must be considered by all future inquiries.


THE MIDDLE EAST – IF ONLY...

If only someone had thought, a few years ago, to appoint a Middle East Special Envoy then perhaps the current tragedy there could have been averted.

MAY 19 2021

CONFUSED? YOU WILL BE...

Oh, we are all so confused about foreign vacations. The message coming through in all media is that it's holiday time – so get booking or miss out on that sun bed by the pool, glass in hand. But that wretched killjoy government is confusing everyone by saying we can't go on holiday to countries on the amber list – and who wants to go to most of the green list countries, if they'll have us.

To assess the catastrophic level of confusion being alleged by the likes of Willie Walsh and others with a vested financial interest in encouraging travel, I checked www.gov.uk – https://www.gov.uk/guidance/red-amber-and-green-list-rules-for-entering-england – and it took all of 90 seconds to establish the true state of affairs. This is what the official website says: “You should not travel to amber list countries or territories.” The fact that airlines and tour companies are keen to ignore this instruction does not mean the rule is anything less than crystal clear. There are suggestions that the red and amber categories should be merged and indeed, the instruction not to travel is the same for both. But the distinction between the two is worth keeping because of the differing quarantine requirements on entering the UK.

So Keir Starmer, Nick Robinson, the new “lack of clarity” idiot Amol Rajan, and anyone else peddling the “lack of clarity” lie, if you find this confusing, how on earth do you manage to get yourselves dressed in the morning?

APRIL 28 2021

It is now official: expressing an opinion is a “hate incident”. If the 85-year-old man who politely and intelligently explained his honestly held and not terribly controversial view on abortion and Down's Syndrome is now on the “hate incident” register, then everyone who dares to set out their reasonable arguments in a debate must be, too. I think that includes just about the entire population of the world.

THE BIGGER SCANDAL

Peter Franklin, associate editor of the UnHerd ideas website, makes some interesting comments about the non-stories concerning Boris Johnson today:

Over the last week, we’ve had day-after-day of screaming front-page headlines – depicting Downing Street as a latter-day court of Caligula. It’s absurd. Everyone knows it’s absurd. And yet 'we' by which I mean those in the media pretend that this nonsense matters.

Take the allegation that the PM remarked that he’d rather see 'bodies pile high' than take the country into another lockdown. I don’t care whether he said it or not. I do care if our leaders can’t use intemperate language or gallows humour to let off steam in private...

...What is genuinely offensive is that while the media are engaged in fevered speculation as to what Boris Johnson did or didn’t say, actual bodies are piling up – in India...”

He is quite right. Indeed, I would go further. I do not demand the same qualities of my prime minister as I do of my GP, local scout leader, head teacher or vicar. I require someone far more robust, punchy, and even underhand when necessary. The only problem I have with Boris is that he seems to pick fights when they are not necessary at all.

Franklin then says the current crop of wild allegations are a sign that the media are reasserting themselves after a year of having to defer to scientists. He gives an example of the difference between then and now:

...Don’t forget that last autumn, the media were more interested in attacking Kate Bingham for who she’s married to and who she went to school with, than understanding her vital work with the Vaccine Taskforce. Had politics-as-usual been in full force, the media witch-hunt may well have forced her out. Fortunately, the grown-ups were in charge and she was able to finish her job.

The irony is that it’s the success of the Vaccine Taskforce that’s allowing politics-as-usual to reassert itself...In celebrating with a festival of gossip our political journalists are signalling that nature has healed and they are back in charge of the news agenda. Indeed, no titbit from the last 12 months is too trivial not rake-up and present again to the public.”

During my early years as a Financial Times journalist, I once suggested to the night news editor that we covered a very similar “political gossip” story to the ones we are enduring today. He asked me what the story really was, what it amounted to, what evidence there was, what difference it would make if true, why anyone engaged in serious business would find it of the slightest interest. I was left having to admit that it was empty mud-slinging of little interest to anyone other than those playing juvenile politics. It was a vital lesson in what news really is. Sadly, it seems that news editors with such standards are now extinct in even the finest institutions.


APRIL 25 2021

I hope the current tsunami of empty and pointless gesturing and posturing makes someone, somewhere feel better. Because it sure as hell isn't improving the lot of those who need help the most.

Take race and the Black Lives Matter hysteria. In the UK a serious, intelligent report was trashed by BLM extremists and others for identifying the true causes of deprivation and disadvantage, and in today's Times, author Lionel Shriver adds sparkling perspective to its main thrust. She argues correctly that the noisiest people involved in the BLM campaign and those benefiting most from the resulting swing to favouring ethnic minorities are those who were already doing very nicely, thank you – black middle class professionals and their white liberal middle class sympathisers. I avoid, and have always sought to avoid, such racist campaigning. As a stalwart anti-racist campaigner, I attack poverty and deprivation, whomsoever it affects.

Trans extremists provide another example of how gesture politics inexorably leads to shooting yourself in the foot. See April 24 below for an explanation of how the idiotic trans lobby has alienated a huge swathe at the more intelligent end of its potential support spectrum. Me included.

And then we have interfering would-be do-gooders who have infected the world of HR. One of the many reasons I chose early retirement was the increasing stranglehold HR was taking over the efficient functioning of the workplace – absurd and meaningless online “courses” on how to use a fire extinguisher (ending with an instruction not to use one!) and on how to lift a box. These were compulsory and a tragic waste of 90 minutes of my work time. Now the highly respected former Parliamentary Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, is being “investigated” for failing to attend a compulsory course on “Being Nice” or “We're All Lovely”, or some such vacuous title (it was actually “Valuing Everyone”!). This is in spite of her excellent excuse for not attending – that she had been having heart surgery. She made clear she would happily take part when fit and it was safe – adding a typically generous postscript: “You're never too old to learn.” HR please take note.

Sadly, the disgusting Nick Robinson features in my blog yet again and was responsible for my first angry turning off of the radio this morning. On the day the UK launched a gigantic and impressive aircraft carrier, he dismissed it as indicating that we now have a pocket navy – like global Britain, he said, it was sign that we're a second rate nation (he pretended his comments were a question – another of his typically vile traits). He then, with a hint of triumphant glee in his voice, taunted defence secretary Ben Wallace by alleging the UK needed US fighter jets to equip the ship. When Wallace pointed out that Robinson clearly failed to understand that all military vessels of this size carried craft from various Nato countries – an attack on one is an attack on all – the obnoxious Today Programme presenter reeled off some appalling and preposterous allegation that Boris Johnson had said he would rather see thousands of Britons die, with bodies piled high, than impose an autumn lockdown. Wallace batted this away as a lie and then, slightly feebly, told the odious one that it was unfair of him to repeat such obvious nonsense. He should have said it was downright irresponsible. It is certainly crass journalism.

Anyone who was paying attention last autumn will have been surprised, in fact, at just how cautious the prime minister was over safeguarding the population. Perhaps we shouldn't have been so surprised, as Johnson had, after all, suffered badly from Covid-19 himself. Any accusations of him being cavalier over re-imposing a lockdown when, at the time, there were libertarian fruitcakes screeching for “no lockdown” on one side, and scientific gloomsters demanding “lock down everything for ever” on the ever, simply carry no credibility whatsoever. It's even possible he might have said something roughly approximating to the words he is accused of saying, but without context, meaning, and knowledge of the temperature of the debate at the time, the anonymous allegation is hollow and inconsequential. Exactly the same applies to accusations that he dismissed calls for a “circuit-breaker” lockdown: it was discussed and considered in depth at the time but not considered to be effective. Wales tried it, where it was proved to be an abject failure.

What the facts actually show is that the autumn “second wave” was being turned around by lockdown and related controls in late November and early December: the numbers were falling sharply. Then came Wave Three. This was ignited by Christmas and New Year and was entirely the result of UK society deciding to prioritise having a nice Christmas over the risk to people's lives. The third wave was voluntary and there was little the government or its scientists could do about it – we all chose to take the chance and we are all responsible for the inevitable deaths that followed.

As I wrote in October:

Right. It's decision day again. You are the government and this time you have three choices: a complete lockdown, something approaching martial law with virtual house arrest for everyone, enforced by soldiers; an end to all restrictions, with your government saying it is no longer its responsibility to prevent people giving each other a cold and from now on it's up to every individual to decide whether they prefer a social life or death for grandma; or continue juggling myriad demands, statistics, accusations, negativity etc in an effort to minimise deaths and minimise damage to people's livelihoods. And remember, whichever you decide, you lose.”

And

At least Victoria Derbyshire had the nous to apologise for her disgraceful declaration that she would flout lockdown rules so that seven could gather at Christmas. Three or four idiotic Times columnists then announced their support for her the following day, claiming they were “sensible”. Of course, we now know that being “sensible” provides total immunity from the virus, because we can see from the charts just how fast the dim-witted peasants of the north pass it between themselves and how sensible, educated southerners don't. I cannot recall a more obnoxious, arrogant, hypocritical, irresponsible, witless, simple-minded piece of journalism – and it's competing in a historically strong field.”

On December 10, I added...

We have a crystal clear choice – socialising versus dead people. From the umpteen irresponsible actions I have witnessed in the past few days, the consensus seems to be that we prefer socialising to keeping people alive. Fine – that's not what I would choose, but if that's what the majority wants...”

And

Forget the relaxation of safety measures and impose stringent ones. That way we might avoid a national lockdown, job losses, business failures, hospitalisations and a rocketing death toll by the end of January. The relaxation has only arisen because so many had made plain they would refuse to obey safety rules – including a double-page spread full of irresponsible Times columnists. So scrap it now – and save both lives and jobs.”

And on December 20

For those cannot accept their personal responsibility for the dire situation we now face, then by all means blame the officials: blame Boris, Hancock, Whitty, Sturgeon, Merkel, Tegnell – anyone but yourself. But then realise that WE are the ones spreading the virus – no one else. And we know full well how to prevent it.”

That's how it was. With Wave One successfully combated and Wave Two easing, we all chose to risk Wave Three.

There will claims and calls from the blind Boris-haters that everything he did was wrong and that the evidence (none, so far, by the way) provided by that paragon of virtue, Dominic Cummings, is damning. The rank stench of hypocrisy surrounding this crusade is shameful: even those media organisations who lambasted Cummings less than a year ago, dismissing him as a scandalous liar, are now embracing him as the final arbiter of all that is true and fair. As long as he keeps condemning Boris. This is a sickening case of “my enemy's enemy is my new best friend”.

And finally to the second moment I decided I could stand listening to Radio Four not one minute longer this morning. The channel is re-running its excellent series on the scandal that saw the Post Office jailing its own employees on trumped up charges of fraud and theft, when all the time it knew that the “missing money” was down to its own flawed IT system. I could not listen to this harrowing tale of injustice and barbarity all over again without it making my blood boil. Those executives in charge at the time – and it covers a long period – must be prosecuted. Justice is not served simply by apologising to, or even handsomely compensating, innocent individuals who have had their livelihoods, partners, liberty and even their lives taken from them. Those responsible must face justice, too. And all these years later, they are still free to run businesses, be advisers and consultants and enjoy their lives without any hint of a sanction for their heinous behaviour.

As we can see, there have been so many examples in the past few days and weeks of how laughably idiotic things have become. But the full-page advertisement placed by Highways England in today's Times really takes the biscuit. “If you break down on the motorway,” it says, “Go left.” It fails to add: “where there is a strong likelihood you will be killed by a lorry using the lane you will be parked in”. This ludicrous attempt at defending the indefensible policy of creating “smart motorways” would be hilarious, were it not so serious. We read regular reports of deaths on these killer roads, of emergency vehicles being unable to attend horrific accidents because all lanes are blocked (obviously), of lay-bys being too far apart, of cameras being useless – yet the roll-out programme goes on. Par for the course, I suppose, these days.


APRIL 24 2021

FOOTBALL BRAINS

A final word on the grotesque “European Super League” proposals: what must be remembered is that the people conjuring up this plan are not rogue football people – they run things, they have control over people's lives, they influence governments. They, and people like them, run the world. When they demonstrate how stupid, arrogant and out of touch with reality they are, we should all be very afraid.

PROUD TO BE A TRANSPHOBE

According to what sounds like an excellent and intelligent new book, “trans activists” would label me – and almost everyone with the capacity for rational thought – a transphobe, simply for failing to fall in line with their potty beliefs on gender. I am not a transphobe, of course, in any meaningful sense of the word but in the fascistic, coercive-control world of once-admirable and pioneering organisations such as Stonewall, even the slightest belief in the existence of biological gender is apostacy and must be countered with the modern day equivalent of medieval retribution.

It's a familiar story: half-witted extremists drag an important, deserving and noble cause well beyond the realms of common sense and aggravate not only their opponents but their natural supporters, too. Unfortunately, it only takes a tiny faction in the age of social media to bully enough of the feeble-brained into climbing on their bandwagon and amplify their warped message, winning them manipulative powers far above either their numerical or intellectual worth. The book that seeks to inject a little wisdom into this slurry is “Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism” by Kathleen Stock. A positive Sunday Times book review admits that it is not an easy read and calls it “controversial”. That what sound like its eminently sensible and reasoned arguments could be described as “controversial” shows just how foolish we have been to give the trans fascists so much free rein.

THE DEATH OF BBC NEWS

In just 30 minutes of watching news bulletins on the Al Jazeera and Euronews channels last night I learnt more about what's happening in the world than the hours and hours of BBC “news” I have endured all week. There were terrifying pictures of Russian warships controlling the Sea of Azov, India's Covid-19 disaster, Joe Biden aggravating Turkey with his apology over a historic genocide, climate threats, and more. Meanwhile, the BBC continued its pathetic “nail Boris” campaign which, by last night, had been reduced to arguments over who paid the bill for a bit of tasteless redecorating.

Anyone doubting the Beeb's embarrassing passion for its anti-Boris crusade should listen to Nick Robinson's disgraceful statements on the Radio 4 Today Programme. They come thick and fast but a few recent highlights include him praising and thanking Anthony Fauci, the American president's chief medical adviser, for all his work in combating “this appalling disease” (can anyone imagine him saying the same to Chris Whitty or Matt Hancock?). He also assured an American official a few weeks ago that Biden would not visit the UK first because the new president hates Brexit and Boris – Robinson was so sure of himself that he bet the official a pint of beer that Britain would not be first. Yesterday morning, with no hint of shame at his ignorance and blundering, Robinson admitted he had lost that bet – he got it wrong, just as all his assurances over the vast superiority of the EU's procurement systems and pandemic handling proved to be completely wrong. And in the same programme he shut up an Australian interviewee because he was full of praise for the way the UK had handled the coronavirus crisis. There are countless examples of his un-journalistic bias which, as a life-long journalist, I find deeply disgusting.

And so, while Al Jazeera and Euronews continue to report on serious world events, the BBC keeps trying to find a flame amid all the smoke it is pumping into its “political scandal” offensive. But so far it has come up with not a flicker: there are accusations galore from those with vested interests, and from fellow Boris-haters, or BBC radio show “comedians”. Yet even Dominic Cummings, promoted to media darling now that he appears to have turned on Boris, has so far come up with nothing more than: “I told him that if he did X it would be very naughty”, without telling us whether anyone went ahead with X at all. Similarly, the claims of tax impropriety in the effort to secure urgent life-saving ventilators from James Dyson still amount to little more than Dyson and Johnson knowing each other and communicating by mobile phone. As a journalist, I always proceeded on the basis that unsupported and rebutted allegations were worthless without evidence. Today, it seems mere allegations are sufficient to condemn, convict and generate hours of coverage; rebuttals are largely ignored. Of course, new facts might emerge, but as things stand the BBC and some other parochial media organisations are using all their might to sling as much mud as they can in the hope that something sticks. But, as when the odious Nick Robinson asked the other day whether it felt as though Johnson just kept “getting away with it”, could it be that those flinging the mud either have very poor aim or very poor quality mud?


APRIL 21 2021

WELL THAT DIDN'T LAST LONG

Well done, football fans! The clueless financiers won't be applying the final lethal injection to the already heavily infected world of football – infected with the principles of business that have largely obliterated the principles of sport and made it an ugly and idiotic spectacle. Business might rule the world, but it is far from omniscient – far, even, from being particularly bright or clever. This filthy and thankfully short-lived little “European Super League” episode shows just how ignorant and out of touch these global businessmen and financiers are. They understand spreadsheets, or at least the bottom lines of them, but very little else.

SALVAGING POOR LAURA'S REPUTATION

Poor Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC's hapless political editor. She's trying her hardest to nail Boris and his “cronies” but, armed only with a rubber hammer, she keeps missing or finding it bouncing back into her face. The Beeb has spent all day trying to fan the flames under her accusation that Boris has done something terrible by talking to brilliant inventor James Dyson, trying to persuade him to provide us with the perfect ventilator to stop us all from dying. The feeble Justin Webb on the Today Programme pestered and goaded Tony Blair into condemning what must be a clearly corrupt prime minister – but even the most callous and slippery of former prime ministers refused to take the bait. He said he understood the urgency of the discussions and without knowing more details could not assume anything worryingly underhand had occurred. So far, the lobbying “scandal” amounts to a great deal of mud-slinging, a fair amount of smoke, but very little flame. But it won't stop Laura and the other Brexit/Boris haters from hammering, slinging and fanning.

APRIL 20 2021

Business principles have infected every corner of western lives: we suffer the devastating consequences every day as the resulting greed, consumption, self-interest and antisocial behaviour dominates. Football has long provided a near perfect example of the appalling results of what I termed The Rise of Antisocialism in my book of that title; this week football surpassed itself with the suggestion that a “super league” of businesses based in England, Spain and Italy would be formed, with its participants continuing as if nothing had happened in their own domestic leagues. As with all business decisions, this move takes no account whatsoever of the interests of the players (the employees), nor the supporters (the customers); it is purely based on the financial advantage of the business owners – in this case, remote, uninterested investors, for the most part. It has happened in cricket and rugby union, as well as many other sports. It is business principles in action: in non-sporting walks of life it leads to zero hours contracts and modern slavery. In football it leads to great huffing and puffing and very little else.

Because, thank goodness, professional football as currently constituted really does not matter one jot. It is run by a cabal made up of the incompetent, the weak and the corrupt; its administrators cannot even establish an acceptable means of timing matches; its sporting elements have been replaced by blatant cheating; and its use of technology in seeking to enforce unworkable rules is abjectly inept. I ceased viewing live football several years ago as these trends made it increasingly unwatchable – especially since the disgusting infestation of gambling advertisements ran rife.

If these six English businesses wish to pursue their financial interests elsewhere, then let them. The authorities could give them until Friday lunchtime to renounce their plans and commit themselves to their national league structures, with a refusal to do so resulting in immediate expulsion. Their results against other Premiership teams this season would be declared void, and their employees barred from participation in international events. This last penalty is harsh on the players, who are contractually bound to these rogue businesses, but is necessary to apply the severest pressure.

None of this will happen, however, because the main footballing authorities are so thoroughly incompetent, weak and corrupt: they are far more likely to end up throwing money at the villains. But at least for a moment we are able to dream of a relatively open competition for the national league title, free of the dreary super-rich businesses that make the Premier League as exciting as a Formula One procession. My team, West Ham United, could win the league, as Leicester City managed to do a couple of seasons back. Then, Leicester's triumph was seen as an aberration – an assault on the new “natural order”, a challenge to the business model. In the future, clubs such as Everton, Leeds United, Southampton and many more, could all begin the season with a realistic ambition of being national champions. Meanwhile, the not-so-super six become an irrelevance. All that would then be needed to make football a great sporting spectacle once again are: an eradication of cheating, proper timing of matches, several rule changes, improved refereeing, intelligent use of technology, the banning of gambling logos and advertising, etc, etc. It won't happen. But if it did, I might even start watching again....

MORAL HAZARD

Anyone who books a holiday in the full knowledge that a global pandemic has already killed millions of people and is still raging in many countries must accept full responsibility for whatever might go wrong. We must all know by now that insurance will not help in the event of a Covid-19 cancellation; we all must have heard by now of the requirements regarding quarantine and testing and their associated costs; we are all well aware, too, that conditions might change quickly and radically. The taxpayer has no responsibility to bail out anyone who chooses to take such a risk.

Exactly the same applies to those organising music festivals. The Boomtown Festival near Winchester – which, from personal experience, I can confirm is an outrageous nuisance to everyone venturing near it and operates the most inept traffic management imaginable – has sold tens of thousands of tickets to an event it must have known might not be able to take place, and did so without, apparently, securing insurance. Now that the organisers have changed their minds about holding it – for obvious and entirely predictable reasons – they have the temerity to blame the government for failing to use taxpayers' money to underwrite and insure it. Quite incredible.


MARCH 30 2021

PLACE YOUR LIES ON THE SIDE OF A BIG RED BUS

It was the lie to end all lies, according to some. The lie that ruined their lives, dashed their hopes and dreams, stole their futures. “We send the EU £350m a week. Let's fund our NHS instead.” Except – where is the lie? It was true that the UK sent £350m a week to the EU and it is surely a worthy aim to spend more on the NHS. In what sense do those statements amount to “a lie”? But if you DO want a whopper to grace the side of a gigantic bus, then how about this? “The EU has exported 46m vaccine doses.”

This is so laughably wrong that it barely merits a comment. But when Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian politician and MEP who has called Brexit “stupid” and has made such idiotic and undiplomatic statements as: “Politically, the UK is already on its way to becoming an adversary, rather than a trusted partner, of the EU”, decides to up the ante and spread more anti-UK hate on Facebook, silence would allow his devilment to win.

Let us begin with a fact: the EU has not exported a single dose of Covid-19 vaccine. There are private companies operating within the borders of some member states that have assembly and finishing facilities and which have signed binding contracts with outside parties, being perfectly free to do so in a globalised, business-led world (which I despise, by the way). These companies use ingredients and materials supplied via international supply chains. At least one of these companies is a UK (and Swedish) enterprise that developed its vaccine in the UK, thanks to the enormous support and investment given to it by the UK taxpayer – and at cost! This is because the UK authorities were smart enough to realise early on that a vaccine was the most likely way out of the virus trap – Matt Hancock said many times last year that government strategy was to hold off and minimise the impact of the virus until a vaccine maker rode in to the rescue. This, of course, is forgotten by all who cannot stand the thought of the UK doing anything right – and who still, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, believe the EU is competent and benign. The EU, in fact, for reasons only known to its third-rate collection of bureaucrat leaders, decided not to invest in vaccine research, production nor delivery mechanisms. By the time it understood how foolish it had been, the commission could only secure “mopping up” contracts – with companies only able to offer their “best efforts” – because more nimble and intelligent agencies had taken a huge calculated risk in investing in these businesses before anyone knew they could actually produce a vaccine that worked.

There is no escaping the fact that the EU has been slow and inept and the UK has been quick, shrewd and forward looking. Of course, those who hate the UK now wish to see it punished for its successes – being made to surrender the vaccines it invested in, legitimately ordered and now needs to complete the second doses of millions of citizens. The EU is threatening to stop them arriving in the UK – it would love to but, for now, daren't; “charities” are saying our government is mean to look after its own people ahead of the whole world and should give its doses to someone else. Anybody will do, it seems, as long as we are punished. As I wrote a day or two ago, there is no stockpile of vaccines to be spread generously around more deserving countries, even if we could work out which they are (although I would argue most strongly that no EU country could possibly qualify, with the exception of Ireland, for the very specific reason that it threatens Northern Ireland).

But back to our new bus: the final touches include the claim that the UK has exported no doses. Technically, this might be true, but given that UK research created one key vaccine, and that it exports materials needed in other vaccine production, and that it has only a small final production capacity, it is disingenuous, to say the least. And further incorrect EU claims (there are too many to fit on the side of a single bus) that the UK is banning the export of vital Covid materials, which it is is not, ought to leave us aghast when we recall that one organisation has indeed authorised the blocking of a shipment of vaccines – the EU.

MARCH 28 2021

RADIO GAGA...

Why do we have to put up with such rubbish? Sunday morning, Radio 4, and we're told that there is “bickering between” the EU and the UK. Er, no, there is not. This is actually and demonstrably incorrect. Even the BBC's own compilation of sound bites demonstrated its inaccuracy. The EU has launch a sustained, bitter and ignorant campaign of assaults and attacks on the successful UK and the altruistic and effective AstraZeneca company and the UK has responded in a calm, measured, diplomatic and restrained manner. This, clearly, is not “bickering”.

And the news headlines kicked off with a demand by “charities” that the UK begins donating its vaccine supplies to poorer countries right away. The levels of ignorance behind such a demand are many and deep: the main one is that there is no stockpile of vaccine to give away, there are no “excess supplies” and, in fact, supplies are about to dwindle. And if the large body of UK-haters is to be believed, Britain has the most need for vaccines – the world's highest death rate, Europe's highest death toll, care homes ravaged etc etc. So are these “charities” seriously advocating the removal of non-existent vaccine stockpiles from what so many see as the world's worst hit country to be used in countries with a lesser problem, just as our own supplies are about to fall. Have they been paying no attention whatsoever?

And in pedant's corner: yesterday's edition of The Times ran a headline that included the words “a myriad of”. How could this have reached the presses? Does no one bother to check pages on The Times any more?

MY WORK IS BRILLIANT!

I'd like to congratulate myself on such spectacularly erudite, insightful and simply brilliant commentary. Well done, me! Does that sound a little self-congratulatory? If so, then in mitigation I would argue that if The Sunday Times can get away with it then why can't I. Today's Culture section contains a review of a book by its Insight team into our government's “mishandling” of the pandemic and its “incompetence”, based on the truly hideous piece of garbage it ran in the paper last spring saying the same thing. The reviewer calls it “brilliant investigative journalism”, or something similar and alleges or implies that its findings might represent “truth”. I prefer not to mention either the book, its writers or the reviewer, or to re-read it to check its precise wording, but that is its import. At least it admits it was written before the spectacularly brilliant vaccination programme began – not that that would change the thrust of writers hell-bent on regurgitating a biased and flimsy hatchet job that failed to stir much of a reaction at the time even among opposition politicians: anybody giving it a moment's thought could see it for what it was – a nasty piece of hate-filled bile. I doubt whether these warmed up dregs of a foul and rotten meal will fare any better this time in their aim of hurting, hampering and damaging those in charge of saving our lives.

ANOTHER POLITICAL CAREER ENDING IN ABJECT FAILURE

Macron. I pointed out in my book that this “centrist” and “unifying” politician is anything but. He is a gutless, arrogant little Thatcherite charlatan who, bit by bit, is being taken apart by facts and reality. Yet he has the gall to say, after his abject failure and abdication of responsibility for his country's vaccination programme: “There won't be a mea culpa from me. I don't have remorse and won't acknowledge failure.” The real world has a tendency to come down on hard on such pompous and preposterous egotistical braggarts and narcissists. I quote him here purely for the pleasure of being able to refer to this stunning quote when he finally collapses in disgrace and humiliation. Which, we can only hope, will not be long now.


MARCH 25 2021

THE APPALLING LACK OF CLARITY CONTINUES...

All political careers end in failure, but Angela Merkel's is particularly abject. Her moment of total madness in 2015, when she opened the EU's front door to economic migrants from here, there and everywhere, and for which she was forced to apologise, was catastrophic enough. But during the pandemic her decision-making, if it can be called that, has been even worse – and deadly. Literally. Only yesterday, she was being mocked for imposing a complete Easter lockdown in Germany, with supermarkets open for just a few hours over the weekend. And now today, she has U-turned spectacularly, with a grovelling – and necessary – apology that ought, in a just and intelligent world, see her crashing shamefully from office. “I ask all citizens for forgiveness,” she whimpers. Presumably she means all citizens of all European countries, given that her heinous and humiliating capitulation to the even more appalling and useless EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen over who should take charge of the vaccination contracts and roll-out has cost, and is continuing to cost, citizens' lives across Europe.


THE SHAME CONTINUES...

Is journalism of integrity and accuracy now officially dead? The serious media – the tabloid trash can do what they like as no one could possibly take them seriously – operates under a heavy responsibility to report accurately, fairly and with integrity. We know The Guardian merely publishes campaign speeches dressed up as news and The Telegraph splutters vehemently and indignantly into its brandy or sherry every morning; but we expect and need The Times and the BBC to be far better than they currently are (see many many examples below of how they are going so desperately off the rails). This is not only so that reasonable people can make reasonable judgments based on facts but so that political decision-makers are able to debate all options and ideas freely. The latter is now becoming impossible, thanks to outrageously irresponsible journalism and politicians. This morning's splash in The Times is a prime example. It states, categorically: “Covid jab needed to enter pubs”. It takes only a few seconds of reading the article to learn that this is a fake headline. The truth is that it is one of many ideas and options being considered and debated, quite legitimately, by politicians. If the so-called serious media choose to distort vital deliberations and suggestions for the sake of an incorrect sensationalist headline then they run a calamitous risk of driving political consultation into the realms of secrecy. This absurdly manufactured story actually gathered pace during the day, including a long, hilarious and superbly irrelevant anti “pub passports” diatribe from Steve Baker, one of the Tories' most half-witted libertarian extremists, on the BBC's World at One.

The same applies to all politicians at war with their own party's leaders. The Conservative Party has always been a vicious snake-pit, full of mutual hatreds, chinless dimwits, sozzled assassins and self-satisfied buffoons. But these twits need to learn quickly that leaking every casual remark made in what was understood to be a private, chewing-the-fat conversation to a newspaper is another sure-fire way to stamp on open debate and decision-making.


YOU'RE WELCOME...

In my book I condemned a western economic order that relies on keeping its consumers in a permanent state of dissatisfaction, always wanting and demanding more, more more. I warned that climate change would force this devastatingly wasteful and miserable social structure to cease pillaging the Earth's resources simply in order to enrich a lucky, ruthless, and occasionally smart, few. I argued that this need not be a bad thing, if achieved in time. Quite the reverse: it would free “the masses” from the wretched cycle of meaningless work, only undertaken in order to purchase and consume an ever-increasing proportion of utter rubbish. “The Rise of Antisocialism” offered a hope that when faced with the stark choice of change or destruction, even our greediest and most self-centred of economies would choose a new order that would require only essential “work” to be done, that would end the rabid pollution of the planet and that would enrich people's lives with crafts, hobbies, exercise, family, friends, simple pleasures – the sort of fulfilled lives we currently enjoy only when “on holiday” or in retirement.

I thought it sounded so hopelessly Utopian a vision of a sophisticated, satisfied, communitarian and clean society that only the threat of human extinction could possibly nudge it towards reality. But wait. What am I reading in The Times this week (in yesterday's Alice Thomson column)? A Cambridge University professor has found the happiest people over the past year have been those who have worked less; the least happy are those who have worked full-time. He finds those who have kept the country going are more content: farmers, postmen, supermarket workers, hospital porters – those performing what I called in the book “essential tasks” and what became known during lockdown as “key work”. Feeling valued and recognised for performing important and meaningful work is seen as crucial for contentment. No wonder then that so many stuck in pointless, worthless but lucrative employment feel the opposite.

Is there any hope that a focus on what is making people happy – and what is not – might bring about change before it is forced upon us by impending annihilation? The column says: “Psychologists say the newly happy are more significant than those who have struggled with lockdowns because they show us how we can improve our lives. These people have enjoyed slowing down, seeing their families, learning hobbies, consuming less and becoming more flexible.” It could have come straight from the pages of my book – written in 2019. I don't hold out much hope that much will change. The forces of greed, self-interest and consumption are so deeply ingrained it will take more than a pandemic to loosen their hold once the emergency subsides. But at least we have seen a glimpse of what the future could be. We now know there is a better way, and that we have a choice. Covid-19 has given us a glimpse of what we will inevitably have to do in order to survive. If only we can find the intelligence to choose this better life well before we reach the brink of elimination – by which time our period of truly fulfilled and happy communities might be tragically short-lived.

MARCH 24 2021

OH, THE UK IS SUCH A BASKET CASE...

In Lombardy, Italy, vaccination centres in several northern cities stood deserted after a booking system failed.

Germany's Easter lockdown will see even its supermarkets closed, except for a few hour on Saturday. The German leader keeps blaming what she calls the “British Mutation” for her country's latest spike in infections, even though it was only identified here following a mysterious rise in infections across Europe in the autumn. And, bizarrely, the country's amazing and admired (by some) track and trace system seems oddly unable to cope.

Russia reports 95,000 Covid-19 deaths. Its excess death statistics, however, suggest the real figure could be more than four times higher.

And what is the US playing at? In one breath it praises the AstraZeneca vaccine and in the next it smears its reputation by questioning the freshness of its latest data. One theory is that it doesn't take kindly to pharmaceuticals being produced at cost for the benefit of the world and is rather more keen on giving a clear run to its commercial rivals. Who knows? 

All of the above are from today's Times, by the way. Meanwhile, I must mention the BBC's ludicrous tribute to Iceland on its main evening news earlier this week. Its report showed happy Icelanders free of virus and out clubbing. What it failed to say is that infections are rising quite quickly on the remote and easily isolated island. It also glossed over the fact that far fewer people live there than in Bristol and it has an average population density of just nine people per square mile. Admittedly, a lot live in the capital. But this shoddy piece by the Beeb was at best highly misleading.

MARCH 22 2021

WHEN WILL BRITAIN LEARN?

● In Paris, residents wishing to leave their homes were required to complete a multi-page form so dense, convoluted and contradictory, and littered with footnotes and explanations, that it was withdrawn after just one day. That's how to control a pandemic.

● In Mallorca yesterday, 24 Lufthansa flights arrived from German cities, disgorging desperate sun-seekers. Lufthansa is planning to lay on even more flights. That's how to control a pandemic.

● The reputation of the Oxford vaccine has been so thoroughly trashed by European leaders that in spite of their plentiful supplies, EU countries cannot persuade people to take the jab. In Turin on Saturday, 31 per cent of the 672 teachers called to be vaccinated did not show up. In Naples the no-show rate was 35 per cent. That's how to control a pandemic.

● A state of emergency has been declared in Miami Beach after thousands of mask-free revellers overwhelmed police, reports The Times. Florida's oh-so-intelligent governor promoted the state as a place to let loose and simultaneously stripped officials of their powers to enforce safety measures. That's how to control a pandemic.

● Meanwhile, my embarrassment grows and grows at the fact that Ursula von der Leyen once attended the LSE. How did she get in? At least she only spent one year there, but you might have thought she'd have learnt SOMETHING in that time. Put Ursula in charge of Europe. That's how to control a pandemic.


MARCH 20 2021

This morning's news included a suggestion that demonstrations and protests should be allowed during lockdown “for the sake of clarity” and in pursuance of people's “human rights”. Those proposing such a move turn out to be from the arch libertarian wings of arch-libertarian movements, including several nutty Tory MPs. In response, I would argue that for the sake of clarity all gatherings should be banned until late June – what could be clearer? What could be more sensible than saying these super-spreader events are outlawed for a short time but if all goes according to plan, and you just wait three months, then you can protest away to your hearts' content. A total and clear ban would also protect the human rights of the vulnerable in society who have either not been vaccinated, cannot be vaccinated, or do not know they are vulnerable to Covid-19.

This is all the more vital because dangerous anti-lockdown mania and extreme libertarian eccentrics will latch on to any and every chance to demonstrate, protest, and gather. They are not especially interested in the substance of whatever protest happens to be taking place, such as women's fear of street violence, merely in seizing the opportunity to make the case against lockdowns and defying authority. Paradoxically, they achieve precisely the opposite as they create super-spreader events that prove just how crucial lockdown behaviour is.

If, on the other hand, the safety measures and eminently sensible road map proposed by our exceptional scientists continues to diminish the threat of Covid-19, then the pandemic might soon be declared done with. Infections might rise again, but this need not necessarily alarm us. To judge the dangers we need key pieces of information. The first is whether any rise in infections leads to a significant rise in hospitalisation and deaths. If not, then we have reduced Covid-19 to the status of a normal cold – subject to the threat posed by mutations, of course. But if there are seriously more people committed to hospital and dying then we need to know precisely who is in hospital and who is dying. If Covid-19 is only a threat to those who have refused a vaccine, then again, safety measures can be lifted: people can be free to choose to take their chances with this killer disease, but they cannot be allowed to restrict the freedoms of everyone else.

Finally (for today), on the subject of information and statistics, there is a hint in this morning's Times that figures suggest the autumn spikes in coronavirus in continental Europe are suspiciously similar to the one that occurred in the UK some weeks later. I was writing about exactly this last year: the evidence is far more supportive of a European variant having been introduced to south-east England than the other way round. It is just another example of how facts and numbers have become so many and so varied that they can readily be manipulated in support of any case. The biggest “lie”, or to be charitable “misunderstanding”, about the Covid-19 death rates is that no one is comparing like with like. National figures, based on internally diverse countries, are largely meaningless. Covid strikes where populations are concentrated, as I have written many times before. So to compare Germany with Belgium, for example, ignores the basic fact that Germany is large country with a widely dispersed population; Belgium is small and densely packed. Deaths in the English Cotswolds or Scottish Highlands are in no way comparable to those in east London, the West Midlands or industrial Lancashire. To compare like with like, you have to consider deaths where people are amassed: the Low Countries, northern Italy, coastal north-east Spain and west Portugal, the very large cities such as Paris and Madrid, and the diagonal swathe running from Greater London up through the West Midlands and into the north-west and Yorkshire. Then you find that this is precisely where the most infections and deaths have occurred. There are, of course, pockets elsewhere, such as those super-charged by the sweatshops of Leicester, for example. But to make any judgments based on death figures without taking into account direct and proper comparisons is foolish and wrong. Add in the various different methods of collating the data, reporting methods and political interference and we have discrepancy heaped upon discrepancy heaped upon discrepancy. Instead, we should compare urban Belgium with the UK's M1/M6 corridor and compare the Cotswolds with rural Provence.

MARCH 18 2021

NOT MY PLACE?

When you start a fight, the first rule is to choose carefully who you want on your side. Those orchestrating the weekend protest on behalf of women chose anti-police activists and agitators – the sort who turn up to any and every demo in search of trouble. They come from either end of the political spectrum and are typified by the SWP types I first saw in action at LSE in the 1970s and who are still hard at it today. And with whom, I should add, I often sympathise on many subjects, although rarely their tactics. Add in the dangerous anti-lockdowners, the anti-vaccine brigade and loopy libertarian extremists, who will jump at every opportunity to gather in defiance of anything they choose not to like, are the outcome is predestined. Perhaps it was naivety rather than choice that led to this sorry and damaging alliance. Whichever it was, it has set the tone for a national debate that has narrowed to the point of meaningless in one direction and broadened to the point of echoing hollowness in the other.

A single moment speaks volumes about how this worthy cause is being mishandled. On Clapham Common on Saturday evening, a male is reported to have tried to address the gathered crowd. Whatever his motivations, he was instantly howled down by women yelling “Not your place”. Clearly, those at the sharp end see this as a gender war and therefore seek allies not among the millions of supportive men but among those guaranteed to create headlines. Men's views are not wanted: the “debate”, such as it is in the various media to which I am exposed, has been conducted exclusively by women, with the only male contributions coming from chief constables challenged to defend the police response and politicians who have no choice but to say something. From almost all other men comes a deafening silence: they all stand accused of being potential murderers, rapists, harassers. And from the vitriolic outpouring of words and deeds of so many women, they had better not try to mount a defence of any kind: “How dare you even think #Notallmen”. That is the message being broadcast loud and clear.

Of course there is enormous anger and sadness over the appalling murder of Sarah Everard by a psychopathic police officer and there are issues that could be addressed that might – or might not – make a difference to how safe women feel when alone on the streets. But to channel that into hatred and bitterness is counter-productive insofar as it breeds division, sectarianism and the alienation of friends and supporters, as well as disrespecting the victim's memory.

Perhaps this tunnel vision is partly a side-effect of the pandemic safety measures: reduced social contact and sharing of views has narrowed individuals' perceptions. That so many absurd conspiracy theories have been given anything more than short shrift suggests too many people are disappearing into worm-holes, or enclosing themselves in bubbles of “their own truths”, where they become untouchable, unreachable, immune to rational debate. Even among some otherwise level-headed people, exaggeration and a form of mania seems alarmingly close to the surface.

Does my own characterisation of events falls into that category? Speaking as someone who has championed women at work and in society for many years, who enjoyed working with brilliant female bosses, who sought opportunities for women in my team (in one case guiding my “secretary”, to whom I refused to apply that term, using “administrator” instead, into a journalist role on the Financial Times), and who campaigned for women and once wrote in the FT that company boardrooms should consist of 60 per cent women because the males had “not done a great job”, I would argue that they do not. I feel a large part of my life's work has been thrown back in my face in this blanket accusation that men, simply be being, are a threat to women.

It does not fit the prevailing narrative, of course, to point out that men are also a serious threat to men. Facts and figures, as presented by the BBC at the weekend confirm this: 205 women were murdered last year, compared with about 550 men. Of those, about 90 women were murdered by strangers – as in the Sarah Everard case – and about 360 men. Yes, they were pretty much all committed by men – and so we have a common enemy, we face a common threat: bad men. Labour MP Jess Phillips read out the names of 118 women killed in the past year by “male violence” in the House of Commons last week. It took her four minutes. To read out a similar list of male victims would take several times longer.

Perhaps these actual facts explain why the attack has been widened to encompass women's unease at walking the streets at night – a subjective fear where there might be no danger at all. But equally importantly a subjective fear experienced by men, too. Many is the time I have hurried past a group of men, chosen a route that avoids a certain street, been followed by footsteps along a dark road in Southwark on leaving the FT office at night. Often, the danger was imagined, very occasionally it was real and potentially life-changing: a few male colleagues were harmed, one seriously by a stab wound.

So is it right that we allow murder and fear on the street to become exclusively feminist issues? Of course not. I do completely understand, however, that women have additional fears and face a wider range of threats and harassments, from wolf-whistling to groping and to rape. Men also have to confront violence, bullying and power battles everywhere – on the roads, in the pub, at work, in the street. These can range from aggravating to being genuinely terrifying. For men, though, the threat is purely violent, often to do with establishment of power or a pecking order, or simply criminal; women have to contend with sexual abuse in all its forms. Pornography, TV dramas littered with murdered women, the new menace of faked porn images, these are all ghastly and related and need to be addressed. But how are men expected to react when presented with images of women in advertising, magazines, on social media – everywhere – deliberately made to look attractive, desirable, alluring, enticing, sexy? Should this not be addressed, too, if we are serious about change?

And this lies at the heart of the issue: males of the species – and indeed most species – are programmed to be predatory, to hunt, to be aggressive and violent, whether they like it or not. This is what survival demands. And without proper socialisation and self-control these primal instincts spill over into aggressions towards women, as we see demonstrated in primitive theocracies, from the Taliban to the equally verminous regimes of the Middle East. In less backward parts of the world women do have a voice – a very powerful one and almost all of their arguments and complaints are accepted and efforts are made to rectify them. There is a welter of equalities legislation and many excellent initiatives seeking these very goals. Things are far from perfect but they are improving in some areas – opportunities for women and workplace equality are rising rapidly, for example, from an admittedly low base. Sadly, they are worsening in others: in the social sphere I detect a dramatic deterioration, caused largely by rampant abuse of social media and the culture of antisocial behaviours described in my book, The Rise of Antisocialism. I said many years ago while editing the FT's Digital Business section that if you wished to know what people today were truly like and what they truly thought, then provide them with an anonymous platform upon which to vent forth. That platform was Twitter at the time, now joined by an array of others, all dangerously unaccountable and huge enablers of antisocial behaviour. At best, it remains digital; at its worst, the vile thoughts of inadequately socialised males are acted out in reality. We cannot legislate against anyone, male or female, having vile thoughts. All we can do is try to teach individuals how to deal with them through upbringing and education. Relationship lessons in school are a step forward but a tiny one in the face of the giant strides made by social media horrors and the dominant forces of infantilism. For 30 years individuals in western nations, especially the English-speaking ones, and especially the UK under the Thatcherite/Blairite regime, were fed on a diet of “I know my rights” attitudes, free-flowing consumption and self-absorption, self-interest and self-gratification, as the binding forces within society were systematically dismantled. Such an environment can hardly be expected to nurture such concepts as respect for others.

If the questions go far deeper than the simplistic headlines suggest, then the answers are are even less obvious. Hugo Rifkind in Tuesday's Times pondered the dilemma under the headline “How should men behave in age of #MeToo?” (sic) and ended with more questions: “What does it mean then, to say we should educate men? How? Towards what?” He concludes that merely trying to teach men to be more respectful of women is not enough, even if do-able. He can relate to and help his daughters, but boys? “I'd be lost. And I've been one for a while now,” he says. This is the question that goes out to the banner-carriers: if you shout “End violence against women”, then you have to tell us how. An interviewee on Woman's Hour on Tuesday poured forth her list of complaints but when asked what her solution was, her first words were: “I don't know.”

One suggestion we have heard is to make misogyny a hate crime. But not misandry? And what would a legal definition look like? We already have too many “subjective” laws – “I was offended, therefore that action or those words were a crime”. This is clearly nonsense. But misogyny/misandry as an aggravating factor in crime? It might help but in reality is little more than posturing. Removing anonymity on social media, on the other hand, would be a positive step for everyone. If you have something to say, then say it – but face being held accountable. Another positive move would be to tag offenders. We know that prison is a poor deterrent – if it worked jails would be empty – and tagging could tick many boxes: whereabouts always known, the shame of wearing one, the enabling of shorter jail terms. Burglars would hate it, and that is surely reason enough. And how about more police officers on foot, on the beat? It might allay fears if there were enough of them. But even when this was the primary method of policing there were never enough. There are myriad tinkerings that might achieve small gains but no one should be under any illusions that there any quick fixes for a problem caused both by man's nasty nature and poor nurturing. And I believe a gender war can only make things worse, diverting us from the real cultural and societal battles we all need to fight.

As will a scatter-gun approach to a campaign that lumps in every grievance, every slight, every issue, hardship, injustice, sorrow, tribulation – a thousand objections in a single movement, making it unfocused and likely to miss achieving its main goals – which even now have yet to emerge in any detailed or practical form. Tuesday's Times illustrated this perfectly: it reported that Labour MP Jess Phillips is calling for a new offence of “street harassment”. “You can follow somebody and intimidate them and it's not illegal,” she claimed, as if Section 4 of the 1986 Public Order Act did not exist. Yet on Page 6 an article pointed out that this Act already makes it a crime to “harass, alarm or distress a person by using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour”. There are also calls for the re-education of boys – as if we haven't already introduced relationship classes in schools. All worthy ideas, but superficial in the extreme.

Inevitably, there are calls for tougher sentencing of offenders, but again the campaign is misguided and uses spurious arguments and distorted statistics. We are assured that the law does more to protect statues than it does to protect female victims of violence. Obviously, this is completely wrong, as we can establish quickly from observing the maximum jail terms for each: 10 years for the statue – a sentence, we should add, that might never ever be imposed – and life for manslaughter. The recent case most often quoted in support of this facet of the campaign is of a 70-year-old man who strangled his wife. It was a tragic case and the court, having considered his plea of diminished responsibility and listened at length to the awful details of his decline during lockdown, sentenced him to five years in jail. I agree, it does not sound long enough on the face of it, but I was not in court. Either way, this is not a system failure – the judge could have imposed a life sentence but they are given discretion, allowing them to show compassion and understanding in hard, desperate, unique cases. And it must always be left to the judge. I have spent many hours in court as a journalist covering cases and found most of them to be tragic, often with those in the dock being victims, too. Our system demands that those who have sat through hours of evidence should be the ones to fix sentencing and would we seriously want it any other way? Any alternative could lead inexorably to the lynch mob.

This is where the carefully choreographed scenes on Clapham Common last Saturday did so much more harm than good. The sequence of events leading up to the weekend made confrontation inevitable: the organisers of the proposed vigil spoke to the police about how it could be run and the police said it could not be managed safely in the context of a pandemic; the organisers pleaded exceptionalism for their case (as everyone is wont to do in these days of isolation), saying their cause outweighed all safety measures. A High Court judge disagreed and issued a vague ruling seemingly against the protest; the organisers then took the commendably responsible decision to call it off and ask for a doorstep vigil – a far more inclusive and safe option in the circumstances.

And from that moment the die was cast, because the police could now be placed in the invidious position of either standing by and watching blatant law-breaking on a large scale or intervene and be photographed arresting women. It was an absolute gift to anyone determined to provoke authority and so it came to pass: a peaceful afternoon of respectful and distanced tributes was then wrecked when a larger group formed as darkness fell and those hell-bent on an encounter with the police stepped up their provocation. One objective eye-witness (female) said it was disgusting the way the police were being goaded and tormented. Cue arrests, and cue outrage on social media and in the real media; cue calls for the woman in charge of the police to resign. Mission accomplished.

In the event only four people were arrested, although from the social media outburst you might think it was hundreds. And so any real issues are swamped by the outrage and ranting on countless subjects, from street lights to serial killers, from prison sentencing to schoolboys, from police methods to human rights, and plenty more. And poor Sarah Everard. All done in her name. As a former colleague of hers said: “She’s a real person, not some hanger on which to display your views about women.”

Retrenchment follows, with a barrage of exaggeration, overstatement and inaccuracy. I recall how the animal rights movement allowed itself to be taken over by radicals and extremists with wider agendas and a readiness to threaten respected scientists and cause damage and physical harm to people, property – and even the animals they released. The strong public support the cause had enjoyed evaporated. Facts matter and people do care about honesty and accuracy. So when they hear the “fact” that 97 per cent of women aged between 18-24 have been sexually abused or assaulted in some way, they know they are being manipulated and react against it. It's easy to play with statistics and I have commented several times below on how The Times' charts have abused them every day since the start of the pandemic. Times columnist Rachel Sylvester commits a similar offence when she writes that “police recorded 55,130 rapes in 2019-20”. Anyone who can write that without using the word “alleged” is dangerously distorting reality in order to make a point. We know that fake news is rife and that everyone will argue from their own perspective, using exaggeration and sometimes lies to support what they believe – “their truth”, “their lived experience”, as if those were objective fact. It's becoming impossible to know what to believe as more and more of what we are told becomes simply unbelievable. Most of what is now written in The Guardian, for example, reads more like a campaign speech than objective journalism.

By far the best column I have read on this subject in the past week was in this morning's Times, written by Joanna Williams, founder of the think tank Cieo. She urges caution when reacting and responding to manufactured statistics and subjective feelings being presented as facts. He article, headlinedTruth has become whatever you want it to be” and subtitled “New laws on misogyny or safeguarding women should be based on facts not ‘lived experience’” is so good that I am including it here in its entirety:

How do you feel about the palace hearing you speak your truth today?” Oprah Winfrey’s questions to Meghan Markle were no doubt as carefully planned as the stage-set country garden backdrop to their interview. To an older, perhaps more conservative audience, the notion of “my truth” sounds suspicious. But increasingly it seems that “speaking my truth” is not only acceptable, it is considered more honest than any mere statement of facts.

Kamala Harris echoed this sentiment when, in response to being elected vice-president of the US, she made public her promise always to share with Joe Biden her “lived experience, as it relates to any issue that we confront”. This might have been Harris’s way of simply offering her perspective, which would be valuable given how rarely the views of black women have been heard in the White House. But “lived experience” is more than just a personal viewpoint. It represents an unquestionable claim to authority.

The killing of Sarah Everard has prompted an outpouring from women sharing their own lived experiences of sexual harassment in newspaper columns and on social media. Just as they did when the #MeToo movement first took off in 2017, women have spoken of assault, harassment, being groped, molested, abused and generally made to feel afraid at the hands of men.

The government is now under pressure to respond. Boris Johnson has acknowledged that news of Everard’s death “unleashed a wave of feeling about women not feeling safe” and he appears keen to act. Extra money for street lighting and CCTV cameras has been pledged; plain-clothes detectives may patrol bars. Some are calling for misogyny to be made a hate crime and street harassment a criminal offence.

It seems that the mass sharing of women’s personal testimonies may lead directly to the introduction of new laws and stiffer punishments for existing offences. But are “personal truth” and “lived experience” a good basis for such substantial changes? It is socially unacceptable, not to mention cruel, to interrogate women who share their experiences of sexual harassment. But it should be possible to question what we, as a society, are to make of collected personal testimonies, without calling into question the truth of any one woman’s story.

Before legislation is passed, it might be worth asking how typical it is for women to experience sexual harassment. Newspapers and social media can easily give the impression that every woman has suffered abuse at the hands of men. But what if the voices that declare their personal truths the loudest do not represent the experiences of most women?

Women’s lived experiences of sexual harassment are, of course, valid and it is important that we hear them. It was in the 1980s that feminist researchers and academics first began arguing for an understanding of truth that went beyond objectivity in order to allow women’s perspectives to be heard and to “give voice” to other under-represented groups. This was a worthy aim. But whereas empirical data can be measured and verified, recounting personal experiences makes for messy research.

This week saw the publication of a survey carried out by UN Women UK that purports to show a shocking 97 per cent of British women have been victims of sexual harassment. This makes for dramatic headlines and appears to lend weight, if it were needed, to the veracity of personal testimonies. But dig deeper and UN Women UK notes that when it came to defining sexual harassment, researchers were asked to “refer to the subjective experience of the individual concerned” and get women to include “anything that makes you feel uncomfortable”.

There are problems with using entirely subjective responses to create apparently concrete data sets. It seems unlikely that any two women will have the exact same threshold for feeling uncomfortable: one might find a risqué joke hilarious while another is grossly offended.

Perhaps more useful are surveys that ask women about specific unwanted interactions. Just such a poll was conducted by YouGov on behalf of EuroTrack and it too reported findings this month. A wide-ranging definition of sexual harassment was employed with the four most frequently experienced forms being: someone commented on your attractiveness directly to you; being wolf-whistled at; someone looked at your breasts; someone winked at you.

Using even this very broad definition, the overall figures are far lower than we might expect. According to the EuroTrack research, 52 per cent of British women have been sexually harassed at some point, with 19 per cent having experienced an incident in the past five years.

Johnson says ministers will “do everything we can” in response to women “not feeling safe”. But it is impossible to legislate feelings into or out of existence. The government has no way of knowing how representative the accounts that dominate our national conversation are. There is no formula for determining how many personal truths comprise a universal truth.

We can empathise with women who share their lived experiences of sexual harassment but this must never prevent us questioning the wider narrative that has emerged. Not all women are victims and not all women want more state protection. Anecdotes are not a good justification for new laws and the government should avoid acting too hastily in its determination to make women feel safe.

As the author of a book that espouses an anti-business, anti-wealth, communitarian, socialist and green agenda, I am in despair at how the whole women's safety debate is being manipulated. Pivotal moments do happen and are important; some terrible events do eventually lead to change. Whether the appalling murder of Sarah Everard proves to be one of them, we will not know for several years. But I fear that too many good people have been needlessly and short-sightedly shoved aside this week by those three thoughtless words: “Not Your Place”.


EU VINDICTIVENESS

The EU allowed the export of vaccines to Australia to be blocked. It wrongly accused the UK of similar vaccine nationalism. It trashed the reputation of the Oxford vaccine by doubting its effectiveness in older people. It paused use of the Oxford vaccine because of unfounded fears over blood clots. It threatens to interfere with the UK's vaccine contracts where it can in order to drag us down to its level. It has unused stockpiles of vaccine because of these various incompetences. It threatened to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol as part of its unrelated battle with AstraZeneca. On so many accounts the EU has had good reason to back-track and apologise.

Now it has the nerve to announce legal action over the UK's extension of the temporary measures that apply to the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland, aimed at preventing economic damage and possibly worse. The ignorance and vindictiveness being shown by the EU is astounding. The Irish part of the Brexit deal was meant to prevent Northern Ireland being used as a back door into free trading with Europe via the Irish Republic – it was not meant to bring to a standstill all movement between two parts of the same country. It is simply another example of EU spite and resentment and an example of how determined the EU is to make sure the UK suffers for its impertinence in leaving. As yet another superb article on UnHerd argues, the EU is an institution, not a country, and because of this has continually to justify its existence. Through its own stupidity and failures it cannot do this and so is lashing out.


MISTAKES VERSUS AVOIDABLE MISTAKES

And a little more from the Peter Franklin piece on UnHerd that I mention below:

Of course, hers [Merkel's] is not the only screw-up in this pandemic. There isn’t a country in the world that hasn’t got it wrong repeatedly – and the UK is clearly no exception. However, it’s important that we distinguish between the different kinds of mistake. About a year ago, Britain should have gone into lockdown at least two weeks before it actually did. However, our Government was acting on official scientific advice that was unfortunately wrong. Other failures arise out of the sheer scale of the challenge, test-and-trace being a prime example. We can test at scale, but tracing is supremely difficult when transmission is so widespread. It might have helped if we’d closed our borders at the outset – but that’s an illustration of a third kind of mistake, those that happen when governments are faced with impossible dilemmas. Choosing the lesser of two evils isn’t easy when they’re both overwhelmingly horrible.

"The mistakes made by Brussels, Paris and Berlin over recent weeks have been of a different type, and were entirely avoidable.”

MARCH 3 2021

I'M AN EXCEPTION! AND ME! AND ME! AND ME! ETC.....

Claims to exceptionalism gather pace. Everyone wants to be top priority for receiving the vaccine, it seems (see yesterday's post). Today, it's ME and asthma sufferers and families of those who are “immunocompromised”. In response, I return to the point made yesterday, that this is not a vaccination programme aimed at liberating those vaccinated and giving them freedom to go partying and holiday-making; it is a community-wide effort aimed at eradicating a deadly disease. In that sense it does not matter too much in what order people are jabbed – although it is clearly best to focus on the most vulnerable where practical and where they can be easily identified. But the overriding need is to get it done as quickly and as effectively as possible. Which is exactly what is happening. Some vulnerable people will inevitably be missed in an effort on this scale and going at this speed – but surely they are no worse off than they were before and still subject to the same precautions affecting all of us. The vaccine cannot free anyone until everyone is safe and this isn't going to take much longer. Those who have been shielding only need to go on shielding for a few more weeks until they are vaccinated – that is all we are talking about. And even after being jabbed, they will have to go on following lockdown measures – just as everyone else should be.

NASTY EU

Following the vitriolic condemnation of the EU's incompetent vaccination policies – that place dogma and ideology ahead of people's lives – by Filipp Piatov, head of opinion at Bild, the German daily newspaper, there is yet more news of the idiocy swashing backwards and forwards across the EU. There is chaos as the vaccination strategy falls apart and more countries go it alone, bypassing the Brussels bureaucrats and deadbeats – Austria, Denmark, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland are turning instead to Russia, China and Israel in search of a rescue. The funniest – or it would be were it not so deadly serious – quote of the day comes from a European Commission spokesman: “It's not that the EU vaccination strategy has failed.” How much more divorced from reality can you get?

The EU's failure is, of course, partly down to spite and sour grapes over the UK's escape from its clutches. We now know what a pathetic liar Macron is, using phrases such as “everything points to” in claiming the Oxford vaccine is “quasi-effective”, when in reality nothing pointed to anything of the sort. The EU's attitude towards vaccination, and specifically the Oxford vaccine, mirrors its bitter approach to its enforcement of the Brexit deal – done with maximum negativity and awkwardness. We should have expected nothing less after those hate-filled words of Jean-Claude Juncker: “Brexit cannot be a success”. Sadly, the EU is prepared to threaten its own businesses and even the lives of its own people in order to achieve this short-sighted, ugly and nasty goal.

Peter Franklin, associate editor of the UnHerd comment website, writes that as an institution the EU displays a pattern of behaviour that in an individual would be diagnosed as petty narcissism: “They’ll want to you fail without them. And, of course, that’ll be your fault, not theirs. It’s abusive and manipulating, but ultimately self-destructive.” We can but hope.


MARCH 2 2021

WHY IS THE UK SO USELESS? HERE'S YET MORE EVIDENCE...

In Friday's Times we noted an admission that there was schools chaos in France last year and that the baccalaureate exams have been replaced with continual assessment. (In case you'd been led to believe that the UK was the only country to struggle with this huge problem in education.)

And it's the same in Sweden (and in most other countries, too, of course): “Virtually all this year's spring exams have been cancelled” and “many pupils have experienced significant disruption”, with sixth form colleges closed for much of the past year and other schools temporarily shut to counter local outbreaks. Meanwhile, nurseries and schools for children with disabilities were closed in the Czech Republic.

More headlines in Friday's Times: “French regional lockdowns spread as infections hit three-month high”. “Sweden imposes curfew on bars to prevent third wave”.

And on the same page: “Merkel refuses AstraZeneca jab despite 1.4m unused doses”. The scandalous incompetence and irresponsibility of European leaders is astounding, as Germany stockpiles vaccine that could be used in those poorer countries crying out for it. The little idiot Macron has also been busy fuelling anti-vaxers and conspiracy theory fruitcakes by attacking the Oxford vaccine – although he has now had to perform a sharp U-turn in the face of overwhelming evidence that contradicts his dangerously stupid claims. As if France wasn't struggling enough with its hypochondriacs and anti-vax lobby.

And in Saturday's Times, a French former ambassador slips off the bottom of the intellectual scale in a double-page interview. (Why was it published, we are entitled to ask.) There are plenty of British commentators who still fail to grasp the meaning and significance of the Brexit vote without having to ask a Frenchwoman who knows nothing of the subject. I really didn't want to read it, as so much of what she said is ignorance beneath contempt and should not be engaged with, but out of duty to consider alternative voices, I ploughed on through. Worryingly, after several paragraphs along the lines of the dumbest conspiracy theories, the interviewer reveals: “Her words echo Macron's thoughts on the matter.” Oh dear, oh dear. I won't name her but I'll just give a brief example of how abjectly wrong she is: as Europe splinters and rows over vaccines and borders, she claims that Britain's departure from the EU has “welded together a continent”. How do such people hold down a job?

But back in the real world, we have the heroic Filipp Piatov, head of opinion at Bild, the German daily newspaper, writing in Monday's Times. He calls the plans of Merkel and von der Leyen an “abject failure” and “misconceived and mismanaged”. He accuses them of “prolonging lockdowns by months and delivering a huge blow to the economies of member states and trust in the European idea”. And he writes: “It is Britain's incredible success that makes their failure so glaring”, and he accuses the European leaders of putting ideology over good politics. He blames Merkel for entrusting the vaccine programme to Brussels and von der Leyen for entrusting “the most important task in EU history to a bureaucrat from Cyprus without any qualifications for the job”. That's why, he said, Bild ran a front page splash headline last week saying “UK – we envy you!” It's a scathing comment piece – and he hasn't finished yet. Piatov continues: “The two most powerful leaders in Europe insist that any alternative to EU-wide procurement would have resulted in 'vaccine nationalism',” which would have damaged EU unity. “In their attempt to distract the public from their failure, the pair are making a huge mistake. By portraying any alternative to the failed vaccination plan as a threat to the European idea, they have weakened that idea more effectively than any Eurosceptic could.” He concludes that the consequences for the EU of this debacle are incalculable. EU dogma and ideology created Brexit by failing the poorest people in the UK and it is now shown to be failing people across Europe.

QUEUES AT HEATHROW?

Today we hear of seven-hour queues at Heathrow! Why? Where are these people going? Where have they come from? What for? Who are they? There should barely be enough passengers passing through Heathrow to cause a queue of more than a few minutes, given that we've known for a year there is a killer virus on the loose being transported and spread by people moving around. Our back door remains open, despite what the Prime Minister says about “toughest border policies”.

POLICE QUEUE-JUMPERS

So the police insist on jumping the vaccination queue. They come into contact with the public and will never forgive a government that does not give them top priority. We'll pass on the fact that it is not the government setting the priorities but the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, an independent advisory body, and focus on the substance of the argument instead. Pleading a special case has become a national obsession and so the police are in good company. But if the police are pushed forward, then why not teachers? And firefighters? Or brave and hard-working front-line supermarket staff? And, in a few weeks, bar and other hospitality workers and hairdressers and the like? And what about those workers who have to visit other people's homes, such as plumbers and electricians? Also, perhaps we should consider prioritising those working in sweatshops and close proximity occupations, where the death rates are actually alarmingly high. And within these clear new priorities, sub-bands could be created, so that a 49-year-old waiter goes ahead of a fit and strong young 25-year-old PC. But hang on, might it not be quicker and easier to list those occupations that should NOT be prioritised? That chap who spends all day mowing the local park, on his own, outdoors. He should be last, surely. Unless he's over 50.

I hope this shows what an appallingly absurd idea it would be to muck up the best vaccination programme in the world.

Because this is the biggest collective and communal act of all time. Refraining from individual liberty in order to beat the virus is vital. This is not a process of curing people one by one – it's a process of ridding a society of the dangerous aspects of a disease. To do that we need to reach critical mass – herd immunity, if you like – before anyone starts taking it upon themselves to unravel the safety measures that we need in place. This will require enormous restraint. Even I have felt the urge to book things, to plan outings and holidays, but until everyone is vaccinated, we have to stay calm and strong. For everyone's sake and for the sake of fairness, too.

And this also applies to the vaccine passport debate. It's a finely balanced argument – as is the argument over ID cards, with which I have never had any problem: public safety, security and justice versus a libertarian principle. But one thing we all must accept immediately is that vaccine passports have no place until absolutely every adult has been offered the vaccine. Until then, we must behave communally and collectively. Once every adult has been offered the vaccine, I see a strong case for passports of some kind. The only individuals without one will be those ineligible for various reasons – who will automatically be granted an exemption passport – and refuseniks who have chosen to go their own way and must make their own arrangements.

NEVER THE TWAIN SHALL MEET...

A slightly confusing story in The Times this week “suggested” that Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, winner of the international Booker prize, pulled out of translating poetry by the American poet Amanda Gorman because “critics suggested that it was inappropriate for a white person to translate an African-American poet's works”. We can only presume this works both ways and that no African-Americans will ever be asked or allowed to translate a white poet's work from now on? What is wrong with people? Why does colour matter? Qualifications – and these might include a cross-cultural perspective that can add enormously to the richness of such work – should matter far more. Instead, we have a craven and foolish publisher “hoping to learn from its mistake”. This is just abject stupidity. Test a proposition by taking it to its logical conclusion or considering its opposite – and on that basis no translation can now ever be trusted to anyone other than a close and identical associate of the original author. It's the same dumb argument as the one that says gay characters can only be portrayed by gay actors; by the same argument gay actors can therefore no longer portray straight characters; and, as someone wrote a couple of weeks back, no actor without a hunchback can portray Richard III. Utter nonsense.

FEBRUARY 21 2021

IS THE BREXIT DEAL A LASTING DEAL?

On the face of it, the UK-EU deal looked good. Compromises were made on both sides, leaving some sectors, such as British fishermen, annoyed, but overall, it seemed to make sense. Apart from the trade barrier that sprang up across the Irish Sea between mainland and Irish UK, of course. But all it needed to make it work smoothly was sensible implementation, in good faith, and with flexibility and understanding.

Assuming that the EU would, in spite of its appalling track record on interpreting agreements and laws in the most self-serving and extreme manner possible, behave reasonably was a naïve blunder, however. The Brexit agreement is not being implemented in good faith: it is being sabotaged by the vindictiveness of Brussels and those countries governed by leaders wedded to the ideology of European integration.

A prime example appears in today's Sunday Times in an article on the fashion industry. Yes, fashion provides several hundred thousand jobs in the UK but, stripped of its finery, it is the most vacuous and polluting of industries. One lobbying body for the sector is demanding public funds be spent on compensating it for the extra paperwork and petty barriers arising after Brexit. The UK response is that it is not imposing stringent demands and that unnecessary hurdles are being erected solely by a sour EU. The UK response is also that the fashion industry might do more to help itself – perhaps by being a little creative. And a further UK response is to point out that the main organisation representing fashion did not sign the complaining letter and is working with the authorities to find solutions. This body is not quoted in the story – nor is it said that it was approached for comment. A news item in such an incomplete form would not have been allowed on to any newspaper page that I was editing. But it is strongly indicative of the UK media's collusion with an EU that is prepared to see its own people and businesses suffer in blind pursuit of its principle of doing harm to a country that dares to leave the nest. Businesses on each side of the Channel co-operate for a reason – to their mutual benefit: deliberately getting in their way would not seem sensible for an organisation devoted to the prosperity and advancement of business.

Such is the EU's terror of Brexit being a success that it is determined to do its damnedest to drag it down. And its horror at the UK's extraordinary accomplishments in tackling Covid-19, while its own efforts are slow and incompetent, lies behind the noxious bitterness of its attacks on the AstraZeneca vaccine because of its close association with th UK. If Brussels and its blinkered lieutenants continue to be prepared to shoot themselves in the foot over the fashion industry, the entertainment industry and many other sectors and, incredibly, over vaccinating its own citizens, in order to hurt the UK then the Brexit deal looks unlikely to survive.


STATISTICAL NONSENSES

I read a book at university called “How To Lie With Statistics” and have questioned them ever since. It means I also enjoy listening to my former FT colleague Tim Harford correcting so much of the utter rubbish that is trotted out on the news and is then made gospel by endless repetition in the cesspool that is social media. At some point someone will use a statement such as “But the UK actually saw more than 1,800 deaths in a single day – how shocking an example of incompetent handling is that!” The answer is that it did not happen. On no single day did anywhere near that number of people die. A lot of people did die and that is extremely sad, but using death figures as a weapon against people you happen to loath, in an effort to make them appear bumbling and failing, is abhorrent.

As Harford's Radio 4 show “More or Less” pointed out recently, the figures for excess deaths – those above the number we would expect to see at this time of year and thus taking account of the fact that many who would have died of flu this winter died of Covid-19 instead – is roughly the same in similar western countries. They are so closely grouped together that the differences are statistically irrelevant. We also see that the average daily excess death toll in the UK peaked at about 800 per day in late January, fell to 700 a day in early February and will, if it follows all other trends, be far far lower when the next figures are published on Wednesday.


FEBRUARY 14 2021

Still the complaints roll in that “government restrictions” are depriving those in care homes of family visits. Can we please get this straight: the government advice is crystal clear – and entirely supportive of visits. It states that “visits should be supported and enabled wherever it is safe to do so”. How much more clear or sensible could it possibly be? It is left to care homes to decide for themselves how much risk they take on – which is obviously the right policy, as each is different and it should be their responsibility and down to their judgment.

● The Sunday Times' splash today predicts in great detail what Boris is going to announce on freeing up our locked down nation: schools to open fully on March 8, etc etc etc. But The Sunday Times has an appalling record on predictions: during the Brexit debate its political team guessed wrong, week after week. If they've got it wrong again they need to admit it. More likely is that they will accuse the government of U-turns and broken promises when the reality is nothing of the sort. Quite the reverse, Boris has only expressed caution in public.


● Among the many explanations for the varying death rates from Covid-19 around the world, one has been barely mentioned: natural or historic immunity. I could well be that as well as being experienced in dealing with such outbreaks and well prepared, populations in much of Asia began the pandemic with some level of immunity. The West, by contrast, had little or none.


FEBRUARY 3 2021

MORE DEPLORABLE JOURNALISM

As a career-long journalist I am becoming increasingly angry and sickened at how the personal political beliefs of reporters, and presumably their news editors and editors, are distorting news coverage beyond the point of being misleading and very close to lying. I have already highlighted below (February 1) the complete misrepresentation of the Subway breakfast sandwich by The Sunday Times – which also sought to stoke fear and confusion with hopelessly muddled coverage of VAT payments on goods imported from the EU.

The Times this morning sinks just as low with a piece of rubbish – what else can we call it? – about importing bees to England from the EU. “Plan Bee falls foul of Brexit” is the headline, whereas anyone reading to the end will eventually realise that they are being fooled and that the Brexit agreement has in fact triumphed over what appears to be a very bad scheme. The story begins by suggesting red tape is damaging a heroic importer and thwarting his valiant effort to circumvent the rules by transporting live bees via Ireland and Scotland. He claims the rules will cause a bee shortage, implying the UK will suffer. In short, it's presented as “another self-inflicted Brexit wound”. A caption summarises his plight – British trees will go unpollinated and our hero will lose almost £100,000. But then, in the final two paragraphs, we learn the truth. The British Beekeepers Association not only denies there will be a bee shortage, because last year was an exceptional one for swarms, but that it does not support importing bees because of known disease and pest risks.

When journalists are prepared to make heroes of villains and vice versa in order to promote their own beliefs then journalism is failing in its vital central function. Ben Webster was the reporter this time: I feel that if such nonsense is to continue then naming and shaming is one of the weapons we must use to try and restore integrity.

NEWS HAS BECOME POLITICS, AND POLITICAL COVERAGE NEWS

The BBC has reached a sorry state indeed when we have to rely on “Today in Parliament” for news and hear only empty politicking from the news. Last night's “Today in Parliament” on Radio 4 was an example. Broadcast news and reporting in The Times on the row between Centrica, the energy services company and parent of British Gas, and the GMB union has given the impression that the dispute centres on the usual refusal of workers to put in more hours and effort for the same, or less, pay. But an interview with a Centrica spokesman – on “Today in Parliament” – shed a different light. He said the company had threatened to sack all its staff and re-hire them on new contracts if the union refused to accept its will because it was losing business to “gig economy” workers who were able to undercut it. This is precisely what has happened in so many sectors over the past 15 years following the extension of the UK jobs market to the Russian border in 2004, with the horrors of zero-hours contracts, below minimum wage pay, denial of in-work benefits etc. Cheap unrestricted labour will inevitably undermine and disrupt established markets. Customers might see this as a good thing – competition, falling prices, click-of-the-fingers service. But for workers and businesses with roots that have achieved an equilibrium it is catastrophic. Destabilised companies – in this case, Centrica – can only push their own workforces down to the level of the cheapest – a race to the bottom. Unions, where they exist, can only fight back. Their common enemy could sit back comfortably and enjoy watching the scrap – were there anything comfortable about selling yourself cheap.

CARE HOMES

And still the complaints pour in about “not being allowed to see gran” because of the cruel and heartless government “restrictions”. Yet surely by now we understand the simple equation – human contact risks killing people, especially the old and vulnerable. That's what the “restrictions” – aka safety measures – are all about. So if care homes are now doing everything humanly possible to prevent their clients – because that is mostly what they are and that is absolutely what they SHOULD be doing – from dying then the full responsibility for deaths can only rest on the shoulders of non-essential visitors. Of course there are countless heartbreaking stories of elderly people with dementia forgetting their relatives, of wonderful people dying without their families beside them. This is tragic. But does it outweigh the potential carnage caused by one slip by one infected visitor? Those demanding to visit their loved ones – and it's completely understandable that they want to do this – therefore face a simple choice: accept the misery and frustration of staying away, or pay a visit and risk killing your relative, and perhaps many others. It is no excuse to blame the government and care providers' heavy-handed safety measures for your pain; neither is it an excuse to blame the government and care providers' inadequate safety measures if, after your visit, there are casualties. The choice, and the responsibility, are all yours.

NO EXCUSES FROM SIR TOM

How sad, and yet how uplifting, that Sir Tom, Captain Tom, whatever you choose to call him, has died at the age of 100. Having lived through far far worse times than we face today he understood the need for resilience (discussed at length below – February 1), personal responsibility, and relishing the joy of simply being alive. I usually have no time for the Today programme's Thought For The Day slot but today's was an exception from historian Tim Stanley. He said: “Here was a 99-year-old veteran who wouldn't give in and he embarrassed those of us who were tempted to give up. If Sir Tom could find the courage to walk on, so could we. And the fact that he had served his country in the second world war was a reminder that previous generations had been through even tougher times than this – and prevailed... [This] gives us an image of our past that gives us something to aspire to, so that we know how to act in times of trouble...The message I take in the middle of this dark season is to persevere, to make the most of life. Because if Sir Tom can leave the world a better place at the age of 100, well, I really have no excuse not to do my bit as well.”

BELIEF SYSTEMS

The world is seriously infected with belief systems – we all suffer from them, whether we like it or not. Religions, conspiracy theories, anti-vax gibberish, EU worship, all of these rest on a single act of faith – an irrational belief in one god or another, a paranoid belief in an idea that “they're out get us”, a conviction that being part of something big is better. Once this leap of faith has been taken, an internal logic is instantly unfurled ahead, justifying every aspect of the system. This, for example, enables conspiracy theorists believing the world is run by paedophiles to accuse anyone refusing to support their loopy theory of not caring about protecting children. There is a logic here, but it is hideously warped. Sadly, it also makes the believer invulnerable to challenge, in the same way that challenging a person's religious views is pointless. I once shared the faith of many in the value of the EU. But spells can be broken – and it is only once they are that you can see the organisation for what it really is. And yes – you develop a new belief system that heads in the opposite direction. And so a crevasse opens between two schools of thought, each one impregnable behind its portcullis of faith.


FEBRUARY 1 2021

Oh dear, oh dear. How many ways can commentators find to say “I told you so” without actually saying “I told you so”. Brexiteers are, of course, perfectly entitled to gloat to their hearts' content at the imperial scale of the debacle we now all cannot fail to see the EU to be. And while I detect a little schadenfreude here and there, it is all remarkably restrained.

Instead, we can leave it to Peter Tiede, chief political reporter for Bild, the German daily, and a convinced European. Here are some of the choice phrases he uses to describe the Commission's behaviour of the past few days in a visceral article in today's Times under the headline “Ursula von der Leyen’s mess has disgraced Europe”:

“Of all the people, it was Johnson who got it right: he ordered vaccines for the British in time, generously and sufficiently. In surplus! And we? We have done everything wrong and are struggling with a vaccination disaster. Germany, of all countries!”

“We screwed up.”

“As a result, Poland and Hungary are already wondering what on earth the EU is all about.”

“And what did the EU do? It created the biggest confidence-destroying programme in its history.”

“Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, denies all blame. Whistling loudly in the dark and thus damaging even further any confidence in her ability to run the EU.”

“[She] started a dispute with the vaccine supplier, Astrazeneca, which was supposed to look daredevilish but was just dumb. She has disgraced Europe.”

“As Germany’s defence minister, she had already failed miserably in the procurement of helicopters, aircraft and weapons. Angela Merkel ordered her away to the European Commission. Just as Europe has been doing for decades with its discarded political personnel: disposed of like nuclear waste in the final repository of Brussels.”

“The contract with Astrazeneca and the vaccination disaster are a declaration of bankruptcy for Brussels, an indictment of the 27 member states. An insult for us Europeans and especially for convinced Europeans like me.”

“It is embarrassing because now we are the fools.”


Other German newspapers are equally scathing: “Der Tagesspiegel said Brussels’ refusal to own up to its mistakes was 'jaw-dropping' and 'bordered on shamelessness'. Die Zeit, a pro-European weekly, described the vaccine debacle as the best present imaginable for Brexiteers.”

Amid a chorus of condemnation, Österreich, an Austria tabloid, has derided the EU’s vaccination strategy as a “total disaster” and said von der Leyen’s decision to antagonise the companies as “just about the stupidest thing you could do in this situation”.

And Hungary has given up on Brussels, unilaterally approving China’s Sinopharm vaccine. “If vaccines aren’t coming from Brussels, we must obtain them from elsewhere,” Viktor Orban, the nationalist prime minister, said. “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”

And then there are measured British critics. Peter Franklin is associate editor of UnHerd, a media website, and was previously a policy advisor and speech writer on environmental and social issues. He has written an excellent analysis of the Commission's incompetence and how much easier it is to lose trust than win it. Among his choice sentences on this subject are:

“It’s the ultimate political fantasy: the sudden revelation that exposes your opponents for exactly who they are.”

“For British Eurosceptics this is a teachable moment. They told us the EU was a bureaucratic nightmare, a protectionist racket, a mercantilist scam – and now they have the evidence.”

Franklin refers to a passage in a speech to the 2019 Lib Dem party conference by Guy Verhofstadt, MEP and advocate of federalism: “The world of tomorrow is not a world order based on nation states or countries. It is a world order that is based on empires…The world of tomorrow is a world of empires in which we Europeans, and you British, can only defend your interests, your way of life, by doing it together, in a European framework and in the European Union.”

Franklin then continues: “An imperial mindset would certainly explain why the Commission acted in the way it did. Empires aren’t famous for asking nicely.

If it suits the most powerful core members of the Union to betray the interests of the peripheral members, then they will do it.” He refers to Ireland and Greece as current examples of those caught in the imperialist crossfire.

And he finishes with a stark warning; “We should be especially concerned about an EU in which Emmanuel Macron is the leading light. Last week, it wasn’t just the European Commission who showed us who they were — we also saw the Trumpian qualities of the French President on full display. His absurd claims about the efficacy of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine are a warning sign that should not be ignored.”


This is all so serious that it transcends “rubbing it in”. And so we must remind ourselves that it was not only the EU that tried to belittle the UK for refusing to join its vaccine procurement programme throughout last year, but British Europhiles, too, notably the increasingly hysterical and ridiculous Guardian newspaper.

Meanwhile, today's Times leader heaps praise on the British government's response to the EU's disgrace, under the headline: “Britain is right not to inflame the ill feeling over the short-lived and inept Brussels proposal to ban the export of vaccines”. It calls the EU action over a mooted ban on the export of vaccines an “appalling blunder” and an “idiotic suggestion”, and it reminds us that von der Leyen was “a gaffe-prone defence minister” in Germany.” In contrast, it says: “Britain’s response since then has been measured, intelligent and effective. There has been no gloating and no swipes at the EU from Downing Street...This is sensible politics and a wise response.” Overdue praise indeed.

IT COULDN'T HAPPEN IN THE EU

You will not know this if you gather all your news from UK media and your bubble on social media, but on the news this evening was a report from Rome, where pandemic safety measures have been eased, allowing restaurants to re-open. Good news, you might have thought. But not according to the ungrateful restaurateurs: it's a disaster, they said – there are no customers. It was worse than being closed, they moaned. (As an aside, you can guarantee that were UK restaurants to open, they would be packed and heaving, giving another small insight into why the virus finds it so easy to spread here.)

You will not know, either, that a Belgian mother feels completely abandoned by politicians at every level – EU, national and local – because of the country's long school closures. She said so on Euronews. But surely, you might say, such things only happen in the UK. Yes, according to most of the parochial UK media, they do. But meanwhile, in the real world...


'LOST GENERATIONS'

I have been shouting at the radio and TV for many months over the preposterous use of the term “mental health”. Feeling upset is not a mental health problem, it is a perfectly normal human response to a situation. Ditto feeling angry, frightened, bored, etc, etc. To bandy the term around with reckless abandon to the point of meaninglessness is to insult those genuinely suffering mental health issues.

Children learn all the time – and from everything; sponge-like, they absorb every experience. It's a tragic reflection on today's culture that almost total reliance is placed on schools to nurture the young. Parents happily shed their responsibility and have a ready-made teacher-shaped punch bag when their kids fail in any way. In the real world, children receive only a small proportion of their education and development from school, the vast majority coming from families, peers, play, events, games, books, comics and magazines read for pleasure, toys and so on. Parents and other adults are clearly crucial and my generation was reared by grown-ups who had lived through the recent mayhem of a world war. This had given them resilience, which they were able to pass on to us whenever fresh disasters or difficulties struck – power cuts, strikes, international crises, terrorism, disease and much more, all against the very real backdrop of the threat of instant annihilation in a nuclear blast. Life for so many has now become so easy that resilience has withered, alongside a culture of infantilism in which every problem is met with a “they need to fix it” response. Resilience has been replaced by a mysterious “they”. A perfect example of this was seen in the afore-mentioned report from Belgium, where the spokesperson for Eurochild, a campaign group, wallowed in the “disaster” befalling this generation of schoolchildren and, in the process, made her own giant contribution to any damage being done, feeding anxieties and encouraging youngsters towards reliance and away from resilience. But in today's fragile society it is dangerous to comment on such matters and so I've said nothing publicly.

And so it was a great comfort to find I am not alone in believing this. Sunday Times columnist India Knight thinks it's all gone too far, too. Under the headline “Stop telling children that lockdown is harmful – obsessing over young people’s wellbeing ignores their natural resilience” she makes what should be the oh-so-obvious point that: “Feeling worried, sad or hacked off is not mental illness, any more than a headache is a brain tumour.”

It's a good read. She writes: “A study by Oxford and Birmingham universities investigated 'emotional contagion' on social networks and found that friends catch one another’s moods, especially when the mood is negative...What happened to the idea of parents putting on a brave face and being can-do-ish and upbeat? No wonder teenagers are depressed: things are weird enough without adults feeling perfectly OK about going, 'Poor you this is an absolute disaster. You’re part of a lost generation it is the most tragic waste.' Any parent should be wary of encouraging a child to think of themselves as an eternal victim, a thing with no agency: these are not good foundations for emotional wellbeing.

“And what has happened to the idea of promoting resilience? Resilience is good. It’s what gets you through stuff. Of course you’re allowed to be worried and sad. But, to be blunt, it’s not the Blitz. Old people, meanwhile, have been quietly facing a genuine existential crisis for them this truly is a matter of life and death.

“Mixed in with all this is the unhelpful fact that the phrase 'mental health' has become close to meaningless because of our obsessive desire to pathologise every possible emotional state, especially when it applies to children and young people. We should really row back a bit from medicalising feeling anxious, bored, lonely, worried, cross, annoyed, confused. Everyone cycles through these feelings along with some jollier ones for the whole of their lives. They are not indicative of poor mental health, and pretending that they are degrades the experience of people who struggle every day with the darkest demons.”

What is so shocking is that something so obvious needs to be said at all. Yet every day presenters and interviewers invite and encourage participants to express how damaged their mental health has become. Incredible.


NO NEWS TODAY...

I suppose we should be thankful that there is so little going on in the world that the BBC Radio 4 Today programme could spare several minutes two mornings in a row last week simply to read out a list of names of people who had died. Is this news? It most clearly is not. Similarly, the World At One today spent several minutes broadcasting the family history of a lady who had died. It was all quite sad, quite jolly in places, and possibly quite interesting to anyone who might have known the family. But news? This insular, parochial approach is reaching new depths of pointlessness.


...AND JUST RUBBISH IN THE PAPER YESTERDAY

“Brexit’s killed our breakfast, Subway tells customers.” Mercy me. This Brexit chaos is getting serious according to that terrifying headline in yesterday's Sunday Times. The standfirst increased the level of fear: “'Teething troubles’ are still halting food supply chains between the UK and EU, with goods from eggs to pigs stranded in transit”. And then this bombshell in the text: “One franchise-holder, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that they had been unable to get hold of carrots, eggs or cheese since the transition phase ended on December 31, adding: 'We can’t do anything on the breakfast menu.'” This is appalling – carrots, eggs and cheese is my favourite breakfast dish and if franchise holders have no cereals or bread or imagination either, then yes, a Subway breakfast is off.

I wouldn't normally name a news reporter, but this story is so tragically atrocious that Gabriel Pogrund, the paper's Whitehall Correspondent, really needs to be identified. They write: “Branches of Subway...have warned of ingredient shortages because of the disruption faced by businesses since the Brexit transition phase ended a month ago.” It continues for several paragraphs in a similar vein until we reach the truth: “A [Subway] spokesman said: 'We’re pleased to say we do not have any Brexit-related supply chain issues in the UK.'” As if that was not sufficiently shocking, the story then lists a catalogue of equally unsubstantiated, spurious and unlikely claims. Alarm bells should be ringing over the cataclysmic decline in journalistic competence and standards.


AND MORE STATISTICAL GIBBERISH

The Brexit-hating media simply could not wait for the UK Covid death toll to hit 100,000, every single casualty so clearly being the fault of the Johnson government's incompetence and bungled strategy. Its glee, too, was evident in reporting of the daily death toll as it soared above 1,800 at one point. Except it didn't. If you're using such tragic statistics to beat over the head all those charged with dealing with a pandemic then you really ought to try to get it right. There is a world of difference between “deaths reported yesterday” and “people dying yesterday”. Of the 1,800 or so “deaths reported yesterday, a large proportion will have actually died the day before that, a smaller proportion the day before that and an ever-diminishing number each day for the past couple of weeks. Each preceding day will have a few more casualties added according to the “date of death”. At no point in the recent spike did the number of daily deaths reach anything like 1,800 – yet this is how it was reported, and then Tweeted about by people who should know better and by those who know no better alike. This is how a myth becomes an assumed fact. There are countless examples of such lazy thinking constantly being regurgitated in the media and in online forums.

In fact, even the “date of death” figures are a gross exaggeration of Covid's toll because of the way they are measured. The only truly meaningful figure is the one showing excess deaths above the five-year (or longer) average. If no one is dying of anything other than Covid-19 then the many thousands who would have died in normal times become Covid deaths. This is not quite the case, but there is a very large displacement of deaths from flu and other ailments and incidents into the Covid death column – a lot of people who would have died of other causes are recorded as coronavirus deaths. And this is exacerbated by the definition of a Covid death as someone dying within 28 days of testing positive for the virus – thereby potentially including car crash victims, cancer patients, heart attacks and the like.

Looking at the excess death figures published in The Times – admittedly a very poor source – we find there were roughly 4,220 more deaths in a week in late January 2021 than in a “normal” January. That's just above 600 a day. Rather different from the headline figures.

This is not to belittle the problem nor the measures being taken to combat it. Although others do use statistics for precisely that purpose. I try to avoid the Twitter cess pit as much as possible but found myself viewing a tragi-comic thread the other day – comic for its level of ignorance. One contributor to a thread, dismissing the UK government's Covid strategy as “incompetent”, listed two alternative strategies – the Australia/New Zealand total isolation approach of making themselves prisoners in their own backyard. And the Swedish “tough it out” method, which produced results about 10 times worse than its comparable neighbours, Norway and Finland. Laughable stupidity. Or would be if people's lives weren't put at risk by such fatuous idiocy.

JANUARY 19 2021

STATISTICS AND DAMNED NONSENSE...

The UK has the sixth worst per capita death rate in the world, not second worst, and is first in the per capita vaccination league, not fourth, if the conditions applied to The Times' daily charts are reversed (excluding small countries from one list but not the other). Is it numerical illiteracy or something more sinister?

And a few more snapshots of reality from The Times over the past couple of days. More examples of how incompetent the UK is pour in every day:

INCOMPETENT BRITAIN 1

“You can quibble with all these statistics...However....these objections do feel like just that – quibbling. The vaccine statistics are good news. With more than six doses given per 100 people, we have more than double the protection of Denmark, which has the highest level among our near neighbours...What’s more...we are distributing the vaccine more intelligently.”

INCOMPETENT BRITAIN 2

Italy: “A hospital has lost 800 doses of the Moderna vaccine after staff failed to react to an alarm when a refrigerator malfunctioned. Only 700 of 1,500 doses affected at Morgagni Pierantoni Hospital in Forli were still usable.”

INCOMPETENT BRITAIN 3

“The EU is insisting that a high-level diplomatic visit to Lisbon last week that resulted in three senior officials being forced to quarantine was essential.” “Other senior officials on the visit, including Ursula von der Leyen, president of the commission, are not deemed to have close contact.”

INCOMPETENT BRITAIN 4

“The director-general of the World Health Organisation lambasted drugmakers’ profits and vaccine inequalities, saying it was not right that younger, healthier adults in wealthy countries get vaccinated before older people or healthcare workers in poorer countries.” NB: I am sure he meant to exclude the makers of the UK's Oxford vaccine from these accusations.

INCOMPETENT BRITAIN 5

“Angela Merkel will meet the governors of the 16 German states today to discuss tougher lockdown restrictions, such as an 8pm curfew, due to fears about new strains of the coronavirus.”

INCOMPETENT BRITAIN 6
“Japanese mental health has been hit by the second wave of the pandemic, with the country recording steep rises in suicides among women, children and adolescents.”

INCOMPETENT BRITAIN 7
“Police in Amsterdam turned a water cannon on hundreds of people who were taking part in a banned protest against the Dutch government and its tough lockdown.”

INCOMPETENT BRITAIN 8

Switzerland: “Health authorities in the popular ski resort of St Moritz placed two hotels under strict quarantine today and closed ski schools.”

INCOMPETENT BRITAIN 9

Prisoners in their own, admittedly beautiful, back yard: “Australia to keep borders closed for a year...The closure will have a big impact on tourism..and an equally devastating effect on the nation's universities.”

INCOMPETENT BRITAIN 10
Spain: “The country is beginning to struggle with a third wave of the coronavirus as infections have tripled and hospital admissions doubled in the past three weeks.”

AND A LITTLE GENUINE UK STUPIDITY

“The lack of a hard shoulder on smart motorways contributed to the deaths of two motorists, a coroner ruled yesterday. He called for an urgent review of roads that present a risk of fatalities.”


TODAY'S DEMANDS

In addition to calls for free school meals, laptops for pupils, grants for various sectors and money for individuals, here is today's list of demands on the public purse:

“Boris Johnson signalled yesterday that the government could extend emergency universal credit payments beyond March.” NB: The Times leader presented very good reasons why he should not do this. Meanwhile: “The government is under mounting pressure from business leaders to provide more support to the economy before the budget in early March. The CBI has written to Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, calling for the furlough scheme, the business rates holiday and the deferral of VAT to be extended until at least the summer.”


AND YOUR POINT IS.....

I just watched nearly an hour of nonsense from an anti-vax group, pretending to have made a documentary. What I watched was a rambling mish-mash of facts, half-truths, distortions, selective statistics and mad rants all mixed up in an attempt to brainwash us into believing someone is doing something wrong somewhere. The message was so muddled, hilariously so at times, that the only targets, apart from nasty police officers doing their job, were multi-billionaire IT bosses who want to be, er, multi-billionaires.

It begins with a section on technology – and presents an absurdly flattering picture of what artificial intelligence is going to do us all: make us redundant and monitor our every thought and movement. The truth is that IT will develop and evolve and yes, we are already being monitored closely by Alexa and eavesdropping phones. But technology is, and will remain, painfully unreliable. And the purposes, at present at least, are purely commercial – to sell us more rubbish – or to keep people safe. The sinister monitoring that does take place and does have a real effect on people is mostly extremely poor quality – Experian and Equifax, for example, have interposed themselves between the human side of banking and retail customers by pretending to know, understand and assess individuals' financial details. So, while their information is minimal, their “computer says no” power is great. This does show that power is seeping into the hands of ignorant tech-based companies, but it also shows that it is the result of financial services' laziness and their reluctance to engage with their customers, rather than any grand conspiracy.

I do agree with the documentary makers when they call for fundamental change. My book says exactly that. The pandemic was a great opportunity to begin the process of change, harnessing the things IT can reliably achieve, dismantling the overwhelming power wielded by business principles, and enabling a simpler, more fulfilling and less polluting, less self-indulgent and less consumption-based lifestyle. I was left with no idea what this documentary would like to see. It appears to mock attempts to “build back better”, “reinvent capitalism” or introduce green measures: Boris's “green cars” policies are bafflingly dismissed as a way of controlling people, for example.

After that, we move on to the anti-vaxers' home territory of fruitcake doctors – I used to edit Vernon Coleman's nutty copy several decades ago – and made-up nonsense, interspersed with what might be the odd interesting genuine fact or two. For example, it claims the pandemic was created to control populations through fear and was planned last year when detailed modelling was carried out – overlooking the truth that pandemic modelling has been carried out for decades. There was even a movie, Contagion, released a decade ago, predicting very precisely what we have experienced in the past year. It only refers to rules and restrictions, rather than public safety measures, in an effort to raise the alarm about state control, and reinterprets common sense precautions as some sort of master-plan. Bill Gates, of course, is the main bogeyman. It claims false positive Covid tests and symptomless sufferers overstate the pandemic dangers, ignoring the large number of excess deaths and hospital admissions recorded. That is where this otherwise amusing, if confused, tom-foolery becomes dangerous.

It rants about universal basic income as a means of enslaving a dependent society and then rants some more on surveillance. It's possible to see each of those as either a threat or a hope for a better future. In my book, I suggest UBI might be a means of enabling that simpler, low-consumption life that will one day become vital to our survival as a species – everyone contributes a small amount to achieve the essential work that needs doing and everyone shares a reasonable reward (put simply). And why are we so afraid of surveillance? When anyone is hurt, burgled, robbed, the first call is to check CCTV; culprits' whereabouts can be traced. I have no fear of being surveilled: why would anyone bother? I have nothing to hide and what possible use could it be to anyone other than an easily ignored advertiser? Yet arch nut-job Robert F Kennedy Jnr screams about “data harvesting” – to which the common sense riposte is “So what?” So that you can sell me more garden furniture? And, as a final resort, the merest hints of oppression in today's extreme liberal democracies are always met with protests. The “documentary” clearly shows protests but focuses on the “state's” violent response, completely refusing to mention that the police action was to clear the streets of mask refuseniks putting their own and others' lives at risk.

By the end, we are left baffled as to what this diatribe requires us to do, other than refuse to wear a mask and be afraid of inoculations because Bill Gates is going to get us. All in all, I watched a dangerous attempt at brainwashing that, sadly, will probably work on some.


JANUARY 15 2021

A few snapshots from the real world as reported by The Times and even the BBC over the past couple of days. More examples of how incompetent the UK is – and how amazing every other country is – pour in every day:

USELESS BRITAIN 1

“Germany’s health minister has suggested that the hard lockdown could be extended until March because the restrictions have failed to reduce the infection rate substantially...Jens Spahn’s remarks came as the country reported a record 1,244 coronavirus deaths within 24 hours. Frustration is rising at the slow rate of vaccination...Several German states also say that strict data protection laws prevent them from accessing their residency registers to identify people who can be vaccinated, leaving them dependent on guesswork and a database supplied by the privatised postal service.”

USELESS BRITAIN 2

“France will impose a 6pm curfew this weekend as President Macron’s government tries to contain the pandemic without resorting to a third lockdown...The 6pm curfew already applies in 25 of France’s 96 metropolitan départements. The rest have an 8pm curfew.” And a headline earlier in January: “Emmanuel Macron mocked as France gives the Covid vaccine to only 500”

USELESS BRITAIN 3

“A third wave of the coronavirus pandemic is spreading rapidly across Spain with a record number of infections and one region asking the government to impose a household lockdown.”

USELESS BRITAIN 4

“In Lebanon, cases have soared since the government relaxed restrictions on restaurants, bars and nightclubs over the Christmas and new year period...The 11-day lockdown...involves a 24-hour curfew. Nearly all shops, including supermarkets, will be closed, with only bakeries and pharmacies staying open. To visit one of them will require filling out a permission form in advance.” And: “Panic-buying broke out in Lebanon as people rushed to stock up on staples before a lockdown in which even supermarkets and food shops will be shut.”

USELESS BRITAIN 5

“An expanded state of emergency [in Japan] went into effect yesterday as the government seeks to stop a surge of new coronavirus infections, though many people appeared to be ignoring the requests to avoid non-essential travel. Trains and buses were crowded in Osaka, Fukuoka and other areas of the seven new prefectures placed under the state of emergency. In Tokyo, where the emergency decree has already been in place for a week, the governor expressed concern about people not following the official guidance. 'I thank you for your cooperation, but the number of people up and about in town has not been significantly reduced,' Yuriko Koike told reporters.” What? Blaming the public?

USELESS BRITAIN 6

Netherlands: “Rutte government resigns over child welfare fraud scandal. Mark Rutte's government has stepped down after thousands of families were wrongly accused of child welfare fraud and told to pay money back.”

USELESS BRITAIN 7

The US: "A new record of 4,327 deaths over 24 hours was reported yesterday by Johns Hopkins University, which first reported a daily death toll of more than 4,000 last Friday. ...The steady rise in new infections has been attributed partly to the after-effects of holiday parties.”

JANUARY 14 2021

For months, government ministers have lined up to congratulate the “great British public” on adhering so stringently to the safety measures that it has been forced to implement. This week, at last, ministers have come out and told a few home truths – compliance is inadequate and people are continuing to spread the virus. This is such an obvious truth that it hardly needs stating. And yet one morning this week on the Today Programme, Justin Webb actually asked Matt Hancock something along the lines of: “So what do we need to do to slow the spread of the virus?” Hancock's patience is extraordinary. He didn't pull out his hair and scream “Have you listened to NOTHING we've said for the past nine months?” or “That is the surely dumbest question you could have asked.” He didn't stamp his foot and say if anyone didn't know what was required it might be because the media have undermined the message and sought to confuse the public from day one. Instead, he explained – yet again – that people spread the virus and playing fast and loose with the safety guidance is not good enough.

Incredibly, this caused some commentators immediately to turn on ministers for now blaming the public. I said on June 22 (see below), having observed how loosely the population was observing the relatively mild lockdown rules: “We are reaping what we have sown. Societies and cultures have had the pandemics they deserve.” And we still are: densely populated regions with a culture built on self-indulgence will inevitably have high infection rates. Of course the public is to blame – we are the ones spreading the virus. Only those living in a parallel universe will not have seen with their own eyes unmasked shoppers, large groups of youngsters, people hugging, crowded pubs. The traffic passing our house is close to normal levels – people are simply not “staying at home” – and indeed, The Times today reported that a survey of traffic levels showed it was three-quarters higher than during the first lockdown, adding “the stay at home message may be failing to have the desired effect”. We also hear of holidaymakers heading abroad – and then dashing back in a crowd when new restrictions are imposed. And we should remember that airports have been a glaring failure all along: efforts to keep the front door mostly closed have been thwarted throughout by leaving the back door wide open.

I know of not a single person who has stuck rigidly to the rules and advice since last March. We haven't, you haven't, even my 86-year-old mother hasn't. It certainly isn't easy. Our own misdemeanours have been mostly trivial, necessary or foisted upon us by others – but we could have done more. We needn't have joined the throng in the local pub garden for a last supper on the night before lockdown – a clear breach of the spirit of the rules, if not the letter. Everyone has a justification for their action, if only that what they did couldn't harm anyone else. That might be true but it hardly breeds community solidarity. When everyone acts as their own judge and jury – as has been increasingly the case since the plethora of petty laws imposed in the Blair era – adherence to safety guidelines becomes a matter of choice.

It is perhaps a mark of officialdom's fear of sparking such a “hey – how dare you blame the people” backlash, that one of its key anti-infection messages has been to assume that YOU have the virus and behave accordingly. This was never going to cut through our norms of self-indulgence and “I know my rights”. But to have promoted the far more effective line that we should all behave as though everyone ELSE had the virus and was about to pass it on to us would have risked alienating the public (or at least their self-appointed spokespeople), according to the government's behavioural scientist advisers. And given so many commentators' knee-jerk reaction to the slight shift in responsibility suggested this week, it seems they were absolutely right.

This dangerous inability to tell it like it is for fear of upsetting or offending has become endemic in our atomised and individualist Antisocialist “society”. The right not to be upset inevitably undercuts resilience to setbacks or criticism and has blunted vital, life-saving messages. Now, there is talk of “The second pandemic”, which today's Times writes about: “The mental effects of Covid? They will last for a decade. From alcoholism and marital problems to psychosis.” After the First World War came the roaring twenties; a year of Covid-19 is predicted to be followed by a decade of misery and post-traumatic stress. Do we now lack any resilience at all? Of course this period has been very difficult for many, but while our modern self-centred culture renders us pathetic in the face of a virus, it looks to me perfect for underpinning a Roaring Twenty-Twenties.

And it's not even as though our lockdowns have been severe: other European countries have imposed far tougher restrictions. France has a proper 8pm curfew (closing pubs an hour earlier than usual at 10pm is absolutely NOT a curfew) and is considering moving it to 6pm; Canada has a proper curfew and fines people for breaching it – including a woman found walking her husband on a lead, claiming it fell within a “dog exercise” exemption; bureaucracy abounds elsewhere, there are states of emergency, fines and punishments, travel bans. And yet our measures are so riddled with exemptions and exceptions that we are almost able to carry on almost as normal if we choose. And many do. There are commentators prepared to whine and moan about every aspect, from the threat the restrictions pose to liberty, to the need for more restrictions and harsher enforcement. Neither, of course, is right. But their messages are seized upon by a hostile media to present the UK as the world's basket case – so much death, disagreement, chaos, shambles, misery, new variant virus, U-turning, confusion, injustice, and the list goes on. And yet, given the choice of living in any other country right now, I would choose to stay put: our vaccination programme is truly world-beating, while EU countries bumble and bicker; Australasians might be living fairly normally – but they are prisoners in their own back yards until the rest of the world sorts out the problem; the US has had Trump; Canadians face huge restrictions; and where else would you risk going? That nasty little idiot Macron and his government might talk of the need to keep out “the English variant” and avoid “the English chaos” (amid a raft of absurd statements all reported unquestioningly by The Times this morning) but how different are conditions in France? Yet this is the distorted image that the UK media are happy to trumpet to the world.

Perhaps other eras – and other countries – were and are more used to perfection from their governments than we are today. Heath, Wilson, Callaghan, Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron – they all faced problems but achieved perfection in their responses, as does every other country today. Perhaps it's because we have been so spoiled in the past that we are so frustrated today? I don't think so. The answer is far simpler: a liberal middle class that benefits so enormously from business culture, the EU and globalisation hates and detests Brexit and Boris. There is nothing this government can possibly do to address this loathing: it seizes on bad news and ignores or contorts anything positive; it is almost as if the enemies of the government are willing and wishing for the country to fail, for more people to die, for the movement of goods to collapse, for bad things to happen so that blame can be pinned on ministers and officials who, in my view, have had very few options and have battled to make the best of the extremely poor hand they have been dealt.

FOOTBALLERS FIRST

The government's priority list for vaccinations is clearly a shambles, as so many have pointed out, suggesting a range of cohorts who should be moved up the list. But one category that has not been nominated for the front of the queue for jabs is sport. Rugby and football players have to get close to scrummage or celebrate a goal. Surely, they should be vaccinated first, in place of, er.....


JANUARY 8 2021

I have written reams below on Brexit and Covid-19 and am embarrassed to admit that so much appears to be supportive of a Tory government that in normal times I would find abhorrent. There are many reasons for this, one being the lack of any realistic opposition, with the demise of practical and principled socialism – Corbyn became an absurdity and Starmer is another Blair-style conservative – along with the rise of Antisocialism, as outlined in my book. Another is that we share a common enemy – the overwhelmingly conservative, pro-business force that is the EU. But at the individual policy and decision-making level, my apparent support stems not from being on the Tories' side but because so much of what they do is nowhere near as wrong as those who hate them say it is – and neither is it as right as committed Tories claim it to be. Ministers have made plenty of mistakes – failure to control air travel has left open the back door to virus arrivals all along; Gavin Williamson is simply hopeless and while, facing an impossible task in dealing with education's conflicting and argumentative factions, manages to be wrong in everyone's book; it made no sense to announce Lockdown III the day after the schools had returned. But ministers have achieved much good, too – our testing capacity is enormous, PPE shortages were swiftly dealt with, our brilliant sciences have been championed; and we are world-leading at vaccinating the vulnerable. We are also very much on a par with every comparable country in most aspects – governments across western Europe are facing precisely the same issue and dealing with them equally ineptly, or adequately, depending on your underlying assumptions.

My fundamental argument is that the divisions over Brexit have infected politics so deeply that Europhiles cannot conceive of our Brexit-friendly government doing anything right, while Europhobes cut it more slack than it deserves. This is where the media should come in as an objective, independent and unbiased reporter and commentator. Sadly, the media to which I am most exposed – the BBC, The Times, and my social media feeds – are all fervently Europhile and so repeatedly refuse to give credit where it is due, constantly seek faults, report negatively, use anecdote and irrelevances, use selective and misleading statistics, even invention and fabrication, and treat the pandemic as a wholly domestic issue in order to present it as a catastrophic failure on the part of an incompetent Europhobe government that has created a uniquely British problem. Interviewers no longer ask questions but launch accusations and assertions. And critics are rarely challenged to offer an alternative to what are often the least-worst decisions that have already been made. Not only is all of this a gigantic misrepresentation of the true state of affairs, it sows confusion and dangerously undermines efforts to keep an insufficiently compliant population safe. In my selective defences of the government, I am not giving my blanket support, I am merely trying, as a journalist to correct inaccuracies and bias. There are myriad examples of what I mean below. A close and unbiased reading will make this crystal clear.


JANUARY 5 2021

WILL PROJECT FEAR NEVER END?

My feelings towards my beloved profession of journalism have slumped from disappointment through anger and into deep shame. News journalism barely exists any more, replaced with speculation, comment and deliberate misinterpretation. We are cancelling our order of The Sunday Times: I feel as though I know less after reading it than I did before and have to seek accurate, impartial information elsewhere. Similarly, the BBC continues its Project Fear campaign, now encompassing both Brexit and the pandemic safety measures; The Times displays similar tendencies. Formerly respected journalists such as Sarah Montague, Libby Purves and many others repeatedly disgrace themselves by failing to hide their partiality. Others, such as Nick Robinson, for whom respect has never been due, infuriate, mislead and distort in equal measure. There is not a single British journalist or media organisation that has made a significant positive contribution to defeating the global pandemic – quite the reverse. As I have said many times below, the mostly liberal journalism profession has allowed its hatred of Brexit and all its adherents to wash away its integrity and objectivity, which has dangerously disfigured coverage of the global pandemic.

An example: last weekend's Sunday Times splashed on a story claiming millions of Britons don't live near a suitable vaccination centre. But it was a compete irrelevance, concocted from some inapplicable statistics and abizarre accusation of governmental failure, of course. Inexplicably, this travesty of an article was then referred to on BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House programme. Sir David Nicholson, former chief executive of the NHS in England and now chair of Worcestershire acute hospitals NHS trust, was asked to explain how so many millions had been left so remote from a vaccine centre. He tried to make light of it but his underlying rage was evident in his voice: “As much as I love journalists...there is this idea that you say something...and you flick a switch and suddenly it all happens. Anyone who has done anything more complicated than write a story will know that it is incredibly difficult to turn that idea, that mission, into a reality. And that's what we're doing. You can't implement a vaccination programme everywhere instantaneously in every part of the country. So we are, in an organised and safe way, doing what we have been tasked to do...There will be...bumps in the road. [But] don't lurch to a conclusion that everything's terrible just because something goes wrong. When you're trying to do anything of any significance there will be setbacks. But don't underestimate the motivation and drive of the NHS to make this a reality.”

On hearing him, I felt sickened with shame for my profession, embarrassed that Sir David's words were such a humiliating and damning condemnation of the way journalists now behave. He had also been asked earlier in the short interview whether he could have dreamt of organising vaccinations so soon? His reply: “Absolutely not...In all my experience of 40 years in the NHS I've ever seen anything like this.” He called it “a remarkable thing. A world-leading thing...An incredible effort”, and said: “We have a remarkable set of people.”

I have already noted below The Times' statistical illiteracy: for most of last year it ran a daily chart showing the past week's deaths from coronavirus – it still does – but it omits the only figure that is really relevant – the corresponding day of the previous week, rendering it a total waste of space. It has also run a daily chart showing per capita deaths around the world. The point of this is surely to enable the comparison of death rates in large countries with those in small ones. But this list omits all small countries! The stupidity is staggering. Such incompetence – or selectivity – also encompasses The Sunday Times. In addition to its “millions not near a vaccination centre” nonsense, it also ran a table showing the UK lagging far behind Israel and Bahrain in the race to vaccinate their populations. This was despite the UK having squirted vaccine into as many arms as Israel and far more than Bahrain. The Sunday Times (as did the BBC later) chose to list countries by vaccinations per head of population – which in a small country such as Israel is a much larger proportion. Obviously.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the EU was in chaos over vaccinations – not that BBC listeners and viewers would know. At least The Times did deign to carry this story.

In fact, the only references to the pandemic outside the UK that I have heard on the Today programme have come in its sports news – a passing mention that Olympic host Japan looks about to resume its state of emergency, or news of an England cricketer testing positive in Sri Lanka. All I have heard is a relentless trashing of the UK's occasionally remarkable and world-beating effort. It is also occasionally dreadful, of course, especially where Gavin Williamson is involved, as any intelligent person would expect. So where is the BBC's 15-minute analysis of how the EU is handling its vaccination programme? Could we learn more from Europe's wrangling, blundering and floundering than from incessantly running down the work of our brilliant and dedicated scientists and administrators, logistical planners and manufacturers? Why aim such bile at the very people working so hard to save us? Our media simply regurgitate the same tired news we have been hearing month after month. It's stale. It's just not journalism.

This is why I, as a journalist, am so deeply ashamed at what I am seeing. We are living through a genuinely historic event, the like of which few of us have seen in our lifetimes. Yet all most journalists seem to see is a narrative of domestic failure, free of meaningful global context or perspective, and a stick with which to beat their hated government. The UK is absurdly presented as the dunce of the world – and saying it for so long and so loudly has led more and more people to believe it.

But more examples: on Monday morning's Today programme, the odious Robinson did not interview Matt Hancock so much as harangue and berate him for being a failure, even accusing him of refusing to set a target for vaccinations because he had “failed to meet” every previous target he had set. Hancock had to fight to correct the slur that all previous targets had been missed. He also affirmed that a monumental effort had been made by countless brilliant people to prepare for the vaccination programme and said it would only be limited by the speed of manufacturing. Later, on the World at One, what Hancock said was reinterpreted: now, he was supposed to have said the manufacturers would be causing delays; and The World At One had spoken to the makers, who said they would deliver. So Hancock must be lying – the delays WILL be down to his incompetence! Where is the logic in this? What delays? These were explained in a subsequent interview with someone speculating on what a dreadful a hash we'll make of it – condemning our people and processes on day one of the second vaccine's delivery. The worst of this is that such reporting has succeeded in driving a wedge between hard-pressed individuals in the fields of government, regulation, logistics and manufacturing where none existed before. At this point I switched off in disgust. This is not a case of journalists holding the government to account, challenging it or questioning it for information – it is deliberately misleading and damaging. At a time when the population needs clear information – and Hancock was, as usual, crystal clear in his warnings and advice – constantly seeking to undermine and pervert the message is, as we have seen time and again, seriously dangerous.

Then, back to The Times, we have Libby Purves, who can sometimes write a decent column, getting the subject completely round her neck, again, as she demanded a precise timetable of our escape from the pandemic: when is each person getting the jab, on what date will it all go away and normality resume? With all the intellectual heft of a five-year-old in the back of a car demanding to know “when are we going to get there” and “ are we nearly there yet?”, she is proposing precisely the sort of certainty that is simply not available, nor desirable. Such a prescription would inevitably create widespread complacency and light a rocket under the spread of the virus.

The original Project Fear has, of course, been given a shot in the arm by the UK's final departure from the EU. Last weekend's Sunday Times reported a few minor hiccups among an otherwise overwhelmingly smooth start to the new ports regime – yet it still managed to paint a picture of chaos by reporting on “fears of delays”, “expectations of hold-ups”. But correspondents' fears do not amount to news; expectations of what might happen are not news. And so this story of a calm, quiet first day was presented as one of gloom and doom, straight from the Project Fear handbook.

Similarly, The Times last week carried a “fact-checking” list advising readers on the practical impact of Brexit. It should have been useful and straightforward but its tone was wholly negative. So much so that The Times yesterday had to carry an abject correction, admitting the item concerning driving licences was completely wrong. It is just the sort of blunder that occurs when underlying assumptions are allowed to cloud accuracy.

Another casual assumption from a correspondent on yesterday's You And Yours (Radio 4) was even worse – truly appalling and shocking. The topic under discussion was travel and how it might recover after the pandemic but the BBC's man with his finger on the pulse – I didn't catch who it was and have no desire to go back and listen again – said that because of Brexit we'll all be poorer and so we'll have to go back to visiting just France and Spain again. What a disgraceful assumption. And it went unchallenged, which probably means the main presenter also assumes Brexit is a thoroughly bad thing and did not even find it jarring.


DID WE EXCEED THE COVID SPEED LIMIT?

There was much high-spirited messaging and Zooming around the turn of the year – including several admissions of minor breaches of the Covid-19 public safety measures. This was also a subject discussed during the two-hour Zoom meeting we enjoyed with our regular new year's eve crew. This all set me to wondering whether we could justify all of our actions over Christmas and new year and whether we had remained on the right and proper side of a strict interpretation of the government safety measures and laws. First, our older daughter was in her London flat and mildly ill, her flat mate having gone home. Before the Tier 4 travel ban, we brought her home to us so that we could look after her. She had taken a Covid test but not had the result – it took four days, the only slow turnaround in the several tests our family has taken. The morning after she arrived home, she was declared positive. She had had no contact with us and I erected a curtain and barrier as a complete isolation shield across the landing, giving her exclusive use of her own bedroom, the spare room and the main family bathroom. That is where she stayed, sealed in, until her isolation period ended on December 27, with food being pushed under the curtain in a regularly disinfected plastic box. The test and trace system was impressive: we were notified of our responsibilities and our daughter received at least two phone calls, checking on her condition and advising her on next steps. A first class response. She recovered quickly from her mild symptoms and I am satisfied that in her case we obeyed fully the laws of common sense and parental duty. As for the safety rules, they state that “You can leave home for a medical reason, including…to avoid injury or illness or to escape risk of harm.” Verdict: no breach or offence.

Our second daughter, a scientific researcher at King's College, London, had planned to be with us at Christmas but in light of the above changed her plan and stayed alone in a house in Tooting, her two house mates having gone back to their parents. She remained alone for several days and cooked herself a small vegetarian pie for her solo Christmas lunch, even though the safety measures allowed for her to come to us. She came instead on December 27, after our own isolation periods were over and none of us had any symptoms. Was this within the safety guidelines? They state that “Students...are permitted to temporarily move [sic] to a ‘vacation household’ during the period that began on 3 December up to 7 February.” Technically, she ceased to be a student on completing her PhD in the spring but is still performing the same work and living in the same student-like accommodation – a room in a shared house – as when she was a student. Again, we are perfectly content that we acted well within the rules of common sense – we took extreme precautions – but perhaps committed a minor technical breach on the strictest interpretation of the law – the equivalent of driving at 32mph in order to avoid an accident in a 30mph zone.

All four of us were tested for Covid-19 at 9.30am on New Year's Eve and 21 hours later we all received negative results. I have now had three tests and all have reported results within 24 hours; my wife has had four, with the same speedy notification each time.


IS BBC DRAMA ALSO INFECTED?

Last year was an appalling one for The Archers – and 2021 is starting off even worse. How on earth can the absurd arrest of Kirsty Miller enhance any plotline? It is so ludicrous that even the dimwit Borsetshire Constabulary will realise in a couple of episodes and she will be suing them for general incompetence. OK, Philip Moss might have told them she was involved in his slave labour racket – but why on earth would they believe him when she was the one who alerted them to his racket in the first place? Dr Who is going through a rough patch, too. The New Year's Day episode was lazy, predictable and plotless. Daleks arrive, Daleks get blown up. The End. The most dangerous creatures in the universe? I don't think so. They get thrashed every time.


DECEMBER 31 2020 – NEW YEAR'S EVE

I was fascinated by a minor Facebook spat involving two former FT colleagues last week. One had identified partisanship in the media regarding Brexit and coverage of the pandemic; the other asked for examples. The former then replied that examples lie everywhere – once objectivity is abandoned, a particular view or narrative infuses every sentence. This, for me, was the more convincing argument as I, too, see and hear partisanship every day in opinionated media coverage. The FT used to avoid taking sides, to the point of mockery – its fence-sitting was often ridiculed within and without the office, usually being mistaken for indecision. But the fence is not at all a bad place to be. In fact, it is often an excellent vantage point from which to survey valid arguments on both sides. FT leader comments, features, analysis and news stuck rigidly to this standard – “on the one hand, this, and on the other hand, that”. When it did take a stand it was never dogmatic or blindly ideological and always powerful. This all changed for Brexit, which was denounced and dismissed as a thoroughly bad thing, in spite of a strong business lobby supporting it. The FT seemed to see it as its mission and duty to launch an anti-Brexit, pro-EU campaign and in doing so lost its objectivity, balance and integrity on the subject. Worse still, once those are lost, credibility fades, too. The FT stopped weighing the arguments and listing the pros alongside the cons; instead, it focused on arguments that bolstered its chosen case and damaged the hated opposition. Once this plague of partisanship enters a culture it spreads like a virus, infecting other topics. This phenomenon has blighted many other trusted news providers, especially the formerly reliable BBC, and we have seen how a hatred of Brexit and all who promote it has been the backdrop upon which other coverage can be pinned. With Boris Johnson, one of Brexit's prime movers now prime minister, this tainted output has now dangerously damaged public attitudes towards pandemic safety measures. I plead with the FT to return to the days of objectivity, balance, integrity and credibility.

...AND WE HEAR IT EVERY DAY...

Before I angrily switched off this morning's Radio 4 Today programme, I heard snippets of headlines from the new year's eve newspapers. And what a sorry mess it was, with one demanding Boris make “no more logistical cock-ups”, and another accusing the government of allowing MPs only five hours to debate the Brexit deal “because it had something to hide”. And so it went on, a catalogue of moaning and misery, nonsense and negativity, all blamed on someone else. Precisely what you would expect, in fact, from a media without objectivity, balance, integrity and credibility.

MY BREXIT DEAL

Some claim it is a dreadfully thin Brexit deal. But in spite of how appalling it is, they will support it because it is better than no deal at all. I, of course, would have negotiated a fantastically better deal. I would have demanded full repayment of every penny the UK has paid into the EU coffers since joining – billions and billions of pounds. That way, we would be swimming in cash, be able to pay for all the domestic economic damage done by the global pandemic, and give every child a hot meal. That's the deal I would have struck.

VACCINE DELAYS

The UK has been truly magnificent and world-beating in its search for and delivery of a Covid-19 vaccine. But today's decision by the regulator to allow the vital second shot to be administered up to 12 weeks after the first has got to be an error on at least three counts. First, even the makers seem to be concerned, with one saying all their testing and development was done using a three-week gap between doses and so maximum effectiveness cannot be guaranteed. Second, the longer the gap between appointments, the greater the likelihood the second one will be missed altogether. And third, the bigger gap gives the virus more time to mutate its way around the vaccine. It just seems daft to compromise on the high quality approach of getting the job done properly and with maximum effect simply to speed it up a bit. Its an approach given more publicity than it deserved this week, thanks to the idiotic Tony “I'll say anything to be in the news” Blair, who seemed to believe it was an idea the brilliant scientists, researchers and developers hadn't the wit to consider themselves. So now, if this unwise and unwelcome change to the delivery plan weakens the programme's potency then at least we will know precisely which noisy fool to blame.

BOXING DAY, DECEMBER 26 2020

We have a Brexit deal. And by heck, it looks a good one. Or at least it appears to be on the slight knowledge we have of it so far. Once the EU relinquished its outrageous demand that everything should be adjudicated upon by its own court of justice, the rest fell into place. Of course there are compromises – that's what a deal is. But they look reasonable: from the traveller's point of view, visiting EU countries will be similar, perhaps slightly easier than visiting non-EU countries; from most businesses' point of view there will be manageable paperwork; and, from the City of London's point of view, there is no deal – but this gigantic slippery customer is a survivor.

However you look at it, it's better than no-deal and far far better than a worst-of-all-worlds half-way house that would have left us in the Customs Union and Single Market but subject to EU structures and strictures without any say over them. Presumably this last “deal” is the one Keir Starmer is referring to when he calls for something “better”. He hasn't said. But then he clearly hasn't a clue, having blocked all previous attempts at a deal that he would have liked more than this one.

There will be more adjustments to come over time. And the next four years are crucial to making it all work and maximising the opportunities that being a smaller unit gives us. But top on the to-do list must be improving the lot of our most vulnerable and exploited people. They were the ones who voted to leave because, with lower skills, they compete for jobs on price (wages) and suffered from the lost equilibrium brought about EU eastwards expansion in 2004.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED REMAIN

I voted Leave, and would do so again. But I would have voted Remain had the EU been prepared to reconsider its catastrophic ideological notion of free movement so that the appalling damage it was doing to a large proportion of the UK workforce could be corrected. But instead EU leaders spat in the face of David Cameron when he sought change – and this amounted to a spit in the face of the UK's most vulnerable and exploited people. That was unforgivable, ignorant, short-sighted and led directly to an avoidable Brexit.

ATTITUDES TOWARDS TIERS

There are two basic approaches to compliance with the tiered system of anti-Covid safety measures: one is to ask “what can we get away with under the rules?”; and the other is to ask “what should we be doing to stay safe?”. Now that the chances of avoiding infection have plummeted, thanks to increased non-compliance and a more transmissible strain, I would suggest staying clear of the first type.

FRANCE

And so France blockades its ports against traffic from Britain in order to protect itself from a strain of the virus that it might well have sent here in the first place. As must be obvious to us all, were a new variant to enter Britain from continental Europe, it would first register its presence in Kent and London – coincidentally, the two areas that have seen rapidly increasing infection rates (an effect of the new strain) and the places where the variant has been detected. Alan Wraight, my former FT colleague and friend was brave enough to point out this heresy on Facebook. This was bold, because it does not fit the prevailing liberal elite and media narrative that the UK is the useless dunce of Europe – and now look what it's done to its long-suffering neighbours!

But Wraight is right: the new variant was only ever going to be detected in the UK – because only the UK has the sequencing abilities required to identify such genetic mutations. It could have been rife on the continent for weeks or months – which might explain the rocketing rise in cases in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy and elsewhere since November (not that you would know that's what's happened from watching or listening to our purely domestic broadcast news). Those countries were baffled by the sudden change in Covid's behaviour but, luckily for them, once it hit our shores, we had the technology to explain it. We can't be certain of this sequence of events, but it makes far more sense than the bizarre notion that the unexplained acceleration in infection in other countries was caused by something different to the subsequent acceleration in the UK. All we can say for certain is that the mutation was DETECTED in Kent by superior UK technology. In spite of these facts, the rest of Europe is holding the UK responsible for setting the continent alight with mutant Covid-19, with France determined to shoot itself in the foot by closing the Channel. This is not a surprise. Sadly, neither is the readiness of many within the UK to pin the blame on useless Britain.


DECEMBER 22 2020

It truly was the darkest of days. The winter solstice brought dreadful news and for the first time this year I felt profoundly depressed. Even the scientists seemed, for the first time, genuinely afraid of what they were saying, the calls for action going well beyond their usual precautionary warnings. We are now in dire straits: the disease is everywhere; behaviour is too little changed by far too many; and the Prime Minister's desperate effort to please everybody has ended up pleasing nobody, from lockdowners to anti-vaxers, from schools open to schools out, from the “what about my business/holiday/etc” brigade to the “NHS comes first” lobby, from the "spend more and support everything" activists to the "Who's paying for all this?" fiscal champions, from the Christmas-together campaigners to those forecasting disaster, and every other shade of opinion across a vast spectrum. It was manifestly evident how desperately Boris wanted to cling to the last dying hope of a happy-ish Christmas, as so many raucous voices were demanding. But he was flying in the face of the cold reality that nearly all of western civilisation has been outwitted by a microscopic virus. A culture of individual self-interest gives every single one of us a different perspective on what we want and what should be done to achieve it. Our ministers have had to balance these myriad conflicting demands and, as was obvious from the beginning, have found it to be impossible. Trying to please an enormously divergent “everyone” inevitably ends in too much compromise, too many middle-of-the-road decisions, satisfying no one. Add in a hostile media, pressing its own narrow demands, undermining the message and degrading vital cohesion and, in the BBC's case, treating the global pandemic as a purely domestic issue with no perspective or context whatsoever, and it's a wonder that things are not far worse. On these darkest of days, no one anywhere in the western world is coming out of this well.

INDIVIDUAL EXCEPTIONALISM

A lunchtime conversation in our sorry state of isolation homed in on the travel plans of so many of our family, friends, acquaintances and those featured in the news. Everyone, including us, seems to feel able to break the law, the safety guidelines and even the rules of common sense because we find justifying exceptions in all our individual cases. And when we are called out for our breaches we can always fall back on the absurd complaint that there is “such a lack of clarity”. It's all this clever virus needs – a free ride on the back of our precious individual exceptionalism.

DECEMBER 20 2020

Well thank you very much. To those insisting on shopping without a mask, I say thank you. To those lying to the pub or restaurant about their indoor “business meeting”, thank you. To those inter-household hugs, given freely without a care, thank you very much. To the conspiracy theory loons and their idiotic lamppost stickers, I say again, many thanks. To those ridiculing and undermining the official safety measures with “songs” and “jokes”, I can only thank you. To the unmasked woman pushing past me at Wisley to get a better photo, thank you. To the celebrities and their parties, many thanks. To Victoria Derbyshire and The Times columnists writing in support of her pledge to ignore Christmas restrictions, thanks. To the tabloid newspaper campaigns demanding “Christmas togetherness”, thank you. To the crowds gathering outside shops and in street markets – thank you. To the serial socialisers, mixing and matching households with abandon, I send thanks. To those using loopholes and technicalities to side-step the changing safety measures to suit themselves, thank you. To all those who believe the safety measures don't really apply to them, thanks a bundle. And to everyone who still complains that the safety measures don't make sense or that they lack clarity, thank you. Thank you very much indeed. Thank you for cancelling everyone else's Christmas – although I think the above covers pretty much everybody. Probably including my own household and me.

Ten days ago – see below – I pointed out the simplicity of the equation we face: socialising versus dead people. We've had nine months to absorb this simple truth. Yet too many people chose too much of the wrong thing. I saw it every time I left the house; I read about it in newspapers; I saw it on TV; on social media; I heard friends and family freely admitting to it. It's behaviour that's lifted straight from the pages of my book – the domination of individualism and personal rights; the near-death of social responsibilities. We will pay a heavy price.

And for those who cannot accept their personal responsibility for the dire situation we now face, then by all means blame the officials: blame Boris, Hancock, Whitty, Sturgeon, Merkel, Tegnell – anyone but yourself. But then realise that WE are the ones spreading the virus – no one else. And we know full well how to curb it.


DECEMBER 10 2020

We have a crystal clear choice – socialising versus dead people. From the umpteen irresponsible actions I have witnessed in the past few days, the consensus seems to be that we prefer socialising to keeping people alive. Fine – that's not what I would choose, but if that's what the majority wants...

CHRISTMAS

Forget the relaxation of safety measures at Christmas and impose stringent ones – it's the natural opportunity for another "firebreak" that will not devastate businesses that would be quiet anyway. It could mean we avoid another national lockdown, job losses, business failures, hospitalisations and a rocketing death toll by the end of January. The relaxation has only arisen because so many had made plain they would ignore safety advice – including a double-page spread full of irresponsible Times columnists. So scrap it now – and save both lives and jobs instead of turbo-charging the spread of the virus with what will inevitably turn into a free-for-all.


DECEMBER 8 2020

Vaccinations began today! Hoorah. Wags have already asked what Bill Gates plans to do now that he has control of a small army of old folk in the UK. But on a more serious note, at some point, something will go wrong. Possibly a bad reaction, maybe a missed appointment – it's inevitable. But on balance, it has to be a risk worth taking. Everyone we've heard from today is jubilant that the UK is the world's first country to vaccinate anyone (even though it is “mismanaging the pandemic”, according to actor Rob Delaney, see below).

But will it stay that way when someone is damaged by it? It will happen – and everyone, even the government-haters, needs to say today, right now, whether we are right to be doing this. It's a binary choice – vaccinate or not. And there's no hindsight to be had – we have to decide right now, yes or no. So anyone who believes it's a mistake must say so today – or forever hold their peace. No one has the right to say anyone made a mistake in a few months unless they say it is wrong right now.

● The next episode of the BBC's excellent insider documentary on the Covid-hit Barnet Hospital in north London will focus on its plans for this very vaccination regime. I have just watched the two most recent episodes and have to say that the problems faced by the medical teams and the decision-making dilemmas they have to cope with are extraordinary and their solutions exemplary. Balancing life and death seems to focus minds on realities and doctors are seen to change their minds completely after conversations with colleagues – no digging in of heels, no arrogance or posturing, just mutual reassurance that this was the best course of action and agreement. This is how a pandemic can best be managed.

● The aforementioned Delaney disagrees, however. The actor claims to know how a pandemic SHOULD be managed – even though it struck without precedent or a handy manual on what to do. But Rob knows – he told us this morning in a short monologue about the death of his son at the end of the BBC Today Programme. His perspective on hope had changed, apparently. He said: “I got angry – a historic pandemic and its mismanagement by the government is killing people by the thousands.” I find this a shameful thing to say – unless he really does know better how to manage a pandemic.

It's a sad, sad story. His two-year-old son died two years ago of a brain tumour. He is still grieving and wants to lash out. This is tragic and earns masses of sympathy and understanding. But that soon gets eaten up by broadcasting sloppy and highly controversial political statements. This sly insinuation of falsehoods into the nation's thinking and the casual misrepresentation of recent history has dangerously undermined the management of the outbreak which, despite what Delaney might believe, has been at least as good as any other European country's.

I am so so sorry for his dreadful loss – but also outraged by this laziness. Even worse, how could a BBC editor let this go out on air? Are these monologues not edited? Actors need protecting from themselves, surely. Fair and partial? I don't think so. All in all, a shameful piece of broadcasting.

LONDON

So London could be heading for Tier 3, with Covid cases rocketing. But that's Londoners' choice. They could have cut down on social interaction and controlled the virus – but too many chose not to. Thanks to the breakdown in sanity outside Harrods the other night, the idiocy of the likes of Rita Ora and the failure of people who know all these rule-breakers to shame them into line, businesses may have to close again and jobs will be lost. But that was Londoners' choice.

NASTY PIECES OF WORK (in today's news):

● Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, is a piece of work. No one has ever made any secret of this. Indeed, he was given the job precisely because he is an unpleasant, duplicitous person. And it was said years ago that the UK would never be offered anything other than a bad deal (see below, November 2018). So why are we still talking to him instead of preparing to go it alone and then agree deals from a position of strength? A deal with the slippery EU was never a realistic possibility, as I have said many times since 2016.

Also and also very very worrying, are:

● John's Campaign. These seem to be people who think care homes should be opened up and are considering legal action to unravel the government's safety measures. If they succeed, they could have a number of deaths on their hands.

● Football clubs. They say they agree with limits on gambling – as long as it doesn't affect their income streams. Never mind the mental issues, the suicides, the relationship breakdowns and bankruptcies among their own fans from gambling – what matters is advertising the name of a betting company on the front of the team shirts, endorsing it, cleansing it and encouraging more problem gambling. It hurts me to say that players for the team I have supported all my life, West Ham, have the name of a vile gambling company emblazoned on their shirts.

DECEMBER 7 2020

A small survey that was highlighted on the BBC radio news yesterday morning claimed that public confidence in the way ministers were controlling the pandemic was dwindling. I haven't seen reports of this appalling survey anywhere else, but it does, of course, fit the BBC's agenda of undermining the government and so perhaps was taken as a vindication of its own efforts in that regard.

Be that as it may, the poll of a mere 2,000 people must have been asking odd questions. Because its fundamental premise is patently absurd: it is not the responsibility of ministers to control the pandemic – it is OUR responsibility. You must pretty dim not to have learned by now that every human interaction contributes to spreading this killer disease: the equation is painfully simple – the more we interact, the more dead people we cause. This is especially the case when shouting in sports grounds without a mask, when forming bare-faced jostling crowds outside Harrods and at street markets, when meeting indoors, or when being anywhere near dunderhead celebrities such as Rita Ora or Laurence Fox.

A second reported aspect of the “survey” claimed respondents were worried at a “lack of clarity” over the UK government's response to the outbreak. I have no idea what anyone can find unclear about the “more interaction = more dead people” equation. More than that, I wonder what all those who complain of a lack of clarity think clarity looks like. “Clarity” can only mean no lockdown at all, or simple, universal, and extremely harsh measures. Given the moaning about the relatively mild restrictions we face, I assume that neither of these “clear” options would survive for many minutes. And so the inevitable and obvious result is that we must sacrifice a little clarity in order to find a balance between saving lives and saving jobs. This will be complicated: the country is geographically and demographically varied, as are its populations, meaning a one-size-fits-all approach could be simultaneously ineffective in one area and unnecessarily restrictive in another. (I know this sounds too obvious even to be worth saying – but it seems to be little understood if this “survey” is to be believed.)

And even beyond that, I would invite those doubting the UK response to look at what is happening elsewhere. Other similar countries, notably across Europe and North America are experiencing the same or, in most cases, far more severe levels of regulation and social and economic chaos. Serious international comparisons show just how relatively well the UK is managing – on testing, provision of equipment, vaccinations, support for workers and businesses. Of course, these could all be even better, but we should be, perhaps not proud, but quietly comforted that what we are experiencing is close to as good as it gets in a global pandemic.

Those who hate the government no matter what it does will never agree that it has achieved anything. And those who crowded the streets in Knightsbridge and Nottingham, or let their masks slip at Twickenham, or who gather indoors for big birthday parties will never accept their responsibility for spreading the disease. It's far easier to blame the government for failing to control it.

EQUILIBRIUMISM

One of the leading themes in my book is the need for equilibrium in all things. A lack of it leads to friction and dysfunction. There was plenty of this going around before the pandemic and its safety measures isolated us: the planet's eco-systems; its climate; globalised political thinking and discourse; economic power; the EU membership; agricultural practices; and much more. I particularly refer in the book to how the inclusion of the eastern European states in 2004 threw the EU into a hopeless disequilibrium that must lead inevitably to its fragmentation and regression.

This belief in balance needs a name. It's an idea that's closely related to Gaia, but Gaia is more about oneness. Equilibriumism doesn't sound too great.

DECEMBER 1 2020

Again, the government's communication is weak and falls well short of what is required to galvanise the public in the face of a pandemic threat. Today, it was Michael Gove failing to tell it like it is. In another tetchy “interview” – more of a row, actually, as it nearly always is with the odious Nick Robinson – on the BBC's Radio 4 Today programme, he simply failed to make the killer points that would have nailed the argument and convinced every rational listener.

● First, the Covid-19 equation is now blindingly clear: more social interaction equals more people dying. We don't need reports or charts to know this by now, having seen it in action repeatedly, everywhere.

● Second, we also know that the closer the interaction the more likelihood of transmission and that close and careless interaction is far more likely to take place after alcohol where people are gathered – ie, in pubs and restaurants, at parties etc.

● Third, stop referring to “restrictions”. Call them “safety measures” – which is what they are, as it happens. This should have been done from the start but, hopefully, it is not too late to achieve a psychological turn-around that reminds any doubters that these measures are not being done TO people – but FOR people. At the very least it might help ease the “mental health issues” of which so many complain.

● Fourth, deal with the communication effort. Interviewed on the Radio 4 Today programme yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon sounded authoritative and commanding. As I said yesterday, she refused to put up with being harangued and with the presenters' usual tricks of ambush questioning and toxic little asides between topics, and she made some excellent points that I have not heard Boris or his team making, such as that safety measures are limits, not targets (see the next point).

● Fifth, the danger of “imposing restrictions” is that individuals rebel against them and push them to the limit – and beyond. I cite the witless Rita Ora and Laurence Fox as today's irresponsible celebrities. Ora at least had the decency to apologise; Fox seems to be a lost cause. But the attitudes they display are infecting the whole of society. Just as a 70mph limit is there to save lives (as I point out below), so the Covid safety measures are there for the same purpose. And as I also said last weekend a speed limit is not a target: in fog you slow down. And we are in such a fog that common sense dictates we stay well WITHIN the guidelines, rather than making up spurious justifications for going beyond them.

* As an aside on this subject, naming a beer “Substantial Meal” would be amusing if intended as a joke. If, however, it is intended as a means by which pubs might flout the safety measures, then it is selfish and life-threatening and as such is stupid and sickening.

● Sixth, as stated below, arguing that lockdowns should be eased because there are still a few empty NHS intensive care beds is absurd and not worthy of further comment.

● Seventh, equally dim-witted is arguing that because the Nightingale Hospitals have so much capacity, safety measures can be eased (usually followed by “in my area” when proposed by chinless dopes on the Tory backbenches). In fact, if the Nightingales ARE being used, regular facilities must be full and the lives of those with heart conditions, cancer, other serious conditions and facing emergencies are at huge risk.

● Eighth, the government has a strong story to tell. The safety measures are working; anyone who argues that “lockdowns that are working” should be eased because they are working is clearly an idiot.

● Ninth, the economic damage is great but when balanced against the lives being saved is largely irrelevant, as there is no alternative. Of course individual businesses in particular sectors will suffer and they should be assisted but for the most part the economy is continuing to function. (Not that you would know this if you receive all of your news from the BBC. Try Euronews for some perspective.) Economic forecasts are never any better than guesswork in normal times and so the report on economic impacts released yesterday is of no interest or value.

And finally, although there are many more points that could be made, the UK's handling of the pandemic stands up well to international comparisons. Gove did allude to this today, but hopelessly meekly. Why not silence the interrogator by pointing out that we have roughly the number of deaths you would expect in such a connected country and global hub; problems have been, and are being, solved – some quickly, some eventually; the country is functioning; we have no riots, as seen in other countries, even though people are fed up with not socialising; the balance between saving lives and saving jobs feels about right; and no one has come up with any remotely sensible or convincing alternatives.

Why aren't we hearing any of this?


NOVEMBER 30 2020

Have you heard a more frightening argument during a debate about safety measures than the one that goes: "No need to worry, we've still got plenty of room in intensive care"?

And have you heard a more dim-witted argument than the one that says we need to disrupt, undermine or abandon a safety strategy that is working – because it's working?

Please save us from the Tory backbench chinless dimwits who were stupidly given a say over our safety. This was always going to end in tears – my blog entry for September 28, below, predicted precisely this.


FAIR PLAY TOSTURGEON 

Like or loathe her, Nicola Sturgeon is proving herself to be an infinitely more decisive and convincing leader than Boris Johnson. Johnson's main (among few) qualities that might have made him a good prime minister was his ability to communicate, and via that, to lead. Sadly, his communication this year has been dreadful – weak, apologetic and, as I say below (November 8), more Sergeant Wilson than Sergeant-Major Shut-Up Sir. This is in spite of the UK balancing the pandemic and its economic effects at least as well as comparable countries (you might not realise this if you only watch or hear the BBC's exclusively domestic and perspective-free coverage).

Nicola Sturgeon, on the other hand, has been on the front foot throughout. She has been irritating in playing petty politics by introducing minutely different measures a day earlier or later than the UK government. But it's hard to criticise her communication effort. Interviewed on the still-atrocious Radio 4 Today Programme this morning, she refused to put up with the presenters' usual tricks of ambush questioning and toxic little asides between topics, and she made some excellent points that I have not heard Boris or his team making. Have any of these pointed out that the “three household” limit at Christmas is not a target but a maximum that everyone would be extremely wise to stay well within? (As I said last weekend – see below.)

Obviously, I am inclined to be swayed by someone repeating points I have already made, but it does make me wonder whether Scotland could make a go of independence. As a “localist” and communitarian, I am naturally supportive of smaller units of government operating closer to the people and so, in principle, favour an independent Scotland, should its people genuinely desire it.

There are serious practical obstacles, however. This is not the same as the UK leaving the EU. The UK is a going concern and a huge contributor to the organisation it is leaving. Scotland is the opposite – as things stand it is hardly a going concern: providing free school meals, for example, is a wonderful thing to do – with other people's money. This is not to say that it could not be made viable; but without radical interventions and significant sacrifice it would need to go cap in hand to someone to continue un-scarred and unscathed. Ending the union does not necessarily end the country's dependence on others, no matter how tuneful, clever and rousing The Proclaimers' song on the subject might be. The choice might come down to sticking with a cap filled by UK coins, or pleading for mercy in Brussels. I know which I would choose, for the time being.

I say “for the time being” because, as Sturgeon rightly said this morning, how can the people of Scotland decide on their future when they have no certainty over the details of the UK's relationship with EU, even with just a month to go before Brexit comes into full effect? But if this reasoning holds true now, it must also hold true for the medium term: the benefits or otherwise of the UK going it alone will not become clear for several years and so fully informed decisions on Scottish independence can still not yet be made. How can you argue that the UK leaving the EU is a reason for another referendum when you have no idea whether it will be beneficial or disastrous for the Scots? I would therefore support Sturgeon's call for another poll, but in four or five years, when the direction of travel has, we hope, become clear. A vote next year would be an enormous mistake for everyone.


NOVEMBER 28 2020

So much discussion. The same discussion that's been going on since March. In a bid to simplify things, the Covid-19 equation is incredibly simple – the more social interaction that takes place, the more people will die. Not just from coronavirus but heart problems and cancer. It really is that simple.


HIGH STREET FAILURES

The high street has been doomed for years. Why flog around a few poorly stocked shops when everything you need is on Amazon? Delivered to your door with astonishing efficiency. Amazon offers superb all-round customer service. It is, of course, a horror, too: it never seems to pay much tax, is reliably reported to treat its warehouse workers terribly, sets dangerous schedules for drivers, etc etc.

So where does this leave the old high street? Sadly, trailing about 10 years behind the curve and still not getting it at all. Yes, shops have responded to digital trends with websites and delivery firms. But only as individual one-offs. Amazon, on the other hand, is an entire high street. Shopping elsewhere online is the equivalent of driving to a town centre, visiting one shop and driving home again, then driving straight back to visit another, and so on. Every visit to each retailer's website requires the filling in of forms; agreeing to another set of irritating cookies; another exposure of bank or credit card details; more revealing of addresses, dates of birth, personal information and, if you choose, passwords. With Amazon, you do this once for an entire high street.

Why on earth is it taking other retailers so long to realise that they need to co-operate on the front end of their online offerings? The old, creaking high street needs to become a digital high street with a single gateway – one set of details for each user, one customer identity that gives access to every shop that signs up and that is used for every purchase. Rivals shops can still be rivals – shoppers can browse through a whole row of clothes shops or furniture retailers. It's just that when it comes to choosing items and completing the purchase, it's all handled by the shared, common gateway system.

Amazon has achieved this. For many other traditional retailers, it could be their only hope as the old high street converts ever more rapidly to a store-free mix of hospitality, entertainment and accommodation.


NOVEMBER 27 2020

WE REMAIN IN THICK FOG

Anyone who needs to study the detail of the official restrictions regarding the anti-virus measures affecting their social lives over the next few weeks obviously still doesn't get it.

The message is crystal clear: social interaction spreads Covid-19 – so keep your social interaction to an absolute minimum until a vaccine arrives to render it virtually harmless. Hopefully. This could be as close as a few months into next year.

Why, then, does anyone need to scan the regulations now to “see what we can get away with”? If the limit is for three households gathering at Christmas, this should surely not be seen as a target or, worse, an arbitrary rule to be finessed and adjusted to suit each family's wishes.

A speed limit of 70mph is not a target for all drivers to hit in all circumstances, regardless of the conditions. We remain in thick fog, with intensive care units at full stretch, hundreds dying each day, many more suffering long-term debilitation, and even more with other serious conditions having their treatments dangerously delayed. It surely remains responsible and smart, therefore, to stay well below the 70mph limit.


OH CANADA...

Covid-19 is rife in Canada – as indeed in most other western countries (although you would not know this from the BBC's exclusively domestic virus coverage). And according to The Times today, Canada's steep rise in infections and deaths can be traced back to a mad splurge of socialising around its Thanksgiving date of October 11. The nation now realises it should have banned large-scale social interaction, rather than discouraging it.

The US is about to suffer the same fate with its own Thanksgiving period. And then much of the world in the new year. But at least we'll have had a quite nice Christmas.


OH NEW ZEALAND...

Poor old hermetically sealed New Zealand. Having used its obvious geographical advantages almost to eradicate infections, it now finds half a dozen Pakistani cricketers turning up and testing positive. Aagh!

This highlights two things. First, the limitations of isolating an entire country. Yes, you can control spread of the infection – but then what? Sit and wait, smug but completely alone, for the rest of the world to get rid of it? Or allow in a few cricketers and selected others and find you're back to square one?

Second, the cricketers are said to have been tested and declared negative for the virus before travelling, which raises a massive question mark over the safety of air travel and its precautions.


OH TURKEY...

Turkey (the country) has, according to today's news, released figures showing the prevalence of Covid-19 was far greater than reported over the summer. This is Turkey, one of the few countries we were told it was safe to visit for that “much-needed holiday”. Before anyone books their next foreign holiday, perhaps they might consider how much trust they are placing in their proposed destination's statistical reporting.


YES – IT DOES ALL LOOK ARBITRARY. OBVIOUSLY!

The UK's Covid-19 safety regulations do not stand up to lawyerly scrutiny – they look arbitrary. You can fish but you can't angle (or the other way round); you can't play tennis or golf but you can walk with a friend; you can go to work with many others but cannot go to a pub or restaurant; the list goes on.

They look arbitrary because they ARE arbitrary – and necessarily so. These are emergency measures, not legislation expected to stand for a generation. They are straight lines drawn through a plethora of daily activities that spread the disease, to greater or lesser extents. It is inevitable that there will be anomalies, inconsistencies, illogicalities, even apparent absurdities. But have you ever managed to cut a straight line through the middle of a jigsaw puzzle without slicing up loads of pieces?


CHINLESS DIMWITS

And as for the obnoxious and dim-witted southern Tory backbench MPs bleating about the "unfairness of the tier system" and who believe notions of "liberty" (by which they mean "the economy"), (by which they mean hospitality businesses in their constituencies) is more important than containing a killer disease - what can you say? We need a "more granular approach" says one. By borough? Brilliant – that should be nice and simple. But surely still unfair on some. So how about by postcode? Completely brainless. 


THE BRITISH LIBRARY'S SHAME

British Library. Your are a disgrace and an embarrassment. Your apology to Ted Hughes is foul. You have tarnished his reputation and heritage with your ludicrous “slavery” allegations, damage that no “correction” can undo. Is every institution now run by fools and ignorant ideologues?


MARADONA – AND HENRY WINTER'S – SHAME

“Ignore the cheating – if you truly love football then you love Maradona.” There, in a nutshell, is all that is filthy about football. That was a headline in The Times yesterday above Henry Winter's tribute to the man who did more to contaminate the sport than even its most corrupt administrators.

Maradona opened the floodgates; he was pivotal in changing the face of football. His flagrant cheating, in which, incredibly, he took pride, was deemed acceptable because of his undeniable talents. Pre-Maradona, the game was different – rewards were smaller and sportsmanship still just about held sway. Post-Maradona, cheating is mainstream – it is even discussed by pundits as if it were a legitimate tactic and a key part of the game.

The feting of Maradona ought to sicken us. His shame went far beyond the “goal” he handled into the net and the subsequent vile insults and mockery he threw at Peter Shilton: he celebrated cheating, calling it “craftiness”; he was an early exponent of the play acting that now makes football infuriating to watch; there was on-pitch brawling; the bans; the drug addiction; the alcohol. Yes, he learned the beautiful skills of a footballer at a young age and was an extraordinary player. We can acknowledge that. But if you love football, you should not love this hideously flawed human who did so much to wreck it.

IT'S NOT FAIR!

Football fans are allowed to return to the grounds, albeit in limited numbers. Hoorah! But hang on, say some invested in the game, that's not fair – some Premier League clubs in Tier Two areas can have fans and those in Tier Three can't and those with supporters will have an advantage.

OK. So make it fair. If this notion of fairness is the overriding priority, then keep all grounds empty. It's that simple. It's over to you. You choose.


NOVEMBER 20 2020

The arguments over a Covid Christmas hinge on fundamental ideological opposites: the libertarian, individualistic ideology versus its communitarian, socially responsible antithesis.

My book, “The Rise of Antisocialism”, discusses this very point, charting the rise of libertarian individualism from 1980 onwards and the resultant efforts to curb its excesses with legislation. This produced a tsunami of new laws, especially during the Blair government's tenure, many aimed at regulating the antisocial behaviour directly resulting from the creation of a business-led society based on self-focused individualism and rabid consumption. I wrote: “Government agencies with the power to make regulatory laws made it a crime to stroke a pet’s fur the wrong way or leave a dog tied up in the rain, among a tidal wave of health and safety offences. It was all clearly nasty, antisocial behaviour that once would have earned a societal rebuke or reprimand. But with no society to issue such sanctions, and a culture permitting anything and everything not made illegal, the feeling was that only the law could enforce good, sensible and responsible behaviour. There is a serious lack of societal policing – not just by police officers, but by everyone – by parents, train guards, all manner of attendants, passers-by, teachers, all of us.”

And so we reach the disastrous conclusion to this process: the idea that only regulations backed by the force of law can prevent people from doing whatever they choose, no matter how dangerous, stupid and irresponsible that might be. With societal constraints long since dismantled, there can be no appeal to reason and common sense: “Social contact is spreading this deadly virus that is killing thousands of people and destroying even more jobs and livelihoods. Please stay away from everyone outside your household and minimise interaction, while maximising the distance kept from others where meeting in person is absolutely essential.”

This guideline should be sufficient to contain the inter-personal spread of the virus in a communitarian, socially responsible society. That is not our current culture, unfortunately, and so a straightforward exhortation to good sense is not sufficient.

There is, obviously, a reinforcement effect here: the more individualistic a population becomes, the more its restraints have to become external; the more regulation that is applied, the more it is seen as being imposed by “someone else” and the more detailed and potentially trivial and contradictory it can become. As I wrote in the book: “Some [laws were] so trivial that they were bound to be ignored, thus giving people the idea that they could pick and choose which laws applied to them.”

This “individualisation of laws and regulations” now lies at the heart of the present debate. People are bestowed with individual rights but have been relieved of the matching responsibilities – it is the duty of "others" to provide protections. It is therefore down to the government to impose restrictions – they are now “the government restrictions”. This allows individuals to believe it is not their responsibility to stop spreading a killer disease; they will follow regulations where they must but will decide for themselves how closely they comply when it does not suit them. We have already read those deplorable comment pieces in The Times, with several columnists announcing their shameful intention to flout the safeguards at Christmas, no matter what.

Worse, this governmental “ownership” of the regulations leaves the population with barely a stake in the outcomes – the death count and business failures are all the fault of “the authorities”. This means that when rules are relaxed, or are about to be tightened, the prevailing view is that “we are now allowed to party”. We saw it in the few days before the November tightening of restrictions – and doubtless we will see it again in early December, as if the panic is over. And for those who see it as “the government's pandemic” their multiple social interactions do indeed come blame-free.

This is clearly absurd. These are not “government restrictions” at all, they are a nuanced and balanced attempt at saving as many lives and jobs as possible; they are measures in which we all have a huge stake but which we have been allowed to feel are not our responsibility. Is this disconnect the fault of our present government? Partly, perhaps. But, in truth, it is far more the fault of successive governments since 1980 that have nurtured an increasingly atomised, self-interested, consumption-obsessed and antisocial business-led culture.

The potential costs of a free-for-all at Christmas are immense in terms of deaths from Covid-19, businesses failing and jobs being lost, along with the suffering and stress of those with cancer or heart complaints who need treatment that is not available because of another spike in socially transmitted infections. At its simplest, we might decide that the price of three days of festive freedom is worth it – or not. But beneath this simple conundrum lies a far deeper and more dangerous ideological battle affecting the nature of our society, its politics and its future.


NOVEMBER 8 2020

WHERE'S THE GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE?

The BBC's coverage of the coronavirus outbreak has been unremittingly depressing and undermining of official policies and measures. I have commented on this below and pointed out how “news” has become anecdote – a never-ending stream of interviews with dissatisfied and disgruntled small business owners or people with loved ones in care homes, for example. This creates a constant aura of negativity and an image of failure in addressing every case and every aspect of hardship, no matter how complex or difficult to reach.

But there is another aspect that can inflict even greater damage on the national mood and togetherness: treating the global pandemic as a purely UK issue. This is insular and parochial, almost on a par with the US. It's the equivalent of covering the second world war by only reporting on those affected by bombing in the east of London or Coventry and never mentioning the greater chaos across the Channel, while ignoring every success – the liberation of Paris, Rommel driven from North Africa, etc.

For the BBC, the dire straits prevailing in Belgium, Spain, France, Italy and many other countries seem to be of no interest. The violent protests and failing testing systems in countries including Germany and Sweden are not newsworthy.

It means the national broadcaster's coverage has no perspective, remaining short-sighted and depressing. When viewers are shown the meltdown in the rest of Europe, the disarray, states of emergency, testing failures, severe and real curfews, health services swamped etc, they can understand that the UK is absolutely not the outlier, failing in every respect. It is behaving rationally and pretty much in line with countries, such as Germany and Sweden, that are otherwise hailed as exemplars. Euronews, thankfully, does provide this essential perspective, albeit with clearly limited resources.

The BBC's insular, UK-only approach is dangerous because it is depressing, affecting the population's mental health; it's inaccurate because it is incomplete, examining just a tiny part of the story, especially when combined with its “anecdotal” reporting; and all this breeds contempt for authority, undermines measures taken, and fosters non-compliance.

WHERE'S THE LEADERSHIP?

Everything is backwards. Boris was supposed to be a leader. I could understand that that might be his strength – the front man in the band singing other people's songs and selling them to the listener. I had little hope that he would be a brilliant policy-maker but I could see him being a great success at leading, flying the flag, rallying the troops.

Instead, we have the complete opposite. Boris is behaving rationally, walking a tightrope between the “infringement of liberty” lobby and the “lockdown sooner and harder” brigade; between the health of the economy and the health of the population. It's an impossible task and he has acquitted himself at least as well as any other European leader. At that, I am surprised.

Even more surprising is the abject feebleness of his leadership. Apologising, saying sorry, saying this is the last thing we want to do – this is not leadership. It's straight out of the Sergeant Wilson handbook – “I'm terribly sorry to trouble you, but would you mind awfully falling in. That would be most helpful.”

A leader would spell it out: “For now, it's the virus or us. It's up to you to follow the measures – to go beyond the strict letter of what's allowed and what isn't. Stop quibbling like provincial lawyers over every clause, and get with the spirit of what we need to do.”

If this fails to achieve sufficient levels of compliance, then: “You know what to do. You know how to stop the spread of this disease. It's now up to you. It's not the government's job to stop everyone catching a cold, albeit a killer cold. There are no more restrictions, do what you like, we are moving on with other business. The responsibility is now yours. And if you swamp the NHS, that's your look-out. I'm sure it will do its best. Good luck.”


WHERE ARE THE SPIN DOCTORS?

Whatever happened to political spin? The government commissioned a report on child hunger and its author, Henry Dimbleby, reported in July. It was mostly welcomed, although some commentators expressed concerns over the costs of implementing it. Since then, amid the chaos of a pandemic, the government has been working on the proposals, which call for mixing activities, exercise and play with food provision during school holidays.

Footballer Marcus Rashford then comes along calling for something similar, having spoken to Dimbleby. Rashford and Boris then talk and there is an announcement of a move towards providing free school meals during the holidays, along with activities. This, in the good old days of spin, would have been presented as a triumph all round: the government has been ahead of the game all along, and Rashford now understands the full picture and is delighted, because we have a better system in the pipeline.

Instead, there was no spin at all, no leadership. And the brave, exciting new world of free school meals is allowed to be presented as a government U-turn. How could this happen?

OCTOBER 31

YOUR TURN TO DECIDE

Right. It's decision day again. You are the government and this time you have three choices: a complete lockdown, something approaching martial law with virtual house arrest for everyone, enforced by soldiers; an end to all restrictions, with your government saying it is no longer its responsibility to prevent people giving each other a cold and from now on it's up to every individual to decide whether they prefer a social life or death for grandma; or continue juggling myriad demands, statistics, accusations, negativity etc in an effort to minimise deaths and minimise damage to people's livelihoods.

And remember, whichever you decide, you lose.

ARROGANCE BEYOND BELIEF

At least Victoria Derbyshire had the nous to apologise for her disgraceful declaration that she would flout lockdown rules so that seven could gather at Christmas. Three or four idiotic Times columnists then announced their support for her the following day, claiming they were “sensible”. Of course, we now know that being “sensible” provides total immunity from the virus, because we can see from the charts just how fast the dim-witted peasants of the north pass it between themselves and how sensible, educated southerners don't.

I cannot recall a more obnoxious, arrogant, hypocritical, irresponsible, witless, simple-minded piece of journalism – and it's competing in a historically strong field. To say “we can have seven because we're sensible” and to justify this by asking why it should be the seventh person at the party that carries the virus is as brainless and tiresome as a tea towel that mocks the rules of cricket by deliberately misunderstanding them. The “comedian” John Bishop recently posted a dull, unfunny and idiotic rant along these lines. These noisy, “I know best”, antisocial dullards are being intellectually outsmarted by a microscopic virus!

IT'S ALL OUR FAULT

Criminal gangs across the Middle East, Asia and Africa promise a life of milk and honey for those who pay to reach England. Their clients knowingly break national and international laws, throwing away documentation and lying about their origins. This feast of criminality culminates in a life-threatening attempt to cross the Channel in order to avoid legal migration routes – for which the migrants know they do not qualify. Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of genuine, desperate refugees admitted to the UK every year are placed in danger of discrimination and worse because of the levels of illegal movement. And of course, this banquet of crime is all our fault.

Some argue that migrants risking their lives to cross the Channel only do so because there are insufficient legal routes into the UK – and that if there were more, the crossings would stop. How naïve can anyone be? Those taking to a small boat to escape France would never qualify for legal migration – that is why they do it. And any system made wide enough to embrace them would, by definition, entitle between a third and all of the world's population, depending upon drafting details. Can anyone seriously argue that we adopt an immigration policy that, in effect, would amount to an abandonment of all immigration policy? And if they do, would they adapt those wise words of Tony Blair to reassure the UK population that only a handful of newly eligible migrants would actually choose to come here?

WATCH EURONEWS

Want to know what's happening in the world – if only to gain some perspective on the UK's efforts to deal with the pandemic? Then watch Euronews. While the BBC continues its mission to interview every disgruntled bar and restaurant owner in the UK*, with all the insight and aplomb of an amateur version The Grocer magazine, Euronews examines the meltdown in Belgium (you hadn't heard?) or the six month state of emergency declared in Spain (you hadn't heard?). It interviews a typically ideological EU commissioner who is completely unable to sway from the principles of free movement, even as member state after member state locks down its people to save lives.

Once you are informed of the horrific state of affairs across Europe, and beyond, the UK's approach starts to look mainstream, unavoidable and, for the time being, moderately and relatively successful. Its success might well be about to change, however. But that's down to not enough of the population being prepared to behave sufficiently responsibly as they suffer from “lockdown fatigue”.

Which brings us back to the question at the top of today's posting. Which of those three options makes most sense in the light of all this?

* The good news is that eventually, the BBC will run out of disgruntled restaurateurs to interview. The bad news is that at its current rate of 19 a day, it will take nearly 12 years to reach all 90,000.

OCTOBER 20 2020

MORE SHAMEFUL 'JOURNALISM'

Another deplorable dive in standards of journalism at The Times. Following its shameful accusation that Boris attended a christening in Italy (completely false, with no apology published), it now accuses Priti Patel of paying £45,000 to “jump the MCC's 20-year queue” for membership. Again, this is a completely false headline on top of a false intro to the story. The truth is that she was invited, as were all candidates on its waiting list, to join immediately as the MCC needed a cash injection to cover £30m of lost revenue this summer. Love her or loath her, atrocious journalism of this kind wrongly and unfairly tarnishes her in the eyes of those who just scan headlines and wins her sympathy in the eyes of those who read the whole story. I don't particularly want to feel sympathetic towards Patel, but crass journalism forces right-thinking people into that position.

WE MUST SELF-FLAGELLATE HARDER!

Other countries are gaining on us – we might lose our spot as the worst country in the world for everything (according to UK media) if we do not accentuate the negative more strongly. And fast. Sweden is changing tack and introducing lockdowns as conditions deteriorate; Belgium is approaching a catastrophe; Italy's hospitals have filled up; and Slovenia has declared a state of emergency. Those are just today's updates from around the world, piled on top of yesterday's and the day before's. But we, obviously, are still the worst country in the world, with the worst and most incompetent government.

But today's Times story about Belgium shows how we can stay ahead in the “most useless” stakes. It reports on Brussels' desperate efforts to stave off a disaster, with little hint of criticism of the government's handling of the planet's worst outbreak. A short final paragraph briefly mentions the whines, moans and complaints of a few whose self-interests are being inconvenienced by the protective measures. Thankfully, coverage of our UK pandemic has so far kept us at the top of the global “losers' league table” by focusing almost exclusively on what only merits an afterthought paragraph in a story about someone else's pandemic. Keep it up, media. Let's hang on to that gold medal for failure.


OCTOBER 16 2020

CARE HOMES

BBC radio news has spent all week interviewing relatives of elderly people in care homes about how awful it is not being able to see them, with the clear implication that this suffering is entirely down to thoughtlessly imposed, heartless and inflexible government regulations. Apart from being utterly pointless – we have spent months hearing the same moans and groans, all of which are bleeding obvious – one key accusation the BBC was trying to make stick is completely wrong. Thank goodness for Kate Terroni, Chief Inspector of Adult Social Care, who was today asked by Mishal Husain to explain why a dying woman was not allowed to be visited by her family. Husain played an emotive recording of an earlier interview. Terroni pointed out that it was NOT government restrictions that prevented visits but the detailed circumstances at each care home. “This will be down to individual care providers doing what they need to do to keep their residents and other residents and staff safe....The home will be making a decision based on their environment, the local risk levels and how they can safely make that happen.” She said homes needed the right workforce to enable visits and they would all be decided on a “personalised approach”. Bizarrely, Husain then said this case of a dying resident should surely be a priority. She didn't say over what it should be given priority.

It was a surprising blunder. But perhaps Husain hadn't heard a World At One interview this week on the same subject that mentioned that a nearby care home to the one under discussion had been able, because of its facilities etc, to allow family visits.

A GOOD POINT, GRAYSON

Having just watched Grayson Perry's rather sketchy and slightly disappointing Big American Road Trip (I expect a lot from Perry), I am left with one pertinent message, which I discussed in The Rise of Antisocialism. The first concerns the stranglehold the “liberal elite” holds over society – oh, how the American liberals hate that label! What it means is that an outsider such as Trump is pushing at an open door when society's disadvantaged at last notice that the meritocracy they were promised has become hereditary, the successful ensuring the path of advantage and privilege is clear for their next generation. As Perry pointed out, the American dream is not available to all. And as he had already pointed out in the UK context, opportunity here is not available to all, either. In both cultures, the left-leaning have become the driving force of the “liberal elite”, holding fast to an exclusivity they are not prepared to surrender. It means that good, well-meaning people build barriers, always failing to see that they themselves are the problem – the very creators of the Trump, Boris backlash.

● I hope that those who refused to accept the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum and who fought tooth and nail and used every trick in the political book to block progress on the UK's departure from the EU are satisfied. We are now heading for the very no-deal exit that the likes of Keir Starmer, David Gauke, Ken Clarke, John Bercow and many more went to extreme lengths to prevent. As I pointed out in my book, and Grayson Perry affirmed in his TV programme, the “liberal elite” brought this upon themselves – and the rest of us – by failing to listen to the ignored majority and clinging too tightly to what they have.


BUT THAT'S NONSENSE, MATTHEW

Unfortunately, Matthew Parris, former MP and Times columnist, has failed to make a decent point for quite some time now. His latest nonsense concerns notions of trust, with him claiming that in countries where the government is trusted – Sweden, Germany, South Korea, for example – have handled the pandemic better. Of course, there are myriad reasons for the various virus statistics and this “trust” concept is a valid one. But there are two aspects to Parris's blundering: first, he assumes that everyone holds the same opinion of the government as he does; and second, he mistakes “lack of trust” for individualism in the countries he says have fared badly, such as the US and Britain. A culture built around self-interest, greed, meaningless consumption, individual rights and an erosion of personal responsibility (no one tells US what to do), as exists in the UK, is bound to struggle with social cohesion when it is required. Furthermore, living in a “liberal elite” bubble gives Parris the false impression that the entire country shares his blind hatred of Boris and that the daily undermining of the official message by a “liberal elite” media convinces the entire population that every single decision the government makes is disastrously wrong. In reality, there is a much greater acceptance of the need for restrictions and the impossibility of achieving a perfect balance between health and finance – there is not a hope of pleasing everyone and all of us have our criticisms. But overall, I get a sense that a majority understands the dilemma. Parris will not share this sense, sitting inside his bubble.

NHS EXPERTISE

To the umpteen numpties who try to claim the NHS Track and Trace system is not an NHS system and that it's provided by well-heeled mates of the cabinet – it is as much an NHS system as countless other outsourced health functions and facilities. Like it not (and as it happens, I generally don't), this is how the NHS draws on external expertise and resources. Most obviously, when it comes to track and trace technology, the NHS is not an IT company.

More subtly, the day surgery hospital in Cobham that I have visited several times is part of Epsomedical, an independent hospitals group, yet is also very much part of the seamless overall NHS provision. This is how the health service has been expanded for several decades, since the Private Finance Initiative scheme was set up by John Major and enthusiastically adopted by Gordon Brown.

MORE AKA ROWLING...

I have now finished JK's latest Strike novel (written under the name of Robert Galbraith) – all 900-plus pages. I said earlier I would report on how I found it. And I enjoyed it. It is rare example of a TV series or movie not spoiling the book. Having fully developed and very accurate characterisations, as depicted by the actors in the Strike series, especially the adorable Robin Ellacott (made so on TV by Holliday Grainger), brought the narrative to life beautifully clearly. But poor old JK, already being willed dead by those who deem her views on gender transitioning to be evil, took quite a hammering for including a figure who dressed in women's clothes. One reviewer dismissed this as a minor character who used a wig and coat as a disguise. This is not quite true, as the man is a significant underlying feature and his dressing up did have a sexual element.

Is this of any relevance to Rowling's trans views? Absolutely not. The dominant tone is of misandry: her male characters, apart from Strike, are either bit players or shallow, vicious, dangerous, unreliable, selfish and thoughtless – even Strike has these last three attributes. Many are driven by unusual sexual thoughts and desires. Perhaps this means they are not so unusual. But either way, there is little to condemn throughout the book. Even its length is acceptable, given the plethora of sub-plots, back stories and complex relationships. It's not great literature but it gallops along and engages the reader.

 

SEPTEMBER 29 2020

HOW DID HE KNOW?

A book written last year predicted a pressing need for us to re-evaluate the worth of work and jobs. Given that a job is currently the primary entry ticket to a degree of comfort and participation in society, making it all but compulsory, there must be jobs for all. And given that much “work” is pointless, worthless and in many cases positively polluting and destructive, this seems deeply damaging and disturbing. Surely it would be far better for all concerned if work was reduced to achieving what is deemed necessary and jobs were distributed accordingly. Everyone would do far less “work” and have time for “happiness” and the level of creativity and satisfaction many perceptive people felt during the lockdown period. A universal income, about which I am growing increasingly positive, would meet all needs.

OK, I said in my book that such a re-evaluation would be necessitated by climate change – as indeed remains the case. But a global pandemic has raised precisely the issues I dealt with in “The Rise of Antisocialism” much sooner than even I could have dreamt.

And yes, fair enough, this is a Utopian vision of a plastic-free, sustainable, fulfilled communitarian population, with a universal income magicked up in a society that has eradicated economic “growth” and consumption as its sole aims. Not something anyone could achieve overnight. But a first step along the way might be to tailor rewards so that they match the value they provide to us all. Those prepared to perform priceless tasks, such as in the broad care sector, or in providing many other essential services (about which we have heard much lately, for the very first time in history), would be rewarded generously; those choosing more free time or working purely for themselves, as in swathes of the financial services sector, gambling, making plastic toys, the list goes on, would receive levels of remuneration more familiar to today's “essential” workers.

Either way, something along these lines is going to happen. But I expect we will choose to cling to what we have and only build change the hard way. As, indeed, is predicted in the book.

WAVING WHILE DROWNING

A football club boss was interviewed yesterday. They said their lower league team was an important feature of local life. I don't dispute that, even though only a few hundred turn out each week to watch in person. What I couldn't stomach was the pathetic demand that “someone has to save us”. Many sectors and many people are affected by pandemic measures, but football cannot be a top priority. It is awash with cash, for a start. What is most disturbing, though, is this common attitude that pandemic restrictions are “being done to us” and that because of this there is no responsibility on the part of those affected to seek their own solutions or adaptations; it is OK just to demand bail-outs, exemptions, etc. These measures are not being “done to us”, they are in place to reduce the death count – now close to one million globally; they are for our good. It is time organisations, such as theatres, universities, football clubs, and countless others, began looking to their own resources for creative solutions – necessity is the mother of invention and progress. Let us take advantage of this jolt to a self-absorbed and stagnant system and work out how to cope without forever having to wave for help when drowning. Let us learn to swim, instead.


SEPTEMBER 28 2020

PLANNING DISGRACE

I can forgive a shambles in a crisis – every government has appeared shambolic in the past six months, ours no more so than most others. But we cannot forgive the disgraceful proposed changes to planning rules that will devastate swathes of the country and our communities for ever.

EXTINGUISHING SLAVERY

When we've finished re-writing history and “ghosting” so many people of note who helped shape, through good or evil, our society, perhaps we might raise our sights and notice that this pandemic of virtue signalling has changed nothing in the not-quite-so-ghastly-but-still-pretty-bad here and now. But at least we will have a pristine history – as if slavery never happened.

AKA ROWLING

I must make a small correction to an item posted on September 20 regarding “Robert Galbraith's” new Strike novel. I have now read just over 300 pages and find, contrary to the newspaper review I relied upon, the controversial cross-dressing character, while not being involved in the action, is referred to as having experienced sexual pleasure from voyeurism and dressing as a woman. This amounts to rather more than a “disguise”. However, it is interesting that JK includes a serial killer who uses the pretence of being a woman to become a threat to women. More comment when I have read more.

PARLIAMENT? REALLY?

So Parliament is demanding a say over the emergency Covid restrictions. On the face of it, this seems as sensible as assembling a 650-strong committee, riven with fundamental disagreements, to debate and sanction, if they ever got round to it, every wartime military assault – or an EU exit agreement. If its distinguished recent record of problem-solving – which led directly and inexorably to a protracted, debilitating Brexit wrangle and the election of a Boris government – is our guide, then Parliament will surely have the pandemic under control by Christmas.

SEPTEMBER 24 2020

I asked in August why the virus was less of a concern: was it because “the most vulnerable have already lost their lives; treatments are now more effective; people at risk are being shielded better by distancing measures; younger people are being infected; levels of immunity are higher; the virus itself is mutating into a less lethal form; and more”.

Or was it just that it was summer?

Worryingly, as infections and deaths continue to rise, the fact that few people catch colds in the summer seems to be an increasingly significant factor. It was obvious then that schools and workplaces needed to re-open but that this would be a dangerous moment. It would be a stop-go ride of constant policy adjustments to minimise both infection rates and economic devastation. We should have been steeling ourselves for this tightrope walk.

But even more worryingly, as we see other countries' ever-more severe measures having little effect on the virus, it could be that the summer lull was just that – all down to summer, rather than the lockdown measures. Now we have hit the cold and flu season, we could be about to find out.


SEPTEMBER 24 2020

I watched a woman leap out of her car and dash into Boots this morning. She had no mask and merely dragged her T-shirt up over her mouth, having to hold it in place. She had also parked in a space reserved for disabled people. I should have remonstrated but was too far away and she was in the shop quickly. Had I said anything I am virtually certain she would have responded with abuse, along the lines of: “Mind your own ******* business. What's it got to do with you. I can park where I like. Etc Etc.”

I was similarly reticent about challenging the crowds gathered on Claygate Recreation ground on a sunny Saturday in April, with the rest of the country in lockdown and only venturing out for their hour-long daily walk. Close contact football was in progress, large groups picnicking, social distancing ignored. I said out loud at the time that perhaps these people would behave differently once their family members began falling ill or losing their jobs because we had failed to control the virus.

We all saw with our own eyes and on television news how so many people did not feel the rules applied to them – the beaches, parks, public transport, marches, raves. Many more gatherings were known to have taken place out of sight of the cameras. We even hear of hospital patients sneaking out of the building to meet visitors in the car park.

Add to this the constant barrage of moaning and whingeing about every minor inconvenience reported on TV, radio and in newspapers and it raises the question as to quite what people expected during a global emergency and what they would have done about it, had they been in charge. More fundamentally, why is such a wedge of the population so negative and so desperate to blame the government, the civil service, scientists etc for absolutely everything unpleasant, such as care home deaths or job losses, and give no credit for any successes, such as the furlough scheme and finding a speedy solution to the PPE shortages?

Again, it all comes back to what my book calls the forces of Antisocialism: an individualistic, hyper-libertarian, self-absorbed, “I know my rights” consumer culture. A society run on purely business principles undermines feelings of mutual responsibility, of community. Individuals exist to consume, economic “growth” becomes a meaningless end in itself and, of relevance in answering the question I posed, shifts the balance between responsibilities and rights towards individual rights. These trends are subtle and far from universal, of course. But aggregated together they re-shape the way attitudes form, alter the societal discourse, greatly reduce self-discipline, and have real and visible everyday effects, such as the disgraceful behaviour of the Boots visitor.

It means that when discipline is required, there is too little – shaming and community self-policing have been weakened by the fear of abuse, and self-discipline has become overwhelmed by the need to self-express, consume and exercise personal rights and freedoms. Just as in the school classroom, when pupils' self-discipline declines, the teacher steps in to impose it. In the case of a national response to a global emergency, the government has to step in to apply discipline where there is too little. An individualistic, fragmented society even has to “consume” discipline and responsibility.

The resentment that this brings can turn quickly into blind hatred: a people nurtured by business principles and consumption into enjoying rights without concomitant responsibilities can never consider itself at fault. When fewer individuals are prepared to take personal responsibility for their actions, that responsibility becomes deflected on to those “in charge”, who can do nothing right.

The UK was lucky during the first phase of lockdown – just enough people were prepared to behave just responsibly enough to avert a catastrophic level of deaths in the hundreds of thousands. However, the relatively mild restrictions and the even milder enforcement did leave tens of thousands of deaths in its wake. This was a balance the decision-makers had to strike between the risks of infection and “unacceptable” curbs on individual freedoms.

Other countries were more, or less, lucky. The US, for example, a world leader in individualism, self-absorption and consumption, refused to curtail personal rights and freedoms – and the death toll rose when so many chose their rights over societal responsibilities. On the other hand, in Germany, Sweden, South Korea and several dictatorial states, discipline and responsible behaviour are either more deeply ingrained or imposed from without, leading to greater compliance with regulations and a more considerate approach to others.

Again, these differences are small and not universal but they are enough to make a difference. Also, it must be added that Sweden's approach is beginning to look misguided. In spite of its manifest natural advantages – a huge land mass, small population, low population density and a responsible society – its hoped-for herd immunity policy is falling apart. Many have lauded Sweden for limiting curbs and relying on its self-disciplined people to defeat the virus – and when compared with the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium etc, its record is not too far out of line. But when compared with its neighbours, such as Norway and Finland, who enjoy the same natural advantages, its performance is disastrous.

Clearly, leadership priorities and decisions make a profound difference to outcomes. But leaders' choices must be, and indeed have been, informed by the nature of society and the culture they are seeking to persuade. In the UK, those decisions meant a light lockdown, lightly enforced, with a relatively high degree of non-compliance from individuals prepared to say: “It's OK if I do it” or “I can't seen anything wrong with it. What we're doing is fine.” The US was even worse. But where such attitudes are less prevalent, death tolls have been demonstrably lower.

And back to that fundamental question of blame: when bad things happen, we now look for someone else to blame. As I am clearly not responsible, then it must be the government. Superimpose this on to a country already deeply scarred and soured by Brexit, and blind hatred is only one step away.

SEPTEMBER 22 2020

Can publishing an article based on an unfounded, unchecked and categorically denied rumour be called “journalism”? As a career-long journalist, all of it spent working for organisations with the highest levels of integrity, I would say it clearly cannot. Yesterday's Times newspaper and website accused Boris Johnson of travelling to Perugia in Italy for the baptism of his baby son. This was based on a false rumour, was published in spite of a firm denial that was buried towards the end of the story, and ran under a headline declaring as fact that he had indeed visited Italy – with the accusation tucked between quotation marks. This is utterly despicable: sloppy and unprofessional behaviour from the reporter who failed to bother to check the facts; cowardly and misleading from the headline writer who pretended that quotation marks made it “accurate”.

Quotations marks were banned from headlines at the Financial Times and I hope they still are. They allow any cheap accusation to be given unwarranted prominence and gravitas, as in this case. If I rang The Times news desk claiming to have seen Boris Johnson mingling with eight other people on Claygate Recreation ground, by its own standards it would publish the allegation under the headline “PM 'mingles with eight on Claygate Rec'” despite an official denial and zero evidence.

Its follow-up story today contains neither correction nor apology – just an explanation that its “source” confused Johnson with Tony Blair. Absolutely pitiful and disgraceful. If this is modern “serious” newspaper journalism, I am so glad I am no longer part of it.

Broadcasters are no better, sadly. This morning on the BBC's lousy Today programme, Mishal Husein harangued – there is no lesser word for it – Michael Gove throughout an “interview”. Again, it hardly qualifies as journalism when an interviewer ignores the interviewee, ceases to ask questions, misinterprets and distorts what she is told, and loudly states her own views as if they were facts opposed to the interviewee's deception. Never one to hold back her own opinions – see her endorsement of plastic lawns, below – Husein at least failed to provoke what would have been a justified meltdown by Gove, who remained calm and polite in the face of the onslaught.

I know we live in an age of simplistic binary absolutes: JK Rowling and Janice Turner are witches; Cummings is the devil; failing to “take the BLM knee” to signal your virtue is a crime; “they should all be sent home”; Brexit is heinous; Brexit will save us; Boris is trying to kill us all; Boris is trying to wreck the economy. Minds are made up and the hated opposition camp can do nothing right.

If you hate Boris or Gove for whatever reason – and there are many possibilities here – there is nothing that they or their government can do that's right. Everything is black and white – when plainly it is not. I dislike Boris and Gove but do not hate them. I want them to be assessed fairly: there is no way blind hatred can achieve this.

SEPTEMBER 20 2020

Now that we are all so expert in dealing with a global coronavirus pandemic, we should have no trouble in finding, right now, the answer to this simple dilemma. You have to decide whether to close pubs and restaurants to reduce the spread of the virus and the deaths that are likely to follow, or to allow them to remain open to lessen the risk of mass hospitality closures and the resulting widespread unemployment.

Bear in mind when making your decision that whichever path you choose, you will be held fully culpable for every death or job loss while being awarded zero credit for any lives or jobs you save. You must remember that it is not possible to make a “right” or satisfactory choice and that when the reckoning comes, you will be hanged for your failings. You might prefer a middle route, a compromise – but then you will be hanged for both deaths and job losses. Now go ahead and decide.

SEPTEMBER 20 2020

If Boris Johnson deserves a bashing for one thing, it is his idiotic statement attributing great intelligence to the British people. He is undoubtedly correct in the majority of cases, but a minority consisting of the brainless and clueless drags the average way way down.

A prime example is reported this morning in the Sunday Times. In her new book, JK Rowling, writing under her male pseudonym, has included a character, described as “minor”, who disguises himself as a woman with a wig and coat in order to commit a crime. I have not read this bloated book of more than 900 pages but I take the newspaper's outline of the “offending” action as accurate, along with its affirmation that the word “transvestite” does not appear. Indeed, it would not be relevant as what is described is clearly not transvestism.

For this, Rowling is inundated with death threats and one-star reviews on Amazon, claiming this book confirms her dubiously alleged transphobia. These “reviewers”, admitting they have not read the book and blinded by their irrational hatred, are dragging the average intelligence of the nation into negative territory. Failing to understand the difference between transgender and transvestite shows ignorance enough; but then failing to understand the difference between transvestism and a disguise shows that we really are dealing with people who have fallen off the intelligence scale altogether.

And another brief example. A hospital in north-east England does not allow visitors, for obvious reasons. This, we are told, has prompted patients to meet visitors surreptitiously in the car park. So much for a responsible, intelligent, compliant population.

SEPTEMBER 19 2020

We have just finished a relaxing lunch with very lovely friends. Just the four of us, outdoors. And, as always, discussion with intelligent and interesting people provided a fresh insight into my own thoughts about the handling of the pandemic in the UK.

Being as far distant from thinking like a Conservative as it is possible to get, I have long felt uneasy at appearing to support the government's actions. But it was only yesterday that I recognised the subtle and nuanced difference between supporting the government and being angered by the constant hostility, negativity and partiality of the coverage of events.

While I have strong opinions, as expressed in the book, I have tried not to let my natural antipathy towards a Tory government cloud my judgment of what it does. And I believe it is the impartiality and objectivity garnered during a working lifetime as a highly principled journalist that makes me object so strongly to current media behaviour and standards. We are not witnessing fair, balanced or objective reporting – and that is what I am reacting to, rather than positively backing the government, even though that turns out to be the apparent corollary.

Sadly, therefore, it leads to the false impression that I do favour this government. Overall, I do not. But in its handling of the pandemic crisis it has been far from all bad: Rishi Sunak's financial and fiscal interventions, Matt Hancock's PPE solutions, the rapid establishment of the Nightingale hospitals (please don't say “but they weren't needed”), the measured reawakening of society, the creation of one of the largest testing capacities in Europe, the lack of soldiers on the streets (as seen in several European countries), the lack of lockdown protests or riots (as seen in other European countries), and the continuation of much of the economy. And while 41,000 or 65,000 deaths, or however many you wish to make it, is tragic (would 20,000 have been more acceptable?), there were serious scientific predictions early on of the possibility of a quarter of a million people dying, or half a million, or more. This greater tragedy was averted; no one who required urgent hospital treatment was denied it. Furthermore, while the government carries the can for every single piece of PPE that is not in the right place at the right time, there is an army of civil servants, advisers, experts, scientists, global bodies, committees and more that contributes to the decision-making and implementation process that we call “government”. Castigating these hard-working, dedicated personnel by association – because that is how they see it – is unfair and demoralising.

None of this makes news, of course. Yet, as pointed out below, anyone with a grievance is lined up to be interviewed, giving the impression of perpetual failure and chaos. For example, the BBC, over the August bank holiday weekend, sent a reporter to Redcar to meet its poorest citizens, struggling to survive in a post-viral economy. This was a deplorable and unforgivable piece of work. Redcar is a deprived town in a deprived region: it is little different now to how it was five years ago, or a decade ago. Where were the cameras then? Was the plight of a man only able to find a job offering a zero hours “contract” much different now to how it has been for years? The report tried to make out that it was, saying he could “get by” before but now there was no work at all. With support from the community, he was still just “getting by” – and was still a million miles from a decent, comfortable life, precisely as he had been before. This amounts to a despicable abuse of those living in poverty in order to paint a picture of government failure and neglect. It is, in fact, a picture of long-term failure and neglect stretching back decades – one that media organisations have abjectly failed to cover, along with its repercussions and outcomes.

This was just one outrageous example of biased and unfair coverage. And it is this that makes me angry. Of course the government has made blunders – members from the Prime Minister down are the first to acknowledge that: Boris has admitted mistakes, Hancock talks of learning day by day, and so on. And of course we all wish things could have been “better”. But given the UK's geography, its population density, the presence of a world city and its vital global links, the increasingly individualistic nature of its people, and its culture and history, I have found very little to be surprising in the decision-making and the outcomes of the past few months. The timing of the lockdown, the struggle for PPE, the number of deaths, the testing regime's shortcomings – these are all so unsurprising in the appalling circumstances that they might barely rate as news at all. But each and every deficiency is hailed as another failure, or a shambles, piling on the negativity and gloom – which itself is dangerous and damaging. Constant negativity, with no credit whatsoever for any achievements, helps sour the national mood, breeds dissension and unrest, and leads a swathe of the population to abide by rules of its own making. When official messages become so undermined it creates new dangers.

In truth, we know that no government could have coped with such a sudden crisis. Hardly any government around the world has fared much better – and those with apparently “better” outcomes are very different, either in geography or culture. Would Britons have tolerated being boarded up in their own homes? Controlling a pandemic is certainly easier with a dictatorial regime or with a population density less than 10 times that of the UK. Meanwhile, almost every similar country has experienced almost identical results.

None of this makes me a supporter of the government – just someone who does not believe that things could, in context and at the time, have been done radically differently, or if they had been that it would have made much difference. But as our friends said, the government is the government and it is responsible. I just feel it is being condemned simply for having had such an impossibly toxic parcel dumped in its lap at the moment the music stopped. And that looks, from an objective standpoint, very unfair.

SEPTEMBER 16 2020

IT'S NOT JUST US!

On last night's TV news, three items focused on the global pandemic. The first said that the Netherlands had witnessed its highest number of infections since April, pushing its testing regime to the limit. The second reported that public health systems around the world had been set back by a quarter of a century. The third dived into a row over the Tour de France, which the French government is apparently using to bolster public confidence, while critics call it irresponsible as the number of daily new infections passes 10,000.

This was Al Jazeera news.

Meanwhile on UK TV and radio, we listen to a long interview with a man who had his knee operation postponed because of lost test paperwork (has he never used the NHS before? This happens ALL the time). We hear another lengthy anecdote about a man complaining his business as a children's entertainer is ruined, before he admits he is reasonably comfortably off thanks to a pension and a partner with a good job. Any returning holidaymaker prepared to moan and whine about having to rush back or quarantine is given endless airtime without ever being asked when they booked their jaunt – the crucial question. And at lunchtime today – an interminable interview with a deaf woman that basically said nothing more than “cloth masks are not see-through”.

Some of these individual tales of woe might be worth a mention if providing a “human interest” example of a trend, scandal or state of affairs. On their own they are meaningless, worthless, irrelevant. And yet they make up the bulk of what now passes for news. Anyone bored or annoyed by this constant self-flagellation, notably from what is supposed to be the nation's primary public service broadcaster*, might give Al Jazeera a try. OK, it has a small bias towards news from the Middle East but it absolutely puts our relatively petty travails into perspective.

A little perspective would show, as reported in The Times today, that in the case of virus testing, Germany's capacity is lower than the UK's (1.4m per week versus more than 2m) and that there have been "long queues". In Belgium, tests cost 46 euros. In the Netherlands, test centres "have been swamped". In France there is a "long waiting time", with appointments taking about a week. Labs in Madrid are "overwhelmed", with delays of up to 15 days. It's not just us.  

* Wouldn't it be marvellous if we had a public sector broadcaster that, in a time of worldwide crisis and lethal danger to citizens, could present clearly all official information and instructions to the population; maintain national morale and unity; and enhance the UK's reputation abroad. Instead, we have one that deliberately undermines and confuses vital messages to the public; seeks to create a climate of fear, division and hopelessness; and happily subverts our global standing – when virtually every other similar country is experiencing exactly the same stresses.     

AUGUST 21 2020

I'm afraid we have to revisit that Northampton sandwich factory – with apologies to those who found last week's “debate” boring, confusing, frightening or distressing in any way. But news just keeps surfacing about how poorly this business treats its decent, conscientious and industrious employees. We simply have to keep speaking up for them.

The plant is now closed, heaping further pain on its impoverished production line staff. During the week, we learned that the company had furloughed hundreds of its workers on minimum wage without topping up the government's 80 per cent contribution; many of those poorly paid employees, forced to self isolate after testing positive for the virus, had no company sickness benefits and were having to survive on £95.85 a week statutory sick pay; worker representatives reported that staff were resorting to food banks. We also heard of an employee being sacked for sharing a car journey when one of them was infected – it was wrong, yes, but also understandable in the circumstances. Previously it had been reported that the business had failed to tell its manual workers that a manager had tested positive for the virus, and that it had hired agency workers when demand increased instead of bringing some of its own employees back from furlough.

Is all this good enough? Is this how hard-working people should be treated in a rich country?

The tragedy is that such conditions of employment are now commonplace, as the rights and protections of employees have been systematically destroyed and undermined over the past 40 years. And real people are paying for it – in some cases with their lives: the six workers on a dangerous building site, the exhausted zero-hours tram driver, the motorcycle courier driven to suicide (see case studies in my book for more details).

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on how Britain's largely defenceless workers are treated and while the Northampton plant is certainly not the worst of offenders, it does highlight how low standards have sunk across the board, even in what might be thought of as mainstream employment.

One Northampton employee who spoke to the Chronicle & Echo, the local paper, was concerned about how seriously managers were taking social distancing measures. She told the paper: “It’s just very stressful. I hate it. Managers rarely ever treat us with respect and we never get to finish on time. Honestly, most days you leave with your backs hurting until you can’t stand, and you never get a thank you. They only pay around £90 a week for sick pay, even if you’re in self-isolation, so that's why there's so many cases, but no one wants to admit anything. I only continue to work here because I have nowhere else.”

The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union has filed a collective grievance against the sandwich company on the grounds of the current sick pay injustice, saying managers enjoy company sick pay. The union’s regional president is reported locally as saying: “When people have been testing positive for the disease, they are then thrown to the wolves...This is a disgrace and totally unacceptable.”

The union is campaigning for better conditions in the sector: “Low pay, inconsistent shifts and bad management are too widespread in the food industry and allied trades. In alliance with the inspiring and successful food worker campaigns in the US, we are calling for a £10 an hour minimum wage. Join our TUC backed campaign here.”

Other organisations have complained that a public health leader has become an apologist for the company by shifting the blame for the rise in infections on to the powerless workers. A campaigning organisation, Save Our Services Northants, has accused Lucy Wightman, Northamptonshire's director of public health, of blaming staff by saying their irresponsible behaviour outside work – car sharing, living together, for example – was the main cause. Its statement read: “Unlike the many poorly paid workers in Northampton’s low waged economy it may come as news to the Director of Public Health that a large number of workers cannot afford their own cars or houses and would most probably face disciplinary measures, for endangering food output, if they were late to work or miss shifts because of transport difficulties. Many [of these] workers operate in cold temperatures and work on lines of food, close together. For the Director of Public Health to say the company has been meticulous and exceeded the Covid safety requirements begs the question of how can that be with such a major outbreak.”

Sally Keeble, former Northampton Labour MP, added that having 15 per cent of a workforce test positive was “appalling”. “The information should have been made public earlier [Ms Wightman is reported to have said she had “not considered the public would be interested”] with a full explanation of actions to support the workers, including with their transport to and from work. Transparency is key for public accountability and trust. It's wrong to blame the victims of the pandemic. These are some of the most vulnerable groups of workers and any public or occupational health strategy has to respond to the realities of their lives. Sadly this often means zero hours contracts with limited rights to sick pay, lack of affordable, safe transport and inadequate, overcrowded housing. Covid-19 exploits the inequalities in our society, as we've seen in Leicester as well as Northampton.”

These are the stark realities of working life in the 21st century. Low-paid jobs have become widespread and increasingly precarious, with employers paying as little as they can, zero-hours “contracts”, flouting of minimum wage and health and safety rules, antisocial hours with no compensation, no security, no sick pay, no holiday pay, even having the employer “look after” your passport in the case of some migrant workers. The list goes on.

The one small saving grace in the Northampton case is that a union is speaking up for the otherwise powerless staff. In many similar workplaces there is no one to speak for the workers. That is why we all should.


AUGUST 20 2020

Is it time for a new pandemic strategy? What does it now mean to be infected with Covid-19? Infections are still occurring but hospitalisations and deaths continue to fall. The reasons for this need to be examined urgently and there are many possible answers: the most vulnerable have already lost their lives; treatments are now more effective; people at risk are being shielded better by distancing measures and receiving lower "doses"; younger people are being infected; levels of immunity are higher; the virus itself is mutating into a less lethal form; and more.

If all the current restrictions are doing is trying to prevent people catching what, in most cases, is a nasty cold, then we need to change tack, as quickly as is safe.

I have been largely supportive of the government's measures which, given the UK's population distribution, demographics, cultural and economic drivers and other factors, have been broadly “successful” in their aims of avoiding an NHS collapse, minimising the number of deaths and maintaining some economic stability.

We now have many businesses working, roads full of traffic, retail sales bouncing back, pubs in operation, etc. And we have seen surprisingly little damage done by large protests and crowded public spaces, such as beaches. Yet hospitalisations and deaths are, thank goodness, still in decline.

A big test will come once the schools return in a week or two. If the key figures are still where they are by the middle of October then the case for a new approach will be overwhelming. Adopting the Swedish model as a first step would be a cautious and sensible way forward – allowing most activities to return to “normality” while shielding care homes and the vulnerable. This could allow at-risk individuals to decide for themselves whether to see their loved ones or not.

Should this not trigger a disaster, the crisis could be declared pretty much over – for most of the population. There's always the chance it could backfire, of course,  especially as we head into the season of colds and flu. Proceeding carefully, step-by-step, is therefore vital.

AUGUST 17 2020

Quite a lesson in the need for precise language and terms of reference was dished out to me by an old school friend and a cousin last weekend.

Referring to a potentially disastrous coronavirus outbreak at a sandwich factory in Northampton, I pointed out on Facebook that I had mentioned this very business in my book, saying that, having read its job “advertisements”, it was not a place you would want to send a dog to work, thus explaining its lack of local applicants. To anyone familiar with the book, this is clearly a condemnation of the company, not its employees or the nature of their work. The wider point was that workplaces with miserable conditions of employment, where workers are treated badly – Leicester garment factories,"labour camp" factory farms, poorly run food plants among them – are prone to spikes of Covid-19 cases for a variety of reasons. Pretty uncontroversial you might think. 

But I had not allowed for the fact that anyone unfamiliar with the book's arguments could construe this as sounding “patronising” or “lofty”, an accusation my old friend Megan was quick to make. It was my fault for being unclear in my out-of-context social media snippet. To me it was a continuation of the discussion in the book; to anyone approaching it afresh, it could indeed be interpreted as being demeaning and degrading of the actual work being carried out at the factory, or worse, the people carrying it out. This, of course, is the opposite of its actual meaning.

The ensuing debate carried us from migrant workers, to building sites, voluntary work and along a number of irrelevant blind alleys, as such arguments always do. It only struck me later, when reading further revelations about the sandwich factory – furloughing 600 workers on minimum wage and not topping up the government's 80 per cent contribution; offering no company sick pay to its poorly paid workers so they have to survive on £95 a week statutory benefits while being forced to self isolate after testing positive for the virus – that we were arguing from two completely different premises. I am certain that neither of my critics meant to suggest they were happy with, or supportive of, the onerous conditions imposed on the factory staff, and I did not accuse them of it, even though it was one legitimate interpretation. Instead, I admitted that my lack of clarity in the social media post was the initial cause. Megan, and to a lesser extent my cousin, Helen, who had read the book and understood what I meant even if she didn't agree with all of it, took me to task for insulting the work itself, or even the workers, whereas my entire point concerned only the conditions of their employment – what I call the jobs.

All we could do at the time was agree to disagree, yet I think if I had realised then that our dispute hinged on different interpretations of what is meant by “jobs” – work, on the one hand, conditions of employment on the other – then agreement might have followed. Or maybe not. Megan has been beating me up, on and off and often (I hope) without knowing it, since we were 11 or 12, so who knows?

But in addition to the valuable and possibly inadvertent resilience training she meted out at school, I now have another reason to be grateful to her – for highlighting the importance of clarity in every sentence and in every context. No one reading my book (Megan hadn't), or who knows my views, could ever think I would hold an opinion that in any way belittled working people or the work they do. Making sandwiches, pies, riding as a motorcycle courier, building and its associated trades, gardening, care work, working in a nail bar, driving a tram, bar work, picking crops, washing cars, etc, etc, etc – these are all valuable forms of work, some essential, others providing a great and positive contribution to society. Those carrying out this work are almost universally decent, conscientious and industrious.

The tragedy, as my book maintains, is that the free rein given to business principles for the past 40 years also means that far too many people employed in such valuable occupations are vulnerable to exploitation in varying degrees – some so badly they lose their lives: the six workers on a dangerous building site, the exhausted zero-hours tram driver, the motorcycle courier driven to suicide. They will be paid as little as an employer can get away with, and the terms of the job usually range from disgusting to poor. I have studied a number, and they can be truly shocking. Zero-hours “contracts”, flouting of minimum wage and health and safety rules, antisocial hours (with which I am VERY familiar) with no compensation, no security, no sick pay, no holiday pay, having the employer “look after” your passport in the case of some migrant workers. The list goes on. Since 1980, the rights and protections of employees have been systematically destroyed and undermined and real people are paying for it – in some cases with their lives.

It is almost certainly true that smart employees will find a way to make their time at work as pleasant as they can, no matter how badly they are treated. But my argument is that fulfilling, rewarding, well-paid and enjoyable work should be the norm and that employers failing to provide it should shut up shop and make way for those that can. There is obviously a host of economic, financial, social and cultural issues surrounding how this should be achieved. There are ideas about it in the first edition of my book and will be more and better ones in the second edition.

I haven't dared to re-open the subject with Megan and Helen but I think it likely that had I been crystalclear in my meaning from the outset, as I have tried to be here, then we would have found very little scope for disagreement. I hope.

AUGUST 6 2020

So what's wrong today?

1. Universities. They have been very vocal in moaning about their financial dip, caused by a potentially reduced number of foreign students interested in studying in the UK (who in turn are perhaps swayed by the media's portrayal of Britain as a place of constant negativity, failure and blundering). They have had far less to say about their students – the paying customers – who have had an appalling deal this year, as they have most years, in fact. But then, turn a sector from a service to a business and its interests focus very narrowly on one thing – money.

2. Testing. We were tested. Our family of four spent a happy 15 minutes in the car park at Chessington World of Adventures queuing for the “administered” version of the test. Not having had one before, we wanted to be sure it was carried out properly. Our details were folded into four pouches that were tucked under our windscreen wipers in formation. The car behind, with two pouches under its wiper blades, boasted fancy “rain-sensing” wipers. A few spots of moisture in the air were enough to trigger its automated screen clearing, leaving their pouches a crumpled mess in the corner of their window. In addition to this moment of joy, the staff were charming and efficient, the process simple and quick, and our results were with us less than 18 hours later. This is the sort of anecdote – well, regular practice – that appears to be of no interest to the media, especially the BBC, which uses anecdotes only to create a mood of failure and incompetence.

3. More BBC. Nick Triggle, the Beeb's health correspondent, wrote a thoughtful, intelligent feature headlined: “Coronavirus: Is the UK in a better position than we think?”. This article was so starkly out of line with every other report the BBC has produced for the past few months that I'm still not convinced it's genuine. It has to be a spoof. Yet the BBC does have a health correspondent called Nick Triggle and the piece is displayed on the BBC website. How can it have slipped through the censor's net?

4. The Times. It's main cartoons are appalling at the best of times – crassly drawn, completely unamusing, biased and intellectually idiotic. Today's, for example, mocking the UK's lack of a “test and trace app”, is typical. It appears just a few pages after a round-up of how other countries' apps are working that shows no one has in the world has made much more progress than us.

5. The Times again. The newspaper is STILL running a small chart every day showing the number of daily reported coronavirus-related deaths. And STILL it hasn't realised how utterly useless to the reader this data is. The only useful comparison is with the number from the same day of the previous week. Yet since the start of the outbreak The Times has published a seven-day chart. It's utterly pointless. How come, in all this time, no one working on the paper has pointed out how stupid this is and ensured it is corrected.

6. The Times – one last time. Today, it ran a story about a pedestrian being run over. It was a mildly complicated plot, involving two cars and people running away, but the paper managed to make it completely unintelligible and incomprehensible. Do reporters no longer attend training courses of the type once run by Hallam College in Sheffield, where us trainee journalists were given exercises and mock interviews, all aimed at teaching us how to explain a story without leaving the reader baffled and with a host of queries?


The key question no one seems to be asking...

Coronavirus infections are on the rise again - possibly. Human contact is certainly on the rise, at protests, on beaches, in pubs and restaurants, shops, gardens etc. And it has been for some time now. Yet the numbers of patients in hospital, on ventilators, or dying, remains minuscule.

For some time now, I have been desperate to know why this is. Better treatment? Fewer vulnerable people being infected? Or is the virus itself mutating in different parts of the world? Is it now less potent here, less dangerous to life? Research into the numbers around this topic is surely urgent– top priority. I'm not necessarily saying we should no longer fear the virus – but if it is weakening then we need to investigate. If it's no longer a mass killer, we might be closing down swathes of society in order to prevent people catching a bad cold.    

JULY 25 2020

This has been an appalling week for “BBC News”; I can no longer support its claims to be an objective, impartial broadcaster, worthy of public funding, while it harbours “news” presenters as thoroughly rotten as Nick Robinson and Mishal Husain.

The final straws were piled on to a years-long litany of self-promotion and blatant partiality by the Today Programme. First came the appalling Nick Robinson's long and shameful party political broadcast on behalf of the “Hate Boris” party, a dreary and biased monologue littered with one-sided assumptions and accusations. Second, the programme's lengthy advertisement for artificial lawns, promoted by Jane Garvey and cheerily – and extraordinarily – endorsed by Mishal Husain. The lone voice of common sense, calmly trying to point out that these plastic pitches are just about the most toxic, polluting and destructive purchases you can make in a garden, suffered from poor connectivity and frequent interruption. Perhaps we should be requesting a full list of BBC News presenters who endorse poisonous products, so that we can assess their objectivity when reporting on all environmental topics.

JUNE 28 2020

As I stress below, every society, nation, culture has had the pandemic it deserves. If we have a government not competent to deal with this crisis – and I'm not necessarily saying we do, not that any alternative would have been different or better – then it is the one we chose in December. And this government was selected largely because of the country's fury and frustration at the incessant and protracted blocking, stalling and undermining of the implementation of the 2016 referendum result. It is therefore not just Leave voters who supported Johnson to "get Brexit done" who are responsible for our current leadership, but the many seeking to use every connivance to defy the democratic choice of the nation – one of the most awkward and slippery of whom was the current Labour leader.   

JUNE 24 2020

A tragic tale of woe:

January 22 – The government considered the spread of Covid-19 as a "very low health risk" and "far less dangerous" than Sars. New travel advisories would not be necessary.

January 27 – After the first infections, the government continued to regard the probability of a spread as "very low".

January 28 – The health minister said he was worrying only about conspiracy theories that were circulating on the internet.

February 13 – At a gathering of health ministers, the health minister dismissed travel restrictions from or to China. He rejected measuring the temperature of inbound travellers.

February 18 – The foreign minister had 8.4 tons of protective gear and clothing as well as disinfectants sent to China, following 5.4 tons sent earlier.

February 26 – One region closed schools, swimming pools, libraries and the town hall until March 2 following the confirmation of cases. No travel restrictions with Italy.

February 28 – The country entered the world's top 10 infected countries. In Europe it was second only to Italy. The government said not all events should be cancelled and that its crisis team would meet twice a week.

February 29 – Supermarket chains saw an increase in demand, particularly for tinned food, noodles, toilet paper and disinfectants.

March 1 – Confirmed infections almost doubled in one day. The relevant minister was optimistic that a vaccine would be available by the end of the year. The health minister said people with symptoms of a cold should avoid mass events.

March 2 – The official threat level was raised to "moderate". The health minister dismissed the closure of borders or companies or ending large events or halting direct flights with China as unnecessary or inappropriate. The government sent lab equipment, protection suits and gloves to Iran.

March 3 – The National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians, a regional Chamber of Medicine, an Association of Paediatricians, and the Association of General Practitioners of two regions reported a lack of PPE.

March 4 – The government prohibited the export of protection masks, gloves, and suits. The health minister warned that the consequences of fear could be far worse than the virus itself.

March 5 – The national Office for Citizen Protection and Disaster Support said the spread in the country was "no catastrophe" and that citizens should prepare for real catastrophes instead.

March 6 – The health minister ruled out "any measure leading to restrictions on travel" within Europe. He spoke out against closing all schools and universities and recommended people avoided unnecessary travel and those in risk areas should stay at home.

March 9 – The country reported its first deaths, with infections at 1,200. The prime minster announced economic measures, saying it was important to slow down the spread and buy time. The health minister ruled out preemptive closing of daycare centres or schools.

March 11 – Having faced accusations of inaction, the prime minister held a press conference on the virus, insisting again on not closing borders, and recommending avoiding shaking hands. The health minister said it was enough to wash hands with soap rigorously. The WHO declared a pandemic.

March 12 – The minister of education rejected a nationwide closure of schools.

March 13 – Most of the country's regions decided to close their schools and nurseries for the next few weeks. The government ordered 10,000 ventilators from a specialist company. The top football league announced that all soccer matches would be postponed until at least April 2.

March 14 – Confirmed infections reached 4,585, including nine fatalities. Several regions widened their measures to limit public activities.

March 15 – Local elections in one region took place amid the crisis. Borders with five countries were closed, with goods and commuters exempt.

March 16 – One region declared a state of emergency for 14 days. The region said sports and leisure facilities would close from March 17; restaurants were ordered to limit hours to before 3pm and ensure 1.5 metres between guests with a maximum of 30 guests. Shops selling essential basic needs were allowed extended opening times, while non-essential shops were closed. The director of a research body said the country needed a national lockdown or the numbers would go out of control.

March 16, in the evening – The prime minister announced some national measures, similar to the region earlier in the day, including a prohibition on travelling in coaches, attending religious meetings, visiting playgrounds or engaging in tourism. The government stressed it was no "shutdown".

March 17 – the health risk was raised to "high". Limits on testing capacity and a delay of three to four days meant reported numbers were significantly lower than actual.

March 18 – The country widened its travel restrictions but still received flights from Iran and China. Passengers were not tested and temperatures were not taken. The government began to bring back thousands of citizens stranded around the world using charter flights.

March 19 – A manufacturer of breathing masks complained that his offer to reserve masks for hospitals had been unanswered by the health ministry. Some hospitals reported shortages of protective gear. A survey showed more than 80 per cent of doctors in private practice reported a lack of protective equipment.

March 20 – The worst hit region was the first to declare a curfew. The government scheduled a meeting for March 22 to discuss a nationwide curfew.

March 22 – A national lockdown was declared. For at least two weeks, gatherings of more than two people would be forbidden and require a minimum distance of 1.5 metres between people in public except for the same household. Restaurants and services such as hairdressers were to be closed.

March 23 – A huge financial aid package was announced. A District Administrator asked the Chinese president for help with protective equipment, because the reserve of masks and protective gowns would last only a few more days. Hospitals and doctors urged the government again to address the lack of PPE. One city received 8,000 masks from the nation's central provisioning, which would mean only one mask for every doctor's practice. Of the 10m masks promised by the health minister, only 150,000 had arrived so far.

March 24 – A delivery of 6m masks ordered by central provisioning was reported missing at an airport in Kenya. They had been produced by a home company and it was unclear why they had been in Kenya. The lack of protective equipment, especially of face masks and disinfectants, led hospitals to re-use disposable masks. Undertakers requested protective equipment. Most dentists' practices did not have protective masks and some considered closing.

March 27 – The stimulus package passed through parliament. The specialist mask producer announced that the first respiratory devices of the order from the health ministry of 10,000 were finished, but it was unclear where to deliver them.

When the inevitable inquiries and commissions begin to pore over the handling of the pandemic, much will be made of the timing of the lockdown. “Two weeks earlier and it would have saved thousands of lives,” is what we will hear, as this claim is converted, by repetition, into “fact”. Apart from ignoring the reality at the time and the carefully explained need for precise timing by the government's scientific advisers, the UK will be accused of having had ample warning from events in Asia and Italy but did nothing until it was too late. I have already posted a timeline below that clearly shows the government did not “do nothing” during January, February and early March. But perhaps we can learn more from comparing our experience with that of another European country. The timeline above is from Germany, hailed by critics as a shining example of how things could have been so much better.

German disease and epidemic control is advised by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) according to a national pandemic plan. The outbreaks were first managed in a containment stage, which attempted to minimise the expansion of clusters. The German government and several health officials stated the country was well-prepared and did not initially implement special measures to stockpile medical supplies or limit public freedom. From March 13, the pandemic was managed in the protection stage as per the RKI plan. No full national lockdown was imposed until March 22 – one day before the UK's.

Noting the similarities of this timing – and indeed the similar problems faced – is crucial to an understanding of the differences in death rates between the UK and Germany. As we can see, timing can only have been a tiny factor  if an influence at all. This means we need to concentrate our attention elsewhere to reach serious conclusions about the contrasting effects of the outbreak. 

JUNE 22 2020

The last two or three paragraphs of Rod Liddle's Sunday Times column yesterday summed up beautifully the essence of my book, The Rise of Antisocialism, and gave me the perfect encapsulation of the current pandemic. He wrote about “the virtues of the left”! Now that's not something you hear much from Mr Liddle. But he applauded its “adherence to the notion of society, the communitarian ethos and the good that a government can do”.

Unfortunately, as he next pointed out, the current preoccupations of our main leftist party, Labour, are “a divisive and corrosive obsession with self-flagellating identity politics and competing hierarchies of largely imagined victimhood, the manifest idiocies of right-on progressiveness.” He is, of course, completely correct.

He sees these as the reasons people turned from the left in their droves. I believe there are more and bigger reasons that affected the last general election result, even more so when considering public opinion over the past 40 years. But he is absolutely right when he points out: “When the left grasps the bigger picture – in short, community – and relinquishes its infantile agit-prop concerns, it can have real force and real popularity.”

That last sentence could easily be a summarising blurb on the cover of my book. The left should be about community, localism, sharing, responsibility, personal fulfilment and creativity. It's all in the book, for those who have taken the trouble to read it.

For the left to reach this point, however, is going to be difficult. It has had only two models during the past 40 years – unelectable loopiness, a la Corbyn, or business-friendly Toryism, a la Blair, Brown and now Starmer. It is odd that only the Tories themselves have seriously promoted the word “community” in all this time.

For the electorate's part, it has repeatedly rejected anything smacking of “socialism” and for four decades has voted solidly in favour of individualist “I know my rights” freedoms, liberalism, greed, selfishness, consumption, pollution and a view of the planet as a playground to be plundered, abused and vandalised. We see the truth of this every day. Take the story of a T-shirt – made in developing world sweatshops by modern-day slaves from materials that degrade the environment, sold cheaply by High Street retailers to someone who doesn't need it and who wears it once or twice before the recycling system takes it to a poor African state where its dyes seep out and poison the waterways. This is basically how a business-based world now works – with pollution and poverty at each end of the process and fabulous enrichment in the middle.

And this is what we choose every time. Not necessarily, perhaps, because it's what we would ideally prefer but because socialism has been soundly beaten and anti-social behaviours have flourished. Given the choice between contributing more and taking more, our society, our culture, has chosen “take” for 40 years.

Which brings us back to the pandemic. We are reaping what we have sown. Societies and cultures have had the pandemics they deserve: those dedicated to liberalism, individualism, materialism, selfishness, greed, consumption, pollution and the global playground etc are almost certainly going to fare worse than societies focused on community, localism, shared responsibility and some form of socialism. And we see it: nations with more of a shared ethos, whether imposed by dictatorial regimes, such as some in Asia, or nurtured organically, such as in Sweden, have acted together, forcibly or through a belief in the importance of social cohesion, to maintain a coherent lockdown. Those favouring a more individualistic approach, such as the US, UK and much of south America, for example, have managed little more than a “lip-service lockdown” – an attitude of “I'll decide for myself what's safe”. Fortunately, in spite of widespread breaches of laws, rules and guidances from the start, just enough people behaved themselves just enough of the time to avoid an overwhelming of the health service. But the UK predictably suffered a higher death rate.

And contrary to the idiotic and ignorant column by Martha Gill in today's Times, the behavioural scientists were spot on when they said in February and March that the lockdown would not hold in the UK for more than a few weeks, perhaps four, five or six. It needed to be at its firmest during the period of greatest danger – hence its timing and gradual introduction. This was all clearly explained in the daily press conferences at the time. And it was right. The lockdown was soft, barely enforced at all and ignored by many – including countless friends and family members – from the start. It is now widely ignored and irrelevant to most people in their social lives and, for those able to function from home, in their working lives, too.

And so the UK statistics look a little worse than those of comparable countries because that's who we are and what we have chosen to be. The government, of course, takes the flak for this and has been undermined and attacked constantly since day one, with opinions, anecdotes and accusations rapidly being elevated to “universal truths and fact”, in the most resounding festival of hypocrisy, negativity and moaning in history. But no other government chosen by the people of the UK would, or could, have done anything significantly different.


With hindsight on lockdown

The opinion that the UK locked down too late is one of those views that has been promoted to “fact”, or become part of conventional “wisdom”. I watched the daily press conferences early on – a painful experience mainly because of the embarrassing behaviour of the media questioners – and, while being as far from a Tory as it is possible to get, I understood the thinking. As a natural and devoted contrarian, I automatically tried to favour the opposite of what was being proposed – but neither I, nor anyone else I heard or read at the time, could concoct anything better. It was a desperate conundrum with no answers. All major parties agreed at the time. So what was the rough sequence of events? Did the government really do nothing until too late? I'm not quite sure on exactly which earlier date I would have closed the economy when, at the time, there was significant resistance to a lockdown at all because of the enormous harm it in itself would do to the population's livelihoods and  health. It was the finest of fine balancing acts – impossible to please everyone and inevitably bound to displease every side of the spectrum. 

In January, the government began checking arrivals from China and attempted to track down travellers arriving from Wuhan.

January 31 – UK citizens were evacuated from Wuhan and the first UK case was confirmed. Quarantine and self-isolation introduced for travellers from affected countries.

February 6 – the list of quarantine countries was widened. The Department of Health began daily updates and an information campaign began.

Mid-February – the UK had nine confirmed cases.

Late February – Legislation put in place to enable measures. Hospitals set up drive-through screening.

End of February – 23 cases.

March 1 – 36 UK cases.

March 3 – the government announces its action plan. The i newspaper splash headline reads: “UK prepares for spring outbreak”. No-go zones to be set up and an NHS volunteer army is announced.

March 3 – Daily Telegraph carries a story saying “Care homes have been advised to go into lockdown in the event of a major coronavirus outbreak, with visitors banned and sick patients confined to their bedrooms.”

March 5 – First UK death, 114 cases.

By 12 March – 10 deaths and 590 cases. Risk raised to High. First lockdown phase begins: school trips and local elections cancelled.

March 14 – 43 deaths. Science saying not yet time for full lockdown.

March 16 – Lockdown increased: no non-essential travel, an instruction to work from home and avoid contact, such as in pubs, theatres etc.

March 17 – support package announced for rough sleepers.

March 23/24 – lockdown tightened and made law.

End of March – transmission within community starts to fall.


Care homes

Is the UK uniquely incompetent at protecting care home residents and staff from coronavirus? A glance at the facts shows every European country has struggled significantly with this vulnerable sector. On May 19, a report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control showed the UK was far from the worst hit country – one of the least bad, in fact. The numbers have since been challenged, of course - and changed. There appears to have been no mention at all of this report at the time by any UK media organisation I can find.But either way, few, if any, countries have escaped unscathed. 

In the UK, the FT has written about the business of care homes and on reading the stories, it quickly becomes clear that these private businesses rely on full beds to make their money. This quote from the FT is typical: “We don’t get paid for empty beds,” said Mr Padgham, who relies on the NHS and local authorities to pay fees for his elderly and frail residents. “We had to admit people with Covid-19 to stay afloat — but whether it’s right is a moral question.”

A large proportion of care homes were unaffected. Perhaps we can start to see why. With business principles now infecting almost every walk of life, including care of the elderly and frail, decision-making can easily become horribly and dangerously corrupted.


VAT cut

Given that non-essential retail is, almost by definition, pollution, I fundamentally object to any proposal to reduce VAT in order stimulate unnecessary shopping. As I discuss in the conclusion of my book, we need to start now on finding useful, interesting and clean things for people to do with their time, and to find positive ways of sharing “wealth”, or more properly, the prevailing means of exchange of goods and services.


Planning rules

There are rumours that Dominic Cummings is ready to take a can of petrol to the planning laws. First, is it his place, as an elected adviser, to be pushing such an agenda? And second, it is completely wrong. The planning rules need tightening, rather than loosening, to prevent the degradation of the physical environment to a state in which even more of it becomes unfit for human habitation.


How many laws have you broken?

Here is a reminder of some of the laws that remain in place until July 4:

It is a criminal offence to: meet indoors with anyone who is not a member of your household or, from 13 June, your support bubble, except for specific exceptions set out in law; incite others to break the rules.

You can travel to outdoor open space irrespective of distance, as long as you can return the same night. You shouldn’t travel with someone from outside your household or, from 13 June, your support bubble unless you can practise social distancing – for example by cycling.

You should avoid sharing a private vehicle with anyone outside of your household or, from 13 June, support bubble as you will not be able to keep to strict social distancing guidelines.

You are not permitted to stay overnight away from the place where you or your support bubble are living – for a holiday or similar purpose – in the UK or overseas. This includes staying overnight in a second home.

If the police believe that you have broken these laws – or if you refuse to follow their instructions enforcing the law – a police officer may issue you with a fixed penalty notice of £100 (reduced to £50 if paid within 14 days).


JUNE 18 2020

A dictionary definition of “stupid”: “having or showing a great lack of intelligence or common sense”.

Now, six quick examples:

  1. A schoolgirl being “educated” following a new “race-friendly” school curriculum was reported on last night's BBC news as saying the world was beautiful and perfect until the British Empire came along. And so we leap from one extreme of ignorance to the other. A new, intelligent curriculum is urgently needed – but if the future of “education” is to produce such stupidity, then heaven help us.

  2. A party for 30 youngsters during lockdown was reported on Twitter (so who knows if it's actually true – but it is sadly very believable). There were no masks, no social distancing. And then there were nine cases of Covid-19. If the dwindling number of deaths means youngsters don't fear dying from the virus any more, then how about jobs? Break the rules, catch the virus, infections rise, lockdown has to be extended and the jobs you depend on are destroyed. Up to you, morons.

  3. Government by footballer campaigns is dangerously stupid. The government needs to lead. It would have been a good idea to get in first and extend school meal vouchers through the summer. But to decide against and then give in to a footballer-led campaign – albeit an admirable and well-meaning young player – should prompt us to ask what will happen when the next footballer-led campaign comes along. There are thousands of equally pressing and justifiable causes that we hear about every day and spending other people's money is easy. They will come, mark my words.

  4. Even more dangerously stupid are the crazed, unthinking wokist sects yelling, with all the intelligence of the puritanical Salem hysterics, “burn the witch” at JK Rowling because her beliefs are not “right”. Fascist movements such as this find it easy to fool naive people into following them and even bullying the reluctant into line – but they are very difficult to contain once the rot sets in.

  5. And then we have the outrageously dumb accusation that British people are happy to claim they won the world cup – yet didn't play – and defeated the Nazis – yet didn't fight – but then say slavery was nothing to do with them. Anyone repeating this trite nonsense cannot have any idea of the difference between things of which we can be proud and things of which we should be ashamed. Without being able to look back at history and make such judgments we cannot attach values, establish concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, nor learn and make progress.

  6. Finally, stupidity has been perfected by the modern football business (it used to be a sport). Stupid from top to bottom. Where do you start? For one, I want nothing whatever to do with the 2022 Qatar world cup. Allowing verminous regimes in the Middle East to seek acceptance through the use of sport is reprehensible. So count me out. 

Most frighteningly of all, this list is far from exhaustive but listing every example would be a life's work.


JUNE 15 2020

Ooh. Brilliant. The non-essential shops are open! I've completely run out of unnecessary stuff, so I better get out there and buy some more. And outside the Nike store you don't even need to worry about this distancing nonsense. So it'll be great. And then I can thrown away the unused unnecessary stuff I bought before lockdown to make room for the new pointless stuff. Not quite sure what non-essential things to buy, though. There's bound to be something. Oh, I know – some new cheap T-shirts, made by slaves in Asian sweatshops that I can wear to the next protest against slavery. That's joined up thinking for you! Perfect!

More seriously, it makes me weep to hear shoppers trying to justify their sad, pointless outings today. One told BBC London News it was "something to do", an "outing".

Just think before you shop – if it's non-essential, it's pollution. And seriously – is going shopping all you can think of to occupy your time?

Finally, for today, as you get older and wiser and gain a more rounded and deeper intelligence, you assume the world is doing the same. Tragically, it is not. 


JUNE 10 2020

Pick an opinion. Any opinion. Just decide who you hate and base it on that. And then seek out an expert who supports your carefully selected opinion. You'll certainly have no trouble finding as many as you like. We locked down too soon. Or too late. Or too severely. Or not severely enough. Or we shouldn't have locked down at all. I recall hearing every one of these views being championed by “experts” in late February and early March – and indeed every day since. And we hear it now with education: open the schools; how dare you open the schools. On and on and on...

An example: John Edmunds, a professor of epidemiology and member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), spoke recently about the timing of the lockdown. He was quoted as saying that he regretted not recommending the restrictions sooner, adding: “I wish we had gone into lockdown earlier. That has cost a lot of lives.” There is your view of the government's incompetence confirmed in a sentence or two.

But now consider what he actually told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show. It was quite different: “We should have gone into lockdown earlier. I think it would have been hard to do it. I think the data that we were dealing with in the early part of March and our kind of situational awareness was really quite poor. And so I think it would have been very hard to pull the trigger at that point but I wish we had . . . That has cost a lot of lives unfortunately.”

As Matt Hancock, health secretary, said, perfectly reasonably, in response: “There’s a broad range on Sage of scientific opinion, and we were guided by the science, which means guided by the balance of that opinion as expressed to ministers through the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser.”

The truth is that opinion was divided between doing nothing, doing very little (along the lines of the Swedish “herd immunity” model), having a light lockdown or a severe one – and a whole range of colours in between. My Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp feeds have been awash with all flavours of fruitcake – everyone knew what to do; everyone was an expert; yet no one ever managed, at the time, to come up with anything better than the government's middle-of-the-road proposals. Indeed, these had all-party and all-nation support during those early days, as was made very clear on a key episode of Question Time in March.

So there was plenty of debate at the time about when to lock down. And as Prof Edmunds told Andrew Marr, with hindsight there might have been benefits from locking down a little earlier.

But then we have to consider that the nation had effectively locked itself down by the weekend of March 14-15. And as Prof Edmunds says, knowledge of the virus and how to deal with it at that stage were poor. They still are: the way the virus behaves in different environments is still not fully understood. Take Sweden and compare it with the combined area of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – almost identical populations and similar geography, one chose a minimalist lockdown in the hunt for herd immunity, the other a moderate lockdown. And the result? An almost identical number of deaths.

Can we confidently say one was right and the other wrong? Can we say the Swedish model applied to England would have made a difference either way? Or could a UK-style lockdown applied to Sweden have saved lives? These are unanswerable questions with too many moving parts and too many inputs to make calculation possible, even with hindsight, let alone in the midst of a rapidly evolving emergency. For her part, Sunetra Gupta, professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford  University, thinks it makes little difference what you do. She remains a believer in the herd immunity theory and questions the need for a lockdown at all, saying the disease's trajectory has been remarkably similar everywhere, regardless of response.

With a critical ear, I listened to the government announcements throughout and understood its reasoning. I certainly had nothing better to offer at the time and heard no one who did, as Prof Edmunds confirms in his Marr interview. The government made clear its phased approach – contain, delay and only then make changes that would have a seriously detrimental impact on society, both to reduce overall damage and to ensure sufficient compliance during the most dangerous period. In the first week of March, with just 115 confirmed cases in the UK, Prof Chris Whitty, the country's chief medical adviser, said we were already beginning to move from “contain” to “delay”, which would include measures such as closing schools, working from home, banning large events – what we now know to be “lockdown”.

But again, the science was disputed at the time – while vital decisions still had to be made. At the beginning of March, Chris Whitty told ITV's This Morning programme: "One of the theories is perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease to move through the population without really taking as many draconian measures. I think we need to strike a balance."

Similarly, virologist Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, wrote: “The more we learn about the coronavirus, the more questions arise. We are learning while we are sailing. That’s why I get so annoyed by the many commentators on the sidelines who, without much insight, criticise the scientists and policymakers trying hard to get the epidemic under control. That’s very unfair."

Also in these early days Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the Sage group had told him that closing schools and stopping big gatherings "don't work as well perhaps as people think in stopping the spread". And again, this is completely in line with what Prof Edmunds told Andrew Marr – the data and levels of understanding were poor. Inevitably. Yes, we had seen how northern Italy had been hit two or three weeks earlier and the measures it was taking in response – but nothing was known about their effectiveness. The scale of Spain's crisis was only just emerging. And so to point to two weeks of mayhem elsewhere and claim it gave us full warning of what to expect and how to deal with it is an enormous stretch – hindsightery at its most extreme.

The “balance”, to which Whitty referred, has characterised the UK approach from the start – a typically middle-of-the-road British effort. With no one suggesting anything better or different, the country was already grinding to a halt by the weekend of March 14-15 – that's when the weekly music venue I help to run announced it would close, when friends stopped playing bridge, when we became concerned about playing tennis, and worried about using petrol pumps. And even when the lockdown came it was mild by Italian, French and Spanish standards. Those countries locked people in their homes, with soldiers on the street reinforcing the message; the French government demanded bureaucratic form-filling for every venture outside – combining exercise and shopping required two separate forms; taking a brief breath of air on the roof of a block of flats with an energetic three-year-old in Barcelona would be met with a barrage of abuse hurled at the hapless rule-breakers.

And so, in the UK, individuals were left to interpret the meaning of “essential” for themselves. The rules were clear enough – stay at home for all but essential reasons, which meant food shopping, exercise, essential work, and medical needs. But while the streets were generally quieter, many activities never stopped completely. Walk around our suburban village and you would see as many vans outside houses as usual, as kitchens continued to be replaced, extensions built and gardens rearranged. Schools never closed completely – vulnerable children and those of key workers kept going in. Countless friends and relatives openly ignored the rules when it suited them, citing essential purposes or “happy accidents”. Most breaches were minor, some potentially dangerous and irresponsible. But all served to undermine the lockdown.

It could therefore be reasonably argued it was the nature of our lockdown, rather than the date of imposition, that might have contributed to the relatively high death toll in Britain. I believe it ill behoves anyone who ignored the rules in even a small way to place the blame for the death toll on a government battling to save lives and minimise wider harm and damage. There could be other factors for the UK's number of deaths, too, of course – unreliable statistics, population density, general health, living conditions and countless more. But a gentle lockdown, with swathes of the public deciding for themselves to ease the restrictions one or two steps ahead of the government, seems a likely and significant element.

And if you still believe the lockdown was closely observed by the vast majority of the population, just think of all the people you know who thought their non-essential outing would do no harm. Just look at the queues for the beach and beauty spots after the initial easing – and just look at that sunny weekend at the end of May when collective madness took over and hordes decided the panic was done with. And then, of course, the anti-racism protests in early June. This is exactly what was predicted back in February and early March: lock down too soon and fatigue and complacency would replace fear and responsible behaviour while the danger level remained high. It was also expected that a prolonged lockdown would exacerbate mental health and domestic violence problems. The behavioural profiling was spot on.

Fortunately, a big enough portion of the population was sufficiently compliant to spare the NHS from collapse at the critical time. This had to be the top priority: allow the health services to be overwhelmed and our defences would collapse. That collapse was avoided: the Nightingale facilities were not needed; every virus patient was given the best possible chance of survival by dedicated health workers, almost all working with supreme professionalism in desperate circumstances.

Difficult clinical decisions had to be made, obviously. This was stated categorically at one of the very early press conferences: dealing with the virus would force clinicians to prioritise and there would be casualties. No one was shying away from this obvious and painful truth. And yet much NHS work continued: a friend received emergency hospital treatment; A&E departments were quiet and available. Yes, there was a two-month hiatus for some receiving regular cancer or other treatments – and some with potentially dangerous symptoms might have been put off reporting them, either from fear of catching the virus, fear of adding to the NHS burden, or because they felt it could wait. But it was not because the NHS was closed or collapsed.

The anti-racism demonstrations of the past week will now test whether the virus is in retreat, or has evolved to a less deadly form. If it has not, infections will increase rapidly and the death toll rise dramatically in a month or so. No doubt, this too will be blamed on a government that in some eyes can do absolutely nothing right. How ministers have remained so calm in the face of relentless attacks on every side and every subject is astonishing – even when such attacks insult the incredible efforts of scientists, NHS workers, civil servants, administrators, procurement staff, and indeed all frontline workers from binmen to shop staff to truck drivers who have worked bravely and tirelessly to keep essential services and supplies running. The medical staff at the front line will of course be hurting and exhausted from what they've seen and done. But this is the job – they see it all the time. Dealing with it is part of their incredible professionalism, a key element of which is detachment; all of those witnessing extreme distress as part of their job – those in the emergency services, even journalists – have to learn it.

I find it sad that the effect of continual negativity from one sector of society that hates our government no matter what it does is to distort objectivity. It makes everyone an extremist, no matter how rational. It is also potentially lethal: continually to undermine confidence and trust in official policy aimed at saving lives is shameful and heightens the very problems the critics are lashing out against in the first place.

Yes, I can see genuine mistakes made by the government: for example, its attitude towards testing switched from one extreme to the other. Whitty said early on that it would be key to containment, then Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer for England, later dismissed it as irrelevant, then Hancock restored it as a top priority. Ditto face masks. Procurement and distribution of PPE was flawed in some areas for a time. Anecdotal complaints exaggerated the overall picture and with the whole world fighting for supplies, civil servants inevitably struggled. Would it have been realistic to stockpile in previous years? As Matthew Syed wrote in The Sunday Times, any minister proposing to spend millions or billions on PPE and ventilators before 2020 would have been laughed out of parliament. But the PPE issue was largely resolved and is now barely mentioned. The EU procurement scheme, so highly lauded by Nick Robinson on the Today Programme, has not merited a word of coverage in the UK, as far as I can discover, since April. Similarly, I could never understand why airports were delivering hundreds of thousands of unknown and unchecked travellers into the country every month. Who were these people, why were they coming here, where had they come from and where were they going? And it seemed ridiculous that care homes could not maximise their use of drugs because of restrictive regulations that could easily and harmlessly have been lifted temporarily. Boris was also bordering on Trumpian stupidity by ostentatiously shaking hands with visiting dignitaries when most of the country considered it dangerous. He has not been the same prime minister since his recovery from the virus.

But then it is shocking to hear the howls of protest at the tiny steps made towards resuming classroom education for some primary school children. Just as one body of opinion was saying “thank goodness – what took you so long?”, teaching unions were lashing out, some parents were lashing out and some head teachers were saying it was impossible to keep pupils apart. It then simply beggars belief when the government, having listened to the complaints and gathered evidence from the trial reopening, decides to scale back its “ambition” – that is all it was, even though it has been converted to a “plan” by some commentators – to open schools more fully before the summer break, provokes another barrage of abuse. Teaching unions again, “educationalists” and former politicians complaining about a “lost generation” and how there must be a massive injection of funding to get youngsters back to school for July. And, as we all might ask, just what happens in schools in July?

This rancid, incessant and knee-jerk undermining of officialdom – to the point of actually wishing it to fail – is then magnified as the media focuses exclusively on the complainants. At least my former FT colleague Andrew Jack was able to correct the BBC's World At One programme in an interview yesterday by bringing some proper perspective and balance to the debate. It is a sad day when Andrew's calm reason appears so out of keeping with the hysterical narrative pervading much news coverage. It is exhausting having to seek out original sources of news so often, but this is now the only way to be sure of the complete picture. Selective quoting, sloppy inaccuracy and finding facts to fit the story are commonplace. News by anecdote is the norm – individuals' unique stories can add colour to a feature or illustrate and accent the news. But to make them the news in isolation is a highly dangerous and distorting trend.

To focus solely – and it is indeed solely – on the negatives and ignore the Stakhanovite efforts of so many that have produced “successes” is simply biased, unfair and wrong. There are countless uplifting stories to tell, incredible achievements and the resolving of problems among them. Other positives are more nuanced, subtle, deep-seated and cast a shadow before us into the future. For example, as I wrote in The Rise of Antisocialism, I thought that climate change would eventually make us see what a mess we had made of the world – but this virus has nipped in first and given us a glimpse of the future. If we heed its clear warnings, we might avert catastrophe. Because one day we will have to decide what is necessary and what is absurd and extravagant luxury. If, for example, personal wealth in the UK was limited to a mere £1bn for each of our 147 billionaires then, according to The Sunday Times odious Rich List, there would be about £350bn going spare. And when commentators talk of us having to accept a reduction in standards of living because of virus damage to the economy, we know, if we are honest, that there is huge scope for drastic cuts in consumption, vast amounts of which are non-essential, polluting and actively detrimental to a fulfilling way of life. We have witnessed it during these past weeks with heightened senses, and mass creativity and invention. Meanwhile, the poorest would say their standard of living has nowhere to fall to.

The pandemic has also shone a spotlight on glaring inadequacies in several sectors: university funding has been a basket case since the simplistic changes ushered in by Blair; on the other hand, provision of social care for the elderly and vulnerable has been ignored and untouched; bargain basement air travel at a cost bearing no relation whatever to the environmental damage makes the planet an abused, vandalised playground; offshoring and globalisation of goods and services seeks out apparent cheapness at the expense of exploitation and degrading of societies; our consumption culture is a cycle of pollution and meaninglessness. The list goes on. My book explains it all – and its forward-looking conclusion will be richer and fuller in the second edition than the first, drawing on recent lessons learned.

One of our biggest concerns right now, though, is how to reconnect the nation's two distant “tribes” divided by Brexit and attitudes towards our culture and society. It is highly possible that isolation has intensified and narrowed our thinking. But a resolution is urgent. A proper national debate is imperative. What we have at present is Pythonesque – mere contradiction, “the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says”. In its classic Argument sketch, the Monty Python comedians sum up today's predicament perfectly: “An argument is not the same as contradiction. An argument is a collective series of statements to establish a definite proposition. It's an intellectual process.” Today, as in the Argument room, the instant and mindless response to that would be: “No it isn't.”

Never before have we seen such a disconnect, such a lack of communication. Never before have we seen such a large section of the population wishing a vital national project to fail for reasons of political hatred. Even the Falklands War was nothing like this, in spite of the widespread contempt for Margaret Thatcher and the doubts some of us harboured over the wisdom of fighting to keep a few rocks in the southern Atlantic. There were critics, but a tiny minority, and they were overwhelmed by those hoping for success – so much so that Thatcher's popularity turned on a sixpence. Yes, there will be a reckoning in the post-pandemic era – and it will have to include those who sought, for their own political reasons, to incite a political crisis on top of a global health and economic crisis.

JUNE 9 2020

Boris missed a trick. He is not the man he was pre-virus. He made an OK speech in response to the anti-racist protests but it really was not good enough. Here are the bullet points he should have covered:

  • I feel your pain. What happened in America is wrong and we do not want anything like it here.

  • And yes – we do have problems here, too. Less dramatic ones, perhaps, but serious and persistent enough to add up to a severe disadvantage to, and provocation of, sections of our community.

  • I promise to address as many of these issues as we can. We will consult, we will listen and we will prepare a plan for change. I will update you on progress in two weeks.

  • We will be looking at education and the curriculum; recruitment and promotion; policing and any other issues raised – even statues.

  • We also want to keep you, and everyone in this country, as safe as we can. To that end we do not want to see rallies and demonstrations that pose a threat to you and your families.

  • We also do not want to see a minority taking advantage of your legitimate protest for their violent ends. We cannot ignore crime.

  • And so, please, now is the time to be constructive, to come up with ideas. I will preside over a transformation. You can judge me if I fail but if we all act in good faith we will not.

  • Send me your proposals for change. We will reconvene in two weeks.

JUNE 8 2020

A fascinating and uplifting pair of interviews today on the BBC's You And Yours programme. Private White VC is a clothing manufacturer in Salford and its chief executive is the dynamic and thoughtful James Eden. He has taken on a five-month contract to supply the NHS with 2m clinical grade PPE gowns. It's high volume, low margin business and he plans to employ an extra 50 or 60 staff in a new space, giving those workers a craft and the confidence to move on to working at the main factory on complex garments. One employee, Hazel, was bursting with pride at the company's contribution: “So proud,” she said. Her career had begun in the clothing trade, but then stopped as more production was moved overseas, and now jobs are returning.

James Eden said it was important to show the country and government that we “can do this and need to do this. There is no downside to having a regular, reliable, quality supply chain of PPE in our country.” Local manufacturing was lost, he said, because cheapness had taken over. Profit should not be the be-all and end-all when it comes to PPE. “You can pay next to nothing and have it made overseas but if you don't have it when you need it, it becomes a problem.”

Patrick Grant, fashion designer and director of bespoke tailoring businesses, agreed with Eden, seeing such moves as an opportunity to expand our skills base and re-shape and re-balance the UK economy. He said returning the manufacture of everyday items, too often seen as second class work, was actually a state of the art business and capable of rebuilding communities. Cheapness dominated procurement for both the NHS and the MoD – his business once provided items to the defence ministry but that contract had since gone overseas. Echoing Eden, he said the search for cheapness might save a few pounds each year but it also put thousands on the dole, destroyed communities, affected mental health and sparked a rise in crime, with the overall cost far higher than any small saving. He called for joined up thinking on how manufacturing could be repatriated to the benefit of society and the economy.

Two smart bosses (in every sense) with views that make a wonderful antidote to mindless, cheap and nasty globalisation.

MAY 28 2020

The trouble with echo chambers is that they always appear to be infinitely larger than they actually are. Think, for a moment, about the echo chamber that is the UK media and its like-minded audience of noisy, chattering, liberal types with blogs and social media accounts and careers as “influencers”. This entire tribe believes it understands the mood of the country – it is certainly doing its best to shape it. And it is certainly perfectly in tune with about 48 per cent of the population – to pluck a figure out of the air, as is the trend. With a deafening cacophony of raucous support, and so little noise from any dissenters, it might appear as though the country is as one in its constant condemnation, undermining and downright hatred of our freshly elected landslide government.

But is it? What of the rest? Is there any “rest” at all? As far as the media and its fans are concerned, there is not. But the media is completely wrong – again. It was wrong over the referendum, and wrong over the last general election. It fails repeatedly to understand that the majority of people in this country make no sound; they have no voice. They are a deprived, hard-working and silenced majority; they do not have Twitter accounts and blogs, or a habit of raging to their MP; they are never visited by the metropolitan media, nor are they ever asked seriously and sensitively about the issues that concern them.

This all makes the self-proclaimed “liberal elite” its own worst enemy, because refusing to engage with the victims of the internationalist, business-led status quo is a losing strategy. Ignoring such a large proportion of the population has already seen it lose the Brexit debate – several times – and lose the last general election which delivered a thumping majority to the hated Boris and Cummings.

Yet the lesson is still not learned by the echo chamber; it still hears nothing but its own voice. Boris is listening to these "other people", though; Cummings understands them and their fears and desires. No one from the “liberal elite” gives these thuggish “populists” a second thought because, being allowed no voice, no platform, no Twitter account they never even hear them. Just their own echo...echo....echo.... It is obviously endlessly infuriating to be locked in an echo chamber that comprises only a minority of the whole constituency and so it is no wonder that the rage gradually increases and the desperation to wound drives it to hysteria and worse. Sadly, it seemswe are still a long way from understanding and reconciliation – if that is even possible.

MAY 28 2020

I'm sorry if much of what is written below makes me a traitor to my “bubble”. But I will always choose “populism” (definition “noun: the political doctrine that supports the rights and powers of the common people in their struggle with the privileged elite; a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”) over its opposite, elitism.

MAY 27 2020

I should add - in addition to all that's said below, if Dominic Cummings' statement contained anything that amounts to a material lie, then he must resign. This would tip the balance – you can make decisions, even debatable ones, but you absolutely cannot lie about them to the entire population.

MAY 25 2020

The media furore over Dominic Cummings' actions during the Covid-19 lockdown – our very own Watergate scandal! – is painful to witness. Yet again, the politics of hate have washed away the politics of reason and good sense. Just at a time when the nation should be co-operative, consensual and speaking with one voice, it continues to be two peoples standing on either side of a chasm: on one side, the voiceless and deprived, on the other, the noisy and privileged. One one side, the victims of a monoculture built on consumption, selfishness and greed; on the other the beneficiaries of a status quo centred around a free-wheeling, business-based internationalism. This is a ghastly reflection on the politics of the past four decades, which has left us truly and deeply divided – divisions that manifested themselves most obviously in the Brexit debate, and which now poison and seriously damage our civil debate and the very functioning of our government in a time of crisis.

If ever there was a moment to say “enough”, it is now. The country has chosen its path regarding its international relations. Like it or not, that battle is lost and won. The festering resentments of the past two or three years simply cannot be allowed to carry on corrupting the judgments of good, intelligent people; that issue is settled, the majority of the population has given it a ringing endorsement and it has to be accepted with good grace before we can move on. Our society will not, and cannot, heal while those who did not get their way continually seek ways to hurt those who did.

For it is this blind hatred of the architects of Brexit that is turning what looks, on the face of it, to be a highly debatable “infringement” of the lockdown guidance – there surely can be no serious suggestion of a breach of the law – into a scandal to rival Profumo, Thorpe and Watergate. The rush to judgment, even before countless salient and critical facts become known, falls precisely along the fault lines now so hideously entrenched. The enemy is there to be shot at, details and wider thinking around the issues is not required – Dominic Cummings is in our sights. He is already guilty of the most heinous crime imaginable, for which there has yet been no punishment – but now we've got him. Execute first, ask questions later. This is the new way of British justice.

And so, leaping up yet again from their Procrustean beds, the two tribes go to war over something so piffling. There was even talk of a full-scale police investigation in Durham into the precise movements of the Cummings family car and who said what to whom and exactly when. Real crime will have to wait. It seems, thankfully, at the time of writing, that the Durham force is easing back on its stance and now supporting the story told by the Cummings family.

Similarly, for the many who said at the time that they struggled to comprehend the lockdown guidelines – “oh, there's just no clarity” – they now seem to be crystal clear. The leap from “I've no idea what they're supposed to mean” to “the message was simple – stay at home” has been instant, because now it means we have a noose around the neck of the hated and condemned man.

In truth, although I always maintained that the message was simple and clear, there was much scope for subjectivity in the several allowable “exceptions”, one of which was said by Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer for England, to include caring for a child. Columnists and Facebook postings mocked the regulations for their “flexibility” and it is true that individuals were left free to interpret the word “essential” as they saw fit. The programme relied on people's common sense and judgment: I know of many people who chose to travel to offices for non-essential work or work that could have been done from home. Most people I know have broken the rules in minor, probably harmless, ways; a small minority has broken them with appalling irresponsibility that has put others at risk.

What cannot be denied, though, is that the whole affair has been very badly handled by Downing Street. As indeed have the past two or three weeks of lockdown-easing. Government departments are producing a mis-matched hotch-potch of measures that are poorly explained and lack overall coherence. The science might be with it, but how can it make sense to quarantine airport arrivals now and not before? How can it make sense to invite Year One and Year Six pupils to return to school, when the former are uncontrollable at the best of times and the latter all but finished with their primary education? Surely, starting with years five and six – children old enough to follow rules and in need of help and guidance – makes more sense. Similarly, how did it make sense to allow anyone to travel any distance to take their exercise, when surely it must have been obvious that this would spark defecation in lay-bys on an industrial scale? Jammed roads leading to the beach or beauty spot with all facilities closed – it was 100 per cent predictable.

This lack of control and the absence of Boris Johnson's usual vim and vigour is deeply troubling. It is, however, completely understandable, given what he has so recently endured – a spell in intensive care and the birth of a baby. I don't know whether I have had Covid-19, but I certainly suffered from something very strange in January and February – and to this day. Breathlessness and fatigue are persistent after-effects. If Boris, and possibly Cummings, feel as rough as I do some days, it is unsurprising that their grasp on the countless reins and levers of government is less than sure. It is more than possible that Boris is not match fit, which in itself raises graver questions about the management of the crisis than fretting over whether Cummings drove 260 miles, 26 miles or 2.6 miles. We can only hope Boris sharpens up rapidly and develops into the leader he had previously shown glimpses of becoming – for example, in his gracious embrace of the northern “Red Wall” electorate, whose votes at the last election he accepted his party had only borrowed.

We can only hope, too, that the Cummings “scandal” can be dealt with swiftly. Does it mean there is “one rule for us and another rule for them”? Not really. His account is believable and reasonable. I might well have done the same in similar circumstances. And in any case, there are multiple sets of rules throughout society – and always have been. As my former FT colleague, David Goodhart, has written, senior political figures rightly receive special treatment – regarding security, provision of country houses, immunity from legal action and more. Most of us, at the very least, are not sent death threats; we do not have our homes targeted for violence by those who disagree with our politics. And as The Times' leader comment argues today, Cummings is a necessary and valuable part of a Johnson government at a time of national crisis and he should be “cut some slack”.

I have now just listened to Dominic Cummings make a detailed statement about what he did. There will be many who disbelieve him; “I wouldn't believe a word that man says” will be echoing around certain communities. But at the same time there seems to be much to disbelieve in what has been widely reported. When individuals' personal versions of the truth depend upon their own political views, then normal political discourse is impossible. And that is precisely what we have seen. It is why I remain silent in almost all political conversations – there is no debate to be had. Minds are made up; there are goodies and baddies, everything is black and white. But I don't see things that way. Everything is grey, decisions are nearly always marginal, very little is absolutely right or wrong, the truth lies somewhere between the two nasty extremes. But if you do not conform to the narrative of the tribe, no one wants to listen – so what's the point of saying anything? I resort, instead, to documenting my thoughts here so that anyone sufficiently interested can consider them dispassionately.

I do not believe it is a clear-cut decision over whether Cummings should resign or not. The media questioning after his statement sounded horribly like a tedious group analysis of the finer points of an episode of Poirot, everyone looking to pick small holes in a plot they had not quite heard properly. I conclude that he should stay on, given the triviality of his “offence” and the fact that so many people I know were making their own far less essential journeys, possibly in breach of the guidelines, possibly not.

For that's what they were – guidelines. Unlike in Spain, France and Italy, our lockdown was mild and heavily reliant on enough public support to reduce the infection rate. Despite the rare moments of heavy-handed intervention by the police, it has been very lightly enforced. And this made sense: this is the British way of muddling through – we would not tolerate having to fill in a form every time we left home to buy milk, as they did in France; nor would we tolerate soldiers issuing orders on the street, as in more than one continental European state.

I do not believe the aim of lockdown was ever to achieve anything near 100 per cent compliance with the regulations. We had behavioural scientists advising the government and they knew full well that a proportion of the population would play fast and loose with the rules or defy them outright. This did not matter, however, as long as the vast majority were sensible and followed the spirit of the rules. This is indeed what happened, with plenty of discretion allowed and used, but enough compliance to prevent the NHS becoming overwhelmed. I believe the looser nature of our lockdown, rather than the timing of its introduction, has led to a higher death rate than in comparable countries – along with a host of other factors, large and small. This was the balance we struck.

Of course, leading political figures should be practising what they preach, setting an example, and so on. But his statement, and later statements from Durham police, suggest Cummings' actions were reasonable in the circumstances. We are in a hazily grey area. But given that much of the nation had locked itself down well before the official restrictions were imposed, can it seriously be argued that the Cummings family driving to Durham would have any impact at all on compliance with the rules?

Does this make me pro-government? Of course not. Read my book and you will know.I have no more time for sections of this government and its policies than I do for sections of the media and its biases. As mentioned in a previous post, one factor in the creation of this duality is the collapse of a socialist alternative and the irrelevant preoccupations of a gibbering opposition, leaving the media to take over its role. Where this does in fact place me is somewhere towards the centre of a spectrum between the government haters on the virtue signalling “liberal-left”, for whom the government is always – always – wrong on everything and actually evil on most things, and the conspiracy theorist media haters who see nothing but fake news, biased interviewing and aggressive negativity. I am constantly bombarded by the former and see less, but still a good deal, of the latter. I am constantly astounded at how people can maintain such polarised stances and by the gyrations and convoluted self justifications used to prevent a shift from the extreme. The problem any critic of either stance has is that they are immediately placed in the heart of the enemy camp. I remain silent on these topics in conversations with soldiers from each army for fear of being branded a foe.

This is not a call for a shift to the political centre – I seek a more radical transformation of how we live than anyone I know or have ever read. At this stage, it is simply a call for the debate to return to the forum, for participants to lower their shields and weapons and give consideration to the reasoned views of others; to listen again. Sadly, the new political game is deeply rooted. There is presently too much hatred for the factions to work together or even debate with civility.

And what of Cummings? Like him or loathe him, he is the most vitally important political figure this country has seen for decades. His radical and original thinking offers hope of real improvements that no other politician has come near to offering, with any credibility, for years. If there is to be social change in the UK in the foreseeable future, he is its only viable champion. Cummings is prepared to challenge a toxic status quo that has produced dire and desperate inequality, poverty, and all the social ills you would expect from a monoculture of consumption, selfishness and greed. To those feasting on the proceeds of that monoculture, he is a hateful devil to be crushed. And so we have reached deadlock. No one is listening to anything other than their own story, their own tribe. I cannot see how progress can be made until this divided nation can raise its gaze above the politics of hatred.


MAY 12 2020

Some friends messaged to say they were concerned at some of the things they were reading. They asked me, as a journalist, whether I had heard anything about the rumours and theories that were circulating. This is my reply to them. I think it touches on many aspects of the current "debate".

Hi all,
Hope you're all well and keeping warm! You've certainly raised a tricky subject - and one that's difficult to deal with in a black and white email. Around the dinner table after a few glasses of wine we'd have a knock-about debate and think little more of it. Digital communication feeds a drift to the edges, whereas face-to-face tends to breed consensus. But anyway....let's have a go...

This paragraph from a piece by virologist Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who suffered badly when he caught the virus himself, is enlightening: "Many people think COVID-19 kills 1% of patients, and the rest get away with some flu-like symptoms. But the story gets more complicated. Many people will be left with chronic kidney and heart problems. Even their neural system is disrupted. There will be hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, possibly more, who will need treatments such as renal dialysis for the rest of their lives. The more we learn about the coronavirus, the more questions arise. We are learning while we are sailing. That’s why I get so annoyed by the many commentators on the sidelines who, without much insight, criticize the scientists and policymakers trying hard to get the epidemic under control. That’s very unfair."

And speaking to front-line ICU doctors, this is a ghastly virus when it takes hold. An anaesthetist relative in Yorkshire says he's never seen so many people  in such an appalling state. He said they have five to 10 times the usual numbers in ICU each week and if they piled the virus dead on the road outside, no one would leave their house.

Where it came from, we don't know - but the most obvious solutions are usually the most likely: someone in China eating a bat or pangolin or other such stupidity or an accidental escape from a lab. The responses of governments everywhere suggests none of them wanted this or expected it - no politician willingly allows their economy to be trashed. And there's no sign of anyone making a cent out of a vaccine - quite the reverse. It's sucking in cash and there's no prospect of anything that works for months or years - or even ever. So I can't see that there's any good of any kind in this for anyone. Maybe China is mad enough to try and destabilise the rest of the world for its own ends - but that's a long shot and not one I'd take too seriously. It's having a great time buying Africa and colonising most of Asia/Australasia as it is.

The prevalence of the disease seems to be in countries with very porous borders and loads of movement - us, France, Spain, Italy and East Coast America. Germany is an outlier because in size and population it looks similar, but culturally and in terms of mobility it is different. Sweden is a massive country with a tiny population, New Zealand is in the middle of nowhere and now with nowhere to go until the rest of the world fixes the problem, etc etc.

If there's one un-established theory that I might subscribe to, it's that the UK and the worst hit countries are now experiencing the deadlier second wave of the virus. I'd be prepared to believe that a first wave struck these countries at the start of the year before the virus adapted and became a serious killer. There is sporadic and anecdotal evidence for this, so I wouldn't make too many claims for it. But if there is any substance to it, it could mean South America and Africa, for example, need to be very careful for the next few months. 

So overall, I think there's no great conspiracy or cover-up. I think in the UK, we're doing what we always do - muddling through, and arranging everyone into a queue to avoid a crush in intensive care. I don't think our politicians have been brilliant but I can't think of a single cabinet in the past several decades that would have done any better - and certainly not any of the opposition parties. Politicians over the decades have all been aware of this virus danger but haven't ramped us up to full coping capacity. And I think that's not unreasonable, given our poor post-crash economic state and the understandable priority given to far more pressing demands. Can you imagine a health secretary trying to convince the public any time in the past decade that he wants to spend billions on PPE, ventilators and testing kits (much of which will go out of date in time) in case there's a nasty bug? They would have been ripped to shreds. Similarly, we don't prepare for four months of deep snow and blizzards every year - even though it's a possibility - by spending billions on snow ploughs. We're a "bit of everything" country, which makes it extremely comfortable most of the time but vulnerable to any extremes.

And that's what we've got now. So we're doing our best and the government's doing its best to please everyone as much as possible. It's an unenviable balancing act and I heard no better ideas at the time as the disaster evolved. In reality, not many people would have done much different. We've taken a balanced path between free-wheeling herd immunity Sweden and military imposed suppression in Spain and Italy.And it's impossible to satisfy everyone, especially now that we have limitless digital chatter and we have almost half the population whose desperate and often irrational hatred of Boris means they will disagree with every single thing he says - whatever it is. It leaves the field open for all sorts of ideas to circulate. 

I hope this weighing up of where all these issues fall on the "evil versus incompetent" scale give you some hope that muddling through and doing our best is reasonably commendable in the circumstances. Let's hope the plan works..... and we can discuss all this again over dinner as soon as possible.....  

APRIL 29, 2020

The BBC Panorama story on Monday night highlights the dilemma faced by the UK public in deciding what to believe. There was a time when Panorama investigations were above challenge and beyond reproach. Now, the fact that we even have to ask questions about the believability and, by implication, the motivations behind this programme shows how far the media has slumped in recent years.

The nub of the issue is this: Panorama claims to have gathered damning evidence regarding the advance planning and provision of PPE; its detractors claim all of those giving evidence were Labour Party activists or supporters of some kind and were playing dirty politics.

I would like to know which is correct, because this matters. If the detractors are right, then Panorama and the BBC are facing some extremely serious allegations of political bias that go against Reith's founding values, its own editorial guidelines and indeed the Framework Agreement accompanying the BBC Charter. And its programme was worthless. If, on the other hand, Panorama can justify its choice of interviewees and show balance and objectivity, then we can dismiss the detractors as conspiracy theorists. Is anyone interested in a serious investigation?


█ We are now seeing the first few questions asked about care homes – on Twitter, sadly, rather than in reputable media. So far, “social care” has been bandied about as if it is a single thing, covering domiciliary care (carers visiting people's homes), council and NHS-run facilities, and private care homes, which can be businesses or run by charities. These are all vastly different, with vastly different requirements and responsibilities. Very few news reports from “care homes” tell us who owns and runs them and who is therefore actually responsible for them and their provisions. Crucial facts such as these can make a world of difference as to how their complaints are assessed.


█What a good idea it is to call for the publication of the names of those working on the Sage Committee (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies). Presumably, this is so that the stupidest people in the country can troll them on Twitter, send them death threats, harass their families. Great idea.


APRIL 27 2020

The Sunday Times compounds its shameful “hate Boris” hatchet job of last week with an attempt at countering the government's rebuttal. Unfortunately for the paper, it finds that only its accusations regarding the Prime Minister's attendance of COBR meetings retain any real substance. It claims only a tiny handful of COBR meetings have been missed by PMs in the past decade – and all for very good reasons, and so Boris missing four in a few months is shocking and damning.

But even if true, this merely begs further unanswered questions, which the paper appears uninterested in asking.

The first takes into account that this is a government determined to “do things differently”. Boris is a man of no obvious great intellect or deep thinking, he is a blunderer, a chancer, and might even be guilty of some of the work-shy accusations hurled at him. But this is not the whole picture. Boris is the most natural leader the country has had since Thatcher, and his time as London mayor suggests he delegates well (to some, this is laziness, to others – especially those writing business books – an essential skill for any leader). If “doing things differently” and good delegating mean the PM doesn't need to attend every COBR meeting, especially when they are being held frequently and in the middle of a floods crisis, then it might just as easily amount to good administration. We do not know from the Sunday Times whether this is why Boris was absent, because it failed to ask. Or if it did, chose not to reveal any answers.

The second question arising is over whether Boris's absence, justified or otherwise, made any material difference to the decision-making process and eventual outcomes. The Sunday Times' case rests on the unsupported accusation that it did and could have killed people. Evidence from the real world suggests it did not. The messages given by the government in the run-up to the lockdown were clear that restrictions would be necessary and would be implemented “at the right time” – to be determined largely by the government's trusted scientific advisers. The strategy, at least as I heard it, sounded logical and rational: locking down too soon would increase damage to the economy and would not be obeyed at the crucial time. This was interpreted by some as a callous drive for herd immunity and prioritising the economy. It is also now being reinterpreted as “reacting too slowly”. Locking down too late, on the other hand, would cause more infections than the NHS could cope with. Allegations of a lack of preparedness carries a little weight but stretches back decades and no amount of stockpiled PPE could ever hope to meet the rapacious current demand. The scientific debate over many aspects of testing was inconclusive as the virus approached and aspects of it remain so. In the event, the NHS has not been overwhelmed, despite a significant number of lockdown refuseniks who believe they know better, and the policy and timing appears to have been effective, so far.

Of course, this is bad news if your agenda is to hurt Boris. But given that there is not a single “good” option to be found, there is still plenty of ammunition to be hurled as “least awful” choices are made.

The third question raised by The Sunday Times' “defence” is: if Boris is so useless and lazy, then why does it matter that he was not at four COBR meetings? Only if he is considered influential and decisive – ie, a good leader – could his absence be considered any great loss. The paper cannot have it both ways.

Furthermore, the paper cannot simply dismiss its howling mistake over the date in the very first sentence as a slip of the finger on the keyboard. It reveals far more. There is always a tone, an attitude, a “feel”, or mood to a piece of writing and the language used, and allowing such a blatant howler to slip through every layer of editing gives a strong indication of where the priorities of those involved lay. This was all about pushing the assault as far as it could go, with too little emphasis on normal proper journalistic safeguards against inaccuracy – let alone all the other requirements of decent journalism: objectivity, balance, lack of bias, fairness, honesty and accuracy. You fail all those tests if you have a stance, an agenda, a narrative to pursue.

The Sunday Times' short leader comment on the subject quite rightly says that trusted journalism is vital at a time of national emergency. Perhaps it might advise us next week on where we might find it.


█ We need to be extremely wary of international comparisons during this global crisis. They are easily mis-used. The Swedish experiment, for example, is irrelevant – it is an enormous country with a population slightly bigger than London and its strategy a long way from proving itself; New Zealand is an isolated country with a tiny population; we are surely not comparing ourselves with dictatorships or countries flagrantly misreporting their statistics. The most comparable countries in terms of size, population density and openness – France, Italy and Spain – report almost identical experiences. Only Germany appears to stand apart and the reasons for it must be investigated. There will be many - not just its approach to testing, even though that seems to have helped.


APRIL 26 2020

Unbelievable. Having blithely and uncritically claimed that the EU procurement scheme, although “having delivered nothing YET”... “is BOUND to deliver” something one day, Nick Robinson, who gives our own government zero credit for anything, has the nerve to say on Twitter: “Thought for the day. The conronavirus [sic] crisis is just too serious to be used to pick yet another fight with those you fell out with during the EU referendum #giveitarest”. (This is, as far as it is possible to tell, from the official Nick Robinson Twitter account.)

Having clearly displayed his own EU sympathies, and having repeatedly sought to wound and undermine the current pro-Brexit government, how DARE he then imply that he is balanced, impartial and fair and that it is others who are picking old fights.

He is, of course, correct in his further implication that people's hatred of the government and everything it does stems largely from their hatred of Brexit. The Johnson-Cummings axis has trounced the self-proclaimed liberal “elite” twice – and it now sees its chance to take revenge. If innocent people die in the process, this is, indeed, deeply troubling and on that basis we should all be heeding Robinson's “Thought”. Sadly, nearly all of the current nastiness is coming from his own side. And by being so blatant and highly visible, it is proving, so far, to be an own goal, merely boosting Boris's poll ratings.

APRIL 22 2020

This is what passes for journalism today. It is truly shameful.

Nick Robinson “interviews” Helen Whately, social care minister, on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, and “asks” why the government is not following up every offer of supply of PPE: “Why don't you just say it's not good enough and 'I'm gonna shout at the person involved'?” She pointed out that shouting at people who are working flat out will not help. He had to concede: “OK. Point taken.”

And then this most extraordinary statement: “Although it may not have delivered anything YET, the EU scheme that we did not participate in – the first phase of it – may in future – indeed it surely is BOUND to deliver something to the EU in future – which we will not benefit from.” An unquestioned, unchallenged, glib assumption that glosses over of the crucial fact – the scheme has delivered NOTHING as the virus passes its peak. If a UK politician said anything as crass as that they would rightly be pilloried, ridiculed and hounded out of office.

The truth about PPE is that it has become big business. Traders are making a fortune, supplies are being held hostage as global health services are being forced into bidding wars – and gazumped. The price has rocketed and any old plastic rubbishin a box marked “PPE” is today's equivalent of a sub-prime mortgage – a nice little earner for some but worthless to whoever ends up holding it when the music stops.

APRIL 20 2020

If all we plan to do after the lockdown is to go back out and consume more pollution – because that is basically what most shops are filled with – then it might be far better if we all just stayed at home.


APRIL 20 2020

An individual's response to the arrival of crop pickers from eastern Europe captures very precisely that person's politics and one clear division of opinion that the global infestation of business principles and mindset has created.

Liberal pro-business globalisers see the migrants being flown in to pick fruit and veg as heroes arriving to gather our harvest and provide us with food. Socialist localist communitarians, of whom there are very few, see desperate and easily exploitable Romanians being forced by financial necessity into taking these rock bottom jobs on agricultural labour camps.

The former might recall their own happy days in the fields during student holidays; the latter will have scanned the present-day job spec on farm websites and seen the jaw-droppingly appalling conditions. The former might argue that Brits have become too soft, pampered and choosy to take on a bit of hard work; the latter would point out that these jobs are so abominable that no locals could reasonably be expected to take them.

One situation, two interpretations. The migrant workers are heroes – or the jobs are disgusting and exploitative. There you have one key aspect of the Brexit debate – and indeed today's political divide – in a nutshell. (See below – April 16 – for more thoughts on this.) 

APRIL 19 2020

Why toxic journalism can cost lives

OK, Sunday Times. We know you hate Boris with a passion. But could you please just put it on a T-shirt? Do NOT drag broadsheet journalism into disrepute with 3,000 words of political bile that would embarrass even the main opposition party. No newsdesk or features desk that I have ever worked with, on or for would have allowed such a dangerously loaded piece to see the light of day. It would have been thrown back at the writers with a stern warning: “You can start by getting the very first fact in the intro right.”

Not only that, on April 5, the Sunday Times' own columnist Matthew Syed wrote a masterful and intelligent piece on the dangers of constant negativity and carping. He cited the deadly impact on social workers of the lambasting they received after the Baby P case, which made them defensive and liable to avoid potentially life-saving interventions. He wrote: "A blame culture poisons agile decision-making." And said: "The blame game, here and now, is nothing less than a disgrace. A disgrace that will, I fear, cost lives." Today, the paper ignores, and goes against, every word he wrote.

The paper's crude hatchet job goes beyond carping, though. It amounts to little more than a show trial in which facts are selected by the prosecution and the defence silenced. The three reporters, working under the paper's now hopelessly floundering “Insight” banner, begin with a glaring howler regarding dates on the first line and go downhill from there. The sloppy date blunder was even compounded with a second error in the fourth column (of the print version). And all of this matters. Because there are valid and vital criticisms to be made of the government's detailed handling of the coronavirus outbreak. An outpouring of charmlessly biased, willfully unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair “reporting” distracts and distorts the debate into worthless point-scoring and forces credible critics of the government to leap to its defence in the interests of truth and justice. And then, of course, there is the danger that it eventually paralyses government into defensive and deadly indecision and inaction.

Within hours of publication, one of the piece's main claims – that Boris had been idle and complacent in dodging five COBR meetings – was debunked by people who actually attend COBR meetings. The PM is rarely expected to chair these meetings. They are sector specific and the relevant minister takes charge, reporting to the PM. When the pandemic became critical and he was needed, he was there. The writers then contend that this prime ministerial negligence meant that nothing was done for 38 crucial days and cost thousands of lives. This is simply not credible on several counts. We were reading reports in January suggesting the outbreak in China was sufficiently worrying to prompt me to say to one friend, who dismissed the virus as only affecting the old and weak and was a form of natural selection, that it was clearly more serious than we were being led to believe because of the precautions and preparations already being made.

UPDATE, Monday 20th: Matt Hancock, Health Secretary, says he initiated daily coronavirus meetings from mid-January. Why was this claim not presented in the feature? Because it fails to fit the biased narrative. It is also significant that every opposing politician of any note has chosen to ignore the article. Monday's Times makes no mention of it; the bizarrely aggressive BBC has not leapt on it. This is pure conjecture, but it's highly possible that Labour's Jon Ashworth, having been closely involved from the beginning, will have warned his new lumpen leader to stay well clear as the feature was so horribly flawed it would turn to trash very quickly and they would be damaged by association. One of the teams set up during the government's virus preparations was tasked with combating misinformation. It could hardly have imagined that one of its tasks would be to spend a couple of hours rebutting misinformation from The Sunday Times! (End of Update.)

Meanwhile, where was the clamour for action while these Boris-less COBR meetings were taking place? This is where the feature's glaring lack of context becomes important. Until the end of February and even into the beginning of March, the nation was focused not on an approaching pandemic – we hear about these at least twice a year and they regularly fail to materialise – but flooding. The media was haranguing the government for not stopping the rain and Boris for not wading through sodden streets in Yorkshire. There was more discussion in newspapers and on TV of the daft names given to the succession of storms than there was of a far-off virus.

Today's feature says an article in The Lancet in late January should have set sirens wailing – although it fails to suggest what action should have been taken or what could have been done differently at that stage. The fact that the editor of The Lancet played down the virus on the day his magazine published its warnings simply demonstrates the wide gulf of opinion on all matters scientific. He said: “There is no reason to foster panic with exaggerated language.” Is any government expected to leap into action following every article, every Tweet, every interview by a maverick professor, even when they are immediately contradicted?

This brings us to the worst of the show trial aspects of the feature – the careful and openly biased selection of the witnesses for the prosecution. The writers quote only one small section of scientific opinion – those warning of impending doom. All of those who are equally qualified and experienced and equally aware of the virus's progress but who were calling for a balanced, cautious approach, are completely absent. Why? Because they do not fit the biased narrative. Scientific opinions range from “there's nothing to worry about” to “we're all doomed”. It is perfectly reasonable to argue that the government took a balanced, measured approach, taking into account ALL of the available evidence and opinions. After all, some of the noisiest academics also had impressive track records of making wildly wrong forecasts in the past. Fair enough, cry wolf often enough and one day there will be a wolf – but don't expect anyone to listen.

Another accusation is that pandemic planning had been sidelined in recent years. The problem the writers had here is that it pre-dates Boris's premiership. And so Brexit, inextricably linked to Boris's political triumph, becomes the reason. The T-shirt should actually read “I hate Boris (and Brexit)”. So much of this type of coverage stems from two things: the liberal globalisers' relentless and vicious hatred of Brexit and everyone associated with it; and the fact that there is no rational opposition to the government. Keir Starmer's stuff-shirt knee-jerk gainsaying style does not promise much improvement and so the media remains Her Majesty's Unofficial Opposition, rather than an objective reporter, analyst and commentator.

The Sunday Times' feature falls directly into this trap with its poisonous and selective reporting. A glance at the bigger picture would show two things – first, that spending on pandemic precautions might well have been reduced during the austerity years – for which we can thank the preposterous “fools' paradise” consumption economics of the Brown/Blair years. In these circumstances, as Syed said in another recent Sunday Times column (April 12), proposing to spend billions or even millions on PPE (which goes out of date, apparently), and ventilators, just in case, would have been howled down by those pointing to immediate needs. As my former colleague, the wise bridge teacher Paul Mendelson, is apt to say: “This is not about making the right, best or perfect decision, it is about making the least awful decision.” And so it is completely understandable that pandemic preparations should have slipped down the long list of priorities, especially as a succession of health threats over two decades and more failed to materialise into “the big one”.

The bigger picture shows, secondly, that while it was scaled back, pandemic planning was not ignored completely. Plans remained in place – and indeed have been implemented. Of course, we had insufficient intensive care beds and no vast stockpile of PPE and ventilators because, collectively, we would not have been prepared to pay for them. Actions taken in the past three months or so, however, have prevented the NHS from being overwhelmed. It even has spare capacity. And incredibly, there will be people ready to howl about what a waste of money those exhibition centre Nightingale hospitals are. They are surely a triumph of leadership, decision-making and implementation – yet hardly merit a mention by the detractors. Decision-makers are not allowed to get a single thing right.

One of the more deplorable aspects of the Sunday Times feature is its widespread use of anonymous sources attacking any and every aspect of the government's performance. So easy to do – classic hatchet job reporting, just so long as you avoid the other side of the debate, and steer clear of speaking to those directly involved or, more specifically, those you are accusing. A good measure of balance in a feature is to ask whether it could have been presented to make exactly the opposite case – in this instance supporting the government's actions. And on this test, the feature fails catastrophically: a completely contradictory feature could have been written with equal credibility – ie, not much, given that it would be a whitewash. But a pro-government article quoting the other end of the scientific spectrum, different Whitehall “sources” and actually speaking to the individuals involved would have been just as easy and just as misleading and pernicious. Neither would have balance, integrity or credibility.

A good recent example of this “two sides to every story” appeared in the choice of headline on a Sunday Times news story about releasing prisoners from jail. The Prime Minister, according to the story, had been warned that releasing them would expose the public to risk. It said he had also been warned that not releasing the prisoners would lead to system breakdown and danger to prison staff. The headline read: “Boris ignores warning and releases prisoners” (or words to that effect). It could just as accurately have said: “Boris heeds warning and releases prisoners”. You either load the headline politically one way or the other – or you don't. Only a headline along the lines of “PM faces dilemma over prisoner release” would have been truly accurate and fair.

And it is this loaded thinking that infects the entire Sunday Times feature. The pejorative language merely adds to its unscrupulousness. For example, in late February, when there were only 13 known cases in the UK, one modeller of infectious diseases apparently wanted the UK threat level raised from “Moderate” to “High”, but his “link” to the meeting “was glitchy”. According to the feature, he later emailed his thoughts. The paper interprets this as him having been “thwarted” in his bid to raise the threat level – clearly implying agency on the part of someone. Boris is also to be hanged for the perfectly reasonable and far from unusual crime of “sunning himself” (as if! Boris?) in Mustique in December, when the first vague hint of danger from Wuhan emerged. This is simply gratuitously offensive and insulting.

In 3,000 words or so there is not a single positive, practical suggestion, idea or thought that would have made any significant difference at all. The coverage generally throughout the media has been overwhelming negative with a daily barrage of attacks. As Syed said in his column, this is so dangerous and could cost lives: constant pillorying and vilification makes even the strongest perilously defensive. So far, the government has remained stoic in the face of this onslaught. But we ought to be asking how much more can be withstood by people who are clearly working at an incredible rate to do their best in an impossible situation. As Syed concluded in his column, anyone claiming to have the answers in this crisis is either a genius or a fool.

Another of the exhibits presented by the prosecution is the subject of herd immunity, as if it had once been policy. I heard discussion of herd immunity as a possible approach but listening to the government's plans for a phased response it was crystal clear that herd immunity was an aspiration rather than part of the programme to “contain, delay, research, mitigate”. The initial “contain” period was admittedly short, partly because of the rapid rise in cases following the February half-term holiday, which began to register in statistics in early March. How on earth this progression from stage one (contain) to stage two (delay) could be presented as a U-turn, as it was, is astounding. I knew it was coming and had heard the PM saying that it would happen “when the time is right”. It is instructive that ideas of herd immunity were both roundly condemned when mentioned in the UK but lauded when Sweden decided to make it its overriding policy. The Sunday Times feature carefully chooses to ignore completely the international context, of course – the fact that our neighbours have experienced precisely the same or very very similar realities and trajectories does not fit the narrative.

There is no mention of the economic context, either. There are plenty of people, Matthew Parris among them, arguing that the damage to the economy is costing more lives and doing more damage than the response to the virus. At the other extreme, there are plenty arguing for a tighter lockdown and a severe Singapore-style containment to stop the spread and save lives. The government has chosen, instead, a balanced approach aimed at limiting the economic damage of a complete shutdown while making sure the NHS can cope with peak demand for intensive care. The evidence is absolutely clear that on the latter, the strategy is succeeding. There are logistical problems regarding PPE sourcing and distribution – of course there are. And if NHS staff have to change protective gear after seeing every patient then there is not going to be enough plastic in the world to meet demand. Similar difficult choices are placing strain on the economy – inevitably and obviously – but this government of all governments will be seeking to minimise the devastation. Boris has been accused of both putting the economy before people's lives and of exaggerating the impact of the virus at the expense of the economy.

A similar debate is now taking place over ending the lockdown. There is a growing agitation, for example, to send children back to school soon because they seem less susceptible to the virus. If the government announced such a plan, any teacher would be entirely justified in demanding PPE and any parent or other household member in keeping their child away. There will be, in short, an outcry, whichever way the government turns. These are agonisingly difficult decisions. I am glad I am not having to make them. I have heard no one come up with anything better. I therefore offer critical and questioning support. The trouble is, any criticisms and questions are constantly being overwhelmed and diverted by my having to apologise for and correct the succession of vitriolic and unjustified attacks from a media to which I still feel very attached – and recently ashamed by.

Frankly, I have never particularly liked Boris but I am not prepared to hang him on the basis of such flimsy evidence in a show trial. How can it be so heinous to continue fulfilling his diary commitments, such as a Downing Street reception in January for the UK's Chinese community led by the Chinese ambassador. Absurdly and maliciously, a picture of this event was used by the paper to illustrate our PM's frivolous approach to governing. I will judge him on what he says and does and so far there is little to support the execution for which so many seem to be clamouring. I have no problem with a PM who delegates, as long as he delegates well. Perhaps in Boris's case, we should be encouraging him to delegate. A leader cannot and does not do everything: they are figureheads, ideally providing inspiration and solidarity. Deliberately and destructively undermining that is ugly and unsafe at this time.

Because there are questions that should be asked that are lost in the bombardment of unsubstantiated vitriol: are the airports still operating largely unchecked? And if so, why? Who is arriving in the country? Where from? Why? Where are they going? Why have the regulations over the use of spare medication in care homes not been lifted? What is the real usefulness of testing and do we have the capacity to “trace”? Is the low level of testing due to a shortage of test kits? Is it due to a lack of analysing centres? Or are they simply not being done? How can PPE be made safely re-usable?

Could the Sunday Times not have listened to Syed, its smartest and wisest columnist and his warning that toxic questioning can cost lives? No one has the answers; I have not heard anyone come up with any better ideas than the ones being implemented; I heard no clamour for action on viruses when the country was focused on floods in February. Yes, with hindsight, we might have done things differently. But this is real life. And that was not journalism.

UPDATE: Tuesday 21st

My anonymous inside sources at the Department of Heath called the Sunday Times feature “one-sided” and “simplistic”. They say teams in the department are “working around the clock to secure PPE but a lot isn't to standard and there are bidding wars going on between countries.” They add: “There are thousands of civil servants working really hard.” Being lashed by a poisonous media day in day out for their failings can hardly be a great motivator. If any of these priceless people turn round and say “Sod the lot of you. Why should I put up with this crap?” then this is entirely the responsibility of shameful toxic journalism. It can cost lives.

Also: the professor who, it was alleged by The Sunday Times, “would have recommended increasing the threat to high” has since Tweeted to confirm the paper's claim is completely untrue.

Also: Nick Robinson has just demanded candour from a minister during yet another hostile and narrow Today Programme interview. He demanded dates and figures. In another “question” he accused the government of making promises it can't keep by saying a consignment of PPE from Turkey failed to arrive at the weekend. The agenda is: give as a date and a figure that we can hang you with next week when it doesn't work out. This is precisely the toxic journalism that encourages defensive government at every level. Fair, balanced and objective journalism gets answers and serves a valuable purpose. Toxic journalism can cost lives.

APRIL 16 2020

The produce will soon be rotting in the fields. The seasonal workers that pick the fruit and vegetables can't make their usual trip to spend days in the sun under the guidance of a ruddy-cheeked farmer in Tweed chewing on a straw in the side of their mouths. But wait. We have 750,000 people volunteering to help out in the coronavirus crisis – surely they will fill the gap.

Well, 50,000 people are reported to have looked into it – and almost none have taken up this fantastic opportunity for a blast of fresh air and making a few bob while you're at it. Why? Because they realised they would be signing up for a role in a labour camp, to become a victim of the new industrial agricultural machine that treats humans little better than it treats its factory animals.

Who could possibly be so desperate as to have to accept such appalling treatment every year? Where do the farms find them? Luckily for them, there are plenty of readily available destitute families within the EU accession countries. In a normal year, they are pretty much the entire seasonal workforce – and now they are unavailable. Only one solution will meet the farms' requirements: charter a flight and fill it with impoverished eastern Romanians, land it at Stansted, and use a fleet of minibuses to take them to their caravans on “campsites” in East Anglia. Never mind that they are coming from close to a Covid-19 hotspot, nor that they have the most cursory of health checks before boarding – walking through a temperature scanner and filling in a form claiming they are well – and no checks at all on landing.

How on earth was this allowed to happen: it is a complete scandal. It is a scandal as much to do with the ruthless exploitation of farm workers as it is about the flagrant disregard for social distancing and the “Stay at Home” message. The only reason these people are here is because they are cheap and compliant. They will put up with the appalling living conditions because the alternative is letting their children back at home starve and miss schooling.

I looked at the prospectuses for a few farms: typically, workers pay to live four or six to a caravan with a communal campsite kitchen, where they are expected to be responsible for all their meals, including the lunch they take with them for the day. They are paid on a piece-work basis; bad weather or illness means work ceases. The pay is low and the work extremely hard, including 5am starts, which makes it impractical to live anywhere other than on site. Most farms “discourage” cars. And, of course, it is seasonal, making it impractical for anyone who needs a year-round occupation to support a family. I would not take a job on those terms and neither, I suspect, would you.

The risks this year are obviously so much greater: one case of Covid-19 will run riot in such cramped and shared camp conditions. So far, the news coverage is focused on how foreign workers are being “rushed in to save the harvest”. No one seems interested in investigating the reality of these camps. It means the next news coverage on this subject is when Romanians begin falling ill and dying. 

This is rock-bottom employment, bearable only to the destitute and impoverished; it is nothing like some of us might remember as youngsters. The farm owners – they cannot be called farmers – say they need “experienced pickers” who can only be found in eastern Europe. In fact, the only experience anyone needs is in how to survive and endure such hardship and deprivation. Anyone teaching the skills required for picking fruit or veg would be struggling to extend the training session beyond 45 minutes.

The tragedy is that it need not be this way. It is only this way because the UK labour market now extends to the Black Sea and the easily exploitable and penniless of Pascani and Podu Iloaiei. One of the workers arriving this week at Stansted said he was only here to put food on his table back home – he had no choice, he was forced by financial pressures. Another accepted the health risk and was quoted as saying: “If we are meant to die, we will die in Romania as well.”

These are not the first to arrive in the UK this spring, however. Farm owners, realising that flights were about to be suspended, flew in Romanians in early April. One was quoted in The Times as saying he “agreed to house them on the farm and give them money for food”. This is what we have become.

The root cause of this vile state of affairs is, of course, consumers' lust for cheap food – cheap everything. Were the people in these labour camps paid and treated decently – to the point where these jobs would once again be attractive to a section of the local population – food prices would rise steeply. This is the price we would all have to pay to end this misery. To me, this is not a choice: it is the reasonable and necessary price for ending such rancid exploitation and mistreatment and offering decent opportunities to those seeking temporary work. This sector could then be transformed, providing local people with highly paid, satisfying employment.

We should, of course, be under no illusion that this work is easy. I remember potato picking as a youngster: it was hard. But it was also bearable and in many ways attractive and enjoyable as a fun, community event. With or without that community element, those who carry out such work should be rewarded properly. But as I say in “The Rise of Antisocialism”, the value we place on work is completely upside down. Seasonal farm work is important – the first link in our food supply chain. Yet its workers are treated as little more than plantation slaves. We applaud NHS staff every Thursday at 8pm, yet balk at the increases in taxation that would enable us all to contribute to providing them with their just rewards. Instead, nurses who are saving lives by risking theirs, suffer low pay, low esteem and many, once trained, flee to Australia and the like, where they are treated with respect and status, where they are valued. That is why it is Portuguese Luis and Kiwi Jenny working in our hospitals, saving the prime minister, rather than Louise from Portsmouth and Jeremy from New Haw.

Yet while we refuse to value those doing the important things, we heap rich rewards and status on those attending to frivolous, pointless and often damaging activities. I doubt much will change post-virus, but my book advocates, as I do here, a complete reversal of the pay and status of our workforce. Those carrying out difficult and often unpleasant tasks that matter should be valued and win respect and rewards that match their worth. Those, mostly in offices enjoying themselves, as I was for my entire career, who make little or no practical contribution to society, or often a negative contribution, should be rewarded and respected far less.

On my daily exercise walk, I see rainbows in windows, and rainbows in chalk on pavements, decorated with hearts and the words “Key Workers” beside them. I even see them outside the mansions in the Beverly Hills style areas nearby. Just how ironic is that?

APRIL 8 2020

This is becoming really annoying. The constant barrage of unthinking knee-jerk carping and negativity at everything the government does needs to stop. It really pains me to have to defend a Tory prime minister, but the constant and deliberate undermining of every single thing the government does or says is wrong, unjust and as dangerous now as it would be during a war.

I've heard Boris being described as not taking the virus seriously as the reason for him catching it. On a sliding scale, with reprehensible self-interest and hypocrisy as displayed by Scotland's chief medical officer at one end, and dedicated medical staff risking their lives in a national emergency at the other, Boris's work at running a government at a time of crisis inevitably meant close-quarter meetings and a hardly avoidable risk of infection. I'd say this places him very near the medical staff end of the scale, rather than the frivolous "double standards and disregard for the rules" end. At the No.10 press conferences two or three weeks ago, Boris was already asking the ranks of reporters whether it was a good idea to have everyone physically assembled and that it should be switched to a digital version. He also made clear quite early on that he was taking precautions and pointed out that he sought to minimise his personal risk to protect his pregnant partner. For my own part, I was among a family group as late as March 11 that was happy to be in a very crowded public space and ended the evening with hugs. We had already been warned about the importance of social distance and we did not do this because Boris had shaken hands with someone recently. We all have to accept our responsibility.

Others claim the government's message is unclear and there is a lack of leadership. What can people not understand about "Stay at Home"? Admittedly, there are exceptions which, if followed rigorously, with common sense and following the spirit of what is intended, can allow for essential (although as I said in a previous post, we seem to have no idea of what "essential" means any more) movement – shopping, outdoor exercise for up to an hour, truly essential work and help for the most vulnerable nearby. This is a carefully balanced approach – isolating as large a proportion of the population as possible to enable the NHS to deal with the inevitable surge in critical cases. There are deluged nurses near breaking point all over social media pleading in tears for people to Stay at Home so that they can cope. Why is anyone confused? Would the carping critics have been happier with a continental style "indoors-only" lockdown, severely enforced by armed police and soldiers, with forms to be filled in every time anyone leaves their home? There would have been an outcry. Or a corona free-for-all, overwhelming the NHS, with hundreds of thousands not receiving vital, life-saving treatment (there WAS an outcry). If I was prime minister, it's roughly the path I would have followed – careful management and carefully judged to win maximum support and adherence. Yet it STILL prompts an outcry. I have not heard anyone come up with a better plan.

People talk of Sweden's "herd immunity" approach. I remember Boris mentioning this notion around March 9 – and being howled down by armchair experts whose knee-jerk response to everything anyone associated with this government says is to gainsay it, even if that includes the country's chief medical officers. Who knows whether the Swedish experiment will work – they don't, we don't, no one does. Yet, until a few days ago when the wheels started to come off, it was still being used to undermine our government.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, seems to have been broadly supportive of the government's plans from the start. Of course, there are logistical, practical and administrative problems and hurdles to be overcome – and fast and perhaps a greater emphasis on testing might have come sooner. But as Ashworth says in a tweet, this is an "unprecedented global health crisis". Ministers are having to think on the hoof, adapt, mend, support in areas previously uncharted. But of course, the new wooden pink-Tory Labour leader has to go as far as he dare to undermine the government on his very first day in the post! Responsible opposition is what is required and we are not seeing anything like it, apart from the so-far admirable Ashworth.

(As an aside, Labour has made yet another of its wild swings from principled left to electable but pointless right. After the last election, the thinking seems to have been: "Help – our people are voting Tory. Let's find our own Tory buffoon to lead our party. Get Starmer.")

The press has also had a truly appalling crisis. I have watched many of the afternoon press conferences and heard the embarrassingly poor level of questioning, so much of it aimed at scoring a cheap point, catching out a scientist or making a politician a hostage to fortune by insisting they predict what will happen next and when all this will end. That last question has all the intellectual gravitas of a whining four-year-old in the back of the car constantly demanding to know "Are we nearly there yet?" And as a lifelong journalist it is painful for me to watch one of those subdued, dignified but open and informative briefings and then read the next day that the Guardian says Boris was smirking and looked to be finding it all a bit of a lark. It was simply untrue – just nasty points scoring aimed at a prime minister the paper hates with a venom for his Brexit victory.

The Sunday Times on April 5 was almost as bad. One headline read: "PM ignores warning and releases prisoners". An alternative headline, "PM heeds warning and releases prisoners", would have been equally accurate – and equally wrong. The story itself made crystal clear that the government was given two warnings – one that releasing prisoners would cause a public danger and one saying that not releasing prisoners would lead to system breakdown and serious danger for the prison staff. But the chosen headline was 100 per cent negative. The paper even said the prime minister was "out of his depth" – as if ANYONE is "within their depth" at a time like this. Another story harangued policy-makers, saying cancer patients were not getting their treatment. There was not a single word of what the alternative should be. The question appeared not even to have been asked. We know there are impossible choices to be made. This story was a pointless exercise in stating the obvious with no positive element at all. What some news editors would call a non-story. Certainly an incomplete one. At least deep-thinking Matthew Syed's column restored some semblance of order with its demand that armchair critics are poisoning the machinery of government, forcing it on to the defensive, just as social workers were frozen and frightened into dangerous inaction after the "Baby P" case. As he concluded, anyone who thinks they have the answer is a genius or a fool.

So, unless you have any better ideas – positive ones – it might be better to stay quiet. Yes, question the speed at which the practical things are taking place and offer positive suggestions for improvements – how to get the financial bail-out working better, solving the logistical nightmare of moving protective equipment around, how to speed up testing. But when it comes to overall strategy and initiatives, the attacks I'm hearing are knee-jerk reactions from a relentlessly anti-government bubble. I am no apologist for any Tory government – my book shows that my left-wing thinking is far beyond anything even the Labour left has considered. But I am wedded to notions of integrity, truth and justice. With those in mind, and looking at how comparable countries have fared in this battle against the virus, I think most of the carping I am hearing is unfair and potentially very damaging. In this situation, all of the availableoptions are truly awful. As bridge guru Paul Mendelson would say, the choice is only from a range of least awful decisions.


APRIL 2 2020

It's a typically British response. People spread a potentially deadly virus around the world and the official British response is to put the entire UK population into a queue. It might feel like isolation, or a "lockdown", but what we are doing, in fact, is queuing. And in this queue it is bad news to be too near the front; the best hope of avoiding the worst is to aim for the back.

First, we should note that it is people who are spreading the Covid-19 coronovirus. The virus does not spread geographically at all: it cannot move. If advising the government, I would require every reference to the "the virus spreading" to be presented as "people spreading the virus". This in itself could bring about a shift in mindset.

But back to the queue. The official line is that the bulk of the population will contract the virus. Indeed, will NEED to contract the virus to gain hoped-for immunity for themselves and, ultimately, the herd. A vaccine is too far away. The capacity of the health system to treat those infected is obviously limited and so if everyone became infected at the same time, huge numbers would die for want of life-saving facilities. The number of patients therefore needs to be managed. This has been the government's and the scientists' clearly expressed approach from the beginning. And it makes perfect sense. It was demonstrated beautifully in an online video showing how a bucket of water could pass through a funnel if the input was regulated but would overwhelm it if left to become an uncontrolled surge.

And so we are queuing. Staying at home does not mean that most of us will not eventuallyget Covid-19 but it does mean that those strictly following the guidelines of only leaving home for truly essential purposes (sadly, we have lost a sense of what "essential" really means, following decades of self-important antisocialism) will move towards the back of it, only entering the emergency health system when capacity is available and the service more experienced. The queue will also become increasingly spread out, which is truly essential.

So enjoy your wait in the queue. The outbursts of creativity everywhere are perhaps making it dawn on people that there is more to "leisure time" than brainlessly wandering around a shopping mall wondering what unnecessary pollution to consume. But this is one queue you would be mad to risk jumping.

DECEMBER 9 2019

How to vote? Having set out my political vision of how we have reached this sorry pass in my book, The Rise of Antisocialism, and explained where we might find an acceptable route forward, I feel I should use the book's analysis and premises to survey today's party political landscape a few days before the 2019 general election.

It is easy to rule out several contenders. Labour's bizarre manifesto contains some excellent ideas, such as higher taxes – I have always voted in favour of everyone, especially the well off, making a greater contribution to social provision of services. Some nationalisation is certainly justified. The trains, for example, are no better now than before privatisation – I used them as a daily commuter both before and after – yet large amounts of money are being diverted from the sector into individuals' pockets. But there is so much wrong, too. Its idiotic blanket promise to compensate every “Waspi” woman, regardless of their situation, shows a blinkered and misguided idealism that smacks of danger. Its Brexit policy, the most pressing issue in this election, is also utterly incoherent.

We needn't waste much time on the arrogant and foolish LibDem leader and her undemocratic, illiberal denial of the 2016 referendum result: her party has spent three years doing everything possible in Parliament to thwart the declared will of the electorate. Her hubris is sickening and the leaflet bombardment to which we have been subjected shows a blatant disregard for planetary resources. And Swinson's unthinking wokeness, for example, in support of the fascistic trans extremists is frightening. 'Tis a pity for the party. I have voted LibDem in the past and locally they work hard. But its present stance is nasty, middle class and objectionable.

The Greens cannot see the wood for the trees, almost literally. I have also voted Green in the past – rather pointlessly – whenever I felt the need to make a point! The problem is that its policies are a jumbled mish-mash of bits and pieces that are supposed to add up to a different way of life, but don't: there is no holistic view of how we will need to change in order to survive a ravaged planet, which is one of the things I try to draw together in my book.

In Scotland, the SNP leadership is positively toxic. Flailing around for anything that will hurt the majority, Sturgeon has lost two recent referendums, refused to accept the result of either and yet calls for more! As a Scottish woman said on the radio the other morning: “I'll keep voting for independence until Scotland gets what it wants.” Which completely ignores the fact that Scotland does already have exactly what it wants. It voted to remain part of the union and that is what it is. What she meant was “I'll keep voting for independence until I get what I want.” And that is the nub of the ghastly SNP message.

The Brexit Party is merely a dangerous distraction. It claims to want Brexit, but not this Brexit. By getting in the way of those who should be delivering Brexit, it is threatening the one thing it claims to care about.

Which brings us to the Conservatives. It has sort of shaken off the nasty party tag but attached to itself the “we're just having a laugh” party. It's hard to take Boris seriously. But the manifesto is not outrageous – it's quite bland. The party, quite rightly, sees “getting Brexit done” as the first priority. This running sore will fester and worsen if left untreated, which is exactly what Labour and the LibDems – and others – propose. But there can be no peace until the referendum result is enacted. Boris's deal is not great but far better than Corbyn's suggested “vassal state” version. Given that Parliament, finely balanced in party terms but overwhelmingly Remain supporting, has spent three years trying to wreck what could have been a fairly smooth Brexit process, progress can only be made by giving the Conservatives a significant majority. As an avowed and genuine socialist, I find this paradoxical and uncomfortable, but there is no acceptable alternative. Any other result plunges us straight back into chaos and misery, requiring another election next year.


And a word on climate change: it is not a slow, gradual progression towards a warmer, wetter uninhabitable planet spread over centuries, giving us plenty of time to wish and hope that technology will save us. Change doesn't work like that. What we will see is a series of ever more critical and sudden events that will step us down to a new level of degradation. For example, the current drought and fires in Australia and elsewhere creates smoke and haze, which in turn forms a blanket producing further warming. And the ash lying on glaciers in New Zealand will help them to melt more quickly, etc etc. An event such as this rapidly accelerates our decline for a period, after which we adjust to living on a relatively event-free plateau for a while – but a lower and more dangerous plateau. Each event creates knock-on effects that step us down closer to an emergency. It's the same with getting old: it rarely happens gradually. More often, something happens – an illness, a fall, a change of circumstance – that sparks a sudden deterioration to life at a new, more debilitated, level that in itself accelerates the ageing process.

OCTOBER 20 2019

The divisions in the UK will never be healed until the country leaves the EU. Families and friends remain divided over this issue and are becoming ever more deeply so. Parliament's shameful behaviour in blocking every avenue, from leaving with a deal, leaving without, holding a general election, or another referendum means the wounds are being aggravated, rather then soothed.

If our tawdry parliamentarians continue their juvenile game-playing and achieve their true aim of thwarting Britain's departure from the EU, as mandated in the 2016 referendum, what do they think will follow? The genie is now out of the bottle. The turmoil will not be stilled by simply forgetting that 2016 ever happened. The festering will spread and deepen; there will be no healing; this issue will dominate our politics and distract us from meaningful progress for the foreseeable future.

Leave, with or without a deal, and the largely unfounded concerns of the suddenly fervent pro-EU community will quickly melt away. Europe will still be there – our leaving of it is a physical impossibility. We will still communicate and co-operate with its bureaucracy, the EU. Far less will change than we think. Unless we wish it.

And on this point, I applaud Caroline Flint and those Labour socialists who think like her. These are the last genuine socialists in parliament. The discredited McDonnell tendency has shown itself to favour business success over traditional labour-voting working class communities, on the spurious ground that it provides jobs. At the same time, the absurd Starmer wing demonstrates an astonishing defeatism unworthy of politicians of any hue. These people seem so assured of their own failings and inability to win an election for a decade or more that they blithely assume right-wing Tory governments will prevail long into the future, undermining workers' rights and steering the UK towards rabid free market madness.

Flint and her ilk can see the true possibilities that Brexit can bring. If the Labour Party can shed its third-rate student politicians and replace them with people like her, then it COULD win an election. And having done that it could implement whatever improvements to employee rights, social services, industrial policy, environmental protections and general welfare that it wished. This thing cuts both ways. The Tories might bring us one form of Brexit – and until someone does, the country will remain mired in ugliness. But a resurgence of real, grown-up socialists, of which there are now so few, could deliver immeasurable improvements to the lives of Britain's poorest and most vulnerable and deprived, bringing about changes that would be impossible within the limited remit allowed by the EU.

These are the issues I discuss in my newly published book, "The Rise of Antisocialism", published by Amazon and available by clicking this link.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rise-Antisocialism-Understand-understand-everything/dp/1698429673/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=antisocialism&qid=1571559836&sr=8-1

APRIL 13 2019

Having re-read a few of my posts below, I felt I should point out that they are all written from my particular standpoint and that taken in isolation they could be misconstrued or misunderstood. Therefore, to anyone venturing into these texts, I simply ask that you bear in mind that I write as someone who wishes to refocus our society towards fairness and sharing, communitarianism and place, and away from a world run by, and for, business. I seek a society run by, and for, people. For all people, not just the winners in the game of winner-takes-all who flit along the path of least resistance and take whatever pleases them. Our business-first culture is destroying not just the planet, but human relationships and important values such as caring and decency. In all these musings I am merely seeking an end to the materialism, greed and selfishness that I believe lie at the root of what currently drives western culture. This cannot go on. And once you assume this stance, so many other things, and so many things people say, take on a very different perspective.      

I am currently working on a book that expands on these ideas.

APRIL 12 2019

This year has been overwhelming so far. A sell-out gig in February for the band, raising about £3,000 for the Down's Syndrome Association and performed at their lovely theatre in Teddington. Then Dad took a turn for the worse, spent a month in hospital and died on March 30. I was booked on a Chris Difford songwriting retreat the following week and decided to go anyway. And what a mind-blowing experience it was: wonderful people, music and place. Everybody on it was left suffering with a type of PTSD! We handled Dad's funeral service ourselves, which was a lot of work crafting the service sheet and the schedule. But it was beautiful. Lots of people attending. And now Australia. It will be the maddest few months ever.

At least we can get away from Brexit. As Janice Turner said before the referendum, it's a lonely existence being a left-wing communitarian leave voter. No one really wants to hear the caring, socialist Brexit viewpoint, so I've really lost all interest and am past caring whether we leave or not or on what terms. Our politicians have let us down and a gruesome alliance of free-market headbanging Tory extremists combined with the Remain Establishment, which will never let Brexit happen anyway, have wrecked everything and almost ensured we'll never leave. I voted leave as the only way to begin dismantling sweatshop Britain and changing society and the way we spend our days for the better. The vulnerable and neglected deserve big improvements in their lives, which they cannot get while under the ultimate control of an undemocratic, business-first bureaucracy. I feel European, I love Europe - but this is not the same thing as loving the EU, which cares only about business, competition and profits and little about people, culture and justice. How else could it not only allow, but actually feed the appalling growth of sweatshop work practices across Britain. It is the weakest who suffer, those who have no voice. Or when they did have a voice for a day in 2016 are now told they are stupid and should shut up, because we are never going to help you.   

JANUARY 10 2019

It seems the new year is beginning with a deterioration in political behaviour that hardly seemed possible a few weeks ago, when the level of debate and common sense in Parliament had already reached a record low. The shameful and irresponsible behaviour of so many MPs is seriously shocking. One appalling cohort is seeking to rule out both a deal AND a no deal Brexit - the most blatant attempt at scuppering Brexit so far. Up to now, most attempts have been underhanded. Another overlapping cohort is seeking a second referendum. But one has to ask to what purpose, when these people have shown such utter contempt for the result of the first one? The mendacious behaviour of those Remainers intent on sabotaging every aspect of Brexit is, in fact, an attempt to discredit the whole idea by making it appear impossible - when it is only impossible because of the power of so many wreckers. As for those calling for a general election - it's the only thing Corbyn has actually said for the past few months - I would accept this, on one condition: no current MP is ever allowed to hold public office again and therefore cannot stand. The behaviour of pretty much everyone in Parliament has been so reprehensible that they do not deserve another chance.    

NOVEMBER 16 2018

I propose two new crimes. First, running a gambling company (obviously). Second, and punishable by years and years of community service, the offence of using the phrase "stolen my future". This should apply most severely to the next selfish, pampered, privileged kid to go on TV (witness last night's Question Time) and whine on about how Brexit has "stolen their future". First, they should be made to list precisely what has been "stolen" from them – we want details. And second, being made to serve their community until the age of 30 or more might focus the minds of anyone else thinking of using the same pitiful, self-obsessed slogan. It might make them compare their plight to that of a 19-year-old in 1914, or to teenagers on poverty-stricken sink estates across Britain. Countless youngsters HAVE had their futures stolen from them – but you will never hear them whimpering about it on telly.

Further to the mini bus analogy (see below, November 9), I should add that the majority five cannot actually agree on which bit of the north to head to either, making the minority wreckers' task all too easy. The fact that the mini bus ends up in a tangled, confused heap in a car park in a bleak spot in the Midlands, having gone nowhere in two years, pretty much sums up the abysmal EU negotiations.

And so to May's Brexit deal. It is, of course, a dog's breakfast. An abomination. It pleases no one, except, it seems, Theresa May. But it's the only game in town. Let's get real. Apart from the staggeringly stupid lack of a "notice to quit" option that would enable the UK to exit the customs arrangement – which sounds extremely unlikely to be enforceable anyway – there is little point in any of us listing what we don't like about the deal when there is no prospect, at this stage of, of achieving anything else. Every single person in the country can easily find something they feel is abhorrent in this package. But that's where we've been heading all along with such a flawed negotiating strategy – the worst of all worlds. The talks on the UK side have been approached throughout from a grovelling, supine position, while the vain and unelected EU ideologues have behaved with their usual arrogance, dogmatism, fanaticism and imperiousness. Preparing for no deal from day one, and informing the EU Commission that we would be willing to listen if it had anything worthy to contribute, but otherwise, please don't bother us, was the only way to meet the EU's entirely predictable and uncaring intransigence. Mervyn King and others pointed out this blindingly obvious strategy more than two years ago. But now we are where we are. On our knees, kowtowing to a smug, grinning European Commission, with no other option but to take this wretched deal, hope it sees us through the next few years and then keep the good bits while gradually amending or ignoring the bad bits and shredding the worst. Trying to race to a no deal exit from here is no longer possible; a second referendum would be a catastrophe when Leave supporters refuse to participate, denying it any legitimacy; a "people's vote"? On what?; or an indefinite postponement? And carry on like this for ever? To be fair, the EU negotiators have said all along that they would only ever offer us a bad deal. On this they have stuck to their word. Why we ever thought otherwise, I have no idea. Even then, it still doesn't guarantee the whole of the EU will endorse it. Our strategy has been naive, weak and clueless.

At least the Labour Party has an agreed stance on Brexit at last – and indeed everything else: "We need a general election." What's your view on the backstop? "We need a general election." What's your policy on the single market? "We need a general election." Any policies on FOBTs? "We need a general election." Anything to say to working class people or the poor? "We need a general election." Brilliant. Thank you.


And why were these two news stories presented separately in The Times on Wednesday? Two sides of the same coin; one story, really – yet appearing on separate pages. Whatever happened to joined-up thinking?


NOVEMBER 9 2018

An old friend of mine – a professor, actually – was accidentally caught up in the recent "Remain Minority March" in London (the one demanding the wrecking of Brexit). He made one observation: "Not a single trade unionist or working class person to be seen..." (or "stupid, racist people" to be seen, as pro-status quo, pro-business, middle class, "liberal" Brexit wreckers see them).

Another old friend drew parallels between a pro-Tommy Robinson march that ended in violence, and the peaceful nature of the Remain Minority March. He wrote: "A few hundred Tommy Robinson supporters turned up in London had a march then a riot. Hundreds of thousands of Remainers turn up and no trouble at all. Perhaps politicians could stop listening to racists [sic] and pay more heed to the decent ordinary British people [sic]." This all rather reinforces the point that the Minority March was populated by the comfortably off demanding the continuation of the advantages and privileges safeguarded by the business-centric EU. It was peaceful because it wasn't a protest. Marches are usually calling for change: this one was pleading for maintenance of the status quo. "We like things just the way they are" is hardly a call to arms. "Whadda we want?" "Everything exactly the way it is!" "When do we want it?" "For ever!"

This same friend opines on Facebook that we cannot leave the EU because it is "impossible". He uses "the banning of gravity" as an analogy. This is a clever friend, but his analogy is painfully absurd. Leaving the EU is not denying the laws of physics: it is admin; paperwork. I posit a far more apposite analogy. You are in a coffin on your way to the furnace. You wake up and start knocking furiously, yelling: "Let me out. I've got to get out! I'm not dead yet!" But the reply from outside comes: "I'm sorry. It's just impossible. There's no way we can undo all the paperwork and admin. It's far too complicated. You'll just have to stay in there." In this scenario, you might hope someone is prepared to put a little effort into achieving "the impossible". And that there are no complaining hordes doing everything they can to stop them.

There can be no denying that the Brexit process has been appallingly badly handled and is a shambles. One significant reason for this is the refusal of the minority to accept the referendum result. Virtually everyone I have heard who begins their argument with "Of course I/we respect the referendum result" then goes on to show precisely the opposite. Even traitors such as Blair and Clegg (having written to foreign countries urging them to punish the UK), have claimed to respect the democratic decision reached in 2016. Drawing another analogy, try seeing the referendum as a decision on where to go on holiday to be made by nine people in a mini bus. There is only one mini bus, so everyone has to go to the same place, whether they like it or not, but all agree that the destination will be decided by a simple democratic vote. Five vote to head north, four to go south. But sadly, this doesn't settle things. The four who voted to go south repeatedly say: "While we fully respect the vote, we don't think the majority really meant to drag us all into the cold wilderness of the north." And they keep tugging at the steering wheel, wrenching on the hand brake, covering the driver's eyes – anything to prevent progress towards the north. The mini bus eventually breaks down, thanks to all the mistreatment it has received, having gone round in circles at a service station for two years. The minority claim they were right all along: "Look – it's impossible to go north. We'll have to have another vote and then go south." The quiet majority – "decent ordinary British people" – just shake their heads in dismay.

Yet another old friend said recently that she fears the divisions created over Brexit may never heal. And she could well be right. This is partly because the topic is now taboo. It cannot be discussed rationally, even by intelligent people, because it is now in the same category as religion and education as a dangerous subject – though far, far more toxic. No one on either side seems prepared to listen to anyone whose views differ even slightly from their own. I may be guilty of that myself. But at least I am bombarded every day with Remain and Pro-EU arguments – for a start, virtually everyone I connect with on social media is a Remainer – and so cannot avoid hearing them. On the other hand, no one, as far as I am aware, has been even slightly interested in exploring my views or understanding my viewpoint. If someone was prepared to listen and still disagreed with me, then fine. I could respect that. But as things stand, the noisy pro-EU lobby listens with all the interest of a committed christian being told there is no god. 

Everyone, of course, hears things only within the context of their own viewpoint. I understand that. It means everything anyone hears simply reinforces their previously held views and the divisions widen. Only when you delve back into the underlying assumptions can you make any progress on mutual understanding and closing the gap between the two viewpoints. So here are some of my assumptions, outlined as briefly as possible....

First, I abhor our business-centric culture. Spending more than a quarter of a century working for the Financial Times gave me ample time – and a ring-side seat – to survey and assess the increasing domination by businesses and business principles of every walk of life – education, health, crime, entertainment, housing and home-owning, sport, hobbies, transport, charity, the list is endless. Every decision made by authorities at every level has to be decided on its benefit or otherwise to business. Life and death decisions in hospitals have become financial decisions. Powerful business lobbies have seized control of their own areas of operation – the gambling sector, housebuilders etc etc. They dictate the terms of the debate and policymakers are forced or fooled into supporting and protecting their interests.

Second, the mindless consumption and materialism upon which vast swathes of business depends, is degrading the planet and its resources at such a rate our very existence is under threat. Many species are already extinct or on the brink of becoming so; humans will, sooner or later, be in that same boat. We simply cannot go on living like this. This is not a choice. But with a business-centric culture that feeds economic growth and very little else, the status quo is secure. Siren voices warning of the dangers are silenced by arguments citing fractions of percentage points, a possible loss of jobs, competition, lack of choice in supermarkets and so on. A new relationship between business and society, and a way of life that does not rely on permanent economic "growth" are urgently needed. Read Kate Raworth's "Donut Economics" before dismissing any of this.

Third, this business-centric status quo is failing to deliver on even the single narrow promise it makes – rising material prosperity for all. This week's Times reports that there are 14.2m people in the UK living in poverty. Queues at food banks, schoolchildren unable to sleep at night because their only bed is an uncomfortable armchair, shoddy tower blocks burning down. What stake do these people have in the status quo? On TV this week we saw "Doing Money" – a drama based on a true story about Romanian girls being tricked or kidnapped into the arms of criminal gangs and trafficked to Ireland. Forced – brutally – into prostitution, the victims are ferried backwards and forwards across national borders to evade national police forces. This is all enabled by "freedom of movement" and made necessary the first anti-slavery legislation in Britain for 200 years. This what we've become. Modern slavery is regularly reported; sweatshop labour is commonplace; labour gangs waiting for a day's work have reappeared; the "gig economy", with its zero-hours contracts and rotten pay – OK, it might work for some, but for most it has reduced wages and productivity. And don't believe for a second that the statistics painting a rosy picture of near full employment are giving a true impression: millions are "employed" for a few hours here and there, or paid so little they have to be subsidised by the state, or trapped in miserable sweatshops. And yes, state benefits maintain this sickening status quo, especially those that are, in effect, given to businesses under the guise of "in-work" benefits. It means we have whole sectors full of businesses that are not really going concerns at all – they cannot afford to pay for the labour they exploit without being subsidised. Business-on-benefits. It's grotesque. And much of it is a direct result of freedom of movement within the EU. Give businesses access to a limitless supply of cheap labour and they will exploit it to the max. And they have. The consequences are tragic for all – some businesses that would otherwise fail are propped up by their ability to exploit cheap workers from eastern Europe, aided and abetted by business-on-benefits subsidies; other businesses use the cheap labour source to enrich themselves. We have seen this week the boss of Persimmon, for example, shamed into quitting after being offered almost £150m in pay and bonuses for one year. The exploited migrants suffer, the countries losing them suffer, the labour forces they are undercutting and replacing suffer – as one policeman in the "Doing Money" docu-drama mentioned as an aside: "Even British prostitutes can't compete." No wonder pay has stagnated and productivity declined when employing half a dozen migrants on sweatshop wages to spend a week doing a job with primitive tools is better for business than investing in technology and training. There are millions of unemployed and under-employed in the UK just longing for a job offering decent pay, security, respect and opportunities. We are not so short of labour or expertise that we need to import it - it's more that we have down-graded, undermined and refused to invest in vast swathes of the workplace, from catering and hospitality to health and the trades.    

Fourth, many of the people voting Leave in the referendum could not care less whether the UK is in the EU or not. That is NOT the great divide in our country. Anyone who thinks membership of the EU is either the real problem or the solution to our ills really has no conception of how serious our underlying problems are. The polarisation of wealth, the complete domination of our culture by business, the gradual destruction of the planet – these are the underlying issues that stirred people to vote as they did. The EU got caught in the crossfire because, for all the good things it does, there are an equal number of abominations. The greatest of which is "freedom of movement" of people. When the populations of the eastern European accession countries gained this right, it swept away the rough equilibrium that had made this freedom tolerable. It worked when pay, conditions, lifestyles, benefits etc were approximately balanced between the participating countries – but this collapsed once the relatively impoverished former Soviet bloc nations entered the fray. This simple fact provided a focus for all of the anger felt by the underprivileged, the poor, the dispossessed. A map plotting the location of Leave versus Remain voters very closely matches one plotting the areas of greatest deprivation. Ask yourself why these people would vote for the status quo, given that the chance of righting these wrongs within the EU is non-existent - the unelected, unaccountable, agenda-driven ideologues making up the European Commission have made that crystal clear on multiple occasions. And so even if the alienated majority couldn't care less about EU membership one way or the other, this was a chance to be heard. I believe it is outrageous to brand them as stupid, feckless and racist and seek to silence them, while fighting to wreck the process of leaving the EU in order to preserve the middle class privileges many of us enjoy. Your Ehic card versus a trafficked Romanian girl? Your fuzzy, warm sense of "belonging" in a greater Europe versus slavery, sweatshops, poverty? Perhaps if one of the choices on offer was a continuing union with the people of Europe, the vote would have gone the other way. But it wasn't. The union is a union of businesses, resting on the key business principle of exploitation of resources, human or otherwise – and the victims of this business-centric alliance, and their supporters, understood that well enough.

MARCH 15 2018

So the odious Vince Cable declares all Brexit voters to be racist and stupid in his shameful "white faces" speech.

Perhaps he should read James Bloodworth's book, "Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain" – or even just Nick Cohen's excellent review of it in The Guardian – to get a hint at how working people are treated today. Cable clearly hasn't the first clue. Even these few paragraphs from the book review give a clear insight into the motivations of many many Leave voters who believe in standing up against exploitation and abuse in all its forms. Shame on you, Cable.

Nick Cohen wrote: "Immigration and class are now inseparable subjects. By Bloodworth’s account, the native working class has respectable reasons to worry about mass migration. The recruitment agencies that supplied eastern Europeans to Amazon warned their workers that, if they made a fuss about their conditions, there was a reserve army of their fellow countrymen ready to take their place. Bloodworth and his colleagues made about £250 a week. The average weekly wage in Romania was a little over £100. One migrant told Bloodworth he worked like an animal and was a nobody in the UK. But in Romania he would be a nobody without enough to eat.

"Bloodworth argues it is progress that most British workers will not take jobs from employers who treat them like animals. He does not want to lionise migrants for putting up with intolerable conditions. Instead, he takes a nice swipe at stereotypical reactions to migration. The average eastern European meets two types of people in England: “those who wanted you to go home and those who wrote letters to liberal newspapers waxing colourfully about how wonderful and hardworking you were”.

"The point is that no one should have to work in the conditions Bloodworth experienced. This is an easy sentence to write. But if we were to build a society where its sentiments were made a reality, every reader would have to accept paying more for the goods and services they now receive at bargain rates. Even from a selfish point of view, I think it a price worth paying. Jason Moyer-Lee of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain warns at the end of this book that, if we do not stop the mistreatment of Uber drivers and Deliveroo riders, one day everyone could wake up to find their employment rights gone.

"It feels wrong to say that it is a pleasure to read Bloodworth when he is describing the true location of poverty in Britain, which is not among the allegedly workshy, but in the lives of the women at checkouts and the men packing boxes for 30 hours one week and two the next. That said, the element of pleasure or at least satisfaction cannot be denied. For Bloodworth is the best young leftwing writer Britain has produced in years. And it is not only the exploited who are lucky to have him."

MARCH 2 2018

Here are my notes from a speech I gave to an FT Conference on education and recruitment in about 2011. It's in note form but I think it gives the gist. It didn't go down well with the head of Universities UK, also on the panel of speakers. But just look at the mess we're in now.

MY NOTES

Based on: Anecdote, facts and figures, observations of recruitment sector and personal beliefs. And experience.

Facts and figures.

  • 1960 – 50,000 applicants for 20,000 places. / Today 730,000 for 490,000. 25x

  • Unemployment is 8 per cent. But 18-24 year olds = 18 per cent.

16-24 – it’s 20.3 per cent. This is DANGEROUS.

  • Nov – Ernst and Young – rush for places – 4,500 grads going for 700 places on training programme.

  • totaljobs.com research:

        • 38 per cent graduates claimed jobseekers allowance since leaving university.

        • 37 per cent of those for more than 6 months.

        • 44 per cent saying university not equipped them for world of work (well-should it?).

        • 24 per cent would not recommend it. Shocking.

  • Richard Lambert – welcomed 10,000 work experience places ie NOT jobs.

  • But High Fliers research shows 6 per cent fewer grad vacancies at the large recruiters than in 2007 – with growing numbers of grads.

So how to get a job?

  • FreshMinds Talent study emphasised importance of work experience.

        • Says 90 per cent of its candidates making top-tier companies have had extensive work experience.

        • 75 per cent of its FTSE 250 clients are asking for 6 months W-Exp as a pre-requisite.

        • Also – employers are favouring graduates who have done a year’s work and are now looking to move – at cost of new graduates.

  • Lead headline in yesterday’s Metro – “Jobless urged to work for free”. Unpaid training or volunteering.

  • Forcing new graduates to intern for ever. Demanding ever greater work experience

  • How did we get into this mess?

How it started…

  • Someone dreamed up idea of lots more universities – then a target of 50 per cent of school leavers going to university.

  • Not achieved – but nearly there – partly by re-badging CFEs and Polytechnics, which did an excellent job on more practical and vocational courses.

  • So universities needed to take more students? Commercialised – businesses – to encourage them to take more - student heads carrying a value.

  • Numbers grew. Old grant system couldn’t cope with numbers. So start charging fees.

  • But had to be done via loans – so who puts money up front? And not paid back for at least 3, 4, 5 years – or never.

  • Government wants to give less support, so demands more from students. Fees go up – but then so does amount needing to be loaned. To make this palatable - needs higher interest rates – and even penalties for early payment etc.

  • And so we get to £9,000 a year.

  • What a mess…..

Results…

1. University explosion – disaster. Courses that fitted well in flexible CFE colleges look ridiculous as three-year university degree courses. Some sound like little more than training. A 3-week training course in using a software package stretched to three years of media studies.

2. Loss of sight of what universities are for – Learning for its own sake. Academia. Never even thought about a job at LSE in the 70s. Now more “training” and universities are businesses…

ZeFrank – LA blogger – recent cover feature – Argued both ways – for and against university – saying in an era of instant and constant access to information, what could universities offer? “Students are expected to perform redundant tasks in exams with artificial restrictions on access to information – learning to live with inefficiency rather than to challenge it.” Saying outdated.

But he also says it is where we learn essential survival skills. “learn to spell in case the spell-check stops working; learn to use the library in case Google goes down; learn to appreciate the classics in case a boss mentions one at a party; learn basic maths in case your accountant is a cheat”

It’s also about making contacts/friends and having a good time – nothing wrong with that.

But at what cost? We’ve introduced value for money

  • Debt culture – I’m low church on this = plain evil. Ghastly message.

Debt is a gamble you’ll be able to repay.

But gambling seems to be OK too – eg Sky ads offering starter packs.

  • Debt and gambling go hand in hand - and are diseases – and if you’ve known an addict, you’ll know what I mean. Wrecks lives, relationships.

  • We are, remember, living with the mess left by a massive debt bubble bursting.

  • Debts don’t seem to diminish… Talk to people in this room – Becs etc.

  • Elsewhere – Scotland and Wales. Not like US – where prepare for 18 years. More expensive than Europe. World’s worst?

  • We had a review. Lord Browne – laziest ever? Just charge more.

        • No analysis of what students actually pay for (Professors writing books and lecture tours subsidised by students

        • No look at course lengths - could be two years – I did 90 weeks (less in reality.) Oxbridge = 72.

        • No look at pre-payment – earning credits during school/gap year

So is it worth it?

“A university education resulting in debts of £30,000-£40,000 is astonishingly bad value. Why pay so much to spend three or more years memorising facts and theories, and performing tasks that the internet has already made redundant - and that might never be called upon again for the rest of that student's life? Apart from those seeking a vocational qualification in science, medicine, the law etc, it will surely be folly for a student to choose university.”

  • At that price there must be better ways of spending three years.

  • At that price only those confident of high pay will apply. “Study” will die.

  • Reduced attraction means employers already looking at school leavers. KPMG 6-year scheme.

What do employers want?

Plethora of graduates = good and bad for employers. “Universality of skill-sets”.

  • So recruiting on character, personality and cultural fit - teach the rest.

  • They moan about talent shortage. But self-imposed. (See Thursday) – in order to de-select as many as possible.

  • No good going to campuses (or digital marketing, fliers etc) etc with unrealistic pre-conditions and then complaining.

  • They want “oven-ready workers” – but chicken and egg – young people need experience to become “workers”. But why should they? Why not accept them for what they are – and their potential – and develop them?

To do otherwise is to see employers interfering in study. Blurring academia and training for work.

NOVEMBER 17 2017

What am I against?
  • I am against sweat shops.
  • I am against exploitation.
  • I am against inequality and injustice.
  • I am against racism.
  • I am against religious dogma.
  • I am against gambling and debt.
  • I am against unearned income (and that includes absurd levels of executive pay).
  • I am against greed, selfishness and impatience.
  • I am against pitting the workers of one country against those of another in a fight for jobs.
  • I am against statebenefits needing to be paid to people actually in work (ie - businesses on benefits).
  • I am against zero hours contracts.
  • I am against mis-selling a vision of their futures to our children.
  • I am against global warming.
  • I am against goods being transported thousands of miles.
  • I am against rabid and pointless consumption and a culture of consumerism.
  • I am against a throw-away culture that sees goods go from sweat shop to recycling bin in a matter of weeks.
  • I am against oceans full of plastic.
  • I am against the rampant destruction of countryside.
  • I am against everything (homes, hospitals schools, universities, public services) being turned into businesses and markets.
  • I am against the biggest migration of peoples the world has ever seen – and its catastrophic consequences.
  • I am against globalisation that turns the whole planet into one giant market.
  • I am against a world that is treated as a playground in which big business is allowed to run riot.
  • I am against tax dodgers and "financialisation" (read Rana Foroohar's book "Makers and Takers")
  • I am against every important decision being made to facilitate "business".
  • I am against many many more things, too....
What do I favour?
  • I favour localism.
  • I favour seasons.
  • I favour clean oceans.
  • I favour popular democracy.
  • I favour businesses run for the benefit of society, not their owners and agents.
  • I favour saying "enough".
  • I favour fairness, justice.
  • I favour the opposite of all of my "againsts" (where applicable).
  • I favour many many more things, too...
So why did I vote to leave the EU?

Never-ending "economic growth" - the only measure of "success" today - is simultaneously a physical impossibility, the direct cause of the gradual destruction of the planet, and the pathetic justification for global greed and consumerism. Britain has often been a proud leader of global changes – the industrial revolution, parliamentary democracy, etc. It can lead again – against the trend of business-led globalisation and cheap, poisonous consumerism, towards a cleaner, sustainable, localised culture that indulges more in leisure and pleasure and less in rubbish and consumption. That means plotting a new path – away from globalisation and consumption, and ever freer trade and pollution – towards sustainability, shorter supply lines, seasonality, and a whole new way of thinking and living. Being the first to leave a huge free trade area that fosters, promotes and encourages many of the things I am against would be a start. (Even though the motivations of most right-wing Leave voters were to achieve precisely the opposite!)


AUGUST 24 2017

So much foolishness reported in one day:

1. Provident Financial is in trouble with its sub-prime loan book. Surprise, surprise. The first small domino in the next financial meltdown is starting to topple. This follows years of failing to deal with the last meltdown, thanks to a complete misunderstanding of the forces at work.

2. The idiot president of France (who many, quite bafflingly, call a "centrist" when he is anything but) now admits that eastern European workers are damaging employment equilibrium in the "wealthy west". His fellow EU leaders will be shocked to hear this, as they have been denying this oh-so-obvious phenomenon for years – at enormous cost to workforces across the continent.

3. The madness of Mrs Merkel is now seen starkly in the misery of the Libyan holding centres for African and Asian economic migrants. The EU's various policies that encourage migrants to risk their lives at sea is criminally insane. Do EU leaders think this is some sort of game? "Cross the Med and claim your prize!" The Australian solution looks far less cruel when you come face to face with the filthy consequences of "trying to be nice".

4. And all this to the backdrop of the vile Trump creature's joke presidency; the UK's "dog's breakfast" approach to Brexit; the top exam grade now being a Nine; and Jon Snow rightly pointing out in his lecture that hardly anyone working in the media today has even the slightest experience of what austerity means to the UK's deprived and forgotten millions.

It makes you want to weep.

JUNE 3 2017

LET GRAYSON PERRY RUN THE COUNTRY

Grayson Perry's brilliance was again demonstrated in "Divided Britain" a programme he made for Channel 4, in which he created two large pots, one decorated with images representing the hopes and way of life of "remainers" and the other the "leavers". It took an artistic and intellectual genius to achieve what he achieved – two almost identical vases.

The most telling moments, apart from the warm embraces between the "opposing camps" at the end, came with the realisation that in the 2016 referendum everyone, in reality, voted the same way – to protect the way of life they have, desire, or fear they are losing. And the way of life that everyone wants, at least in Perry's sample, appears to be pretty much the same.

The stark differences only appear when the extreme complexities of life in Britain are reduced to a simple binary question and the population is divided into those who already have the way of life they want, and those who don't or who see theirs disappearing.

In one scene, Perry spoke to a typical group of well-to-do metropolitan young mum's at a yoga class – all naturally fervent and unquestioning "remainers". In the programme's most daramatic moment, one expressed deep regret at how little she understood of other people's plight and feelings in her own country – she even said she felt ashamed at the realisation.

Treating everyone with complete respect, dignity and good humour, Perry got to the heart of what matters and illustrated how little difference there really is in what we want – but how great the differences are in what we have.


MAY 25 2017

A REAL LABOUR MANIFESTO

I was called "a socialist" at a dinner party recently. It was said in tones that were as accusatorial as is decent during an otherwise convivial evening. But, to me, it came as quite a relief and a back-handed compliment. I have always equated socialism with caring about the weak and deprived in society, about social justice and fairness, sharing and co-operating, working together for something better. But with age, increasing material comfort and a growing frustration and cynicism towards political orthodoxy, I had become concerned that my own views were less clearly "socialist" in nature. Thankfully, when put to the test, it appears they are not.

More importantly, why can the Labour Party not find a "socialist" solution to its pathetic floundering in the shallows of UK politics? There is a glaring chasm into which it could march, as torch bearer for the underprivileged, the forgotten and the victims of unfettered market forces and globalisation. Perhaps its leadership already sees the party in that role. Few others do, really.

I offer here, therefore, the brief outline of a Labour manifesto that deals with the world as it is and that would reconnect the party with the millions of people it has deserted in favour of doctrine and woolly wishful thinking.

Vitally, Labour must seize the Brexit debate rather than stand bleating at the edges, swaying this way and that. Without a Labour presence, the arguments are dominated by the combined ultra-conservative forces of Leavist Tories, markets, big business, finance and the economy. This leaves the bulk of the population unrepresented and Labour failing in its purpose.

There is, in fact, a very strong socialist case to be made for Brexit – it was what earned me my dinner party accolade – yet Labour is almost silent on the subject, leaving the field clear for odious types such as Farage, and for far more dangerous types across the Atlantic and Channel. Brexit is real and Labour needs to have a policy, an approach, something to question the right-wing nationalist free marketeers who will de-regulate whatever they can and leave working people facing all the handicaps that weighed down on them before.

The case: markets and globalisation are not inherently bad – but become very bad and very dangerous when uncontrolled and operating on a "winner-take-all" basis, as my former FT boss Sir Richard Lambert warned in 2012 (see items below). He, as I had been doing for some years, was warning of the rise of the right – now all too apparent. Completely free markets are very dangerous devices indeed: for a start, they are completely amoral. Only the welter of social and employment legislation slowly introduced over recent centuries – and now, extraordinarily, being rolled back in the UK – reined in its worst excesses and abuses and today only a mad person would advocate trusting a totally free market to deliver anything other than brutality to many on one hand and vast riches to a few on the other. Similarly, the opposite extreme – state corporatism and controlled markets – as experimented with in the Soviet Bloc and elsewhere, is equally unpalatable and equally ruthless.

Today's politics are therefore all about how, and to what extent, business, markets and finance are regulated,