‘How Dare You!’

Anger and passion from young Greta. (Skip the ad.)


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Learning From Wilson

On Corbyn and Brexit I should explain. I’m a dedicated ‘Remainer’, and in fact have become more so in the three years that have passed since the referendum. I accept that the conduct of that referendum was fraudulent, and that its result did not indicate a majority in favour of a ‘no deal’ Brexit at the time, and even less so subsequently, when the real effects of Brexit have become a lot clearer. I acknowledge the harm that this whole affair is doing to Britain’s stability at home, and to her reputation and influence abroad – which I’m witness to as a part-time expat. I would dearly like the whole decision to be reversed, or, short of that, a new referendum to advise whether it should be. To this extent I sympathise with those who are pressing Corbyn to come out firmly on the side of ‘Remain’, and resenting the fact that he is so unwilling to do so. So my heart – and, I would say, my intellect – are on the side of the angels.

But…. We need to acknowledge two things. The first is that Corbyn has always been a critical ‘European’, which is a defensible position to take, even among Europhiles. His main slogan in 2016 was ‘Remain and Reform’. The second factor which must be taken into account is the strength of feeling on the devils’ side. Irrational and terrifyingly populist as it is, it presents a real danger to the country, and to any social and political progress that might be made there under a Labour government. Brexit is not a question of principle for socialists, as neither were the other ‘foreign’ policy issues on which Labour has traditionally split in the past – imperialism, the Great War, the Iraq War, entry into Europe, and many others – all of which can be and were argued from either side. But it has the potential – demonstrably – to divide and injure Labour, and so prevent its coming to power and the inestimable reforms that could follow from that.

Which is why Corbyn’s suggested policy – renegotiate a deal (which the EU would probably allow on the basis of retaining the common market and its rules: remember it was Theresa May’s ‘red lines’ that stymied this kind of compromise originally), and then putting that to a new public vote, with the alternative being ‘Remain’; a vote which would not be ‘whipped’ by the party – seems to me to be the least harmful way out of this (‘Eton’) mess. It would be democratic, and so should appease the populists; and even if Labour’s new ‘deal’ were accepted, would be acceptable to compromising Remainers like me, and probably most of those who voted for ‘Exit’ simply out of hostility to the Tories; while also marginalising the ultra ‘No-Dealers’.

Just imagine what might happen if Labour clearly obstructs the (so-called) ‘will of the people’. Brexiteers are already threatening violence and civil war. It sounds craven, I know; but history shows that neutrality and appeasement do sometimes work. They worked in 1973 for Harold Wilson. Even his cabinet was given a free vote in that year’s European referendum. Today Wilson is given far less credit than I believe he deserves for anything he did when he was prime minister. But he was a clever old stick. Corbyn seems to be learning  from him. Who would have thought it?

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The Mass Murderer Who Wasn’t

There’s a new Swedish film just out, called simply Quick, about the self-confessed ‘serial killer’ who went under the name of ‘Thomas Quick’. Quick was tried and committed to a mental hospital on the evidence of a professional psychiatrist who wanted to make her name with a new theory of ‘recovered memory’, and of some rather stupid policemen who were quite proud to have a US-type of mass murderer on their patch, but whom in fact Quick had fooled and manipulated for his own purposes – mainly because he found it got him the attention he craved – until he was rumbled by a brave journalist, acting against the advice of his editor, and who died of brain cancer just before Quick was released. The scandal touched on various aspects of human life and society, including the self-delusions of certain academics, and some of the deficiencies of the Swedish judicial system. We saw the premier tonight in Stockholm. It was very well done, in a calm, non-sensational sort of way, and is worth going along to, if it surfaces where you live. I published a piece about this affair here six years ago, for anyone who is interested: https://bernardjporter.com/2013/12/05/the-thomas-quick-affair/. I always thought it would make a good film, and this one does it justice.

We’re just back from a Seminar on counter-subversion in Turku. The city – Finland’s oldest – also well worth going along to, especially by boat from Stockholm.

I’ll resume blogging on the Brexit mess when I’ve recovered from the voyage – and all that duty-free booze. Baltic Ferries have somehow liberated themselves from the EU’s taxation laws. It has something to do, I’m told, with the special status of the Aland Islands (the ‘A’ has a little ‘o’ on top) between Sweden and Finland. There’s the EU being flexible, again.

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Is Corbyn the Only Sane One?

If  – if – this report is right, then Corbyn’s always clear and consistent policy on Brexit may yet save us. If so, then I’ll have been right all along! (Sorry to crow, and it may be premature; but it’s been a hard three years trying to defend him against the sneers and smears.)
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Did He Want To Win?

This is ex-PM David Cameron – in an interview to be broadcast tonight – on why Boris Johnson came out in favour of Brexit at the time of the 2016 Referendum.

‘My conclusion is, he thought that the Brexit vote would be lost but he didn’t want to give up the chance of being on the romantic, patriotic nationalistic side of Brexit.’

I must say that this fits in with the impression I got, when I saw Johnson’s face on TV the morning after the surprise result was declared. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/25/fuck-what-have-we-done/.) He looked shocked. He had wanted to be the ‘people’s’ champion against the ‘Establishment’, but in a cause which, conveniently, and even more heroically, couldn’t be won. (Where’s the heroism in merely struggling for the possible?) Winning was the last thing he wanted. It would put him on the side of a new ‘Establishment’, and it would mean working at something. Now he has to face the prospect of real  failure. The words ‘hoist’ and ‘petard’ come to mind.

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Sideways With Boris

I’m preparing for my chapter on ‘Brexit and the Empire’ by reading the published works of Boris Johnson. I’ve finished his novel, Seventy-Two Virgins; not badly written, but not my kind of thing, and nothing relevant to me, apart from a few obvious stereotypes of brown people. Now I’m into his volume of journalistic pieces: Friends, Voters, Countrymen. It’s mostly about him on the stump, with some superficial political opinions, all of which can be easily attributed to his upper-class public school upbringing, or else to his desire to entertain – in his view the main point of journalism – and with no hint, therefore, of any serious or joined-up thought. The style – and even the content – are very redolent of PG Wodehouse. (I kept wishing Jeeves would come in to put him straight.) I found myself reading it in the plane to Stockholm wrapped in a newspaper, like one does (apparently) with pornography. I wouldn’t have liked my fellow passengers to think I was a fan.

But it got me remembering my own first venture into politics, in a ‘mock election’ at my school in the mid-1950s. The headmaster was very keen on civic education for the boys; he was liberal, public-spirited, the spitting image of Jo Grimond, if you remember him; and a stalwart of the local United Nations Association. We had candidates for all the main parties, including even the Communists – a weasily little boy who had to go around surrounded by a posse of bodyguards. Unfortunately I was too young to vote – it was sixth-formers only, and I was in the Fourth or the Fifth. But I had a school-wide reputation as an artist, and when one of the party leaders – a chap called Hutt: very keen on the school CCF; I think he joined the Army afterwards – asked me to design posters for him I was flattered, and agreed. Unfortunately I was an entire political ingenu at the time, and didn’t realise what the letters ‘RWNP’ represented. So I obediently produced posters graphically warning of the danger of the Russians taking over my country, the Church of England, the Empire, fish and chips, and all our freedoms generally, which were displayed around the school. (I think I still have some.) ‘RWNP’ stood, of course, for ‘Right-Wing Nationalist Party’. This is embarrassing for me to have to admit to today; but, hey, it’s out now; and I was only 14 or 15.

But that’s not the point of this post. The mock election started well, with serious candidates and serious speeches, and in fact an air of seriousness all round. The headmaster, who I believe chaired some of the meetings, was highly chuffed. But then, just a few days before the vote, a new candidate entered the lists. He was the school’s much-loved comedian; a tall gangly chap with an attractively lazy way of talking, and a fount of wit, who introduced his candidature on behalf of the ‘Intellectual Extremist’ party. I can’t recall his name, but for electoral purposes he went under the nickname of ‘Daddy’. His speeches were very silly (this was at the height of the Goon Show), and his party’s slogan was ‘Sideways with Daddy’ (as opposed to ‘Forward with…’ whomever). I can remember him now. (Just as I can recall long swathes of the Goon Show.)

And he won, by a landslide; to the huge annoyance of the headmaster, who saw his well-intentioned civics lesson collapse around him. He never I think repeated the experiment. But the image of ‘Daddy’ has been coming back to me as I follow Boris’s progress today. Moral: clowns should never be underestimated. Even ‘Hulk-ish’ ones. (See today’s papers.)

I can’t remember how well the RWNP did. I doubt whether my posters were very persuasive. They didn’t deserve to be.

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Separated at Birth


Dominic (Demonic) Cummings; and the evil Mekon. (Remember Dan Dare?)

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Democracy on Trial

For a politics wonk like me, yesterday afternoon, evening, and most of the night were electrifying TV viewing. Johnson’s cunning plan to close down Parliament in order that his Brexit solution should not be discussed by what, constitutionally, is the highest political power in the land, provoked intense rage among more than half of the sitting MPs, causing his government to lose all the votes that day in the House, and shackling him to a requirement to delay Britain’s exit from the EU past the set date of October 31 despite his repeated insistence that he would ‘rather die in a ditch’. Of course he is legally obliged to do that now, which triggered another debate on whether his government regarded itself as subject to law, like all the rest of us. If he still resists, he could be arrested, tried and – even, though this is a long shot – sent to prison. So it was serious; not only for him personally, the aspect which the personality-focussed popular press inevitably concentrates on; but for British democracy, no less.

At bottom it’s a dispute between two conceptions of democracy. Britain has long – for at least 400 years – been a Parliamentary democracy, with major decisions taken by the people, but through the medium of their elected representatives. Those representatives don’t always mirror popular opinion precisely, but that’s the whole point of them: that they are trusted by the people to use their judgements, which should be known to their electors beforehand, to come to considered decisions about the issues that come before them in Parliament. Britain has always distrusted direct democracy, as exercised through referenda, in case its decisions are too influenced by ignorance or manipulation; arguing that if Parliament is seen to get things too wrong this can be corrected at the following General Election. Most other nations that employ referenda have inbuilt rules that are supposed to have the same effect: demanding enlarged majorities in existential cases, for instance, or allowing for re-runs. Britain’s 2016 referendum on membership of the EU had none of these safeguards. David Cameron, whose reputation as the most foolish prime minister in British history has only been arguably topped by his two successors, gambled his nation’s whole welfare and place in the world on a supposedly ‘advisory’ referendum in which a simple 52:48 majority would be decisive. That slim majority might have been acceptable in other circumstances; but the degree of corruption and manipulation that was very soon revealed on the ‘Leave’ or ‘Brexit’ side clearly threw doubt on it; as did the demographic shift that had taken place in the British population thereafter, with crusty old Brexiters dying and being replaced in the electorate by clean-limbed young pro-European 18-20-year olds; and its unfairness to two of the four nations that make up Britain. (Scotland and Northern Ireland had both voted for ‘Remain’.) In the meantime, however, the privileged and Machiavellian Right in the British political establishment, egged on by populist thuggery, had made the prospect of any backsliding on their holy referendum a dangerous prospect, stirring up nightmare visions of widespread social unrest, and even civil war.

For them the issue was about far more than Europe, which few of the thugs had given any attention to before it was held up to them in 2016 as a scapegoat for their ills and sufferings in recent years: none of which could truly be blamed on the EU, but which was presented to voters, together with the Europhile ‘elite’, as the villains of the piece by the Right. Having ‘won’ the debate in 2016, any suggestion for a new referendum to decide on the issue again with the advantage of better knowledge, was dismissed as (curiously) ‘anti-democratic’; as a cunning plot by the ‘elite’ to override the ‘people’s voice’; and as somehow unsporting, as if the Remainer ‘team’ was only insisting on a re-play because it had been defeated. ‘You lost: get over it!’ was a common cry. In this way, the dispute was metamorphosed into one between ‘the People’, and the ‘Establishment’, with the latter being identified with ‘Parliament’ in a way that of course ran right against the traditional and intended concept of Parliament as the very vehicle for the expression of the ‘people’s’ will.

Last night’s debates illustrated all of this; as well as, incidentally, Boris Johnson’s Eton-schoolboy view of things, exemplified in two particular (and sexist) insults he threw at the Opposition: calling Corbyn a ‘big girl’s blouse’, and David Cameron a ‘girlie swot’. (As opposed, Dominic Grieve suggested, to a ‘manly idler’. Grieve isn’t known for his humour, but this was top-notch.) The way that Parliament has been portrayed in the media over recent months hasn’t helped its reputation: for which not only its depiction as the ‘enemy of the people’ by the Right-wing press can be blamed (see https://bernardjporter.com/2019/08/31/populism-and-parliament), but also its own behaviour – rowdy, antiquated, and with customs and ceremonies which are intrinsically difficult for modern people to engage with. (What on earth are they to make of ‘Black Rod’ in pantaloons?) Now that they can be seen every day on TV, it’s certainly difficult to portray MPs as the representatives of ‘ordinary people’. This can only add fuel to the new populist attack on them; which is – whether it realises it or not – a threat to the Parliamentary democracy which characterises Britain.

The ‘People’ versus the ‘Elite’ is a powerful slogan; which may be why the Opposition is beginning to adopt it for itself. It should be quite easy, after all, to label a government of ex-Public Schoolboys financed by big money and strongly supported from over the ocean by Donald Trump for his own ‘MAGA’ reasons as somewhat less than a ‘popular’ British movement, and by that means to restore Parliament’s more democratic reputation against those particular ‘elites’. It should have been an even simpler matter when Johnson deliberately and dictatorially closed down Parliament in order to stifle democratic debate. It was this that provoked those exciting events last night, and could help restore our now dangerously beseiged Parliamentary democracy.

What’s to come? No-one can know. There are stirrings of a cross-party alliance – Labour, Lib Dems, Tory rebels, SNP, various odd Independents – forming in order to prevent the worst form of Brexit – the ‘No Deal’ one – that Johnson and the Tory ultras look likely to try to force on us. That, of course, was emphatically not what the referendum came out in favour of. In July 2016 we were told that a ‘deal’ with Europe to preserve our trading links, and so on, would be the ‘easiest thing in the world’. That’s another ‘democratic’ reason, quite apart from the flaws in the original referendum, for establishing a government that could negotiate a compromise, at least. Norway, anyone?

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Pants on Fire

It’s unusual, I think, for politicians to be undone by their personal failings. But that is what seems to be happening in the case of Boris Johnson. Yesterday Labour refused to be seduced into the General Election that Boris was offering it, simply on the grounds that they couldn’t trust  him, while Parliament is prorogued, not to go back on his word and reschedule it to a date more convenient for him – that is, before Parliament’s bill to prevent a ‘No-Deal Brexit’ has been passed into law.

Most prime ministers would have been trusted on this. Boris, however, is well-known to be a serial and congenital liar, both in his domestic life, once losing a position in Michael Howard’s shadow cabinet for denying an extra-marital affair, and in his professional life – as a journalist, sacked from two newspapers for lying in print. His lies and other acts of dishonesty and disloyalty are widely known, and have been reliably documented. Indeed, they almost seem to define him as a politician. (Other politicians have lied, of course, but not to his extent.) Johnson’s ‘base’ – of elderly party members – appears to have no problems with this; but it is known that his fellow Conservative MPs – including those 21, some highly distinguished, whom he sacked from the Party for voting against a bill of his – distrust him deeply. It could be this which, sooner or later, brings him down. If so he will have deserved it.

In this respect he resembles his great ally and champion Donald Trump, whose own habitual lying appears to have had rather less effect on his fortunes. Is that because the latter’s falsehoods are not so widely known about by his  base – as a result perhaps of the mistrust in the ‘Mainstream Media’ that Trump has engendered? Or are the British more shocked by dishonesty than Americans? Has it got something to do with the late stage that capitalism has reached in the USA, valuing ‘winning’ – by any means – over truth? Or is it – and this may be the likeliest reason – that we’ve not yet seen how credulous, forgiving or amoral the British electorate may be; which could be revealed in the days ahead.

Over the next month or so I’ll be looking closely at Boris, in connexion with the final chapter I’ve been commissioned to add to the new (6th) edition of The Lion’s Share, which – in order to conform to the rest of its narrative – will be entitled ‘Brexit and the Empire’. If Brexit owes anything to memories of Britain’s imperial ‘greatness’, it will come out in the statements and writings of Johnson and his Old Etonian chum Rees-Mogg. I’ve written to the Head of History at Eton to ask about the History syllabuses (-bi?) they might have studied there – if, that is, they were taught about anything later and closer to home than Cicero. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I’ve had no reply yet. I’ve even bought Boris’s novel  to read. Kajsa was a little surprised to read an email to me from Amazon, informing me that ‘your Seventy-Two Virgins have been delivered to a neighbour’ while I was away.

In the meantime, how refreshing it will be to see a politician brought down by his amorality!

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MP, Couchant

What on earth was he thinking of? There he is, Jacob Rees-Mogg, just recently elevated to his first cabinet position, lounging languorously on the front bench during one of the most important Parliamentary debates in recent history yesterday, and so forming an image of upper-class arrogance, privilege and contempt for democracy that could be taken to typify this new government: which is headed, of course, by his Old Etonian chum Boris Johnson. Didn’t he realise that this was how the picture – reproduced in every paper this morning – would be interpreted? Doesn’t he care?


More on the substance of the present debates later. They’re still going on as I write –  Johnson still blustering and lying, and clearly preparing for the ‘People versus Parliament’ General Election which must come soon. He’s lost his majority in the Commons, and has chucked 21 of his own rebels out of the Conservative Party. He says he wants to renegotiate Brexit with the EU, but is showing no signs of doing so. His whole strategy seems to blame a likely ‘No Deal’ on – as well as the EU – Parliament, who are ‘cutting his negotiating legs from under him’, by legislating in advance against a No Deal. Yes, folks, it’s the old ‘stab in the back’ trick.

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