Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Caught on the prongs of a Trident

What on earth’s the attraction of Britain hanging on to Trident nuclear missiles?

Voices around the Labour Party are being raised in opposition to the leader Jeremy Corbyn’s desire to get rid of the British nuclear deterrent. I’m sure there are many around the country who agree with his critics. But are either the Labour leaders speaking out against Corbyn, or the voters who share their views, thinking through their position?

The full cost of the next generation of Trident is likely to be £97 billion over its 30-year life, or just over £3.2 billion a year. That’s nearly 10% of the total defence budget as it currently stands.

Trident. Macho, certainly. Expensive, for sure. Useful? Unlikely
Would anyone ever advocate the weapon’s use? If so, who would they use it against? Our biggest enemy these days seems to be ISIS in Iraq and Syria; surely no one would advocate launching nuclear weapons against either of those countries? At least, no one with a claim to sanity?

As Jeremy Corbyn pointed out to his critics, having the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world did absolutely no good to the United Sates when it came under attack on 9/11. Different weapons are needed against that kind of threat (and they need to be different, too, from the ones that were ultimately used: an invasion by land forces has hardly given us a stable, peaceful region…)

Even if we were tempted to use nuclear weapons against a more worthy target than Syria or Iraq, would we actually do so? Would we want to launch a nuclear attack against Russia? It doesn’t take a lot of nuclear weapons to do a great deal of damage, so we could doubtless inflict real pain on Russia, but surely no one believes we would survive the response? Even if we survived the radioactive fallout?

Nuclear weapons strike me as an extraordinarily bad way to spend a large amount of money. An investment from which there is only one set of beneficiaries: the manufacturers of the weapons in the United States. They, indeed, are the only beneficiaries of most of military adventures we’ve been on in recent years: whoever won or lost in Afghanistan or Iraq, the arms producers came out on top.

It seems that the support for these weapons is much more to do with people’s desire to feel defended than with any real defence.

Meanwhile, we’re constantly told how much we should fear terrorism. Government, keen to frighten us out of certain important rights, no doubt overstate the extent of the threat. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t deny that it is real and imminent. It strikes me that £3 billion a year could buy quite a lot of additional defence against terrorists.

Why, if we wanted to, we could spend part of it in the form of increased aid to some of the worst affected regions, such as Syria, for instance. That might help turn people away from terrorism in the first place. It might even help stem some of the flow of refugees out of that country.

Wouldn’t that be a more intelligent way of spending the money?

Meanwhile, Labour is being distracted by this debate from what should be its main concern. We need a powerful, united campaign against the disastrous, and cruel, austerity policies of this government.

Could we get back to that, please? And drop the irrational demand to renew a highly expensive investment in a weapon we cant use and only enriches the wrong people? Especially as it only offers at best a comfort blanket we should all have grown out of anyway?

It’s all a matter of focus, focus, focus.

Monday, 28 September 2015

The British Labour Party: finding a form of leadership with a great pedigree

Leadership, if it means anything, is about finding a way to persuade people to come with you to somewhere they may not, initially, have thought they wanted to go.

That’s something that many in the Labour Party need to ponder. They point out, correctly, that a great many people in Britain are inclined towards the right wing, whether it’s towards the unpleasantly right wing Conservatives, or the even nastier right wing UKIP. They are equally correct that Labour needs to win some of those people back if it is to have a chance to form a government again.

Where they’re wrong is in assuming that this means we have to adopt the same policies: ape the Tories on austerity, or UKIP on xenophobia. That’s followership. Leadership is persuading them to try a different approach.

Abraham Lincoln was one of the world’s greatest political leaders. There were two particularly admirable characteristics to his politics: the ability to bring people with him, and the capacity to listen, learn and adapt, without abandoning principles.

On the first of these, he applied with consummate skill the notion that the trick, in leading people, is to stay in front, but also to stay in touch. In the immortal words of The West Wing, a leader without followers is just a man out for a stroll. 

So, though Lincoln always abominated slavery, and never gave way on the fundamental point that it should not be allowed to expand beyond the area in which it already existed, he was more than prepared to compromise with the slaveholding south to the extent of not pursuing immediate abolition throughout the US and by toying with notions of compensated emancipation: buying slaves to free them.

On occasions, he even fought election campaigns without mentioning slavery at all, if he felt it would hinder his or his party’s progress to speak out.

That strikes me as entirely legitimate, because what he never did, was endorse the positions of the other side. Never did he support slavery. In that respect, his position is in stark contrast with that of certain Labourites who advocate adopting a Conservative position on, say, cuts in benefits in the hope of attracting Tory voters. That’s wrong in principle, and it’s ineffective in practice: why would anyone vote for a party imitating the Tories? If they want those policies, they’ll vote for the real thing. The trick isn’t to go along with it, it’s to wean them from those views.

The Lincoln position isn’t easy. It leads to accusations of betrayal or of trimming, and Lincoln certainly faced his share of them. But in the end, it was he and not the radical abolitionists who ensured that the 13th amendment to the US constitution, banning slavery completely, was adopted. He temporised, he sometimes forbore to speak, but eventually he achieved what the abolitionists had always wanted but hadn’t been able to implement by more direct means.

He did that by sometimes judiciously shelving the slavery question, while he focused on the overriding issue of his time: saving the union of the United States. Success in that struggle led to success on slavery too.

When it comes to Lincoln learning, it’s fascinating to see how his position changed on Black equality. While he always hated slavery, it’s clear that initially he didn’t believe that Black and White could coexist, and backed the notion of “colonisation”: sending freed Blacks to their own nation, in Africa or possibly in Central America.

However, as events unfolded, he found himself evolving with them. During the Civil War, he was won round to the notion that Black free men could serve in the Army; eventually he accepted that they should be paid the same as their White counterparts; not long before his assassination he had gone so far as to accept that the “most intelligent” Blacks (whatever that means) and any who’d borne arms for the Union, should be allowed the vote.

He was still a long way from a whole-hearted endorsement of equal rights and universal suffrage (not even all White men had the vote, and of course no women did). But had he lived, how far might he have gone?

John McDonnell (left) and Jeremy Corbyn
Following in the steps of Lincoln?
Given my view of what true leadership is, I’ve been fascinated by the way Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, and John McDonnell as shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, have been behaving. They have left issues such as getting out of NATO, of doing away with the British nuclear deterrent, of leaving the EU, to negotiation with other Labour leaders, with whom they often disagree.

Like Lincoln, they’re focusing on the key issue. John McDonnell said it in his first Conference speech in his new shadow post: “austerity isn’t an economic necessity, it’s a political choice.”

Yes. That’s the first issue we need to take on. There’s a stultifying and deeply damaging consensus across most of Europe, that the correct response to the financial crash of 2008 is to cut government spending and inflict terrible suffering on the most vulnerable. As McDonnell also said, that is to make the victims pay for the crash instead of the perpetrators.

That view is beginning to be questioned in European nation after European nation. It’s a huge step forward that one of the main parties in one of the major European economies is taking up that cause. That’s the one to focus on for now, leaving others on the back burner – certainly, the more contentious ones that would split the party and make it less likely to achieve its main goal.

Once we’ve dealt with austerity, we could perhaps move on to the other urgent question, which has to be climate change.

Then we can look at NATO and nuclear weapons. And who knows? If the people are moving with us on the top priorities, they may well move with us on the others.

But that takes leadership. So far Labour’s looking a bit like Lincoln. And that’s promising.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Sometimes it's the less well known who are the most interesting

George H. Thomas isn’t exactly a name to conjure with. And yet, sometimes, the obscure figures from history can inspire as much admiration as the celebrities.

Thomas had a lot in common with a much more well known military character, Robert E. Lee. Both men won good reputations for themselves during the Mexican-American War. Later Thomas was posted to the US Military Academy at West Point, where he served under Lee. Most important of all, though, both men were Virginians. “the Old Dominion” was the wealthiest and most populous of the British American colonies, which produced some of the most significant figures of the Revolutionary War, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. After independence, it was the leading State, producing four of the first five presidents.

George Thomas: overshadowed by more famous men
In 1861, the United States were torn apart by Civil War. Again, Lee and Thomas had similar attitudes: neither liked slavery, both deplored session. But there the similarity ended.

Lee made a decision which leaves me appalled even today. Despite his views about slavery and recession, Lee announced that he couldn’t “draw his sword” against Virginia. So when his State joined the Secession, he resigned from the army of the United States and went on, as is well known, to become the outstanding general of the Confederacy.

Thomas, on the other hand, took a decision which strikes me as far more comprehensible and, above all admirable. He went with his conscience rather than his roots, and stayed with the Union.

Although in the end he had a distinguished Civil War record with the Union, it wasn’t a straightforward process. His first major achievement was at a serious Union defeat: at the battle of Chickamauga, Thomas was serving under General Rosecrans whose army broke and fled – with the exception of Thomas’s division which stood firm and prevented a defeat turning into a rout.

The achievement won him the nickname “Rock of Chickamauga”. it also gave him command of the army in which he was serving, when Rosecrans was relieved.

It was in that role that he faced the last great counter-attack by the Confederacy in the War, in the Battle of Nashville. And the confederates weren’t the only adversaries he faced. Ulysses Grant had by then become commanding general of the Union armies. He may have had some doubts about Thomas’s loyalties, but he was above all concerned by his slowness in tackling the army threatening Nashville. He wasn’t alone: Abraham Lincoln, who’d been disappointed by a whole string of dilatory, slow, timid generals who failed to tackle Lee when they could win, and lost when he took them on. Would Thomas be simply another such?

He was nothing of the kind. At first, he was waiting for his cavalry to be fully ready. And then – it was December – ice storms turned the country impossible. Thomas waited for the thaw and almost waited too long: the general Grant had sent with orders to relieve him if Thomas had still not initiated action, was already on his way, and Grant himself not far behind him, when Thomas decided to engage the Confederates.

The result was one of the great battles of the War, and one of the most decisive victories: the army against him was badly mauled and so disorganised that it  it never operated as a fighting unit again. Despite the pressure from Washington, Thomas had a major success to his credit.

After the war he commanded a large area of southern territory, based around Tennessee, and used the authority this gave him to act on behalf of black freed slaves who were suffering at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan or simply of racist judges. Later on, Andrew Johnson, who took over as President after Lincoln’s assassination, fell out with many of the men who’d been closely associated with the murdered statesman, including Grant. He asked Thomas whether he would replace him as commanding general, but Thomas refused on the grounds that he wasn’t interested in playing political games.

He ended up appointed to command in California, where he died sadly young, at 53. But the saddest thing of all? None of his relatives attended his funeral. They couldn’t forgive him for having turned against Virginia.

Like I said. The more obscure characters from history can sometimes be the most intriguing.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

VW, News UK, Barclays Bank: ignorance isn't cheap

On 3 July 2012, we learned that Bob Diamond had stepped down from his position as Chief Executive of Barclays Banks. The Bank was beset by scandal, specifically charges that it had rigged the London interbank lending rate LIBOR.

A week later, we learned that he had generously waived his right to some £20 million of bonus payments, so he would be leaving with the pittance of a year’s salary, amounting to £2 million. That would barely cover the pay of 195 people on minimum wage, such as the cleaners who made sure that he had a physically clean environment to work in, however morally polluted it might have been.

Diamond made it clear that he knew absolutely nothing about the LIBOR rigging.

In 2002, the voicemail of a missing thirteen-year old schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, was hacked by journalists working for Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. Because they were listened to, messages on the voicemail were automatically deleted, giving Milly’s parents the hope that she might have deleted them herself and therefore still be alive, when in fact she had already been murdered.

In July 2014, Rebekah Brooks, editor of the News of the World at the time Milly Dowler’s and great many others’ phones were hacked, was cleared of all charges arising from the criminal activity. She claimed that she knew nothing of the practice, although she was editor at the time it happened.

Despite her blessed ignorance, Rebekah Brooks had to suffer the indignity of seeing the closure of the newspaper that she edited while it was hacking phones. She also had to step down as Chief Executive of News International, the representative on Earth, or at least in Britain, of the equally blessed Rupert. In consolation, all she could turn to was the £10.8 million payoff that Murdoch’s organisation gave her. That’s quite a long way short of what 1000 workers on minimum wage might make in a year.

Fortunately, however, the Sun on Sunday has filled the gap left by the loss of the News of the World. And, equally fortunately, we heard just this month that Rebekah herself was to be appointed as Chief Executive of News U.K., as News International is now known. It seems that the industry she graced for so many years is not to be deprived of her special skills any longer.

VW: a dirtier story than we'd been led to believe
On 23 September this year, the then Chief Executive of Volkswagen, Martin Winterkorn, stood down from his post, following the scandal over emissions test rigging. That took the form of fitting special software on the emissions monitoring system of diesel VW cars, so that it could detect when tests were being carried out, and run emission control systems that were turned off in normal driving.

He went despite claiming that he had absolutely no knowledge of the fraud. He was paid a little more than 15 million euros last year. That’s the equivalent of around 850 German workers on minimum wage.

What do these cases all have in common? They involve people who took massive salaries. Such payments are generally justified by the responsibility accepted by the senior executives who are paid that much. Responsibility, some might feel, requires an understanding of the organisation these people lead. But that’s the other point all three have in common: on their own admission – claim, actually – they had no knowledge at all of the wrongdoing in their teams.

Still. Who are we to question whether our major enterprises are making any rational link, between the remuneration they offer their top people, and their competence?

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The NHS: as safe as ever in Tory hands

Labour lost the UK general election on 7 May, in part at least because it kept harping on about issues that were beginning to bore the electorate.

It constantly denounced zero-hour contracts, for instance, which tie up employees but not their employers: the former can’t take other work, but the latter aren’t obliged to offer them any work, or any pay, on any particular day. Many voters, including some on zero-hour contracts who found them attractive, but mostly those who have never experienced such arrangements, started to find it tedious that Labour kept denouncing them.

Even worse, though, was the NHS. The Labour message was clear. Let the Tories back and you may lose the National Health Service. This may astonish some in the United States, where the NHS has a bleak reputation, but on this side of the pond, a great many people value that institution highly and would like to be able to rely on its being there, in the event they ever need it.

On the other hand, Labour kept repeating the dire warnings and it began to turn voters off. “Yes, yes,” they seemed to be responding, “you’ve said all that before. How about changing the record?”

The previous government, which was a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, claimed to be protecting the NHS. Its funding, it claimed, would be protected. When other budgets were cut, NHS finance would remain sacrosanct, and even grow.

The Labour Party questioned this claim. First of all, while it was true that funding was increasing, it was not increasing in line with the specific inflation of the healthcare sector, where the availability of increasingly effective but increasingly expensive treatments puts budgets under pressure. Nor, and this was a much more significant problem, was it increasing in line with increasing demand for healthcare: an ageing population, which is additionally beset by growing numbers of chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity, is generating constantly growing demand for care, for diseases that start earlier and last longer than before.

Worst of all though, and above all dangerously hidden, is the consequence of what on the surface seems to be a positive idea. There is increasing pressure for treatment to take place outside the hospital environment. Care in hospitals tends to be far more expensive, and it’s an environment which is often demoralising to patients and even unsafe – they’re surrounded by other sick people, after all – and it makes sense to treat in the community as far as is possible.

Unfortunately, a great deal of community care takes the form of social care, for which the NHS is not responsible. It’s handled by local government – and that sector has absolutely not had its budgets protected. So to maintain the kinds of levels of social care the new initiatives require often means calling on the NHS to fund an increasing proportion of it. Those outflows from the NHS are certainly not covered by the allegedly protected funding arrangements.

This week, Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament, came out with a dramatic statement that the NHS would crash within two years without a massive injection of funds from the government. Interestingly, Lamb is well-placed to make that judgement. He served as a minister of health in the last government. So he was part of the team that set the NHS on its downward spiral.

It’s great to have his warning now, though it might have been more helpful if he and his colleagues had pulled out of the government and brought it down while there was still time to do so. But, I guess, there was no other way they were likely to get ministerial portfolios, and that matters too. Not as much, to me, as saving the NHS, but perhaps as much to them.

Addenbrooke's (Cambridge University Hospital)
Now we learn that Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge, a world class centre for medical research as well as acute treatment, is being put into what are known as special measures. It’s failing to maintain proper standards of safety. It’s the 26th NHS Trust in special measures, out of 160 in England. One in six.

One of the reasons care at Addenbrooke’s isn’t safe is that it can’t afford to maintain adequate staffing levels on wards. Which is perhaps not surprising, since it’s losing £1.2m a week. But let’s remember the Tories are maintaining funding to the NHS, which is safe in their hands.

It might be time for the people who were so switched off by talk of the NHS during the election campaign to see if they can drum a little interest in the subject again. If Norman Lamb is even partly right, they may not have much time to wait.

And – who knows? – perhaps after that they might find it in themselves not to regard zero-hour contracts as quite as monotonous as they thought either.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn: just how left wing is his agenda?

In celebration of the election of Jeremy Corbyn, here’s a wild left-wing suggestion for an economic policy to replace Tory austerity.

Develop opportunities for new exports, investing where necessary in the appropriate industries. Whenever possible, look for investment from abroad to fund growth. To fill any skill gaps, or indeed gaps in the workforce generally, bring in immigrants to give us the depth we need (there’s no shortage of skilled workers ready to come over, from Syria and other troubled nations).

At the same time as looking for opportunities abroad, ensure that our domestic market remains buoyant by improving British wage levels. One way is to introduce Trade Union reforms, but not of the kind now being proposed, which would emasculate them further; on the contrary, they could be brought into management of industry itself, with a formally recognised role, perhaps through worker directors on boards, in setting company strategies.

The effect of that kind of measure would be not only to make the way we run our major corporations more democratic and equitable, it would also make sure that people on low incomes, who are more inclined to spend than to save, would have more purchasing power, keeping domestic demand lively and able to drive growth.

With the growth flowing from such measures, tax revenues would rise so that deficit reduction could happen with no need for the destructive cuts being made by the current government.

Wild left-wing dreams, without a hope of realisation?

Well, actually, there’s nothing wild or dream-like about them. Nothing left-wing even. These are the policies that Germany has been pursuing for years. Certainly under Angela Merkel who is approaching her ten years in office, but also under her predecessor Gerhard Schröder.The Social Democrat Schröder was particularly left wing; as for Merkel, she leads the conservative Christian Democrats.

Angela: dangerous left winger?
It would seem that Germany has more moderate, and above all more enlightened, Conservatives than Britain does. And their policies have worked. Germany recovered from the 2008 crash within two years. Germany has become once again the dominant economy of Europe, with the lowest youth unemployment of the continent.

So that only leaves three questions.

Firstly, given that this has worked so well for Germany, why are they so keen on austerity for others – in particular the Greeks?

Secondly, as these highly successful policies are being applied by a right-wing government, why do British conservatives denounce them as dangerously left wing?

And finally, why would Labour not rally behind Corbyn in following such an anti-austerity programme in Britain too?

I have no idea what the answer to the first question is. It would be good to see Merkel pressed to answer why Germany favours austerity for others.

The second question, about denouncing as left wing policies favoured elsewhere by Conservatives, is much easier. Adopting the kind of approach Germany has taken would involve some of the wealthiest people in Britain giving up a little. The right wing, and in particular the right-wing media, represent their views, and those views say that they will sacrifice nothing for the sake of the nation as a whole.

As for the third question, I have no idea why Labour should not back this kind of an anti-austerity approach. That’s something that Labour critics of Corbyn need to answer. And that any of us who feel it’s time to move away from austerity policies, need to keep asking.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Collateral damage: how a bungled and misguided assassination claimed an unintended victim

Most people know that John Wilkes Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln. What they may not know is that Booth had planned a triple assassination, to happen that same evening of 14 April 1865. The intention was that Lincoln's Vice President, Andrew Johnson, and the Secretary of State, William Seward would also die. So within days of Robert Lee’s surrender of Confederate forces to Ulysses Grant, the top three politicians of the United States would be dead.

The man assigned to kill the Vice President chickened out, so nothing at all happened to him.

One Lewis Powell made a serious attempt to kill William Seward, however. Seward was in bed recovering from a serious carriage accident. Powell showed up pretending to be bringing medicine for him; when William’s son Frederick challenged him and insisted on taking the medicine into his father himself, Powell attempted to shoot him; however, his gun misfired so instead he beat him around the head with the gun butt, causing several fractures and leaving him critically injured.

Lithograph recreating Powell's attack on Frederick Seward
Powell then burst into Seward’s room, slashing at him several times with a Bowie knife. Seward fell out of his bed on the far side, and had the impression of being caught in rain, so thickly his own blood was falling.

In the end, Powell fled the house, leaving three other wounded people behind him, including Seward’s daughter and his nurse.

The entire assassination plot was one of the most misconceived plans in history. No one can say what would have happened had Lincoln not been murdered, but most leaders of the former Confederacy realised that his death would make things significantly worse for their States. Lincoln was committed to restoring the South to the Union as quickly and painlessly as possible; with him out of the way, far more radical and vindictive elements took charge. According to Carl Sandburg, in his outstanding biography of Lincoln, Confederate General Joseph Johnston told William Sherman, to whom he surrendered and from whom he learned of Lincoln’s death, that the assassination was “the greatest possible calamity to the South.”

Mary Boykin Chesnut of South Carolina kept a diary of the Civil War in the South, from which Sandburg also quotes:

Lincoln, old Abe Lincoln, has been killed… Why? By whom? It is simply maddening… I know this foul murder will bring upon us worse miseries.

Booth was a devoted follower of the Confederacy, but not devoted enough to actually fight for it. He spent the years of the war on Union territory, plotting for his cause but otherwise living a comfortable life as an actor. He left taking action until the war was all but over, and made things far worse by doing so.

As for his accomplices, they failed entirely. Although Lewis Powell had injured five people, including Frederick who came close to death, they all survived.

Oddly, though, he claimed one life. Seward’s wife Frances had been in poor health. She spent the next weeks nursing her injured husband and son. The strain undermined her. On 21 June 1865, she died of a heart attack.

Booth was killed in a shootout with Federal troops soon after the assassination, but four others died on the gallows, including Powell. That didn’t happen until 7 July. So they survived Frances by nearly three weeks.

A sorry little story. But it seems to sum up fittingly a plot which was misguided from the outset, botched in its execution and dire in its unwanted consequences.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Three more films for you: 'The Sessions', 'Boy meets girl' and 'X + Y'

Three films well worth watching. All a little offbeat and well made, so refreshing and engaging in their originality.

The Sessions stars John Hawkes playing Mark O’Brien, a real-life poet who was paralysed from the neck down by polio and lived in an iron lung. Allowing myself a little digression, since the film does the same at this point, it gives an excellent and claustrophobic presentation of what happens to a patient in an iron lung during a power cut.

That isn’t the main theme of the film, though. That’s O’Brien’s desire to lose his virginity. As a practising Catholic, he needs to have the blessing of the Church, provided reluctantly by his local priest, sympathetically played by William H. Macy. Then we get to the mechanics of the process, for which first of all a willing collaborator has to be found. She’s sex therapist Cheryl Cohen-Greene, played by the always impressive Helen Hunt. I don’t want to include any spoilers, so I’ll just say that in a film dealing with a dark subject, there is a great deal of humour and the distinction between a sex therapist and a prostitute is a subject that gives rise to an excellent example of it.

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes during a therapy session

The title of Boy meets Girl is perfectly chosen: what could be more clichéd? Indeed, I should specify it as “Boy Meets Girl (2014)” to distinguish it from the four other films by that title listed on IMDb. The title is in pointed contrast to the film, in which the girl of the title, Ricky, is transgender. She is played by a talented actor who is transgender herself, Michelle Hendley. The film is set in a small Kentucky village, but it avoids the tired old theme about how hard neighbours in such a place make life for someone who’s so fundamentally different.

Instead, the theme of the film is sexual confusion, as Ricky toys with the idea of perhaps being lesbian, and of rejection (rather than persecution), specifically by close family. The story’s well told and sensitively filmed, with an appropriate and satisfying ending.

Michael Galante and Michelle Hendley in Boy Meets Girl

Finally, X + Y (or A Brilliant Young Mind to give its alternative US title) charts the experience of an autistic young mathematical genius, convincingly performed by Asa Butterfield. Personal loss on top of his autism makes it all the more difficult to establish satisfying relations with others. But he sets out on a quest to represent Britain in the International Mathematics Olympiad, and embarks on the journey with coaching from an equally brilliant, former Olympian skilfully played by Rafe Spall, and encouragement from his lone-parent mother, played by one of the more remarkable British actors around, Sally Hawkins (and there are plenty of other British stars in the film). His experiences teach him about far more than mathematics, especially as he has to find a way to relate, despite his autism, to several people he meets on the way, not least a young woman on the Chinese team charmingly represented by Jo Yang, a British actor of Chinese birth.

By the end, it turns out that there is more to life than mathematical skill. In particular, he learns, despite his autism, that he can give and receive love, both at home and outside it.

Asa Butterfield and Jo Yang in X + Y
Three films about people who differ more significantly than most from the perceived norm. Misfits, they might appear to an intolerant community, and yet these are three powerful tales about fitting well into an environment. The stories are compelling in themselves, and they’re told with sensitivity, and performed to high standards.

Three films each providing a rewarding, and life-affirming, way to spend a couple of hours or so.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Unifying, dynamic, inclusive: Corbyn sets out his stall

So Jeremy Corbyn, within 48 hours of taking up the mantle of leader of the Labour Party and of the official British Opposition, has named his first shadow cabinet. And, like all such decisions, it contains the usual mix of things to excite disappointment or to excite admiration.

The biggest disappointment is that of the five top jobs, not one has gone to a woman. It’s true that two of these are determined by election not appointment – his own and his deputy’s – but the other three, Shadow Chancellor, Shadow Foreign Secretary and Shadow Home Secretary, were in his gift.

One of these, perhaps the greatest, the finance post of Shadow Chancellor, he’s awarded to a close ally, the man who ran his campaign for the leadership, John McDonnell. The Labour Party has recent bitter experience of a leader at loggerheads with his Chancellor: Gordon Brown was famous for working constantly to replace Tony Blair.

In the end, then, there were only two posts that he could have handed out freely. He chose men for both. It might have been pleasing to see a woman in one of them. Well, we won’t, at least for now. He has at least been generous in both those appointments: Hilary Benn, who already held the Shadow Foreign Secretary, keeps the position under Corbyn; and as Shadow Home Secretary, he’s appointed his closest rival for the leadership, Andy Burnham.

He might well have shown more of such generosity, but a great many people from other currents in the Labour Party decided they simply would not serve in a Shadow Cabinet under him. So if there has been a failure of behaviour, it hasn’t been on his part, but on theirs. 

He has described the Shadow Cabinet he appointed as “unifying, dynamic and inclusive.” Clearly, he could only be as inclusive as far as people would accept inclusion. Equally, he can only unify those who don’t set out to divide; one can only hope that the sheer scale of his victory will silence serious rebellion, at least for long enough to see whether he can prove himself, and his team, sufficiently dynamic.

As well as including people who disagree with him, he has also displayed a readiness to carry into practice as leader a willingness to compromise, that he’d increasingly exhibited during the campaign to win the position. He has for instance appointed Maria Eagle Shadow Defence Secretary – always fun to see a woman taking on so traditionally macho a brief – though she disagrees with him fundamentally on scrapping Britain’s nuclear deterrent (so-called: it’s so small as to make it difficult to imagine which nation it might deter) and on leaving NATO.

In passing, it’s amusing that as well as Maria Eagle he has also appointed her twin sister Anna as Shadow Business Secretary. I’m not aware of any previous Shadow Cabinet or actual Cabinet that has contained a pair of twins.

A first? Twins in the Shadow Cabinet?
One of them's Maria Eagle and the other one's Anna
Corbyn has also agreed to campaign for Britain to stay in the European Union, a position he certainly does not enthusiastically endorse. Hilary Benn, as his Shadow Foreign Secretary, confirmed that there were no circumstances in which Labour would campaign for Britain to leave the EU. That’s another significant concession.

The measure of his approach was perhaps best summed up by Chris Bryant, who takes the role Shadow Leader of the House of Commons:

It’s going to be a bumpy ride. In the conversations that I’ve already had with Jeremy, though I disagree with him on lots and lots of different things, I have to say that he has been accommodating. It’s evident there’s going to be quite a bit of give and take and when I said, ‘look I will hold my views very strongly and passionately and will put them across, sometimes too aggressively,’ he said ‘you and me both, mate.’

A refreshing attitude. Though by no means a wholly unprecedented one. The man who filled the position of President of the United States more brilliantly than any other, Abraham Lincoln, took a not dissimilar position. He appointed to his cabinet the man who most commentators, not least himself, expected to win his party’s nomination for the White House, William Seward. Indeed, for a while, Seward tried to behave as the real power in government, until Lincoln explained to him, quietly and courteously but with unshakeable firmness, that he would hold ultimate authority and not his Secretary of State.

Lincoln and Seward were both moderates on the slavery question, wanting it to wither slowly rather than to abolish it immediately. But Lincoln appointed to another senior position in his cabinet, Treasury Secretary, Salmon Chase who was on the radical wing of his party.

He never used Lyndon Johnson’s colourful expression concerning FBI Chief, J. Edgar Hoover, “it’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” That was his guiding principle. And it worked: Lincoln focused on the main issue in hand, the defeat of the rebellion in the South and restoration of the Union, but by doing so, he achieved not only that objective but also the final, complete abolition of slavery through the 13th amendment to the US Constitution.

I don’t know whether Corbyn can achieve greatness as Lincoln did, and I certainly hope he doesn’t share his fate. What I can say is that by giving way on such issues as Trident and the EU, he does give his party a far better chance of focusing on the key questions; developing an alternative economic policy to austerity, and taking the battle to the Tories. While in his Shadow Cabinet appointments, he’s done everything his adversaries will allow him to do to unify the party. As for dynamism, he's already shown he has plenty of that.

Incidentally, though there are only men in the five top jobs, there are more women than men in the Shadow Cabinet as a whole.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Is Corbyn going to reconnect Labour to its roots? Is that maybe a way back to government?

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader is nothing if not exciting.

Fraught with risk, maybe, but at least more dramatic, more inspirational than a victory for any of the other candidates would have been: as a journalist told the BBC, their performance throughout the campaign has been boring to the point of robotic.

Indeed, it seems to me that the only time they became less dull was when they attempted to move as far as they dared onto Corbyn territory, picking up challenges to government they had studiously avoided until they saw the traction they were winning inside the Labour Party: back in May, for instance, Andy Burnham was trying to shake a reputation as a left winger by claiming there were aspects of the Tory benefits cuts that he could support, whereas in August he was denouncing Tory moves on sanctions against benefits claimants as “brutal.”

Corbyn, by contrast, has never seemed robotic. Indeed, he comes across as straight, shunning the usual evasions and spin of the classic New Labour injection-moulded candidate. Indeed, the calm and highly effective way he handles hostile questions from journalists was what shook my sense that he couldn’t win the media battle, and started the process of bringing me round to support for him.

It’s no wonder he can mobilise Labour: he speaks for the most profoundly held principles of the party, and he does so with a voice of unwavering commitment and honesty. The issue for crtics in the media or outside the party, however, is whether he can win that kind of enthusiasm from a broader electorate, beyond the Labour Party. He’s out of touch with voters, they claim. They also suggest he may take Labour back to the disastrous period of the eighties, when Labour found itself exiled to the wilderness of perpetual opposition.

I take a less pessimistic view. Corbyn may be taking us back to the eighties, but perhaps more the 1880s than the 1980s. That might be the most constructive move we could make, reminding us of our roots and reconnecting with our fundamental principles. The 1880s were the time time when Keir Hardie, the first occupant of the post to which Corbyn has just been elected, leader of the Labour Party, started the process that would lead it eventually into government.

Did you hear the Gordon Brown BBC tribute to Hardie? it was an excellent piece of radio which I strongly recommend. It included this tribute:

Courage, it has been said, is the greatest quality of all, because upon courage all else depends. You can be eloquent, have wisdom, work very hard but to change things, you need courage to stand up for what you believe, and Hardie never flinched from an unpopular stand.

It seems to me that this is the kind of leader Corbyn is setting out to be: not afraid of taking on the difficult questions, the positions for which some would condemn him. Hardie ran into a deep groundswell of hostility when he opposed the First World War, at a time when even workers were gripped by war fever; Corbyn’s first action after winning the leadership was to attend a demonstration in favour of refugees, at a time when a significant majority of the British population seems to favour pulling up the drawbridges against foreign immigration.

Jeremy Corbyn: the new leader immediately attends a refugee rally
Brown also said of Hardie:

For me his legacy is this: a leader whose moral outrage against what was unjust never left him, but who knew that if he was to do anything about it, he needed to create a party of government.

It seems to me that Corbyn shares that sense of outrage, as every Labour member should. Now the test is to see whether he can enthuse enough of the electorate with that same passion for a fairer society and take Labour back into government.

We’ve had an exciting moment. And there are exciting times ahead.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Who wants politicians deciding who deserves to die?

Earlier this week, the British government announced it had used a drone attack to kill two young British men, Reyaad Khan and Rahul Amin, who’d joined ISIS and were fighting alongside it in Syria.

It was interesting to hear a Steven Marvin, a childhood friend of Amin’s, point out that he was sorry for the family but as for Amin himself, joining ISIS had been “his own decision and he knew what was going to happen eventually… He chose to go over there and, if these things happen, then he’s asked for it, basically… He knew what he was getting into.” Essentially, the young men had it coming to them.

Instrument of execution: In the hands of government?
To be honest, I rather sympathised. ISIS is a particularly obnoxious organisation, cruel, brutal, bigoted and apparently irredeemable. In her comments on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt wrote that she wished the judges had told him:

… just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations – as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world - we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

Though Im firmly opposed to the death penalty, I can understand this reasoning: if you break all bonds to other human beings, and therefore feel you can snuff them out at will, as the Nazis did and ISIS does, you forfeit the expectation that anyone else will respect your right to life. The Royal Air Force destroys you in a drone attack? As your friend said, you brought in on yourself.

So far then I find nothing to disagree with in the killings the government carried out.

But then come the second thoughts. And it’s that word ‘government’ that focuses them for me. It was government, and government alone, that took the decision to kill those men. “Government”, like it or not, sounds like some kind of superior abstraction; reducing it to something more concrete, however, it is a collection of politicians and party politicians at that.

The government has made it clear it has no intention of publishing the legal advice it was given, and which it felt justified its action. Nor is it ever likely that we shall see the intelligence information on which it based its judgement that these young men posed an imminent danger to the UK itself, and therefore military action against them was legitimate under UN rules: intelligence stays hidden on the grounds that publishing it would put sources at risk.

So what we’re saying is that a government that has no intention of being held to account, took a decision on its own authority, to kill two men whom it had deemed criminal enough, on evidence it won’t publish, to merit death, though the death penalty is banned in Britain.

That two terrorists, fighting in support of a terrorising code, are dead? I have to admit I’m glad that they’re gone. That government, without so much as a judge’s intervention, can decide who is or isn’t a terrorist? That gives me serious concern. That this same government can then decide to kill the person it has identified as a terrorist, without allowing a challenge to its decision? That makes my blood run cold.

What’s ironic is that Conservatives always claim to be the party of small government. But in reality they’re the party of money, and their commitment to small government is only a commitment to spending less.

Assigning itself the right to kill citizens may not sound objectionable, as long as they’re terrorists. But when it decides that it alone will choose who is or isn’t a terrorist, doesn’t that become more worrying? Certainly, it feels to me like big government. And not particularly good government, at that.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Syrian refugees, Jewish refugees, and inadequate responses.

David Cameron has declared, with great solemnity, that Britain would “live up to its moral responsibility” by allowing in some of the refugees from Syria.

He then announced that living up to that responsibility meant committing the country to taking twelve refugees a day. Out of the four million that have already fled the fighting in Syria.

That reminded me of a wonderful, late friend of ours. Bob was born a Jew in Vienna in the twenties. He was there as German troops entered Austria in 1938, and Hitler declared the country part of the Third Reich. So he had the privilege of living as a Jew under Nazi rule for a year or two.

Jews being forced to clean pavements in Vienna under the Nazis
Like most Jews around him, he spent the time trying to get out before it was too late. Eventually, he received permission to travel to Britain with one of his sisters, a rescue for which he would be profoundly grateful for the rest of his life.

What excited far less gratitude was the sights he saw daily in the queue for visas outside the British consulate. I’m only quoting him and don’t have independent evidence that this happened, but as he told it, officials from the consulate would walk up and down the queue and offer priority treatment to anyone who had the means to pay for it. Pay them, that is, not Britain.

Worse than the corruption, however, was that though his sister and he were saved, none of the other members of his family were. Father, mother, the other siblings, his extended family – they all stayed behind and they were all murdered.

Britain had many reasons for not accepting all these Jewish refugees. There wasn’t enough housing. Funds were tight. We had enough problems of our own.

But how does that stack up against the prospect of being subjected to murder in cold blood, in many cases with extreme cruelty beforehand? How does one measure the impact of a refusal to take these people – people, I stress the word, humans like ourselves – against the practical problem of finding housing, of squeezing out a little money to feed them, of finding it in ourselves to offer them some kind of welcome?

Cameron talked about morality. He knows there are already four million refugees from Syria. Taking twelve a day, a total of 20,000 over five years – 0.5% – seems a little low in comparison. A bit like taking Bob and his sister and leaving all the rest of his family to be fed to the gas chambers by the Nazis. And with so few being taken from so many, just imagine the new opportunities for corruption.

There is certainly morality at stake here. But only as a measure of how woefully short Cameron’s government is falling.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Sarah Palin: the intellectually challenged would like to challenge us linguistically

Sarah Palin, firmly in the running, if not leading the field to be the most intellectually challenged candidate ever for US Vice Presidenthas called on immigrants to her country to “speak American.”

Palin: verbally challenged as well as intellectually
There are some 400 million Americans who speak Spanish as a first language. 38 million of them live in the United States. Only about 256 million US citizens speak English as a first language, with a shade under 20 million Canadians and a few million West Indians. So if it means anything at all, the notion of “American” as a language must first and foremost mean Spanish.

Naturally, that isn’t what Palin intended. In her CNN interview, she went on to clarify – and I use the word “clarify” in a broad sense – “I mean, that’s just, that’s – let’s speak English.”

Verbal expression is perhaps not her strong point (though, to be honest, I’ve rather given up trying to find out what her strong point might actually be.) According to The Guardian, she ended her piece with an appeal to be given charge of the Department of Energy:

I think a lot about the Department of Energy, because energy is my baby, oil and gas and minerals, those things that God has dumped on this part of the Earth for mankind’s use, instead of relying on unfriendly foreign nations for us to import their resources.

She ended with this stirring tribute to her plans for the department: 

And if I were head of that I would get rid of it.

If by “American” she means “English”, then before Palin calls on others to learn the language, perhaps she could take a little trouble to master it more fully herself.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

A museum and a tribute to a fine man and entertainer

He went out in style, Terry Pratchett. After announcing his early onset Alzheimer’s in 2007, he spent his last eight years fighting the disease, both through contributions to the search for a cure or by publicising the nature and effects of the disease, and by refusing to let it throw him off his work as a chronicler of the Discworld (that flat world, carried on the backs of four elephants, riding in turn through the cosmos on the shell of the great turtle A’tuin.)

Technically, Pratchett died on 12 March this year. To me, though, he only really went after carrying out his final piece of magic, on 27 August, when I woke up to find his last novel, The Shepherd’s Crown, had blossomed on my Kindle overnight. A touch of pure Discworld witchcraft, that, or perhaps wizardry, the wizards being the ones that went for science and technology, while the witches concentrated on far more practical matters (a recurring theme in The Shepherd’s Crown is the witch’s duty of clipping the preternaturally tough toenails of old men.)

Pratchett developed some extraordinary characters: Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh Morpork, Captain, later Commander, Vimes of the watch in that great city, Corporal, later Captain, Carrot of the same august body.

Three of his finest have to be the witches Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and the one he presented to us last, Tiffany Aching. All his characters have many fine qualities, but I don’t think it unfair to say that Tiffany is the most delightful. In The Shepherd’s Crown we say goodbye to her, to Granny Weatherwax and to Nanny Ogg, and that closing door brought home to me that I would at last have to say goodbye to Pratchett too.

Previous novels of his I’ve read with the warm sense that it was “the latest.” For this one, I had to cope with the bitter feeling that it was “the last.”

Today, my wife Danielle and I went down to Luton’s Wardown Park because, in the Museum there, a performance was going to be given by Nakisha Esnard (never heard of her? I think you might in the future: combining poetry and music, dynamically, wittily and powerfully).

But the museum also brought me face to face with Terry Pratchett again. It is running an exhibition of works by Paul Kidby, who illustrated many Pratchett novels.

Checkmort: Kidby after Bergman in a tribute to Pratchett
Another great Pratchett character is Death – well, many others have used the character, not least Ingmar Bergman in The Seventh Seal, a fact of which Kidby is clearly aware – but Pratchett gave him a special twist (“Death comes to us all. When he came to Mort, he offered him a job.”). Kidby neatly expresses the sense of the game we lost against Death when Pratchett went, in a Bergmanesque and prescient picture, painted four years ago.
But I was also delighted to find Tiffany again, having only just said goodbye to her. There she was, with her pointy hat, the essential badge of the witch, the brim inhabited by Nac Mac Feegles, her ubiquitous companions and protectors.

Tiffany with her badge of office, the pointy hat
And a detachment of Nac Mac Feegles
It was good to see you, Tiffany. And Pratchett, indeed. Even Death, come to that, though I can’t help feeling a certain resentment at him for stopping the flow of these beguiling tales.

Pratchett’s Death would have given us something richer than Pratchett’s death.

Friday, 4 September 2015

A quick lesson in Christianity to its eager protectors

With 3.8 million people displaced from Syria by war, terror and despair, Slovakia has generously decided to accept 200 refugees. But, it specifies, only Christians.

It’s an interesting notion. You make a gesture of purely symbolic charity but, in the same breath, demand adherence to Christianity. I’m no Christian, but I’m friends with a great many, and I believe they would none of them recognise the principles of their faith in that behaviour.

Behind the restriction to Christians lies something else, which is the desire to repel Muslims, seen as invading hordes. That was made more explicit by the estimable and hard right Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán. Incidentally, this is a man worth watching if ever you wonder what a government led by Britain’s own far-right Nigel Farage would be like, since Orbán’s party is the Hungarian equivalent of UKIP. He has, for instance, enlightened us on the nature of tolerance for minority communities, in this case homosexuals:

Tolerance ... does not mean that we would apply the same rules for people whose life style is different from our own.

He has now announced that Hungary, in trying to block refugees from entering in the first place, and rounding up and interning those already there, is protecting “Christian Europe” from Muslims.

Don’t see migrants. Or even refugees. Just people
Hungary spent a couple of centuries, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth, within the Turkish Ottoman Empire. I was amazed on visits to Hungary to find how little trace remains of the Turkish presence: in a church that had once been a mosque, I was pointed to a niche which might once have been a Mihrab, the structure that tells Muslims the direction of Mecca; in the provincial town of Eger I saw (and indeed climbed) a minaret, which is all that remains of the mosque there.

No, Hungary has turned its back on its Muslim past, unlike Spain where it is treasured and indeed claimed, on sometimes dubious grounds, by large numbers of people (but woe betide any Muslim who tries to worship inside the great mosque of Cordoba, now a Christian place of worship: the security guards will pounce and escort the believer out). 

Clearly, Slovakia and Hungary regard Islamophobia as legitimate, laudable even.

Further West, we try to hide our own anti-Islamic feelings, but they’re certainly running strong, however partially hidden they may be. But what is even more striking is the extent to which our leaders seem to share the Christian notions of their counterparts in Central Europe. So our reaction to migrants trying to reach Britain from Calais is not to identify the genuine refugees and let them in, but to put razor wire to keep everyone out. David Cameron has so far allowed 216 Syrians into Britain under a scheme to take refugees from that country; he now intends to increase the number to several thousand (where I suspect “several” is a relatively small number).

In other words, faced with fellow human beings in trouble, Orbán’s “Christian” Europe, or large parts of it at least, react with rejection and meanness.

David Cameron claims that Britain is a basically Christian country. So let me remind him of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The background to the story is that someone has correctly told Jesus that the key law is to love your neighbour as yourself. When he goes on to ask who his neighbour is, Christ answers (in the words of the New International version of the Bible, less poetic but more comprehensible than the King James version):

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

Who was the neighbour? “The one who had mercy on him.”

The Samaritan was not of the same Community as the injured man, but he helped anyway. As though, say, we looked at Syrian refugees and saw people, not Muslims, not Syrians, not migrants. And because they were people, we helped them. Even if they were gay.

That would be behaving as Christians. That kind of Christianity would be worth protecting. But don’t count on the Orbáns or the Camerons to step forward to do it.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Refugee crisis: if only we helped as much to make peace as to make war...

Have you seen the film Charlie Wilson’s War

It may not be Aaron Sorkin’s best screenplay, but his work’s so good that even a minor piece is worth more than what most others produce.  

Based on historical events, by the end we see Charlie Wilson, a far from pure Democratic Congressman from Texas, managing to bargain up the minimal support the US was prepared to give the mujahideen fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan, into a billion-dollar subvention providing, among other things, the missiles they could use to bring down Russian assault helicopters. Wilson had, in effect, engineered a victory for the anti-Soviet forces.

Then, however, he goes in search of a mere million to help build a school and is unable to win a hearing anywhere. For war, he could find money. For help in peacetime, none.

That’s interesting, given that within the mujahideen the US backed, were the Taliban who eventually seized control of Afghanistan, with lamentable results for the West. As we all know. A million for a school? Chickenfeed. A billion for weapons? Impressive but hardly breathtaking. How about nearly a trillion dollars spent by the US fighting its erstwhile Afghan allies up to the end of last year?

We too, in Britain, share this Western love of astronomic expenditure on war. The war in Iraq cost Britain £8.4 billion. That’s trivial compared to the US Defense Department’s estimates of its own direct expenditure of $757 billion, and Brown University’s estimate of total costs at $1.1 trillion, but it’s still a massive expenditure for a smaller country less used to making that kind of military outlay.

Tony Blair, the chief figure responsible for Britain’s involvement in that war as the Prime Minister of the day, still maintains it was worth fighting. The world, he has always claimed, is better without Saddam Hussein. That’s true enough – as long as what replaced him was an improvement.

We live in perpetual fear of the next terror attack in the West. But in neither Britain nor the US has anyone died in a terror attack so far in 2015 (unless you count US gun crime). In contrast, in Iraq there have been 3500 deaths already.

Far more serious still, the election of a government representing the majority of the population – a good thing – has led to the arrival in power of Shiite leaders and the exclusion to the point of alienation of the former rulers, Sunnis – not such a good thing. That in turn has been a fertile breeding ground for ISIS, which now controls a large part of Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

Tony Blair may be right that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a good thing, but his replacement by a failing state subject to constant terrorism, and above all the rise of ISIS, undo any good that came from it.

This is becoming increasingly critical today in Europe, as refugees driven from the region by ISIS atrocities begin to flood our borders. We’ve actually been fortunate not to have experienced the problem in its full intensity before: Lebanon, for example, with 4 million inhabitants has already taken a million refugees.
Refugees piling into trains in Hungary, aiming for Germany
What our £8.4bn – and the US trillion – bought us
Out £8.4 billion bought us a growing refugee problem. In an increasingly xenophobic country, that’s a terrible difficulty for a right wing government that isn’t particularly friendly towards immigration to start with, but likes to think of itself as Christian. In the face of a humanitarian catastrophe, clearly calling for a Good Samaritan response from anyone claiming to share the values of Jesus, David Cameron’s government is tearing around in panic trying to make it more difficult for migrants to reach the country.

This is in the face of a few thousand trying to reach Britain, compared to the 800,000, now expected to reach a million, forecast to be making for Germany.

The government claims to be doing more than one might think. It points to 5000 Syrians given asylum in this country, but fails to state that a great many of them were already here and were simply unable to return to their own country. In other words, they were students or tourists or businessmen – reasonably well off and probably able to cope with their exile. These were not the desperate individuals clinging to inflatables for the tricky crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands.

In one respect, though, the British government has adopted an intelligent policy: it feels the long-term solution lies in helping the home countries of the refugees to improve conditions, so that fewer leave in the first place. That’s certainly the best approach. However, when the government points to its investment of nearly £900 million over the next four years or Syria, one can’t help feeling it’s a little low compared to the £8.4 billion spent on war.

Equally, though the government is trying to make up for its passivity so far over the refugee flows by agreeing to take a few thousand from the camps inside Syria, that seems inadequate given that over 3 million have already left the country.

Isn’t that Charlie Wilson’s War again? So much to spend on war. So little on help.

Which reminds me of Aldous Huxley: ”that men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”