Full English Brexit

In the ironically named “Planet Normal” Daily Telegraph podcast, truculent rosbif Lord Frost – AKA “Frosty the no man” – spells out the way ahead for the go for broke Tory right.

He has two main points.

Lockdown was a bad idea.

In that breathtaking way that Tories have of stating the exact opposite of the facts with breezy self confidence, he says that when the pandemic is viewed in hindsight, the UK has “come out relatively positively” but that the country will look back on lockdowns as a “serious public policy mistake”.

“Relatively positively”? Compared with who I wonder? With a death rate of 2,257 per million (and rising) the UK is 25th worst out of 207 countries. We have done better than 24. Worse than 182.

So, relatively positive compared with the USA (2,567 per million) or Poland (2,670 per million) Croatia (3,197) or Peru (6,248); but really grim compared with Ireland (1,221) or Kazakhstan (987) or Cuba (735) or Vietnam (364); let alone Japan (145) or South Korea (121) or Australia (101) or New Zealand (11) or China (<4).

The only comparable West European countries that have done worse are Belgium and Italy.

The countries that have done worst are mostly in Eastern Europe or Latin America; often countries that had a denialist leadership for at least part of the pandemic – like the USA or Brazil. The countries that have done best are those that have followed an active Covid suppression policy throughout the pandemic, like China, or for most of it, like New Zealand or Australia; or large numbers of countries in the Global South in which the average life expectancy does not reach the elderly age groups most at risk of death.

Please note the difference in scales between this graph and the European one. The Japan block here is far fewer people (151) than the Norway block above (258).

To get into a reductio ad absurdum with the country that has done best, for every 1 person who has died of Covid in China, 650 have died in the UK. Quite an achievement.

Perhaps he is less concerned with deaths – which disproportionately affect people who are old, or poor, or live in overcrowded conditions, work in front line jobs or are ethnic minority – than with “the economy”. As he says, “There haven’t been enough voices challenging the epidemiologists. There hasn’t been enough of a voice of the economy in this, [or] an attempt to get to grips with the trade-offs.” So, there we have it. On the one hand we have mass deaths. On the other, money to be made. As the Deputy Business correspondent of the Daily Telegraph put it at the start of the pandemic, a viral cull of the economically inactive elderly – sitting in care homes costing a fortune – would be “mildly beneficial”. Not something to lose any sleep about. With 175,000 excess deaths since March 2020, that’s that box ticked.

Had there been no lockdown early on, far more people would have died. The most recent waves have been blunted by mass vaccination. Vaccination did not start until December 2020. The only way to stop the first wave was to lock down hard. It worked. Even though it came late and reluctantly – with many Tories wanting to “take it on the chin”; in the hope that if enough infections ripped through the population quickly enough, the survivors would be immune by the Summer, we could bury our dead and move on. But a collapsed Health Service in the meantime would have scuppered their government, so they couldn’t risk it.

By May, cases were low enough that another couple of weeks could have had them in the sort of territory that would have required an effective test, trace and isolate system to keep them under control. Instead the government opened up too quickly. Resistance to school reopening from the teaching unions helped slow down the inevitable viral rebound, which took off apace from the start of the autumn term. The influence of people like Lord Frost in the Conservative Party stopped the government taking the necessary action before it was too late to stop another wave of mass infections, hospitalisations and deaths last winter.

So, unless Frost is rewriting History, or has a serious case of amnesia, it is quite clear that without the lockdowns in 2020 we’d have had an awful lot more dead people. Obviously “a serious policy mistake.”

He is also against what he calls “Covid theatre” – like masks – possibly because, as well as helping stop infections spreading, they are a visible sign of both the seriousness of the virus and an act of conspicuous social solidarity that shows there is such a thing as society (and that will never do).

‘Don’t rush on net zero’

As if that’s what they’re doing! Because there’s really no hurry is there?

He says, “I think climate change is a significant problem. I just don’t think it’s necessarily the most significant problem that the country faces at the moment.”  By the time it is, it will be too late. This is like the Veneto Regional Council voting against climate control measures minutes before having to evacuate their council chamber to escape rising flood waters. As for them, so for Lord Frost. Everything will be under control and normal. Until it isn’t. As he says, “I would not run at it. I would pace it a bit, if we must set ourselves this net zero objective.” IF WE MUST…get off our arses and do something, lets not go at the pace needed (7% CO2 reductions on an annual basis) let’s amble along hoping that someone else will take up the slack.

In California and British Columbia this summer, people in small towns like Greenville and Quincy would have seen everything looking normal until minutes before wildfires burned them to the ground. Perhaps Lord Frost didn’t get a look at the news during the Summer to see all those wildfires and floods. Perhaps he hasn’t noticed the melting permafrost and glaciers and the impending sea level rises. Or the droughts. Or the hurricanes and typhoons that are multiplying and moving into more “temperate” zones. Or the mass extinctions. Or the Amazon being on the verge of tipping into savannah. Still, there’s no rush is there and we have to pace ourselves…

What he is against is exactly what’s needed.

  • As fossil fuel bills rise because of rising gas prices, he wants to slow down the transition away from them. An argument that the investment in transition should not be loaded onto consumer’s bills is one thing, arguing to scrap them altogether is another. Neither he, nor anyone in the Net Zero Watch group makes the distinction.
  • He is against state investment in renewable technology (“picking winners”) because, unlike Deng Xiao Peng, he doesn’t care whether the cat catches mice as long as its privately owned. The record of leaving it to the market – when it comes to insulation and retrofitting for example – holds no lessons for him. At the current pace of insulation, 50,000 houses a year – many of them bodged by half trained white van men – we will have finished doing the 26 million homes the UK needs doing to hit net zero by 2050 in 2541. I’m not sure if that’s a leisurely enough pace for Lord Frost, but it doesn’t look like they are breaking much of a sweat to me.

As he puts it, with great precision “We’re bringing in measures that are sort of unnecessary, too soon.” He doesn’t specify what these are, but presumably he’d rather bring them in when its too late.

He is also in favour of using Brexit to go for wholesale deregulation of course.

So – the programme for a proper Tory government, with none of this leveling up pinkwash posturing: Freedom for the virus! Lord make me green but not yet! Take back decontrol!

Brexit. Myths and Realities


This is the original version of my current article under this title for Labour Hub.

Tom Wood’s recent article on Labour Hub “Conceptualising Brexit” argues in a rather abstract way that withdrawal from the EU makes “Socialism” more possible in the UK; which begs a number of questions.

1) Why did a section of the ruling class want Brexit and what are they trying to do with it?
The ruling class in the UK was split over Brexit. Significant sections, especially in manufacturing, wanted to stay in.The largest donation to either campaign was to Remain from Sainsburys. The next four largest donations all went to Leave and all were from Hedge Funds.

The faction that wanted out was motivated by a desire to align the UK with the labour and environmental standards of the USA; as these are significantly lower than those operating in the EU. No paid maternity leave as a right. Lower holiday entitlement. “Cutting red tape” and letting business “off the leash” of tedious bureaucratic health and safety standards and overheads. Time for Atlas to shrug.

It was and is a class war initiative designed to shift resources from wages and social conditions to profits. An attempt to break out of the UK’s long steady decline and stagnation with a spectacular act of will that would mobilise and cement a section of the working class into a revived national project on deeply reactionary grounds. The notion that “with one mighty bound” the UK would shrug off its European shackles and boom off into the distance has not come to pass. In fact, the already deadly slow pace of business investment has stalled even further, as this graph from the FT shows: making temporary upticks feverish and unsustainable. If I were a patient with a graph like that at the foot of my bed. I’d be worried.

Line chart of £bn in 2019 value (taking into account an ONS error) showing UK business investment has underperformed the trend

As the projected economic benefits turn sour –with Richard Hughes of the Office for Budget Responsibility projecting that the long term economic impact of Brexit will reduce UK GDP by 4% – double the long term impact of the Covid pandemic -the ongoing dynamic of this is to try to keep this political bloc together by playing up the hostility to immigrants and refugees that was the dark soul of so much of the Leave vote.

A trade deal with the US, harmonising standards on their model, is still what they are after – perhaps to be consummated after the Second Coming of Trump (or one of his acolytes) after 2024.An acceleration of the creeping privatisation of the NHS, with US companies starting to take over consortia of GPs practices, is a precursor. Fire and rehire the bracing new model of labour relations, or so they hope. Such a deal will be entirely on the USA’s terms. Negotiations with the Americans by weaker economies tend to be short. The Americans write the deal. The other country signs it.

While Tom is right to argue that this was all overlaid with the delusions of restored British buccaneering grandeur and imperial nostalgia, and its apparent that some of Tory right really believe in this if Daily Telegraph opinion pieces are to be taken at face value; it was also instrumentally useful prolefeed, cutting with the grain of a deeply backward looking national culture, nostalgic for past imperial glories and fearful of the future that runs deep in older, whiter workers in “left behind” areas; who look at shuttered factories and closed mines and see national decline not the brutal indifference that characterises the care the ruling class takes of them, their communities and their lives. Sink or swim. On your bike.

Where he is completely wrong is in any notion that there was any symmetry in the pro Brexit faction in their desire to trade with the USA and China.“Glorious Global Britain” could no more be a free agent in trade than it is in military and foreign policy. Trade with China is now freezing into a Cold War framework; with pressure from the USA channelled by the right, and mainstream Labour, for increasing scrutiny and barriers to Chinese trade and investment – and even academic cooperation -on “national security” grounds. This is already doing damage to the UK economy in areas like 5G and nuclear energy. Keeping Huawei out of 5G infrastructure means using slower and more expensive Western substitutes. One indication of the consequences of this is that China’s very successful zero Covid strategy relies partly on a contact tracing App that actually works. None of those tried here works anything like as well. There are many reasons not to go nuclear, but the decision to exclude Chinese investment leaves an investment and technology gap that will be hard to fill; imposing additional costs on what is already a prohibitively expensive energy technology and a reliance on US or French companies notorious for cost and construction over runs and technical breakdowns.

What are the consequences for the UK?

Tom argues rightly that both the EU and the UK are now struggling for advantage; but the asymmetry between the economies means that this is a game of chicken between a British bubble car and a European ten ton truck.

The impact on the “home nations” is centrifugal.

The stresses in the North of Ireland are a case in point. The North remaining in the EU single market means that it has been doing rather well economically. The problem with the Protocol is for British based companies that now face additional paperwork, which has hindered their ability to sell into the 6 Counties. Attempts by the UK government to foment Loyalist mobilisations against this –shown by Lord Frost making it a priority to see the suits who front up Loyalist paramilitaries as his first port of call earlier this year– have foundered on three problems.

1. The majority of both communities in the North voted to Remain.
2. Virtually no one in the North wants a land border between the 6 Counties and the Republic.
3. The United States has made it plain that it will not support any course of action that threatens the Good Friday Agreement and is therefore backing the EU stance.

The political fall out in the North is that the DUP are in crisis, losing support to the centrist Alliance Party on one side and, more significantly, to harder line Loyalists on their right. In the forthcoming Stormont elections, other things being equal, Sinn Fein are set to be the largest Party, and would therefore take the First Minister position. Although the next General Election in the Republic does not have to be held until 2025, Sinn Fein are also currently well ahead in the polls there. There is a long way to go between here and there, and the UK and Irish ruling classes will move heaven and Earth to stop it, but either or both of these developments could put a border poll on the agenda; which could take the 6 Counties out of the UK altogether; and the St Patrick’s cross out of the Union Jack.

Tom’s argument that “Scottish nationalism has been undermined” by Brexit and presumption that there will be a Labour revival North of the Border –with Labour offering Scotland a “socialist future” is taking wishful thinking a little far. A General Election tomorrow would see the SNP increasing its support. Support for full independence hovers around 50%, mostly just below. So, not enough to successfully force the issue, but more than enough to stop it going away. Like Catalonia. The majority Remain vote in Scotland gives the prospect of independence in the EU a big market over the water to aspire to belong to as a pull to add to the push given by the sense that successive Conservative governments treat the UK as little more than Greater Little England. Even in Wales, which marginally voted Leave, support for independence is growing.

The impact of the pandemic has raised the profile and standing of the Scottish and Welsh First Minsters, who have each taken a marginally better line on keeping it under control, but have both struck a tone that has been more humane and competent than Johnson; whose standing has correspondingly shrunk. The dynamic of politics in each component of the UK is diverging and becoming more unique. The sudden ubiquity of Union Jacks – behind ministerial podiums and on a flagpole near you – has a slightly desperate air about it; as if they fear that if they weren’t there, we’d forget where we are. The tectonic plates are moving, slowly, under their feet.

What are the consequences for Tory Party and ruling class politics?

Boris Johnson’s New Model Tory Party, with Remainers purged and the Brexit Party vote incorporated, is more libertarian for the rights of business, and more draconian and repressive on civil liberties. Every time you see someone from the Covid Recovery Group banging on about the precious liberty to not wear a mask or turn down a vaccine, check out how their view on the Police Bill or the Nationality and Borders Bill. Their concern for the right to go unvaccinated or maskless is the bravado of those who believe that it is good for the soul to take risks with your life so you can go to work. The liberties they champion are all those that smooth the path to unrestrained consumption. Block a highway to try to save the planet, on the other hand, and your feet won’t touch the ground. 51 months inside and an unlimited fine for you. Standards and order, after all, must be upheld. Ever unoriginal and derivative, they are adopting themes, slogans and attack lines off the peg from the US Republican Party which sets them up for an ever more delirious politics.

Crucially, contrary to delusions held in sections of the trade union movement, they have not and do not intend to abandon austerity. Spending vast amounts to keep private companies afloat in the face of the pandemic is what you might call “socialism for bankers”. And every time Rishi Sunak has the delusion that the pandemic is all over, he starts talking about the need to get the public finances in order, reduce the debt AND reduce taxes on the rich. Same old tune.

Despite labour shortages in some sectors giving some workers a bit of leverage, overall wage settlements are running at 2%, while CPI inflation is 5.1% and RPI (which includes housing costs) 7.1%, and there is a public sector wage freeze. This is not a nativist high wage economy in the making. Quite the reverse

The sum total of “levelling up” is a bit of pork barrel spending on small scale cosmetic developments in Tory held seats – the not so subtle message being “vote for us and get a by pass, don’t vote for us and we leave you to rot”. The adjustments to the social care bill – which primarily hit poorer home owners in the North and benefited wealthier people in the South – and the pruning back of rail investment in the North – showed that they just can’t help themselves.

The extent to which the Tories are coming unstuck at the moment is that after almost two years of one of the worst per capita death rates in the world and no end in sight, the penny is dropping that we are not all in it together, they make the rules to suit themselves and cock a snook at the rest of us and, when discovered, try to brass it out with laughably ludicrous denials and evasions; and this shows what they are like about everything else.

What are the consequences for Labour?
The self comforting myth that the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn was solely a side effect of Labour’s 2019 Brexit policy has some traction on the Labour Left, because it allows us the delusion to think that the forces we are up against are nothing like as powerful as they actually are; so no deep rethink of strategy is needed.

The defeat was actually the result of every single pro ruling class political faction making it their priority to stop him over and above their position on Brexit, or anything else. So, not just the Brexit and Tory Parties, but the Lib Dems and SNP too. Had the Lib Dems and SNP actually been concerned primarily with stopping a hard Brexit in 2019, they’d have supported a temporary Corbyn led government to get that done. They chose instead to precipitate a General Election that they knew Johnson was likely to win.

This was also a concern of the US State Department, who were quite overt that they were making Corbyn “run the gauntlet” (as Mike Pompeo put it).

The function of Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party is primarily to reassure the ruling class that Labour is a safe alternative government – the B team for when the Tories fall apart – and poses no threat to their interests. Much energy has been put into being “statesmanlike” and giving the government support “in the national interest” during the pandemic. Union Jacks have been as common behind Shadow as government Ministers. A relentless purge of the left of the Party, at every level, from the removal of the whip for Corbyn, to panels for local council candidates that keep left candidates off, to the growing number of auto exclusions for ordinary party members send the message that Labour is safe for business, the rules based international order and the Atlantic Alliance.

The new Unionism even extends to Ireland, where Keir Starmer has said he would make the case for the Union in the event of a Border Poll; and Louise Haigh was reshuffled out of her role as Shadow Northern Ireland spokeswoman within a week of arguing that Labour should stay neutral.

Is Brexit a step on the road to socialism?

Tom’s central arguments are
1. that the constitutional arrangements of the EU are an obstacle to socialism and that therefore“ while Brexit Britain may be at risk of being led down a blind alley by the uber-globalists, it is also, in equal measure, able to pursue Socialism. In a post-Brexit Britain, socialists would not be restricted as they had been since Britain joined the EU”.(my emphasis).
2. “Brexit shatters the myth that capitalism can be tamed and that long term liberal, capitalist cooperation is possible.”

Constitutional arrangements are, in themselves, not an insuperable obstacle to the expression of forces in class struggle. When the contradictions get too great, they crack. Making any kind of advance in current circumstances, or even taking effective defensive measures, requires the working class in every country to be both internationalist and seek international alliances and organisation, irrespective of whether we are part of the same trade bloc or not. A struggle for socialism also means seriously engaging with countries that see themselves as socialist and connecting with the recomposition of the left globally that is currently taking place; rather than presuming that we can build social democracy in one country, while paying no attention to the actual domestic relation of class forces – not least in the Labour Party.

The balance of class forces in the Leave campaign and Brexit strategy is a bit of a clue to the direction Brexit has taken, and was always going to take. It was, and is, completely dominated by the most reactionary fraction of UK capital, which controls the Tory Party and therefore the government, with a wing led by Farage directly plugged into the most right wing fraction of US capital -always primed and ready for an astroturf revival to keep the Tories on the straight and narrow -and its street fighting component around Tommy Robinson standing back and standing by on the one side, and the small collection of “anti – EU voices on the left” on the other – some in Labour, some in the CP or from the SWP tradition. The latter would hardly have been welcome on pro leave demos, even had they wanted to go. Physical violence would have been likely. Who has the power here? Who is hegemonic? Conclusions should be drawn. There is a world of difference between struggling against restrictions on state ownership and investment from a position of strength and mobilisation –possibly in government -and looking for international allies in that fight; and taking part as a subordinate element in a movement aiming to remove restrictions on attacks on the working class driven by revanchist nationalism.

All politico- trade agreements between different nations and states are subject to stresses and none of them are eternal. The UK itself is a case in point on a smaller scale than the EU. It has held together because it was very successful as an imperial power for a quarter of a millennium. Its decline is putting its cohesion under strain.

The same applied to Yugoslavia, as a socialist federation broken apart by an economic impasse that allowed more powerful outside forces to put unbearable pressure on its national/political fault lines, with horrific consequences.

The EU is a kind of Hayekian Holy Roman Empire, with Germany big enough to call most of the shots, but not big enough to subordinate and absorb the other big economies, in the way Prussia did with the Zollverien to create the Second Reich. Its future depends partly on internal stresses, but most crucially on the centrifugal pressures put on it by the USA on the one side and China’s Belt and Road initiative on the other; and this overlaps with the eastward military drive of NATO and consequent increasingly fraught relations with Russia. It is hard to imagine that the refragmentation of the EU would follow the scenario Tom sketches of a grateful continental workers movement looking to the shining example of socialism being developed in Britain –hardly an immediate prospect in any case -and breaking away to follow our example. Two, three, many Brexits, could be more like Yugoslavia on a much bigger scale.

The UK capitalist faction that drove Brexit and is – for now – in charge are not “uber-globalists”. They are dyed in the wool Atlanticists. And so – for now – are the leadership of the Labour Party. That means being signed up for a US trade deal and complete fealty to the US alliance and the New Cold War. The dynamic of that anchors the Labour leadership in collusion with the Tory government –seen most recently in Starmer giving them credit for putting health first on Covid when they have presided over one of the worst per capita death rates in the world -and will drive them ever further rightwards. Their “gentleman’s agreement” on by elections with the Lib Dems is a precursor of the least progressive coalition option possible for an alternative government; and possibly a centre recomposition on US Democrat party lines, dumping the organic connection with organised labour, as long hankered after by Blair.

The decisive task for the Labour movement, Party members and trade unions, is to resist this.

Whatever happened to “the easiest deal in history?”

When Boris Johnson said this time last year that he had an “oven ready” deal with the EU, he neglected to point out that the oven was broken.

He is now breezily assuring us that an “Australian style” deal won’t be too bad; as retailers warn of price rises and supply shortages of everything from food to medicine.

An Australia style deal is no deal at all. Mongolia and Afghanistan have the same “deal” with the EU as Australia does. But, Australia has a certain “White Dominion” atavistic “kith and kin” resonance with a certain kind of Tory voter, all positive associations of Barbecues and beer on Bondi Beach, aspirational Neighbours style suburbia and just a little bit of “common sense” casual racism. Johnson could say “Mongolian style deal” or “Afghan style deal” instead, but that would go down as well as yak milk with these people, so he doesn’t.

Of course, Australia is currently trying to negotiate a closer trade deal with the EU, while the UK is pulling away. Total Australian trade with the EU is significantly smaller than that of the UK.

This may be partly because Australia is 9,000 miles away from Europe, whereas the UK is right on the border.

When considering the percentage of imports and exports, the difference weight of EU trade is even more stark.

The EU is Australia’s third largest trading partner but the UK’s most important.

What also has to be factored in here is that just under half of Australian trade with the EU is actually with the UK – for historic colonial reasons – so the proportion with the rest of Europe is even smaller than appears here. It is therefore less of a problem for Australia to be trading with the EU without a deal than it will be for the UK in three weeks time.

No deal means World Trade Organisation terms. That means tariffs, costs, hold ups. The cost of that will be borne by all of us and it will hit the worst off hardest and will form part of the austerity offensive already being carried through; as the costs of COVID are pushed downwards in lost jobs and cut or frozen wages while the government pulls patriotic poses, ramps up the hostile environment, lines up organisations like the EHRC to pursue culture wars, forbids any teaching that encourages “victim narratives” and pursues a rightward shift in the media environment – because they don’t want a institutionally conservative commentator that passively reflects their line, as the BBC does, they want a cheerleader generating zealous enthusiasm for the traitor hunt that is already well under way; and will be ramped up to shrieking pitch as the “easiest deal in History” fails and lorry drivers stuck in Kent queue up to piss in bottles.

Quiet, but not quite quiet enough.

With the sudden sharp and shocking increase in Coronavirus infections there are fewer people out and about, and they seem to be moving slower, more carefully, more wary and considerate, aware of the fragility of life and taking the time to live its most mundane moments more fully.

The traffic is sparser and has lost the feverish quality of the return to normal that everyone knew wasn’t a return to normal, a sense of living on thinner ice than we’d thought, with too many cars moving too fast, hurrying through, cutting each other up, drivers with frightened eyes, vehicular Social Darwinism; now back to the calm between storms.

Outside Tesco, it is peaceful and tidy. A few weeks ago there were flocks of discarded plastic bags doing dances in the air on the vortexes of wind that were whipping and wheeling, floating up and drifting down, like some elegant, new, ugly life form.

In the meadowed part of the park, the wildflowers planted by the council to save the bees are having a late surge; now head high in places, an impressionists palette of magenta, buttery yellow and cornflower blue waving in the wind and pale autumn light. Magnificent.

Passing the local High School – on the “concern” list for the Local Authority after cases of COVID – and a year group “bubble” is out in the lower school playground. A couple of hundred students scattered in the usual tight clumps, giving no impression that anything unusual is going on.

Though the Moot of eight old chaps that used to sit in a circle smack in the middle and take it in turns to hold forth and put the world to wrongs has dispersed, the socially distanced Yoga class on the far side of the park carries on as normal with all thirty of its participants doing the downward dog in a wide circle, rule of six or no rule of six. Were they to be arrested, the charge sheet would be surreal. A few elderly people without masks puff and wheeze on the outdoor gym.

Picking up some light reading from the library and both the latest Le Carre (1) and Mick Herron (2) efforts involve increasing tension between UK and German Intelligence in the context of Brexit; with double agent plots in both. Herron’s barely disguised satire on Boris Johnson gets full marks from a battery of reviewers in the Telegraph, Mail and Express; indicating more self awareness from those titles in their culture section than they would ever admit to in News and Comment. Surprising they didn’t called it treasonous.

In my local Tesco they have moved the toilet rolls into the same row as the Newspapers. Looking at the headlines this morning, I can see their point.

1. Agent running in the field.

2. Joe country.

The Words of the Prophets…

…are written on the subway walls… pause to hum rest of tune.

A boarded up shop in Wembley High Road, stark white, has the words LAST DAY painted in black where the sign used to be. This must have refered to a closing down sale, but today it felt like a warning.

In the distance, a black railway bridge is half visible as the road turns. It looks like a portal to a grimmer place – more Mordor than South Kenton.

Opposite Wembley Park tube station – Dapper Dry Cleaners. The sign is filthy of course.

In so far as anything flies in Wembley, alongside the company flag and the Union Jack, EU flags still fly outside hotels by Wembley stadium in a limp celebration of inertia. Is this apparent defiance of the new order accidentally occassioned by negligence? Is keeping up the old flag just a way of removing the dilema of what else to use that third flagpole for? A transcontinental coach with German writing all over the back may give a clue as to why. If it makes commercial sense to make paying European guests feel at home, Brexit can stay undone – at least symbolically. Current transition negotiataions might need to bear that in mind more broadly.

With the High Road still busy with wary shoppers, keeping nervous and carrying on; Holland and Barrett declares a lack of hand sanitiser. When Boots in Brent Cross puts their daily stock out in the morning, we were told yesterday, its gone in ten minutes.  Outside emergencies – no access to soap and water – constant use of alcohol based hand sanitiser is probably counterproductive. The alcohol evaporates very quickly but strips the skin of its natural oils – leading to cracks; which is not good news if you want to avoid infections.

Nexagen – Labels 4 Less – displays large posters for Sri Raghavandrum Astrologer – Solve your problems today. They are holding a closing down sale.

The UK General Election in 7 myths

Sun Tsu wrote “In the absence of strategy, an argument about tactics is the noise before defeat.” He might have gone on to note that after a defeat, there is a tendency for people to hunker down back into default tactics and console themselves with self soothing myths. These set a course for future defeats. Here are some of the most potent and popular.

Myth 1. Boris Johnson won an overwhelming mandate for a hard Brexit.

No he didn’t. Winning a majority of seats in parliament is not the same as having majority support in society. A majority of seats in parliament means a government can ram through whatever legislation it likes, but, without majority support in the country that cannot be done with impunity – or sparking resistance. Given this government and who its leading figures are, there aren’t enough fridges in the country for them to hide in when the going gets tough – as it is bound to do. Here are the figures.

  • The total votes in the UK cast for the Conservatives and Brexit Parties in favour of a hard Brexit was 47%.
  • The total votes cast for parties opposed to hard Brexit was 52%. Essentially, this is the 2016 referendum in reverse, but, as with the last US Presidential election, the side with the lower popular vote winning.
brexit election votes

However you look at this, the blue slice isn’t even a majority, let alone an overwhelming one.

This matters because the end of 2020 is crunch time to decide if the UK stays in regulatory alignment with the EU or not. Johnson is already signalling that it won’t. The EU will not agree to this. So we are looking again at no deal and the rapid implementation of deal with Trump that has been being negotiated quietly behind our backs – and remains mostly redacted – for the last couple of years while the charade in Brussels has played itself out and occupied everyone’s attention. Resisting this from day 1 and getting the truth out as it unfolds is an imperative. Whatever the theoretical merits of a “Left Exit” from the EU in the eyes of those who support it – the Brexit we’re going to get has nothing in common with that and should be resisted by the whole Labour movement.

Myth 2. “The British Lion Roars for Boris and Brexit” Daily Express Headline 13 December 2019.

Not in Scotland, Ireland or Wales it didn’t. For the Express and a lot of its readers, “Britain” is basically Greater Little England. Given the figures, perhaps it was the idea of “Britain” that was roaring. But if that was the case, that idea is revealed to be only alive and well in small town England.

  • In Scotland the combined Conservative, Brexit Party, UKIP vote in favour of a hard Brexit was 26.6%, while the combined vote of the SNP Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens – opposed to hard Brexit – was 74.4%. Pretty overwhelming. The Scottish Lion was roaring “no”. Election Scotland
  • In Wales they did better, but were still a minority. The combined Conservative, Brexit Party, UKIP vote in favour of a hard Brexit was 41.4%, while the combined vote of  Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid and Greens – opposed to hard Brexit – was 58.8%.Wales election
  • In the North of Ireland the combined DUP, Northern Ireland Conservative and UKIP vote favouring hard Brexit was 30.8% while the combined vote of Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance, UUP, Aontu, People Before Profit and the Greens was 68.5%. This overstates the support for Johnson’s deal, because the DUP, although in favour of a hard Brexit in principle, are opposed to this one and any other that would lead to a border between North and South or in the Irish sea – i.e. any deal that might actually exist in the real world.Election N Ireland

I was going to make a joke about Johnson being “a one nation Conservative” in that he only represents one of the nations in the UK; but he doesn’t even do that. Even in England, hard Brexit did not win a majority. A damned close run thing, but the combined vote for the Conservatives, Brexit Party and UKIP was 49.3% while the combined votes for Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens was 49.4%.

So, Johnson’s huge majority in Parliament represents a minority in every country in the UK.

This matters because the attempt to implement his Trump Brexit will exacerbate the national tensions within the country and accelerate centrifugal tendencies.

  • At the moment there is no majority for independence in Scotland – because separation from the rest of the UK would be even more of a wrench than separation of the UK from the EU – but support for IndyRef2 is likely to be one form of resistance as Johnson tries to drive his deal through: in the same way that support for devolution reached tipping point when the Conservatives used the Scots as the guinea pigs for the Poll Tax in the 1980’s. Depending on how much this grows and how stiff necked and effortlessly offensive Johnson is – and he is, after all, a man who can’t resist making provocative “jokes” to see how much he can get away with – we could be seeing a dynamic like the one in Catalonia and “the British Lion” might find itself biting its own tail off.
  • Similarly in the North of Ireland. The current deal would see a tax border of sorts in the Irish Sea – with an inevitable depressing effect on the Northern Irish economy and letting it remain in orbit around Brussels even as the rest of the UK disengages. The geo-political logic of this is obvious. Going out with no deal would reopen the issue of the border in Ireland and there would be stronger support for a border poll to unite the country. In this election, for the first time ever, there are more nationalist MPs (Sinn Fein and SDLP) than Unionist. Johnson might find himself having to take the St Patrick’s cross out of the Union Flag quicker than he thinks.

The break up of the country is a worst case scenario from the point of view of anyone who wants to keep it together, but it follows the logic of taking back control at smaller and smaller levels. Whatever happens, it means trouble, not a return to calm or “normality”.

Myth 3. Johnson’s majority means that he can “face down the ERG”.

This piece of wishful thinking appeared in a number of places in the immediate aftermath of the election, not least the Guardian. The fraction of the ruling class opposed to Brexit but more worried that the only viable vehicle to stop it was a left Labour government, and poured more money into the Liberal Democrats than they knew what to do with, churned out some articles, possibly to keep their own hope alive and console themselves for the damage that’s coming. The measures in the Queen’s speech should have put paid to these delusions. Here they are in case anyone was in any doubt about where Johnson is heading.

  • The pledge to keep workers entitlements and rights up to at least EU standards has been discarded.
  • All out strikes in public transport and other services are to be banned.
  • The pledge to raise the minimum wage was dropped.
  • Britain is to be given the power to strike down EU protection on working hours.
  • Britain is to be given the power to strike down EU protection on holiday entitlements.
  • British judges are to be given the power to strike down EU protection on sick leave.
  • British judges are to be given the power to strike down EU protection on working hours.
  • Ways are to be sought to limit the right of the courts to limit government actions.
  • Even Lord Dubs amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill to continue to give refugee children sanctuary post-Brexit has been dumped.

Clear enough I think. This matters because Brexit is not “done”. The UK will leave the political structures of the EU at the end of January but still be inside the economic arrangements until the end of the transition period. The damage that will be done by a no deal exit is real; so this argument will continue. The extent to which it spills out from behind closed doors will indicate the extent to which any fraction of the ruling class is prepared to make a stand on the question of regulatory alignment. I wouldn’t hold my breath, but these articles are a sign that they haven’t entirely given up the ghost.

Myth 4: This was an unprecedented defeat for Labour and this is all Corbyn’s fault.

If we look at the results for the six General elections we’ve had this century, the graph looks like this.

labour vote 2001-2019

Its quite clear from this that Corbyn led Labour to its best (2017) and third best (2019) result this century. More than Blair in 2005, Brown in 2010 and Miliband in 2015. In 2005 far fewer Labour votes led to a majority government.

This matters because Labour’s stance in the next five years will determine whether it has any chance of toppling Johnson in 2025 – or possibly before then if things get bad enough – which they might. Corbyn’s politics – against austerity and for significant state investment to regenerate the economy, create  an inclusive and more equal society, make the green transition we need and distance ourselves from wars of intervention – are all needed if we are to resist and organise against the impact of Johnson’s Brexit.

Myth 5: the defeat is entirely down to what Labour did or did not do.

This is not usually stated as such, but seems to be a premise for a lot of the soul searching that has gone on since Friday the 13th, which has tended to look inwards at the Party, its leadership, policies and campaign. This is missing the bigger part of the picture; which is not just about how Labour lost but how the Conservatives won. Its a bit like if Napoleon’s Marshals sat down for a post mortem on Waterloo and paid no attention to anything the Duke of Wellington or Marshal Blucher had done.

it is a truth universally acknowledged that Theresa May’s 2017 election campaign was a bit of a car crash. But this judgement needs nuance. May increased the Tory vote over Cameron’s 2015 score more than Johnson did over hers this year. See graph.

tory vote 2015-19

However, what May’s campaign failed to do was neutralise the threat from Labour – which put on a spectacular increase in support during the election campaign which destroyed her majority. In 2017 the Conservatives were over confident. They believed that their initial 20 point lead was unassailable. They thought that they could get away with saying some of the unpopular things they would actually do before they did them – like the punitive social care policy which blew up in their faces. They hadn’t quite reached their current state of shamelessness and had the decency to look awkward when they ducked debates. They also thought that Corbyn’s “old fashioned socialist” ideas were sufficiently discredited that all they had to do was give him enough rope. which just shows how wrong you can be,

This time, knowing that their own vote was not going to go up much beyond the hard leave tribe, they played a cannier game to hold back a Labour surge.

  • They adjusted spending policy just enough to be able to talk about what looks like significant sums of money going into areas that they have been running down to destruction for the last ten years – while claiming that the previous policy had nothing to do with them guv – even though they were in Parliament (and sometimes the cabinet) voting for it. That these sums of money would still leave these services underfunded (and in the case of the NHS are a pre-emptive move to cover the costs of the increased drug bills it will be paying as a result of their pending and half negotiated deal with the US) passed most people by. This had a significant impact on people who previously might have come out to vote Labour to get any increase in funding for the health service. or their children’s school. In 2017, the NUT (now the NEU) waged a huge school gate campaign – without endorsing any party – on the impact of school spending cuts, which is credited with shifting 700 000 votes in Labour’s direction. In 2019 a similar campaign was waged by the NEU – with even more people taking part – but had nothing like the same impact. The Tories did just enough to innoculate themselves against this issue.
  • They were vague and bland about what their plans are. Beyond the mantra of “get Brexit done”, there was little concrete in their manifesto and they sold themselves on a false prospectus.
  • They fully embraced “post truth”politics. Having had Labour run rings round them online in 2017, they bought up space on websites so that whenever anyone searched for a Labour related item they were directed first to Conservative supporting sites attacking them. They were controlling the gateways to any narrative anyone wanted to find online as well as in most of the established mass media. Its amazing what money can do. They have picked up lying rebuttal techniques from sites with fake ids characteristic of the US Republican Party. So, the story about the little boy waiting on the floor in hospital – which was completely substantiated and documented by the Yorkshire Post and Daily Mirror, was rubbished online by anonymous sites claiming to be or know a nurse in the hospital who said it wasn’t true and then put around as fact by Tory supporters, or dupes. Moreover, 88% of Conservative online advertising was found to be at least “misleading”. The comparable figure for Labour was 0%.
  • They ran a tag team operation with other Parties. Most obvious was the role of “the Brexit Party” which withdrew from Tory marginals after being effectively instructed to by Donald Trump on a phone in to Nigel Farages’s LBC show. Farage blustered about second order issues as a bit of face saving but followed his master’s voice and did the deed.
  • The role of the Liberal Democrats bears deeper examination and they were essential to the Conservative win. They were dragged kicking and screaming into the alliance to stop no deal because it was being led by Corbyn. They blocked a transitional Corbyn government to block no deal, renegotiate with the EU to stay in the customs union and single market then put that back to the people, because keeping Corbyn out of No 10 was more important to them than stopping Brexit. At a ppoint that Johnson’s deal was about to be subject to scrutiny that would tear it apart, they and the SNP went behind Labour’s back to give Johnson the election he wanted, on the issue he wanted at the time he wanted it. One interpretation is that, lush with cash and the hubris of their rapid revival during the EU election campaign, they actually believed that they could win up to 100 seats and be in a position to hold the balance on a hung parliament or even provide a coalition Prime Minister. Another is that they were playing the role the ruling class – even their fraction of it – needed them to play; which was to split the vote against no deal Brexit and damage Labour in remain leaning marginals. This was built up throughout the campaign by “tactical voting” sites that initially advised voting Lib Dem in seats in which they’d been a distant third in 2017. Candidates who stood down to try to stave off a Tory win in Labour Tory marginals were slapped down and replaced by Jo Swinson. On polling day in London, the Evening Standard was covered in a wrap round advert calling for “Remainers” to vote Lib Dem – even though by this stage they were a busted flush almost everywhere and the effect of a Lib Dem vote would let in a hard Brexit supporting Tory. This was also behind the split in the People’s Vote campaign between those who saw it as a vehicle to stop Brexit and those – like Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell – who saw it as a vehicle to damage Corbyn. The logic of this was spelled out during the campaign by Lib Dem Deputy Leader Ed Davey, who said that in a choice between Corbyn and a hard Brexit, it would be a hard Brexit every time.

Myth 6. The leave vote is the voice of the working class.

Only if you believe

  • that there are no working class people in Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, London or any other big city.

The leave vote is a vote from small town England. Ashcroft’s poll after the referendum concluded that a typical leave voter was an ageing middle class white man who lived in the South of England and voted Tory.

Myth 7: Labour lost because it pledged to allow a second referendum on any deal negotiated with the EU.

There are a number of problems with this argument.

  1. It only looks at the seats Labour lost; which were all in regions in which there was an overall shift in votes to leave, not at the whole picture – including the marginal seats that Labour would have to gain to win an election in every other region – in which the overall shift to remain parties was substantially greater than the shift to Brexit supporting parties.
  2. It discounts any shift in voting intentions between 2017 and 2019 to make the false assertion that the primary potential damage to Labour was by leaking leave votes to the Conservatives. This is to turn Maths on its head. The Labour vote in the referendum was 37 leave to 63 remain. The damage done by losing remain votes was always going to be greater. And so it came to pass at the time of the EU election. Up to that point Labour had been level pegging with the Conservatives in voting intention polls. At the election there was a colossal hemorrhage of votes to the Lib Dems and- to a lesser extent – the Greens. Labour polled 14% and went down in national voting intention to the low 20s and didn’t recover. polling tracker

This matters because a shift towards “winning back traditional voters” has led to the nostrums of “Blue Labour” rising like a zombie waving a “controls on immigration” mug. Maurice Glassman’s slogan of “family, faith and flag” has some horrifying echoes that we could do without and would destroy Labour as any kind of progressive force.

To sum this up in one paragraph, the disagreements within the ruling class – nationally and internationally -over Brexit, while serious, were tactical, while their objection to a Corbyn government was strategic. So every single establishment institution and every single political current that – when it comes to the crunch – favours continued dominance by capital, whatever their view on Brexit, threw the kitchen sink at stopping Corbyn as an over riding priority. And they did.

Of bogies, dopplegangers, Brexit punditry in the chemists and Muharram in Kingsbury.

Pootling down the hill, the pizza moped delivery driver is steering with one hand and assiduously picking his nose with the other.

At the bottom of the hill, the neighbour who looks like a very plump version of Kaiser Franz Josef of Austria- Hungary – all shiny bald head fringed with gigantic mutton chop whiskers blending into a walrus mustache – says good morning as he sits half out of his Mercedes trying to psyche himself up to walk to his front door.

Every time I go to the chemists – now I am a pensioner I qualify for a loyalty card – the head pharmacist – a man who sees his job as to get to know everyone, not just transact with them – always sees me looking up at the news, silently blurbing on from the TV above the counter, and asks me “what’s going on?” Brexit of course. He is very nervous about his supply of medicines, as my daughter’s employer at the bakery is concerned about his supply of flour – which comes via the EU because British flour isn’t of high enough quality. I go off about Johnson being boxed in by Parliament, his majority and Party in tatters but – with Parliament about to be prorogued – still in office and going for no deal with far less scrutiny. Other customers look on a bit bemused. If the worst predictions of Operation Yellowhammer come to pass, they will be angry.

On the way down to the shops on Saturday and there’s an unusual stall being set up with an air of bustling importance outside the Saaqi Mall – a collection of tiny cubicle emporiums carved out of a bankrupt shoe shop, selling sugar cane ground into juice through a mangle, the world’s smallest jewelers, a place that teaches Maths and English (one person at a time presumably, given the space) and has a side line in Visas, a tiny travel agents and a few sad vacant spaces. The three men on it are giving out cups of tea from an ornate looking samovar and distributing snacks.

Next door, outside the shop where you can wire money back to relatives who need it more, another guy is sitting peacefully in front of a huge black banner thick as a carpet emblazoned with enormous Arabic letters in bright scarlet; designed to look as though they are dripping blood.  This is quite alarming, so I go over and ask him what it is. He removes his camouflaged ear muffs –  the army surplus of a very considerate militia – smiles broadly and says “Hussein. Imam Hussein.” So, its Muharram.

Muharram is when the Shia become visible. Cars fly white flags with Arabic writing in red. The Sim Sim bakery and other shops shut and sellotape posters to their shutters.


Tales from the Riverbank part 4. Visiting the Wind in the Willows as a stoat.

20190813_183627 (2)Walking from Brentford to Hampton Court along the Thames Path is to move between worlds more peculiarly different than in a sci-fi time slip between parallel universes. The same river and the same country, but very different worlds.

Brentford – South of Acton

Brentford is a place most people pass over – swishing way above on the Chiswick flyover; only noticing the upper floors of newly shiny tall buildings. Down below, in the underworld, quiet, twee little houses cluster shyly along the noisy fringes of the North Circular Road. Cars pass above and below, to north and south, east and west. Not a place to stop.

A motorist is a convertible shoots past towards Heathrow, the tan head rests in his back seats looking as though he’s taking two Sontaran visitors out for a spin.

The point at which the River Brent spills into the Thames, Brentford became the river junction for the Grand Union Canal and an area of higgeldy piggeldy workshops, a collection of eyesores all squeezed together in an improvised scuzzy mess around the Thames lock. The lack of self respect for trade in an area surrounded by zones of affluent consumption. Almost as though it is rubbing their faces in it. A well ordered wood yard, impeccably clean and functional, stands out in the chaos; as though keeping its head when all those about it had lost theirs. A busy yard with forklift trucks moving restlessly sports a sign – “No entrance unless under the guidance of a Banksman”- that sounds like something out of Dungeons and Dragons.

A place where boats and buses come to die; London’s largest functioning boat yard sits in a canal dog leg, three large covered dry docks, one working from the sound of the hammering and whining of drills, two absolutely overflowing with junk. Rusty metal, parts of boats, parts of engines, broken pipes piled up and spilling out. More a knackers yard than a hospital. Nothing new and shiny and proud being built, just the old and clapped out being gutted for parts. In a flat bottom barge in the canal alongside, more discarded metal, a whole earth mover rusted through, useless scrap from gutted machines; all just sitting there in a floating skip with nowhere to go.

Along the bank the buddleia and, amongst them and across the water, the dragonflies winking like jewels, their abdomens swaying contentedly as they suck nectar.

Houseboats sit at rest along every available bank. Some are wrecked; a queue of them either waiting for the short trip to the breakers yard, or just gently decaying at their moorings. Some, further on, and still lived in, have a tired and worn out air about them. One has a Union flag on its mainmast and a Red Duster aft – both faded by sunlight and worn thin and ragged by winds, but still nailed to the mast as a memory of departed glories; and an obvious metaphor for the state of a nation in which too many are too wedded to the past to be able to imagine a future that might be different.

Cormorants flash by, or stand sentinel preening their wings. Wooded islands dream on in mid channel – some of them with disused boat yards or tumble down buildings.

At the Morrisons, to which we repair for energy bars to power our feeble legs, the headlines from planets Times and Telegraph are that polls show “the people” want Brexit “done” by 31 October, by riding roughshod over Parliament to do it if need be. With a country as divided as it is, how they think that such a course of action could be healing, or anything other than a prelude to an extended period of trouble and disturbance is beyond me. Referenda only settle an issue if the result is overwhelming. That one wasn’t. Neither side will be happy with the victory of the other and no one will be happy with a compromise. Perhaps no accident that they are recruiting more police and building more prisons.

Just beyond Morrisons is Brentford Bridge – where an English Civil War battle took place in 1642 during Charles I’s push to retake London. The advancing Royalist Infantry nudged back a Parliamentary Foot Regiment that had dug in behind a barricade they had built across the road; and from which they had initially held off a cavalry attack. Parliamentary barges carrying artillery upriver were then sunk or captured. Victory in this skirmish was short lived and Charles’s attempts to advance much further were held off. He was never strong enough to threaten London again and ended up in Whitehall without his head seven years later. The commemorative plaque for the battle notes that both sides ravaged the surrounding area for forage and that one person out of every twenty five died in the war. The death rate in World War 1 was half that. Civil wars are always peculiarly brutal.

The Houses in between

Long stretches of the Thames Path in this part of London should be renamed the Not Quite Thames Path or The Path that would be the Thames Path if we had access to the Riverbank. Beyond the industrial cloaca of Brentford the housing becomes more elegant and expensive – some of it Poundbury style mock Georgian – and a riverfront is part of the cachet; so the Thames Path has to follow the next roads in. These could be anywhere and, as views go, are reminiscent of the music hall song

“With a ladder and some glasses,

you could see to Hackney Marshes,

if it wasn’t for the houses in between.”

To pass the time, in the absence of visual stimulation, we have geeky conversations about who Edith Piaf was, Film Noir and the debt owed by spaghetti westerns to Kurosawa, whether bus numbers that start with a letter are somehow second class (and speculating on how many numbered routes there are in London; more than 700 it turns out) the tendency for sci-fi films to break the logic of their own “scientific laws”  – and why 2+2-2=20 works in Javascript.

And we wept when we remembered Syon

One of the biggest and oldest of the houses commanding its own river front is Syon Park. This has been the London seat of the Dukes of Northumberland for 400 years; built in the 1500s in huge deer park grounds in border castle style, austere, with corner castles and battlements; as though expecting a party of Scottish border reivers to come whooping over the horizon at any moment: or perhaps just to remind the owners of who they were and what they were supposed to be all about. As Shakespeare’s Prince Hal puts it of Harry Percy – his contemporary and rival –

“He who kills me some six or seven dozen Scots each morning before breakfast,

washes his hands and says to his wife,

fie upon this quiet life, I want work.”

To one side of it is a hugely domed greenhouse that looks like an outpost from Kew Gardens, just across the river, or something out of The Prisoner, with a Garden Centre and cafe doing a roaring trade beneath it. The clientele in the cafe are entirely middle and upper class – eating the fat, fluffy chips of prosperity from woven baskets and talking in entitled tones. Elderly women in big floppy hats that they might wear painting oils in a field. Chaps with specs on ribbons. Boys called Horace.


The elegance of the riverside housing in Isleworth, all slim wrought iron balconies, humanely scaled, organically and gracefully linked, studded with trees and looking like a place of rest; is horribly undermined by being on the flight path in to Heathrow. Every 30 seconds or so a huge airliner barrels in on its way to land – low enough to cast large shadows and make a permanent strain on ears and psyches. The impact on CO2 levels doesn’t bear thinking about. They want to expand to a third as much again.


A little further on and the impact of the airport fades away. Everyone walking past now exudes wealth. Young men with headphones and insouciant looks walk well permed poodles or King Charles Spaniels. A man with the deep tan of the freshly holidayed walks past in a bright blue jacket that is as fresh as if he has never worn it, trousers that look like he dry cleans them every day and a pair of shoes that look as if they have been worn once. Wealthy people never look as though they sweat unless they want to. Looking up at the curve of Richmond Bridge, that looks as though it was built to be painted, its easy to see why this area swings politically between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Living round here, and thinking it normal, how could you not think that more or less all was ok with the world; or that those parts of it that were not ok could most easily be seen as a threat?

On the river, well worn houseboats along tow paths are giving way to neat little cruisers and yachts that are tied up at the end of private sloping gardens as routinely as cars in suburbia – neatly tarpaulined and clean. This becomes even more so as we get up to Teddington lock and the last of the saltwater river is left behind. Not far beyond the long pouring weirs and there are people swimming by the banks. Swim in the Thames much further east and you’d need stomach pumps, tetanus jabs and a gut full of antibiotics. Up here – despite the signs warning of deep water and strong currents – intrepid young people take a dip and a whole class of excited primary age kids in bright orange life jackets and safety helmets near Kingston take the plunge at once, while their friends haul in sail boards.

The mid channel islands are now entirely green and bucolic. The paths are busy with walkers and cyclists.

In the river are the first scullers, elegant brown racing boats swiftly pulled through the dappled water by teams of two, occasionally urged to greater effort by someone with a loud voice made harsh by loudhailer, following on in a motorboat and making up for their lack of physical effort by shouting more intensely.

By Kingston there is a long row of canal barges all lashed together with dour purpose, like Octavian’s triremes at Actium.


In the riverside Park there is the happiest war memorial I have ever seen. A World War 1 soldier is walking boldly forwards, holding his big heavy Enfield rifle behind him by the top of the muzzle and waving his soft peaked cap in an elated way,  beaming all over his face. His steel bowler is left at his heel, to show he is finally released from all that misery and suffering. It looks like he has just come home on leave – or that the war is over and he has survived and is showing all his pent up relief. It seems more a celebration of survival than a commemoration of loss. Goodbye to all that – one way or another.

Hampton Court

Another huge deer park with a long stone wall all around. An endless arc of stony river path over- arched with boughs that makes it feel like walking through an green cathedral for urban penitents. Fewer people. A young woman in a woven cloche hat stands motionless to one side; seemingly contemplating something deep and dark.

The house itself comes into view in a symphony of chimneys. I am impressed. Jamie is not. We cross the bridge and find ourselves in Surrey. Astonished to find that leaving London has not turned us into pumpkins, we hasten to the bus stop and head for the Kingsbury Nandos. Journeys end.


An open letter to Alastair Campbell

Dear Alastair,

As an intelligent man and seasoned journalist, as well as one who was as close to the centre of political power in the UK as anyone ever gets – and indeed as a specialist in the management of news – you will have weighed every word of your open letter to Jeremy Corbyn very carefully.

You end it with a plea for him to consider the message rather than dismiss it because of the identity of the messenger. This is a common theme of late, but you will know that the identity of messengers is a relevant aspect of responding to the message. Who are they, what is their overall view, and what axes do they tend to grind, whose interests are they representing, why are they choosing to send this particular message at this time and what effect is it likely to have, are just six questions that come to mind. So, the message and the messenger tend to be inextricably linked; as I’m sure you would concede, if you reflect on your own practice as a spin doctor for Tony Blair.

But, for the sake of utmost clarity, lets look at the message you sent. I will take your points in order.

“Britain is in a moment of peril” facing the prospect of a no deal Brexit, with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, but “I see no sign that you…have grasped the seriousness of what is happening, let alone devised a strategy to respond and defeat it.” This is very odd. Labour has always opposed no deal. It has voted against it in Parliament consistently. Jeremy Corbyn is currently on the stump around the country holding rallies opposing it. He says he opposes it in every TV interview. Labour stands for a people’s vote on no deal or any deal Johnson can get – though – with his current provocations on the Irish backstop – its obvious he isn’t trying to get one. Labour, uniquely, seeks to unite all those who oppose no deal, both those who favour remaining in the EU and those who favour leaving the political structures but retaining membership of the customs union and single market. The reason for this is that Labour’s position is based on defending the living standards of the majority of the UK population – not limited and polarising notions of “identity” . Labour is not just about the 48% versus the 50%, it is about the 99% vs the 1%. If the country is facing an “existential crisis” it is clearly in the interests of the 1% to try to define all politics in relation to the 48:52, however paralysing that turns out to be.*

Labour’s stance has the advantage of not lumping people who favour a soft Brexit in with the no dealers as an undifferentiated mass of “leavers”; which allows the latter to increasingly hoover them up as a tribal hinterland who just haven’t become full true believers yet. You seem to disregard this risk, which is helping the no dealers towards a majority. Most people in this country want to get on with their lives, do not live in a political bubble, do not write or read letters like this, and could live with any number of political variations as long as their lives are not thrown into chaos by adventurist politicians.

This position is quite clear to me. I can only conclude that you can’t see it because you either haven’t looked, or don’t want to see. It also strikes me as very odd indeed that your response to an existential crisis for the country caused because its government has been captured by a dangerous faction, is to launch an attack on the only political party that could possibly form an alternative government. It is, of course, par for the course for every institution that supports the status quo to drown out any policies that appeal to people on the basis of their class interest; thereby making the identity discourse the only show in town. Although I take you at your word that you have only discussed this issue with close family and friends, it is consistent with articles in the Guardian at the weekend by Jonathan Freedland and Jonathan Powell, arguing for Corbyn to go and Labour to join some sort of “centre” regroupment with no political definition other than remaining in the EU. This is essentially pickling the politics and economics of the 2010 – 15 coalition in aspic and presenting it as a solution; when it helped set up the “left behind” component of the leave vote in the first place.

You argue that if Johnson were to hold a recall referendum between No deal and Remain, Remain would win. Labour agrees and would campaign for Remain were that to happen – as you know. Remaining concerned about Labour’s position on this must take a real act of will.

You then say that Johnson is likely to opt for an early general election because he thinks he can win. If that is indeed your view, isn’t the logical thing to do to support and back up the only Party able to form an alternative government rather than attack it? Taking a fatalistic attitude that current opinion polls are the last word on possible results did not work out too well for Theresa May in 2017 did it?

As a journalist who learned his trade in the pre-digital era, you will be familiar with the phrase “today’s news is tomorrow’s chip paper.” The same applies to conventional political wisdoms. Given how quickly the bad news is already piling up – bad receptions for Johnson in his tours of Wales and Scotland – described by the BBC as “bumpy” – a sharp drop, already, in the value of the pound, the CBI warning against no deal and commenting that preparations for it are as desperate as filling sandbags in a flood – you might save the bedroom but you’ll lose the kitchen – and even that Johnson’s poll bounce is entirely at the expense of the Brexit Party – its quite possible that one of the only things that might save the government and their hard Brexit project are these gratuitous attacks on the opposition from people who should be concentrating all their fire on the government.

It as if the existential crisis of the country takes a back seat to overthrowing the Labour leadership. Fatalistic phrases (“the country may have decided…” on any current analysis..”) – especially when used to obscure a preference – could be fatal here; not so much for Labour but for the prospect of actually stopping no deal.

You say that you have spent “several weeks trying without success to have explained to me the process under which I was expelled for voting Liberal Democrat in the European elections.” I think most of the readers of that sentence will be able to work that one out; and it wouldn’t take them several weeks to do so.

LBJ once remarked that he kept J Edgar Hoover on as Director of the FBI because he preferred to have him “in the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent pissing in.” Labour is a big tent, but I’m sure you recognise that being inside it pissing in is not a reasonable or acceptable position.

You say that the Party no longer represents your “values”. Quite a number of people will read that with a sigh of relief. The sort of values that allowed you to distort reality to sell participation the war in Iraq, in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed, is not something that sits comfortably with Party members today. Praise be for that.  But you say you want a Party and leadership that stands up for the many not the few and for that to be clearly spelled out. These are Labour’s campaigning pledges. Which of these can you not accept? Which do not represent your “hopes for Britain”?

  1. Increased funding for the NHS with more nurses and doctors to give patients the care they need.
  2. A Real Living Wage of £10 an hour and no increase in Income Tax or National Insurance for 95% of people.
  3. A Green Industrial Revolution creating 400,000 jobs.
  4. Free school meals for all primary school children and reduced class sizes for all 5, 6 and 7 year olds.
  5. Keep the Winter Fuel Allowance, free TV licences and bus passes for pensioners.
  6. A public vote on any Brexit deal. Labour will campaign to Remain against No Deal or a bad Tory deal. 

We will be fighting Boris Johnson – and Nigel Farage – tooth and nail – in Parliament and out. We will put a motion of no confidence when we can win it, not play games with it like the Liberal Democrats. You say that you are unsure who you are going to vote for in the next General Election, but you know that the only practical governmental alternative to Boris Johnson is Labour. Choosing this moment to try to engender a split must be music to his ears.

*For a fuller exploration of this argument see Mike Wongsam – Brexit and the progress of Jeremy Corbyn in Transform 6.




Freeports – giving up control .

Fresh in his job as Conservative Party Chairman in the the new kamikazi Brexit government, James Cleverly announced on Radio 4 that they have plans for 6 “free ports” to get up and running once the UK is “freed” from the obligations of EU membership. By the end of the week Liz Truss had upped this to ten.

This makes clear what their intentions are and undermines any claims by Johnson that it will be possible to maintain good relations with “our friends in Europe” once these are in place.

Despite their rhetoric about “Brussels red tape”, they know that if they want to sell goods into the EU they have to meet EU standards. There’s no getting around that even if they wanted to go on a path of cutting costs and corners on quality to go for a cheap and nasty strategy; at least so far as selling into Europe is concerned. Companies that concentrate on the rest of the world could, however, find a niche for shoddy goods if their costs were low enough.  How far they have to go to make the workers of this country poor enough so their costs are low enough to compete with qualitatively poorer countries is an experiment they will no doubt be keen to try out.

Cleverly argued that setting up free ports would “bring money into the exchequer.” This is odd; because the whole point of them is that companies using them do not have to pay domestic taxes or customs duties; leading to a direct loss of revenue compared with now. The only logic would be that, faced with a UK outside the EU market, international capital will need some serious incentives to even consider investing here.

A “free port” is a classic third world development strategy for countries desperate to attract footloose capital, any capital, by slashing taxes and regulations to zero (or near as dammit) within them. They have also been adopted in the United States, as US capital seeks to withdraw itself from any financial obligations to the society that sustains it. A Free Port is a place in which the writ of the investor runs more than that of the elected government. They will have taken back control from the people. “Democracy” will kneel before them with its begging bowl out. It is a direct abdication of sovereignty. Far from “controlling our own laws” we would be giving them up to footloose multi nationals – who take from everywhere and have obligations nowhere.

The big claims being made for them should be taken with a shovel full of salt. The Centre for Cities Report* on Enterprise Zones – on which Freeports are modeled, points out the following issues.

  1. Over optimistic job creation predictions Estimates cited alongside Johnson’s announcement claim that Freeports will add £12 billion to the economy and create 150,000 jobs. Just as, in 2011, the Treasury claimed that enterprise zones would create 54,000 private jobs by 2015. They didn’t. In fact between 2012 and 2017 the zones had created just 13,500 sustainable private sector jobs.
  2. Hype about the type of jobs.  95 per cent of these 13,500 jobs were lower skilled, so the zones have not provided the answer for areas wanting to shift their economy from lower-skilled to higher-skilled economies.
  3. Displacement Of all the jobs in enterprise zones in 2017 that were not there in 2012, at least one third moved from elsewhere.

Full report here.  https://www.centreforcities.org/blog/why-free-ports-do-not-hold-the-answer-to-job-creation-in-a-post-brexit-world/

This displacement means that places without this special status are being set up to shrink and shrivel from a lack of investment, further reducing revenue to the exchequer. The consequence would be a creeping expansion of zero taxation regimes to as many manufacturing or trading areas trying to compete by offering further incentives.

EU regulations forbid Free Ports, so, as this is aimed at attracting investment from countries in the EU that expect companies to pay their fair share of tax, this would aggravate relations with them.

The domestic “benefits” of such ports accrue mostly to landowners within them. It remains to be seen how far regulations safeguarding workers rights will also be slashed in this desperate race to the bottom.

How low can we go? Quite a bit further if we let them get away with it.