Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Sheffield's trees: a maze worthy of Kafka

Have you been following the scandal that I like to think of as Sheffield-street-tree-gate? No? You don’t know what you’re missing.

Let me start by giving a little background. This may seem a bit of a roundabout way of setting the context, but bear with me – it will make sense in time.

It’s his novel The Trial that made an adjective, Kafkaesque, out of Kafka’s name. In it, the protagonist K (and, no, the choice of that single letter is unlikely to be mere coincidence) comes under investigation for a crime without ever being told what it is. And yet, even if he doesn’t know what crime he’s accused of, he somehow knows that he’s guilty – a neat way of expressing the universal sense of guilt, over the harm that each of us has somehow done. In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, his contemporary Oscar Wilde said “each man kills the thing he loves.”

As any of us would, K does try to deny his guilt. But the policemen who arrest him make it clear there’s no point:

”Our authorities, as far as I know, and I only know the lowest grades, don’t go out looking for guilt among the public; it’s the guilt that draw them out, like it says in the law, and they have to send us police officers out. That’s the law. Where do you think there’d be any mistake there?”

“I don’t know this law,” said K.

“So much the worse for you, then,” said the policeman.

Near the end, K explains his predicament to a priest.

“But I’m not guilty,” said K. “there’s been a mistake. How is it even possible for someone to be guilty? We’re all human beings here, one like the other.”

“That is true,” said the priest, “but that is how the guilty speak.” 

Kafka's Trial: a vortex that sucks us in and grinds us down
The Sheffield street-tree scandal concerns the activity of a private company, Amey’s, that has been contracted by Sheffield City Council to look after its trees. It has started by felling a number of them, and in one particularly notorious incident, showed up at 5:00 in the morning, demanding that residents move their cars or have them crushed by falling trees. Two women aged 71 and 70 found themselves arrested for the first time in their lives when they tried to prevent the felling, prompting protests from Nick Clegg, the local MP, who denounced “scenes you’d expect in Putin’s Russia.” I suppose that, given the President Elect’s admiration for Vladimir, one might be tempted to add “or Trump’s America”.

This is the same Clegg who, as leader of the Liberal Democrats, made a pact with the devil by entering a coalition with the Tories. That kept David Cameron in power for five years with nothing achieved for himself but the reduction of his parliamentary presence from 62 to 8. 

But I digress. 

The Save Sheffield’s Trees group told the Guardian that if Ameys people “blitz the city’s trees in the first five years of their 25-year contract, they can spend the next 20 years with much lower maintenance costs”. I suppose some will see that view as unduly cynical. Not implausible, though, is it?

Another person arrested over the battle of the city’s trees is a Green Party member, Simon Crump. He apparently was held by the police for eight hours, but he believes it took that long because the police simply couldn’t find the right charge to bring against him in their computer.

“It was quite Kafkaesque,” he informed Helen Pidd of the Guardian. “I was being imprisoned because they couldn’t work out what to charge me with.”

He’s right. And no doubt, whatever it was the police thought he’d done, he was guilty as charged. 

Kafka would have been proud.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Misty's diary: coping with a puppy – principle and practice

Well, I told them. And when they didn’t listen, I showed them. I hope they’ve learned their lesson.

The domestic staff have introduced a new dog – or rather, far worse, a new puppy – to the household. I told them how badly I felt about that when they showed up with that little tyke Luci. I know I’ve got used to her and we basically get on OK now, but that’s no excuse for keeping on doing it. They can’t be in any doubt what a dim view I take of such proceedings on their part.

They went ahead anyway. The new thing’s about the size of a medium rat but with less meat on it, and apparently goes by the name “Toffee”. I’d warned them what would happen so when they blithely went on and did it, I acted on my warning. I vanished. I was gone. Vamoosed. Into the garden, over the fence and far away.

It’s true that the little Luci saw things differently.

“But you’re still coming back for your food, aren’t you?”

Well, of course I was coming back for food. You’ve got to eat, haven’t you? I mean, what does she think? How naïve can she be?

Still, mustn’t be too hard on her. She’s young and doesn’t get it. What I was doing by disappearing was taking a stand on principle. What I was doing by coming back for my food was taking appropriate action in practice. Principle is great but practice really has to come first.

After all, a principle stand makes you feel good about yourself, and boy do you need that when there’s a new puppy in your life. But not getting your feed can leave you feeling strangely thin, which must be a most bizarre feeling (I imagine) and would rather undo any good done by the stand on principle.

Anyway, I made my point. But you do have to show tolerance towards the benighted. So after a while I came back and hung around the house a bit, just to show them I didn’t hold grudges, and could be magnanimous towards the afflicted. Of course, I got a bit afflicted myself, by that Toffee-thing – it kept running at me and trying to nip my ears or my belly, worse than Luci when she was small – Luci was never that young, anyway – so I had to resort to some of the old tricks that I hoped were behind me for good, like hopping up on a dining chair under the table cloth, and laughing at her.

Safe on a dining chair:
out of reach but able to keep a baleful eye on puppy antics
Still, she seems less sensitive to that kind of behaviour than Luci was. She keeps coming back for more. Toughy-toffee, I say. Still, there’s nothing much a good cuff around the ear with velveted paw won’t cure, and for the few things it won’t there’s always just a gentle reminder administered with the very ends of my teeth. Delicate they are, my teeth, but if I say so myself, pleasingly sharp too.

I’m gratified to say that she seems to be a quick learner, that Toffee. The smallest of implied bites produces a little squeal and then a welcome cessation of annoying attention. Welcome peace.

What I don’t know, though, is why it’s always me that has to train these new arrivals. I did a good job with Luci, but you know how it is: a good job, well done is only ever rewarded by another even bigger job to take on. And toughy-Toffee’s certainly going to be a challenge.

Still, she has at least one weak point. I’ve never seen anyone like her with food. Once she’s got her head buried in a bowl of the stuff there’s no getting it out any more. I watched the domestics literally struggle to get a bowl away from her. She’s like a silent version of one of those ghastly vacuum cleaners they use on their carpets, though with her it only works with food bowls. Hers, Luci’s, anyone’s she can get her nose into.

I’m just glad my food’s up high, where I can get it but Luci can’t. It’s way out of Toffee’s reach. Long may it stay so.

Because if she ever got to it, I’d end up as hungry as if I’d disappeared in practice as well as in principle.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Do you believe the NHS is safe with the Tories? How Thatcher's behaviour exposed that lie

“The NHS is safe with us,” Thatcher told the nation – well, the Tory Party Conference, but we were all listening – in 1982.

It can take some time – in this case, over three decades – but eventually the truth will out, and the lie is exposed. At least, if you have a newspaper as effective as the Guardian to do the exposing.

It was three years ago that we discovered from papers published under the thirty-year rule, that back then Thatcher’s government had considered a proposal to end free Higher Education and to introduce vouchers to pay for school education, freeze benefits and, most toxic of all, to overthrow the founding principle of the NHS that healthcare should be free at the point of care, replacing the service by one based on insurance. As the paper containing the proposal pointed out, “This would of course mean the end of the National Health Service.”

As quoted in the Guardian: the killer phrase in the 1982 proposals
In her memoirs, Thatcher said, “I was horrified when I saw this paper. I pointed out that it would almost certainly be leaked and give a totally false impression … It was all a total nonsense.”

The government dropped the proposals after what her then Energy Secretary, Nigel Lawson, described as “the nearest thing to a cabinet riot in the history of the Thatcher administration.”

What has now emerged, from newly-published Treasury papers of her then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, is that Thatcher didn’t give up on the proposals herself but kept working on them with him. As he noted, “the prime minister has arranged a series of meetings with the main spending ministers to discuss the follow-up to the discussion in cabinet” on the proposals. Among other things, the discussions were to look into replacing some public services by “more efficient alternatives from the private sector.”

If Thatcher was horrified, it was clearly about the fact that the ideas “would almost certainly be leaked” rather than about the ideas themselves.

Now roll on thirty or more years.

There has been constantly extending privatisation of health services in England with little evidence that they provide better quality. In fact, they don’t even seem to be able to generate levels of profit that would persuade the private companies to keep delivering them – several major contracts have already had to be cancelled.

Meanwhile the NHS is facing an unprecedented level of financial crisis. The 2015/16 year was the second in a row which saw the service in England in deficit – and with three times the level as the year before. The much respected health think tank, the King’s Fund, comments:

The scale of the aggregate deficit makes it clear that overspending is largely not attributable to mismanagement in individual organisations – instead it signifies a health system buckling under the strain of huge financial and operational pressures. The recent strategy of driving efficiencies by cutting the tariff has placed disproportionate strain on providers and is no longer sustainable.

That reference to a “recent strategy” reveals that the problem has been caused by deliberate policy. The government is putting the NHS “under the strain of huge financial and operational pressures”. Unbearable strain, you might say. .

Is this an unfortunate consequence of a misguided policy? Or is it merely the continuation by other means of an approach already launched scouted over three decades ago by Thatcher? An approach that would necessarily lead to “the end of the National Health Service”?

It hardly matters how we answer those questions. What’s clear is that the notion that the “NHS is safe” with the Tories is just sand in the eyes of those too tired or too greedy to resist their propaganda.

Why, you might as reasonably believe that Tories will keep the poor safe.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Our age of political dilettantism...

Ken Loach is a great film maker. I could perhaps have done without the hackneyed story line of The Wind that Shook the Barley, but The Navigators or Sweet Sixteen are masterpieces as is, in a different genre, The Angels’ Share.

So I have great admiration for him in film, the area where he does outstanding work.

A scene from Sweet Sixteen: film-making is what Loach does best
Sadly, however, he’s recently decided to speak out on politics. Here his performance strikes me as rather more underwhelming. In fact, it strikes me as a pity that he’s wandered into this field at all – forbearance might have suited him much better.

He was quoted in the Guardian saying, “The deselection of MPs is presented as a threat [but] it is not a job for life. Labour party members have the right to be represented by someone they choose.”

Labour Party members, and I speak as one myself, have no such right. We shouldn’t try to arrogate it to ourselves. Our right is to select a candidate. Our duty is to try to choose one who is the best placed to represent the interests of those most requiring protection in the system in which we live. In other words, we should select candidates who, if elected, will be particularly good at representing those the Labour Party is committed to serve.

That doesn’t necessarily mean representing their views, but their interests. But it doesn’t mean representing them – voters and, above all, the least privileged of voters – not the membership of the Labour Party.

To me, the lesson of Loach’s foray into Labour politics seems that it’s probably better not to let amateurs (like him or, indeed, like me) call the shots. Which makes it all the more frightening to contemplate the other great political amateur of the day. He, sadly, hasn’t just made some silly statements about politics, but has been elected to the most powerful political office in the world, the Presidency of the United States.

Elected, that is, not by winning a majority of voters – he received 1.7m votes fewer than his opponent Hillary Clinton – but by dint of winning a majority in the electoral college that ultimately chooses the president. That makes him president-elect but it doesn’t make him the choice of the people, even though he speaks as though he had the authority such a mandate would give him.

Another popular vote that he certainly didn’t win was that of the British electorate. In Britain, he has all the authority – unfortunately – that holding the world’s most powerful office confers. He holds no authority to speak for Britain. So it was amusing in a dry kind of way when Donald Trump told the British government that it ought to appoint Nigel Farage as British ambassador to the States.

It was no surprise that Trump should make that particular choice. Farage leads the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, a thoroughly toxic organisation which uses xenophobia for a cover for what is actually downright racism. He is, in other words, a man very much after Trump’s heart.

What was more surprising was that Trump seemed to feel that his election, which will mean a huge change in personnel in Washington, would lead to a similar night of the long knives in London. Above all, he felt he had a say in the process.

In a long and not always salutary history – British behaviour towards the Americas left a lot to be desired, for instance, and there were far more deplorable incidents elsewhere – Britain has at least developed a reasonably sophisticated way of dealing with bumptious fools in diplomacy. liked pleased with the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary's response to Trump’s suggestion for a new ambassador.

“There is no vacancy,” they said.

From opposite ends of the political spectrum, Loach and Trump illustrate the same point, that amateurs do best to keep out of politics.

Loach is a man of huge talent. He ought to focus on the area where he shines. Trump, of course, is talentless.

Perhaps he could just sink into deserved obscurity at the earliest opportunity?

Monday, 21 November 2016

Drive people to despair and they do desperate things

Many of those US blue-collar workers, the natural constituency of the Democratic Party, who voted for Trump were driven by anger and frustration. Many find that even holding down two or three jobs, they still can’t make ends meet. Feeling let down by the system as it is, and feeling that the leaders they previously trusted are simply part of that same system, they turned to a more radical alternative.

In Britain, seven million people are now in precarious employment. They are in jobs in which they have no guaranteed hours, but they still have to make themselves available, with no assurance that they will be given anything to do or any pay for doing it. Others are given workloads that are all but impossible to clear, or require multiple hours of unpaid overtime to finish. It’s become easy and the norm for companies that hit any kind of financial problem to shed staff, so executives who have failed to achieve their own, often deeply unrealistic targets, can make others take the fall for their poor decisions.

We haven’t yet had a Trump in Britain. What we have had, however, is nearly seven years of government by the Conservative Party, alone (now) or as the dominant partner in a coalition (up to 2015). In its early days, it liked to claim that “we’re all in this together”. Now, under new management, the government claims to want to assist the “just about managing” or “JAMs”, the very people driven to desperation in the States, the ones who have to swim with all their strength to keep their noses just below water.

A new study shows, however, that without a major change of course, life for the JAMs is likely to get harder to the tune of £2500 a year less income by 2020. For all the pledges, desperation is set to increase for the already desperate.

If that kind of despair gave us Trump in the States, it’s likely to have as damaging an effect in Britain too. Or in France, where Le Pen lies in wait, or the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders is the likely beneficiary, or in a host of other countries where the far right is building a head of steam.

As American voters will discover over the next four years, the sad truth is that the leaders who come up with the simple answers – “get out of the European Union”, “drain the swamp”, “build a wall” – only make matters far worse for the very group that puts them in power.

What’s the alternative?

It has to be a leadership as radical and inspiring as Trump’s, but genuinely committed and not merely committed in words, to addressing the problems of those who are suffering such hardship today – and far worse hardship tomorrow. Unfortunately, in most countries those who should be providing that kind of leadership seem, like Hillary Clinton, to be tied to the system that creates the problem and unable to inspire confidence in those they ought to be representing.

The Democrats in the US are facing a particularly toxic Republican in the White House, whose party controls both Houses of Congress and will entrench a majority that shares its views in the Supreme Court.

The Socialist Party in France has led a failed government and is now expected to go down to comprehensive defeat in elections next year.

In Britain, the unions inflicted on the Labour Party a leader, Ed Miliband, who was likeable and intelligent, but could never convince voters that he could be Prime Minister. Now a majority of Labour’s membership has elected Jeremy Corbyn, not once but twice. He too seems likeable and intelligent; he certainly has a radical message but seems not to be getting it through to anything like sufficient numbers: Labour is languishing ten to fourteen points behind the Conservative Party, far too wide a margin to be attributed to the simple and now notorious inability of polling organisations to achieve accuracy.

Homelessness, on the rise in Britain, as is the use of food banks
Worse off by £2500 a year, by 2020. That represents around 10% of the median income in Britain today. A drop of that scale will drive up homelessness, hunger and disease among people who are already struggling. That is the price being paid by those least able to pay any price at all.

And it’s the price of Labour’s failure to win traction in the electorate. It underlines the urgency of addressing that problem today. For a lot of people, not just in Britain but across the developed world, tomorrow may be far worse.

As the election of Trump demonstrates.

Friday, 18 November 2016

There are lies, damned lies and straight bigotry. Then there are right-wing campaign pledges

How appropriate it is that ‘post-truth’ has been selected by the Oxford Dictionaries as the new word of the year.

It doesn’t refer to what happens after the truth. The ‘post’ means beyond the time a notion was relevant, as in ‘post-modernism’, the concept which expresses the baby-boomer conviction that modernity ended with their youth. After all, we invented sex, as Philip Larkin pointed out:

Sexual intercourse began 
In nineteen sixty-three 
(which was rather late for me) – 
Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban 
And the Beatles' first LP.

Post-truth is our current period in which truth is merely an optional, and not particularly desirable, adjunct to political discourse. There was a time when one felt politicians made unrealistic promises, or promises that were far-fetched aspirations rather than real deliverables, but avoided downright lies.

Not any more.

In Britain, the point was made powerfully during the Brexit campaign. Supporters promised leaving the EU would release £350m a week for the NHS. They knew the EU didn’t cost £350m a week and that any funds would be needed for other purposes, but that didn’t stop them.

Once they’d won their campaign, they simply announced that well, no, the money wouldn’t actually be available. But who cared? The point was to win, not to deliver.

The other side was as bad, of course. They claimed the economy would collapse if the electorate voted for Brexit. Because that didn’t happen many Brexiteers are now trumpeting the success of Britain outside the EU. That’s before the country’s even started the process of leaving. It also ignores the timelag, measured in months or even years, that economic change requires to make its effects felt.

Many have pointed to the links between Brexit and Trump’s campaign in the States. Rightly. Even if post-truth is their only common feature.

Let’s take one of Trump’s more toxic pledges. He promoted building a wall along the US-Mexico border to keep immigrants out. Now, though, Trump is admitting that stretches of his ‘wall’ would be more accurately described as ‘fence’. Much of that fence is already in place and it doesn’t work.

But he also had less vile ideas, even if he expressed them with ugly violence. ‘Drain the swamp’ is a brutal way of putting it, but who would oppose the underlying idea, of ending corruption and the power of naked money in Washington?

What, though, has Trump done since his victory? He has appointed four members of his immediate family to his transition team. One of them, Jared Kushner, is the son of Charles Kushner. In 2005, Charles was in federal prison on 18 counts of tax evasion, witness tampering and making illegal campaign donations.

Now, that’s not a reason for turning on his son: I don’t believe in visiting the sins of the father on the next generation. No, where the story turns ugly is when we come to Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, a keen Trump supporter who was expected to chair his Transition team. He had, however, been the very US Attorney who prosecuted Charles Kushner, describing his jailing as a “great victory for the people of New Jersey”. 

I like to picture the scene as Christie found himself in meetings with the son of the man he had jailed with such gloating triumph, and realised the victim’s son was going to have a major say over his political aspirations. The arrangement would prove career-limiting for Christie, who soon had to make his excuses and leave.

Kushner And Trump
The power behind the throne alongside its occupant?
He wasn’t the only one to go. An ally of Christie’s, Mike Rogers, previously a national security adviser to Trump, was the next out, followed on Wednesday of this week by Kevin O’Connor, another man close to Christie, who’d been leading on Justice matters in the Transition team.

So Trump has started the process of draining the swamp by appointing his son-in-law and giving him the power to settle old scores.

Meanwhile, he’s also appointed Steve Bannon Chief Strategist and Senior Counsellor. Bannon owes his reputation to promoting White Supremacist views on his Breitbart website, mouthpiece for the ‘alt-right’ (another candidate term for Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year, as a less offensive synonym of ‘crypto-fascist’).

As well as his track record for racial harmony, Bannon brings in a flavour of high finance, as a former Goldman Sachs executive. In other words, he represents precisely the kind of arrogant banking interests that made the swamp Trump claims to want to drain.

It seems that Trump didn’t really intend to drain the swamp any more than he planned to build his wall. But then, that wasn’t the purpose of the exercise, was it? Like the £350m a week for the NHS, this wasn’t a policy, just a trap for votes. It achieved its purpose not by being delivered itself, but by delivering a victory to the campaign that voiced it.

Truth? Who needs it when victory is more easily gained without? This is the post-truth epoch.

Oh well. These things are temporary. Perhaps someday we can make ‘post-far-right-lies’ the new term of the year.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Luci's diary: the irruption. With Toffee's view too

Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow! This is so exciting! There’s this huge dog living in my new home! She’s black and she’s called Luci and she’s so big she can get up on the sofa on her own. I can’t do that. I can get down, if the humans aren’t watching – they don’t like it when I do – and I don’t so much get down as splat, but at least at the end I’m on the floor. Luci just jumps on and jumps off when she wants.

I mean, she’s as big as a
cat. I know that because I’ve seen a cat now. That’s something else we have in this house. A whole cat. All of our own. Well, at least we used to. He seems to have vanished. But Luci says he’ll come back. She says he’s sulking, but I don’t know what that is. And she says he’s sulking because of me, but I don’t understand how he can be doing anything because of me. He’s ginormous. As big as Luci. Probably bigger.

Anyway, it’s all terribly exciting. And I’m having a great time. And everybody thinks it’s great I’m here.

Well, you’ll have guessed that wasn’t me talking. That was Toffee. The new puppy. She saw me doing my diary and said, “What’s that? What’s that? What’s that?” and when I’d told her, of course she wanted one too. But she can’t write – she’s only a little puppy – so I had to write it for her.

She’s only a puppy. Yes. You read that right. Like I said the other day, we – that’s Misty and me – started to get worried about maybe another puppy showing up. And how she has. She has, she has, and she's Toffee. And it looks like she’s here to stay.

Toffee's moved in. And is using my sofa
Turns out she’s a menace. I mean, making me write her diary wasn’t even the most infuriating thing she’s done. She may be smaller than a squirrel, but she gets anywhere. And once she’s got there, she does just what she wants.

For instance, she pushes me away from my food bowl. She goes burrowing in head first with never so much as a by-your-leave and helps herself. It got so bad that I left her my bowl and went and ate the food from hers. I thought that was quite smart but later I heard the humans saying they’d put my portion in her bowl and my portion in hers. That made me feel a bit silly. Still, at least I finished emptying her bowl – my portion – before she’d finished emptying my bowl – her portion – so I reckon I came out on top in the end.

Also she has to sleep in a cage downstairs and I get to sleep on the bed with the humans. So I’m definitely the top dog. As I tell her when she pushes me away from my food bowl.

The sad thing is that Misty’s gone away. I mean, not really completely away. I saw him last night in the garden and we compared notes.

Emergency meeting with Misty at night
To talk about the terrible thing happening
“They do this, the domestics,” he told me, “they bring some ghastly yapping little dog into the house without even consulting me. You’re living perfectly comfortably and then suddenly you’re being crowded out by puppies.”

“Well, to be fair, there’s only one.”

“Believe you me, one puppy can be a crowd. I know. I’ve been through this before.”

“What? With me? But we get on all right, don’t we?”

“Well, yes, but you’re different. And I’ve got you trained. But this one – I could tell at once – she’s untrainable. I’m making myself scarce.”

“But… but… Misty, you’re not really going away, I mean completely away?”

“Yep. This is it. They can’t keep doing this to me. I’ve had it. I’m off.”

“But… you’re here now, aren’t you?”

“Now? Well, of course. I haven’t had my dinner yet.”

“So… you’re only going to disappear between meals, then?”

He looked at me like he couldn’t expect me to understand.

“Naturally. What do you think? Chap’s got to eat. But I’m not hanging around with that ghastly little nuisance in there.”

Funny thing is, I’m not sure he’s right. I think maybe she can be trained. See, a couple of times she’s got me to come down off the sofa and chase around with her. She comes racing across the room towards me, those silly little paws making little clacky noises on the floor, and when I jump over her and head back for the sofa, she comes racing back. And then when I jump off next to her, she leaps up and down and tries to lick my nose.

And you know what’s odd? It’s quite fun.

Wouldn’t that be the worst thing of all? That ghastly little ball of fur moves in and starts pushing me around and eating my food. And I end up liking her.

Oh no. That can’t happen, can it? It would be too awful for words.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Lost in Translation? Lives may be at stake

In the grand days of the British Empire – or Empuh – we Engish speakers understood that if Johnny Foreigner didn’t understand what we were telling him, we just said it again, louder. After all, it was in his interests to cotton on, pronto. He needed to grasp our instructions to him before he faced the inevitable consequences of not carrying them out.

Things changed little as the accent of the English addressed to him became increasingly American. In fact, if anything, it was more important than ever that all those blighters, aliens as we liked to call them, learned God’s language because the stakes became even higher when they got into trouble for not knowing it.

The attitude prevails to this day, which is why foreign languages attract less and less attention in the curriculum of British schools. Or American ones, come to that.

Still. At the risk of sounding downright unpatriotic, this business of not knowing the lingo the lesser races speak has, occasionally, been a bit inconvenient to us rulers of the universe (sorry, don’t want you to think that we’re all of us rulers of the universe – I should have said the small number of us who take on the terrible burden of ruling the universe for the sake of all mankind). Take, for example, the run-up to that nasty spot of unpleasantness between the United States and the Empire of Japan. You know, in the Pacific, starting in December 1941. A business both sides could have well done without.

It seems things might have been just a bit helped by a better understanding of Japanese in the months before war broke out. Or, putting it another way, sometimes having a bit of information can be worse than having none at all. And if they’d grasped the language, the Yanks might have been considerably better off. Especially the ones who got killed or injured in said unpleasantness.

The Secretary of State of the time was Cordell Hull. And he had the benefit of code-breaking services that deserved their name of ‘Magic’. For instance, all messages from the Japanese Foreign Secretary Shigenori Tōgō to his negotiating in Washington were being cracked.

But then they had to be translated.

His translators led Hull to believe Tōgō had written to his team:

Well, the relations between Japan and the United States have reached the edge and our people are losing confidence in the possibility of ever adjusting them.

He should have read:

Strenuous efforts are being made day and night to adjust Japanese-American relations which are on the verge of rupture.

John Toland, who describes these exchanges in his invaluable book, The Rising Sun, tells us that many Japanese commentators think the translation errors of the time were deliberate. Toland doesn’t agree: “It is far more likely that the inaccuracies came from ignorance of the stylised Japanese used by diplomats. It is also possible that the hastily-trained translators wanted to make their copy more readable and interesting.”

The errors could be serious. For instance:

Conditions both within and without our empire are so tense that no longer is procrastination possible, yet in our sincerity to maintain pacific relationships between the Empire of Japan and the United States of America, we have decided, as a result of these deliberations, to gamble once more on the continuance of the parlays.

would have been better translated as:

The situation both within and outside the country is extremely pressing and we cannot afford any procrastination. Out of the sincere intention to maintain peaceful relations with the United States, the Imperial government continues the negotiations after thorough deliberations.

Worse still, the sentiment rendered as:

This time we are showing the limit of our friendship, this time we are making our last possible bargain, and I hope we can thus settle all our troubles with United States peaceably.

was really:

Now that we make the utmost concession in a spirit of complete friendliness for the sake of peaceful solution, we hope earnestly that the United States will, on entering the final stage of the negotiations, reconsider the matter and approach this crisis in a proper sprit with a view to preserving Japanese-American relations.

So what ensued was a dialogue of the deaf. Or perhaps deafness wasn’t the issue: we might say that, on the American side at least, what we had a team that was partially sighted – and that was perhaps worse than having no sight at all.

Pearl Harbor: a disaster that might have been avoided
with better knowledge of modern languages?
The negotiations, perhaps inevitably, failed. On 7 December, Japanese forces launched a devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. That started a war that would leave at least 2.5m Japanese dead and 106,000 Americans (in the Pacific Theatre).

And we still think that mastering foreign languages isn’t that important a goal?

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Luci's diary: worrying times

Strange things are happening. I don’t get what’s going on at all. And I don’t like it.

Human number 2 went out at lunchtime and came back with some wonderful bags. A big one of food and a small one of treats. Oh, the scent was just fantastic. I made a beeline for them and sniffed in a meaningful way. So meaningful that I don’t think anyone could have misunderstood. But instead of opening the bags and giving me a taste, the human said something that left me completely confused.

“No, Luci, sorry, it’s not for you. This if for your new little friend.”

New little friend? What friend? My friend is Misty our cat, and no one could call him little. I mean, he’s twice my size.

In fact, it was Misty who got me really frightened.

“What’s this puppy business?” he asked me.

“Puppy?” I said, “Well, that would be me, wouldn’t it? I’m the puppy.”

“You? A puppy? Good Lord, woman, you’re two. When I was two I was dominating a neighbourhood. I hadn’t been a kitten for a year and a half.”

“I’m not a puppy any more?” It was a chilling thought. I’ve been the puppy for ages. I’m not sure I’m ready to stop.

“Well, you’re not. So let me say it again: what’s all this puppy business?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know about any other puppy. Why are you asking?”

“Well, those bags that domestic number 2 came back with. They say ‘puppy’. Why?”

“The bags? They say ‘puppy’? How can a bag say anything?”

“It’s written on them.”

That’s the thing about Misty. He’s terribly clever. He can tell what bags and cans and packets and things are saying. It’s all this writing stuff. It’s wonderful. Magical, really. Not sure I’d want to be one myself, but it’s a good thing having an intellectual in the family.

“Mark my words,” he said, “they’re up to no good. They’re plotting something. And it’s not satisfactory.”

Oh, I’m so worried. What are they up to? I don’t know what Im supposed to do. 

Maybe I’ll just have a sleep. I find that always helps when things turn tense. It stops me worrying.

The best solution to any problem

Friday, 11 November 2016

It was a triumph for Trump. But for democracy? Not so much

It’s become a bit of a recurring refrain these days: you have to bow to the will of the people. And you have to learn to listen to them.

If you’re in any sense a democrat, then the first statement is so obvious as hardly to need saying. So why do people say it? 

Because they mean rather more than you might think. What they mean is that not only should we bow to the will of the majority, but we should like it. That’s no part of the democratic compact. We have every right to oppose a decision of the people and to try to amend it; the only obligation on us is to accept that if the will of the people remains firm, we have to acquiesce to its ultimately being acted upon, however much we dislike.

What about listening to people? I keep being told that too, and it’s another obvious idea. So again the people who say it must mean more than the words suggest. They are asking us not so much to listen, but to go along with what we’re hearing. If people are saying that there are too many immigrants, I feel I can listen and then explain, yet again, in the clearest possible terms, and with as much patience as I can muster, that they’re problems aren’t being caused by immigrants.

Indeed, by focusing on immigrants, they let off the hook the very groups they should be targeting: employers pressing down on wages, reducing rights at work, making jobs as precarious as possible, all with the support of a government that regards being “business-friendly” as meaning backing those employers, reducing their taxes while increasing everyone else’s, and recouping the money by cutting back on benefits. Opposing racism, as well as being morally right, also makes good economic sense. So I’m fully prepared to listen, but not with a view to reaching some kind of compromise with notions that are both repugnant and counter-productive.

What does all this mean in practice, right now? Well, in the US, we are under an obligation to accept the outcome of the 8 November election. It was fought under long-accepted rules – the provisions of the US constitution – and Trump won. We have to accept that he has the right to occupy the White House.

But that’s as far as I’m prepared to go towards all those people who tell me to knuckle down and stop complaining about his victory. Why shouldn’t I complain? It is perfectly democratic to prepare to oppose him. And this is particularly true in the case of Trump: his victory may have been won under the rules, but it wasn’t democratic, in the strict sense that it did not reflect the will of the people. Why?

Trump: elected but not democratically
Because Hillary Clinton beat him. She took 60,556, 142 votes to his 60,116,240, a clear majority of 439,902 even though it was small (under 0.4%).

Why was she denied?

Well, as its name implies, the United States was set up by a bunch of states which agreed to pool their sovereignty. They certainly weren’t prepared to give up all control over their lives though they went a great deal further than, say, the European Union, where states are retaining so much of their sovereignty that one of them, Britain, is even packing its bags and leaving.

One of the impacts of the retention of states’ rights in the US was that the President would not be elected directly by the people but the states, though with each state casting a vote weighted to reflect the size of its population. In other words, the President is elected indirectly with voters only choosing electors, state by state, and the electors choosing the President.

This can obviously create a situation where the people’s choice is out of line with the electors’, as it did this week. The phenomenon is relatively rare but, strangely, it has happened twice in the last five elections. In 2000, Republican George Dubya Bush beat Al Gore despite having fewer votes, before Donald Trump pulled off the same trick against Hillary Clinton this week.

Just in case anybody has forgotten, Dubya was the man who seemed to fulfil HL Mencken’s famous forecast:

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

He took us into the Iraq War, one of the most appalling decisions of recent decades, which has left the Middle East in chaos and led to the emergence of so-called ISIS with the atrocities that we know followed.

Now we have Donald Trump elected in the same way, against the will of the people. This is encouraging, if only because it shows that there’s still a majority in the US against the unstable bigotry Trump represents. He seems likely to illustrate Mencken’s prediction about the Presidency, even more fully than Dubya did.

So, Trump has won the office, in accordance with the rules. We have to accept that. But he doesn’t represent the will of the people and lacks democratic legitimacy.

Given the fear we must have that he’ll take decisions even more catastrophic than Dubya’s over Iraq, why on Earth shouldn’t we oppose them?

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The trump, trump, trump of repressive boots

Nothing excuses the German election of a ranting, bigoted demagogue in the 1930s. But at least one can understand the trauma of a nation that had been beaten in a ruinous war, only to stumble into an unprecedented financial crisis in which the cost of living rose fifteen-fold in just six months of 1922; barely had they stabilised their currency than they were hit by the great depression and watched unemployment climb to 30%. One can understand the despair and therefore the blind groping that drove a large enough minority (the Nazis never won a majority) to choose an inexcusable, and false, solution to their problems.

But what explains the Americans? One of the wealthiest nations on Earth, the United States has 4.9% unemployment and inflation inching towards 1.6%. So why choose another hate-filled merchant of fear? The worst problem economically in the US is that wealth is so badly distributed, so that a small percentage of enormously rich individuals can hire or fire at will, forcing others to live precariously and on inadequate incomes – but the Americans have just chosen one of those individuals to occupy the White House.

Indeed, he has promised to do away with the one significant achievement of Obama’s White House, the one measure designed to alleviate the inequity of wealth, the Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’).

They have chosen a man who has promised the impossible: to bring industries back to the rust belt, to build a wall against illegal immigration, to prevent terrorists gaining entry to the US. He can only disappoint but he’ll wreak terrible suffering along the way: arrests, deportations, denial of basic rights.

Along that road, women will lose essential rights over their own bodies, and the major social progress of the last half century, towards toleration of minorities, most notably of LGBT communities, will be at least partially rolled back. And yet many women voted for Trump in preference to Clinton, though they know he holds them in contempt. Indeed, the only white demographic in which she won a majority was among educated white women – and even then, she only took 51%.

One of the more telling images of this most divisive election
The key word in that last paragraph is “white”. Something ugly has happened in the US. I can’t help feeling that what’s going on is the re-emergence of a white supremacist temptation that many feel, and most had learned to suppress in recent decades. Obama had seized the White House and, though he pulled off the feat of re-election in 2012, I suspect there is a widespread feeling among many whites that his success showed blacks getting altogether too uppity. With a candidate who openly expressed these feelings and therefore seemed to legitimise them, far too many were prepared to turn to him.

They did so despite the clear warnings he’d given of the damage he would do with the power they were handing him.

Trump’s is the victory of fear and hatred over reason and tolerance. Sadly, that’s by no means a purely US phenomenon. It emerged strongly in Britain too, in June, when the country voted to leave the European Union. At the time, there was much talk of the need to protect sovereignty and put an end to the erosion of supposed British rights. The reality was clear before and has been confirmed since, that the true concern was with keeping minorities at arms’ length.

Even Theresa May has been openly proclaiming that what the electorate voted for was tighter control of immigration. In other words, just like the white American voters fearful of people who look different from them, or have sex differently, or worship differently, Britain voted to throw up the walls and keep the foreigners out. I know a number of long-term foreign residents in Britain, and there have been media reports of many others, who were asked within hours of the referendum vote when they’d be leaving.

Xenophobes and white supremacists felt legitimised in Britain by the Brexit vote, as they did by the Trump campaign in the States.

On both sides of the Atlantic, a small majority of closed-minded individuals, driven by basic – and base – feelings of hatred and fear have taken control of the destinies of us all. There are grim times ahead. There will undoubtedly be regression, on many fronts. Hard though it is, we have to keep up our spirits and continue pressing as effectively as we can for a return to progressive, tolerant, open-minded attitudes. We have to maintain our hope that in time those better values will prevail.

With, I’m afraid, absolutely no guarantee that they will. Though if we don’t keep up the pressure, we can guarantee they won’t.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Thatcher and Brexit: voters sometimes get it wrong

Here’s an article not to miss: Larry Elliott in The Guardian on a study into the hollowing-out of manufacturing in Britain. From a peak of 8.9m jobs, industrial employment has fallen to 2.9m jobs over fifty years. That trend and, in particular, its harshest period in the 1980s, has cost the nation dear. Indeed, the authors maintain they can quantify the cost as between £20bn and £30bn a year.

A lot of the cost is in benefits being paid in communities where there is no longer a hope of a job, together with the corresponding loss in income tax revenue.

Back in March 2009, I wrote about the town of Conisbrough in South Yorkshire, where I had lived and taught for seven months in 1971. It was a mining village and, when I was there, it had a population of 16,000. By the time I came to write about it, the mine had closed and the population had fallen to 10,000. Within that population, close to 30% were either unemployed or classified as disabled or ill, often a way of veiling unemployment. A thriving community had been broken.

Cadeby Main, Conisbrough. Drew its last coal in 1987
So Larry Elliott’s article struck a chord for me. What I hadn’t realised was the extent of the harm the destruction of Britains industrial base had caused. That figure of £20-30bn represents about half of the government’s deficit. We have been through six years of devastating austerity policies that have generated mover poverty, ostensibly to reduce the deficit, and yet we could have avoided half of it just by not wrecking our industrial bedrock back in the 1980s.

Who was in government at that time? When the worst damage was done? When mining was effectively ended? Why, the sainted Margaret Thatcher. The woman still revered today, and certainly supported by a sufficient numbers then to give her healthy majorities in parliament at election after election. That fixation among voters has left a legacy of deep economic damage and, as a result, far more acute suffering now as we struggle to recover from the crash of 2007–8.

It seems that the electorate doesn’t always get things right.

That’s why I smile wryly when people tell me that we who oppose Brexit have to go with the will of the people expressed in the referendum of 23 June. My view is that Brexit too is going to have devastating economic consequences.

Many are saying that the catastrophe forecast by the Remain campaign in the runup to the vote hasn’t materialised. But those forecasts were always nonsense. They were propaganda weapons used by ministers, in particular David Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who lacked the energy or the intellectual horsepower to make a cogent case for remaining in the EU. Instead, they resorted to fear tactics, and failed.

Economic damage doesn’t manifest itself in a few weeks or months. It can take years. Inflation hasn’t taken off yet but we can already see the upward pressure caused by a falling pound. Unemployment has barely moved but we can see a big increase in businesses delaying investment decisions. We don’t yet have to contend with the loss of trade that our actual departure from the EU will entail (let’s remember that we are still members for now) but we’re already seeing Narendra Modi, Indian PM, pressurising Theresa May to relax visa restrictions in return for new deals – Brexiter claims that Britain will be negotiating from a position of strength are due to be sorely disappointed.

Incidentally, there is a delicious irony in May offering concessions on visa regulations for India – a move I favour, incidentally – since many Brexiters claim that leaving the EU would allow the UK to strengthen border controls.

But the biggest point of all is that the damage to the economy will be similar to what we experienced when Thatcher wrecked our manufacturing base. It wasn’t immediately obvious how deep the harm would be, though many warned about it. Now, thirty years on, we’re living with the consequences and the study Larry Elliott talks about quantifies them for us.

In thirty years’ time Britain will be living with the consequences of Brexit on top of the legacy of Thatcher. The pain will be all the greater.

And you’re telling me I’m being anti-democratic to oppose going down that route because 52% of the population against 48% think we ought to?

Voters have a democratic right to make a mistake and I raise no objection to that. However, the Thatcher experience shows us that they sometimes get it disastrously wrong. Then we all have to pay the price, even if we were in the minority. In the Thatcher case, and I expect the Brexit case, even if weren’t born at the time. 

So why shouldn’t those of us who don’t agree keep saying No?

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Happy Brexit Guy Fawkes

Well, it’s that time of year again. Guy Fawkes Day. When we Brits bring our kids out to celebrate the torturing to death of a seventeenth-century dissident.

We build big bonfires and burn him in effigy on top. Everyone stands around eating sausages and having a wonderful time. Then we let off fireworks to celebrate his death.
Guy Fawkes:
the celebration of torture the whole family can enjoy
His crime was to have tried to blow up Parliament. He was caught, in the night of 5 November 1605, checking out the barrels of gunpowder ready to be set off the next day. Burning, which is how he ended, was just the culmination of the things that were done to him during the short remainder of his life.

Interestingly, I imagine a lot of people, particularly amongst those supporting Brexit – British departure from the European Union – will be inclined to remember him fondly. They would like Parliament blown up, especially following Wednesday’s decision of the High Court that Parliament should be consulted about the launching of the Brexit process.

Supporters feel that this is an unnecessary delay in the process that they want completed as quickly as possible. They know Theresa May, as head of government, would ensure that happened; Parliamentary scrutiny would only be an obstacle to her and should, therefore, be avoided.

There’s a curious paradox there. Most of these Brexiters see the delay as a denial of democracy, because it seems to conflict with the referendum which came down on the side of leaving the EU. So, in the name of democracy, they oppose the parliamentary oversight of the behaviour of Ministers for which democrats in Britain have battled for centuries. That’s how casually people can opt to discard rights, in the name of other rights they think matter more. They forget that, in or out of the EU, Britain needs to keep the same tight rein on government as any other nation that wishes to act democratically.

In that respect, Brexiters are right to see Guy Fawkes day as their kind of celebration. After all, where the United States and France hold their national days – in July rather than November, which is already a sensible move for an outdoor celebration – to commemorate acts of the people against oppression, in Britain we celebrate the crushing of a rebellion and the upholding of executive power.

Consciously or unconsciously, Brexiters are also keen backers of the executive over the representatives of the people.

In another sense, though, Guy Fawkes isn’t entirely their champion. The aim of his plot was to blow up the King with his Parliament. In other words, the chief executive of the nation as well as its legislators. The target wasn’t just the bridle on government, but government itself. And it’s the power of government that Brexiters proclaim.

Besides, the conspiracy was one of Catholics. They wanted to end the power of a national, Protestant regime and see Britain re-enter the greater union of Christendom embracing most of Europe and with its heart in Rome. Imagine: Brexiters find Brussels bad enough, so one can picture their abhorrence at rule from nasty, southern, hot and sweaty Rome. Why, even Northern Italians say that Africa starts at Rome.

So maybe Brexiters should be a little ambivalent about today’s feast. It may not be as entirely favourable to their point of view as they think.

Even so. Brexiters or Remainers, I wish you all a great firework display. Enjoy the sausages. I raise my metaphorical glass of mulled wine your good health.

Happy Guy Fawkes!

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Brexit: the High Court speaks for the British Constitution

Today, the British High Court decided that the government could not, on its own authority alone, launch the procedure that would take Britain out of the EU.

Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the Lord Chief Justice
presided over the historic hearing
That’s the exercise known as “triggering article 50”, referring to the relevant article of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty. It states:

Any member state may decide to withdraw from the union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.

Sounds straightforward. Britain voted for Brexit on 23 June and, despite the regrets of Remain supporters like me, all we have to do now is trigger the article 50 process and go. But, as always, the devil’s in the detail.

The first awkward bit of detail is a problem I’ve mentioned before: just how far out do we go? Do we leave the Single Market? Do we leave the Customs Union? All options have their merits and their disadvantages. They need to be weighed and judged. And the great question is – by whom?

‘By whom’ takes us straight to the second tortuous detail, which is the one that was addressed by the Court today. It’s all about those words “in accordance with its own constitutional requirements”. Just what are those requirements in a nation without a written constitution?

Many of us feel that much of British history has been about the conflict between an executive power originally represented by the monarch and a body that has increasingly come to represent the people, Parliament. All the progress there has been towards freedom, and there’s a lot further to go, has gone hand in hand with increasing the authority of the Legislative power over the Executive.

Now the peculiar characteristics of British power is that this long process has moved executive authority from the Monarch to Ministers who are themselves Members of Parliament. So that ancient tension has now been internalised within Parliament, opposing a powerful minority, the members of the Government, to the majority, all other MPs.

Those of us who would like to see British liberties protected and, ideally, extended are on the side of the Parliamentarians. Unfortunately, a great many people see far more efficiency in action being taken by the Executive untrammelled by such oversight. They particularly favour that approach if they see the government about to take action they like – so, for instance, a lot of Brexiters want Parliament to back off and let the Prime Minister, Theresa May, trigger the exit process herself, on her own authority, without referring the matter to Parliament at all.

In its judgement, the High Court’s view is that this isn’t the right way to go. Brexit is a key decision for the nation. The government should not be able to take it alone. It should, at the very least, obtain Parliament’s assent to it.

The irony is that if the government asks for that approval, it will almost certainly get it. A few MPs will stand up for the Remain cause and vote against triggering Article 50. Far more will see doing so as a defiance of the will of the people expressed in a referendum, which they consider wrong, or at least career-limiting.

David Lammy is a Labour MP who says he would vote against triggering Article 50. But, he claims, the real issue isn’t whether individual MPs vote for or against, it’s that they should have a vote at all. As he says, “it’s about whether you believe in a sovereign parliament.”

David Lammy:
anti-Brexit parliamentarian strong on principle
I do believe in parliamentary sovereignty, so I’m in favour of their getting that vote. That’s a curiously topical matter. Just yesterday, Lord Chilcot, who wrote the damning report on British involvement in the Iraq War, was questioned by MPs. His view was that the problem was caused by the dominating personality of Tony Blair, who drove his government into the war and refused all parliamentary scrutiny. It seems particularly appropriate that the next day a court has ruled that, on an equally crucial issue, parliament must have its say.

The government will appeal the decision, so that might still not happen. My hope is that the Supreme Court upholds the High Court, and Parliament gets to take the decision – even if it goes against me and in favour of Brexit.

So much for the matter of principle. .

At a more pragmatic level, and in the longer run, having Parliament take the decision does suggest that there’s a glimmer of hope for those of us who’d like to remain in the EU. MPs consulted about Brexit may also be consulted about the final Brexit terms. It will be quite a time before negotiations reveal what those terms will be, but when they’re known, Parliament should vote again.

That takes us back to the first point of awkward detail I mentioned earlier. What kind of Brexit is going to be on offer? Many people tell me that Brexit means Brexit and that means getting out of every single European institution. Well, I think if we get that far, the prospect may start to look so utterly appalling that more MPs might feel they can, in conscience, vote against it. So, in order to avoid a disastrous Brexit, they might refuse a Brexit at all.

That’s why, for both principle and pragmatism, I think the High Court’s judgement is the best piece of EU news we’ve had since that sad night of 23 June.

An excellent reason to salute it.