Irrespective of political affiliation commentators see Partygate as a ‘breakthrough’ moment. The word has taken on a particular meaning: that moment when political events causes a seismic reaction from the public instead of being absorbed or dismissed as only to be expected of politicians. The Westminster bubble has burst sending a toxic spray over people who don’t normally follow politics closely.
A ‘political breakthrough’ departs from the despairing refrain ‘all politicians are the same’. Focussed attention is given to a particular group of politicians and their Party and refuses to go away. And the nation’s moral compass – followed by the opinion polls - suddenly starts swinging.
But why Partygate not any other scandal? After all the message from Government is that what went on in the premises of 10 and 11 Downing Street was - implicitly ( a new load-bearing adverb) - just a few tired office workers sharing refreshments with a kindly boss. A mistake, of course, given what was required of everyone else in the country, but we all make mistakes, don’t we? Well, no. Not mistakes with such resonances and consequences.
Most people’s mistakes don’t indicate cavalier disrespect, contempt for the feelings, sacrifices and suffering of thousands of their fellow citizens, their grief, confinement and compliance with rules meant to reduce the spread of a potentially lethal virus. Partygate upset and angered the public because it went against the most primal ethical principle, one held even by young children: fairness. The people imposing rules were flagrantly breaking them. One rule for them and another for us.
We live in an age of potent images. Besides being unfair Partygate was lavishly illustrated. We all saw Allegra Stratton laughing. The video from Downing Street’s newsroom showed the joy of entitlement, a celebration of in-group cleverness easily seen as us being laughed at by them, the ones who didn’t keep the rules. Similarly the picture of a solitary, mourning Queen evoked the shared griefs and losses of a nation persevering through the pandemic whilst a supercilious political elite partied. A single image can sum up a huge story just as an icon expresses a religious culture. The breakthrough was the public becoming painfully aware of a rotten political culture. And the one Chinese proverb we all know is “a fish rots from the head”.
Evidence of that political culture has become increasingly abundant over the last few years. But only now do the public seem to be becoming aware of the administrative incompetence it fosters. We have the resignation of Lord Agnew of Oulton, Minister of State for Efficiency and Transformation to thank for highlighting by his resignation the £5.8 billion of tax-payers’ money written off owing to fraudulent applications for COVID loans made under the Treasury’s Bounce Back Scheme. Add on furlough fraud and error and the sum lost is £10 billion. Agnew explained that the lack of control which let the fraudsters get away with it was “a combination of arrogance, indolence and ignorance”. Almost nobody bounced back from their fraudulent applications into jail.
Private Eye called the Profiteering from procurement of protective equipment, PPE, presided over by government the “COVID Klondike”. It’s a story, less accessible, less easy to illustrate, often complex in detail. With only cartoons as visual aids, Private Eye, described government procurement as more like “a ruse that Dad’s Army spiv Private Walker might have run’. Existing safeguards to avoid conflict of interests were not properly followed, what due diligence there was on suppliers was cursory and transparency rules were ignored. When in 2021 the Good Law Project took the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 2018-2021, Matt Hancock, to court for failure to disclose contracts within 30 days as required by law, this practice was declared unlawful. That’s not going to dominate conversation in the pub.
Nor did the 2020 PPE procurement through special VIPs’ and MPs’ channels in the foggy hinterland between suspected corruption, sleaze, and government expediency - like the porous border between tax avoidance and tax evasion – fully seize the public’s attention. Private Eye’s Special Report “Profits of Doom” (Issue 1560 of November 2021) digs out the carefully buried, massive windfall profits and bonuses of companies that won government COVID-related contracts along with the commissions of middle-men. For one investment company’s PPE contract a total of £64 million was paid to three men in commissions for brokering the £252 million deals for masks. For the ineffectual Track and Trace system Deloitte consultants charged on average £1,000 a day to plan the roll-out.
Transparency was not accidently ignored, the recipients of many contracts strove to keep their profits hidden from scrutiny. For example, of the 47 PPE suppliers awarded contracts through the government’s high priority channels up to December 2021, investigated by Private Eye, 18 were referred by Tory MPs and in only 7 was “a meaningful assessment made of the company’s returns on its contracts”. One trick was to start a small new company which would therefore not show an income statement making it impossible for an outsider to calculate profits. In other cases, the owners, often overseas, included several Russian-doll companies, barely traceable to the people who actually supplied the goods. The prodigious waste of taxpayer money continued into procurement for Track and Trace extending into tens of billions, in the words of Private Eye “one of the greatest wastes of public money…in modern British history”.
The public recognised the heroic sacrifices of front-line medical staff in hospitals. Government cleverly encouraged the weekly public applause for NHS staff. We knew the low salaries of essential workers like bus drivers who gave their lives. The profiteers laughed all the way to the bank. They knew how to hide their profits. Their financial advisers brought years of practice in the art of concealment. But there were none of the pictures which aroused public indignation in Partygate, no leaked photographs of corruption and profiteering, no evidence which touched the public nerve, nothing they felt they could verify for themselves.
Incompetence is joining sleaze and Partygate as a major concern amongst voters and destroying the Conservatives claim to be the Party of economic competence. A Government which came to power on the slogan ‘take back control’ couldn’t keep control over the spending of tax-payer’s money and stop fraud and profiteering. And couldn’t stop holding parties.
See TheArticle 28/01/2022
Our fraught international relations increase the danger of nuclear proliferation and conflict between nuclear powers. Donald Trump withdrew the USA from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018 abrogating the nuclear deal with Iran which America had signed in July 2015 with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council - Russia, China, France and the UK - plus Germany and the EU. Trump then implemented crippling new sanctions on shipping and Iran’s banks directed at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s economy, its oil sales. Iran is OPEC’s fourth largest producer. The punishment was imposed for its “malign activities” in the Middle East and its continuing development of ballistic missiles.
The JCPOA took a decade to negotiate and curtailed Iran’s production of the weapons-grade uranium needed for nuclear warheads, and so reduced the risk of war with Israel. Obama lifted some economic sanctions as a result. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), accountable to the United Nations and a respected independent body with sixty years’ experience of inspection, was charged with validation of the agreement. Iran’s nuclear sites became the most monitored in the world. The IAEA, acting as both guarantor and on-the-ground inspector, reported a high level of Iranian compliance which continued for several months even after the US withdrawal. The JCPOA worked. It relied on validation not trust – of which there was precious little. A functioning diplomatic achievement was wantonly destroyed by Trump and the Republican Party.
The EU tried to palliate the effects of Trump’s new sanctions to little avail; any bank doing business with Iran would forfeit its business with the United States. Banks were not going to lose profitable links with the US by continuing banking with the Islamic Republic. Despite sanctions-busting shipments of oil to countries such as China, the Iranian economy took a big hit, playing into the hands of the USA’s worst enemies, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards corps (IRGC).
The US reneging on its commitments and imposing debilitating new sanctions on Iran had two consequences, one direct, one indirect. The Islamic Republic retaliated by setting its advanced centrifuges spinning and may now be making 60% enriched uranium (90% is weapons grade, a limit of 3.67% was agreed in JCPOA). The second consequence was indirect. Iran’s hardliners blamed the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani for trusting the Americans and for the parlous state of Iran’s economy brought on by the new sanctions. Rouhani lost the 2021 Presidential elections as a result. Sayyid Ebrahim Raisi, a Robespierre-like figure involved in post-revolutionary executions of the 1980s, closely aligned with the ultra-conservative Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, to whom the (IRGC) answer, became President. Iran’s nuclear future was now in the hands of hardliners.
Emboldened by Trump’ policy of ‘maximum pressure’, Israel greeted Raisi’s election with a drone attack on a site in Karaj where advanced centrifuges were being made. The Israelis had assassinated Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of Iran’s nuclear programme, in 2020. In April 2021 an underground nuclear facility in Natanz was targeted. The background to these military actions was a progressive decline in the time Iran needed to assemble a nuclear weapon: ‘breakout time’. The JCPOA had pegged it to one year. Breakout time is now estimated to have dropped below three months. Thus the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran has significantly increased and with it the prospect of a major Israeli-Iranian conflict.
Since 27 December 2021, diplomats from the five members of the UN Security Council and Germany have been gathering in Vienna at the Palais Coburg for an 8th session of talks attempting to re-establish a version of JCPOA. The Americans sit in a separate room. Iran refuses to negotiate with them directly until Trump’s sanctions are lifted Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the Iranian Foreign Minister, told Al-Jazeera on 6 January: “Lifting sanctions means lifting all forms of sanctions stipulated in the nuclear agreement, and the sanctions that Trump re-imposed contradict the terms of the agreement”. ‘Compliance for compliance’, tough talk perhaps mainly for Raisi’s domestic audience as there has been some ‘back-channel’ contact.
President Raisi seems set on becoming the next Supreme Leader. Raisi’s concerns, and those of Iranian chief negotiator and deputy-Foreign Minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, are national security and avoiding any major rift between Raisi and the present Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, believed to be his patron. Hence the Iranian red lines on re-establishment of JCPOA: first, full lifting of nuclear sanctions, then a period to verify that sanctions have been lifted, plus a guarantee that the US will not renege on the agreement again. Given the aggressive stance of the Republican Party with Trump a possible Presidential candidate in 2024, and Biden’s current low ratings, a guarantee is impossible and the Iranians must know this.
Two Spanish-speaking diplomats carry a big burden in the coming weeks: Enrique Mora, the EU’s Deputy Secretary-General of the European External Action Service, acting as coordinator for the negotiations, and Raphael Grossi, director-general of the IAEA for the last two years. Grossi who is a graduate of the Pontifical University of Argentina was formerly Argentine ambassador to Austria. He has – at least – six other nuclear sites to worry about. The main nuclear fuel enrichment plants, Natanz and Fordow, the latter with 166 advanced centrifuges, remain under IAEA surveillance. Thanks to Grossi, IAEA cameras were recently re-installed in Karaj to monitor centrifuge production despite Iran’s fears that the Israeli attack of June 2021 was possible because the cameras had been hacked.
The mood music in the Middle East sounds more promising. Pressures from the Biden administration have somewhat eased Sunni-Shi’a tensions, most notably between Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Iran. This worries Israel. Begun under the more amenable President Rouhani, meetings in Baghdad between the Iranians and Saudis have continued. Kani has visited Abu Dhabi for talks. As things stand, President Raisi’s choice is between compromise that could scupper his chances of becoming Supreme Leader or no-deal with continuation of the current level of economic disruption - which could also blight his chances. Shi’a Islam holds that both possession and use of nuclear weapons are haram, forbidden. And so Iran may only be seeking the capability to assemble a nuclear weapon. China signed a 25-year cooperation deal with Iran in 2021 and could influence the decision.
Biden faces a difficult choice too. Softening of the US position would be a gift to the Republicans, would cost the Democrats votes, and could help bring back Trump. The IAEA comes centre stage in any agreement: for example, synchronised with lifting of sanctions, Iran’s highly enriched fissile material is shipped out and agreed rigorous inspection protocols become operational. Will then Iran return to full compliance and will MOSSAD stay the hand of an extremist Israeli government so outright war between Israel and Iran is avoided?
At the moment the message from the US and the EU coordinator of negotiations Mora is: ‘Time is running out’. Every week lowers breakout time. The sooner Trump goes away or goes the way of Al Capone (the tax man got him jailed), and the Republican Party comes to its senses, the sooner we can sleep a little more easily.
See TheArticle 19/01/2022
Government Ministers purposely degrade our language and the mass media often aid and abet. It has ever been so. James Madison, fourth President of the USA – you may remember him from Hamilton the musical – wrote in 1788: “The use of words is to express ideas. Perspicuity, therefore, requires not only that the ideas should be distinctly formed, but they should be expressed by words distinctly and exclusively appropriate to them”. He had in mind the divisive politics of the Constitutional Convention. His advice has continuing relevance. You may have observed that the word ‘perspicuity’ is almost archaic, judging by responses from most Ministers in radio or television interviews. As the Allegra Stratton video showed, our professional political communicators get on the job training in obfuscation.
George Orwell echoed James Madison in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, still a guide for writers and punctilious editors. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity”, he wrote noting “it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes”. Slovenly thinking leads to slovenly writing and discourse. It follows that “to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration”. He was reflecting on the propaganda of Nazi Germany, and Stalin’s Soviet Union, but his insights apply today.
We await both political regeneration and the regeneration of our language. New misleading terms are constantly invented. ‘Levelling Up’ means the funding of local authorities and towns with Conservative MPs and thus discrimination against Labour controlled ones. “Regulatory reforms” means, having reneged on promises made to gain their support for BREXIT, bankrupting thousands of farmers. ‘Externalisation’ of asylum seekers means deporting and dumping them in distant countries in contravention of refugee conventions. And what Orwell called ‘fly-blown metaphors’ abound. A ‘wake-up call’ means a problem will be ‘kicked into the long-grass’ (hackneyed but sincere - from Opposition Parties) or ‘kept under review’ in governing Party’s words. I wonder what Orwell would make of Johnson’s ‘oven-ready deals’, a nicely chosen metaphor to render a lie and the liar homely, domesticated and just like us.
When did this degrading of our language become commonplace? This is Liam Fox MP, Secretary of Defence 2010-2011, looking for his next ministerial post in 2013. ‘The great Socialist coup (my italics) of the last decade was making wealth an embarrassment”. Peter Mandelson? The Blair and Brown governments? A coup? Fox would later call the Northern Ireland protocol ‘a coup against the British people’. Such debasement of the meaning of words, of course, predates the various Conservative governments since 2010 and was gaining some ground during the Blair years, a period that saw a refinement of ‘spin’.
But Tony Blair had, and retains, the ability to succinctly, clearly and therefore persuasively analyse and present a changing world to the public. In the case of the Iraq war, his analysis was flawed, failed to persuade, and appeared to many as insincere. Being out of power removes constraints, but the difference in clarity between a Blair interview and that of a current government Minister is striking. Deliberately using imprecise language as a tool of government is a thread running through Karen J. Greenberg’s excellent Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump. The book convincingly demonstrates the processes at work undermining democracy since 9/11.
Greenberg points to “the degradation of language, the starting point for political dishonesty and power mongering, and the platform upon which undemocratic and unlawful policies have been fashioned”. Imprecise and confounding language gave rise, she argues, to “confusion and imprecision in the roles and responsibilities of institutions of government” followed by “the abandonment of legal and procedural norms for law making”. Try ‘work event’ instead of ‘party’. She charts in detail how the US reaction to terrorism, the catch-all 18 September 2001 Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF), played out through ‘the Global War on Terror’. As Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State 1997-2001, reputedly said America usually gets into trouble waging war on an abstract noun. Greenberg presents the Patriot Act, the invasion of Iraq, the creation of the multi-institution Department of Homeland Security, leading to ferocious border control and domestic policing notably of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, as culminating in the insurrectionary riot and attack on the Capitol of 6 January 2020.
In the UK this trajectory of political disintegration accompanying debasement of language has not closely followed the US example. But we see echoes of growing and misused Executive power in Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament, Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill and her Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. In the Policing Bill decisions about protests and demonstrations which, in the vague words of the Bill, threaten “serious disruption to the life of the community” and “the activities of an organisation” may be taken away from the Police with their long practical and operational experience and, when deemed necessary, given to the Home Secretary to delineate by secondary legislation. In other words “what falls within and without lawful protest”, as Amnesty International puts it, now assessed by the Police on the basis of potential harm after consultation, or negotiation with interlocutors running the protests, would be at risk of being determined by a politician without reference to Parliament and on the basis of political content. During the Second Reading of the Bill, even past Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, herself a former Home Secretary, expressed anxiety about its consequences.
Import and export of ideas and words have not been just one way. The European Court of Human Rights judged that the five techniques used in ‘Deep Interrogation’ in Northern Ireland during the 1970s were ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’, but not torture. This judgement was picked up by the Bush administration to counter condemnation of their treatment of Al-Qaeda terrorists. But the US added water-boarding as their sixth technique. Calling them ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ was not accepted by President Obama. “I believe it was torture”, he admitted in 2009.
Maybe we in the UK have a Wizard of Oz government. Maybe we are too fearful. Follow the yellow brick road. Pull back the sheet, probe the language and all you will find - Orwell again – is “a mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence”. Or maybe 2022 will reveal, as Greenberg does for the USA, something more dangerous, a serious, advancing erosion of our own democracy. Whichever awaits us, James Madison still speaks to our condition: “It is a misfortune, inseparable from human affairs, that public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their real tendency to advance or obstruct the public good; and that this spirit is more apt to be diminished than promoted, by those occasions which require an unusual exercise of it”. Mea culpa.
See TheArticle 12/01/2022
Last year we heard far too much from the Tory back-benches. They present themselves as custodians of our freedoms. Masks compulsory on public transport, closing venues, limiting numbers at social gatherings to reduce transmission of Omicron infection, requiring COVID passes for entry to others, are comparable, not to widely accepted speed limits, mandatory seat belts or to banning smoking in public places, but to an assault on human rights. “I personally didn’t come into Parliament to restrict people’s freedom”, Health Minister Sajid Javid felt obliged to say on 19 December as the epidemiologists advised caution. And our Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, our leading political chameleon, tries to brand herself as a ‘freedom warrior’ seeking ‘control over our own lives and destiny’ in her pursuit of leadership of the Conservative Party.
Future historians may look back in bewilderment on the one-sided understanding of human freedom flourishing during the last decade, an understanding which has become a decisive measure of political credibility within a part of the Conservative Party. After the Cold War ended, the persistence of threatening authoritarian regimes - more accurately described as increasingly brutal dictatorships - encouraged a narrow definition of freedom: immunity from the coercive power of the State.
But is that the nature of human freedom done and dusted? Advocacy of ‘freedom from’ has been pushing aside ‘freedom for’ and in consequence essential political questions arising from the other core dimension of human freedom: how to create freedom for the good, for excellence, for authentic self-realisation as social beings, for the Global Common Good. The push comes from the top led by a feckless Prime Minister who should never have been made leader of the Conservative Party, for whom ethical norms, rules and high standards of behaviour in public office become barriers to ‘getting the job done’ and restraints on raw ambition and power.
The Johnson clique are either blind to the contradictions in the policies they promote or just duplicitous. The principal advantage of democracy is freedom to sack a government for whatever reason through regular free and fair elections and thus to protect the fundamental freedoms which democracy upholds. The Conservative Party, learning from US Republican Party voter suppression techniques, is proposing ‘electoral reforms’ demanding the presentation of photo ID at polling stations before a ballot paper will be issued. At the same time, they are rejecting similar checks to regulate social media because, according to their estimates, 3.5 million people will fail to provide photo ID and thus be excluded. Some 3.5 million would also be excluded from voting by the photo ID requirement; they are more likely not to have passports and drivers’ licenses and more likely to be Labour voters. The over 60s will be allowed to use their travel passes though not younger voters - who are far less likely to be Conservative voters.
According to the Electoral Reform Society and a recent report from PACAC, the Cross-Party House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee: “PACAC found that the introduction of mandatory photo ID at the polling station risks ‘upsetting the balance of our current electoral system, making it more difficult to vote and removing an element of the trust inherent in the current system’. PACAC also found that “the research and evidence adduced by the government to support this proposal ‘has simply not been good enough.’” Voter identity fraud at polling booths in Britain is, of course, nearly non-existent.
The European Convention on Human Rights which the UK signed in 1950 and to whose drafting the UK made a major contribution has for years been a target of the Conservative Right wing. Human Rights, of course, include freedoms for something as well as freedoms from something. Since the days of BREXIT campaigning, the Johnson clique has clung to the hope, on grounds of national sovereignty, that they can tamper with the European Convention and avoid the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. The ECHR offers citizens of all signatories, including British citizens, the safeguards of justiciable fundamental freedoms and a body of human rights case law. Since its incorporation in our 1998 Human Rights Act, the Convention and the Court have directly informed the judgements of our legal system. The Act was considered at the time a major achievement of the Blair years.
Since the 1998 Act, Parliament imposes on all UK courts, including the Supreme Court, the obligation to interpret relevant law so it is compatible with the ECHR. In cases where a British court rules a piece of British legislation incompatible with the interpretation of the ECHR, the government can benefit from ‘margin of appreciation’, meaning that significant cultural differences between States are recognized and allow a small degree of divergence from the ECHR’s legal obligations. However, the margin of appreciation afforded to participating States is not intended to prevent or inhibit individuals or groups from taking part in the political life of their country, especially through the election of members of their legislature.
It remains a longstanding Conservative Party policy to repeal and replace the 1998 Human Rights Act. Between 1999-2010, 12,000 applications on human rights grounds from the UK were made to the court in Strasbourg – a court which includes a British judge. Of the mere 390 applications deemed admissible, the court found against the UK government in 215. An unacceptable infringement on Britain’s national sovereignty? No, a judicial system, incorporated into UK law by our Parliament which can prevent an autocratic government doing whatever it wants to the detriment of its citizens. Human rights legislation provides protection for human freedom which the Tory Party claims to defend.
Most people are aware of the hullabaloo from the Conservative side of the House aroused by measures to reduce the spread of Omicron, representing a division in the Party inhibiting government action to control the COVID pandemic, but few are equally alert to the planned and proposed erosion of civil liberties and the weakening of restraints on our overbearing Executive. Judicial Review, for instance, is on the agenda for curtailment.
How to describe the present situation ? Not simply a Prime Minister and Cabinet responding to emergencies and, under pressure from overlapping crises, making mistakes. There is more to it than that. We are also seeing a faction within the ruling British Political party, untethered from national norms of governance, performing a confidence trick on the public. They behave like a group of con-men solicitous about the welfare of an old lady - read our aging Parliamentary democracy - intent on getting control of her wealth but at great risk to her well-being and health. Our New Year resolution should be to make sure they fail.
See TheArticle 04/01/2022