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.

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” di 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, controlled and tamed to do the bidding of the whole of a society, rather than enriching a few. The right-wing view is that minimal control frees businesses to flourish and enrich the whole of society via the mythological (and absurd) notion of "trickle-down". The domination of society by big business to the point we have reached today, where politicians are of only marginal relevance, ensures that this is the prevailing view and is the main driving force behind the right-wing anti-EU movement. The alternative pro-EU right-wing view is that free access to nearby markets matters more – but both cases assume the first priority is to give business what it wants. The differences occur because big business, markets and finance want more than one thing. The referendum debate was essentially an argument between these two rightist camps.

The left, Labour, "socialism", stood bemused and isolated on the sidelines, failing to understand the underlying philosophies, and said nothing of the slightest consequence.

So where does this leave left-wing, socialist, Labour ideals and policies now?

First, Labour has to come to terms with the fact that it was never part of the Remain-Leave debate. Second, it has to accept that the Leave argument prevailed and that it has to adapt. Third, it must ask why millions of instinctive Labour voters ended up supporting a right-wing, "deregulationist", free market movement, quite probably against their own interests. And fourth, it must write a manifesto that will persuade them back. The overwhelming dominance of the right-wing agenda requires at least some questioning and countering, and a coherent Labour opposition is needed now more than at any time I can remember. Instead, we have nothing.

It could be some time before Labour even reaches the first of my four steps to recovery. But let us hope that it can accept points One and Two and reaches the difficult question regarding its natural constituency. And this is all about employment – or "dead-end jobs for peanuts", as it might be summed up. Many economists have declared the rise in employment, coupled with stagnating wages and falling productivity, a mystery. But study this enigma from the native workforce's view and you see how extending unfettered competition for jobs across the whole of Europe cuts their wages and stifles productivity. Naturally, business loves it – a cheap, plentiful labour force working with low technology brings huge payroll savings and reduces spending on research, investment and modernisation. Companies' standards have plummeted to the point where one employer was reported as not even bothering to advertise jobs in a new plant in the UK – it went straight to the cheap, exploitable labour markets of eastern Europe, claiming local people were lazy and not interested in working. One look at the job description made it crystal clear why no self-respecting local would want to work there. Other employers have demeaned existing staff, threatening them with replacement by eastern Europeans if they fail to toe the line. Worse still, migrant workers, prepared to operate in dangerous conditions, have lost their lives as safety standards are undermined.

And of course, the hard-working reputation of eastern European immigrants is nonsensical. Only those with sufficient energy and gumption arrive in the UK and, when here, are enthusiastic and diligent. However, they quickly respond to the way they are treated and attitudes and motivation become indistinguishable from the native labour force – a piece of research on the subject (by the University of Bath) puts this disillusionment period at about two years.

So why does Labour not speak up on behalf of the newly uncompetitive native workforce, or indeed the exploited youngsters from eastern Europe on poorly paid (by what used to be UK standards) zero-hours contracts? Or even the communities in Poland, Romania and elsewhere suffering the loss of their brightest youngsters who arrive in the UK to work in bars and restaurants or in hospitals and on building sites? Why leave the field open for UKIP? These are real issues that affect working people. They understand it only too well and, given the chance to express their pain, did so in the referendum.

Yet Labour sided with business. It's easy to blame Corbyn and his allies for their internationalist focus, but they are not the whole party. The rest must wake up and provide a voice for those natural Labour supporters who voted Leave and to whom the UKIP message makes perfect sense, based on their everyday experiences.

The referendum did indeed produce the strangest of alliances. The millions voting for change did so with many different ideas, hopes and motivations – from right-wing nationalist, deregulationist Tories to neglected and angry workers reduced to accepting "dead-end jobs for peanuts". These workers are the people who NEED Labour now. They need the valuable social and employment legislation that has come from the EU, often against the wishes of the UK's business-first governments of the past 40 years, to be kept and enhanced. The threat from a right-wing government is that much of the good that came from the EU will eventually be thrown away at the behest of business and finance.

The corporate world is obviously worried about a drying up of its ready supply of cheap labour to fill its many downgraded jobs. It fears that restricting mass population movements from east to west will increase the power of the workforce to demand better pay and treatment. It is worried that it will have to pay wages that enable employees to secure a mortgage, eat out occasionally, take a holiday – all the things that even the Just About Managing middle classes (and above) still take for granted. To meet these fears, Labour has to grasp the fact that there is now a global rate for a job and a local rate for a job. UK businesses offshoring their work to cheap labour markets have been setting new – and very low – benchmarks for "the rate for the job". Now, with mass migration and porous borders, offshoring no longer becomes necessary as those cheap labour markets arrive on the doorstep.

Facing up to the reality of how mass migration has transformed the employment landscape, distorting the supply and demand equilibrium, would enable Labour to re-engage with its natural constituency. Arguing that limits to population shifts will leave hospitals, the hospitality sectors, agriculture, construction and many other sectors short of workers is, of course, a nonsense. First, because some movement of people from the EU will continue, just as it always has for people from outside the EU. The UK has significant communities from almost every country in the world living and working here, mostly to the benefit of all. Why would that change? Second, because importing cheap workers and exploiting them harms both them, the communities from which they come, and leaves the local labour force unable to compete for the jobs they once had without reducing their living standards to those that migrant workers are prepared to accept. The only winner is business.

On the other hand, where strong unions still exist, for example in the railways sector, jobs that had become hard to fill – such as train driving – are vastly over-subscribed because the pay and conditions are now very good. Local workers would be queuing up for jobs if they were restored, offering good pay and conditions, decent treatment and respect? If nurses' pay rates, or sandwich-makers' salaries began at £50,000, and they were treated as respected professionals, would we still have problems recruiting native staff?

This would, of course, make such jobs even more attractive to migrant job-seekers, which us why the EU's desperate clinging to the principle of "free movement of people" is a logical absurdity in a community of nations that has been knocked completely out of equilibrium. It would also, of course, need paying for. But the UK is a very rich country. Sadly, swathes of it have grown selfish and greedy and are not prepared - or able- to pay the going rate for anything.

This is where the Labour case, the Socialist case, must be focused: a new social contract advocating a more equal society; a society that pays the going rate; a society that improves the lot of the many at the marginal expense of the few; a society that kicks its addiction to "something-for-nothing", gambling, materialism and rabid consumption. But it can only do this by acknowledging and understanding the issues that are affecting its constituency.     


FEBRUARY 8 2017

THE NEED TO TACKLE THE HOUSING FINANCE CRISIS

I discussed the question of Britain's housing "crisis" in my 2011/12 business school lectures on the rise of big business and executive pay (see JULY 9 2016, below, as the month I added it to this blog). So it inevitably makes me weep to listen to Sajiv Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, introducing measures to tackle this "broken market" when he clearly has not the first clue as to the nature of the problem.

Radio 4's "You and Yours" programme of February 7 2017 on housing provided plenty of clues about the reality on the ground, as caller after caller agreed there were plenty of houses to buy – but none that they could afford. The "crisis" we keep hearing about in the UK is obviously not one of supply but of finance and it is equally obvious that building 1m, 2m, or 10m new homes will make barely a scrap of difference unless the financial crisis is tackled. It makes as much sense as arguing that building more lanes on to the M25 will end south-east England's traffic jams.

As outlined in the lecture below (under JULY 2016), low interest rates are the primary cause of rapidly rising house prices. Even in the 1990s, when the UK population was static and births were running at below replacement levels, prices were soaring, thanks to low interest rates. This is because it is the mortgage rate that governs the level of monthly repayments, which is the figure in the equation that matters – the headline price is merely a reflection of what people can afford to pay each month. The snag is that while monthly mortgage repayments are still roughly in line with private sector rents, or lower, the initial deposit required to secure a mortgage is out of reach of a large proportion of first-time buyers – because prices are so high.

This was far less of an issue before the banks' recklessness and greed crashed the economy – they were happy to forgo a deposit and lend 100 per cent, or even more, of the purchase price. A fool's paradise if ever there was one. One of the "more responsible" post-crash lending policies imposed on the banks was the re-introduction of deposits which, after the years of deposit-free lending had pushed up prices even further, leaving potential borrowers locked out.

The state of the market is complicated by many factors, including: the treatment of property as more of an investment than a home; the huge number of properties standing empty; the vast number of second – and third – homes; the short-term market manipulation by developers sitting on banks of land with planning permission; the focus of developers on pressing to build on green field sites where they can maximise profits; the power of the developers' lobby to hijack the debate; an adversarial planning system; increasing housing demand from mass inward migration and the resultant steep population growth (although to mention this is taboo); also "house-blocking" by an ageing population delaying downsizing; and a confusion of the terms "housing demand", "housing need", and "housing desire". Most of these are also financial factors.

Why, then, is the government seeking to tackle a complex housing finance problem with a housing supply solution? The trap we have fallen into, caused by low interest rates, is not an easy one from which to escape without causing terrible and widespread pain. But compare the probable impact on house prices of building 1m houses in the next four years with a mortgage rate rise to 6 per cent or 10 per cent – levels that, until recently, were pretty standard. The first initiative would satisfy developers and do very little to prices; the second would see a repossessions epidemic and big reductions in prices.

Those are the two main choices facing policymakers – so is it any wonder they always choose the first, and hopeless, option? It gives the appearance of taking action but changes nothing. The only real, practical actions that can be taken without seriously hurting existing mortgage holders involve dealing with the many complications – such as taxing empty houses into use, forcing developers to build once planning permission is granted, shifting economic assistance to areas with excess housing, building units for the elderly to ease them out of larger homes and ease the social care/NHS beds crisis, etc etc. None of these can overcome the central issue of the interest rate/house price equation but might help in other ways and mitigate against some of the worst effects of a rise in interest rates which, when it eventually comes, could be devastating – and will be beyond the scope of policymakers to control.


FEBRUARY 7 2017

TRUMP-MARES

For the record: the stuff that the usual shouters are shouting about (Trump's travel bans, use of torture etc) is bad, of course, but what really threatens global stability are two far greater things: Trump's planned dismantling of the financial regulations that have averted anything worse than a few crashes and recessions since the war; and his weak and unstable personality that will make sensible long-term diplomacy almost impossible.

Of these, the second will create a succession of international crises that, with luck, wiser heads will be able to resolve. The first, however, will unleash the ruthless and amoral forces of finance, markets and business which, when they collapse again, will result in a deep slump/depression, dwarfing the little banking crash from which we are still suffering. More immediately, it displays a touching faith by Trump supporters in the idiotic concept of "trickle down". This will, in time, infuriate the blue-collar workers who gave Trump his chance as they see billionaires enriching themselves while they suffer increasing exploitation.

We can only hope the men in white coats are ready to administer the necessary injections when things reach maximum crisis point....


NOVEMBER 9 2016

AND STILL NOBODY LISTENS

If the right people learn the lessons of the recent poll results around the world, then a Trump presidency – if we survive it – could be a wonderful thing. Sadly, the omens are not good. As some of us have been saying for two decades – Joe Rogaly and Charles Handy are two people I particularly admire in this area – a world run by business, for business, inevitably produces inequality, injustice, waste, misery and hatred and will generate a backlash. Globalisation and the unfettered rise of pointless financial services (in truth, gambling) brought about the painfully predictable meltdown of 2007-8 which, instead of being seen as a warning by the establishment, was treated as an aberration to be “cured” so that the whole pantechnicon could rumble along again towards its next precipice.

In lectures I gave in 2011 on levels of executive pay, I charted the course of the rise of all-powerful businesses (see “July 9 2016”, below) and said at the time: “Fairness DOES matter. It comes back to our instinct for cheating. You can get away with a bit of self-interest at the expense of the group – but only up to a point. And while everything was going well and we all had gadgets and holidays and lots of eating out, no one cared too much. But that’s changing. A lot of people are becoming worse off, some losing their jobs, their benefits, their homes.

“And this makes having 'an unfair advantage' matter a lot and so we see the social group reacting to deal with the 'cheats'. The Occupy movement, rioting – and even shareholder 'revolts', as at Trinity Mirror, AstraZeneca, Aviva and now WPP. We are also seeing a mass movement towards very nasty right-wing political parties, for example in France and Greece – an obvious refuge for the discarded and disregarded.

“As my old boss Richard Lambert, former FT editor, said recently in the FT: 'Public support for free markets is based on two broad arguments. The first is that they deliver more efficient outcomes than the alternatives. The second is that over time they create increased prosperity for society at large. Both these assumptions have taken a severe jolt in the past few years. It may be that capitalism is approaching some kind of tipping point, away from the winner takes all culture of the past three decades. If left unchecked, public disquiet will sooner or later bring a political response.'

“Notions of fairness and cheating matter a great deal.”

And so we now have a Trump presidency – surely the stupidest-sounding man (during the campaign, at least) ever to hold an important office of state. And the extraordinary irony is that the public's disquiet in the US has been expressed via a member of that very ruling business clique. But how else could it be expressed? Better Trump than a country in flames, perhaps?

But now we risk a whole world in flames because the warnings about the real dangers continue to go unheeded. The global dangers are real. The damage a reckless US president could do are infinite.

What has to happen now – though I very much doubt it will – is that the lessons that democracy keeps throwing in our faces are actually acknowledged, understood and acted upon. The lessons are that globalised business is not satisfying vast swathes of the world's populations. Shame on anyone who blames the electorate or democracy for creating this situation. And shame on the establishment media, which has for far too long relied on so-called "experts", who know very little, and which has failed to connect with the people feeling - and suffering - the real effects of a world run by and for business (see Brexit debate, below, for examples).  

We can do something about it. More likely,however, the lessons and dangers will not be understood or appreciated and we will change nothing. More and more extreme individuals and political movements will be voted in to power around the world by electorates that know things are not right but have no other way of expressing their anger. Where this might lead is what should really concern us.

 

JULY 30

I know it's hard for the generations brought up in the "age of business" to perceive of anyone making choices based on anything other than self-interest, but this does not excuse their displays of glee at reports of pension funds being hit by the Brexit vote and that the old Leave voters are "getting what's coming to them". Suggesting that this proves "the link between age and wisdom is broken" is completely wrong: in fact, it is precisely the opposite. Voting against your own narrow economic self-interest because there are far greater issues at stake that affect everyone else is the very essence of wisdom.  

 

JULY 29

If you've ever asked the question "What is the EU actually for?" then I commend to you a piece by Frank Furedi. Read it here: A Project With No Name

or cut and paste this into a browser if that link doesn't work: http://www.spiked-online.com/spiked-review/article/a-project-with-no-name-brexit/18591#.V5szG7grLy1    

It cleverly explains why - and this puzzled me during the referendum debate - anyone daring to ask questions of the EU was instantly branded a right-wing racist nationalist xenophobe, even when they were patently the opposite. It also explains why virtually nothing positive came from the Remain camp during the whole campaign. It's one of the most interesting and intellectually sound pieces I've read on the subject and is certainly in line with my experience and thinking (as reflected in writings below).

The key points Furedi makes are that the EU has failed to find a raison d'etre since the end of the Cold War beyond that of "economics" and that it has had to create purposes for itself while relying on merely the "implicit consent" of the European people for its grand schemes. This lack of real purpose, allied to PR campaigns that label its critics as right-wing racists and the pursuit of extreme integrationist policies has had the dangerous and disastrous consequence of fuelling a huge rise in nasty right-wing parties across the continent. They are a direct product of ill-thought-through EU behaviours. A change of direction is desperately overdue and with the EU hierarchy not even prepared to accept minor reforms, the Brexit vote here - and similar votes elsewhere - have become inevitable. As has a lurch to the right, unless something is done. But read Furedi's piece, he puts it all very eloquently.


JULY 13 2016

If Theresa May really believes in her “business's role in society” speech and acts upon it effectively, it would make her the most left-wing British prime minister since Attlee. That's a very big “if” - and she carries plenty of “nasty party” baggage with her. And sadly, business will not allow it - what business says, goes. But on the face of it, in one speech she might have seized the radical non-socialist left-wing agenda that could and should have been the popular platform for a resurgent Nick Clegg.

JULY 12 2016

Here's an experiment based on a brilliant “Occupy Democrats” video, being circulated on Facebook:

Would you please raise you hand if you would be happy to be treated in the same way unskilled migrant labour is treated in the UK. How many of you reading this would be happy to swap places? If you have your hand up, you must be either a liar, a fool or haven't understood the proposition. If you don't have your hand up, then you must KNOW about the level of exploitation these people are prepared to put up with – but do you feel a need to do anything about it? I quote the words of Jane Elliot, the extraordinary former US teacher and anti-racism activist, who challenged members of a white audience to stand if they would be prepared to tolerate the treatment meted out to black people by American society (and not a single person stood). She said: “That says very plainly that you know what's happening; you know you don't want it for you. I wanna know why you're so willing to accept or to allow it to happen for others.”

Exploited workers endure these conditions because they might be a lot better than anything they can find at home. And this is how developing world working practices have become increasingly widespread in the UK, as downward pressure on standards and pay puts into reverse so many of the advances made over the past century. We could ask the five Gambian-Spanish labourers working hard for their minimum wage at a Birmingham recycling centre, where health and safety concerns had been raised in the past, how they feel about it. But a wall collapsed on them on July 7 and they died.

Of course, globalisation in recent decades has brought about a reshaping of global labour, with expertise gathering in "hotspots" and unskilled work heading for where labour is cheapest (NOTE ADDED 18-7-16: see Philip Aldrick's excellent article in The Times, 16-7-2016 on this very subject and in which he points out that even President Kennedy in the 1960s was aware of the issues and warned that measures needed to be taken to mitigate against its worst effects). But EU-wide “free exploitation of labour” - let's call it what it really is - involves pitching the workforces of one country directly against another. There are EU rules that aim to protect workers but this merely makes it the equivalent of a lightly regulated cockfight. EU employment legislation barely touches the real-world issues unskilled workers face – what use have they for maternity/paternity rights, working time directives, temporary worker legislation, etc etc when they are desperate to be included in that day's work gang, working on zero hours contracts, in dangerous environments untouched by health and safety, and paid a minimum wage – if they're lucky.

People have, of course, always been free to move, subject to sensible safeguards. The UK hosts significant communities from almost every country in the world. Migrant labour has been and should always be welcome as long as it meets a need and does not undermine hard-won UK working conditions and standards. As I say in my Referendum reply to Frank Brierley (see June 22, below), those needs would be greatly reduced were the UK and its businesses to take proper responsibility for training and skills, and to treat those that it trains sufficiently well to keep them from disappearing off to countries such as Australia. Ending the logical absurdity that is “free movement” will not prevent any business from moving its employees into or out of the UK or from recruiting skills from anywhere it finds them; it simply means there will be safeguards – amounting in most cases to straightforward paperwork – to prevent the sort of exploitation outlined above. Unchecked, we will eventually come to see this “freedom” to be as noxious as the irresponsible lending that led to the 2007 banking collapse – about which there had also been plenty of prior warnings.  


JULY 11 2016

Would you BELIEVE it. For years and years - decades even - I've been waiting for someone in power to listen to the warnings that I and plenty of higher profile minds than mine have been issuing regarding the role of business in society, its behaviour and its drivers. Then finally, after we vote to leave the EU, Theresa May, UK prime minister in waiting, comes out and says in today's Times, almost word for word, what I (and others) have been saying for so long (see the next item, below, in this "blog"). Perhaps if anyone had cared to listen to the obvious - and had had the courage to act on it - BEFORE the referendum vote, things might now be very different, both in the UK and in the EU.

JULY 9 2016

This is a piece written from notes I used to give a short series of lectures in late 2011 and early 2012. The ideas were those I had been carrying - and expressing to anyone who cared to listen - for a couple of decades, based on learning and watching the world from the vantage point of the Financial Times' editorial department. It's obviously a little dated in some of the detail and I've largely resisted the temptation to update it with the benefit of hindsight. But I think it relevant to today's debate and that it was one of many warnings given about the state of UK capitalism, business and society that has finally led to a series of predictable, and predicted, popular protests. It's also very long. And way down below it are some related thoughts on the 2016 referendum.

For nearly 27 years I worked as a journalist at the Financial Times, watching the world change and trying to make sense of it.

I enjoyed several different roles there – from editing on the main news desk to being deputy editor of Weekend FT, editing a section on technology and ending with nearly four years editing the weekly Executive Appointments supplement and the FT’s Non-Executive Directors’ Club website. I took early retirement on February 28 2014 and have since gained yet another perspective on the debate over business, executive pay and related issues.

So what do I know about how hard it is to run a big company? I’ve never run one. Departments, yes. But not a large business.

But I think if you asked someone who HAS actually done it, you would get a very one-sided, biased point of view. As the quotation goes: “It is incredible what a person can believe when their salary depends on it.”

When I first gave this lecture in November 2011, I had a couple of helpful criticisms – that I was being political, and there were not enough statistics.

Well, it remains political – because I don’t think there is anywhere near enough politics around these days. And there aren’t many stats because I’m dealing in ideas, not figures. Our lives have been run too long by figures – and look where they have got us.

I think journalists, as professional observers and analysts are in as good a position as anyone to provide an impartial and informed outsider’s view. And I should stress that all the views expressed below are my own. Although they were formed while working at the FT, the FT is a broad church. Some at the FT might broadly agree with me, others will not. But I always speak as an individual.

So – to the questions of business and leadership. I believe you can only make sense of where we are today by looking back at where we’ve come from – and we'll take that trip shortly.

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But first…. Just how hard is it to run a large company? Let us look at how some have done:

  • In 1985, Coca-Cola launched New Coke – it was a complete disaster and had to be withdrawn almost immediately. No one wanted it.

  • Cerberus Capital Management investors took a $7.4bn stake in Chrysler, the car maker. The following year it collapsed.

  • When Royal Bank of Scotland took over ABN Amro it was another disaster – described as “value-destruction on an epic scale”.

  • And of course we had Enron, the US energy company – some of its leaders ended up in jail.

  • More recently, in the Mexican Gulf, BP didn’t do too great a job handling a giant oil spill.

  • Closer to home – HomeServe, the emergency plumber and electrician had to suspend its telesales after fears of mis-selling its products.

  • And NPower was fined millions for mishandling complaints.

  • G4S, the security company, had to back out of buying a Danish rival company – because the chief executive misread the mood of the market. The failure cost £50m. And that's to say nothing of its contribution to security at the London 2012 Olympics.

  • And as customers of large companies, we see the shambles every day – someone from British Gas came to my house a while ago to fix a valve. On the first visit, the engineer had no valves on his van. Then when he came back, he managed to lose power to the whole hot water and central heating system.

At every level, history is littered with examples of not-so-great leadership. Yet someone is supposed to be running these businesses – and they are being paid a fortune to do it. In my view, it is simply not good enough for a chief executive to say “I can’t know everything,” because they set the culture – and the incentives – for their staff. They DO control everything. The buck stops at the top. And I haven't even mentioned the banks.

Much of the time it hurts few people other than the business itself and its shareholders if a concern messes up. But in the case of the banks being run badly, it matters to everyone. Their failure has macro-economic effects. Tesco (with a market capitalisation roughly similar to Barclays Bank at the time of writing) can go bust and not cause widespread disaster. Suppliers will be hurt, staff and shareholders - and customers might have to go a bit further for their groceries. It would be messy but the impact would be limited.

But if Barclays goes bust people’s money disappears. As Andrew Haldane, a director of the Bank of England, said in a Wincott lecture: “The risks from banking are now widely spread throughout society but the returns to bankers are held privately and very narrowly.” Of course, in 2014, Barclays is still in and out of court facing fines for its market behaviour in previous years.

We could go on – the list of extraordinary failures is endless. Yet we are supposed to have the world's very best people running these businesses. At least that's what we're paying for – that's how they justify their sky-high salaries.

There might, of course, be an argument for saying that entrepreneurs who have created and invented things – people such as Richard Branson, James Dyson – even the annoying Alan Sugar – can be said to have earned a decent reward. We could argue over how much.

But we have reached the point where simple managers, who have created or invented nothing, enjoy fabulous wealth – no matter how badly they perform.

Chief executives have surrounded themselves in mystique; they have even created a cult of minor – and in some cases major – celebrity. Which is simply laughable. Most men would like to be photographed with their arm around the model Kate Moss, I'm sure – but how sad and foolish does Philip Green look doing it in the “celebrity” columns?

Lord Turner – Adair Turner – came to breakfast at the FT and he referred to this idea of “star CEOs”. He was highly dubious about the idea of a “transformational chief executive” and said the cult status they enjoy is overdone. He said performance was just as heavily dependent on team, culture and economic climate.

However – we must not make this personal. Chief executives are merely doing what they have been encouraged and incentivised to do. Their bonuses have been linked to short-term profitability and the share price. There have been few rewards for caution; no incentives for wisdom. Quite the opposite, in fact. So, being fair, business leaders have been behaving perfectly rationally. How can this be?

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The title for this lecture led me to consider much bigger questions about business and leadership. And I believe you can only make sense of where we are today by looking at the context in which today’s business leaders operate.

First, a lesson from zoology: animals, including humans, are programmed to cheat. They will act in their own self-interest and take advantage of others. But there is a conflict between this selfishness and each individual’s need for their social group as a whole to survive and prosper. So an animal will cheat – up to the point at which it endangers its own survival.

Capitalism, in the form of individually owned organisations, exploits this idea of self-interest. But businesses have little need for altruism or responsibility to wider society – just look at working conditions even today in some parts of the world. So business and capital have needed regulating to provide this balancing force. Creating a centuries-long struggle of ideas – between liberty and authority.

Adam Smith thought the “invisible hand” of the market might serve as a sort of regulator. People pursuing their own selfish interests would automatically benefit society and keep everything in check. But even he himself seems to have doubted the purity of that idea. And it plainly doesn’t work. John Stuart Mill and the Utilitarians had similar libertarian leanings. But even Mill accepted limits on what companies could do, such as being required to pay taxes for the social good.

For about two centuries, efforts went on to referee this struggle between the opposing forces of liberty and authority. We see the creation of joint stock companies and the limited liability acts in the 1800s – which created shareholders -- and then the great court case of Saloman v Saloman, confirming that a company is a legal personality, giving the shareholders protection.

This made companies strong. Capitalism flourished. And countervailing political forces, such as social reformers and increasingly, trade unions, kept it roughly in check.

But then, in 1976, Mike Jensen, an American economist, wrote about something he called “agency theory” – and it led directly to the creation of executive bonuses and the culture of business leadership we see today.

The idea was to align managers’ interests with those of the shareholders by giving them a stake in maximising shareholder value, by promoting the widespread use of stock options in executive compensation. The idea of giving them some “skin in the game”.

And today we live with the consequences. It led to “jacking up the share price”, severe short-termism and an explosion in executive pay. It tempted bosses to play with the figures – hence Enron and the like – and other financial trickery, such as share buybacks (largely achieved through savings made by outsourcing labour).

But most of all, it shifted power from the politicians to the people in the new glass towers. So how did it happen?

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This is where we have to take that step back in time to provide the context. And when you’re looking at things that are wrong with today, you usually have to begin with Margaret Thatcher.

I left the London School of Economics with my law degree in 1979 and started work as a news reporter with the Chronicle and Echo evening newspaper in Northampton. I was excited – the previous few years had been thrilling. Indeed, 1976 is routinely voted the year of greatest happiness by people who lived through it, and the years either side of it saw huge political debate and activity that is today portrayed as a national calamity, the country going to the dogs, rubbish in the streets and so on. But compared to what we have today, it was a high point of vibrancy, participation, democracy and creativity. Everyone had a voice of some sort and a broad range of riches were valued.

But 1979 was a year of brutal, ugly and overnight change. Very quickly, the incoming Thatcher government used high interest rates to reduce inflation, squeeze the economy – and keep the money supply tight. There were no thoughts of quantitative easing then.

Nigel Lawson was chancellor of the exchequer (younger people might be more familiar with his daughter, Nigella). This is how he described the Tories’ philosophy: “Free markets, financial discipline, firm control over public expenditure, tax cuts, nationalism, 'Victorian values', privatisation and a dash of populism.” In my view, that is a truly ghastly mixture.

But what did it amount to? Well, there was one overriding and truly fundamental change: from 1979 onwards, business has come first. Completely and utterly.

All attempts at fair distribution of wealth and social justice were abandoned. There was a vague idea that as rich people became richer their wealth would “trickle down” to the poor – as the rich would be able to employ more cleaners, for example. It was obviously sheer nonsense.

Back in real word, it was actually the other way round – rewards were sucked up to the top and people lost their jobs in order to make the wealthy even better off.

Under the Tories, everything became a market – homes, hospitals, phones, public transport, education, gas, electricity. Everyone became a “customer”. The watchword was competition – with the inevitable result that there would be winners and losers. Collaboration was abandoned and Thatcher’s hideous vision of society was one of competing individuals. Nothing was communal, there was no community – as she said, “no such thing as society”.

All this, along with such ideas as stock options, kick started the emergence of today’s almighty business leaders. One by one, the building blocks were put in place.

First, on October 27 1986 came Big Bang – the liberation of the City of London. UK financial markets were deregulated. One crucial change was from open-outcry trading to electronic, screen-based trading. A huge increase in market activity was expected. And encouraged. And boy did it happen. Money flooded in.

It was seen as a huge change – but no one at the time could have fully realised just what had been unleashed. Even so, a few people WERE worried – it wasn't long before some started calling it “casino capitalism”.

The second building block involved the crushing of the unions. Thatcher took on the powerful unions and, for the most part, won. But there was spectacular resistance, notably from the miners, led by the very left-wing Arthur Scargill. There were running battles, through the mid-1980s, notably at Orgreave Colliery in Yorkshire.

In the end, the miners lost – they lost many of their rights as workers and they lost the physical fight. They were, in effect, starved back to work. And it was a hugely divisive period for many of the country’s mining communities, some of which have yet to heal.

There is a counter argument that the unions had become too powerful and irresponsible and too rooted in the past and were preventing businesses from adapting to changing conditions. Which might have been true, up to a point. But the unions were attacked, rather than engaged – the tactics were confrontation and violence, and the only consideration was the needs of business, not communities.

The third building block was the unleashing of vast wealth into individuals' hands via the privatisation of state assets.

The Tories set about selling communal property – the nationalised utilities including gas, phones, water, steel etc. And they sold council houses. Selling utilities raised billions of pounds for the government – as did council house sales.

But the amounts don’t look very big today – partly because of inflation, but partly because they were deliberately sold cheaply at the time. To encourage people to buy, big discounts were offered. This was Nigel Lawson’s “populism” element: the public – or rather individuals – were invited to buy shares and sell them straight away at a profit. There was talk of creating a “share-owning democracy” which was, of course, pie in the sky. In fact, it was the start of “Money for nothing” on a grand scale.

As for council houses, these were well built to very high standards, and were offered for sale to tenants at very big discounts. All the new owners had to do was keep the house for a few years and then they could sell it at a huge profit. Between 1980 and 1998, it is estimated that 2m council houses were sold. And this was a process that transferred enormous amounts of value from communally held assets into the hands of individuals.

This might be good in some ways. But, looking at the bigger picture, it was part of a terrible trend. Towards a society focused on money, markets, consumption, greed, self-interest, self-obsession, short-term thinking and individualism.

In political terms, it suited Thatcher perfectly – enriching just enough of the electorate to give them a stake in continuing to vote for her.

It was also the beginning of the end of politics in its old sense. And politics finally died completely during the 1990s, when Labour gave up the fight. Politics was replaced by a dour managerial consensus, in which everyone was assumed to agree on the primacy of the economy and economic growth, fuelled by consumption. A promise of binge drinking, electronic gadgets and cheap foreign holidays was enough to keep the voters happy – while it lasted.

Internal Tory politics continued, however, and in 1990, Thatcher was ousted in tears from Downing Street and we endured seven years of muddle – not all of it terrible – under John Major. By 1997, the Tory government began to look tired and sleazy and the people turned to a young, fresh-faced Labour leader – who turned out to be a snake-oil salesman of the worst kind.

Tony Blair was elected on a wave of optimism and euphoria. It lasted less than a year.

To be fair, Labour had faced a dilemma – it had to move to the right, join the consensus and become electable, or stick to its principles and stay out of power. So Labour gave up, moved to the right, changed its name to New Labour and continued Thatcher’s work.

The business-first policies continued. And we saw some dreadful decisions – for example, New Labour said “yes” to the narrow business interests demanding a third runway at Heathrow; it said “yes” to the developers wanting to set up a huge business in the heart of the green belt beside the M25 in Surrey in the guise of a service station, to name but two. But every decision that had to be made between people and business went business’s way. Cheap labour? No problem, as Blair opened his arms to exploitation of the pittance-wage workforces of eastern Europe, sparking a battle for jobs that the UK's already low-paid, low-skill working class communities could not win and a further degradation of pay and conditions that continues escalating to this day, with widespread dire – and sometimes deadly – consequences.

New Labour had to appease the left of the party by taking some money from corporations through taxation to spend on worthy projects. Companies squealed but because of the apparent strength of business, money appeared to be plentiful and Labour was able to shower it across the public sector with considerable generosity. Labour's spending was also heavily funded by borrowing and debt. Yet all this has hardly eradicated poverty or injustice. In fact, I don’t see much change in equality of opportunity since the 1960s.

By the end of the last century businesses ruled the world. Joe Rogaly, the late and very great Weekend FT columnist who I used to work with every week, was writing columns on how tight a grip businesses now had on the world. His columns from the late 1990s are well worth reading today.

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So what was Blair’s contribution to creating new business leaders?

First, he had one main policy – consumption. He made shopping our number one national pastime. Blair breezed into power shouting “Education education education”. But Weekend FT ran a column by Michael Prowse on September 16 2000 with a far more accurate headline – it read “Consumption, Consumption, Consumption”. Michael Prowse had spent several years living in the US and Switzerland and had just returned to London. And he was shocked by what he saw.

He wrote : This new Britain is rich in everything that can be readily priced and sold on the market, and poor in everything that cannot be easily commodified. Market forces have turned the urban landscape into a parody of shop-until-you-drop America.”

He saw workaholism, individualism and vast wealth in private hands. What he said at that time makes uncomfortable reading: “As in the US, this cornucopia of private wealth contrasts starkly with the inadequacies of public services – from transport and healthcare to education. You don't, I think, need to read accounts of failing schools to grasp the poverty of state education in the UK. You just need to look at the blank, yobbish faces of young (and not-so-young) people. Most seem untouched by any form of culture, which is not surprising since none is on offer, least of all on television, which is now mostly a commercial business.”

He saw the UK slavishly imitating the US – which was hardly surprising given Thatcher’s infatuation with Reagan, and Blair’s with Bush.

Prowse wrote: “Those urging ever more deregulation always talk the language of economic efficiency, or, more dubiously still, of personal 'freedom'. They tacitly assume that people stay the same regardless of the kind of social structures that surround them. This isn't true. If a society becomes too thoroughly 'marketised', if the principle of private pursuit of personal gain becomes too dominant, then people become greedy and selfish.”

Michael wrote that in 2000 – and today it’s far worse. You just have to look around a depressing shopping centre with people slowly wandering about, trying to find things to buy… it’s not even proper shopping.

Blair's second contribution to creating the new business leader was to turbo-charge the “something for nothing” culture, with various measures, including the freeing up of gambling.

The Conservatives had set up the National Lottery in 1993 – partly to raise money for good causes. But it set a tone – people started dreaming and fantasising of escaping the drudgery of their daily life.

Then in 2005, New Labour passed the Gambling Act. Casinos, and gambling advertising sprouted up everywhere. Spread betting became commonplace. And we now have the grotesque sight of actors peddling gambling websites in TV ad breaks in sports matches at all times of day.

The truth is that gambling is hugely addictive – it can become a disease. It undermines common sense and responsibility and replaces it with false hope and desperation. Only the gaming houses – the businesses raking in the profits – are winners. The rest – the punters – are, by definition, losers.

Gambling, and its symbiotic relationship with debt, brings us to the third of Blair's contributions – the normalisation of debt.

Debt used to be all about borrowing to build something, or to buy a house. And not much else. When I was growing up, people did borrow to buy consumer items, but it was frowned upon and referred to disparagingly as “buying something on the never-never”, or “tick”. Now, debt is normal – it’s even seen as funny. People make jokes about it. Perhaps they have to. But casual debt is bad, wrong and hugely debilitating.

And yet we now routinely saddle students with huge debts at the start of their adult lives, which could not send out a worse message about how to manage their personal finances.

Blair's fourth force, working alongside debt and gambling, was the continuing rise of the City and financial services. The culture of gambling and debt reached its epitome in the City of London. Strangely, it was scientists joining investment banks who perfected the system. The Quants – quantitative analysts – brought incredibly complex maths to the job of providing financial services. And, to be fair, they found some incredibly clever things to do with debt. They took junk, sub-prime mortgage loans, and the like and dressed them up to look good, called them “derivatives” – and sold them to gamblers – aka suckers.

At the same time, trading systems became automated with the rise of technology. Machines – running complex algorithms – trade automatically, making tiny margins on vast volumes of artificially created trading. Few people running the banks understood what was going on. But they only had to make money. No one was responsible for “good” or “sustainable” or “creative”. It was all incredibly short-term. And government not only did nothing – it helped, assisted, encouraged and incentivised the whole ghastly edifice.

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So where did all this debt come from? Well, a lot of it came from mortgages and housing. At one time, rising house prices were seen as wonderful – people could get rich just sitting on their sofas – on paper, at least. But the big snag with this is that the actual price of a house is largely irrelevant to a purchaser.

If you go to a building society for a mortgage, the first question is not about price but “what can you afford per month?” Because the property you can afford is a combination of price and interest rates.

Put simply, if the mortgage rate at the time is 8 per cent, your £500 a month might enable you to buy a property valued at £100,000. A year later the mortgage rate might be 4 per cent – in which case, your £500 a month would buy a property valued at £200,000. Probably the same house.

If you're borrowing to buy a property – which most people do – then what matters is the “cost of buying”. Prices naturally adjust as interest rates change. In an era of low interest rates, house prices inevitably rise because the cost of buying them falls dramatically, subject to the payment of a deposit.

Unfortunately, in this perfect storm that was gathering, low interest rates meant large sums could be borrowed, which gave investment banks increasingly large bundles of debt to play with – by dressing it up and selling it on, making a profit along the way – and fuelling a giant derivatives boom. Which created a demand for more debt to play with – the system needed more borrowing and hence mortgages – which led to reckless lending.

Things might not have been disastrous if all the mortgage loans were solid and sensible. But the financial services sector was dishing out 125 per cent mortgages, requiring no deposits, and lending to people with no hope of keeping up their repayments. It was absolute madness – a defiance of gravity.

All through the 1990s – when the UK population was not even increasing – up to today, when it is growing, thanks to immigration, there has been enormous pressure to build homes. And it was as much to do with creating mortgages and debt as it was about providing homes. Properties became one of the key raw materials of the derivatives boom – among many other factors, of course. And while a little more common sense is being applied to mortgage lending, they still are.

Lobbyists for the developers, builders and property industry keep talking up a so-called “housing crisis” – but you could go out tomorrow and buy thousands of houses if you had the cash. It suits the builders to talk of unmet demand, to which they contribute by sitting on vast land banks upon which they will not build until profit can be maximised. Admittedly, uncontrolled EU free movement of people policies have now created a shortage of homes – but the “housing crisis” cries pre-date the recent population explosion.

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So this is what our “strong economy” was built on – shifting sands, a house of cards, and an aimless reliance on permanent economic “growth”. Yet even children learn very early that you can only build a brick tower so high before it collapses. Andrew Simms, in his book “Cancel The Apocalypse” writes brilliantly about the meaningless of growth without any pursuit of maturity or equilibrium.

So much for the “end of boom and bust” and the “prudence” of Gordon Brown. It was actually the opposite – everyone was being incentivised to do the same wrong thing at the same time – gambling, borrowing, spending, thinking short-term – making it the most extreme example of reinforcing the cycle imaginable. The good times only lasted as long as they did because the boom was so enormous – and the bust equally enormous. And it’s far from over. Because very little has changed. Even today, we have George Osborne, the chancellor, saying: “We are unashamedly business first.”

The trouble is, it’s very difficult to change. We have travelled up several one way streets – and it’s hard to see how we back out. Let's look at them.

First – house prices. As we’ve seen, if interest rates come down, prices go up – and loans get bigger, without costing the purchaser more. But this traps people and makes them totally reliant on low interest rates. If a variable repayment mortgage rate rises from 2 per cent to 4 per cent – that’s a rise of 100 per cent. (Although it’s not quite as simple as that, as there are other costs.) But it still means a huge and potentially unaffordable rise in monthly repayments.

So if rates rise, house prices can stabilise or even fall, and thousands of households fall into negative equity – and repossessions of homes rocket. Which is politically dangerous. This phenomenon works in other areas, too, and makes us slaves to low interest rates – and this is shaping and distorting economic policies.

Second – consumption. We are similarly reliant on consuming: we cannot – must not – stop spending. And so far, we haven’t. Figures from shopping centres and Amazon are healthy.

But the need for mass consumption prevents government from taking too much money out of individuals' pockets via taxation for fear of reducing their spending. At a Tory party conference in 2011, David Cameron had to change his speech. He wanted to say we needed to pay off our debts. But he couldn’t – because if we all used our money to reduce our borrowing, it would hit spending. So we are now officially slaves to consumption.

Third, we are also slaves to The City and financial services. Some of the UK economy’s largest eggs are now in one basket – in financial services. This could be reversed out of – but with great difficulty.

oughly 10 per cent of our economy consists of financial services – much of which is actually nothing at all. It might be dressed up as “providing liquidity” or enabling investment – but most is actually simply making money from moving money around.

More than anything, we’re slaves to big business.

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So our politicians and our business leaders have locked us into a tight corner. And now that things are in such a dreadful state, is there any hope of our business leaders – or indeed, our relatively impotent politicians – steering us out of the mess?

And who are the people running our large businesses – and our society? How is the system working?

Well, not too well, really. Everything that can realistically be done to smooth the path for business HAS been done, and it has given business leaders an incredibly narrow focus. Because there is such a close alignment between their own personal interests and the short-term interests of the businesses they lead, they seem to find it hard to see the bigger picture.

Let’s look first at what this 35-year process has produced in our boardrooms.

It’s left the leaders of our big businesses increasingly out of touch with reality. Their wealth creates a bubble. It certainly doesn’t make them wiser – instead they become naïve and detached. I’ve met lots and most are really nice and clever and well-meaning. But many also have little contact with, or understanding of, other people’s issues.

They are highly focused on their own results and the business. Anthony Hilton, a financial commentator in the Evening Standard, pointed to research in March 2011 that showed how the well-off don’t have a clue about what life is like for everyone else. He wrote: “They grossly over-estimate how many people earn as much as they do. They think the average wage is two or three times what it actually is.”

Leading a large business for vast pay packages also leaves bosses resisting change and being a real drag on progress. If the strong trade unions were holding us back in the 1970s, the leaders of big businesses are doing the same today. But the benign system that has provided them with great wealth, privilege and access to government, is bound to be defended. I would argue that in a rich nation such as the UK, they represent today's Neanderthals, holding us back from creating a society with a very different set of values and aspirations to the narrow, money-obsessed, materialistic world we have now.

But they have a lot to defend. In the past decade or so, the average year-end share price has performed poorly. Yet directors' pay has increased dramatically. Statistics from the “Manifest and MM&K Total Remuneration Survey” show that in the 12 years from 1998 to 2009, total remuneration of FTSE 100 chief executives increased by a factor of 3.89, roughly quadrupling.

Less than 20 per cent of that was paid in salary up to the belated and fairly feeble regulation that slowly filtered in during the downturn. Total remuneration packages are now made up of a complex mixture of bonuses, pension payments, share options, etc.

The High Pay Commission, an independent body set up to investigate high pay, monitors rewards. And in one of its reports it argued that there is “rarely” a link between company performance and executive pay. Its chairman at the time, Deborah Hargreaves – a former FT colleague of mine – says: “The evidence exposes the myth that big bonuses and high salaries result in better company performances. There has been massive growth in what has been termed as performance-related pay yet no such corresponding leap forward in company performance. Corporate governance reforms attempting to link pay with performance appear to have done little more than add to the huge complexity of executive packages, reward schemes and bonuses that make up the pay of FTSE 100 directors.”

In the US, there have been moves at least to expose the truths about pay. The “Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act” contains a raft of measures – one of which requires the disclosure of ratios of average earnings to executive pay. This requires a company to reveal the chief executive’s total compensation as a multiple of the median total compensation of all other employees (the “CEO pay multiple”).

There is snag, of course: there are arguments over how to make the comparisons. And there are fears it could lead organisations to outsource more of their poorer paid workers to raise the median wage. But it’s a start and it might give shareholders some insights and perhaps a lever to control pay.

How else might pay be moderated? One idea might be to include employees – or their representatives – in the process? Or perhaps use “the veil of ignorance”. It’s fascinating to guess how different pay levels might be if they were set for all employees, top to bottom, by one person from behind this veil – a brilliant notion from John Rawls. The idea is that the person making decisions on pay would also be on the payroll but have no idea where they fitted in the organisation. You might assess people’s worth very differently in that situation.

There are plenty more horror statistics: The Hays Group, for example, in February 2011 estimated that chief executives were earning up to 43 times the average wage in their businesses. Other figures suggest that that could be a huge underestimate – citing up to 200 times or more, which sounds more realistic for some of the largest enterprises.

Either way, there are only so many hours in a day, and can a chief really contribute 43 times, let alone 200 times, or even 1,000 in the most extreme cases, more effort, hours, brilliance, responsibility, stress and sacrifice than other employees? Especially when they might also have other jobs as well – perhaps as non-executive roles with other companies – and the task of running their own considerable financial affairs.

■ ■■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

So what do business leaders do to earn this money?

Here are a few things they DON’T do – from a fine song called Pretty Penny by Steve Tilston:

They don't plant wheat,
They don't cut corn,
They don't pick tea,
They don't dig coal,
They don't forge steel, ….
They just push numbers all about,
They push too far we bail them out”

Another thing they don’t do is take risks. Entrepreneurs do, bomb disposal experts do, but chief executives don’t – because they are staff. They used to be called managing directors or general managers. They are employees, just like all the others.

Carl Mortishead in the Times in March 2009, wrote: “Once upon a time a managing director was just a superior manager. Today they are rewarded like venture capitalists – risk takers who claim a big return for taking a personal financial risk. This is absurd because Sir Fred [of RBS fame] and the other CEOs have no skin in the game; they are staff.”

I think it’s actually worse than this. Because so many of the incentives offered to chiefs are related to short-term financial performance targets, one way they can hit them is to “improve efficiency” or “increase productivity” – in other words, sack people to make the balance sheet look better – for bonus purposes. These incentives create huge temptations to cut corners and run the worst sort of risks.

And so we see chief executives being jailed and businesses fined for insider trading, ponsi and pyramid schemes, mis-selling, tax dodges (keeping empty offices in Jersey etc for “subsidiaries), insurance scams, phone hacking – every day something new. The court cases drag on.

And this decline in morality spreads. When role models become the wealthy we start to celebrate wealth. And those excluded from wealth choose occasionally to riot, or to occupy, or equally dangerously, seethe silently and helplessly, waiting for a chance to lash out. And when those who are bold, desperate or reckless enough to riot take to the streets, the chances are it will turn into looting – an orgy of “something for nothing”. Which, while we can't condone it, seems to be perfectly logical.

So what DO chief executives do? They have responsibilities as a communicator, decision maker, leader, and manager. I found a 30-year-old list with none of the business buzzwords we all use today. It just stuck to plain words, and is all the more revealing for it. It says chief executives are responsible for: “Planning; Organization; Management of recruitment and development; Policy; Standards of performance and performance reviews; Controls; Management of morale; Product development; Community relations; Profitability and growth; Relationship with board of directors.”

But then we have to ask whether they actually do all this satisfactorily. And the trouble is, there are very few measures of performance. Investors might look at share price – but is this all there is? How about honest feedback? Well, there’s not much going around. You can’t ask subordinates to appraise their bosses for fear that non-flattering feedback may stall their career. And so we can see that “being adequate” becomes “good enough” – and extravagantly rewarded.

Warren Buffett said as far back as 1988: “A CEO who doesn’t perform is frequently carried indefinitely. One reason is that performance standards for his job seldom exist. When they do, they are often fuzzy or they may be waived or explained away, even when the performance shortfalls are major and repeated. At too many companies, the boss shoots the arrow of managerial performance and then hastily paints the bull’s-eye around the spot where it lands.”

This, clearly, is still very much the case today.

Being in a sort of “CEO club” helps: once you’re in, it’s hard to break out. My Appointments section at the FT spoke to Dr Roger Barker, head of corporate governance at the Institute of Directors. He believes it is more difficult to break into top management, even for those with an impeccable record, than it is for those already in top management to be kept out, even after blotting their copybooks. He says: “Once you have made that break, even when you are sometimes unsuccessful, you still have the qualification to go forth on that level.”

Tom Lloyd, a visiting fellow at Northampton Business School also wrote a short series of columns for my FT Appointments section, and in one of them he quoted Rakesh Khurana of Harvard as saying the so-called “market” for CEOs is “closed”, in that CEO jobs at large, listed companies are only open to those “who fit certain socially defined criteria”. Which boil down to: “Must be a C-level executive at a well-performing FTSE 350 company” – ie already at the top of a big business.

So a small pool of “qualified” business leaders keeps revolving around, no matter how bad they are at it. Three recent high-profile departing CEOs, at AstraZeneca, Trinity Mirror, and Aviva, will soon be back in a job. And for the companies, it’s “the CEO is dead; long live the CEO”. It looks like a “perpetuocracy”, if there is such a word.

Even when it all goes wrong, the key to making a recovery, says Dr Barker, is simply to explain yourself: “If you can explain what went wrong and the lessons you learned, the fact that you have already operated at such a high level gives confidence.”

For those who mix in CEO circles and know they will, at worst, enjoy a soft landing, it must affect their thinking. They have nothing to lose. No skin in the game.

Even worse, on a day-to-day basis, research on chief executives' diaries shows they spend an embarrassing amount of time managing their own personal interests – their fortunes, their careers, their images – which is unsurprising, given that some of them have incomes larger than many small businesses.

As Tom Lloyd again points out in a recent column he wrote for me on the subject of what CEOs do all day – when you pay CEOs such huge sums they become lucrative one-person businesses in their own right, which require managing. He wrote: “This might involve regular meetings with accountants and asset managers or networking with headhunters and influential business people, to maintain and enhance their personal brands.” And some of these might even take place in “work time”.

The remoteness that all this creates leads to several more unwanted characteristics in business leaders. Other commentators and researchers have found a list of dangers that chief executives must guard against – but often don’t.

  • They can assume an air of unreality and infallibility.

  • There is then a danger of arrogance – “I know best” – and they stop learning.

  • When things go wrong, they can blame everyone else: “My employees just don’t get it.”

  • Remoteness can breed ignorance – chief executives often don’t know what’s going on at grass roots level.

  • They can become fearless – because they never “fail”. There are rewards even for failure. And no bad consequences. Their wealth shields them, with the very great assistance of “golden hellos and farewells”.

  • And if things get tough, they can call in the consultants – at vast expense – to hold their hands.

As Adair Turner said – the “transformational capabilities” of chief executives are overblown. Even in normal times, success is actually more down to team, culture and climate. Large companies have plenty of advisers presenting a chief with options for them to pick from. And when things go wrong, they might well be right when they say there’s nothing they could have done about it – so much is outside their control anyway. Markets move, conditions change, the macro economic picture is shifting all the time – affecting businesses. All of these factors make chief executives feel bulletproof.

■ ■■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

So how can they justify their rewards?

Businesses and boards talk about “paying the market rate” to get the best leaders. But pay is set by a small club – and the comparisons are only within that small club – not the rest of society. So a parallel universe is created. Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP, the advertising giant, was interviewed on the Radio 4 Today programme and said the comparison SHOULD be with other CEOs. But this is a circular argument. They’re saying: “We have to pay it because everyone else pays it.”

And arguing that “We’re competing for the top talent” assumes a limited supply of top talent. Which, given the managerial functions they are tasked with, the mistakes they make, and what we’ve seen about what they do and how they are measured, is a spurious assumption.

Dr Douglas Board another contributor to my section and a visiting fellow at Cass Business School, highlights this very wittily in a book called “Choosing Leaders and Choosing to Lead”.

He takes us to another planet and describes how they organise their big business leadership. He writes: “On the planet Delusio there is a pyramid of increasingly well-paid jobs. Delusians believe that the better-paid jobs are harder, requiring high levels of skill as well as the training which comes from working up the pyramid from one level of difficulty to the next. But the opportunities are few and this makes it tough for ordinary Delusians to have a go at a top job. However, if they could, they would find it no more difficult than the job they are doing already.

No senior Delusian ever visibly screws up, in the sense that every junior Delusian who has to pick up one child from school while taking another to the doctor and working a late shift, will definitely screw up.”

I think the telling point is that most people, I am sure, would find a CEO’s job to be no more difficult than the one they are already doing, given the right training and experience. After all, they are only tasked with managerial functions, and they still manage to make plenty of mistakes.

I argue there is no justification for such levels of executive pay. Whether you base pay on their contribution, levels of risk, or effort, they simply don’t do enough. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day.

In any case, it’s surely a very poor worker who can only be energised, motivated and inspired by a seven-figure pay packet. If I went for a job interview and said “You have to pay me more – I am only prepared to do the job properly if you pay me a massive salary,” I don't think I would get that job.

But it creates a big problem for society. We have seen City protests outside St Paul’s and all over the world. Everyone understands why they happen – most of us feel some vague notion of a deep unfairness.

Just as badly, it also misleads youngsters as to what their futures might hold. Surveys have shown that new graduates all greatly over-estimate their likely salaries and speed of progress in a job.

■ ■■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

Which raises the question of whether any of this matters.

Well, consider this. A friend of mine, Mrs Moneypenny, said in a Radio 4 Today programme debate on this topic that no one over the age of eight should complain about things not being fair.

But I disagree. Fairness DOES matter. It comes back to our instinct for cheating. You can get away with a bit of self-interest at the expense of the group – but only up to a point.

And while everything was going well and we all had gadgets and holidays and lots of eating out, no one cared too much. But that’s changing. A lot of people are becoming worse off, some losing their jobs, their benefits, their homes.

And this makes having “an unfair advantage” matter a lot and so we see the social group reacting to deal with the “cheats”. The Occupy movement, rioting – and even shareholder “revolts”, as at Trinity Mirror, AstraZeneca, Aviva and now WPP. We are also seeing a mass movement towards very nasty right-wing political parties, for example in France and Greece – an obvious refuge for the discarded and disregarded.

As my old boss Richard Lambert, former FT editor, said recently in the FT: “Public support for free markets is based on two broad arguments. The first is that they deliver more efficient outcomes than the alternatives. The second is that over time they create increased prosperity for society at large. Both these assumptions have taken a severe jolt in the past few years.

It may be that capitalism is approaching some kind of tipping point, away from the winner takes all culture of the past three decades. If left unchecked, public disquiet will sooner or later bring a political response.”

Notions of fairness and cheating matter a great deal.

■ ■■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

So – I contend that it’s actually very easy to run a large business in this environment. And the rewards are fabulous. But is it sustainable? And if not, how might things change, or be changed?

One force for change is entering the workplace in the form of technology. Today, we still operate industrial revolution work patterns, that were created for factories in the 19th century. People were paid for their time, not results. Talent isn’t necessarily rewarded – but face-time is. Which leads to presenteeism – workaholism. You can’t go home before the boss, regardless of whether you have anything to do or not.

Technology is changing this – by enabling people to work any time, anywhere. This means they can be more task-based. And managers will have to trust their staff to perform when they can’t see them.

Technology is also changing the way younger people think – and their priorities in life and work. Those brought up in an age of broadband – known as “digital natives” – use social media. This vastly enlarges their networks and expectations. And it’s become part of their life – and something they’re not prepared to give up in the workplace.

I offer one quick example. I was advised to follow a young lady called Poppy Dinsey on Twitter – because she was funny, observant, incisive, fearless and witty. As editor of the FT's Executive Appointments section, I asked her to write a feature for me on why she had rejected the traditional “grad scheme” route to finding her way into a well-paid job on the corporate ladder.

She wrote that she wanted to do her own thing. She wanted to work – but she did not want a job. So she set about building expertise and making a name for herself – and creating her personal brand via online social networking, which in her case revolved around fashion. She wrote about how attitudes in sections of her age group towards companies are changing.

Which brings us to the question of talent and leaders of the future. Because this is now a problem for employers. They have created a new model of leader, which is not in tune with the way younger people think. It’s a problem for organisations when the top young talent starts to reject them.

The early signs of this came when employers began to complain of a “talent shortage”. But rest assured, there is no talent shortage. In fact, the UK has a glut of talent, with ever more well-qualified youngsters, which is partly down to the massive increase in university student numbers – Blair’s random target of 50 per cent.

The trouble is, that target was set without any thought for what the result would be. Because what we see now are large numbers of new graduates every year with very similar qualifications – especially in arts and humanities, because these courses are easy and cheap to set up and run, and are therefore good business for the newly commercial universities. And this has created a huge rise in applications for jobs – because there are many more graduates and technology makes it ever easier to make multiple job applications. Employers then have to introduce processes to handle the volume - and you see that recruiting becomes a process of mowing, rather than cherry picking.

Employers try to wipe out as many candidates as possible in a first sweep – by allowing through only certain degrees, or certain universities, or other basic attributes. It's understandable why they do it – but dismissing whole categories of applicants is likely to mean they miss the best people – who might have non-standard qualifications, or have been brilliant at an unfashionable university.

So there appears to be a talent shortage, partly because employers discard so many talented people in their first sift. In fact, I argue that you could train almost anyone to do any job – including running a large business. And nearly all would do it well – most, very well. What more could you want?

To make things worse, this apparent talent shortage is exacerbated by the changed expectations of businesses, who expect to find the finished article – someone who can tick eight out of their 10 boxes, instead of four or five previously; someone who can do the job from the moment they walk into work on their first day.

This is partly because businesses have become pared back to the essentials in order to be “leaner” and “fitter” and have less and less time or money or inclination to train and nurture staff. Many have fallen back on outsourcing jobs to cheaper parts of the world, or more recently exploiting cheap labour from eastern Europe.  [Read this relevant piece by former FT editor Richard Lambert  or this about the views of Tidjane Thiam ]

This slimming down of organisations is gradually making some of them just a core of “experts” who form a central team that hires niche skills on contracts to do the actual work.

Luckily for them, technology and the changing attitudes of the broadband generation are in line with this and we are starting to see the emergence of “talent clouds” – or “talent on demand”: people who are happy to work on contracts and projects and fit working into their lives, rather than the other way round. This “IT-enabled flexibility” could well suit both parties.

There are also demands from younger workers for organisations to be more socially responsible, and to enable a better work-life balance.

Another force for change might come from alternative business models – the John Lewis model, The Co-operative model, or employee-owned organisations.

Today, there is virtually no role in running businesses for the people who work in them – other than the top executives, of course. Yet the staff often have the biggest REAL stake in any organisation.

Or what about a different attitude towards allocating jobs and work. Rather than either being IN work or EXCLUDED from work, why not give everyone a job so that we all do a little less. Everyone contributes and everyone shares. After all, the system requires us to work, so why should so many be excluded?

We might also change the incentives for business leaders which caused so much rottenness in the first place. In the hope that it changes the way they think and behave.

And please don’t think I’m anti-business per se – or even anti chief executives. I’ve met many and most are charming and reasonable. Ruby McGregor-Smith, chief executive of Mitie, and Karren Brady, chief executive at West Ham, both come across as sensible, down-to-earth young leaders who can see things a little differently. And I think more will start to “get it” as younger leaders emerge. I just think business is not performing the social function it could and should be performing.

To make it work more widely, we need new thinking on what constitutes a competent modern business leader. I think these are the essential characteristics they will need:

- They will want flexibility – and enable it for others.

- They will be collaborators, rather than being competitive for the sake of it.

- They will be service providers, rather than profit maximisers.

- They will be technologists, and avid online networkers.

- They will champion local community involvement.

- And at the same time they will be international in outlook – sharing best practice from anywhere in the world.

■ ■■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

I think work will change, too. As we have seen, technology and the next generation’s attitudes are moving to a more contractual, task-based model – with a priority on flexibility and work-life balance.

I also think we will eventually learn how to live in an age of extraordinary riches. It might not feel as though we are rich – but we are. No other era has had what we have.

The irony is that we can’t handle this fabulous wealth and comfort. We still want more – partly because we are constantly bombarded by a system that’s built around people consuming and wanting more and more. We have a whole society that is geared to achieving material gains. The overwhelming driver has become money and “stuff”.

We will – hopefully – learn to value other things – such as time, the simpler pleasures of doing less. A pursuit of happiness, rather than expensive gadgets, flat-screen TVs and designer clothes. It’s interesting that in surveys that ask when people were happiest, they tend to say 1976 – if they're old enough to remember it. It was a hot summer – but it certainly wasn’t the richest year on record.

And for all that we have it doesn't seem to make us happier. A survey [2011] by PwC and Demos, the think tank, found people in the UK to be pretty miserable because of working hours, income inequality, transport costs, etc. It’s an inherently depressing system because it relies on permanent dissatisfaction.

In short, business must be made to serve people and society, and not the other way round, as at present. And George Osborne should ask himself why he is, as he said, “unashamedly business first”? To what end? And if the end is not “to enrich an elite”, then he needs to think again.

I also think there has to be a huge shift from society holding so much of its wealth in a few private hands. This vast personal wealth creates dreadful stresses in society because individuals spend their money to suit themselves, which is often anti-social. If you walk around the wealthiest parts of west London, the pavements are blocked every few yards by builder’s machinery and hoarding – because they are digging out basements. Some have even collapsed, endangering neighbours and the public. This is surely the most stupid, anti-social waste of money. But people have had all that cash shoved in their wallets, so they can do what they like with it.

Shifting a large proportion of this unearned, or lightly earned – and definitely undeserved – income into communally held funds could reduce such selfish madness and raise the quality of life dramatically for everyone.

There is, of course, an obvious problem with this – it requires trust in the quality of public administration. Sadly, competent public administration is VERY hard to find. A lot needs to change there.

■ ■■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

For any improvements to be made, we need brave, intelligent and socially minded politicians to listen – and to be leaders, rather than the lapdogs of big businesses that have taken a stranglehold on what we do and how we live. Politicians helped stoke all this up – promising material riches and an easy ride for businesses – to stay in power. And when it started getting out of control, a very long time ago, they were the only people who could stop it. Plenty of people were pointing out that things were going wrong – some of us at the FT were saying that we were living in a fool’s paradise and way beyond our means as far back as the 1990s. It was blindingly obvious, even at the time.

But the political leadership had neither the knowledge, nor the inclination to stop the unsustainable economic bubble growing. And when it burst, they all claimed it was “unforeseeable”. Gordon Brown repeatedly blamed everything on the “world economy”, global forces beyond his control. Which, of course, was all complete rubbish.

We need someone who can relieve the intellectual and political constipation from which we have been suffering for decades. We must stop thinking that everything can be solved with flashy maths and financial wizardry. And we must decide whether Big Business is our servant or our master.

I leave you with three quotes:

This first one is from 2009, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a veteran trader, and professor at New York University's Polytechnic Institute – and an influence on David Cameron (so perhaps there is hope). It’s from his “Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world”. He came up with the Black Swan theory, which is that history does not make steady linear progress – it leaps in response to surprise events that it then subsequently rationalises, in a sort of “re-writing of history”. Here are brief versions of his principles 3 and 4:

3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus.

4. Do not let someone making an 'incentive' bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks.”

The second one comes from Einstein: “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

And the last one is from something I wrote shortly after the financial catastrophe of 2007-8: “We have been on a bus hurtling towards the edge of a cliff at increasing speed. Luckily, that bus has broken down. Unfortunately, the response of those in power is to try and fix it and get it roaring along again in the same direction. It has to change course.”


JUNE 29 2016

Does anyone agree that the EU would look a very different place if my "Approval Rating" system had been in place? The idea is that every EU country holds a referendum each year and instead of the binary option of IN or OUT, voters would score the EU's performance over the previous year out of 10. The UK referendum of June 23 was basically this, but with only the possibility of awarding 10 out of 10 or zero out of 10 - with the inevitable result. But an annual rating from the entire EU population - or those that care enough to vote - of between one and 10 would send a clear message regarding satisfaction levels, especially if any score below six - or maybe seven - resulted in the expulsion and replacement of every commissioner. It might take three or four years to find an acceptable group, but after that we might have a competent commission acting in the interests of the vast majority of the European people. 

JUNE 25 2016

There is no need to be bewildered by this vote - the numbers were shocking, I agree - but the depth of feeling has been there for a long time, for anyone prepared to look. Janice Turner's brilliant column in The Times today says it all, and is very similar to the arguments I outline below. PLEASE read her column.

JUNE 23 2016

For anyone demanding evidence of EU incompetence, dysfunction etc, (accusations levelled below) I give you: last year's "madness of Mrs Merkel", barbed wire borders, falling hostage to Turkey, vehicle emissions testing, TWO parliament buildings, farm subsidies, to name just a few of the big ones that are barely even mentioned in the piece below.

And to those bemoaning the threat of continuing division and rancour - don't worry, it's always been there. It's just that for a fleeting moment the weak, poor and ignored have been given a tiny voice. They will go back to being subjected to Business As Usual from tomorrow. 

JUNE 22 2016

Why I cannot vote for the EU - but don't like Brexit campaigners either   (In reply to an essay “Why I shall vote to stay in Europe” – by Frank Brierley)


Frank wrote an intelligent and thoughtful piece on why he supports remaining in the EU. I felt there were other ways to interpret the issues he raised and annotated his original essay. Frank then provided further notes and the beast grew to unwieldy proportions. I have therefore extracted my thoughts into this reply, attempting to introduce each section with a very brief summary of the point Frank was making. If I have misinterpreted him in any way, or been mistaken, then I apologise, as that was truly not my intention. You should already have been sent his original article, so you can judge for yourselves, if necessary.

But reflecting on our friendly exchanges, I can now see the underlying difference in our approach. Anyone who believes the status quo to be most excellent will have no trouble deciding how to vote in this referendum: they will choose Remain. I don't think either of us are in this camp.

But if you see the EU's influence as less than perfect, then how you vote may depend on your priorities and how you regard the EU's willingness to listen and change. This is becoming an increasing theme in the debate as the EU's imperfections are at last being discussed, as seen in The Times' leader column on June 21, headlined “Leading, not Leaving”. Frank believes that staying in the bloc will enable the UK to engage more deeply with EU member states and to argue for – and bring about – great reforms, as The Times leader argues. I take the view that the EU is not interested in our concerns and is fundamentally incapable of reform. Having been an enthusiastic Europhile for so long, I am hugely disappointed at the direction it is taking.

Also, neither of us has delved into the arcane and largely meaningless realm of economic forecasts. During my many years working for the FT I always felt they were on a par with trying to predict next year's football results. Frank alludes to them tangentially a couple of times and I am prepared to concede that a Leave vote would inevitably cause market turbulence. How things might look in 10 or 20 years obviously cannot be known. Beyond that, I hope Frank will agree that our cases are more to do with principles and the future of our society than numbers.

But to get to our debate:

Frank and I agree that the level of debate by leading politicians has been infantile and irresponsible on both sides. The Prime Minister should be especially ashamed of himself for offering the country a choice regarding a matter upon which he now claims there is none. In our discussion Frank and I have ignored the sorry state of the current political leadership on both sides of the argument, probably both assuming (certainly in my case) that this cadre of unworthy, here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians will be an irrelevance within five years.

Overall, I am not especially political – at least, not party political. Although I suspect Frank and I are far more “political” than we are admitting. But either way, being an FT journalist for nearly 27 years provided me with a ring-side seat at the main political and socio-economic events of the era and a close-up view of the oppressive rise of the corporation since the mid-80s. Also, my upbringing in the low-church, anti-establishment, heavily work-centric and justice-seeking environment of south Northamptonshire might help explain the distribution of my sympathies.

For his part, Frank said he was temperamentally more attracted to the Remain case and wanted to examine whether he could justify his stance objectively, choosing the issues that have influenced him. I have stuck to Frank's agenda in this response. There are, of course, many more issues, but we hope the ones chosen will prove illustrative of our stances.

I, too, am idealistically and temperamentally strongly supportive of a co-operative Europe and would, in other circumstances, be – and indeed have been in the past – an enthusiastic EU supporter. But I cannot overlook the manifest and widely acknowledged failings of the current embodiment of that co-operation, the EU. This is where the distinction between “Europe” and the “EU” becomes critical. The act of endorsing an incompetent, dysfunctional, out-dated, anti-democratic organisation that is riddled with dubious practices and waste must surely involve holding one's nose quite tightly. It would not be out of the question, depending on how we weight our other priorities, but very unpleasant. It is also amusing to see so many politicians who were deeply critical of the EU until a few months ago now extolling its virtues and denying its vices.

Waste

Frank's first issue concerned the enormous waste that leaving would entail, in terms of adjusting to being outside the EU on multiple fronts and levels. I counter that this has not become an issue in the debate because it really isn't one. Why? First, the EU itself is a gigantic bureaucracy and renowned for its wasteful procedures, which we would be spared. Second, while there would be much to be done if the UK votes to leave, those carrying out the bulk of it would have been doing the same or similar work anyway, whether in the civil service or business. Third, to argue that there would be a lot to do could be applied to virtually every action or change, no matter how worthwhile.

Peace and prosperity

In response to Frank's argument that the EU has made a vitally valuable contribution to peace and prosperity over the past 60 years, I agree up to a point. It is certainly likely that the EEC and EU have had some effect on peace and prosperity since the war. But how significant the causal link might be is debatable. The unifying effect of the cold war, Nato, political developments favouring democracy over authoritarianism in the west (capitalist democracies tend not to go to war with each other – all possible outcomes show negative returns), and the suffocating dominance of business, markets, money, economics and self-interest must also have contributed. And not all of those had much to do with the EU – or are even completely desirable to a mind devoted to social justice and fairness.

Worryingly, EU pressure for eastwards expansion, coupled with its blindness to social unrest within, caused by mass uncontrolled migrations, are fast becoming potential causes of future conflict. The parties – and gangs – of the far right are increasingly prominent across EU countries as ordinary unheeded communities respond, perfectly rationally, to what is happening to them. And it is not Farage, or newspapers creating this frightening rise of the right – they are reflecting it in one instance and feeding off it in the other. It is thus perfectly plausible to argue that the EU is now turning into one of the biggest potential causes of conflict and serious unrest within Europe.


In theory, the EU as a bloc ought to carry a political weight greater than the sum of its parts. In practice, it has rarely acted as a “cohesive world power” politically, usually becoming paralysed by the conflicting viewpoints and interests of its members. Its role during the Balkan wars, for example, was hardly decisive or effective. Similarly, its role in courting Ukraine can be seen as fuelling Russian paranoia and aggression, leading to an unnecessary worsening of relations, sanctions and tension.

In economic terms, yes, Spain and Portugal's economies have expanded hugely, but from a very low base following liberation from dictatorships. Similarly, Ireland has veered from basket case to “tiger” and back again. Many countries around the world, outside the EU, have had very similar experiences: the BRIC countries, for example. It can be equally logically argued that the rise of business globally and the easing of trade barriers around the world have had a far greater effect than the EU economically. Indeed, the EU's one-size-fits-all, lowest common denominator arrangements can be seen as less than optimal in securing the most advantageous conditions for all of its members. And as for the euro experiment, it seems to have dragged the EU economy as a whole into the doldrums.

Meanness

Frank and I are both upset at how Britons seem to have become meaner and more selfish over the past 50 years. I completely agree with him that the era since the late 1970s has been characterised by meanness and selfishness. The direction of travel since the rise of the corporation in the 80s has been towards money, greed, and unearned income. We need to examine the causes. But before we look at the three categories Frank identifies as examples, I would suggest that the “natural” state of British people is to be open, generous and caring. The UK experienced repeated waves of immigration throughout the last century, the vast majority of which was met with tolerance and charity. Where there have been tensions initiated by the pre-existing population, these can largely be attributed to secondary factors directly affecting communities' well-being. So to call ordinary people “mean” and “selfish” for reacting angrily to losing their jobs to people prepared to undercut their wages, for example, seems to ignore the real underlying causes.

Meanness 1 – Immigrants

Frank argues that immigration, as an issue, is exaggerated and exacerbated by the emphasis politicians have placed on it and tries to downplay its real significance. But I reply that we have to accept that immigration clearly IS the most significant issue for millions of people. It is the number one factor cited in polls and interviews etc (outside the south-east England wealth-belt, at least).

And this brings us to the very nub of the debate. How you view immigration seems to depend largely upon whether you are a beneficiary or a victim. The business case is that immigrants work hard for low wages. This, they say, benefits business, the economy and the treasury. They “pay their way”. The alternative, and far less heard, case is that lowly paid immigrants are prepared to endure conditions that would be considered unfit by the vast majority of the pre-existing population, and depress wages or even destroy “proper” job opportunities entirely, at enormous cost to individuals, communities, and the taxpayer footing the bill for the benefits of the locally displaced.

Consider these two paragraphs by an old colleague of mine, the FT's John Gapper. He puts in a nutshell the conflict between attitudes in the south-east cosmopolitan wealth-belt and the under-reported realities of life beyond the home counties. He is talking about that wonderful “wealth creator” Mike Ashley, and his disgraceful Sports Direct factory at Shirebrook, staffed mainly by long-suffering eastern European migrants. What he describes here should be, for all of us, the nub of the issue:

"To a university-educated, London citizen such as me, the benefits of technological innovation, free trade and free movement of labour are clear and unalloyed. They stimulate economic growth and raise the quality of goods and services, as well as making it cheaper and easier to shop online. Leaving the EU and European single market would be a deeply damaging mistake.

"For those in Shirebrook, who swapped a mine that provided quite rewarding jobs until it closed in 1993 for a warehouse that employs outsiders on low wages, the gains are less obvious. Sports Direct employs people — but not the same ones and not at the same rate. It is now hard to find a good job if your education is limited to school.”

This is the reality for millions of British people, of whatever background, that has shaped their “meanness”. I am not prepared to judge them as “selfish”. Yes, Shirebrook is only one appalling example of exploitation – but this is how modern business operates: cutting costs to maximise profits. Across vast swathes of the UK, free movement of labour is reversing the business trend of “outsourcing” and “offshoring” – so popular only a decade or so ago. This is because businesses no longer need to go to the trouble of employing low-cost labour overseas – they can hire it on their doorstep. The fact that so many poorly paid people qualify to have their wages topped up by the state – which we might call “businesses on benefits” – speaks volumes. Is this steady, business-led downgrading and cheapening of our society really the way we want to proceed?

And consider this extract from a piece of first-class reporting by John Harris in The Guardian:

Instead of the comparative security and stability of the postwar settlement and the last act of Britain’s industrial age, what’s the best we can now offer for so many people in so many places? Six-week contracts at the local retail park, lives spent pinballing in and out of the benefits system, and retirements built on thin air?

It may have been easy to miss in the London-centred haze of the “knowledge economy” and the birth of the digital future, but this is where millions of lives have been heading since the early 1980s – and to read that some Labour MPs have come back from their constituencies, amazed by the views they encounter on the doorstep, is to be struck by a political failure that sits right at the heart of the story. How did they not know?

What has any of this got to do with the EU? Not much, but such is the nature of referendums: offer people a ballot paper, and they will focus whatever they feel strongly about on to it. There again, one obvious issue is directly linked to the EU, and so central to the political moment that it arises in countless conversations within seconds.

Yes, some people – from bigots in the stockbroker belt to raging gobshites in south Wales shopping precincts – are simply racist. But in a society and economy as precarious as ours, the arrival of large numbers of people prepared to do jobs with increasingly awful terms and conditions was always going to trigger loud resentment. For many places, the pace of change and the pressures on public services have arguably proved to be too much to cope with.”

He warns later: “People have good reason to worry about [free movement], and their anger and anxiety will not go away.”

Frank goes on to say that we need Latvian farm workers, Polish builders, Indian doctors, Filipino nurses, and IT workers from wherever we can get them and accuses Brexiters of only playing the immigration card to stir voters' emotions towards their cause. I think this accusation is fair – I agree that it has been a nasty aspect of the right-wing Brexit case. But there are complex issues here that are often jumbled into one, concerning EU legal economic migrants, non-EU legal immigration, illegal economic migration, and refugees.

First, whatever the precise figures on EU versus non-EU immigration – and most figures show them to be roughly equal – the population shifts from eastern Europe to the west and the UK are now large and have multiplied enormously in recent years. This has effects both for us and the countries of origin. At present levels (184,000 net per year), EU immigration alone would require building a city almost the size of Birmingham (1.1m) every six years simply to be housed. Frank counters that wide distribution of migrants in every town across the land would make their presence barely noticeable. But this is not the reality – some communities (not ours in Surrey) bear far greater burdens than others. Consider the outrage sparked in Claygate by threatened encroachments into the Green Belt, for example. This ought to make us empathise with those communities facing the arrival of hundreds or thousands of, rather than one or two, people on their doorsteps. And population growth on this scale must inevitably pose huge challenges to policy-makers and service providers at all levels. 

In the future, this population explosion could, of course, reduce. Or increase. The prime minister's feeble attempt at slowing it shows that which way it goes currently depends entirely upon the free and unfettered choices made by millions of individuals in eastern Europe. And the disequilibrium within the expanded EU's economies makes it a rational choice for most of them to move west.

Second, non-EU immigration is high, too, because we are importing skills. There are several problems with this. One is that, because of uncontrolled EU immigration pushing up the totals, the government felt forced to impose restrictions (salary threshholds, restrictions on “indefinite leave to remain” etc) on non-EU migrants. This is limiting our ability to access some skills. Why do we need skills from other countries? Because, for example, we don't train enough doctors, IT specialists, engineers, etc – nor do we provide those that we do train with a sufficiently attractive work-life to keep them in the UK. And we need to import these skills from beyond the EU because the bulk of the self-selected EU immigrants tend to secure work through their low cost, rather than bringing the specialist skills we seek.

It is therefore perfectly reasonable to argue that immigration could be reduced and managed at a level closer to our choosing were we allowed to control EU migration, focus on training for the skills we need, and provide a greatly improved working experience for those we do train.

As for the rest, illegal economic migration from across Africa and Asia into the EU is an immense problem. Fortunately, the stunning incompetence that European leaders have applied to this crisis has not had a profoundly adverse impact in the UK – yet. But it surely will, whether we stay in the EU or whether we leave. And worse, the ineptitude with which the illegal migrant crisis is being handled – or not handled – is hampering anyone's ability to do more for genuine refugees. It is deeply infuriating that illegal migrants, criminal traffickers, and the witless EU policies that aid and abet them are diverting so many energies and resources and so much capacity away from helping people who genuinely ARE in desperate need.

So yes, as things stand, we need Indian doctors, Filipino nurses and IT workers because of the UK's “training and treatment gap”. Sadly, we now need Polish builders and Latvian farm workers because UK labourers cannot live reasonably on reduced standard rates of pay. And I would not be prepared to ask them to. A recent news story illustrates the point: a sandwich factory in Northampton was reported as advertising for staff in eastern Europe, claiming local people were lazy, not prepared to work and preferred benefits. But a closer look at the working conditions – zero hours contracts, low pay, and the prospect of Sports Direct-like maltreatment – made it unlikely you would want to send a dog there to work, let alone allow someone you cared about to go there.

In summary, I think it unfair to accuse every Leave supporter of using immigration to whip up jingoism and racism. Yes, Farage is an unpleasant man, as are many of the right-wing Brexiters (who are making most of the noise). But there is a very strong, little-heard, left-leaning Brexit case that can see what immigration is doing outside the home counties to the weakest people in the UK. This referendum is giving those people a say; what would you expect them to do?

Meanness 2: The Social Chapter

Frank admits he was “dead against” the 1992 Social Chapter, aimed at improving living and working conditions, because of the extra costs and reduction of the power of company managements (eg to dismiss employees). He now sees it as having had significant benefits for workers across Europe, in areas such as maternity and paternity leave, health and safety legislation, etc. Franks says: “It is an example of European membership having pushed Britain in a more humane direction....I personally am very pleased in retrospect that European social legislation still exercises some influence on a Britain where I believe the mean, materialistic attitudes of successive governments and big business have nevertheless succeeded in polarising wealth distribution to a morally indefensible degree.”

In response, I think it's marvellous that we now all love the Social Chapter. I've always been a big fan of regulations that protect workers and ordinary people. So to hear that initial business-led opposition (“Stop! - we need to be able to sack people more easily”) can be turned around by time, experience and reality is encouraging. But it does raise the question as to how much influence we should be allowing business on other issues.

It also raises a question around effectiveness. Mike Ashley has been operating happily without worrying too much about workers' conditions. It's true to say that we don't know how much worse things could have been without a basic minimum provided by EU regulation. What we can say is that while UK workers' ground-level power – via trade unions – has been seriously eroded under both Tory and New Labour governments during the UK's 40 or so years inside the EU, all workers have been granted protections “from above” by EU rules governing working time, parental leave etc etc. And, of course, EU rules have had positive effects in other areas, such as the environment. Although I do find it deeply troubling that we now have to rely on the EU for protections against our own governments and employers. And we might ask to what extent this "safety net" has affected the UK's political discourse and even its choice of governments.

Meanness 3: The money criterion in education

Frank and I agree that higher education policy in the UK is “marginally economic and misery-making” and needs to be changed. Frank argues that this could he done by “leading the way within Europe to persuade our partners to join us in far wider governmental support for education”. He also cites the Erasmus programme as “a glowing example of the benefits available in this field from EU membership”.

My only quibble in this area is over whether much-needed improvements in the UK's education and training sectors can only be achieved within the EU. There has to be a strong case for saying that education policy changes are far easier to write and implement within an independent country than within a large group. And we are in a poor position to persuade other countries when the financing of our own higher education system is such a shambles. It might also be pointed out that the UK, Germany and France initially opposed the creation of the Erasmus programme (itself an amalgamation of pre-existing programmes) because they already had superior student exchange systems of their own – and so it was, at least initially, another example of “lowest common denominator” politics.

Sovereignty

I have no huge concerns over sovereignty per se. Government is either good or bad, whatever its jurisdiction. However, the undemocratic ways of the complex EU structures are undeniable, and the anti-democratic force of the “rule of law mechanism” is shocking. Some MEPs themselves say they are frustrated at their lack of power. But again, if everything else was fine, this would not be a big issue. I would always argue for decision-making to be closer to the people, in principle, for reasons of accountability and change. But against that, our own government or councils are just as capable as the EU of being misguided, blind or idiotic.

Idealism

I hope I haven't misrepresented any of Frank's views, and I hope he agrees that on this subject he is calling for the UK to use its influence, and the respect it enjoys in the world, to spread learning and enlightenment across the EU. And who could deny that this is a wonderful ambition? But the evidence stands piled high against the possibility of success. The EU has shown itself to be completely uninterested in reform or significant change. Yes, it has allowed the UK a few opt-outs when we have insisted, but it is hard to see much sign of UK influence within the EU beyond this. The commissioners pursue their agendas with blinkers firmly in place. The idea of a rosy European conversation or round-table learning experience is not on any EU agenda.

Having said that, it might be forced on to the agenda if a big enough shock were to be delivered. Clearly, the possibility that the UK might vote to leave is of insufficient concern in Brussels to have made it worth discussing meaningful concessions or reform. But Austria almost achieved a shock with its recent election. And what was the response of the EU? Not “it's time we thought about the causes of this frightening rise in fascism across Europe”. But “if the people of Austria elect a far-right president, we'll just take over its government”. This simply fails on so many levels. The EU is breaking down and no longer functions as it once did. The cavalier admission of the accession states threw away the delicate equilibrium that had enabled it to work so well – yet its current unbalanced condition has not even been acknowledged, let alone dealt with.

I would dearly love EU leaders to be capable of seeing the real problems they are causing and to address them; then my enthusiasm would be renewed. Failing that, we should be in no doubt that a vote to leave will incur a heavy price as a vindictive European Commission takes its revenge. But looking further ahead, I sadly conclude that only a big shock will force the EU to recognise the deeper damage it is doing. And that's why I cannot bring myself, whatever else I might do, to endorse it with my vote.


MAY 17 2016

Two quick points: I think it's a great pity that the EU membership debate is being conducted almost entirely between members of groups one and two, as identified in my April 25 notes. Also, it's becoming increasingly clear that the Remain campaign has to work harder to overcome its basic message that "this is as good as it gets". It has no grounds for optimism and is essentially a conservative, defensive stance. The Leave campaign, on the other hand, has to overcome the problem of which philosophy will prevail in the event of an exit vote: the one that will free businesses to trade and exploit, or the one that will protect society and the environment. If the former, we would probably be better off staying in the EU.


APRIL 25 2016

Views on the EU debate seem to fall into a four-way matrix. Two groups view the issues from the business/economy perspective - and reach opposite conclusions, and two view them from the people/social perspective - and also reach opposite conclusions.

The first two groups, most prominently supported by right-wing politicians, both see the economy and business as paramount - but one focuses on trade deals, the threat of financial services firms to move abroad, and cheap labour and predicts catastrophe if we leave; the other focuses on mass immigration, business regulation, EU costs and employee protections and says freeing ourselves of these will help businesses.   

The second two groups, most prominently supported by liberal and left-leaning commentators, see the environment, culture, society and workers as paramount. But one group focuses on EU environmental and workplace protections and sees these as an overriding reason to remain; the other focuses on mass migration and its impact on lowering wages and overloading services, causing social conflict and destroying the environment.  

Each group makes perfectly valid and reasonable points but is also vulnerable to criticism from each of the other three. For example, the pro-business Remain group might be right in saying there will be a shock to the economy from which we will all suffer financially. But the second group would counter that this is short-term speculation and that a new equilibrium would emerge; the third group argues that a more positive message than pessimism and scaremongering is required; and the fourth group would argue that as business interests and workers' interests become increasingly misaligned, a large part of the population has too small a stake in business to support it at all costs. Such strengths and weaknesses apply to each group - and there may well be other groups and sub-groups, too.

The two people who have impressed me most with their views on the EU vote - Janice Turner, Times columnist (Leave) and Jeremy Corbyn (Remain) - illustrate these divides. They make almost the same arguments but reach opposite conclusions - such is the nature of this debate. Corbyn is a group three man and argues that the EU's employee protections make everything else a price worth paying. And here's Janice Turner's column, she's group four:

http://marcpontinblog.com/brexit-great-article-by-janice-turner/

It's therefore a highly complex debate. And the greatest danger I see is that those taking part place themselves in one of these groups and fail to acknowledge the legitimate claims and nuances of the others. This is why I have looked at what I see as the key issues and categorised them as reasons to stay, leave or both/neither. 


APRIL 18 2016

SHOULD WE STAY OR SHOULD WE GO?

The EU affects many aspects of our lives. Here, I have selected the key factors that will influence my vote in the coming referendum. It is far from a clear-cut decision.

I see three powerful reasons to stay in the EU.

The first reason for staying is to retain the employee protections afforded by EU laws and regulation. These would almost certainly be stripped away by business pressure if we leave the EU, leaving workers exposed to ever more exploitation and relative impoverishment.

The second is that I have no confidence whatever in the politicians responsible for dealing with our proposed exit. There has to be a huge fear that they will not make a clean break and will negotiate a deal with the EU that is even worse than the one we have now. Talk of the “Norwegian model” or “Canadian model” is worrying and distracting. We would only be better off leaving if we choose the “UK model”. And if that model placed the protection of society, workers and the environment at its core.

A third reason is the romantic idea that we should strive towards a greater understanding of, and deeper relationship with, our neighbours in Europe, which has enormous value.

I see the following six factors as neutral.

EU spending. Redistributing the UK's EU contribution and spending it on hospitals etc is a simplistic argument and cannot be a decisive factor. Money flies in all directions around the EU and the overall impact either way is unknown and subject to manipulation.

Business/trade/economy. Arguing that the country will suffer because business and trade will be badly affected is to argue that the UK is merely a business machine and nothing else matters. It also assumes economic forecasting has any value - which it hardly ever does. On the other hand, UK businesses are artful, ruthless, largely amoral, and capable of operating in whatever environment they find themselves. Those that are not are probably not real going concerns at all. Businesses abhor change – but tend to adapt well to new trading circumstances. The levels of UK trade with the EU also appear to be rather lower than we are often led to believe. Overall, the UK's medium and long-term economic behaviour and fortunes are unknowable and cannot therefore be a defining issue.  

'Things will change'. The “things will change” argument also works both ways. Some things will be better, other things worse. But the constant bombardment of scare stories, mostly from the Remain campaign, are merely statements that things might change. But would change be so awful, given our recent history of financial disasters and “austerity” (for some)?

International relations. Again, this works both ways. Being part of a bloc adds weight, but the EU is prone to blundering and disunity. And as for the EU preventing renewed war in Europe? Today, the EU is just as likely to be the cause of a war than prevent it.

Security. Security can hardly be called an EU competence. The UK is already a leading global force in security and will remain so, in or out of the EU.

Law. Sovereignty of the legal system is no deciding factor, either. I have no great confidence in the EU or other international courts, but the UK's own can be equally daft.

The following six factors support leaving the EU.

Mass migrations. The EU has proved itself utterly incompetent over economic migration, illegal and otherwise, from beyond its borders. Germany's role in this has been astoundingly stupid – and this will have serious implications for every EU member country.

'Free movement'. Mass movements of populations within the EU are also a potential catastrophe. Mass migrations throughout history have invariably resulted in social unrest, hatreds, rivalries, civil wars and bigger wars. Taken to its logical conclusion, the EU “free movement” policy is a dangerous absurdity. In spite of what the government's pro-EU booklet says, the UK does NOT have full control of its borders, which inevitably undermines security.

Population explosion. This is to say nothing of the unprecedented population explosion, the effects of which range from overwhelming pressures on social services and serious and growing social tensions, to being the predominant factor in fuelling the frightening levels of housing demand. Building a city the size of Birmingham every three or four years is not physically sustainable. Unrestricted migrations also hamper our capacity to contribute towards resettling desperate refugees (who are very different from migrants - we are ALL potential migrants).

Jobs and wages. Economic disparities across the enlarged EU have destroyed the former equilibrium, creating a strong imperative for uncontrolled mass migrations, with eastern European workers free to compete for jobs in western European economies, which drives down wages to a level that UK workers - especially youngsters - cannot reasonably live on, thereby alienating an important section of the workforce. High levels of employment, coupled with low pay, stifle investment and create low productivity in a slowly growing economy. (Some see this as an inexplicable paradox!)

EU expansion. EU plans for wider and deeper integration and expansion to the east and south are further reasons for exiting. The EU's ambitions in each of these areas are unrealistic and extremely dangerous, and are already causing tensions which are likely to lead to some level of EU disintegration whether the UK stays or leaves.

EU refusal to change. The EU will not countenance meaningful reform. Even David Cameron's trivial attempts at reform were resisted and EU leaders have made very clear that basic principles are non-negotiable. It is possible that the impact of a “leave” vote on other restless EU member states might make the EU hierarchy more willing to listen, opening the possibility of real discussions and perhaps even renewed UK participation in a reconstituted European entity.

On balance...

In some areas the EU is valuable – for example, as a haphazard protector of employee and consumer rights; in others it is dysfunctional, wasteful and potentially dangerous. A vote to stay would be to endorse the current sorry state of affairs – and the repercussions of that are frightening: the UK will be walked all over. As in most relationships, by the time the “stay or leave” question is asked, the only sensible answer is “go”.

While I find some of the reasons given by “Brexiteers” for leaving the EU (avoiding EU employment regulation, for example) to be odious, and while most “Remain” campaigners merely peddle hypothetical scare stories about the effects on business – as if nothing else mattered – I have to conclude that a vote to stay in the EU is marginally worse than a vote to leave. I shall therefore be voting Leave on June 23.


2014

April 21 2014. In the few weeks since retiring I have visited Copenhagen in Denmark and A Coruna in northern Spain; rearranged our cupboards at home to create a working environment for me, should I decide to work; sold my first items on eBay; begun sessions with a.personal trainer; been to the golf driving range and Hampton Pool for swimming; attended several functions, including interviewing Lord Chris Smith at an "audience with" event; have re-started the process of transferring my vinyl records into digital format; played tennis; and held several meetings. And much more besides.     

March 1 2014. This is the day I retired from the Financial Times, after almost 27 years in various roles at the newspaper. I began on June 1 1987, when it was very much a newspaper. By the time I left, it had grown into a multi-channel, multi-media company. I was only 55 when I quit - but believing that quitting while you're ahead and not doing anything purely for money are two good principles, I decided I could just about afford to take early retirement and really couldn't afford to stay.