Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

19 July 2009

Swine flu: the scourge for our times

Though a Christian, I’m not a subscriber to the view that new diseases, when they first make an appearance on the world stage, are scourges sent by the Almighty as a punishment for our manifold sins. Disease affects the ‘innocent’ just as much as the ‘guilty’; and it would be crass to think, as some defenders and detractors of Christianity alike appear to, that the Christian view is that all suffering represents some sort of direct chastisement for one’s personal sins – even though it may be regarded as something that can be a means to help free the individual from sin. But then that’s a very complex, theological discussion, for another time . . ..

But there does sometimes seem to be what could be called a ‘symbolic appropriateness’ to certain diseases, in some of their aspects. AIDS struck both the sexually promiscuous in the West, and innocent haemophiliacs and large swathes of impoverished Africa, at the end of two decades of ‘sexual liberation’ that had wrecked the previous Christian moral consensus on sexuality and the family. So it was ‘tempting’, but simplistic, to see this as God’s answer: ‘the best way to avoid STDs is lifelong monogamy’, i.e. to adhere to the teaching of Christianity and other faiths on sexual morality and the role of marriage.

Similarly, with swine flu, this struck at just the point where people in Britain were outraged at the way their political leaders had had their ‘snouts in the trough’: claiming for inappropriate ‘expenses’ worth tens of thousands of taxpayers’ pounds in some instances. Well, if we eat at the pigs’ table, no wonder when we catch a cold off them!

Of course, it’s not just the politicians that have been acting like greedy pigs. Swine flu comes in the wake of the credit crunch, brought about by the reckless actions of unregulated bankers driven by the prospect of obscene bonuses. As swine flu looked to be spreading through the UK in an exponential manner over the last few weeks, so more and more parts of what is referred to as ‘public life’ were also being revealed as having been infected with the virus of the ‘bonus bingeing culture’ (BBC): snuffling one’s way to fortune through dubious expenses and ‘performance incentives’ on top of already generous salary awards.

So in this context, it’s ironically ‘appropriate’ that Britain has been particularly severely affected by swine flu: the ‘scourge’ for our previous, and continuing, lust for money? Except, of course, that it’s the innocent children, elderly and sick that are ‘paying the price’ in the case of swine flu – just as it’s the ordinary hard-working wage earners, mortgage payers and voters that are literally paying the price for the bankers’ and politicians’ greed and incompetence.

And perhaps this greed and incompetence are the ‘real’ reasons why swine flu has spread so uncontrollably throughout the UK; that is, maybe the greed and incompetence have had tangible, practical consequences that have assisted the transmission of the virus. Everyone keeps on congratulating the government on how well it’s been handling swine flu. For example, even on BBC Radio Four’s Any Questions on Friday, one of the opposition spokesmen said he thought the government had dealt with the crisis commendably. Swine flu, it seems, is off limits for regular party politics, and nobody seems to be asking why. Should we not be as suspicious of politicians’ motives in this regard as we are in other matters?

‘Handling’ swine flu is precisely what they’re doing. The response to the whole epidemic is being ‘managed’ by a shadowy Whitehall body called the Civil Contingencies Committee, as my previous post reported. This body not only co-ordinates the whole response to the epidemic at a ‘national’, i.e. UK-wide, level; but it also manages ‘communications’ regarding the disease – i.e. it manages the news output on the topic. This latter observation accounts for the fact that after every report on TV and radio on the latest unfortunate deaths from swine flu, they’ve been continually repeating the official observation that ‘all the victims to date have had underlying serious medical conditions’. If necessary, a medical expert or even the Chief Medical Officer for England (and, doubtless, in ‘regional’ output in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, this will be their equivalents to the CMO) pop up with bland reassurances to the effect that this is no more severe an outbreak of flu than regular seasonal flu (except it’s out of season) and people should not be alarmed, just follow the advice that’s been given out, contact the helpline to apply for Tamiflu (is the helpline up and running now? it wasn’t for ages), etc, etc.

Wet blanket, wet blanket: no criticism, no scrutiny of the actions of the ‘authorities’ permitted, in the interests of not spreading panic just as fast as the virus itself is spreading. Do we know whether in fact it’s true that all / most of the victims so far had ‘serious’ underlying conditions? And what qualifies as a serious condition? A good friend of mine’s got diabetes, and we’ve both just had severe, unseasonal ‘colds’. Have we just in fact had swine flu without realising it (there’s a lot of it about in the local area)? She went to the GP but I didn’t bother. She wasn’t given Tamiflu, despite the fact that people with diabetes are on the ‘at risk’ list, although she was prescribed antibiotics. Despite this, if she had unfortunately succumbed to swine flu – if that’s what it was – would her death have been explained away as being due to her having a ‘serious underlying condition’ – diabetes – alongside swine flu?

The point is, I don’t feel the epidemic is being handled well or consistently, despite – or perhaps because of – the vast propaganda machinery that’s being mobilised to reassure ‘the public’. I don’t generally go in for conspiracy theories; but if it would be wrong to call the present unwillingness of opposition politicians to call the government to account for their response to swine flu a ‘conspiracy of silence’, then it does at least appear to be a concerted, organised silence. Organised by the Civil Contingencies Committee, no doubt: the “Government’s dedicated crisis management mechanism”, as the official document puts it – a body that would step in to run the shop in the event of war or a devastating terrorist attack – has obviously sat all the party leaders down in a darkened room and reached a gentleman’s agreement with them along the following lines, as I imagine the scene: “Now, look here, chaps; we’re facing a pretty serious crisis here that could have devastating consequences for all of us, if you see what I mean. Now we don’t want to be seen to be spreading panic among the public or to let the tabloids get hold of this thing, do we (well, we’ll take care of the popular press, don’t you worry)? Let’s all pull together on this one, shall we? We’ve got a well organised contingency plan, everything’s in place to deal with the situation as best as possible, and even those johnnies from the devolved administrations are on message. So let’s not rock the boat, shall we, and we’ll keep you informed about what’s happening from day to day. OK?”

Joking aside, everybody is on message, and that’s what’s so disconcerting because it’s so exceptional. The government has clearly decided that this is a ‘national crisis’, as they’ve activated the official crisis-management mechanism. And that involves deliberately shutting down media and political scrutiny of how things are progressing, precisely in order to reassure the public, supposedly.

But if it really is a national crisis, wouldn’t it have been far more effective in combating the disease – let alone far more honest – to have acknowledged this fact up front right from the start of the outbreak? But then think what could have happened: normal life, i.e. ‘business as normal’, might have had to be shut down. No international travel, either out of or into the UK. Serious restrictions placed on people ‘suspected’ of having come down with the virus and on those with whom they’d come into contact. Whole businesses, organisations, schools and vital infrastructure could have been paralysed. Think of the impact on the economy, stupid! Only the other day, they were discussing projections of what could happen – in the future – if swine flu continued to spiral out of control: a potential loss of 5% of GDP! Well, such a loss would have been virtually inevitable if the kind of radical measures I’ve just suggested had been taken at the start of the outbreak with the aim of trying to prevent swine flu from spreading among the general population. Better to just underplay it; not impose strict quarantine measures; and hope we can ‘contain’ the virus’s spread and that it won’t be too virulent. And yet, as a consequence, it appears to have got completely out of control and we may yet face those economic consequences anyway!

But even now, the politicians don’t want any whistleblowers going about accusing the government of incompetence in its handling of the crisis and asking it to come clean about the extent of the epidemic and its likely effect on the economy. Why? Firstly, because their own role in sitting back and letting the Civil Contingencies Committee take charge, and in downplaying the disease so as not to damage the economy, will be exposed. There’s a general election coming along, you know. Secondly, they don’t want even more harm to be done to those fragile green shoots of economic recovery by people making out that swine flu is some great national crisis and serious threat to public health, despite the fact that that’s precisely what the government thinks it is.

After all, this is the summer tourist season, and tourism is one of Britain’s biggest industries. We don’t want people from other countries thinking it’s unsafe to come into Britain now, do we? So what if they do contract the disease here; at least, we won’t have to deal with the consequences! And does anybody know – and have the media investigated – how seriously the tourist industry has been affected by foreign nationals’ fear of coming into Britain and catching swine flu? A search for ‘swine flu’ in the ‘Enjoy England‘ website (“The official website for breaks and days out in England”) yielded the response: “Unfortunately we are unable to complete your request at this time”. A general web search on ‘impact of swine flu on British tourism’ yielded little of relevance to the question of how swine flu was affecting levels of visits to Britain by foreign nationals; although the Daily Telegraph have a dedicated page that today carried reports on restrictions being placed on British nationals who are thought to have swine flu travelling abroad.

The website of English UK – an umbrella organisation for the ‘TEFL’ (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) industry in the UK – reported three days ago that it was ‘business as usual for UK ELT industry’: “At present, the virus is no more dangerous than a typical seasonal flu and the UK is well-prepared for such an outbreak.  English Language Teaching (ELT) providers are operating as normal”. However, the organisation and its members are participating in a survey being carried out by a quango known as TIER (Tourism Industry Emergency Reaction Group) (!) monitoring the impact of swine flu on UK tourism. It turns out that submissions can be made to this survey until 26 July, and presumably, they won’t issue their report till some time later. Bit too late to do anything to prevent innocent visitors to the UK from taking swine flu back to their own countries, or worse. But, as they say, it’s ‘business as usual’.

So swine flu may not have been inflicted on the UK as a divine chastisement for the corruption and greed of our national institutions, politicians and bankers; but its rapid spread certainly has been encouraged by the unwillingness of the said institutions, politicians and bankers to disrupt their precious cash cow known as the UK economy. And don’t expect them to be too open and transparent any time soon about their role in downplaying the disease and acquiescing at half-hearted containment measures in the hope that the economic and political damage could be limited. Just as well that swine flu has turned out to be relatively ‘mild’, at least ‘at present’, as the English UK website puts it. Just imagine the carnage if it had turned out to be as lethal as they were fearing bird flu might be a couple of years ago! And, of course, swine flu could still turn nasty in that way, and we don’t know how it will mutate over the autumn and winter, and over the coming years. Next time we might not be so lucky; but can we have confidence that the initial response by the ‘authorities’ will be any different?

There is one thing we can do about it. After all, we’re not obliged to let the pigs eat at our table; and, at the next election, we get the chance to boot them out of the door.

3 December 2008

Damian In-the-Dock Green: Breaches In Confidence That Betray a Cynical Political Culture

I must confess to having initially reacted with a large dose of cynicism last week to the news of the arrest and questioning of the Tory immigration spokesman Damian Green. I thought he must have been up to some sort of political skulduggery given the routine assumption that politicians do indulge in dodgy intrigue and rule bending to procure political advantage. On learning a bit more about the case, I assumed that he must have been offering inducements of some kind to the civil servant who kept feeding him titbits on wrongdoing, ‘malfeasance’ and cover-ups at the Home Office; or else, that the civil servant in question was himself politically motivated, so that at least there was connivance between him and Damian Green in breaking the law (albeit a questionable law in many of its provisions: the Official Secrets Act) in order to score points against the government – a government for which, if I need remind my readers, I have the utmost contempt.

Only subsequently, on reading some of the storm of protest and indignation about the affair, did I pause to reflect a bit more about the civil-liberties implication of the events. Even if the police had a reasonable suspicion that Damian Green had been offering the civil servant in question inducements to betray official secrets, surely the use of a whole squad of counter-terrorist officers to search the MP’s parliamentary office and interrogate him for a whole day was completely inappropriate and excessive. Would it not have been sufficient for ordinary detectives to have a quiet word with Damian Green in his offices after consulting with the Speaker of the Commons and the MP’s boss, the Conservative Party leader David Cameron? The actions and motivation of the Speaker, Michael Martin, in allowing the police raid to go ahead are highly questionable. And then there are the implications for the confidential nature of Damian Green’s work and dealings with his constituents, which the police appeared to regard as completely open for them to look through in the search for incriminating evidence. Should the confidentiality of an MP’s correspondence, files and computers not be regarded by default as completely off limits, and only to be made available to the police under the gravest of circumstances and under reasonable suspicion of serious criminality, such as actual support for terrorism, which might have warranted the use of anti-terrorist officers? But no one has suggested that anything remotely like that had been going on.

Then it occurred to me that, in their suspicions towards Damian Green, and in their apparent belief that there was nothing untoward or objectionable in their investigative methods in this case, the police were demonstrating the same sort of cynicism and lack of respect towards MPs and the parliamentary process as I had done in my initial reaction. After the way the political elite rallied round to protect Tony Blair and his cronies in the ‘cash for honours’ investigation, which ended with no prosecutions and accusations of wasted police resources and effort, such cynicism on their part would be understandable. In this case, however, the police’s attentions were directed towards the dealings of an opposition politician claiming to be exercising his duty to call the government to account for its illegal and deceitful doings, and not towards corrupt political patronage carried on with the acquiescence of the PM.

The Damian Green case therefore demonstrated that cynicism of this sort – whether it is that of the police, the media or the general public – can lead to complacency towards and even acquiescence with the government’s use of secrecy and anti-terrorist measures to suppress disclosure and scrutiny of its own dishonest or incompetent dealings. By means of the incident and the subsequent ‘outing’ of the civil servant involved (Christopher Galley), the message was being put out that civil servants who blew the whistle on government wrongdoing – and even politicians that sought to get hold of and release information about that wrongdoing – could expect the full force of the law to come down on their heads. The government’s newly re-recruited spin-meister and bully boy, Peter Mandelson, reinforced this message this morning, I notice: accusing the Conservative Party leadership of sanctioning inducements to Galley (who was motivated by ambition not the public interest, according to Mandelson) and of conniving in law breaking and violation of the Civil Service Code in order to score political points – almost exactly my own initially cynical reaction.

In view of the fact that this was clearly the message the government wants to put out, I find it completely impossible to believe that the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and probably also Gordon Brown himself – who seems to run cabinet government on a Stalinist-style central command-and-control basis – did not have prior knowledge that the police intended to raid Damian Green’s offices and arrest him. Certainly, if Jacqui Smith did not have such foreknowledge, this would in itself almost justify a resignation on her part: in circumstances as grave and unprecedented as these, for the police not to consult her and gain at least her tacit approval would reveal a huge lack of confidence in the Home Secretary on the part of the police, along with ineffectiveness on her part in setting acceptable guidelines for the police in such matters. If Smith genuinely didn’t know about it, it’s hard to avoid the thought that she may not have done so because Gordon Brown didn’t inform her: i.e. he himself was very much informed and sanctioned the whole thing, and didn’t see fit to tell his Home Secretary about it, as he wouldn’t want an unseemly row and was intent on demonstrating who was really in charge.

This is, of course, speculation. But I’ve long suspected Gordon Brown of being a ruthless Machiavellian operator, who’s prepared to use whatever underhand tactics are at his disposal to ruin the reputations of his opponents both inside and outside the Labour Party: this time, Damian Green, by tainting him with the slur of suborning a civil servant from the proper and legal exercise of his duties; last time, by again using the offices of Peter Mandelson to try to get an accusation of improper soliciting of a donation to the Tory Party to stick on the Conservative Treasury spokesman George Osborne. In fact, there’ve been so many of these personal and career ruins in Brown’s wake that you might almost think it was he who triggered the stories and investigations about the cash for honours scandal in the first place, in an attempt to discredit and even oust Tony Blair. The fact that neither Brown nor Jacqui Smith have felt the least bit inclined to express any regret, let alone apology, about the outrageous handling of the Green investigation by the police can only lend further support to the view that one or both of them knew all about it and sought to secure political advantage from it.

One test of this supposition would be to imagine for a moment how the Labour leadership would react to a request from the police to carry out a similar inspection of, say, the Labour Immigration Minister’s Commons office and confidential files. Do we think for a moment that this would have been permitted? Of course, it wouldn’t. Therefore, whoever it was in the government that gave the green light for the police’s actions last week (Michael Martin, Jacqui Smith or Gordon Brown) was / were, at least in (large) part, motivated by achieving political advantage and revenge for Green’s embarrassing disclosures; and all of Mandelson’s blandishments about upholding the law and the Civil Service Code are a load of utterly futile and discreditable tosh.

Or am I just being cynical again? The point is that the actions of the government in sanctioning (whether ad or post hoc) the police’s actions last week, where there are clear potential political gains for it in doing so, only serve to bring the whole political process and, indeed, the law into disrepute. It is the government that should be setting an example in these matters: it should be completely open about who in government knew, or did not know, what; and in repudiating the police’s disproportionate actions. If it has nothing to hide, this should not be a problem. But the fact that the government has failed to adequately address such questions and concerns can only fuel the type of speculation that I have indulged in here. And, moreover, it is clear that the government did have something to hide, which is why the leaks occurred in the first place; and why the government was, and is, so furious about them.

And this brings us to the hub of the matter: the government comes over all indignant about the leaks carried out by Galley and Green (sounds like a firm of solicitors or executioners!), as if its secrets were all of the utmost importance (hence meriting the deployment of counter-terrorist officers); whereas in fact, it’s obvious they were highly embarrassed and politically harmed by the disclosures. And yet, the government shows cavalier disregard for the secrets and confidential information of its own citizens: whether those of Damian Green’s constituents, whose business was laid bare to the investigating officers last week; or to every citizen in the land, whose personal data has been handled with such gross negligence by a government that feels entitled to gather more and more of it, and to put it all in one place through the ID-card scheme.

It’s this lack of respect and, seemingly, trust for the privacy and honest secrets of the ordinary citizen that betrays the true depths of cynicism to which this government has stooped. The government’s secrets are held to be sacrosanct, even if they comprise a record of misconduct and incompetence. The citizen’s secrets, on the other hand, are to be an open book to the government – and to any organisation with which the government chooses to share, or to which it decides to sell, that information; or to any criminal, terrorist or ordinary citizen who happens to stumble upon or hack into data containing millions of our personal details. What have we got to hide or to fear, after all, from this whiter-than-white, trustworthy and supremely competent government? And if we have got something we’d rather they didn’t know, does that justify ‘the authorities’ in being suspicious that we might be up to criminal or even terrorist activities? Hence justifying the deployment of a counter-terrorist squad to search our premises? Because if it’s allowed to happen to an MP today, it could become a routine tactic to intimidate troublesome citizens tomorrow.

And what is an MP, after all, other than a representative of the people? If the government feels it is justified to treat inconvenient MPs in such a bullying and invasive manner, then it is to us the people that it is showing disregard and cynicism – as indeed it did quite specifically in this instance by allowing the police to peruse the confidential information of Mr Green’s constituents, apparently without any safeguards to the unofficial secrets involved. The reason for this discrimination and these double standards? The government’s job is to govern, and the citizen is there to be governed. So if the government decides it needs more and more of the citizen’s personal information in order to secure the processes and continuance of its governance against mounting threats (the ultimate justifying threat being that of ‘terror’), then it is the government’s prerogative both to appropriate that information and to cloak it, and the use to which it is put, in an ever more enveloping shroud of secrecy. Such as the information the Home Office had gathered on which Labour MPs were likely to vote against 42 days’ detention without charge for terror suspects, which was another of the items leaked by Christopher Galley. It seems that not even Labour’s own MPs are to be trusted.

This is government that sees its primary objective as perpetuating itself and defending itself against the threats to its survival by any means fair or foul. Government that sees itself, not the people, as the ultimate arbiter of its own actions which alone – in its view – can be characterised as ‘in the public interest’; not the actions of the government’s detractors and critics. Government for the government, and not government accountable to the people in the shape of its representatives: in this case, Damian Green MP. The government’s cynical condoning of the police’s actions last week is a sign that it has lost touch with the one thing that confers legitimacy upon it: not its own power but the trust of the people. And from the government’s increasingly paranoid perspective, it is the people in turn that are not to be trusted: potential terrorists all if they question the integrity and expose the incompetence of the government’s security operations and apparatus.

This is perhaps an episode that does justify strong criticism of, indeed cynicism towards, the British parliamentary system. The reason why the government is so out of touch with the people is that it does not have to rely on the support of even a large minority – let alone majority – of the people in UK elections. This is a government that was elected by only 22% of the British electorate (36% of those who actually voted). But that low level of support gave it an absolute majority and, effectively, the absolute power of a monarch, in whose name – and with whose sovereign authority – it governs.

But at the same time – and for all its flaws – this incident also demonstrates the greatness of the English and British parliamentary system: the fact that parliament at its best is not just an assemblage of party clones who slavishly back their government’s and parties’ positions on every issue. The fact that each MP is a free agent: a representative, symbol, defender and example of the freedom of every English and British citizen. And that they can, and do, stand up to abuses of power; even when further abuses are heaped upon them in the attempt to shut them up.

And that is why, despite the government’s betrayal of our confidence – indeed, of our confidential information – I still have confidence in the parliamentary process that England bequeathed to the world.

28 October 2008

Was the Osborne-Deripaska scandal pay-back from Mandy – and Gordon?

I’m surprised no one has made the link, which may or may not exist in reality. First, allegations are made last week that Shadow Chancellor George Osborne may have tried to arrange a donation to the Conservative Party from Russian aluminium magnate Oleg Deripasky while a guest on the latter’s yacht moored off Corfu. This would have broken the rules, as Deripasky is a foreign national. Vigorous denials from Osborne, followed by an apology yesterday to the effect that he had made a mistake in giving the appearance that he had solicited a donation; whilst admitting that he had in fact discussed the possibility of a donation (without actually requesting or obtaining one) during his summer holiday in Corfu.

Then it emerges there’s a Mandelson connection: not only are Mandy and Oleg long-established chums (with allegations of conflicts of interest in Mandelson’s former role as EU Trade Commissioner), but Mandelson was also on holiday in Corfu at the same time, where he met up with both Deripasky (and may even have stayed on his yacht overnight) and Osborne. In fact, he’s reported to have had lunch with Osborne, during which he bad-mouthed Gordon Brown.

Isn’t it just a little bit of a coincidence that, no sooner than Mandelson is recalled by Brown to the UK Cabinet, a story emerges – based on facts that must have been known to Mandelson – that puts the credibility and potentially the career of the Tory spokesman on the economy at serious risk? And this just at the time when Brown is trying to resurrect his own career on the basis of his supposedly decisive and capable management of economic affairs.

Personally, I just can’t help thinking that it’s Brown who’s behind the leaking of this story to the press, carried out with the aim of destroying a political opponent. I’ve suspected Brown of doing this in the past with other adversaries, and maybe even with Mandelson himself in his two previous resignations from ministerial posts on account of alleged financial impropriety and abuse of his position.

Let’s picture the scenario. It comes to the attention of Brown (as it’s reported in the Sunday Times) that Mandelson was uttering insults about him during his lunch with Osborne in Corfu. So, on Mandy’s entering the cabinet, Brown makes it clear that his loyalty to Mandelson (e.g. defending him against any subsequent suggestions of impropriety that may come to the surface) comes at the price of Mandelson’s total loyalty to him. And, to prove his loyalty, what can Mandelson give him on Osborne? Admittedly, the claims that Osborne did in fact request a donation from Deripasky came from Osborne’s former Oxford pal, Nat Rothschild. But, it emerges, Rothschild is also a friend of Mandelson’s . . . (see Rothschild’s letter to The Times about the affair). Then, in fact (coincidentally?), a story casting doubt on Mandelson’s integrity in his relationship with Deripasky does come to light; and Brown pulls a few strings to get his friends in the European Commission to deny any abuse of position on Mandelson’s part in securing a trade deal that worked to Deripasky’s advantage – thereby enabling Brown to demonstrate his loyalty to Mandelson.

I don’t have any facts to base this on; but the timing of it all just seems too fortuitous to be entirely coincidental. Brown is indeed back to his best: posturing as the firm hand on the tiller of the economy. And what better way to get the public to accept that you’re the only man who can steer the nation’s ship – or should that be yacht? – through the turbulent financial seas than to destroy the reputation of the Tories’ economics spokesman? The firm hand is indeed still a clunking fist.

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