That Nazi salute

Like a lot of people these days, I’m spending far too much time watching Netflix. There is a lot to enjoy, but one series that has stood out for me is The Chair.

This takes place in the somewhat decrepit English department of Pembroke University, a fictitious establishment that looks to be located in New England. Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, played by Sandra Oh of Killing Eve fame, has been appointed chair. She is the first woman to hold that position. Student numbers are down and attendance for some of the lectures is in single figures.

The whole story is told in just six half-hour episodes, but it still manages to explore weighty issues around freedom of expression, the nature of truth and the dangers of social media. I’d like to deal with just one plotline here, and I should warn you there a spoilers ahead, so don’t read on if you intend to watch the series.

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Back here in the real world

Back here in the real world the fact (and I use that word advisedly) is that the EU shares a 300-mile land border with the UK. If the EU and the UK wish to leave that border as it is then we have no choice but to commit to maintaining EU regulations with regards to the production of goods and services. If we don’t then the EU risks goods that do not conform, or become subject to tariffs, flooding unregulated across that border. The EU will have no choice but to install border checks, and these checks will need to be physically located on the border – remote checks will not work as smugglers do not, by definition, stick to the rules. Given that our current government has made it abundantly clear that it has no intention of committing to EU regulations, then a ‘hard’ border becomes inevitable.

There are only three ways in which this could be avoided. One is to carry out those checks in the Irish Sea, as the Withdrawal Agreement suggests. However the proposed Internal Market Bill seeks to scupper that. Another would be for Ireland to leave the EU and commit to following UK regulations, which seems highly unlikely. Alternatively Northern Ireland could leave the UK and either reunite with Ireland or align itself to EU regulations as an independent country, something no Brexiteer would countenance. Sadly, until this government returns to the real world, the most likely victim looks to be the Good Friday Agreement.

Government by corporation

As scandal after scandal is revealed and ignored, and the prospect of any kind of trade agreement with the EU disappears over the horizon, one can’t help but wonder exactly what the goals of this so-called government actually are. What kind of post-Brexit, post-COVID world is our Tory leaders trying to create? Or is it all just down to greed and corruption?

Perhaps the answer becomes clearer if we stop thinking of Johnson, Raab, Hancock et al as leaders of our country and instead think of them as board members of a corporation that is the Tory Party. Boris is CEO, Sunak is CFO and so forth.

As such, the goal of this corporation is the same as that of any corporation: namely to maximise return to its shareholders. We might fondly imagine these shareholders to be the citizens of this country, or perhaps the taxpayers, but that is to misunderstand the situation. As with any corporation, the shareholders are those who have invested in the company: namely those who have donated to the party. And as with any corporation, the primary motivation of the Tory Party is to maximise their return. Look at it from that perspective and much becomes clear.

Dodgy decisions

So, according to a Channel 4 investigation, some 45% of the 2009 national pandemic stockpile was past its use-by date by the time COVID-19 was declared a national pandemic on 30 January 2020. Some 200 million respirators, masks, syringes and other vital kit were officially unsafe, despite many attempts to pretend otherwise by extending those use-by dates, often repeatedly.

Expiry dates are nothing new, and anyone designing a national pandemic stockpile would, or should, have been aware that items within it would expire as the years passed. I’m no expert but I would imagine that a sensible process would be to distribute items to the NHS from the stockpile as they approach their use-by dates, and then replenish the stockpile with new items.

It’s hardly rocket science, but when there is a public enquiry into the government’s handling of COVID-19 (and there better be one), I would very much like to know exactly what its policy was for insuring the stockpile was kept up to date.

Perhaps more frightening is that someone thought it was OK to extend those use-by dates, and instructed a whole load of people to do so. In the UK, and indeed throughout the civilised world, it is an offence to change the use-by dates on food. I’m not looking for a prosecution here, but I sure would like that person to stand up and explain their reasoning in public. And then I would like to know that they will never work in public service again.


Misleading language on COVID-19

On 2 April our Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock set out a target of “100,000 [COVID-19] tests per day” by the end of the month. Right from the start this seemed ambitious, and as we approach the end of the month it is widely thought to be unatainable. However Matt Hancock and his colleagues persist, insisting even today that they will “have the ability to carry out 100,000 tests a day” by the end of the month.

But note how the language has changed. Most of us assume that, for Hancock’s target to be achieved, 100,000 people will be tested each day from tomorrow (30 April) onward. We assume that Hancock is using the word ‘tests’ as a verb; an action that is carried out on a person. However, in its more recent incarnation, the word is being used as a noun in that ‘tests’ now refers to the kit that is needed to carry out the test, rather than the actual act of testing.

The government may well be able to supply 100,000 test kits each day, but unless the staff and the facilities exist to administer those tests in a safe and relatively convenient manner, the target is meaningless. According to the government website, the intention is to open 48 drive-through testing stations by the end of the month, and there is a 37-page document explaining how to arrange a test. As if to prove the point, the government is claiming a capacity of 75,000 tests a day, but less than 20,000 people are actually being tested. I even heard someone put this down to a ‘lack of demand’ which is disingenuous to say the least.

We are used to such smoke-and-mirror tricks from the private sector, and they were succesfully deployed to undermine much that was meaningful in the Brexit debate. However right now the government needs us to trust them more than ever. It’s time to ignore the spin-doctors and start talking straight.

Why am I writing a novel?

Foyles front desk

Dreams of being front desk at Foyles.

Someone once said, “Everyone has a book inside them.” That may be the case, but it’s a fairly meaningless statement. You could equally claim “Everyone has a painting inside them,” and indeed, if someone left me for a couple of hours with a paint set and some blank sheets of paper I could probably produce something that would at least give me some satisfaction, and might even elicit a few “That’s nice” comments from friends and family. However the chances of it ending up on a wall in the Royal Academy are pretty small. That’s not the point: the point is that I had some fun doing it, and perhaps learnt a few things about myself and about the world along the way.

Many set out on the path of writing a novel in a similar vein. However at some point, perhaps a few months or a few tens of thousands of words later, the enormity of the task dawns. My father, who’s work did once decorate the walls of a Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, could knock out a couple of paintings in an afternoon. By contrast, unless you are exceptionally talented, or have a great deal of spare time, it’s likely to be several years before your novel reaches a state that could remotely be described as “finished” in the sense that you have a manuscript of perhaps 70 or 80,000 words that, after several revisions and even rewrites, you really believe is the best you can make it. Continue reading

Why Remain will lose

The strategy of the Tories with regards to Brexit is quite clear. The idea that they might negotiate a withdrawal agreement that will satisfy both their heavily Brexiteer membership and the EU within the next few weeks is laughable. Instead they are concentrating on winning an election which they would like to take place as soon as possible after we ‘drop out’ of the EU with no agreement in place on 31 October.

Their slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’ is based on the misleading idea that, once Brexit is ‘done’, we will be able to ‘move on’ to more pressing domestic matters, such as hospitals and schools and whatever else their ‘magic money tree’ will pay for. What this disguises is that, on 1 November, some 50% of our overseas trade and 8% of our GDP will still be dependant on the EU which means we will be entering into urgent trade negotiations which could easily last decades. Instead of being ‘done’, Brexit will only just have started.

This is why the Tories want an election as soon as possible, before the full impact of a ‘hard’ Brexit becomes clear, and while the bruising run-up is still fresh in the mind. In the meantime the Tories are intent on portraying Parliament, now dominated by opposition parties, as the culprit.

What is sad is that Remainers seem intent on helping them. If they had not challenged the proroguing of Parliament then Parliament would not be sitting, and the Tories would have no-one to blame for the mess but themselves. We also would not have had what the Tories have quite successfully (and not without justification) branded the ‘Surrender Bill’ sitting there ready to take the blame.

What Remainers should be doing is questioning the Tories about what our relationship with our biggest trading partner is likely to be from November onward, and asking them how they expect to pay for their spending extravaganza. Instead that bastion of the liberal elite Andrew Marr wasted the morning quizzing Boris Johnson about his relationship with the lovely Ms Arcuri, and his colourful use of language, neither of which concern a large chunk of the British electorate.

So looks like we’re going to be faced with a general election which will effectively be a second referendum, and a Tory party that has successfully positioned themselves as ‘champions of the people’. And so it goes.

So what happens in November?

Singapore skyline

So far there seems to be little discussion as to what is actually going to happen after the 31 October deadline passes, so I thought I’d have a go at working out the possibilites. At the moment it looks like there are three:

1. We gain an extension to negotiations

Matters continue as they stand, although the credibility of the Tory Party, and in particular Boris Johnson, evaporates.

2. We leave the EU with a deal

Given the short time left, this would be a deal negotiated by Boris Johnson’s current minority government, and a deal that Parliament is happy to accept. Even if this is possible, the resulting ‘deal’ is only a withdrawal agreement. Once that’s settled we will start negotiating the trade deal itself, the deal which will eventually establish the terms under which we trade with the EU in every sector, from fishing to financial services, from agriculture to personal data. Negotiating such a wide-ranging trade deal is likely to tie up government business for many years to come. Continue reading

Back to the future with Brexit

lighthouseRecent events have brought to mind an old joke that goes something like this. It involves two vessels approaching each other on a collision course:

“Please make way! You are obstructing our passage through the open seas.”

“Regretfully we are unable to comply. I’m afraid it is you that must make way.”

“We are a battleship of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy! We represent the glorious British Empire and all who sail in her! Brexit means Brexit! You must make way immediately!!”

“We are a lighthouse.”

I understand that Dominic Raab and Michel Barnier have at last cobbled together a trade deal that has proved, after a somewhat fraught five-hour meeting, acceptable to the cabinet. There will inevitably be some hiccups on the way (such as the resignation of said Raab, announced as I write) but it seems to me that its future course can be mapped out with some confidence. Continue reading

Was Albert Einstein antisemitic?

albert-einstein-1144965_640In 1948, the renowned scientist Albert Einstein co-authored an open letter to the New York Times expressing his concerns about the visit to America of Menachem Begin, leader of the Freedom Party in the newly-formed state of Israel. Earlier that year, Begin had been involved in the massacre of an Arab village which had shocked the world, including most in the Jewish community. In the letter, Einstein describes the Freedom Party as “a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.” Begin went on to become Prime Minister of Israel in 1977 and remained in power until 1981.

Things are different now, which is perhaps why the 10th example given in the Working Definition of Antisemitism developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) sites “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” Einstein was not only a Jew but also a Zionist, although he resisted “the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power.” Nevertheless, if such a statement was to be made now, then the IHRA suggests it be branded antisemitic. Continue reading