Friday, August 21, 2020

The silly season

What a mess. From the quiet of a Greek village, still nervous in a pandemic, with late summer weather hinting at the warm softness of autumn, my country appears even more surreal. The British people I meet out here are appalled, ashamed, or both. Greeks, and the other European nationalities who live here, think that we have gone mad. British residents and home owners are scrambling around doing the best to protect their interests as their rights are stripped away against their will - in many cases without them even having had the right to vote in the referendum that decided their fate.

The observation that I read and agree with most often is that we have a Vote Leave campaign in power, not a serious government, and it is from this that the incompetence flows. It is not equipped to govern and is fixated on its own security in power (and, at times, personal profit), rather than running a country in the interests of all its citizens. Brexit has wrecked far more than our place in the European Union. And that's before you factor in the inadequacy of the PM and cabinet.

Brexit remains undefined and its consequences unknown. A suicidal policy has been compounded by a precipitate dash to the cliff edge without bothering to work out if there is a safe route down. People keep searching for rational reasons, that Brexit is all about protecting offshore interests, selling British assets, and the like. I'm not so sure. There are plenty of grifters hustling their way through the crisis, that's true. Farage has successfully turned being obnoxious into an income stream. It's also a manifestation of hard-right populist ideology, one that has replaced totalitarianism with kleptocracy as its goal. (Bannon's arrest is a brief moment of hope and joy). But the essence of Brexit is not rational. It is an emotional spasm, rooted in mythologies and embodied in a paranoid style all of its own. It is propelled by resentment at fictitious indignities inflicted by a mythological EU. Reality doesn't feature. And even leaving the EU can not assuage their sense of persecution, something that they clearly enjoy.

Chris Grey is one of the best chroniclers of this psychosis. His insight evolved from years of academic analysis as the drama unfolded. His blog has long been essential reading. His excellent article for the Byline Times defines the problem Britain faces with precision.

Since the referendum an entire nation has been shackled to the political psychology of a relatively small number of people who – like rebellious teenagers secretly wanting to be set boundaries – demand total victory whilst craving defeat. It makes it impossible to turn Brexit into a workable policy because, at heart, it is not a policy demand at all, but a demand to be thwarted.
Reasoning with unreason is not possible. And by missing the multiple opportunities to deliver the betrayal the Brexit ultras craved, this is where we stand; with the greatest unhappiness for the greatest number of people. Chris Grey again from his latest blog post:
... for now at least, there is no answer. How can there be, when a nation is completely re-inventing its place in the world against the wishes of half its population, and with the other half gripped by a political psychology woven of paradoxical and contradictory impulses that have led them to vote for something undefined and that, however defined, is, because of that psychology, offensive to large numbers of those who did so?
It will unravel of course. The economic damage and destruction of people's rights should be enough. Add in the lies and distortions, the perversion of democracy, the sinister involvement of dark money and foreign interests, and it will unravel. Reality always wins in the end. I just hope that I am still around to see it. In the meantime, I must concentrate on how best to secure my life here as a second-class citizen.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The state of Britain

There is a lot that's good but something that's irritating in this article for an American audience about Britain's shocking record on Coronavirus. It puts our record down to the weakness of the British state. At times, it's too kind to Cummings and Johnson, though, at others, it gives them a well-deserved kicking. It's true that there are long-term structural failings in parts of the civil service. The administration has been weakened over the years by austerity and political fashions - from managerialism to small-state ideology. Brexit has thrown the most complex task ever on its shoulders, now to be undertaken in excessively rapid time by the decision not to extend the transition. It isn't a good time to be a civil servant. And you can't fault the article's conclusion:

When the pandemic hit, then, Britain was not the strong, successful, resilient country it imagined, but a poorly governed and fragile one. The truth is, Britain was sick before it caught the coronavirus

However, the line that it takes on Coronavirus is that the government should have been more critical of expert advice and have made a political judgement, rather than following uncritically. 

One of the central criticisms of Johnson’s leadership—expressed to me in multiple conversations—is not a refusal to accept the truth ... but a failure to challenge his experts’ strategy. It was the prime minister’s duty to question the scientific advice, to demand more.

As a criticism of leadership, it's a weak one. The ultimate blame lies elsewhere. It's a hard explanation to swallow. All governments have a tendency to hear the advice that they want to hear and those desires can shape the advice that's given. Rather than being not political enough, advice is often heavily politicised. 

But this is also a government that is keen to avoid responsibility and shovel it on to the administration wherever possible. Failure is met with a prompt announcement of a reorganisation/scapegoating (Public Health England is the latest to come in for the treatment). A government that disregards all expert advice on Brexit in favour of upbeat dissembling, doesn't strike me as one to slavishly follow a strategy decided by others unless it wants to. It doesn't seem to have been over keen to get some independent help, either, before launching the latest exam result fiasco on the people.

The Civil Service is being set up as the patsy for political incompetence. And they are not happy.

Alastair Campbell, not a bad spinner in his time, has his ear to the ground

There is a new word doing the rounds in Whitehall. Brovid. It must of course be whispered, not shouted, lest word gets back to the Gove-Cummings axis that it is being uttered at all, for to be heard using the word in polite company would be to signal a certain level of doubt about the efficiency of the Johnson regime.

This combination of Brexit and Covid expresses the contempt of the administration for the politicians.

It unites them in a morale-sapping reality for all in the employ of HMG – that the government is wholly consumed by one problem entirely of its own making – a Brexit secured and sold on promises that, guess what, turned out to be unfulfillable – and a second problem not of its making, the global pandemic, but the handling of which has created a succession of disasters entirely of their making.

...the civil service are seeing the realities of ministerial failings on both of these challenges day in, day out. They have made a total mess of Brexit. They have made a total mess of Covid.

The rhetoric of world-class this-and-that covers a grim reality, as the Institute for Government points out about the Brexit information campaign.

For business, December 31 will bring an unparalleled amount of red tape, extra hassle and administrative costs to add to their already strained cash flow. And life will change for everyone else too.
There are few moments when the veil parts and we see the genuine feeling of administrators trying to deal with the mess made by others. One happened during the Cummings affair. It was a single heroic, anonymous tweet to the official Civil Service account.

Remember this every time you hear any of this lot blame the administration or when Cummings trots out one of his banal schemes.

And remember too the irony of this shambles when you hear the 'global Britain' bullshit, that the rationale of Brexit was to free the dynamic British state from the constraints of a sclerotic European Union. 

It may be unfashionable to praise bureaucracy, but good administration is utterly necessary. Nothing can happen without it. If administrators are browbeaten, poorly resourced scapegoats, don't expect miracles. One of the first jobs of a new government will be to restore the morale of the people who run the British state. And the best way to do that would be for politicians to stop asking them to do stupid things and then to defend the indefensible.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

A silent crime

Outside the specialist education press, nothing is reported. I know from experience how hard it is to get a hearing. Yet, it's life saving and life changing. Adult education in all its alternative guises - continuing education, community education, lifelong learning, etc - matters. It matters very much indeed. Millions and millions of our fellow citizens have used and benefitted from it at all levels. But it's on few people's political radar and its loss is only lamented by those who used it. It's a national scandal that has been quietly accepted.

This might look like a local issue, but it is illustrative of the damage done by narrow, utilitarian and philistine government funding policies that have seen more than 4 million adult learners lost since 2003, with cuts accelerating through these past 10 years. Adult education centres, committed to literacy, numeracy, learning for active citizenship, social solidarity and a second chance at education for people failed by the system have a vital place in securing a post-Covid society. 

But they are not alone in experiencing the consequences of blinkered policy. In 2006, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, NIACE, published an independent inquiry on lifelong learning in colleges. Its title, Eight in Ten reflected the proportion of FE college students who were adults. Today, only a fraction as many remain. University extra-mural departments for adult learners now are all but a thing of the past. Libraries close. Museums have shorter opening hours. Public spaces for communities to meet together, for people from different backgrounds to meet and share enthusiasms, to make art and music, to understand and help shape the future fabric of our society diminish.
Step by step we lose the places for us to create a world worth living in.

I started working in adult education in 1982. I retired early over thirty years later. In that time, I set up dozens of programmes and initiatives for hundreds of students, in both urban and rural areas, and in community, further, and higher education institutions. There is not a single one left. I repeat, there is not one left. Everything that I built has been closed. Those thirty years were spent in an increasingly desperate battle against cuts. In the end, they won.

It would be easy to sit back and demonise the Tories, but, after a burst of initial encouragement, the New Labour years were as bad, and hard-left Labour authorities were horrendous. My experience has coloured my politics. The needs and dreams of so many people, the elderly as well as the young, were unseen and unvalued. It worries me about what people can tolerate and assimilate in relatively comfortable societies. It isn't just that "we don't know what we've lost till its gone," it's that we forget that we ever had it. And that's a lesson for today alright.

Saturday, August 01, 2020


I find it hard to contain my disgust at this Johnson government. Brexit, COVID, blatant cronyism, ignoring constitutional constraints, and the lying, the endless lying smothered in faux bonhomie. The list goes on. But this 'honours' list is something to be ashamed of. It's bad enough that it rewards Vote Leave activists, however rancid their politics - an insult to the majority of the electorate who voted for pro second referendum parties at the last election and the more than 50% that polls suggest wished to remain. Then there is the blatant nepotism of giving a peerage to his brother, though at least he is a Remainer and not a fan of Johnson's populist turn. And, of course, he raises two fingers to the Russia Report with a peerage for Evgeny Lebedev. Friends, family, and sympathisers rewarded. It stinks of both personal indulgence and the repaying of debts, together with a lack of respect for the office he holds. 

But there is one name that stands out; Claire Fox. Not just because she was a Brexit Party MEP, nor because of her part in Frank Furedi's absurd contrarian cult that he resurrected from the ashes of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and not because she is one of a number of grifters fawned on by the media when they should be beyond the pale. It's because of one event: Warrington. In March 1993 the IRA planted two bombs in cast-iron litter bins in the main shopping street on a busy Saturday. They killed two children, Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball, and injured more than fifty others. Fox defended the bombings at the time. She has equivocated and not disavowed her support since. 

The peace foundation set up to honour the victims' memory tweeted a couple of replies in response:

This should have disbarred her from honours, while the non-response of Number 10 to the foundation is a cause for shame. 

I am still furious at the failure of the opposition to remove Johnson when they had the opportunity. Corbyn bears a huge responsibility and an even greater one for giving Johnson the general election that the opposition could have prevented. It was criminal stupidity. But let's not forget that the real source of this malignancy is Johnson himself and his talentless administration. He's Britain's Trump. He has one success to his name. Brexit. He has succeeded in ensuring that Britain has made its most catastrophic mistake since Munich in 1938. That's his legacy. The honours list is evidence of hubris waiting for its nemesis. How long will we have to endure this nonsense until then?