Monday 30 December 2019

Brexitwatch: a low, dishonest decade

Four years of Brexit madness has distracted me, and the end of the 2010s has rather caught me on the hop, but we are indeed just a day or so away from the end of the second decade of the 21st Century.

As I try to look back on the last 10 years, a poem by W.H. Auden keeps coming to mind:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade

Auden wrote it in 1939. 

Sunday 22 December 2019

Election reflections: remember Charter 88?

Who now remembers Charter 88, founded in 1988, when the Tories had been in power, like today, for 9 years, having won three general elections? More than 85,000 people signed its demands for a written constitution, an elected second chamber, and a freedom of information act among other things.

But the most important demand in my view was proportional representation for the House of Commons. The existing system, first-past-the-post (FPTP), means British governments are formed by parties that most people have voted against. If you want to know why so many people are disillusioned with politics and feel their vote doesn’t matter, here surely is the main reason.

I became quite active in Charter 88 locally. Tories were almost universally hostile, but Labour nodded in our direction. I was even at a Charter 88 party at which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown put in an appearance. Blink twice, though, and you would have missed them.

We had meetings with local Labour people, and, though I suppose I shouldn’t have been, I was taken aback at how tribal and hostile they were towards proportional representation. ‘How will we ever win an election under that system?’ seemed to be the main preoccupation.

In 1997, after 19 years in the wilderness, Labour finally won power, but although Blair had spoken fair words to the LibDems, in 13 years, the party did nothing to reform the electoral system. For 18 of the 31 years since Charter 88 was founded, Labour have been out of power, and it doesn’t look as though they’ll be coming back any time soon, particularly as in the past they have been so dependent on winning seats in Scotland.

Labour’s view still seems to be: FPTP means for most of the time the UK gets Tory governments that make our voters suffer, but that’s a price worth paying so that every so often we can get a go at being the government without winning a majority of votes. What a shame! If the party had thought a bit more about the interests of the nation, there would have been no Brexit and no Boris Johnson as prime minister.

Saturday 21 December 2019

Election reflection: Labour delusions persist

Wouldn’t it be nice if Labour showed a little humility after their catastrophic election performance? Especially as they were warned that their refusal to oppose Brexit would be a disaster.
Instead Lord Adonis (pictured), failed Labour candidate for the European Parliament, writing as Andrew Adonis in the New European, launches an attack on the LibDems, asking whether they should continue to exist!
Columnist Simon Jenkins writes in similar vein in the Guardian -
Inconvenient fact: while Labour's vote collapsed, the LibDems' increased by three times more than the Tories'. But because Labour has always teamed up with the Conservatives to prevent reform of our undemocratic electoral system, the LibDems actually ended up with fewer MPs.
Adonis and Jenkins also seem unaware that the LibDems have more than 2,500 local councillors in England and Wales. Do they want them to be forced to join the Labour or Conservative parties too? And to hell with the people who voted for them? 
Oh and by the way, do they want the Greens disbanded as well, and what about other Remain parties like Plaid and the SNP? If they all packed up, the Brexiters could get on with the job of wrecking our country without anyone asking them awkward questions.
It is infantile and demeaning to blame others for your own failures. If this is the best Labour can do, they're going to be in the wilderness for a very long time.

Wednesday 11 December 2019

Electionwatch: Labour promises Remain will not need a supermajority to win a Brexit referendum

I was disturbed by stories that if we get a Labour government in a position to hold a referendum on the terms on which the UK leaves the EU, it might require Remain to gain a supermajority to win - say 60% of all votes cast or the votes of 50% of the electorate. While, of course, Leave had 'won' the 2016 referendum with less than 52% of votes cast.

So I wrote to my MP, who happens to be Labour's Brexit spokesperson, Sir Keir Starmer. It took a while to get a reply  (though I recognise he has been very busy), but now he has confirmed no supermajority would be needed. Email exchange here:

Dear John,

Thanks for your email. These stories are simply untrue. There would be no threshold or super-majority requirements in the referendum. It would be on the basis of a simple majority of the votes cast.

All the best,

Keir Starmer

Dear Sir Keir,
As you know I have many reservations about Labour's policy on Brexit, but I am now considering whether I should vote for you in the GE.
I am concerned, though, about stories that Labour will require a supermajority (of say 60-40) or perhaps a threshold of at least 50% of the electorate supporting Remain, in order for Brexit to be cancelled in any referendum on its terms. As no such requirements were imposed on the Brexit side when they 'won' the 2016 vote, it would plainly be intolerable if Remain were required to surmount a higher hurdle.
Can you please confirm that in any referendum on the Brexit terms, Remain will be required to reach only 50% + 1 of the vote for Brexit to be cancelled.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Yours sincerely,
John Withington

Monday 9 December 2019

Electionwatch: Borismandias - a warning from poetry

I’ve always like Shelley’s famous poem, Ozymandias –

The huge ancient statue of the ‘king of kings’ who had thought such a lot of himself but who no one now remembers – reduced to a few bits of rubble on the desert ground.

Boris Johnson is such a persistent liar that it is hard to be sure of anything about him, but, of one thing we can be certain. The man whose ambition as a child was to be ‘world king’, will one day be gone. And then the Conservatives will have to share the fate of Ozymandias or start the painful project of rebuilding themselves as a decent political party.

Just as he did with the 2016 Brexit referendum, Johnson has built the Tories’ 2019 General Election campaign around a cynical, amoral lie: ‘get Brexit done.’ (See my blog of 20 November.)

The Tories’ tragedy is that they have allowed Johnson’s poison to infect the whole party. Every single parliamentary candidate is signed up to his lie. Any with any real loyalty to their party would be defying Johnson and telling the truth: yes, you can have Brexit if you really want it, but it will make you poorer, it will destroy jobs, businesses, savings, opportunities and rights, and severely damage the NHS and other public services, while possibly destroying the UK.

That is the choice. So will Tory candidates find the courage to explain it, or will they consign a once-great political party to the fate of Ozymandias?

‘Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Thursday 5 December 2019

Electionwatch: pity Conservatives - they have no one to vote for

Conservatism, according to the Oxford English Dictionary means ‘commitment to traditional values and ideas.’ So neither Boris Johnson nor any of the maniacally nodding acolytes lining up as Tory candidates are Conservatives.

Johnson is not a detail man and has only a very tenuous grasp of facts, as numerous interviews have shown, which means he needs people to work out policies for him. So the person running 10 Downing Street’s policy unit is very important. And who is she? Step forward Munira Mirza, a ‘former’ member of the Trotskyite Revolutionary Communist Party, who has been helping to write the Tory manifesto.

Perhaps that explains its attacks on democracy on the now-notorious page 48, with its threats to undermine the independence of parliament and the judiciary and to elevate the prime minister above the law.

Even more important than Mirza is ‘Johnson’s brain’, Dominic Cummings, who has never denied that he is not a Conservative. Indeed, Cummings seems to be consumed with contempt for anyone who is not Dominic Cummings.

He was formally ruled to be in contempt of parliament because he refused to be questioned by a committee investigating fake news. Cummings has a particular disdain for our politically independent civil service and wants to abolish it. Civil servants have an infuriating habit of telling the truth.

And then there were those three mysterious years in Russia. Of course, the degree to which Boris Johnson and his party are under Putin’s thumb remains shrouded in mystery because Johnson is suppressing the official report that might shed some light on it. But what was Cummings doing while he was there? What links did he form with politicians and the security and intelligence services?

The modern Conservative Party is decidedly not conservative. A better label would be 'anarchist' or 'nihilist'. More than anyone they remind me of the 19th century left-wing Russian extremist, Mikhail Bakunin, who said he would be happy only ‘when the whole world is engulfed in fire.’ He advocated smashing everything up in the hope that something better would arise to replace it.

Just so for today’s Tories: smash up the UK, the NHS, our links with the EU, Parliament, the judiciary, the civil service, your jobs, rights, opportunities, etc. And maybe a phoenix will rise from the ashes: perhaps a hyper-Thatcherite capitalist paradise, red in tooth and claw, with no nonsense about a welfare state or workers’ rights or the rich paying tax?

If you really have nothing to lose, you might consider voting Conservative. If you have ANYTHING to lose, think very, very carefully before you put the nihilists into power.

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Electionwatch: the dangers of being bored - a warning from Pericles

Sitting on Boris Johnson’s desk in 10 Downing Street is supposed to be a bust of the ancient Greek statesman and orator Pericles, allegedly Johnson’s hero. Pericles once said: ‘Just because you’re not interested in politics, it doesn’t mean politics won’t be interested in you.’ Or as he might have put it if he was alive today: ‘Just because you’re bored with Brexit, it doesn’t mean Brexit has lost interest in you.’

The Brexiters have devoted enormous energy to trying to silence any debate about the merits of leaving the EU. Hardly surprising, because there are none. First, there was the ‘will of the people’. The referendum had ‘settled’ the issue and no questions must be asked. Now it’s: ‘I’m bored with Brexit. I just want it over.’ A foolish sentiment (see my post of 20 November) that Johnson and the Conservatives are exploiting ruthlessly.

But if Johnson ‘gets Brexit done’, only today we’ve had warnings that it could cut car manufacturing in the UK by more than a third, that the NHS could face a huge rise in the prices charged to it by American drugs companies as Brexit Britain scrabbles desperately for a trade deal with Trump, that investors and talented individuals are shunning the UK.

So you may be bored by Brexit, but if Johnson wins the election, Brexit will be very interested in you. Gobbling up your job, your public services, your rights and those of your children and grandchildren, your savings etc. Do vote wisely.

Monday 25 November 2019

Electionwatch: the great Brexit 'nothing to lose' illusion

‘No matter how bad things are,’ said the film star Kirk Douglas, ‘they can always be worse.’ And yet we are told that a lot of people voted for Brexit in 2016 because they believed their lives were so terrible, they couldn’t possibly be worse, so leaving the EU was worth a try.

A nanosecond’s reflection, of course, would have revealed that Kirk Douglas was right and they were wrong. Ever heard of Syria, Somalia, Ukraine? Are you homeless, or are you unable to get the medicine you need to keep you alive because of a no-deal Brexit? Have you got a job, do you use public services? If you really think you have nothing to lose, you may soon get a very rude awakening, because (apart from a few of the hyper-rich) those who voted most enthusiastically for Brexit are the ones most likely to be damaged by it.

What I find most striking about the 2019 General Election campaign is that with the UK taking the biggest decision it has faced in nearly half a century, there is virtually no discussion by the ‘major’ parties – Labour and Conservative – about the damage Brexit will inflict: how much poorer will it make us, how many people’s rights will be destroyed, how badly will public services be damaged, how much weaker will it make the UK, indeed, will the UK survive it? And the media also largely ignore these questions. No wonder the whole thing seems like an exercise in self-deception.

If you don’t care about the above questions. Fine. Sleepwalk into Brexit. If you do, you’d better start thinking about how you stop it. This election perhaps presents the best chance so far, but also probably, the last.  

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Electionwatch: the latest Great Brexit Lie

The whole Brexit project was and is based on lies, and one particular lie is now central to Boris Johnson’s campaign – that electing him as prime minister will ‘get Brexit done’ and that the country will then be able to forget about it.

Why anyone would believe anything Mr Johnson says is a mystery to me, but apparently some people do, so let everyone understand that the one thing a Tory win will not do is ‘get Brexit done’.

Let’s assume Johnson gets a majority. He then presumably brings his ‘deal’ back to parliament. It passed second reading once with a majority of 30, but with Brexit, the devil is in the detail. When the UK decided to join the EU nearly half a century ago, MPs gave approval by a much bigger majority – 112, but when the detail was voted on, the margin shrank to 8 votes, so Johnson is likely to be extremely vulnerable.

If MPs decide to do their job and read the legislation properly, there will be lots of amendments and, bearing in mind his ‘deal’ is even worse than Theresa May’s, on some of them Johnson is likely to be defeated – People’s Vote, giving MPs control over negotiations? Which, is why he pulled his ‘deal’ from parliamentary scrutiny in the first place.

That is obstacle one. But let’s assume Johnson clears that and gets his deal through parliament. Brexit done and dusted? No way. Far from being the end of anything, that is just the start of a long and complex negotiation of a new trade deal with the EU.

It took Canada seven years to reach agreement with the EU. Some people will tell you the UK can do a deal much quicker, but they tend to be the same people who promised that we would be able to have our cake and eat it, that the Withdrawal Agreement would be the easiest negotiation in history, that Brexit would make us richer not poorer etc, etc.

All their promises have turned out to be worthless. And the UK’s position is fatally weakened by the Brexiters’ inability to agree on what they want: no deal, May’s deal, Johnson’s deal, soft Brexit, hard Brexit. They fooled you once. Are you really going to fall for it again?

Far from ‘getting Brexit done’, uncertainty will rule for years with Johnson landing the UK with a whole new set of nail-biting cliff edges. 31 January - if we have not agreed a deal, we will have to ask for another extension or leave without a deal. If Johnson can negotiate that obstacle, the UK goes into a transition period. By 1 July, Johnson has to decide whether he wants to extend that beyond the current end date of 31 December 2020. If he agrees, and if the EU agrees, the next cliff edge comes on 31 December 2022. At every cliff edge, a disastrous no-deal with food, medicine and fuel shortages looms.

Meanwhile, Scotland, Northern Ireland and probably Wales will be determinedly fighting Johnson’s plan to take them out of the EU against their will.

There’s as much chance of a Johnson victory ‘getting Brexit done’ as there is of me playing centre forward for England. If you want to stop Brexit dominating our politics for the foreseeable future, the only way is to stop Brexit altogether.

Tuesday 22 October 2019

Brexitwatch: write to your MP to demand proper scrutiny of Boris Johnson's Brexit

My latest letter to my MP, Sir Keir Starmer
Dear Sir Keir,
Thank you for your email and for helping the Letwin amendment get through.
But the timetable motion on Boris Johnson's Brexit 'deal' is just as crucial. I read with astonishment that some Labour MPs are planning to support Johnson's plan to deny proper parliamentary scrutiny to the most important measure to be placed in front of the UK parliament in at least the last 40 years.
Backing a Brexit that you know will damage your constituents and the country is bad enough. Preventing MPs examine it properly is a dereliction of duty almost beyond comprehension. I trust Jeremy Corbyn's 'blind eye' approach to MPs who defy the Labour whip to support Brexit will not apply in this case, and that any MPs who support Johnson will be expelled from the party.
Yours sincerely,
John Withington

Friday 18 October 2019

Brexitwatch: tell Labour MPs not to back Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson needs the backing of Labour MPs to get his 'deal', which will cost the UK even more than Theresa May's deal, through parliament, and there are disturbing signs that some of them are going to fall for it.

Potential defectors to Labour-for-Johnson include Jim Fitzpatrick, Caroline Flint, John Mann, Ruth Smeeth, Sarah Champion, Ronnie Campbell, Melanie Onn, Sir Keith Barron, Dan Jarvis, Gloria di Piero, Yvonne Forvague, Stephen Kinnock, Emma Lewell-Buck, Justin Madders, Grahame Morris, Stephanie Peacock, Lucy Powell, Laura Smith and Gareth Snell.

Write to them NOW to urge them not to take this foolish course of action. You can find their email addresses on the UK parliament website. This is the email I have sent them:

Boris Johnson's 'deal' will make all your constituents poorer (unless you've got a few hedge fund managers who will do very nicely out of impoverishing the rest of us). It will make their public services worse. It will probably break-up the UK, it will certainly make the country weaker and less influential, and if it goes through, it will save the skin of the worst Prime Minister and the most right-wing government in my (rather long) life. Do you really want to be remembered for supporting it?
And do you want to ensure Labour is consigned to the political wilderness as you alienate millions of Labour voters who are predominantly remainers - even in your constituency? 
No Labour MP should be backing Johnson's fake deal. It is a betrayal of everything Labour is supposed to stand for. It is also ludicrous that MPs should be expected to approve a 500 page document that has only just been handed to them but that will determine the future of our country for decades to come. There must be a proper opportunity to scrutinise it. All responsible MPs need to back the Letwin amendment.
If Labour MPs help to pass this dreadful withdrawal agreement, I will never vote Labour again, and will do everything I can to ensure its defeat in all future elections. We're not going away.
Yours sincerely,

Friday 13 September 2019

Brexitwatch: a reply from the Queen

Her Majesty, or more precisely her deputy correspondence coordinator, replied very promptly and courteously to my letter (see my post of 30 August). 

The key phrase: 'as a constitutional Monarch, The Queen acts on the advice of her Ministers.' It is not the Queen's fault, but what it means is that Her Majesty has to do whatever the prime minister tells her.

This was fine during the era of 'decent chap' politics, when the British constitution was not much more than an assumption that no political party would foist on the British people any prime minister who was not a good sort, and that anyone who reached these exalted heights could be trusted not to behave undemocratically.  

Sadly in the era of Boris Johnson and a Tory Party that has gone mad, this is all hopelessly outdated, so it is worth writing to the Queen on this subject. There is just the chance that if she gets enough letters, the palace may be more resistant should Johnson appear with an even more unreasonable demand. 

Wednesday 11 September 2019

Brexitwatch; Get back to the Commons! Write to your MP

Now Scotland's highest civil court has declared that Boris Johnson's silencing of parliament is illegal, MPs should be flooding back, occupying the House of Commons chamber, and continuing with the business of fighting the Brexit Coup. 

Email your MP to demand they get back there. This is what I've sent to mine - Labour's Brexit spokesperson, Sir Keir Starmer:

Dear Sir Keir,

What are you waiting for? The courts have ruled that Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament is illegal. 

The Court of Session, Scotland’s highest court, has delivered a damning verdict, with all three judges ruling that the suspension was 'motivated by the improper purpose of stymying parliament' and was therefore unlawful. 

Heaven knows what Messrs Johnson and Cummings had planned for when they'd got MPs out of the way.

You and your Labour colleagues need to get down to Westminster right now and get into the Chamber to work out what you can do to stop the Brexit Coup. Elect your own Speaker if necessary.

At the moment there is still time to stop Boris Johnson destroying British democracy, but if you pussyfoot around much longer, there won't be.

Yours sincerely,
John Withington 

Friday 30 August 2019

Brexitwatch: write to the Queen

Her Majesty the Queen has, foolishly in my view, rubber-stamped Boris Johnson's request to shut down parliament for five weeks during the worst political crisis in the UK since World War Two. This is the letter I have written to her:

Her Majesty the Queen,
Buckingham Palace,
London SW1A 1AA.

30 August 2019

Your Majesty,

I write this letter with great regret. I have always been a royalist, but now you have turned me into a republican.

The reason is straightforward. The national interest of our country, and particularly the long-term interest, such as protecting our democracy, is not the same thing as what a particular prime minister or government happens to find convenient at a particular moment. So there needs to be someone in our constitution who plays the role of standing up for the national interest, when necessary, against the prime minister or government of the day.

I had always hoped that, in extremis, the monarch would take this role. However, your caving in to Boris Johnson’s request to silence parliament during the worst political crisis since World War Two makes it clear that I was wrong. So if the monarch is not prepared to defend the national interest, the UK needs someone who can and will – probably an elected president. In which case, there seems little point in having a monarch.

With great respect, I think you were foolish to accede to Mr Johnson’s request. The argument over Brexit is the most bitter and divisive I have ever seen in this country during my (rather long) life, and you have now taken sides in it. And according to the evidence of virtually all opinion polls of the last three years, you have chosen the side that is in the minority.

Why did you refuse to meet Jeremy Corbyn before agreeing to Mr Johnson’s request? I am not an admirer of Mr Corbyn, but he is the Leader of your Loyal Opposition, and deserved to be heard at this time.

Could you not have demanded time to consider Mr Johnson’s request, giving you the opportunity to consult some of the many privy councillors who were denied the chance to come and meet you? Surely at the very least, the other five living prime ministers would have been worth talking to? Could you have agreed to a prorogation, but one for the normal three or four days instead of five weeks? Could you have said this must be a matter for parliament itself, and that it was up to MPs to decide whether it should be shut down?

The situation is made even more serious by the fact that it appears the privy councillors who secured your agreement may have lied to you. I do not, of course, know what they said to you, but what they are telling the rest of us is that the prorogation was necessary to allow Mr Johnson to prepare the Queen’s Speech and let MPs go off to the party conferences (though MPs had not yet voted on whether parliament should be closed during the conferences), but the ‘Secretary of State for Defence’ – who is apparently called Ben Wallace – has been recorded admitting that this is all lies and the real purpose of the prorogation is the fear that parliament may not obey Mr Johnson’s orders.

I appeal to you to reconsider this matter, and withdraw your permission for the prorogation.

Yours sincerely,

John Withington

Thursday 22 August 2019

Brexitwatch: how the BBC should be interviewing Brexit-ers

I have just sent this complaint, which also includes helpful suggestions, to the BBC:

"It is immensely frustrating to hear Brexit apologists run rings around BBC interviewers day after day with lies, evasions and obfuscations. It is the duty of your interviewers to take a far tougher line.

So if a Brexit-er tells you that Yellowhammer is out of date, a Remainer plot, that everything is now sorted, that the government is preparing for no-deal, etc, etc, the next question should be:
‘So do you guarantee that Brexit will not cause any shortage of medicines, foods or fuel or a hard border in Ireland?’ If the Brexit-er equivocates, they need to be pressed hard: ‘So what might there be shortages of? How long could these shortages last?' etc

If they say: ‘well I can’t tell you exactly’, the next question should be: ‘shouldn’t you know exactly how serious the shortages are going to be before you inflict them on our country?’

If the Brexit-er re-iterates that no-deal is nothing to fear and that everything will be fine, the next question should be: ‘so do you guarantee that you will resign if there are shortages of medicines, food or fuel or a hard border in Ireland?’

BBC interviewing on Brexit so far has let the country down. The UK is now facing its worst crisis since World War Two. If the BBC lets us down again, its reputation will never recover."

Sunday 18 August 2019

Brexitwatch: should your MP be on holiday?

Just over 10 weeks until we get medicine, food and fuel shortages that go on for months, plus a hard border in Northern Ireland, and where are our MPs? On holiday. 

To their credit, 100 realise that this is inexcusable, and have signed a letter demanding the immediate recall of parliament.

Is your MP among them? If not, shouldn't they be? My MP is Labour's Brexit spokesman, Sir Keir Starmer, and, astonishingly, his name is not here. Equally astonishingly, Jeremy Corbyn's is also absent.

This is what I have written to Keir Starmer:

Dear Sir Keir,
1. I was very disappointed to see that your name does not appear to be on the list of those demanding the immediate recall of parliament. I trust you will be signing without further delay. Future generations may find it very hard to understand why some MPs thought their holidays were a bigger priority than doing all they could to save the country.
2. I welcome Jeremy Corbyn's offer to lead a government of national unity to prevent the disaster/catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit. It now seems plain that no such government is achievable with Mr Corbyn as prime minister. Surely it is vital now for Labour to propose a government under a Labour MP who would be able to command the support of MPs from other parties. Those who fail to do everything in their power to prevent no deal will not be forgiven.
Yours sincerely,
John Withington

Tuesday 6 August 2019

Brexitwatch: Beware. Is 'no deal' a Boris Johnson dead cat?

Back in the autumn of 2016, when Theresa May (remember her?) was peddling her 'no deal is better than a bad deal' nonsense, here is what I blogged on 9 October 2016:

'Is Mrs May engaged in a softening up exercise, conjuring up the most disastrous picture of Brexit imaginable, so that when she comes up with something that damages the country a bit less, Remainers will be pathetically grateful and go along with it? 

Beware! Every Brexit is a bad Brexit. The only good Brexit is no Brexit.'

Now Boris Johnson is our prime minister. He once wrote that if you were losing an argument, the thing to do was to 'throw a dead cat on the table' - meaning you should come up with a suggestion so alarming that everybody was so distracted by making sure your alarming idea did not come to fruition that they forgot the real point.

With Johnson, the only thing you can count on is that you can't believe a word he says, so it is possible that he's wickedly irresponsible enough to take the UK out or the EU with no deal (and, therefore, of course no transition period either). Equally, 'no deal' may just be a dead cat designed to make us forget how disastrous any Brexit will be. 

Either way, we need to remember: Every Brexit is a bad Brexit. The only good Brexit is no Brexit.

Sunday 4 August 2019

The world's worst dam disaster

Yesterday I blogged about Britain’s worst dam disaster. The world’s worst happened in China in 1975.

As part of his ‘Great Leap Forward’ designed to enable China to become a major industrial power, Chairman Mao encouraged peasants to go off and build dams, which they did with great enthusiasm, but also with a Brexiter-like disdain for experts. So the structures were jerry-built, and within a couple of years, they were collapsing. A hydrologist who tried to sound a warning was purged for being a ‘right-wing opportunist’.

In August 1975, storms dumped heavy rain on Henan province. On 9 August, the Shimantan dam collapsed and half an hour later, the Banqiao dam gave way, unleashing a wall of water 20 feet high. In all 60 dams burst, flooding an area of 4,000 square miles.

China tried to hide the disaster from the world’s gaze, and it was 30 years before the truth began to emerge. The authorities admitted that at least 26,000 had been killed, but other estimates put the figure as high as 85,000 killed by the floods, with another 145,000 from the famine and disease that followed.

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

Saturday 3 August 2019

Britain's worst dam disaster

The people of the Peak District town of Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire are still unable to return to their homes as fears continue that the dam holding back the Toddbrook Reservoir (pictured) above the town may burst, unleashing a devastating flood.

The reservoir was built in 1831. About 20 miles away, the collapse of another dam in 1864 brought Britain’s worst ever dam disaster. As Sheffield became a major centre for steel-making, the Sheffield Waterworks Company decided to build new reservoirs in the surrounding hills to provide the water the booming area demanded.

By 11 March 1864, the first of them, above the village of Bradfield, was almost finished when a local man noticed a crack in the structure. It was a wet, stormy night and water was also coming over the top of the dam. Within hours, the structure had burst, and a mountain of water careered down the valley below.

Bradfield was the first place to be hit, though mercifully most of the inhabitants had been evacuated, but no warning reached Malin Bridge, where more than 100 people were killed, and altogether in the valley, 270 died. For the full story, see my book A Disastrous History of Britain.

Sunday 28 July 2019

Brexitwatch: nail the 'over the line' myth

It’s surely one of the most mendacious of all the Brexit clich├ęs. We keep being told that we have to get Brexit ‘over the line’.

You ‘get over the line’ when you finish a race, and once you’re over the line, the race is over. But with Brexit, it’s completely different. Leaving the EU, if we are foolish enough to do it, won’t be the end of anything. It will be the start.

Whether we leave with no deal, or with May’s deal rebranded as Johnson’s deal, leaving the EU will kick off years, possibly decades of uncertainty as we try to negotiate a future arrangement with them. And, just as they have over the last three years, the EU will hold nearly all of the cards. And as the Brexiters still haven’t decided what they want, it will be a depressing and demeaning experience.

So getting Brexit ‘over the line’ doesn’t stop the nightmare. The only way you can achieve that is by stopping Brexit.

Thursday 25 July 2019

Brexitwatch: should we be downhearted?

It looks pretty bleak, doesn't it? The great Brexit lie deliverer, Boris Johnson, is prime minister. The great Brexit lie inventor, Dominic Cummings, is his right-hand man. The cabinet is packed with incompetents like disgraced former International Development Secretary Priti Patel, and Dominic 'I'm not up to the Brexit job' Raab, and the only qualification for membership appears to be having sworn that: 'I will never question anything Boris Johnson says or does.'

But....this surely represents the last throw of the dice for the Brexit-ers. If the UK does not leave the EU on October 31 as Johnson has now repeatedly promised, then surely the Brexit game is up, and we won't be leaving at all, or at the very least, we will be having a People's Vote.

The moment of truth should have come in 2016, and would have done
probably, if Johnson hadn't chickened out of the leadership race. Well now it's here. So are we downhearted? No. 

Let's not leave the field to the gloomsters of the Brexit faction: who think Britain isn't up to the challenge of competing with other European countries and that we have to hide behind barriers, who think the contintentals are cleverer than us and will always outmanouevre us if we stay as EU members. That we have to accept being poorer and less influential in the world. Let's fight, fight and fight again to save the UK!

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Brexitwatch: the speech he never made

It is almost three years since the Brexit referendum. The man who called it, then Prime Minister David Cameron, promised that whatever the result, he would stay on as PM, but he broke that promise, resigning within hours. Just imagine if he had kept it. How much heartache and division, how many job losses he could have spared us from, and how much money he could have saved us.

All he needed to do was make this speech:

'Good morning. I am surprised and disappointed at the result of the referendum, but I promised that whatever the result I would stay on as your prime minister, and I will keep that promise.

I congratulate the Leave Campaign on their victory. Those who campaigned for the UK to leave the EU must clearly have had a credible plan for how this could be achieved without damaging our country, because without such a plan, no responsible politician could have advocated such a course of action.

So I am convening all those MPs who campaigned for Leave into a grand committee to come to an agreement on what they suggest as the way forward. Their plan will then be put to parliament as a whole.

In the meantime, there are many other tasks that our country requires its prime minister to perform in many other fields of policy, and I am now going back into 10 Downing Street to carry on with that work. Thank you.'

Would that really have been so hard?

Saturday 15 June 2019

Brexitwatch: does the Tory Party face richly deserved extinction?

Is the Tory Party heading for richly deserved extinction? At the Peterborough by-election the Tories saw their share of the vote fall by 25 percentage points. At the European elections, they won just 9 per cent of the vote. At the local elections they lost more than 1,300 seats. Donations to the party have fallen by half.

And the latest Private Eye reveals the picture is even worse. Although the party appears to own a lot of property, such as Conservative clubs and buy-to-let properties, very little is owned by the party centrally.

Almost all of it is in the hands of local associations and trusts, and those local associations are starting to abandon the parliamentary party, with shedloads of local officeholders backing the Brexit Party at the European elections. Now the fear is that local branches will start giving up on the party, affiliating with Nigel Farage’s lot instead, and taking the property with them.

Is this one of the reasons why we are getting unadulterated pandering to the party’s worst, most reactionary instincts from those trying to replace Theresa May.

Wednesday 12 June 2019

Brexitwatch: could Theresa May finally do the right thing?

At the very last gasp, could Theresa May finally do the right thing? The charge sheet against her is a long one. Just about every major decision she faced - red lines, triggering Article 50, telling the truth about Brexit - she got wrong. Above all, she always put the interests of the Tory Party before the interests of the country.

Now she has stepped down as Tory leader, but she is still prime minister, and, in a little-noticed development, she has said she will not resign from that position until she is convinced her successor has the confidence of parliament

Could this be significant? At the moment, the overwhelmingly reactionary membership of her party seem determined to pass over the merely deluded candidates and go for the totally mad or bad - say Dominic Raab, who fancies himself as a dictator and wants to shut down parliament, or Boris Johnson. Whereas May always put party before country, we can be sure Johnson will put Johnson before either. It is hard to see any of the no-deal headbangers commanding a majority among MPs. So might May try to stay on or might she leave the UK a parting gift?

In her closing days, she did seem to discover a bit of backbone and a determination to stop a catastrophic 'no deal' departure from the EU. At the moment, she is on course to go down in history as our worst ever prime minister, but could she at the last gasp go from zero to hero by revoking Article 50 and saving her country? (My post of March 22 explains how this would work.)