Scorpion tales

 

From wikipedia.org / © Eva Rinaldi

 

Here’s a hypothetical question I’ve heard many times. If you had a time machine, would you travel back in time, find the young Adolf Hitler and kill him?  In Stephen King’s 1979 novel The Dead Zone, for instance, the hero puts this question to an old man who lost his son in World War II.  The old man replies that he’d stick a knife in Hitler’s heart “as far as she’d go… and then I’d twist her… But first, first I’d coat the blade with rat poison.”

 

Recently, whilst looking at the dire state of the world and feeling fearful about the future, I’ve wondered about a variation on the time machine / Hitler question.  In the future, after manmade climate change has decimated the environment and pig-ignorant ‘populism’ (i.e., fascism) has run society into the ground, who would the remnants of humanity choose to eliminate if they had a time machine and could send an assassin back to, say, the late 20th century?  Who would they remove from the timeline in the belief it’d change history for the better?  The young Donald Trump?  The young Vladimir Putin?

 

Neither.  I suspect those guys would be considered small beer compared to the guy the time-travelling assassin from the future would really go after… Rupert Murdoch.

 

Murdoch’s media operations have, over the last five decades, caused massive damage to human well-being.  He promoted the voracious, greed-is-good, market-über-alles destructiveness of neoliberalism with his support for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.  He’s done his best to ignore, distort and discredit the overwhelming scientific evidence for manmade climate change.  Via Fox News, he’s created in the USA a paranoid, xenophobic, extreme-right-wing ecosystem whose millions of inhabitants believe Donald Trump’s lies and will probably vote him again, or someone even worse, into power in 2024 and turn the world’s biggest superpower into an authoritarian state.  Yes, Murdoch has seemingly had a finger in everything shit that’s happened in modern history, in everything’s that propelled humanity further down the road to hell.  No wonder Murdoch’s son James resigned from the board of News Corp in 2020, sick of the oceans of toxicity created by his father.

 

It says little for Britain’s newspaper industry that Murdoch owns a swathe of its national titles: the Times, Sunday Times, Financial Times, Sun and Sun on Sunday.  These played a prominent role in influencing the 2016 vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union, which led to the economic, diplomatic and cultural shambles of Brexit.  No surprise there, either.  The ghoulish old Antipodean tycoon once famously remarked that he could intimidate one country’s leader, in No 10 Downing Street, into following his wishes, whereas he couldn’t intimidate the combined might of 28 countries’ leaders represented in Brussels.

 

From dailysabah.com / © Sun

 

But Murdoch constitutes just one head of the hydra that is Britain’s predominantly right-wing press.  Among the newspapers sold nationwide, only the Guardian, Daily and Sunday Mirrors and Sunday People could be described as having a political stance leaning any way towards the left.  Elsewhere, the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, right-wing and totally honking mad, are owned by the billionaire Frederick Barclay.  Resident on the island of Brecqhou, which is administered by Sark in the Channel Islands, Frederick and his late twin brother David once tried to avoid Sark’s tax-inheritance laws by having Brecqhou declared independent of it.  That’s ironic considering the Telegraphs’ vehement opposition to Scottish independence.

 

Another billionaire, the non-domiciled Viscount Rothermere, owns the equally right-wing Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.  About the Mail, I once wrote: “…you might just view the never-ending diet that the newspaper serves up of ignorance, prurience, grubbiness, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, small-mindedness, snobbery, racism, misogyny, Little Englander-ism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, immigrant-bashing, anti-intellectualism, tittle-tattle, curtain-twitching, pseudo-scientific quackery, petty-bourgeois fulmination and general all-round barking right-wing insanity and conclude there’s no hope left for the human race and try to book yourself a one-way passage on the next space probe to Mars.”

 

And let’s not forget the Daily and Sunday Express, near-clones of the Mail titles, though aimed at an even more demented readership who are additionally obsessed with Madeleine McCann, Princess Diana and the British weather.  These used to be owned by millionaire and one-time porno magnate Richard Desmond, but are now the property of Reach plc, which publishes the Mirror.  Presumably, Reach hasn’t tinkered with the Express formula because it’s decided to milk those barmy readers for money while they’re still alive.

 

Over the past few months, Britain’s right-wing newspapers have been fighting the corner of Boris Johnson, ever since they realised the fragility of his premiership.  As PM, Johnson hasn’t been so much skating on thin ice as clog-dancing on it.  It’s transpired that during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the UK had been put in lockdown, Johnson and his cronies turned No 10 Downing Street into an endlessly partying, boozing frat-house that paid zero heed to the strict non-socialising rules imposed on everyone else.  (Intriguingly, Murdoch’s Sun, usually the gobbiest of Britain’s tabloids, has kept relatively quiet about ‘Partygate’, as it’s been dubbed.  This may have something to do with James Slack, the Sun’s deputy editor, being Johnson’s Director of Communications at the time when No 10 was boogieing away the lockdown blues.)

 

The self-serving, scurrilous, mendacious Johnson is a creature of the self-serving, scurrilous, mendacious British press. He started off working at the Times, until he was sacked for fabricating a quote, then found employment as the Telegraph.  Max Hastings, then-Telegraph editor, has since said of Johnson: “…he is unfit for national office, because it seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification.”  As the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, Johnson wrote wildly exaggerated pieces on how the evil EU was imposing spiteful and stupid regulations on plucky little Britain.  These helped fuel the Euro-scepticism that birthed the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and eventually won the 2016 referendum in favour of Brexit.  No wonder the right-wing press barons love Johnson – he’s one of their own.

 

From twitter.com/bbcnews / © Daily Mail

 

Unsurprisingly, their coverage of Partygate, in which they’ve tried to defend and big up the lawbreaking blond oaf, has been nauseating.  First, there was the insistence, made most forcibly by the Daily Mail, that Johnson’s breaking of his own Covid laws was unimportant because Russia had just invaded Ukraine and, well, DON’T THEY KNOW THERE’S A WAR ON?  More recently, they’ve dedicated their front-page headlines to ‘Beergate’, the hoo-ha over the Labour Party leader Keir Starmer – or, as he’s known in the right-wing press, ‘HYPOCRITE STARMER’ – having a beer and curry at a constituency office in Durham last year while lockdown rules remained in force.  Starmer claimed no rules were broken, but the local police have, under pressure from the media, launched an inquiry into the incident.  The assumption in the editorial offices of the Mail and the rest is that if Starmer is found to have broken lockdown rules too, their beloved Boris will get off the hook for his own, proven misdemeanours.  (He’s already had to pay one fine for a lockdown breach and more fines are likely on the way.)

 

Starmer has just declared that he’ll resign as Labour Party leader if the police do issue a fine to him over Beergate.  This was evidently intended to put some clear, blue, moral water between him and Johnson, already fined but not resigned.  However, if he thought this would earn him some credit from the newspapers, he was mistaken.  The Mail promptly responded with the headline: STARMER ACCUSED OF PILING PRESSURE ON POLICE.

 

The more I think about these rags, the more I think of the fable about the frog and the scorpion.  The scorpion stings the frog to death, even though this will condemn it to death too, because it’s in its ‘nature’.  It’s what it does.  It can’t not sting.

 

The poisonous right-wing nature of much of Britain’s press is a headache for the Labour Party.  How can they ever get a fair hearing when those newspapers are programmed to blindly support their Conservative opponents no matter how corrupt, venal and idiotic they become?  A quarter-century ago, Tony Blair’s policy on this was to cosy up to them.  He got so thick with Rupert Murdoch, the Scorpion King himself, that he became godfather to one of Murdoch’s kids.  In return, the headline THE SUN BACKS BLAIR appeared on the front page of Murdoch’s number-one British tabloid prior to the 1997 general election, which saw Blair win power.  But such sycophancy has its downside.  If you get too close to the likes of Murdoch, you end up either stung to death, like the frog in the fable, or with so much poison in your own system that you become toxic yourself.  The latter outcome happened to Blair.  I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind describing ‘El Tone’ as a paragon of virtue in 2022.

 

Still, I don’t have much sympathy either for the supporters of the last Labour Party leader, the atypically left-wing Jeremy Corbyn, who blamed negative British press coverage for all their hero’s woes.  Yes, aware that Corbyn represented a threat to the wealthy, powerful interests of their owners, those newspapers bombarded Corbyn with every slur going, that he was a terrorist sympathiser, an anti-Semite, a traitor, whatever.  But Corbyn, whom I’ve always regarded as a decent bloke, engineered much of his own bad luck.  He was a hopeless communicator.  He seemed to be living still in the 1970s, when he’d been a compadre of old school socialist Tony Benn, and never responded to the attacks made against him with the imagination and agility necessary in the changed media landscape of the early 21st century.

 

Actually, there’s proof close at hand that, to be successful, a political party doesn’t need to be backed by the majority of newspapers, and can triumph despite most newspapers stinging at it continuously with their scorpion-tails.  In Scotland, only one newspaper, the National, supports the Scottish National Party’s policy of Scottish independence.  The other Scottish newspapers – north-of-the-border editions of the right-wing ones I’ve just discussed, such as the Scottish Sun and Scottish Daily Mail, and locally published ones like the Scotsman, Herald and Daily Record – oppose the SNP and leap at any opportunity to excoriate it and its leader Nicola Sturgeon.  (It’s noticeable how, in the headlines of the utterly wretched Scottish Daily Express, the British PM is always referred to as ‘BORIS’ whereas the Scottish First Minister always gets a contemptuous, misogynistic ‘STURGEON’.)

 

From bbc.com/ © Daily Express

 

Yet the SNP have been in power in Edinburgh for the past 15 years and have topped the polls in eight Scottish elections in a row, most recently the council ones on May 3rd that saw them increase their number of councillors by 22.  A large part of this is surely down to Nicola Sturgeon herself.  Whatever you think of her politics, it’s hard to deny that – unlike Johnson – she speaks like a normal human being, communicates her meaning clearly and generally exhibits some semblance of empathy and integrity.  Obviously, this influences a sufficiently large number of Scottish voters, who choose to believe the evidence of their own eyes and ears over the crap they read in the newspapers.

 

Let’s hope that, when the time comes, British voters as a whole choose to do the same.

It’s time Putin’s pals were put in the bin (Part 2)

 

© Cold War Steve

 

Continuing my rant about miscreants who support Putin and / or are generally making arses of themselves during the current crisis in Ukraine – this time miscreants in the United Kingdom.

 

Vladimir Putin – presently stuck in a big, bloody hole he’s dug for himself in Ukraine, but still determinedly digging, using thousands of Ukrainian and Russian lives as his shovel-blade – has never been short of pals in Britain.  Back in 2001, soon after Putin had won his first presidential election in Russia, and not long after the start of the second Chechen war, which saw the deaths of at least 25,000 civilians, a third of Chechnya deemed a ‘zone of ecological disaster’, and most Chechens left suffering ‘discernible symptoms of psychological distress’, then-British Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Tony Blair jetted out to Moscow and cosied up to Putin.  El Tone praised him for showing ‘real leadership’ and giving ‘strong support’ in the ‘fight against terrorism’.

 

Even today, Blair is hero-worshipped by certain centre-right politicians and commentators in Britain.  Ironically, while later Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is commonly loathed and belittled as a traitorous, anti-Western, lefty scumbag, it’s worth recalling what Corbyn said about Blair’s visit to Moscow in 2001.  “When the Prime Minister… meets President Putin this evening, I hope that he will convey the condemnation of millions of people around the world of the activities of the Russian army in Chechnya and what it is doing to ordinary people there.  When images of what is happening are translated into other parts of the world, many people are horrified…”  Exchange ‘Ukraine’ for ‘Chechnya’ and you realise how Corbyn’s words resonate in 2022.

 

No doubt nowadays Blair keeps his mouth shut about Putin’s supposed statesmanship.  But another well-known British politician is less reluctant to express his admiration for the warmongering Russian ogre.  Right-winger, Europhobe and wannabe broadcaster Nigel Farage has said of him: “I wouldn’t trust him and I wouldn’t want to live in his country, but compared with the kids who run foreign policy in this country, I’ve more respect for him than our lot.”  Meanwhile, the donkey-faced, and full-of-donkey-shit, Farage has made copious appearances on Russia Today, coming out with such gems as the claim that Europe’s modern democracies have been run ‘by the worst people we have seen in Europe since 1945’.  Worse even than Putin?  Yes, I’m sure Nige thinks so.

 

By the way, let’s not forget Aaron Banks, Farage’s compadre in the Vote Leave campaign that managed in 2016 to tear the UK out of the European Union, possibly helped by a wee bit of Russian funding.  In 2017, Banks did his bit for the Putin cause by tweeting: “Ukraine is to Russia what the Isle of Wight is to the UK.  It’s Russian.”

 

Elsewhere, there’s multiple evidence suggesting that Boris Johnson’s Conservative government, if not totally in love with Putin’s habit of inflicting atrocities on neighbouring countries that annoy him, is certainly in love with the wealth of the Russian oligarchs who surround the man.  Recent claims about the amount of donations the Conservative party has received from such oligarchs have ranged from 1.93 million to 2.3 million pounds.

 

Johnson seems particularly enamoured with members of Russia’s mega-wealthy elite.  In 2018, while he was serving as Theresa May’s foreign secretary, he was seen stumbling about an Italian airport suffering from a hangover, and lacking his security detail, after attending a shindig thrown by Russian media magnate Evgeny Lebedev at his castle near Perugia.  Lebedev subsequently received a peerage and now, technically, is ‘Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond on Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation’.  Johnson has sheepishly denied allegations that he used his influence to secure the peerage for his buddy.

 

© Private Eye

 

Though late last week the British government announced it was freezing the assets of seven Russian billionaires (including Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich) with close ties to Putin, this only came after weeks of prevarication.  Originally, it looked like the UK wouldn’t be clamping down on dodgy Russian money until late in 2023, which would have given those likely to be affected a good year-and-a-half to sell their assets and move their money off British soil.  Even with this new change of heart, Abramovich and co. have already had a fortnight’s grace-period to shift some of their wealth.  Basically, Johnson’s regime is reluctant to do anything that might sully London’s reputation as a haven for dodgy money.

 

Summing up the absolute state of the Conservative Party on this issue is its wretched co-chairman Ben Elliot.  Simultaneously, Elliot’s been sourcing donations from super-rich Russians and been offering services to them in Britain through his ‘concierge’ company, Quintessentially.  “Quintessentially Russia has nearly 15 years’ experience providing luxury lifestyle management services to Russia’s elite and corporate members…”, ensuring that from “restaurant bookings to backstage concert access, a bespoke lifestyle is at our clients’ fingertips.”  So drooled the blurb on Quintessentially’s website until recently.  Then, suddenly and mysteriously, this obsequious drivel was deleted from it.

 

While we’re heaping abuse on the British government, we shouldn’t overlook the smirk-faced Priti Patel, who – until another apparent U-turn last week – seemed determined that the Ukrainian refugees Britain was allowing in should be vastly outnumbered by the Russian oligarchs it was welcoming with open arms.  At one point, while other European countries had taken in Ukrainian refugees in the tens of thousands, the UK had dished out a mere 50 additional visas to them.

 

Besides Patel, it’s worth castigating government minister Kevin Foster, who advised people fleeing Ukraine to apply to Britain’s ‘seasonal worker scheme’, which would allow them to spend their time in the country picking fruit.  Such humanity, Kev!  Also, some hatred should be directed towards whatever nasty piece of work in the Home Office complained to the Daily Telegraph that Ireland had allowed in too many Ukrainian refugees.  All those shifty Ukrainians, claimed the anonymous source, would “come through Dublin, into Belfast and across to the mainland to Liverpool”, thus creating “a drug cartel route.”

 

Needless to say, Britain’s resident community of publicity-seeking, rent-an-opinion gobshites have fastened onto the Ukrainian crisis like flies fastening onto a cow-plop.  George Galloway, that fedora-wearing gasbag whose rhetoric seems to weave between old-school socialism (when he’s in England) and hardline British nationalism (when he’s in Scotland), and who’s a fixture on the Russian-owned Sputnik radio channel, tweeted recently: “Me, Farage, Hitchens, Carlson and Rod Liddle are a pretty broad front of people who think NATO expansion to the borders of Russia was a pretty bad idea.  Maybe pause and think about that?”  When I paused and thought about it, my immediate thoughts were: “George Galloway, Nigel Farage, Peter Hitchens, Tucker Carlson, Rod Liddle…  Wow, what a team!  Couldn’t Marvel make a superhero movie about them?  Maybe call it Arseholes Assemble?”

 

Hilariously, Galloway’s Putin-sympathetic stance has ended all unity in the All for Unity party, the staunchly pro-UK outfit he set up in Scotland prior to the last Scottish parliamentary elections.  Jamie Blackett, the party’s former deputy leader, and also the Deputy Lieutenant for Dumfriesshire and a Daily Telegraph writer, recently disowned his old boss and announced the disbanding of the party.

 

Meanwhile, Neil Oliver, the alleged Scottish historian and talking head on right-wing outlet GB News, lately delivered a bewildering monologue, the gist of which was: “I’ll be honest.  I don’t know what’s happening in Ukraine.  I don’t understand it either.”  Oliver’s professed ignorance of the situation didn’t stop him talking about it for nine minutes, however.  It’s also strange that when it comes to Putin and Ukraine Oliver is so hesitant to climb off the fence, considering how quick he’d been in the past to condemn, say, the Scottish National Party (‘disastrously incompetent’, ‘small’, ‘not worth bothering about’), or the Black Lives Matter movement (‘anarchists and communists’ eating ‘into the built fabric of Britain’).  Very strange indeed.

 

One other thing bugging me about Putin’s current horror show is how certain people have pounced on it and tried to use it to promulgate the right-wing agendas they’ve been pushing for years already.  Take the ‘culture wars’, in which Putin’s ‘anti-woke’ position had until recently won accolades from Western pundits on the right of the spectrum.  Well, now that Putin is officially a Bad Lad, they can’t praise him directly anymore.  Instead, they’re pushing the narrative that woke stuff no longer matters during the crisis that good old Vlad, sorry, bad new Vlad has created.

 

Here’s the absurd Daily Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson, recently opining: “The outbreak of war has shone an unflattering light on our society… Watch issues like LGBT, net-zero, Partygate, Black Lives Matter and farcical ‘Stay Safe’ Covid restrictions all fade into well-deserved insignificance now that war is back.”  According to Pearson, in other words, now that Putin’s behaving like a c*nt, we should all stop fretting about being civil to our fellow human beings, about preventing them from dying of Covid, about preventing the planet from burning up, and about our leader Boris Johnson being a lying, unprincipled sack of shite.

 

And here’s the barmy Spectator pundit Lionel Shriver, writing: “Decolonisations, contextualisations, gender-neutralisations – it’s all a load of onanistic, diversionary crap, and the West having shoved its head up its backside is one reason that Putin feels free to do whatever he likes.”  Though I suspect Putin would still have attacked Ukraine if fewer people on Western social media had been using the pronouns ‘they’ / ‘them’ in their profiles.

 

One last thing for which Britain’s right-wingers must be thanking Putin is the attention he’s diverted from the looming issues of manmade climate change and the dire state of the environment.  Thanks to the headlines being dominated by Ukraine, not much attention has been given to, for instance, the apocalyptic floods that have stricken Queensland and New South Wales.  And, somewhat inevitably, the afore-mentioned Nigel Farage is currently trying to relaunch his political career by demanding a new national referendum – this time, not about the UK’s membership of the European Union, but about the British government’s supposed adoption of Net Zero policies to combat climate change.  Farage, of course, wants us to vote against them.

 

I wonder why he’s doing this.  Could he be thinking of a country that helped finance his previous, successful referendum campaign?  Or could he be thinking of an oil-exporting country that would stand to gain if Britain gave up on green energy and became wholly dependent on fossil fuels again?

 

I can’t possibly think of a country that falls into both categories.

 

© The Jewish Chronicle / twitter / @ VirendraSharma

Ian McEwan’s Saturday: Tony Blair and tone-deaf

 

© Vintage

 

“The butcher boy gets a bauble,” was my reaction to the news that former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was to be made ‘a Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter’, whatever that means, in the Queen’s New Year Honours List.  I call Blair ‘the butcher boy’ because of his role in the invasion of Iraq, which happened during his watch in 2003.  The invasion was launched to depose Saddam Hussein who, it was claimed, possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction.  However, these WMDs turned out to not actually exist and it became obvious that Blair and his invasion partner George W. Bush had spun a web of lies beforehand to make people believe that they did.

 

And it wasn’t just the WMDs that didn’t exist.  Since the invasion took place, up until the beginning of 2021, due to ‘coalition and insurgent military action’ and subsequent ‘sectarian violence and criminal violence’, between 185,000 and 209,000 Iraqi civilians are estimated to have stopped existing too – their deaths the direct and indirect results of Blair and Bush’s actions.

 

Actually, I’d been thinking about Tony Blair and Iraq before word came through of Blair’s ennoblement, because late last year I read Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday.  This describes 24 hours in the life of a middle-aged, London-based neurosurgeon called Henry Perowne, starting on the morning of Saturday, February 15th, 2003.  In real life, that date saw the biggest political demonstration in British history.  A million people took to the streets of London in an anti-war protest organised by the Stop the War Coalition, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Association of Britain.  Blair, of course, had a messianic belief in his own rightness and ignored the many arguments against war voiced by the protestors, and just over a month later Britain joined the USA and its allies in starting hostilities against Iraq.  The demonstration forms a backdrop to the events in McEwan’s novel and the forthcoming invasion is prominent in the thoughts and conversations of its characters.

 

I was a big fan of McEwan during my youth.  This was while he was in a weird, morbid, modern-gothic phase and wrote the novel The Cement Garden (1978) and the short stories collected in First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978).  Thereafter, McEwan became more wholesome and respectable and found success and acclaim as a writer of mainstream literature.  Saturday is only the third novel I’ve read by McEwan since he stopped being ghoulish. The others were The Child in Time (1987), which I enjoyed with some reservations, and Atonement (2001), which I thought was excellent, although a later allegation of plagiarism tarnished it a bit for me.  However, while I’ve generally reacted positively to McEwan’s work, I found Saturday problematic.  It seemed naïve in the statements it was making.  Also, its depiction of its central characters I found downright annoying.

 

From wikipedia.org / © Thesupermat

 

The day described in Saturday begins before dawn.  Perowne gets out of bed and notices an object that he first assumes is ‘a meteor burning out in the London sky’. He realises, though, that it’s a plane with an engine on fire, which makes him wonder if he’s witnessing an act of terrorism – terrorism being on everyone’s minds since events in New York a year-and-a-half earlier.  But it turns out that he’s seen an accidental fire on board a cargo plane, which manages to make an emergency landing at Heathrow.  Reassured, he gets on what’s been planned for the day ahead.

 

His first engagement is at a sports centre where he has a game of squash with his anaesthetist, an American called Jay Strauss.  Then he visits his mother, stricken with dementia in a care home, and does some shopping for a family gathering at his house that evening.  In addition to Perowne and his wife Rosalind, the get-together is attended by their daughter Daisy, son Theo and Rosalind’s father, the quaintly named John Grammaticus.  Later that night, he gets an urgent request from Strauss to perform some emergency surgery: “We got an extradural, male, mid-twenties, fell down the stairs… a depressed fracture right over the sinus…  I want someone senior in here and you’re the nearest.  Plus you’re the best.”

 

However, two more incidents make the day darker.  On his way to play squash, a distracted policeman allows Perowne to drive along Tottenham Court Road, officially closed off for the anti-war demonstration – with the result that he prangs another car coming out of a side-street, whose driver didn’t expect him to be there.  When he gets out to speak to the other car’s three occupants, Perowne realises the men are criminals, ready to beat him up if he doesn’t immediately pay for the damage their car has suffered.  But he also notices that the leader of the trio, a man called Baxter, is showing symptoms of a serious neurological disorder.  Using his knowledge of the illness, Perowne is able to distract and disorientate Baxter long enough to get back into his car and escape.

 

But that isn’t the end of it.  That evening, just after Perowne has welcomed his family into his house, a vengeful Baxter and one of his henchmen burst in and hold them at knifepoint.  There ensues violence, threatened violence and sexual humiliation, before Perowne and his son Theo manage to repel the invaders.  Baxter is thrown down some stairs, knocked unconscious and taken away in an ambulance.  When the phone call comes from Strauss, Perowne realises the injured man he’s being asked to operate on is Baxter, who traumatised his family a short time ago. As he prepares to leave, Rosalind demands, “You’re not thinking about doing something, about some sort of revenge are you?”

 

“Of course not,” Perowne replies, and proves to be as good as his word.

 

As McEwan was in 2003, Perowne is in favour of the Iraq invasion.  He’s not as gung-ho as Strauss, who grumbles about the protestors, “They dislike your Prime Minister, but boy do they f*cking loathe my President,” or indeed as Baxter, who snarls at them in an aside, “Horrible rabble.  Sponging off the country they hate.”  But to his daughter Daisy, who takes part in the day’s demonstration, he says: “No rational person is for war.  But in five years’ time we might not regret it.  I’d love to see the end of Saddam.  You’re right.  It could be a disaster.  But it could be the end of a disaster and the beginning of something better.”  Perowne has been influenced by the testimony of an Iraqi patient of his, an academic called Miri Taleb.  Saddam’s secret police once arrested Taleb and subjected him to ten months of physical and mental torment: “Even on the day of his release he didn’t discover what the charges were against him.”

 

Elsewhere, McEwan’s descriptions of the anti-war protestors seem a bit patronising: “The general cheerfulness Perowne finds baffling.  There are whole families, ones in various sizes of bright red coats, clearly under instructions to hold hands; and students, and a coachful of greying ladies in quilted anoraks and stout shoes.  The Women’s Institute, perhaps…  The scene has an air of innocence and English dottiness.”  Mind you, years later in an interview with Channel 4 News, McEwan admitted that he’d changed his opinion about the war and felt that the marchers in 2003 were ‘vindicated’.

 

From aa.com.tr

 

While I read Saturday, I tried to work out the significance of the villainous Baxter.  Was he a metaphor for Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime?  Or was Baxter’s intrusion into the Perownes’ home a metaphor for terrorism, erupting without warning in everyday life, destroying all notions of normality and security for its victims?  And what’s to be made of Perowne’s eventual decision to do the decent thing, operate on Baxter and save his life?  I got the impression Perowne represented McEwan’s ideal of an enlightened, democratic, liberal West, intervening in Iraq but doing so with everyone’s best interests at heart, including the Iraqis.  Unfortunately, the ‘ignorance, arrogance, neglect, stubbornness, panic, haste and denial’ displayed by Iraq’s Western occupiers following the invasion, which rapidly turned the country into a failed state, showed this to be a pipe dream.  The USA, Britain and their allies were a hell of a lot less benevolent, magnanimous and expert at what they were doing in Iraq than Henry Perowne was in the operating theatre.

 

If the political statement McEwan seems to make in Saturday is wishful thinking, certainly in hindsight, I was more troubled by the lack of self-awareness displayed by the main characters.  Fair enough, as a London neurosurgeon, Perowne is going to be a wealthy man.  His car, McEwan notes, is a “silver Mercedes S500 with cream upholstery – and he’s no longer embarrassed by it.  He doesn’t even love it – it’s simply a sensuous part of what he regards as his overgenerous share of the world’s goods.”

 

But his son Theo is an up-and-coming blues guitarist.  His mother arranged for him to get lessons from Jack Bruce, no less.  “Through Bruce, Theo met some of the legendary figures.  He was allowed to sit in on a Clapton masterclass.  Long John Baldry came over from Canada for a reunion…  By some accident Theo jammed for several minutes with Ronnie Wood and met his older brother Art…”  So, while most kids his age are worrying about entry-level jobs, rents and college fees, Theo, through his family wealth and connections, gets stupendous opportunities to develop his skills playing music – ironically, a type of music that was invented by impoverished black people living in America’s rural south.

 

Similarly, Perowne’s daughter Daisy is a graduate of Oxford University and a poetess who’s just had a collection of poems published.  It no doubt helps that her grandfather, John Grammaticus, is a famous English poet who lives in a chateau in France.  Though both lauded and loaded, the old man is bitter about how the world has treated him: “John minded when Spender and not he was knighted, when Raine not Grammaticus got the editorship at Faber, when he lost the Oxford Professorship of Poetry to Fenton, when Hughes and later Motion were preferred as Poets Laureate, and above all when it was Heaney who got the Nobel.”

 

I may have missed it in Saturday, but I don’t remember the Perownes reflecting on their good fortune, on having so much in a world where many people have so little.  It’s especially galling that Theo and Daisy, whom we’re supposed to like as characters, don’t acknowledge their luck in having fulfilling, creative lives, doing the things they enjoy doing, that most people their age can’t have because they lack the wealth, security, support, time and connections.  Perhaps once, back when many of Theo’s British-blues heroes were youngsters from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, Britain offered some social mobility and the arts weren’t necessarily the preserve of the elite.  But that’s hardly the case in 21st century Britain, when money, poshness and who-you-know seems to be prerequisites for careers in music (Florence Welch, Mumford and Sons, James Blunt), acting (Cumberbatch, Hiddleston, Pattinson, various Foxes) and literature (while the 2003 and 2013 Granta lists of ‘Best Young British Novelists’ showed some ethnic diversity, about 60% of those novelists had still attended Oxford or Cambridge Universities).

 

I’d assumed McEwan would use Baxter, who’d obviously never had the opportunities gifted to Theo and Daisy, as an instrument to comment on this when he crashes into the Perownes’ comfortable world.   However, the ‘home invasion’ section of Saturday is relatively brief and the bitter commentary I expected didn’t appear.  Baxter gets strangely emotional after he forces Daisy to recite a poem to him, Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, but that’s all.

 

This muted acceptance of the advantages enjoyed by the Perowne family irritated me most about Saturday.  In this respect, it seems as tone-deaf as Tony Blair was about the war that the novel ruminates on.

 

From change.org

Believing their own Ka-bul

 

© Nations Online Project

 

I’ve watched the copious, vivid and harrowing news footage of the chaos in Kabul while the USA and its allies attempt to end their occupation of Afghanistan and withdraw. I’ve also listened to the reactions of Western politicians and political pundits to that chaos.  Not for the first time, I find myself thinking of the lines from the poem To a Louse by Robert Burns: “O wad some pow’r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us! / It wad frae mony a blunder free us / An’ foolish notion…”

 

In standard English: “Oh would some power the gift give us / To see ourselves as others see us / It would from many a blunder free us / And foolish notion…”  I suspect that if governments could see their policies as others see them and, indeed, if all human beings could see themselves as others see them, the world would be a far better place.

 

Before I continue, let me make a few things clear.  I don’t think the USA and its allies were sensible or indeed, had much right, to go into Afghanistan in the first place.  This was especially since the Taliban were willing to hand over Osamu Bin Laden, whose masterminding of 9 / 11 had sparked the war and invasion in late 2001.  And yes, I accept that the Taliban were and no doubt still are a bunch of bad bastards.  But if George W. Bush, Tony Blair and co. were really serious about usurping them, and replacing them with a functioning democracy, and transforming a country as notoriously hostile to outside influence as Afghanistan into a modern nation, they should have invested huge amounts of capital, manpower and infrastructure once they’d taken over.

 

But of course, any chance of that happening evaporated as soon as Bush, Blair, etc., drunk on their own military firepower, steamed into Iraq.  While the Iraqi debacle unfolded, diverting attention and devouring resources, Afghanistan was neglected and left to fester.  Anyway, as they say, that’s all academic now.

 

I also see the handling of the withdrawal as a fiasco. The fiasco includes the mind-melting ineptitude of the current incumbent in Blair’s old job, Boris Johnson, who thought the falling of the city of Kandahar into Taliban hands would be a good moment to pop off to Somerset for a holiday; and of his ultra-hapless Foreign Minister, Dominic Raab, who apparently felt consolidating his tan at a five-star beach hotel in Crete was more important than getting on the phone and attempting to help evacuate Afghan interpreters who’d been working with British forces.

 

And the predicament that many Afghans find themselves in, those who’ve worked or had dealings with the Western powers and their troops, institutions and agencies during the occupation since 2001, is a tragedy.  The West didn’t so much as build a nation in Afghanistan as erect a house of cards, and clearly little thought was given to the fate of the West’s local employees and clients should that house of cards collapse and control revert to a vengeful Taliban.

 

The fact that the situation was a house of cards must have been blindingly obvious to anyone bothering to take a smidgeon of an interest in Afghanistan over the last two decades.  I’ve known a few people who’ve worked there or had to visit it, and their descriptions – of having to undergo lengthy safety / security / survival courses before being allowed anywhere near the place, of being ensconced almost 24/7 in fortified bunkers cheek-by-jowl with battalions of Gurkha soldiers, of being cocooned inside the armour of military vehicles and helicopters when they did venture outside – made it sound like a surreal experience, part Fort Knox, part Siege of Ceuta, part Alice in Wonderland.  How could any society where outsiders felt so unsafe that they had to behave like this be considered sustainable, let alone normal?

 

Not only has there been little preparation made for evacuating the West’s Afghan colleagues and clients in the event of the unmentionable – inevitable? – happening and their suddenly becoming targets.  There’s been little willpower too, which is unsurprising given the reluctance of Western politicians, as exemplified by British Home Secretary Priti Patel, to countenance the entry of large numbers of refugees into their countries.

 

Incidentally, I wasn’t surprised at the excuse I heard for why certain groups of Afghans shouldn’t be helped to flee the country and escape to Britain. This was because, it transpired, they hadn’t actually been employed by the British Embassy, British NGOs, British companies, whatever. No, they’d only been employed by outsourced contractors that these British agencies had drawn upon.  They themselves weren’t really British employees.  (At least now, in the face of public revulsion, this abhorrent attitude seems to be changing.)

 

Subcontracting is the great ‘get-out-of-jail’ card employed by Western outfits working in the developing world.  On one hand they can loudly proclaim their Western, democratic values.  On the other hand, they use the subcontracting argument to avoid paying many local people working for them anything like a decent, livable wage, avoid giving them proper workers’ rights, and so on.

 

Many Western politicians and commentators have lamented about these people being thrown to the wolves, and rightly so.  But there’s also a massive hole in the narratives they’ve been spinning.  They make it sound like the withdrawal has been a betrayal of everyone in Afghanistan and now the entire Afghan population is wailing piteously as the Taliban prepare to take over again.

 

Really?  I have no doubt that the occupation benefited a small section of the population, in the cities.  However, it’s enlightening to read this article from 2020 on foreignpolicy.com that takes an all-too-credible look at rural Afghanistan, at the region of Nangahar to be precise, where Trump had the devastating MOAB bomb deployed in 2017.  The journalist interviews a young local man who’s just decided to throw his lot in with the Taliban.  “Omari’s family is part of the 90 percent of Afghanistan that lives below the national poverty line of $2 per day, according to the Afghan Ministry of Economy. Three-quarters of Afghans live in rural areas, where even basic services are in short supply; the Ministry of Education this month revealed that 7,000 schools across the country don’t actually have buildings…” Omari views the existing government as corrupt and expresses what seems to be a widespread belief that having the Taliban in charge at least can’t make things any worse than they are now.

 

One analyst quoted in the article describes Afghans’ reasons for enlisting in the Taliban thus: “In large part, recruitment seems to stem from family and tight community connections… Individual motivations are extremely diverse and range from revenge against the government or foreign occupiers for killed relatives or comrades to limited alternative opportunities in some regions to recruiting pressure from the organization.”

 

“…revenge… for killed relatives or comrades…”  Many Western politicians and pundits seem neurotic in their desire to avoid any possibility that their forces in Afghanistan were anything other than the ‘good guys’.  No doubt many servicemen and servicewomen from the US, UK and elsewhere believed they were in Afghanistan to make things better for the people living there.  Yet there’s plentiful evidence to suggest ordinary Afghans had reasons for not viewing their supposed Western liberators as angels.  There are specific reasons – see last year’s Brereton Report in Australia, which suggests some 39 Afghan civilians were murdered by Australian special forces. There are general ones too – for instance, a US study indicated that approximately 700 Afghan civilians were killed in airstrikes by the US and its allies in 2019 alone.

 

In addition, the West was determined (though it utterly failed) to wipe out Afghanistan’s opium / heroin trade, which in 2018 accounted for a third of the country’s GDP.  Opium poppies were the country’s biggest cash crop by far.  This can’t have endeared Western forces to Afghan farmers, especially as the countries sending those forces did little to rethink their own drug policies, which inadvertently fueled the demand for and drove the profits of the trade.

 

From unsplash.com / © Tim Cooper

 

“You can’t,” some Western strategists might say glibly, “make an omelette without breaking eggs.”  Or as the recently-departed, presumably now-roasting-in-hell Donald Rumsfeld once put it, “Stuff happens.”  But the carnage and the attendant shoulder-shrugging did nothing to win those all-important Afghan hearts and minds.

 

At the moment there’s an awful lot of breast-beating going on about the turn of events in Afghanistan. But I suspect those Western breast-beaters would be in for a shock if they saw themselves as many ordinary Afghans see them just now.

George, where did it all go wrong?

 

© The Belfast Telegraph

 

Last Thursday saw the Prime Minister of England – sorry, Prime Minister of Britain – Boris Johnson arrive in Scotland for a one-day charm offensive.  This was intended to remind Scottish people of how lucky they were to be part of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the ‘mighty’ union as Johnson grandly put it, and dissuade them of any mad notions of voting for Scottish independence, which, according to recent opinion polls, 54% of them are now minded to do.  Determined to press the flesh with the maximum number of Scottish people during his visit, Johnson flew into the bustling Caledonian metropolises of the Orkney Islands and RAF Lossiemouth.  A little unfortunately, the Orcadian mainland is home to a small settlement called Twatt, which led to some unkind quips being made on social media about there already being ‘one Twatt in the Orkneys’.  It was also slightly unwise for the PM to parley with some local fishermen and pose for photographers holding a pair of clawed, antennae-ed crustaceans, as social media was soon heaving with comments about how he ‘had crabs’.

 

But Johnson isn’t the only British political chancer to have foisted himself upon Scotland recently, proclaiming the message that red, white and blue unionism is good while Saltire-waving indie is bad.  For July 2020 has seen the return to Scottish soil of one George ‘Gorgeous’ Galloway.  Or to give him the title that immediately appears when you type his name into Google, ‘George Galloway cat.’

 

It’s hard to believe now, but once upon a time I considered Galloway one of the good guys.  Well, one of the goodish guys at least.  This was while he served as Labour Member of Parliament for Glasgow Hillhead, later Glasgow Kelvin, from 1987 to 2005.  For many years Labour MPs formed the bulk of Scotland’s representation in the House of Commons, but apart from a few high-fliers like Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson, destined for cabinet jobs under Tony Blair, they were an uninspiring lot – a big, grey Scottish-accented blob whose only function was to shamble through the voting lobbies at their party’s bidding.  They were nicknamed the ‘low-flying Jimmies’, though to my mind they were a living, if barely sentient, definition of the Scots word ‘numpties’.

 

However, the Scottish Labour MPs contained a small but interesting awkward squad.  The squad included the admirably his-own-man Tam Dalyell; and the very leftward Ron Brown (who shocked the British establishment by heading off to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and then on his return warning that it probably wasn’t a good idea for the West to fund the Mujahideen, later to morph into the Taliban); and the trio of Dick Douglas, John McAllion and Dennis Canavan, all of whom would later end up estranged from the Labour Party and end up supporting the cause of Scottish independence.  Plus, of course, the ultra-awkward George Galloway.

 

Galloway was too left-wing for traditional mainstream Labourites’ liking, which was fine by me.  I also approved of his constitutional stance.  Though he didn’t go as far as espousing independence for Scotland, he advocated a large measure of home-rule for the country within the framework of the UK.  And when John Major’s Conservative Party won the British general election in 1992 and dashed hopes of a devolved Scottish parliament being set up for at least another half-decade, and a campaign movement called Scotland United was formed to maintain pressure for the creation of such a parliament, I wasn’t surprised when Galloway became one of the movement’s leading lights.

 

From twitter.com/thoughtland

 

To keep the issue in the public consciousness, Scotland United held rallies in Edinburgh and Glasgow.  I participated in a couple of these, though I can’t remember Galloway addressing the crowds.  I do remember, however, one Saturday marching down to Leith Links in Edinburgh where, after speeches, we were treated to a gig by the Scotland United-supporting pop / soul band Deacon Blue.  At one point, singer Ricky Ross pointed out the nearby premises of Leith’s Conservative and Unionist Association and started singing a cover of Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, which contains the pertinent lyrics, “…how does it feel / To be on your own, with no direction home / A complete unknown…?”  The memory makes me nostalgic.  Trying to establish a Scottish parliament by having Deacon Blue sing Bob Dylan at the Tories.  Those were the days.

 

Still, it was already clear that Galloway had a dodgy side.  From 1983 to 1987 he’d served as general secretary of the British charity War on Want and stories of his antics during a conference in Greece – Galloway confessed to getting to know some local ladies ‘carnally’ – led to embarrassing tabloid coverage.  I seem to remember one newspaper reporting his attempts to justify his behaviour with the headline I BONKED FOR BRITAIN.  This presumably helped give rise to Galloway’s nickname ‘Gorgeous’.  Meanwhile, his simultaneously smooth and self-righteous manner caused a lot of people I knew, even ones who shared his politics, to profess that they hated his guts.

 

During the next two decades, following Galloway’s exploits was a seesawing experience.  He’d do something crap, then redeem himself by doing something impressive, then blow his restored credibility by doing something crap again.  At the crap end was his grovelling to the Iraq despot Saddam Hussein, which in 1994 saw him utter the famous line, “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.”  Later, Galloway claimed, not very convincingly, that he’d aimed this line at the long-suffering Iraqi people rather than at Saddam himself.

 

But he deserved kudos for his opposition to George Bush Jnr and Tony Blair’s misguided, mendacious and ultimately catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003.  He denounced Bush as a terrorist, got himself expelled from the Labour Party, sued and won against the Daily Telegraph after it claimed Iraqi agents had secretly paid him with cash from the United Nations Oil for Food programme, and then squared up to a US Senate committee investigating the Food for Oil programme in 2005.  The senate confrontation was probably his finest hour.  He gave those senators a mauling.  “…(I)n everything I said about Iraq I turned out to be right,” he declared, “and you turned out to be wrong.  And 100,000 have paid with their lives, 1600 of them American soldiers sent to their deaths on a pack of lies.”

 

Though he’d  torched his bridges with the Labour Party, Galloway managed for a time to defy Enoch Powell’s famous adage that ‘all political lives… end in failure.’  He formed the Respect Party, stood for election in the London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and won it from Labour.  He stood down as MP there following a schism in the Respect Party, but in a 2012 by-election pulled off a similar stunt by winning Bradford West from Labour.  Both constituencies had sizable Muslim communities and there were copious allegations about Galloway dishing religious-related dirt on his opponents – that in Bethnal Green he’d played up the fact that the Labour incumbent, Oona King, had a Jewish mother; that in Bradford West he’d raised the issue of the Labour Party’s Muslim candidate drinking alcohol; and that in the run-up to the 2015 general election he’d accused his Labour challenger, another Muslim, Naz Shah, of supporting Israel and lying about an arranged marriage.  But Shah had the last laugh because she won Bradford West back for Labour.

 

© Channel 4

 

True to form, Galloway’s 2005 triumph in Bethnal Green was soon negated by his idiotic decision to take part in the 2006 series of Celebrity Big Brother.  This resulted in such colossally cringy moments as George, no longer so gorgeous, dancing in a leotard beside the late Pete Burns of the band Dead or Alive, or pretending to be a cat and licking cream off the lap of actress Rula Lenska.  Hence the word ‘cat’ popping up beside his name on Google searches.

 

More seriously, Galloway secured a job as a host on the Iran-government-funded Press TV in 2008 and that same year earned himself the ire of gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell for claiming that a gay man executed in Iran was punished for ‘sex crimes’ rather than for being gay.  He landed himself in more hot water in 2012 when he defended Julian Assange against rape charges by describing having non-consensual sex with a sleeping woman (after consensual sex with her when she was awake), which Assange was accused of doing, as ‘bad sexual etiquette’ but ‘not rape’.

 

Galloway’s support for Assange was evidence that, as the 2010s progressed, he was increasingly happy to clamber onto any bandwagon that he thought would boost his profile.  So he campaigned vociferously for a ‘no’ vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence – ‘just say naw’.  Mind you, he was scathing of his ex-comrades in the Labour Party who’d joined forces with the Conservatives in the anti-independence Better Together movement.  “If you ever see me standing under a Union Jack shoulder-to-shoulder with a Conservative,” he told Prospect magazine, “please shoot me.”  Remember those words.  Prior to the referendum, I watched him in a televised debate and discovered that, like a cartoon character, he’d now acquired a costume, a rarely-off-his-head fedora, and a catchphrase: “That is nonsense on stilts!”

 

© The Jewish Chronicle / twitter/@VirendraSharma

 

Perhaps upset that his contribution to saving the United Kingdom didn’t result in ennoblement by a grateful David Cameron – he could have been Lord Galloway of Nonsense-on-Stilts – George then threw his lot in with the Brexiteers and campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union in 2016’s referendum on that matter.  This spawned some nauseating photographs of him, a supposed socialist, posing with Nigel Farage, ex-City of London spiv, immigration dog-whistler and Donald Trump’s biggest British fanboy.  That said, pictures of Galloway embracing the extreme right-wing nutjob Steve Bannon at a debate in Kazakhstan in 2019 were even more mind-melting.

 

The increasing number of causes that Galloway hitched himself to seemed in inverse proportion to the number of votes being cast for him in elections.  A 2011 attempt to get into the Scottish parliament saw him win a less-than-awesome 3.3% of the vote in Glasgow.  His performance in the 2016 London Mayoral contest was even worse (1.4%) and attempts to run in English constituencies in the 2017 and 2019 general elections had equally dire results.

 

Now George has a new wheeze, which is to run in next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections as head of something called Alliance for Unity, of which he says: “We have only one goal – to get the SNP out.”  To this end, Galloway has declared himself willing to work with even the Conservatives.  Yes, this is the man who a half-dozen years ago invited folk to shoot him if they ever saw him do that.

 

He intends to stand in the south of Scotland, a rural, down-to-earth area where I can’t see many people falling for his self-serving, narcissistic brand of bullshit.  Maybe he figures he stands a chance because he shares a name with one of the regions there, Dumfries and Galloway.  And who does he really expect to vote for him?  Not Scottish independence supporters, obviously.  Labour supporters will hardly vote for someone so willing to climb into bed with the Tories.  And the hard-line loyalists / British nationalists who increasingly form the main support for the Scottish Conservative Party these days will hardly be enamoured with someone who’s said of Northern Ireland: “There is no Northern Ireland.  It is six counties in the north of Ireland.  It should have never been in the British state in the first place.”  Nor will his urging of Arabs to kill British troops in Iraq in 2003, one of the final straws that got him chucked out of Labour, win him their admiration either.

 

George Galloway may still look, talk and act like the cat that’s got the cream.  But I suspect he’s now used up the last of his nine lives.

 

© The Sunday Mail / From pressreader.com

Millennium Dom

 

From the Cyprus Mail

 

Spin doctor Dominic Cummings, the Svengali to Boris Johnson’s Trilby, the Rasputin to Johnson’s Tsarina Alexandra, the organ-grinder to Johnson’s dancing monkey, the puppet-master to Johnson’s, well, puppet, has become Britain’s Most Hated Man.

 

That’s because everyone in Britain now knows that Cummings didn’t just break the coronavirus-lockdown rules that he himself helped draw up for the population, but pulverised them.  The Gollum-like governmental advisor apparently believed that rules exist only for plebs and he, as a superior being, had a divine right to flout them.  In late March he drove his wife and child 260 miles from London to his parents’ farm near Durham in northeast England, while his missus was displaying coronavirus symptoms.  He developed symptoms soon after.  Also, while in the northeast, he drove 30 miles to local tourist attraction Barnard Castle, an action he subsequently justified by claiming he’d done it to check if he could drive safely even though the virus was affecting his eyesight.  I guess that’s the equivalent of a brain surgeon performing an operation to check if the palsy he’s been suffering from isn’t making his hands shake too much.

 

I should say not quite everyone in Britain is baying for Cummings’s blood, for I’ve noticed a few right-wing folks complaining on social media that Cummings has been the victim of a stitch-up by Britain’s hideous lefty mainstream press.  Such people regard Cummings as the Messiah, thanks to him being Campaign Director of the Vote Leave movement in 2015-16 and playing a major role in getting Britain out of the European Union.  According to them, the lefty newspapers that have it in for poor Dom include that notoriously socialistic organ, the Daily Mail.  Looking at the state of the comments posted by those fulminating right-wingers, I just hope they cancel their subscriptions to the Daily Mail and invest the money they’ve saved in taking punctuation courses where they learn how to use apostrophes correctly.

 

Anyway, reading the screeds of print written about Cummings in the past week, I’ve been reminded that Cummings first made a name for himself during a little-remembered episode in recent British political history.  It happened shortly after the advent of the new millennium, in a part of the world where I was living.  I’m talking about the referendum on setting up a regional assembly in northeast England, held in 2004.

 

Soon after Tony Blair’s New Labour government arrived in power in the late 1990s, devolution was implemented in the non-English parts of the United Kingdom, with the creation of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd and Northern Irish Assembly.  This left England as the only part of the UK without devolved government, which caused some awkward anomalies.  How, for example, could Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politicians turn up at the British parliament and vote on issues affecting the English population, when English politicians weren’t allowed to attend the three devolved parliaments and have a say on equivalent issues affecting the populations there, like health and law enforcement, entrusted to those parliaments under the devolution settlement?

 

The Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act of 2003 was meant to restore constitutional balance.  It was envisioned that, eventually, eight regional assemblies would operate across England.  As England had a population five times the size of that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined, a patchwork of small English assemblies would ensure that too much power wasn’t concentrated in a single, huge English assembly.  And the first English region to get the chance to approve the establishment of its own assembly was northeast England, which had an all-postal ballot on the matter on November 4th, 2004.

 

Cynics would say that the northeast was given first say because it seemed highly likely to do what the government wanted it to do.  It was deeply pro-Labour at the time and contained Tony Blair’s constituency, Sedgefield.  Also, it seemed the English region with the strongest local identity – a place that’d want its own assembly making decisions on its behalf rather than having decisions imposed on it from faraway London.  At the time I was living in the northeast’s biggest city, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and, without wishing to confuse the city with the region, I have to say the Geordies of Newcastle did seem a complete race apart.

 

I’d spent most of my youth in Scotland, where devolution had been a burning political issue for a generation.  There’d been a referendum about establishing a Scottish parliament back in 1979 and a majority had voted in favour of it.  Due to some disgraceful rule-bending by the Labour government of the time, though, it was decreed that the majority wasn’t big enough and the parliament wasn’t delivered.  Soon after came the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, which massively reshaped the economy and culture of the UK in the 1980s.  Most people in Scotland didn’t vote for Thatcher but the existing constitutional set-up left her free to do what she wanted with the place – a sorry state of affairs that resulted in the nadir of the Poll Tax, imposed solely on Scotland in 1989 as an experiment to see how it was likely to go down in the rest of the UK.  A great ‘what-if’ of Scottish political history is how a Scottish parliament, if one had been created at the end of the 1970s, might have stood up to Thatcher.  I certainly can’t imagine things being any worse than they were.  Anyway, it seemed to me a no-brainer that people in northeast England should get their own assembly in 2004.

 

However, in the run-up to the referendum, I realised my devolutionary enthusiasm wasn’t mirrored in the Geordies and north-easterners around me.  This was largely due to the influence of the anti-assembly campaign North East Says No, chaired by local businessman John Elliot and with a certain Durham-born, Oxford-educated character called Dominic Cummings as one of its prime movers.  The anti-assembly campaign whipped up resentment against the proposed establishment.  It warned that an assembly would be an unnecessary extra layer of government, diverting yet more public money into the pockets of yet more politicians – and diverting it away from areas that really needed it, like health.  “More doctors,” declared one of its ads, “not politicians.”  Actually, that sounds familiar.  Didn’t Dom peddle a similar message in a more recent political campaign?  Although in Newcastle in 2004 I didn’t see it emblazoned on the side of a bus.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

It didn’t help the assembly’s cause that the senior politician entrusted with overseeing its creation was deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who famously had not one but two princely Jaguar motor cars at his beck and call and generally wasn’t known for his frugality.

 

Cummings’s anti-assembly message certainly got through.  With hindsight it was scary how many left-wing, liberal-minded people I knew in Newcastle, who’d normally have detested everything Cummings stood for, unconsciously parroted his rhetoric.  I remember in my workplace a Russian woman, who had British citizenship and the right to participate in the referendum but wasn’t too clued-up on local politics, asking a colleague for advice on how to vote.  The colleague, a Guardian-reading progressive if ever there was one, promptly told her the assembly was a nonsense and to vote against it.  Meanwhile, my best mate in Newcastle, also no right-winger, dismissed the proposed assembly as a ‘white elephant’ designed to ‘line politicians’ pockets’.

 

It didn’t surprise me, then, when Prescott and company lost the referendum and a majority voted against the assembly’s establishment.  It did surprise me how emphatic that majority was – of those who bothered to vote, 78% voted against it.  And that wasn’t only the prospect of a north-eastern assembly killed stone dead, but the prospect of any future devolution in England generally.  No politician would touch the project after that whipping.  Dominic Cummings had secured his first and, alas, not his last big victory.

 

Although Newcastle is pictured by some as a drunken hellhole where ghastly nightclubs are pillaged by stag and hen parties clad in little more than jockstraps and G-strings while freezing easterly gales howl around them from the North Sea – an image that admittedly isn’t wide of the mark if you venture into the city’s Bigg Market district on a Friday or Saturday night – I thought it was a great city.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time there during the first half of the noughties.  It had some great pubs (away from the Bigg Market), a good live music scene, decent shops and easy access to libraries and galleries.  You could generally find whatever it was that floated your boat, be it antiques markets or creative writing groups or comedy shows or whatever.  And I loved how you were mere minutes away from some of the most scenic landscapes in England.  And the Geordies were great company.  Indeed, I would have stayed for longer if the money I was earning in my job there hadn’t been so crap.

 

Looking back, though, I was probably lucky that I left Newcastle when I did and avoided the years of austerity that were inflicted on it by David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition from 2010 onwards.  The newspaper reports I’ve read about what happened to Newcastle make grim reading – slabs of money hacked off its budget every year, a total of some 300 million pounds lost by 2019, with a resulting cull of libraries, youth clubs and children’s centres and a general neglect of public services.  Even the city’s lollipop men and ladies weren’t spared – their numbers declined from 64 to seven in the space of five years.  Would a north-eastern assembly have been able to protect the city against some of this savagery?  Like the hypothetical 1980s Scottish parliament and Margaret Thatcher, I doubt if it would have made things any worse.

 

 

Incidentally, I think the missed opportunity of the English regional assemblies will contribute eventually to the breakup of the United Kingdom.  Occasional senior Labour politicians – Gordon Brown especially – still talk up the prospect of a federal UK as a way to keep Scotland British.  With their parliament nestling amid a bunch of similar-sized English ones where power is equally distributed, the Scots, the theory goes, will neither feel neglected nor get ideas above their station.  They’ll accept they’re fairly treated and accept their lot as happy Brits.  That might be true in an alternative universe, but it isn’t going to happen in this universe.  There won’t be a properly federal UK because people in England, as 2004 proved, aren’t interested.  And with so much power entrusted to dolts like Boris Johnson in London, I can’t see the Scots putting up with the existing constitutional status quo for much longer.

 

Modern right-wingers adore Dominic Cummings for what he’s supposedly done to restore British sovereignty.  But he’s actually done more than most to crock the whole concept of Britain.  Thanks in part to his exploits, including those in 2004, Britain as a union of four nations is doomed.  Dom-ed, in fact.