Friday, 24 July 2020

Brexitwatch: how incuriosity is killing British democracy. Part 2



Oh my prophetic soul! Two and a half years ago, I warned that MPs’ fierce determination to be incurious, to resolutely avoid inquiring into important matters, was threatening to destroy democracy in the UK (see my post of 21 January 2018). This week things got worse.

Back in 2018, MPs were busily voting against making the government publish studies on the impact Brexit would have on the UK: ‘Our constituents don’t need to know how their lives are going to be messed up by leaving the EU, and we certainly don’t want to hear about it!’

Now our MPs’ determination to be irrelevant has landed a double whammy in the last few days. First they voted to deny themselves any say on future trade deals. No fewer than 326 MPs decided: ‘not the kind of thing we want to be involved with, old boy.’

Even by the catastrophically low standards of today’s House of Commons, this is mind-boggling. Why would any MP with a scintilla of concern for the national interest deny themselves this right? After all, if you think a given trade deal is good, you just vote for it, don’t you? So what are you afraid of? That the deal’s bad, and then maybe your constituents will put you under pressure to vote against it, and if you do, Dominic Cummings or the extreme right-wing tabloids will be nasty to you? ‘No, please just let me be irrelevant and have a quiet life!’

MPs also determinedly looked the other way on Russian meddling in British politics and especially the Brexit referendum. Having tolerated Boris Johnson’s suppression of the cross-party report on this for nine months, they batted scarcely an eyelid when, after considering its demand for a proper inquiry into Russian interference for at least one second, Johnson dismissed it. 

Now they’re off on their hols!

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Brexitwatch: 'MacBoris' - Shakespeare's lost tragedy



Following my unearthing of Samuel Beckett’s hitherto unknown masterpiece, Waiting for the German Carmakers, (see my post of 1 February) I now unveil an even greater scoop - a new drama by Shakespeare! MacBoris. A Tragedy (for the UK).

It is the story of a privileged, entitled, selfish, rather overweight man who has to overcome no obstacles before being installed as the leader of his party and his country. 

Owing to the constraints of copyright, I can reproduce only a few lines from the work, but they are enough to illustrate that the bard of Stratford has produced another winner. One remarkable speech comes from the mouth of Lady Morgan, a very, very minor character, who on learning MacBoris has become prime minister, soliloquises: 

'Brexit, party leader, prime minister. Thou hast it all now, as Cummings promised, and I fear thou played'st most foully for it, but I'm not going to say anything about that, because I know which side my bread's buttered.'

But perhaps the most memorable line comes from MacBoris himself.  In the final act, while he is making models of buses from cardboard boxes, he gets a visit from the ghost of his hero Churchill (or was that Pericles? Depends on the audience, I suppose.) The spirit reveals that in an opinion poll in 2030 on 'who was Britain's worst ever prime minister', MacBoris will score 100%. The hero wonders whether, even now, he can repair at least some of the terrible damage he has done to his country, but concludes it would be too much like hard work:

'I am in lies stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er'.


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?

https://www.u3alondon.org.uk/u3a-in-london-update-11-may-2020/




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 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5C2SLrEEkds&t=103s