Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Brexitwatch: fighting Brexit at the local elections on May 3

In my post for April 8, you can see a letter I sent to my (Labour) councillors asking for their advice on who I should vote for in the local elections in view of my belief that Brexit is the worst problem facing local government.

Below is a councillor’s reply, and my reply to him. As you can see, his response has convinced me that it would be wrong to vote for Labour (or any other Brexit-supporting party, e.g. Conservative) at the local elections.

Dear John,

Apologies, but I had to forward this to my personal email as we cannot use council emails for party political purposes. 

I agree that the impacts of Brexit will be signficant. Particularly for our poorest communities in the UK. Ironically, often where the vote for Brexit was the strongest. 

In Camden we have thousands of non-UK EU citizens who live and work here. I’m extremely proud of this fact, and to have a number of non-UK EU citizens as fellow cllrs. Camden has the gateway to Europe, via the Eurostar. And a large number of public services and sectors (like the tech industry) rely on the benefits we have through EU membership. 

Our manifesto which will be published Tuesday will make a strong statement, that Camden Labour will campaign to protect the rights of EU citizens, and to have the strongest possible links with Europe. 

In terms of practical measures, we will produce advice and support to citizens living here, work with the Mayor and continue to lobby and campaign so that no deal can be agreed without it having democratic legitimacy. 

Angela and I voted Remain, and believe strongly in the benefits of EU membership, economical, politically and socially. 

Best wishes,


Dear Councillor Beales,
Thank you for your very prompt response. I have thought carefully about what you say, but I will not be voting Labour at the local elections, nor at any other election until the party starts wholeheartedly opposing Brexit.
The measures you outline are essentially designed to mitigate the worst effects of Brexit, but any Brexit of any kind will be less good for the people of the UK (with the possible exception of a small number of the very rich) than remaining in the EU, and, as you yourself, admit, the people who will be most damaged are those Labour is supposed to care most about.
The only way to 'have the strongest possible links with Europe' is to stay in the EU. 
I'm quite old, and UK politicians have made plenty of mistakes in my life time, but Brexit is by far the worst. Labour is making a terrible mistake by not fighting this act of national self-harm. If it does not have a rapid change of heart, historians of the future will treat the party very harshly, and rightly so.
Yours sincerely,
John Withington

Friday, 13 April 2018

Should our MPs have a say on World War Three?

So Theresa May wants to go to war against Syria and, by implication, its ally Russia. One false move and it could be World War Three, but what could possibly go wrong with Donald Trump in the White House and Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary?

President Assad is plainly a very bad man, but what is an attack on him designed to achieve? Help the Islamic extremists who are among those opposing him, so it will be easier for them to attack people in British streets? Get our forces involved in a complex, murderous civil war, with no end in sight? Set off a war against Russia?

Our MPs should be debating these questions NOW. Theresa May plainly wants to delay any discussion until AFTER she has taken military action. That is not good enough. MPs should not be waiting for an invitation, they should be at Westminster demanding their voices are heard.

This is what I have written to my MP, Labour's Sir Keir Starmer.

Dear Sir Keir,
Why aren't you and your fellow MPs in the House of Commons? The survival of our country could be at stake. One false move and we could be into World War Three. (Just remind me - who is our Foreign Secretary?)
You should not be waiting for a summons from the Prime Minister. You should be in the chamber debating what to do about this crisis even if the government doesn't want you there. If you can't get into the chamber, I'm sure there are plenty of other places to hold a debate.
MPs scandalously failed us over Brexit. You wanted to be an irrelevance on that great question. Now Theresa May plainly thinks she can ignore you when it comes to starting a war too.
What are you going to do about it?
I look forward to hearing from you.
John Withington

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Brexitwatch: a letter to local councillors

If you want to stop Brexit, but you have a Labour or Conservative MP and/or local council, what can you do? This is a letter I have sent to my local councillors and the local council leader - with a similar one to my MP - in the run-up to the local elections. Feel free to use, adapt etc
Dear Councillors,
I am wondering who to vote for in the local elections.
Brexit will mean continuing austerity and the crippling of public services because of the way it will depress our economy and the government's tax take.
The evidence is now clear that any kind of Brexit will leave people poorer than if we stay in the EU. It is also plain that the Brexit people were conned into voting for cannot be delivered. The referendum vote was advisory and not binding on MPs. There is, therefore, no longer any excuse for proceeding with Brexit.
So I need to know what Labour is going to do to stop it.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Yours sincerely,
John Withington

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Brexitwatch: a lesson from history - the Great Chinese Famine

From 1959 to 1961, tens of millions died in a terrible famine in Chairman Mao’s China. There was bad weather, but foolish government policies, such as ordering peasants to abandon their fields and concentrate on making steel instead, were also to blame.

Anyone watching the mainstream media or listening to politicians would have had no idea that millions were starving to death. The State Statistical Bureau had been shut down and replaced by ‘good news reporting stations’, and there was fierce competition between local activists to be the most Maoist by announcing the best news.

So the smaller the real harvests became, the bigger the phantom ones reported. The New China News Agency said peasants were growing pumpkins weighing 10 stones, cows were supposed to have been successfully crossed with pigs. There seemed to be more than enough food to go round, so Mao cut imports and increased exports.

He refused to hand out food from the official granaries, and party activists tortured peasants they believed were hoarding non-existent grain. This was perhaps the first famine in history that devastated the whole of China, but the areas that suffered most were those run by the most fanatical Maoists.

*For more, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Brexitwatch: a letter to the BBC

I am tired of the constant pro-Brexit bias and the inaccuracies about leaving the EU that I keep seeing and hearing on the BBC, a broadcaster I used to admire. This is what I have written to them. Please feel free to borrow, adapt etc if you feel the same.

This is the link for complaints 

I have held my tongue since the EU referendum, but I can do so no longer.

For decades I have defended the BBC and the licence fee, but, in view of the Corporation’s blatant pro-Brexit bias, I no longer feel I can.

During about 30 minutes on the ‘Today’ programme of March 29 on Radio 4, there were a series of examples of this. First shortly before 0800 Nick Robinson said that Remainers were demanding a ‘Second Referendum’ on the Brexit terms. This is completely inaccurate. There has not yet been a referendum on the Brexit terms, so any referendum on them would plainly be the first. To describe it as a ‘second referendum’ is likely, by accident or design, to undermine support for it by implying falsely that it is a re-run of or an attempt to subvert a referendum that has already been held.

Then, around 0815, Brexit supporter Liam Fox was allowed to claim without challenge that the UK economy had been doing well since the Brexit vote. This is completely untrue. The government’s own figures show the UK’s was the only major economy in the world to slow down last year, the fall in the pound that the Brexit vote caused has made us all poorer, real wages are still declining etc, etc. Why did your interviewer fail to put these points to Dr Fox?

Sadly, this is not an isolated instance. While pro-EU interviewees are usually given a hard time, Brexiters are allowed to spout their untruths without challenge. When a handful of Brexit campaigners set up a stunt the BBC covers it. When tens of thousands march against Brexit across the country, the BBC ignores it.

 The EU referendum was advisory and non-binding on MPs. The BBC constantly ignores this etc. etc.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Brexitwatch: respect and obedience - the latest Brexit con

As George Orwell astutely noted in 1984, one of the crucial steps in the transition from democracy to dictatorship (Theresa May would presumably call this the ‘implementation phase’) is the perversion of language. We have heard a lot of it since the Brexit referendum.

I read today that fewer than half even of Leave voters think Brexit will benefit them and their families, but 90 per cent still believe the referendum result should be ‘respected’. I agree with them, the result should be ‘respected’, but as George Orwell would no doubt remind us, ‘respect’ is not the same as ‘obey’. Generals often speak about ‘respecting’ the enemy, but that does not mean they obey them!

The referendum was advisory, not binding, at the insistence of the Parliament Brexiters say must be sovereign. So MPs are NOT bound by the result, but they should respect this enormous consultative exercise by debating and taking decisions, without further delay, on these questions:-

1. Was the referendum conducted fairly and is its result valid? If no, MPs must act at once to halt the withdrawal process and decide how to proceed. Should there be a new referendum? If so, how should it be conducted? Should it be binding or advisory? etc

2. If they consider the result of the 2016 referendum IS valid, MPs must examine what would be the effect on the prosperity, quality of life, security, integrity etc of the UK if we were to leave the EU, and, if they were to decide that it would be in our national interest to leave, then they must examine what post-Brexit state we should be aiming for – in or out of the Single Market and/or customs union, for example.

Yes. I know it’s a scandal that MPs have failed to do any of this during the 21 months since the referendum, but they need to do it NOW before they consign themselves to irrelevance. And if the government tries to block their efforts, they must bring it down.

*Will a woman always win an argument with a man? Here's a television vox pop I conducted in Coventry in 1974.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Christchurch: seven years after the earthquake

Just back from New Zealand where the delightful city of Christchurch is still toiling to recover from the earthquake of 22 February 2011, which killed 185 people. Buildings had already been weakened by another quake five months before in September 2010.

Of the victims, 115 died in the 6-storey Canterbury Television Building. The Royal Commission that conducted an inquiry into the disaster said the local authority should not have allowed it to be re-occupied after the quake of 2010.

Seven years on, the damage from the 2011 quake is still clear to see, with many buildings unrepaired, notably the cathedral which still has an end wall missing.

Concern has been expressed about the number of key reconstruction projects that have failed to get underway, and the government has admitted some will not be finished for years.

*One of the things I missed while I was away was this review of my book Secrets of the Centenarians in the Oldie.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

100 years ago this month - the start of the world's deadliest flu epidemic

In March 1918, a cook at Fort Riley in Kansas, USA reported to the infirmary with a 'bad cold'. By noon, 100 men were sick. More than 40 at the camp would die. With America and its allies caught up in the dreadful conflict of the Great War, the authorities tried to keep the news as quiet as possible from the enemy.

But it soon became impossible. For 12 days in May, the British fleet could not take to the sea because 10,000 sailors were ill. The disease appeared to strike with frightening speed. The Times wrote of people being 'perfectly well' at ten o' clock, but 'prostrate' by noon. 

Another odd thing was that unlike most flu epidemics, this one seemed to hit the young and fit harder than the old. More than 30,000 American soldiers would die of the disease, with a top doctor declaring at one point that it was more dangerous to be in a camp in the US than on the front line in France.

Across the world, what became known as 'Spanish flu' is estimated to have claimed about 70 million lives, while the First World War killed perhaps 17 million in all. Famous victims included the painter Egon Schiele, while King George V, the Kaiser, Woodrow Wilson and Walt Disney caught it, but survived.

For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Brexitwatch; will incuriosity kill democracy?

When social workers make errors that result in harm being caused to a child, MPs often lambast them for being ‘incurious’. They failed to ask enough questions.

What then are we to make of MPs themselves? Last week a proposal was put that the government should have to publish studies on the impact of Brexit on the UK before Parliament takes a final decision on how and whether we leave the EU.

Incredibly, 320 MPs, yes 320, voted against this, and it was narrowly defeated. In other words, 320 MPs want to be sure they do NOT know the effect Brexit will have on their constituents and the rest of the people of the UK before they push it through.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow last week rightly warned that Brexit was endangering democracy in the UK. Unfortunately, among its biggest enemies are hundreds of MPs.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

'Secrets of the Centenarians': two more reviews

'Secrets of the Centenarians: What is it like to live for a century, and which of us will survive to find out?' Top of this reviews list in the Toronto Star.

And here is a review from the UK's Methodist Recorder.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

The artist David Bomberg and Britain's biggest ever explosion

Until February 4, the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester is hosting an exhibition by the British Artist David Bomberg (above is one of his pictures - Sappers at Work). In both world wars, Bomberg had a go at being an official war artist, but most of his pictures were rejected.

But the exhibition does feature two he painted of a huge Second World War bomb store in a former gypsum mine at Fauld in Staffordshire between Uttoxeter and Burton upon Trent. Nearly 15,000 tons of bombs were held there.

On the morning of 27 November 1944, the biggest man-made explosion ever in Britain ripped through the store, killing 70 people. A farm above the site just disappeared, nearly every house in the nearby village of Hanbury was damaged, while at Burton 6 miles away, 140 buildings suffered.

The Germans claimed they had hit it with one of the new V weapons, and there were also suspicions that perhaps it was sabotage by Italian prisoners of war or the IRA. But a secret inquiry concluded that shoddy work practices were to blame. It seemed that chipping away at a defective bomb with a brass chisel had caused an initial blast which was then followed by a second in which nearly 4,000 bombs exploded.

For more, see A Disastrous History of Britain.