Sunday, 12 July 2020

Living to 100 - my online talk TOMORROW!

Looking forward to talking online to the U3A in London at 1030 tomorrow about living to 100 - what's it like and which of us will survive to find out, based on my book 'Secrets of the Centenarians' (Reaktion).

Here's how the organisers have described the talk:

JULY 13: Living to 100. Who and what?  What is it like to live for a century and which of us will survive to find out? John Withington discusses why there are 90 times as many centenarians as there were 100 years ago. Why women outnumber men by about 5 to 1.  What determines who will make it to 100 and who will fall by the wayside.            And can we go on expanding human lifespan or have we reached our limit?

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Brexitwatch: MPs - you're out of excuses. Time to resume your jobs

It is the duty of MPs to act in the interests of the UK. Many, perhaps most, regarded this duty as suspended after the Brexit referendum. Though the vast majority knew leaving the EU would damage the UK, they decided to obey the result of the referendum, even though it was explicitly advisory and non-binding, and even though it was set up and conducted in a thoroughly undemocratic way.

Readers of this blog will know I disagreed profoundly with this analysis. But if you agreed with it, the referendum result committed the government to one thing only: that we should ‘leave the EU’. That was the only thing we voted on. That duty has been discharged. We left on January 31, and MPs, therefore, no longer have any excuse for ignoring the national interest.

Any version of Brexit makes us poorer than we would have been if we had stayed in the EU, but the most damaging way to leave is ‘no deal’ – without any agreement. (No doubt worried that people were beginning to realise this, Johnson and Cummings have rebadged ‘no deal’ as an ‘Australia-style deal’. Australia has no trade deal with the EU.) 

A no-deal Brexit, according to the government’s own figures, will cost us around £30bn a year. That’s equivalent to about three-quarters of what we spend on schools. How disappointing then that our MPs have shown so little interest in the Conservative government’s dilatory non-negotiations with the EU, characterised by shouting slogans designed to appeal to the worst instincts of the most extreme Brexiters.

Come on MPs! This is not good enough. You can’t go on hiding behind the referendum result. It is your duty to your country to prevent a no-deal exit and to ensure the damage from Brexit is minimised as much as it can be.

Monday, 6 July 2020

Brexitwatch: Leave means disaster, say Leavers

The 'Leave Alliance' who 'make the case for leaving the EU' now realise Brexit's going to be a disaster. In a series of tweets, they say: 'These days I'm heavily sceptical of #Brexit and the mess it will surely be.'

They add: 'Any serious examination our #Brexit trade negotiations suggests the UK is playing silly b*ggers and was never sincere about a deal and we're just going through the motions to pretend we tried. The headbangers have won.'

I could hardly put it better myself! They point out that the government's plan to join the CPTPP Trans-Pacific partnership on the other side of the world instead of the EU 20 miles across the channel is a waste of time. (Surely even Dominic 'where's Dover?' Raab, our alleged Foreign Secretary, must have noticed the UK isn't very near the Pacific.)

As for a US trade deal, says the Leave Alliance, it'll be much worse than staying in the EU Single Market, and probably won't happen anyway.

Our customs systems 'aren't ready' for the end of transition, and no-deal will cause 'unsustainable customs and red tape overheads'. They conclude that it looks as though the Tories 'haven't the first idea what they're doing.'

You'll be relieved to know that sanity hasn't completely dawned in Brexitland. Even though we Remainers have been warning for the last four and a half years that Brexit is barmy, it is still apparently all our fault. The question now though is whether the Brexiters who have belatedly realised that Johnson is leading us to disaster have the guts to do anything about it.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Cummingsgate: will it be Johnson's Black Wednesday?

A recently elected Conservative party leader won a surprise victory against considerable odds in a general election, and, as a result, appeared to be in a strong position with considerable authority. But just a few months later came a crisis.

The prime minister and his government did not handle it well. They made promises they were unable to keep, and though they stayed in office for the best part of five more years, the prime minister's credibility never recovered, and his government was torn apart by internecine warfare over Europe. When the next general election came along, the Tories were comprehensively defeated.

That is the story of John Major, prime minister from 1992-7, but the first three and a half sentences at least could also have been written about Boris Johnson. The crisis that found Major wanting, was 'Black Wednesday'. The government promised to keep the UK in Europe's Exchange Rate Mechanism at all costs. But even raising interest rates 4 per cent in a day and spending billions of pounds was not enough to fight off the currency dealers who believed Major was trying to keep the pound at a higher level than the economy justified, and the UK crashed out.

Johnson's crisis has been an odder one: his insistence on hanging on to an unelected adviser who had flouted coronavirus lockdown rules. It is coalescing, of course, with a general feeling that the crisis has been handled badly: locking down too late, abandoning testing, failing to supply protective equipment to frontline workers, failing to protect care homes, etc, but the decision to protect Dominic Cummings generated a huge wave of anger, even among Conservatives.

Will the story end the same? Sam Goldwyn said: 'beware of making predictions especially about the future,' and a lot can happen in what could be four years or more before the next election. Johnson also has a much bigger parliamentary majority than Major, but it is possible that when the history of his government is written, the day he decided to defend Cummings instead of firing him may be seen as his 'Black Wednesday'.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Coronavirus watch: lessons from past plagues, my interview with Radio Cornwall

What can the plagues of the past tell us about coronavirus? The dreadful Black Death, that killed around 40% of England's population; bubonic plague that returned not just in a second wave, but time and time again over three centuries; the mysterious sweating sickness that nearly killed Anne Boleyn before she married Henry VIII; cholera - a scourge in the 19th century.

You can find my interview with Debbie McCrory of BBC Radio Cornwall here -

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Cummingsgate: a reply from the commissioner

On May 28, I posted the email I had sent to Durham's Police and Crime Commissioner enquiring about Dominic Cummings' lockdown busting visit to his county. I have now had a reply which I attach below. It does not answer any of the questions I asked, but this is not unusual in modern Britain. (It also spells my name wrong.)

This may not be the end of the matter, as a group of lawyers backed by health workers and families of coronavirus victims is now demanding a proper police investigation.

Anyway here's the commissioner's reply:

Dear Mr Whithington,

Thank you for your correspondence regarding the visit by Mr Cummings to the County of Durham, I can assure you that your contact is valued.

I think it is important to make it clear that in my role as Acting Police Crime and Victims’ Commissioner, I am politically restricted and that I have no affiliations professionally to any political party. I take my role of ensuring an efficient and effective Police Service seriously and it is this that steers me in my day to day responsibilities.

Trust and confidence of the public in the police service is vitally important. It is even more so at this time of national emergency. What is needed is compliance with the rules to prevent spread and infection. To enforce after a breach rather defeats the object, as the risk will already have taken place. This informed the approach adopted by, and agreed with the Force, in the policing style in Durham.
As a result we are amongst the lowest for penalty notices. In my view the Force area has seen excellent compliance and where this has not been the case, appropriate and proportionate policing has been the response. This has helped maintain public confidence despite the draconian powers available. It is because of the need for this confidence that I took the decision to ask the Chief Constable to establish the facts amongst the sea of opinion, story and reporting. It is not a step I took lightly.

Now that the Force has concluded their enquiries, I am hopeful that our communities will see that the Force has dealt with the matter with fairness, proportionality and care.
I do hope that this provides you with some reassurance and an explanation of the way this matter was dealt with.

Kind Regards
Steve White
Acting Police Crime and Victims’ Commissioner

Friday, 29 May 2020

Cummingsgate: Why isn't Cummings going?

It is clear now that come hell, high water or Preston Guild, as they used to say when I was a lad, Boris Johnson is not going to sack lockdown buster Dominic Cummings, so unless Conservative MPs suddenly find the guts to remove Johnson, the 'adviser' is not going anywhere. But with 100 Tory MPs voicing their dissatisfaction publicly, and, we're told, many more privately, Johnson has had to spend political capital like it was going out of style to hang on to Cummings. So why?

1. Loyalty? This is the easiest explanation to dismiss. Johnson has betrayed wives, children, David Cameron, Theresa May, the ERG, the DUP, the new Tory voters in Red Wall seats, etc., etc. The only person to whom Johnson has ever exhibited loyalty is himself.

2. Cummings is so brilliant, he's indispensable? Not on the evidence of the last few weeks, surely? The government's response to coronavirus has been an error-strewn disaster. Plainly Johnson isn't much enamoured of work, and needs someone to do it on his behalf, but it's hard to believe Cummings is the only man known to the government capable of this.

3. Brexit? Do all roads lead here? Brexit has always been a house of cards. Even four years after the referendum (and decades after some to them started plotting), the Brexiters are still incapable of coming up with any credible alternative to EU membership. Brexit has always been a house of cards, and the Cummings card is right at the base. Does Johnson fear that removing it will bring the whole rotten edifice crashing down. (This might also explain why Cummings hasn't apologised. Maybe he and Johnson judged that any admission of fallibility, however small, could threaten Brexit.)

4. Does Cummings know too much? The question so courageously put to a Conservative MP by BBC interviewer Simon McCoy. Certainly if Johnson got on the wrong side of his 'adviser', there would be great danger that beans would be spilt - on Brexit, political funding, Russia (what was Cummings doing there for three years exactly?) or other things we as yet know nothing of. And it may not be only Johnson he knows too much about. What about all those other Tories who tumbled over each other in their haste to defend Cummings? 

My own bet is answer is 3 or 4, or possibly both.