Pageant of the Toothless

Dominic Cummings’ piteous press conference is rightly being cited as yet more evidence that he and his host are wholly contemptuous of public opinion. In Cummings’ case this can’t possibly be a surprise if, as The Times reported in March, his initial strategy was ‘herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad’. By that yardstick, he’s contemptuous of our actual lives, never mind our opinions. Indeed, his cross country jaunt to his family’s estate of farms (surely where he first conceived his war on the elite) may have been this shirt sleeves rolled up man of action’s attempt to restart his original plan single-handed.

But let’s leave the particulars of Cummings’ Progress to one side and focus on his interrogation at the hands of Britain’s finest political journalists. This should have been a bloodbath, with the press pack rounding on the wounded gazelle trembling in the long grass of the Downing Street Rose Garden. Instead, this herd of hacks, grown fat and lazy on a steady diet of press releases and off the record briefings, barely bit a lump out Cummings scaly hide.

Instead, we suffered Laura Kuenssberg (who won’t bite on anything that isn’t slathered in her favourite Downing Steet Sauce), Robert Peston, Beth Rigby, and others all taking it in turns to ask Cummings how he felt, whether he was sorry, how he felt the nation felt about him, and what he felt the nation felt about what he felt about them, and a string of other mostly fatuous non-questions and appeals to empathise with those who have followed lockdown to the letter and at great personal cost. Factual questions were few and far between and there appeared to be no appetite to test the cohesion or facticity of Cummings’ account. If only they’d turned on their Twitter. They’d have seen questions being screamed at the screen, all presumably too obvious for those who luxuriate in six-figure salaries to conceive:

  • Does your wife drive?
  • Why would you take your wife and small child with you on a trip to test whether you were safe behind the wheel?
  • Why did you need to travel to Barnard Castle and back to check your eyes?
  • You’re ‘not sure’ whether you needed to fill your tank on a 500-mile round journey – what do you drive, a petrol tanker?
  • Why did the PM deny you’d been to Barnard Castle?

Instead, we got a circus of preening and grandstanding, of a hectoring tone being used to hide pulled punches and under-arm bowling. If I were on trial, I would hope to get a prosecutor of Robert Peston’s calibre. He’d likely get me free pardon and the latest iPhone. They all got their little moment in the sun and their clip to run on their bulletins. They each got to tremble with controlled rage on behalf of the public and burnish their credentials as a champion of the people and scourge of the elites. They have that in common with Cummings. All purport to be on the side of ‘ordinary people’ while showing them contempt. A succession of facades, interrogating a fraud.

Bad Medicine

The ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, in his Bibliotheca historica, tells of the Brazen Bull. It was created by Perillos of Athens for Phalaris of Akragas (now Agrigento in Sicily). The Bull was made from bronze, hollow, and had room for a single occupant. Perillos fashioned the Bull’s head with a series of pipes so that, when the occupant was shut inside and a fire lit beneath, their screams would be as the ‘melodious of bellowings’ as they roasted. Perillos was proud of his invention and probably quite hurt when Phalaris, horrified, ensured that he was the first to try it out.

I mention this tale only in passing, as I imagine there are many recent or imminent corpses who voted Tory in December on the assumption that it would be only other people who got roasted in the fire of ‘getting Brexit done.’

There’s a symmetry between Covid-19’s effect on the body and upon the body politic. In both cases, it’s most deadly to those who are already weakened. And Britain surely has a long list of comorbidities: toxic inequality, elevated poverty, fractured infrastructure, palsied public services (including atrophied public health programmes), and a septic press. Forty years of the same crank medicine and the doctors picking our pockets have left Britain an emaciated, impoverished apparition, barely covered by a cloak of newsprint. It’s been chemo without the therapy.

It’s banal to say that the senior members of the government aren’t doing a good job, but let’s remember that combatting a global pandemic wasn’t the reason Boris Johnson entered politics, which was Boris Johnson. The entirety of the newsmedia’s coverage is shaped by the assumption that our political leaders sincerely care about protecting the public as best they can. And of course, many people in senior positions within our bureaucracy do care, but why assume that Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and so on do? Have they ever shown any indication of caring before? Even before this, the signs were there, but as a nation we noted them with all the apparent concern of Fred West’s corner shopkeeper pondering his healthy purchases of black sacks and air freshener. They’ve not even been particularly assiduous about counting the corpses, having decided only yesterday that care home residents count as human. Oh, for the heady days when ‘we don’t do body counts’ was reserved only for the brown unpeople living on top of our oil.

How apt, then, that the newly restored Prime Minister describes us as coming to the end of the first phase of the ‘conflict’. Meanwhile, medals are minted, we hold a minute’s silence for heroes not so much fallen as tripped, and Tobias Ellwood suggests the Red Arrows and other military aircraft should perform flyovers of British cities — because nothing raises the morale of lifesavers as much as being buzzed by machines built to crush lives under rubble.

The war idiom has always been a profitable one for the Tories; particularly recently as it’s how many of their supporters (those still alive) understand our relationship with the EU. It also helps the Government excuse its many, egregious failings. It would have been acceptable to ask nurses to reuse aprons when our the country was being rattled by German bombs, but not when the worst hardship most of us have had to face is Netflix going down. This is not a war; it is the shadow of decades of theft and neglect.

Yet, if polls are accurate, the British public is as happy as their great grandparents to climb out of the trenches and march pointlessly into enemy fire because ‘we’re all in it together’. We’ve been gulled this way before. As the late Alex Carey wrote, because modern wars require broad-based support, wartime propaganda ‘idealizes the humane, egalitarian, democratic character of the home society in a way that no elite or business interest has any intention of allowing actually to come about.’[1] Coronavirus is being painted as the equivalent of war and we’re being mollified with the same promises of a fairer society tomorrow. We need to be vigilant: as soon as the crisis abates, the people who have long prospered at our expense will try to press the reset button and their media will work to make us forget the promises and blame the victims. That is the real fight ahead – not to forget.

[1] Alex Carey (1996) Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, p. 137.

The Veil of Ignorance

Mass graves are a traditional British gift to foreigners, so it was a bit of a jolt to read that the freshest is in Chislehurst. The news every day is grim, and COVID-19 may eventually kill so many vulnerable and infirm people that the Tories have no choice but to give it a peerage. So, we should probably thank the BBC and much of the press for trying to take our minds off the mounting bodies by focussing on the personal journey of our beloved Prime Minister. As the Daily Telegraph’s Allison Pearson, working from home in Pyongyang, told us recently, ‘For millions of people, that was our first thought upon waking yesterday. And our last thought before we fell asleep the night before.’  When Johnson was taken to intensive care, I’m surprised Pearson didn’t exhort us all to save him by clapping our hands to prove we still believe in Borises.BorisFronts

It was almost obligatory to say that the PM was in ‘good spirits’, whether he was enjoying Withnail and I or doing the odd Sudoku. I like to imagine him, sitting up in bed in his ‘good spirits,’ sharing his love of mathematical brainteasers with the Ward Sister, her exhausted smile fixed as she repeatedly tries to divide one face mask between five nurses. The Health Secretary, inexplicably Matt Hancock, has recognised the dearth of PPE and responded by promising a badge (which I suspect won’t really be large enough) and urging NHS staff not to be greedy and to only use the right amount – very much a case of adding insult to infection.  Priti Patel – who even Hancock would have to concede needs at least two face masks — has said she is ‘sorry if people feel’ there isn’t enough PPE, if nurses wrapped in bin liners feel that they don’t have enough aprons. At least as a nation we’re experimenting with radical approaches to the problem – ignoring the obvious route of taking multiple opportunities to join the EU ventilator scheme and instead sourcing them directly from Holby City.

But I’m being uncharitable. This is an unprecedented challenge and we should be grateful that this time the Government is killing us through incompetence rather than as part of an ‘ideological project causing pain and misery’. Because COVID-19 is still in the little league when it comes to killing the poor, elderly, and sick. It’s only managed 20,000 so far and is far less sophisticated in its targeting than, say, Universal Credit.

But COVID-19 has shone unneeded light on the problems that afflict 21st Century Britain. Rough sleepers have been accommodated in hotels after Luke Hall MP, the Minister for Local Government and Homelessness, told councils that ‘it is now imperative that rough sleepers and other vulnerable homeless are supported into appropriate accommodation,’ presumably as it hadn’t been imperative since way back in 2012 when the Met allegedly cleansed a path for the Olympic Torch. Or maybe we really do want to protect vagrants from dying of COVID-19 before they’ve had the opportunity to freeze to death. At least when all this is over, they’ll be able to take full advantage of a greatly expanded supply of empty shop doorways.

Has it really taken the current crisis to persuade us that no one should have to sleep on the streets, that you can’t live on £94 a week, that nobody should be made homeless because they can’t afford to pay their rent, and that we need to pay healthcare workers a decent wage? Who needed a virus to show them that the country is manifestly, hugely, consciously, suicidally unfair? Emily Maitlis, it seems.

Or is this stirring of popular compassion merely collective hedging of our bets borne from a temporary sense of shared vulnerability; John Rawls’ theory of justice enacted as an emergency power because we’re all living behind a veil of ignorance as to who will be next? I might not be alright Jack, so let’s deal with some of those ‘burning injustices’ — at least until we get Brexit done. And once the virus has receded? How long before we stop clapping for nurses and leave the survivors to trudge back to the foodbanks?

Review: An Evening With Brian Blessed

The lights at the Ipswich Corn Exchange dimmed on its 1500 occupants and the first bars of “Flash” by Queen began to throb from the sound system. An inevitable walk-on track, but no less effective for it. And then, after the ‘Ah-aaaahh,’ Brian Blessed strode on to the stage and was instantly everything one ever wants him to be: thunderous, gleeful, theatrical, grand. A broad, tall galleon of a man. The word ‘Epic’ written in block capitals hewn from flesh, bone, and beard. The staging was minimal. A throne, a table, and a glass of water. With Blessed on the boards, there wasn’t room for much else.

First came the most necessary fan service, several lusty bellowings of his signature:

GORDON’S ALIVE!!!!!

…leading into a clutch of anecdotes about the variety of countries and absurd situations in which he’s been asked to declaim the catchphrase that has followed him since 1980.

prince-vultan.jpg.480x0_q71_crop-scaleAnd then we were into a loosely structured series of anecdotes, reflections on his early life and career, and his musings on the world. There was no multimedia content, no photo montages or contrived segues into clips from his past performances. This was more like a long chat with an eccentric old uncle, an hour after Sunday lunch and deep into his third large sherry of the day. Of course, this was unavoidably an exercise in vanity. Brian was there to talk about Brian (and we had paid to listen) but he took several opportunities to mock his own seeming lack of modesty so, to me, he never seemed smug or self-satisfied.

We learnt of his upbringing in the Yorkshire town of Mexborough, as the son of a coal hewer, and his early experiences of theatre school and repertory. There were comical vignettes from his lifelong friendship with Patrick Stewart, an outrageous recreation of his comedic victimisation of John Gielgud that reduced the audience to pieces, and stories of the absurd situations that seem to beset all actors in their early years.

He did touch on a couple of the roles that made him a name: Fancy Smith in Z Cars, BlessedEarlyAugustus in I, Claudius, and Long John Silver in Return to Treasure Island. The latter two occasioned funny anecdotes and observations, but he spoke only briefly about Z Cars and in such a way that, to me, he seemed genuinely not to think we’d have heard of it (or that we’d be interested in it if we had). True, Z Cars finished its three-year run 45 years ago, but I think many in the audience still remembered it.

Blessed also discussed his Shakespearian performances, on stage and on film, and gave us a couple of dramatic recitations. Yes, Henry’s speech from the opening of the third act of Henry V is the sort of piece that would appear on Now, That’s What I call Shakespeare Vol. 1, but there is a reason why it is so well known and Blessed’s delivery was commanding. That operatically trained voice does not disappoint. And he sang several short pieces, including a partial reprise of his Stars in Their Eyes performance when he essayed Pavarotti singing ‘O Sole Mio’. He may be no match for Pavarotti’s control and technique, but he still shook the brickwork. Nor is he all volume. During a reminiscence on his time in the original production of Cats, he dialled himself back to a whisper and held the hall in silence for several minutes.

Blessed also talked about his private menagerie; several hundred rescue animals that he BlessedLadbrokeshas taken in. He spends his money on staff to care for them and, as such, claims not to ‘have a penny to scratch [his] arse with’. Presumably, that in part explains this tour, as well as some of the ‘lesser’ work: such as voiceovers for any number of video games, appearing in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and fronting Ladbrokes’s marketing during the last football World Cup. Their owning his image for that latter engagement might also explain why the likeness of this self-professed great animal lover was also used to promote betting on this year’s fatal Grand National. Or, at least, that is how I choose to rationalise his connection with the cruelty of horse racing.

Brian-Blessed-on-EverestBut Brian Blessed is, of course, much more than merely a poor player strutting about the stage. He is, by his own description, an adventurer. He has tried (and failed) to climb Everest three times without oxygen and has successfully reached the summits of Mount Aconcagua in Argentina and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. He is the oldest man to go to the North Magnetic Pole on foot and, on an expedition in Venezuela, even survived a plane crash. More recently, Blessed has completed 800 hours of space training at Star City in Russia. Indeed, on stage he complained of double vision as the result of time spent in a centrifuge. He went on to tell us that he plans to go into space this year. Frankly, it’s a testament to how borne along on his charisma and conviction I was that I accepted this remark by an 82-year-old man uncritically at the time. It now seems unlikely, and cursory research indicates that he has been saying ‘next year’ since at least 2015. Nonetheless, undoubtedly, he is an adventurer; a bold vibrant man who – as he told us repeatedly – “fears nothing”. It is hard not to feel dull next to a man painted in such primary colours, even when it is he who is wielding the brush.

Of course, this is a thoroughly entertaining performance, and I have seen bits of this schtick before: the phrases, the philosophy, the stories. But I don’t doubt that, while a performance, it is also real. Brian Blessed on stage is not an invention or a character (like the always tax-deductible Lorraine Kelly Ltd.), he is simply Brian Blessed turned up to 11. When he bellows, for the sixth time, “follow your dreams! And don’t let the bastards grind you down” he washes the stale cliché through and leaves it sparkling with conviction. Still, one wonders how much he plays up to the public’s expectation, how much he is a prisoner of his own reflection.

While a powerful, vigorous man, he is also clearly a diminished one. In 2015, Blessed was “compelled to withdraw” from Lear at Guildford because of heart problems and now has a pacemaker. On stage, he is energetic, but his own battery clearly needs to be recharged more frequently. His frenetic spells were punctuated with regular returns to his throne. Indeed, at two points, when sat still in his chair with his head lowered (for perhaps 20 seconds each time), I genuinely feared for him. Then he suddenly reanimated and was back to being Brian again. Watching him stop like that seemed like a message  ̶  to him and to us  ̶  that one black and silent day he will stop and not start again. For that reason, I am very grateful to have seen him, to have made my pilgrimage to this great king and to have paid tribute. In matters of death, the man himself is apparently of the Epicurean school. Where Death is, he is not, and where he is? Surely Death would not dare to be.

There is something immensely comforting about seeing Brian Blessed on stage. It appeals to a notion of patriotism Orwell distinguished in his Notes on Nationalism, that ‘devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.’ So long as this man continues to march across stages and up mountains, to bellow and bluster and tell tall tales, something valuable and English is preserved, and some corner of a foreign field shall remain forever Blessed.

Colluding in the Lie

A few days ago, just after the sun had first begun to warm the rooftops, I saw a large, fat blue worm on a grass verge. It curved six feet long and a couple of feet thick and lay motionless under a sheen of dew. I told myself there was nothing I could do and kept walking.

The image of the person in the sleeping bag, motionless and completely cocooned against the chill, has stayed with me. We’re so used to the comfort of brick walls and glass windows to keep the outside out. What must it be like to not have that? For one’s private world to extend no farther than the damp, fusty inside of a sleeping bag zipped over one’s head. To have no more protection from the world than a thin, nylon shell. Buried alive in a convenient body bag, ready to be cleared away by the council.

Locally, rough sleepers have become a common sight in the past few years. Where once there were one or two, there will now be several apparently homeless people sitting along the main shopping streets. That’s not the most reliable of metrics, since homeless people sensibly congregate in areas with the highest footfall in order to beg for money (and some beggars will not be rough sleepers). But I also see them in less prominent places, where their lack of a roof is indisputable. They’re sleeping under a large pedestrian bridge near the railway station. There’s a man who now resides in the grounds of a nearby retail park with a garden chair to sit in and a shopping trolley to hold his world. There’s someone else camping in a meagre patch of woodland bounding my local Tesco; like the pioneer for a 21st century Hooverville. Whoever this person is, they’re comparatively well provisioned, with a tent and a radio hanging from a tree.

Seeing homeless people on our streets can provoke strong feelings. Compassion, pity, anger, and shame, of course. But there’s worse: embarrassment, irritation, revulsion, hostility and contempt. All of these flicker and spark underneath our more consciously civilised feelings. Beneath them all, I think, is guilt. Guilt for our society, guilt for our own better circumstances, guilt for the fact that we don’t do something or don’t do more. It’s the guilt that drives the hostility. Often unable to reconcile our inaction with our sense of ourselves as a ‘good’ person, we place the fault with them. We blame them for not having a job, as we bustle off to the Amazon Locker after buying a bag of self-scanned groceries. We note superciliously that they’re smoking and drinking, as we look forward to that glass of wine after our tough day. We remind ourselves that society rewards hard work and thrift, as we pore enviously through celebrity magazines and dreamily choose our lottery numbers.

I know — I confess — that I’ve felt at least some of this. I donate to Shelter at least a couple of times a year and I have given money to people in the street, but they’re necessarily the exceptions. If I put only a fiver in every outstretched hand or bowl, I could be down thirty quid a High Street. Most often, I’ve been embarrassed to make eye contact with a rough sleeper sitting on the pavement. Maybe I’ll mumble an apology, pat my pockets feebly or even slow enough to half mouth, ‘sorry I’m not carrying cash’ (which generally is true but makes me feel no less wretched for saying it). And I’ve felt irritation at times: that beggar is there again, at just the spot I need to walk past. Typical. It’s like he’s positioned himself deliberately to shame me: the nerve of the man. How dare he chill my day with his gaunt, grimy presence? He doesn’t even have the decency to look angry or shout abuse at me when I don’t give him anything. Instead he gives me a thin smile and an amicable ‘have a good day, mate.’ Bastard. But then why would he get angry? He must get a dozen hurried, wincing knockbacks every hour; he hasn’t got the spare calories to stew with rejected rage.

As ever, we can add edges to this social problem with a fleet of statistics. Counting the number of rough sleepers isn’t easy but, in England, one assessment is a 169 per cent increase since 2010 to just shy of 5,000 people. This is an official extrapolation of local authority estimates and counts that, while undertaken according to a common methodology, are widely believed to ‘substantially’ understate the scale of the problem.[1] The UK Statistics Authority has expressed serious concerns about them and many local authorities themselves don’t consider them reliable. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter whether these figures are needlessly bleak or overly rosy: it’s still thousands and thousands of people. The real message is that, as a society, we don’t care enough to obtain a precise accounting.

We can add to the rough sleepers the number of homeless people more generally. ‘The scourge of homelessness extends far beyond our streets. Hidden away in emergency B&Bs, temporary bedsits and on friend’s sofas are hundreds of thousands of other homeless people, including families with children.’ That’s the Chief Executive of Shelter, Polly Neate.[2]

In the first quarter of this year, 79,880 households were in temporary accommodation, up 3 per cent from the same quarter in 2017.[3] Add to this the people who become homeless but are lost to official figures because they find a temporary solution, such as staying with family and friends or squatting. The charity, Crisis, suggests that about 62 per cent of single homeless people may fall into this category.[4] And let’s not forget that more of us who aren’t living in the gutter may be teetering on the kerb. 4.7 million households now rent privately in England, up 74 per cent since 2008[5] and the English Housing Survey, 2016 – 2017, reports that 9.1 per cent of private renters were in arrears or had been within the previous 12 months.[6]

These numbers suggest the width of suffering but cannot speak to its depth. It’s telling, I think, that we say ‘homeless’ rather than merely ‘houseless.’ We acknowledge, at least with our use of language, the trauma of having nowhere to call one’s own. We understand all that the word ‘home’ holds within it – shelter, escape, warmth, support, peace, solitude, companionship, love. A home is the soil in which we grow; uproot us and we wither. The everyday life of homeless people must be a weary pendulum of survival and boredom. The sheer, dreary timelessness of having nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one to see. The strangling frustration and loneliness of watching the legs of the world walk past, day after day; those endless, wasted days. In a society that increasingly communicates from behind walls, where plastic community pours in through a broadband connection, rough sleepers are exiles. With no walls to call their own they are shut out by everyone else’s – the living dead, buried in plain sight.

And we accept this. As an intellectual proposition we know it’s wrong but, as a nation, we don’t feel its wrongness enough to fix it. Instead, we allow government to lie to us that ending rough-sleeping is intractable, a generational task at best. Let’s be clear: homelessness is a twisted snare of societal and personal barbs, including community collapse, debt, relationship breakdown, substance abuse, mental health problems and plain, simple bad life choices. All of that takes time to address and some personal lives can never be ‘fixed’. But rough-sleeping is not a complicated problem. It’s hard and large and heavy, but it’s not complex. It’s people, who don’t want to, having to sleep outside. There is no reason, aside from our own lack of care, that means we cannot end it. What are we as a nation when ‘we need to stop people from having to sleep outside’ is a radical aspiration?

A few years ago, the Cameron Government sought to persuade us that they cared so much about ordinary Libyans that they were willing to mobilise huge military force to bomb their country into a democratic utopia (Remember? Just as we did with Afghanistan and Iraq). A few years later, while Libyans try to escape utopia on anything that floats, we watch them drown while victimising any who somehow manage to crawl ashore at Dover. Yet, we keep lapping up the same ‘Responsibility to Protect’ effluent spewing from politicians’ backsides. Are we guilty of unforgiveable, serial gullibility or is it worse? Do we collude in the lie of government benevolence because it is more convenient than accepting that we are ruled by brigands and all that entails? Perhaps any politician advocating a ‘war of liberation’ should be forced to stand before a parliament of grim, unforgiving homeless people and explain why we can afford the love bombs but can’t care for our economic wounded.

We can fix the problem if we want to. Give every rough-sleeper who wants it somewhere warm and dry. Use empty buildings: more than 11,000 UK homes have been empty for over a decade.[7] Make buildings empty: Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms. Do whatever is needed to quickly make it happen. If it were a personal friend, it would be an emergency and we would never allow them to sleep in a shop doorway so long as we had even a few square feet of floor. As a nation, we need to adopt this view and to remember our compassion. Treat it as a national emergency — because it is.

We have spent decades being told by the most powerful that compassion isn’t practicable, isn’t workable, isn’t ‘grown-up.’ It’s the great shame of so many of us, again, that we find it easier to collude in what we know is a lie. We know what we are seeing is wrong, but we keep walking.

Header image: The New York Hooverville, 1932.

Notes.

[1] Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Hal Pawson, Glen Bramley, Steve Wilcox, Beth Watts & Jenny Wood (2018) ‘The homelessness monitor: England 2018,’ Crisis, pp. 48-49, available at https://www.crisis.org.uk/media/238700/homelessness_monitor_england_2018.pdf (accessed 25/10/2018).

[2] Press release ‘Shelter responds to new government figures on rough sleeping,’ 25th January 2018, available at https://england.shelter.org.uk/media/press_releases/articles/shelter_responds_to_new_government_figures_on_rough_sleeping (accessed 24/10/18).

[3] ‘Statutory homelessness data, January – March 2018 (Q1)’ Homeless Link 2018, available at https://www.homeless.org.uk/sites/default/files/site-attachments/Statutory%20Homelessness%20Q1%202018%20Analysis.pdf (accessed 25/10/2018).

[4] Crisis https://www.crisis.org.uk/ending-homelessness/homelessness-knowledge-hub/types-of-homelessness/ (accessed 25/10/2018).

[5] Shelter ‘Private renters now key to political battleground, Shelter research shows,’ 2nd October 2018, available at http://media.shelter.org.uk/press_releases/articles/private_renters_now_key_to_political_battleground,_shelter_research_shows

[6] Figure quoted in ‘Behind on the basics. A closer look at households in arrears on their essential bills,’ Step Change (2018 Foundation for Credit Counselling) May 2018, pp. 10-11, available at https://www.stepchange.org/Portals/0/documents/Reports/behind-on-the-basics-may-2018.pdf Note that the equivalent figure for housing association tenants was 25.4% and for local authorities 24.1%.

[7] BBC News ‘More than 11,000 UK homes empty for 10 years,’ 1st January 2018, available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-42536418 (accessed 24/10/2018).

Whited Tombs of Dead Men’s Bones

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones…

Matthew 23:27

Whenever people on the left criticise ‘the West,’ a customary response on social media and from Britain’s inky flock is to demand damnation of some other sinner. Condemn British connivance with Saudi atrocities in Yemen and it’s ‘whatabout Iran?’ Castigate Israel for grinding Palestinians to sand and it’s ‘whatabout about Assad?’ Demand the US closes its trespassing torture chamber at Guantanamo and it’s ‘whatabout about IS?’ The Stop the War Coalition (STWC) have borne these ‘yeah, buts’ for years, latterly from Peter Tatchell. Back in 2002-03, ‘Stoppers’ were routinely badgered to condemn Saddam Hussein’s well-documented and uncontroversial atrocities as part of a grimy ploy to daub anyone who opposed dropping explosives on children as a friend to tyranny. This scuttling rhetoric shrivels under the light of reason, of course. Indeed, I’m confident that seasoned practitioners of this swindle understand quite clearly the ruse they’re perpetrating. But I’ll sum up my objections, presuming Noam Chomsky’s maxim, that the duty of the intellectual (or blogger) is to tell the truth, about things that matter, to the right audience.

TatchellSTWCMy first objection is ethical: that the individual’s first concern should always be with their own misdeeds and those done by others with their help or acquiescence. Applying this to affairs between nations, their scrutiny should fall chiefly on the behaviour of their own government and of its allies. They can of course decry (and should not defend) the outrages of other states but if they support them with neither vote nor tax, they share no responsibility for them. Applied to the world today, this means my most pressing concern should always be with the actions of the UK government and its imperial master. Vassals and allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, are also my concern because their litany of crimes is committed with British arms, aid and advice. Indeed, as Prof. Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institute said recently, ‘if the United States of America and the United Kingdom — tonight — told King Salman that this war [on Yemen] has to end, it would end tomorrow because the Royal Saudi Air force cannot operate without American and British Support.’ Israel is not nearly so dependent but has still benefited from arms, including sniper rifles, worth £320m since 2014.[1] Passing over these crimes to rail at others in which we have no part is cossetted posturing; ‘virtue signalling,’ to use a vogue expression. When our government is not terrorising the world, directly or indirectly, when we can plausibly claim to be ‘intervening’ out of something other than venal calculation, then we may concern ourselves with the crimes of other nations and hope for a spark of legitimacy.

My second objection concerns the practical responsibility to use one’s energy and opportunities to the greatest effect. Where can the British anti-war movement, a progressive journalist or an angry tweeter hope to leave even the most fleeting mark? Not on foreign governments, certainly. The thump of feet marching on British streets is barely heard in Whitehall, so why imagine it will rattle the walls of the Kremlin? I certainly don’t write in the expectation of being read by members the British Government, let alone those of North Korea. In any case, as Chomsky put it, ‘speaking truth to power’ is an overrated pursuit when power knows the truth. The most recent exception to this I can think of was the great anti-war march in February 2003. But even millions freezing in Hyde Park didn’t shake the Blair camarilla from their murderous fealty to the Bush Regime (though we perhaps came closer to averting that war than with any other).

No, the greatest effect the dissident can have is on her own community and, through that, the state. I write hoping to be read by my fellow citizens and hoping to affect, if only in some microscopic way, their thinking, their voting, and their organising. STWC march and hold street stalls to educate and inform the British people about our government’s crimes because they are something we share responsibility for and have the ability to affect. That should always be our priority, even were ‘their’ crimes to be large and ‘ours’ small (instead of the reverse). If we can do something about our crimes but can only shout about theirs, then our smaller crimes should still be our foremost occupation. Journalists would do better to keep this principle but, since they do not, it is up to citizens to shine light where it is needed and not waste time doing work that, honest or not, is already being done. Why should STWC run stalls denouncing Putin for the villain he undoubtedly is when the media does that daily with vastly greater volume? It’s like working one’s way to the front at a gig and humming the baseline for benefit of the crowd. What’s more, when it’s an official enemy and not an ally, it’s indulgent. My condemnation of Russian human rights abuses would have no material effect on that country’s leaders, would not educate a British public who are told of them weekly, and could not bring about any beneficial change in a British government that already considers Russia an enemy (though it might persuade the Tories to return their donations). Contrast that with the Chagos Islands scandal, where the media are usually silent, the public know little, and our government’s behaviour over fifty years has been contemptible.

Nor does the demand for balance go both ways: the domesticated journalist who spends his career reviling whichever of Eurasia or Eastasia is being liberated this year will never be asked to reserve any ink for Oceania. Well trained journalists care, cry, and condemn only when it is convenient to their governments; hearts bleed but eyes remain closed. They absorb this conditioning unconsciously through years of socialisation until they know instinctively when they ‘cannot stand idly by’ and when they must. Our ‘responsibility to protect’ the Kurds, for example, depended on who was attacking them (e. g. Saddam Hussein or the Turkish government). The real measure of the dishonesty of these calls for even-handedness is that they are never made of the dissidents who live in enemy states. The people who demand that STWC condemn Putin never demanded Pussy Riot call out Obama’s drone terror. Even if legitimate grounds for criticism were admitted, the idea that they should make those criticisms would rightly be seen as an absurd waste of their limited resources.

Everyone instinctively understands all of this when matters are confined to every day personal relationships. To borrow from Wilde, we know to respect the person who never says a moral thing and never does a wrong thing more than we do the whisky priest. Campaigning groups like Amnesty International aside, most who rail at the misdeeds of other nations are using their freedom merely to say moral things, knowing they’ll pay no price and the victim will gain no benefit. The trade of journalism needs this lesson most of all. The press bears the greatest responsibility for informing the public and theirs is the greatest failure. Until they learn this lesson, or rather carry it from their personal lives and put in on the page, newspapers will continue to be whited sepulchres: now gilded with print but still full of dead men’s bones.

Notes.

_________________________

Image: Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (James Tissot French, 1836-1902 )

[1] Senior fellow for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Video of his remarks is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2W55QaV8bWw For a report on British arms sales to Israel, see Jamie Merrill ‘Exclusive: UK sells $445m of arms to Israel, including sniper rifles,’ Middle East Eye, 24 April 2018, available at https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/exclusive-uk-sells-more-500m-arms-israel-including-sniper-rifles-718473139 (accessed 11/09/18).

Beware the Few

The newspapers received the elevation of Perkins with unprecedented hysteria. “Go back to Moscow,” screamed the Sun, unable to come to terms with the fact that ‘Red Harry’ (as the papers insisted on calling him) had never actually set foot in Moscow… in the run-up to polling… newspapers published lists of ‘Communist-backed’ Labour candidates. By way of evidence they offered an article in the Morning Star or a platform shared by a Labour MP and a member of the Communist Party. A week before election day… newshounds ‘discovered’ documents purporting to show that four senior Labour leaders were paid-up members of a Trotskyist cell.

Not to be outdone, the Express took to publishing a picture of Perkins daubed with a Hitler moustache… Another paper splashed on its front page an internal Labour Party document outlining plans to abolish tax relief on mortgages and confiscate all personal wealth over £50,000. Enquiry revealed that the document was a forgery, but the retraction was tucked away at the bottom of an inside page.[i]

The passage above is from the novel, ‘A Very British Coup,’ by the former Labour MP, Chris Mullin. Though published in 1982 and dated, it’s a stingingly prescient work that, if Labour forms the next government, should become required reading for anyone who still harbours any affection for democracy. The novel was a success and, later, playwright Alan Plater wrote a (loose) adaptation for Channel Four.

CorbynPutinStoogeIn his opus, Mullin imagines the various phases of an establishment coup mounted in response to the election of a socialist government led by his protagonist, newly minted Labour PM Harry Perkins. Naturally, Mullin portrays the corporate media as one of the principal fronts in his imaginary battle between democracy and the state and, last month, I touched on this subject when I argued that it is foolish to believe that a genuinely socialist Labour Party could win over the corporate capitalist media. One has only to look at the batterings meted out to Labour under Foot, Kinnock, ‘Red Ed’ Miliband, and Corbyn to see the entirely understandable hostility of private power to anything other than the mildest social democracy.[ii] New Labour, which was substantially (though in fairness not totally) a capitulation to neoliberalism, received a much fairer wind; particularly from the Murdoch press.

The establishment campaign to destroy the Corbyn project, which is currently veiled as a furore over antisemitism, began before he was elected when, in July 2015, senior Labour MPs briefed the press that ‘Corbyn would never be allowed to remain in the job long enough to fight the 2020 general election’ and that ‘a coup could be launched within days of the result.’[iii] Three years later, for all its digging, the establishment has so far found very little to work with, as the paucity of the ‘scandals’ so far illustrate. When your enemy is cropping photos to make it CorbynJigMaillook like you’re dancing at the Cenotaph, you know their battery’s down to one bar. The insinuations and allegations concerning Corbyn’s associations with Sinn Fein and Hamas before the 2017 election fell flat, especially with younger voters, for whom the 80s are not even a memory. Indeed, such was the failure that many were tempted to see it as another portent of the collapse of redtop influence.[iv] This year, allegations that Corbyn was a Kremlin agent, a traitor, or a Czech spy proved so obviously absurd that even Andrew Neil bridled at them, demolishing the Brexit Minister, Steve Baker, in an interview so bloody it could have been directed by Eli Roth.

Inevitably, if Labour win the next election, the media will gain new material. Instead of rummaging through Corbyn’s bins, they’ll be able to blame everything that goes wrong in the country on Labour and on him (and sometimes they may actually be right to do so). As with Corbyn’s election as leader, the media will show scant regard for fairness, honesty or intellectual self-respect. And this will be only one front. In office, a Labour government will find itself having to fight on a much broader battlefield if it also wants to be in power.

LabourSpiesIt’s easy to forget how much any government relies on consent: not merely that of an electorate it has to win over every five years but rival power centres that it has to win over every day. It’s easy to confuse ‘the government’ with the wider apparatus of the state.  It’s worth us remembering exactly what a Labour Government would be in actual physical terms: approximately 120 people running twenty-five ministerial departments.[v] That would be the Labour Government: 120 people. Add to that a further 20 non-ministerial departments and 300+ executive agencies of one sort or another; all of which is staffed mostly by the 560,000 civil servants. Think of 120 people against that. And that of course is just the formal government. To this, we must add all the other centres of power in the country – the finance sector, large multinational corporations (and their media arms), and even the diminished but still influential trades unions. The Government for the Many against the (not so) Few.

And we live now in an incomparably more globalised world with far faster CorbynCollaboratorcommunication than that envisaged by Chris Mullin. Internationally, we are subject to the ‘virtual senate’ of investors and lenders, who ‘conduct moment-by-moment referendums’ on government policies;[vi] what the press refers to euphemistically as ‘the markets’. Capital is capable of ‘staging a general political strike’ against the policies of any nation, with even the US not immune from its ‘veto power.’[vii] A number of studies have shown that ‘the markets’ punish left wing governments and reward right wing administrations. The reason for this is obvious: ‘the probability of policies that are harmful for returns on investments increases under left governments, while right governments are more likely to choose policies that are beneficial for financial returns.’[viii] In other words, financial institutions punish any government that puts people over profit.

I’d argue that much of what is commonly portrayed as the competence of a government is, in reality, the degree to which other actors within the system play ball. Once Labour is in office, its enemies will have countless opportunities to jam the mechanisms of the state and frustrate Labour’s mandate. We’ve already seen the drama acted out on the smaller stage of the Labour Party itself, when Corbyn found himself in office but not in power; a predicament described by his political biographer, Alex Nunns:

The staff wore black for the day of the result… There was minimal help for the new leader — the campaign’s press officer James Mills had to organise an impromptu round of media interviews. There was no car arranged to transport Corbyn through the thronging streets… On member of staff approached Mills and said: “See those three files over there? That’s how the Labour Party works. See you Monday morning.”[ix]

CorbynLungeIndeed, we saw a foreshadowing of the likely problems ahead in September 2015, when an anonymous ‘senior general’ briefed that a Corbyn government would face a mutiny if it ‘tried to scrap Trident, pull out of NATO or announce “any plans to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces.”’[x] It’s no secret that Labour are conducting strategy sessions to, as John McDonnell put it, ‘answer the question about what happens when, or if, they [the establishment] come for us.’ In the first instance, that will very likely take the form of a TimesRussiaSwingrun on the pound (currency traders selling the pound so that its value against other currencies drops) or sudden capital flight (people pulling their money out of the country).[xi] In the longer run, there will be a steady war of attrition between a Labour government and institutions that have a vested interest in obstructing even Corbyn’s comparatively mild programme of social democracy. Increased propaganda against the domestic (and foreign) population, non-cooperation, and active sabotage: power protects itself.

Finally, while I’ve concerned myself here with institutions, allow me to suggest that theseExistential Threat are not the fundamental enemy that the Corbyn project faces. That is the class identity, values, and interests shared by that tranche of society we call ‘the establishment’. The institutions are merely the semi-permanent expression of the establishment, accumulated over decades and centuries.  The substance is the people — they are the bricks that make up the buildings, bound by the cement of their common ideology. We might demolish the buildings but the bricks themselves scatter and slot themselves into new buildings (or parties). The longer struggle of socialism will always be to bring about a change in collective wisdom: a ‘battle for hearts and minds’ (but without the bombing). That will take time and the battle for the buildings is a necessary step in winning the war for the bricks. It’s vital that Labour and its supporters don’t under estimate this challenge. Getting elected is not the summit but a foothill on the journey. I’ll leave you with some words Chris Mullin gave to Harry Perkins, which could be as true the morning after the next election as they were in 1982:

All we have won tonight is political power… [b]y itself that is not enough. Real power in this country resides not in Parliament, but in the boardrooms of the City of London; in the darkest recesses of the Whitehall bureaucracy and in the editorial offices of our national newspapers. To win real power we have first to break the stranglehold exerted by the ruling class on all the important institutions of our country.[xii]

Notes

___________________

[i] Chris Mullin (1982) ‘A Very British Coup,’ Hodder & Stoughton pp. 44-45.

[ii] The treatment of Tony Blair was far kinder, as I discussed in my previous article. John Smith was leader only two years before his untimely death at 55.

[iii] Tim Ross and Emily Gosden, ‘Jeremy Corbyn Faces Coup Plot if He Wins Labour Leadership,’ The Telegraph, 27th July 2015, available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/11764159/Jeremy-Corbyn-faces-coup-plot-if-he-wins-Labour-leadership.html (accessed 03/09/18); The Guardian reports that ‘ [The] argument about antisemitism in the party threatens to turn into a battle over its future…’ neatly reversing the actual events, in which the battle by the Labour right to wrest control of the Party back from the membership has recently morphed into an antisemitism-flavoured souffle (Dan Sabbagh ‘Antisemitism row: Hodge and Brown pile pressure on Corbyn,’ The Guardian 2nd September 2018, available at https://amp.theguardian.com/news/2018/sep/02/margaret-hodge-jeremy-corbyn-problem-labour-antisemitism-crisis (accessed 03/09/18).

[iv] See, for example, Suzanne Moore ‘The Sun and Mail tried to crush Corbyn. But their power over politics is broken, The Guardian 9th of June 2017, available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/09/tabloids-crush-corbyn-power-politics-sun-mail-labour (accessed 03/09/18). Steven Barnett reports that ‘commentators, pollsters, politicians and voters alike, some media pundits were quick to pronounce the end of tabloid power. “This election proves that media bias no longer matters” announced Peter Preston, suggesting that while the printed press “has seldom seemed more overwhelming” in its pro-Tory bias, 2017 heralded the final supremacy of social media over the dinosaurs of the printed press. Veteran media commentator Ray Snoddy also proclaimed “the decline in power and influence of the right-wing tabloids”. Nonetheless, Barnett cautions that this judgement may be ‘simplistic’ (Steven Barnett ‘Is our national press a fading dinosaur? Don’t bank on it’ in Einar Thorsen, Daniel Jackson, Darren Lilleker (eds) (2017) UK Election Analysis 2017: Media, Voters and the Campaign, p. 55.

[v] I’m basing this on the assumption that a Labour government would be broadly the same size and configuration as the current one, which is described (in fairly ‘Janet & John’ terms) here: https://www.gov.uk/government/how-government-works

[vi] Two phrases from the economics literature used frequently by Noam Chomsky, for example in his ‘The high cost of neoliberalism,’ The Spectator 28th June 2010, available at  https://www.newstatesman.com/south-america/2010/06/chomsky-democracy-latin (accessed 02/09/18).

[vii] Timothy A. Canova, ‘The Transformation of U.S. Banking and Finance: From Regulated Competition to Free-Market Receivership,’ Brooklyn Law Review Vol. 60 No. 4 Winter 1995, pp. 1295-1354.

[viii] Thomas Sattler, ‘Do Markets Punish Left Governments?’ The Journal of Politics 75, no. 2 (2013): 343-56. In Sattler’s study, he qualifies this central assertion by demonstrating that the reaction of markets to left governments depends on their assessment of how otherwise constrained that government is. In other words, a left government that has little room to operate will not be punished so heavily as one with more latitude.

[ix] Alex Nunns (2016 [2018]) “The Candidate. Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power,” OR Books, London.

[x] Caroline Mortimer, ‘British Army ‘could stage mutiny under Corbyn’, says senior serving general,’ The Independent 20th September 2015, available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/british-army-could-stage-mutiny-under-corbyn-says-senior-serving-general-10509742.html#comments (accessed 02/09/18).

[xi] Jim Pickard, ‘Labour plans for capital flight or run on pound if elected,’ Financial Times 26th September 2017, available at https://www.ft.com/content/e06aa3a6-a2c5-11e7-b797-b61809486fe2 (accessed 02/09/18).

[xii] Mullin (1982) p. 10.

No One Leaves the Herd for Long

Much of what we call ‘common sense’ is fossilised thought; arguments and ideas left behind by brains long turned to soil. The world is round, wear a seatbelt, germs make you sick, democracy is good, it’s unacceptable to strike your spouse, it is acceptable to strike your child.[1] You’ll find people who disagree with each and every one of these assumptions but, to the extent that it’s possible to say this, they are all ‘officially’ true. They are ‘the way of things.’

Some of these assumptions are empirical and others are normative: the world is round, one ought to wear a seatbelt. For normative statements especially, it is consensus that determines ‘ought’, not whether something is inherently right or wrong. In Europe, it used to be common sense that a man should chastise his wife, nowadays it isn’t. In the UK, it’s still common sense that a parent can chastise their child but, in a few decades, it may very well not be. Slavery was once common sense but nowadays most people think benefiting from slave labour is unacceptable unless it’s sanctioned through a smartphone contract. Does that mean that slavery once was right but now is wrong?

The obvious concomitant of something being common sense is that most people haven’t really thought about it because the thinking has already been done for them. It’s cultural learning. How many people could say now how they know the earth isn’t flat? Or take the age of the earth: before 1600, a reasonably well-educated European would have cited the Bible to answer with 6000 years. In 2018, they would tell you that it’s vastly more ancient than that, citing something they remembered from school or saw on TV. In both cases, the prevailing view is based on the authority of an institution; church or science.[2]

Diet is a signal example of cultural learning and one of the most ingrained. The challenge of changing behaviour for the vegetarian and vegan (veg*n) movements has been to politicise common sense, to show that eating animal products is a choice rather than merely the way of things. This is done, for instance, by marshalling evidence on the consequences of animal agriculture; for the global environment, for people’s health, and for the animals, themselves. Veg*ns also seek to show the arbitrariness of according respect and consideration along species lines. In this latter respect, the veg*n movement is engaged in what may be the final stage of expanding the circle of ‘moral concern’ (to borrow Peter Singer’s phrase), which began with our own family or tribe and widened over millennia to include larger communities, nations, and — for some — all humans, irrespective of petty differences of skin colour, religion or culture. This development was anticipated by the utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, when he wrote in 1823:

The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate.[3]

 

Jeremy_Bentham

The corpse of Jeremy Bentham at UCL (No, really)

Naturally, the veg*n project at every stage has encountered resistance and hostility, just as other great emancipatory campaigns, such as women’s rights, race relations, LGBT, and the peace movement have. This is understandable in each instance, since not only often have vested interests been at stake (property rights, the slave economy, the church, the military industrial complex) but so has people’s deeply ingrained common sense. I’ve experienced the annoyance, defensiveness, and hostility of flesh eaters on any number of occasions, face to face and online. I don’t usually bring the subject up anymore unless asked but even just being at a meal where I am not eating what others are eating can be taken as a silent rebuke.

 

Years ago, at a local food fair, I ran a stall giving away vegan cakes and savouries (granted a stall for free, we weren’t allowed to sell anything). For two long, hot days, we gave away hundreds of home-baked cakes and snacks to anyone who was curious (or thrifty). Many chatted with us (mostly women), some argued (mostly men), and others were apologetic for not being vegan but cited the usual justifications (‘my body needs meat,’ ‘I couldn’t give up cheese,’ ‘I once heard of a vegan who became ill,’ etc.). Almost without exception, all were pleasant. It’s hard to be aggressive while eating cake. The person who sticks in my mind, though, was an elderly man who never got as far as our stall. As he stamped past, he broadsided us with, ‘you’re not going to stop me eating meat!’ Never underestimate the ability of a cake stall to enrage the passer-by.

I think one explanation for this defensiveness and the precipitous descent into anger and incoherence I often see is that people are having to defend a behaviour they never consciously adopted in the first place. Veg*ns have made a reasoned decision to step outside the herd and adopt an opposing lifestyle. This means they’ve examined their behaviour and built some sort of intellectual case for changing it.[4] People who eat meat will likely never have taken the time to build a case for it because they just been following the herd. That means they’re most likely not equipped to offer anything but the thinnest, most sloganistic defence for their actions. They’ve brought a carving knife to a gun fight.

DefOmniBingoIn the early 21st century, most veg*ns are, I imagine, those who have adopted the lifestyle. As it involved a clear choice, they should be able to articulate their reasons for doing so. But as veg*nism grows, this will change. Firstly, we will see more second and third generation veg*ns who will have inherited the lifestyle from their parents. More broadly, I’m optimistic enough to believe that what I see as the latest stage of human ethical evolution will gather speed, just as other progressive social movements have. Vegetarianism has been ‘legitimate’ for decades and now veganism appears now to be moving from being a fringe pursuit to a recognised lifestyle, too.[5] I suspect the 3.5m indicated by one recent survey is an overestimate of the number of vegans in the UK but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe it’s now a seven figure number.[6] As veganism gains visibility, the current common sense about our current hellish tyranny over billions of animals each year will continue to crumble. The more popular veganism becomes, the easier it will be, and the even more popular it will become. Perhaps decades from now, a combination of increased ethical awareness, second and third generation vegans, and economic and environmental pressures will relegate the consumption of animals to a fringe pursuit; the equivalent of fox hunting or wearing fur today. Not to exploit animals will become the new common sense and those who deviate will be seen as reprehensible or at least objectionable. One day, it will be illegal entirely.

But will this be the utopia vegans dream about? The slaughterhouses will be demolished, save for a few standing as bleak witness to our past barbarism. The billions held in pens and cages waiting for a sharp, brutal death to end their short, agonised lives will be no more than pictures in history books and documentaries. The ‘eternal Treblinka’ will be gone.[7] Certainly, that will be a triumph for the animals with whom we share our world, for the planet, and for our health. A victory in all the ways that truly matter. But intellectually, will the vegan campaigners of the early 21st Century have won when the society of the 22nd Century is vegan but never stops to think why? Will a 5th generation vegan who has merely absorbed society’s values —who’s just part of the herd — be as ‘good’ or as ‘enlightened’ as their early 21st century great, great grandparent? Will we continued to be ‘enlightened’ when our good behaviour is not backed by a conscious understanding of why it’s good? Without an almost impossible state of constant reflection and reappraisal of our own beliefs, what are we but plagiarised people; patchworks of other people’s thoughts, beliefs, and struggles?

At least I can take comfort in the belief that none of this will matter to the animals themselves, who care nothing for what we think or say but only for what we do. So, here’s to auto-utopia. One day, my brain will have turned to soil, but I can at least hope that it will be part of a vegetable patch.

Notes

___________

[1] You may think that you don’t think it’s acceptable for parents to hit children but ask yourself how you’d react in the street to a man slapping his wife compared with a mother slapping her child. You may not agree with either, but I suspect you would accept the latter.

[2] Naturally, this is not to say that both views have equal validity. There is no comparison between, on the one hand, Bishop Ussher’s study of the Bible, which led him to conclude the world was created on 22nd October, 4004BC, and, on the other, over a century of radiometric dating.

[3] Jeremy Bentham (1823) ‘Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation,’ available at https://www.econlib.org/library/Bentham/bnthPML.html?chapter_num=3#book-reader

[4] Unless they just don’t like meat, which is often true as well.

[5] See for example Dan Hancox ‘The unstoppable rise of veganism: how a fringe movement went mainstream,’ The Guardian, 1st April 2018, available at https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/apr/01/vegans-are-coming-millennials-health-climate-change-animal-welfare

[6] Olivia Petter, ‘Number of vegans in UK soars to 3.5 million, survey finds,’ The Independent, 3rd April 2018, available at https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/vegans-uk-rise-popularity-plant-based-diets-veganism-figures-survey-compare-the-market-a8286471.html

[7] This phrase is from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘The Letter Writer’. ‘In his thoughts, Herman spoke a eulogy for the mouse who had shared a portion of her life with him and who, because of him, had left this earth. “What do they know — all these scholars, all these philosophers, all the leaders of the world — about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.’

 

I See No Ships…

Very often, when one points out the incessant and almost exceptionless thumping the mainstream media has given Jeremy Corbyn since (before) he was elected Labour leader, the response from his detractors is to blame Corbyn’s team for their poor media management. That the press is against Corbyn is a conspiracy theory or, if it is true, it’s a founding block in the edifice to ineptitude that is ‘Compo Corbyn.’ A savvier leader,  one with sharper suits and no bicycle clips, wouldn’t suffer so; he’d simply caress the jackals’ bellies until they sang ‘The Red Flag’ — while still finding time to single-handedly stop Brexit.

On Twitter, I’ve several times seen the following quotation from Enoch Powell invoked in support of this view:

For a politician to complain about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea.

But it’s a poor metaphor and a poor argument. Yes, the sea can be choppy and destructive; it can run you aground, leave you in the doldrums, or sink you altogether; but it has no agency or will. Whatever it does to you, it’s nothing personal. To think otherwise is the same superstitious ascription of intent that has led people to worship both sun gods and sons of god. So the metaphor fails because the press is not like the sea. My guess is old Enoch was never a sailor, not even on a river of blood.

The press most certainly can sink a politician and will often mean to do just that. Despite its name, the media is not a neutral medium, bestowing fair winds and misfortune without favour, through which politicians chart their course. To think that buys into the fish tale of the press as the ‘Fourth Estate,’ some more or less fair arbiter between political competitors. In fact, the media is largely the corporate media  — not an independent power centre but one largely subordinated to big business.

I’m not going to spend several thousand words unpacking this argument. If you’re new to it, read Manufacturing Consent by Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky or look at the work produced by Media Lens. In short (and to simplify) the media is a sub-department of business and is structured by its imperatives. This happens in two ways. The first is its structural dependence on advertising revenue. Looked at in simple, institutional terms, the bread and butter of a newspaper company is not selling newspapers but selling readers to advertisers. That’s why newspapers can be given away and why news websites hate ad-blocking. A celebrated historian of British newspapers, Francis Williams, asserted in 1958 that the press ‘would never have come into existence as a force in public and social life if it had not been for the need of men of commerce to advertise. Only through the growth of advertising did the press achieve independence.’[i] Note the use of the word ‘independence,’ there. It’s only intelligible when we recall that the principal threat to press freedom was once the state. There’s a whole history of state control and the radical ‘unstamped’ press that I shan’t go into here. It’s enough to say that the press gained its freedom from government at the expense of being owned by rich men.

The same criticism applies to the commercial broadcast media – it sells viewers’ attention to advertisers on whose revenue it depends. This view was endorsed as long ago as 1989 by the Economist, which noted that, since projects ’unsuitable for corporate sponsorship tend to die on the vine,’ the media ‘have learned to be sympathetic to the most delicate sympathies of corporations’.[ii]  In a 2000 Pew Centre for the People & the Press poll, about one-third of the 287 US reporters, editors, and news executives who responded said that stories that would ‘hurt the financial interests’ of the media organization or an advertiser go unreported. 41% admitted avoiding or moderating stories to benefit their media company’s interests.[iii] Even the influential right wing US radio pundit, Rush Limbaugh, hardly a fellow traveller of Noam Chomsky, agrees. A ‘turning point’ in his career came when he realized that ‘the sole purpose for all of us in radio is to sell advertising’.[iv]  In 2004, Patrick LeLay, the head of the French media giant TF1, described the purpose of his company thus:

…let’s be realistic: fundamentally speaking, the job of TF1 is to help Coca-Cola to sell its product … If an advertising message is to register, the viewer’s brain needs to be made available. The object of our programmes is to make it available: that is to say to entertain the viewer, to relax him and prepare him between the adverts. What we sell to Coca-Cola is an availability of human brain time.[v]

The second way that the media is subordinate to business is through a process of ideological filtering of its staff, which occurs from school through higher education and into the workplace. There is little need for advertisers or owners to actually tell journalists what they may or may not write because by the time they’re in the job for a while they will have internalised the ‘correct’ values. As Alan Rusbridger, late editor of the late Guardian, conceded several years ago in an interview with Media Lens,

I’m sure… that the pressures of ownership on newspapers is, is pretty important, and it works in all kinds of subtle ways – I suppose ‘filter’ is as good a word as any; the whole thing works by a kind of osmosis. If you ask anybody who works in newspapers, they will quite rightly say, ‘Rupert Murdoch’, or whoever, ‘never tells me what to write’, which is beside the point: they don’t have to be told what to write… It’s understood. I think that does work, and obviously the general interests of most of the people who own newspapers are going to be fairly conventional, pro-business, interests.[vi]

Or, as Noam Chomsky once said to Andrew Marr, ‘I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.’[vii]

It’s not a perfect system, as Hermann and Chomsky concede, but it is very effective.[viii] There will be occasional deviations by a few more independently-minded journalists, but the overwhelming weight of the system still favours the neoliberal consensus of the past forty years. And this isn’t to touch on the personal preferences of many journalists at the higher end who have done very well out of the current system and so have a class interest in keeping it.

It should be obvious, then, that the idea that a socialist party simply needs to manage the press better is a nonsense. The corporate media is not there to be won over, it can’t be ‘managed’ into giving Corbyn a fair hearing. In fact, once one understands how the media works, the burden of proof would rest with anyone those who claimed that it  wouldn’t be biased against Corbyn.

The only time the media has approached even-handedness with Corbyn was during the imposition of impartiality rules on broadcasters during the 2017 General Election campaign. For the BBC, these came into force on 3rd May, although for commercial broadcasters, they began with the announcment of the dissolution in Parliament, which was  27th April. Their coincidence with the upturn in Labour polling, as shown in the Britain Elects poll tracker, is striking. The Blue and Red horizontal lines represent Tory and Labour polling and my addition of the green vertical line shows when the OFCOM broadcasting rules came into effect.

Opponents of this line of thought will point to the Blair Governments and their far better treatment from the corporate media when compared with both Foot, Kinnock, and Smith before, and Brown, Miliband, and Corbyn afterward. It’s certainly true that Blair and Alasdair Campbell employed a thorough and systematic approach to managing the media, from the ‘Rapid Rebuttal Unit’ and the Excalibur computer, to combative press briefings and a deliberate campaign to ‘woo’ newspaper editors and previously ignored areas like women’s magazines. Yet Rupert Murdoch besieged Labour before and after Blair; it’s not tenable to believe that this changed merely because his editors had been bought a good lunch. Rather, New Labour were the Sun on Sunday to the Tories’ News of the World. New Labour’s real success was not to win over business but to capitulate to it. A genuinely socialist party can make no such concessions, which is why a cellar-full of Krug won’t win editors over to Corbyn. Hence, we see that, once again, old Enoch was wrong. The press is not the sea on which Corbyn sails, it’s a fleet of enemy ships.

Correction 9th August 2018

Following feedback in the comments, I have corrected a typo in which I incorrectly stated that Theresa May called the election on 27th of May. I have also clarified the timeline of events. For more details, see Eleanor Bley Griffiths ‘Here’s why the media is banned from reporting on general election campaigning while the polls are open,’ Radio Times 8th June 2017, available at https://www.radiotimes.com/news/2017-06-08/heres-why-the-media-is-banned-from-reporting-on-general-election-campaigning-while-the-polls-are-open/

For OFCOM rules, see the ‘Election Reporting’ section of the Channel Four Producers’ Handbook: https://www.channel4.com/producers-handbook/media-law/other-laws-affecting-broadcasting/election-reporting

 

Notes.

[i] Quoted in James Curran and Jean Seaton (1981 [2010]) ‘Power Without Responsibility. Press, broadcasting and the internet in Britain,’ p. 4.

[ii] ‘Castor oil or Camelot?’ in The Economist, 5th December, 1987, quoted in Noam Chomsky (1989) ‘Necessary Illusions. Thought Control in Democratic Societies,’ p. 8.

[iii] ‘Fear & Favor 2000: How Power Shapes the News’, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting Annual Report available at  https://fair.org/extra/fear-amp-favor-2000-the-first-annual-report/ (accessed 06/08/2018).

[iv] Quoted in Pratkanis & Aronson (2001), ‘Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion’ p. 56.

[v] Cited in Ignacio Ramonet, ‘Final edition for the press’, in  Le Monde Diplomatique (English Edition), January 2005,  available at  http://mondediplo.com/2005/01/16press (last accessed 06/08/2018); Full quote available at https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temps_de_cerveau_humain_disponible (last accessed 06/08/2018). The full quote in French reads: ‘Mais dans une perspective business, soyons réaliste : à la base, le métier de TF1, c’est d’aider Coca-Cola, par exemple, à vendre son produit… Or pour qu’un message publicitaire soit perçu, il faut que le cerveau du téléspectateur soit disponible. Nos émissions ont pour vocation de le rendre disponible: c’est-à-dire de le divertir, de le détendre pour le préparer entre deux messages. Ce que nous vendons à Coca-Cola, c’est du temps de cerveau humain disponible’. My thanks to Daniel Simpson for the translation.

[vi] Media Lens (2000) Interview With Alan Rusbridger, Editor,The Guardian, available at   http://www.medialens.org/index.php/alerts/interviews/80-interview-with-alan-rusbridger-editor-the-guardian.html (accessed 06/08/2018).

[vii] Andrew Marr interviewed Noam Chomsky for a series called ‘The Big Idea,’ which was broadcast on the BBC in February 1996. The thirty minute programme can be viewed here:  https://youtu.be/GjENnyQupow

[viii] The model proposed by Herman and Chomsky has been criticised. James Curran (2002), for example, argues that the radical critique is ‘bedevilled by a simple “system logic”’, which assumes that ‘business-controlled media serve business’ thus ignoring or downplaying countervailing influences such as the need to maintain audience interest to remain profitable, the need to preserve their legitimacy, and the need to consider the ‘professional concerns of their staff.’ (James Curran ‘Media and Power’ p. 223).

Book Review: ‘Rose’ by Russell T. Davies

Rose_Cover

Rose – the novelisation

At 7pm on Saturday 26th March 2005, Doctor Who ran back on to Saturday night television: big budget, clever, confident — joyous — and looking an awful lot like Christopher Eccleston. It had been sixteen long years.

The series opener, Rose, was written by showunner Russell T. Davies and was the template for his reimagination of the concept. This April, a mere thirteen years after broadcast, BBC books resurrected the much-loved Target imprint to publish Davies’s novelisation of his landmark first script. Doctor Who fans know how to wait.

The novelisation as a form is widely regarded as nakedly commercial, derivative, and lacking any ‘literary’ worth but the Target novelisations of the original Doctor Who’s twenty–six–year run of stories hold a special place in the hearts of many older Whovians. In the age before video recorders, they were the only way to enjoy stories one had never seen, as repeats were rare and, barbarously, a number of the serials were erased or junked. It’s charming to see the Target style revived, from the cover illustration reminiscent of Chris Achelléos’s classics, to the lean prose and pleasingly kitsch chapter titles like ‘Descent into Terror’. Rose is not a work of literature (give that a few hundred years) but it’s very entertaining. For anyone who hasn’t read it (or caught up with their 2005 viewing), now’s the time I should say ‘spoilers, sweetie.’

Davies’s novel naturally follows the structure of his script but with the embellishments and reinstatements the written word affords. Following a prologue of a first chapter I’ll come to in a moment, the story opens on the humdrum life of the eponymous Rose Tyler: a nineteen-year-old girl waiting for her life to begin while she folds clothes in Henrik’s department store. She has a clueless but devoted boyfriend, Mickey; a brassy and overbearing mother, Jackie; and a deep ache for a life — and a self — that could be so much more. Then, one evening, a trip into the basement plunges her into a boundless and compelling new world: a bridgehead of Autons — killer plastic mannequins controlled by the Nestene Consciousness — and ‘that mysterious traveller in Space and Time known only as the Doctor’. Rose’s wait is over.

DW-Eccleston-Piper

Rose Tyler and the Doctor. In the TARDIS. (Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper)

As with the original episode, the story is told almost exclusively from Rose’s perspective: from the moment the Doctor takes her hand and says ‘run’, through his demolition of her job, attacks by a disembodied arm, plastic boyfriends, carnivorous wheelie bins, that impossible blue box, subterranean tanks of writhing alien fear, panic on the streets of London, to a final, life-defining choice. Rose was a smart reintroduction for a new generation that wisely avoided burdening the viewer with twenty-six years’ freight of back story. We learnt almost nothing about the Doctor aside from what he represents to Rose. The villainous Consciousness is actually on a return visit, having first plagued the Earth in the 1970 story, Spearhead from Space, but Davies wisely avoids having the Doctor mention even this. Fans will know but Rose (and casual viewers) didn’t need to. Almost all the exposition that is required is rather mischievously given to the character of Clive, the internet conspiracy theorist who has obsessed over the Doctor his whole life.

Autons2005

The Autons invade London: 2005

It was a very full forty-five minutes and it’s a full 197 page novel, expanding on the episode while remaining true to it. Davies writes with his customary brio and warmth, capturing the crackle of his original script well, right down to the short, energising declaratives (‘They ran!’ ‘The Nestene screamed!’) that peppered his scripts as stage directions. And there’s some sly ‘meta humour,’ such as when Rose wanders the basement of Henrik’s and hears, on a distant, ‘tinny radio,’ ‘some Irish comedian’s voice echoing in the dark;’ in reality, a live feed of Graham Norton mixed accidentally into the original transmission.[1] There’s also opportunity for Davies to indulge his fondness for set-piece destruction and gleeful slaughter. The climax of the TV episode, involving Autons massacring the residents of London, is expanded without heed to budget. Buses are overturned, the London Eye is sent into the Thames, washing MPs from their benches, and a regiment of dummies, from brides, to ballerinas, to fetishwear models, teem through the streets: decapitating, dismembering, and blasting all before them. And then there’s this, which surely would have made the Auton’s creator, Bob Holmes, raise his pipe in salute:

Every form of plastic felt an urge to move, tugging at a cellular level. An instinct to rise up and kill. Wires and panels and joints and plugs in kitchens and cars and computers and offices began a little dance. Cables yearned to strangle. Dolls grinned in anticipation of murder. Bags imagined suffocation. Nylon ropes knew their time had come. Laminated sheets of paper felt their edges sharpen into razors and prepared to spin. On deserted pacific islands, reefs of plastic bottles tumbled together to form giant, lurching, man-shaped idols, rearing up over the surf with no one to witness their birth.[2]

Rose is an action story but it’s with his characters that Davies always shines. His ability, with such economy, to craft real people where many writers would settle for walking props, is remarkable. Rose is and was the star and so requires little further elaboration, although she is perhaps allowed to be a little savvier in the novel than in the episode and is gifted a couple of lines that had been the Doctor’s. On Westminster Bridge, for example, he once explained how the TARDIS travels, she now deduces it. That aside, she remains Rose: smart, impulsive, selfish, compassionate, brave, nineteen.

Ironically perhaps, the least developed character in all of this is the Doctor, himself. Not once does Davies allow the reader to see anything from his point of view or be privy to his thoughts. He is alien and inaccessible and we know about him only what we are permitted. This is Rose’s story. It’s a bright move – the companion has always been our way in to the Doctor, our proxy. Davies uses this to fine effect, creating an intriguing puzzle of a central character. Jackie Tyler, too, needs little extra explanation beyond being ‘five foot nothing, age not relevant, karaoke champion of the Spinning Wheel, life and soul of the party but a monumental lightning storm when angry…’[3] When we see Jackie attempt to seduce the Doctor, we know her. We’ve all known a Jackie.

Autons1970

The Autons invade London: 1970

Davies borrows smartly from backstory and events depicted in subsequent episodes to add substance to familiar faces. Most substantially, we meet the caretaker at Hendriks who was merely a surname (‘Wilson’) in the finished episode. Here, and confined to only a prologue, he becomes Bernie Wilson and we know him. He’s a weak, seedy minor criminal, cast down to the basement for some small indiscretion years before, whose life is about to crumble under the weight of his greasy, picayune scheming. The merest brush with the Doctor’s world brings him his one moment of wisdom and then ends his desperation forever.

220px-Russelltdavies

Russell T. Davies, showrunner.

Of all the characters introduced in Rose, it is Mickey Smith who grew most during Davies’s tenure. I never liked Mickey in that first episode – he seemed too much the cliché of the slightly wet, useless boyfriend and, in truth, I think Noel Clarke didn’t have a grip on the character in that first episode, either; playing him a little too much as a buffoon. That all changed in later stories, and Mickey Smith became one of the most rounded, believable, and well-played companions, ever. For this novelisation, it seems to me (and I may be completely wrong) that Davies faced a particular challenge. He couldn’t simply write the sketchy, comical Mickey of that first episode because that would ring false; yet nor could he have him fail to act as the established plot requires. You can’t rewrite history, not one line. So, I think Davies strikes a balance and gets it right. We see that the bitterness of Mickey’s tragedies has flowered into his compassion and humanity and his loyal, patient love for Rose. Yes, he still withers in culture shock where Rose blossoms. Yes, he still clings to her legs in fear because fifteen years of series history demands that he must; but fan readers know that this will be his making. We also see more clearly Rose’s genuine love and appreciation of him. We know that it won’t be enough to keep her from running into the TARDIS at the end, but Davies notably softens that rejection from the TV version merely by omitting a couple of lines. In the original, Rose kisses Mickey goodbye and thanks him. ‘For what?’ asks Mickey and Rose replies, ‘exactly’. In the revision, Rose simply says, ‘thank you’ and is instantly a kinder person.

We’re also introduced to Mickey’s previously unseen gang and his importance to them: Mook, Patrice, and Sally,

And Mickey was the centre of their lives. He’d been on the housing list at 16, and at 18 he’d been granted that holy grail, a flat of his own. The first thing he did, when given the keys to No. 90, was to prop that door open and make others welcome.[4]

Robert_Holmes_monochrome_photograph

The late Robert Holmes

They’re nicely drawn, likeable, and feel like they could  easily have become semi-regulars in some other draft of the series. I imagine they’d also infuriate the more reactionary fans as, by being reflective of modern London, they’re an unapologetically ‘diverse’ bunch: Mook Jayesundra, Patrice Okereke and Sally (formerly Stephen) Salter. In fact, combined with the scene in which Clive shows Rose the apparently different people who’ve held the title of the Doctor, I can’t believe RTD wasn’t gleefully winding-up the ‘PC-gone-mad’ pack. In the televised episode, the only Doctor Clive shows Rose is Nine. Here, Davies reaches into future-past, with the ‘man with two suits, brown and blue,’ the ‘tweed jacket and bow tie,’ and ‘a blond woman in braces;’ before giving us a ‘tall, bald black woman,’ and a ‘young girl or boy in a hi-tech wheelchair’. So that’s every box ticked in gammon-shaded blood, then. Somewhere, a big, gay Welshman is still hooting.

Another character given added weight is Clive Finch, the comical internet conspiracy theorist played with such charm by Mark Benton. Davies provides an intriguing explanation for Clive’s obsession with the Doctor and reaches back into series mythology, in this case to an iconic death in the 1988 classic, Remembrance of the Daleks. Clive’s death as the Autons ravage London is the more tragic because it is the heroism of the ordinary man, augured by an epiphany:

All of Clive’s fantasies were now becoming facts, right before his eyes. But if the glories were true then so were the terrors… To protect his wife and children, Clive simply opened up his arms. He would greet the dummy in friendship, or stop it with his body, whatever it took. And he found himself smiling, even as he started to cry. Because here it was at last. Adventure.

Here we see a restatement of the novel’s central theme: the adventure — and cost — of touching the Doctor. Clive never meets him, yet contact through his dead father and Rose is enough. We see him become like the Doctor by moving to embrace the Other while also being preparing to defend against it. The Doctor ruins his life and redeems it, all without ever knowing who he is. Bernie Wilson never meets the Doctor but touching his world opens up his own, even at the cost of his life. And when Rose Tyler takes the Doctor’s hand, he shows her the possibility of the universe and the possibility within herself.

Notes

______________

[1] An off-air live audio feed from BBC3’s ‘Strictly Dance Fever’ was mixed accidentally into the BBC1 audio; marking the first of Graham Norton’s two unwanted intrusions into the programme (the second occurring in 2011).

[2] Rose, p. 170. Yes, I know plastic doesn’t have cells.

[3] Rose, p. 25.

[4] Rose, p. 52.