A bargain-basement Churchill who is really the new Anthony Eden

For a long while Boris Johnson seemed to be playing a political blinder in tackling the corona virus pandemic.  Despite the manifest failures of government policy, the lockdown was being observed with little need for special bureaucracy or enforcement and he rode high in the opinion polls, while little attention was paid to Opposition voices.

But with tens of thousands now dead, criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis has grown and Sir Keir Starmer is winning media praise as the new leader of the Opposition.  The wonder is that Johnson scored so well in the early stages.  How did it happen?

The shifts of public opinion during the pandemic

Symbolically the high point might be seen in the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe on May 8th.  The celebrations (note: not ‘commemorations’) were tacitly permitted to break lockdown rules – just like the Thursday evening applause on Westminster Bridge, with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner present, a few days after Johnson was discharged from hospital nearby. Displays of loyalty, it seems, took priority over the need to save lives.

And Victory in Europe (VE) Day fitted seamlessly into the government’s programme for the virus, which used every means available to evoke that war and the state’s military role in it. The whole effort focused on the imagined New Churchill in Downing Street speaking directly to the nation.  It reflected Brexiteers’ twin obsessions with relations with the rest of Europe and the World War.

Little experience

The current Cabinet had come into office in July 2019 with very little experience of government.  The Prime Minister had held only one ministerial post, as a markedly unsuccessful Foreign Secretary from 2016-18, after eight years as Mayor of London.  His greatest prominence came in the Vote Leave campaign in the European Union referendum in 2016 (whose director was Dominic Cummings, appointed as his Chief Advisor when he became Prime Minister).

At the end of January 2020 the Vote Leave team duly saw its dream realised in the formal ending of British membership of the EU and they expected to thrive on political celebrations of this for at least another year.  However, that very day the UK’s first two cases of Covid-19 were confirmed.  Although Johnson had desperately wanted to be Prime Minister, he was singularly ill-prepared for the hard slog and adaptability the job requires: he did not seem to want to govern, merely to be at No. 10.  But suddenly he was faced with as serious and demanding a task of government as there can be.

The government reacted the only way that Johnson knew how: it procrastinated and then tackled the pandemic not as a complex and urgent requirement of administration but primarily as a campaigning opportunity. The aim was to advance its wider project and build up the government’s power and Johnson’s own political image.

Government by slogan and rhetoric

And so we had government by slogan, with rhetorical targets used to silence criticism.  I have just read a book about Russian revolutionaries in the run-up to 1917.  Whichever faction they belonged to, a major preoccupation was always to devise the right slogans to campaign with.  And so it is in Britain now.  After the three-word phrases of Take Back Control (June 2016) and Get Brexit Done (December 2019) we have tripartite slogans in Stay At Home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives and now Stay Alert – Control The Virus – Save Lives.  To these we must add an enduring motif of the campaign, which is really another three-word slogan meant to plant a certain idea in voters’ minds: Follow The Science.

Early on, the government resorted to daily televised press conferences instead of announcements in Parliament.  Then Parliament itself was sent on a needlessly extended Easter recess, placing the political focus on a handful of ministers and their scientific advisors.  They pushed this bold move through with the Opposition demoralised after the election defeat in December 2019 and the Labour Party preoccupied with electing a new leader.  Another needless recess of a fortnight has just started.

Not content with this, Johnson also made direct addresses to the nation, after which the broadcasters generally forgot the convention of inviting the Leader of the Opposition to reply.  The Queen was wheeled in too, and she duly obliged with a sentimental reference to Vera Lynn, the wartime ‘forces’ sweetheart.’  This was perfectly in tune with the government’s bellicose talk of ‘defeating’ the virus and the VE festivities to come.

The avoidance of Parliament matches a general imperviousness to criticism, in a novel, aggressive form that seems to have wrongfooted many critics.  Every time another extraordinary failure is pointed to, ministers respond with an incredible promise of something else two or three months later: for example, successive, ever more ambitious promises of virus tests to silence questions about how far the government has fallen behind previous schedules.  This promise is then dutifully reported instead of the failure to reply to the criticism.  It seems to be Cummings’ inventive way of burying bad news.

A new Anthony Eden?

The mood seems to be changing now, despite continuing government successes in presentation.  They cannot hide their unsought position in the world’s eyes as one of the maladroit villains of the pandemic, alongside Donald Trump’s USA, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil and, perhaps, Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  In early April a health research institute in Seattle had already forecast that the UK would have the largest number of deaths in Europe – despite early crowing that the country had the best epidemiologists, was one of the best prepared for a pandemic and so on.

So, far from the country’s heroic self-image of standing alone in 1940, this is turning into a national humiliation.  Governments are rarely appreciated if they bring humiliation down on their country, especially if it entails great, avoidable loss of lives from hunger or disease.  This spring’s ugly events in the hospitals and care homes of England must surely catch up with the administration, just as the fiasco of Suez in 1956 did with Sir Anthony Eden’s.  Boris Johnson will find no fridge to hide in then. 

Will the corona virus save the Brexiteers’ skin?

As Rishi Sunak prepares his first budget today, an ‘unexpected’ stalling was reported in British economic growth in January.

In point of fact the accompanying data show a slowdown since the autumn of 2019.  But the notion of a setback has only been generally reported this week – and almost exclusively as a consequence of the corona virus epidemic.

Signs that economic crisis has already begun

So, while he and his Cabinet colleagues bask in their government’s political summer, Sunak faces one of the worst economic situations I can remember.  Three – or maybe three-and-a-half – major factors are converging to bring Britain down over the next year or so.  The emerging pandemic is only the latest of them.

Three factors converge to bring Britain down

The first dates back over ten years to the banking crash in 2008, when the authorities relied on ‘quantitative easing’ (QE) – a huge expansion in the money supply – as its main response, while doing little to prevent a repetition of the excesses of hedge funds and financial derivatives which led to the crash, or reduce the accompanying high levels of private indebtedness.

Since QE began in 2009, the economy has never been strong enough to put it in reverse, and it has been clear for many years that when the next downturn came, the monetary authorities would have run out of ammunition to tackle it.  Private debt has continued to expand, making the situation even more precarious than it was in August 2007, when the credit crunch initiated the great crisis.

In 2009 Gordon Brown’s government, to its credit, embarked on an unfashionable ‘Keynesian’ policy of fiscal expansion to revive demand.  Month on month, economic activity began to recover – but it suddenly stalled again when David Cameron’s Conservative government was elected in May 2010.  The new government slammed on the fiscal brakes with the 1930s-style policy of austerity, leading to the last ten years of stagnation.

And so, to the first element of the banking crash and excessive monetary expansion, the half-factor of austerity was added.

How Brown went one way, and then Cameron the other

Then in 2016 came the EU referendum.  General predictions of an economic reverse on leaving the European Union were shouted down by Brexiteers as ‘Project Fear’ – and they continue to be so.  But the actual shock of leaving has not been felt yet, as the UK remains in the Single Market and Customs Union until at least the end of 2020.  But a foretaste is there in the GDP figures of the last few months.

Already an air of crisis

Nevertheless, there is already an air of crisis as the stock markets crashed on March 9th, 2020 – only two days before Sunak’s budget.  The proximate cause is the non-economic fact of the gathering pandemic, reinforced by a collapse in oil prices after Saudi Arabia and Russia failed to agree on cutting output.

And that pandemic is Sunak’s third big reason to worry.  And it is all that we are hearing from most of the media about the pending state of the economy: the pandemic alone, the rapid progress of which naturally causes widespread concern on its own account.

Despite the Bank of England’s 0.5 per cent interest rate cut this morning, the authorities are in no position now to cope with any serious economic reverse by their long-preferred means, as a result of QE.  The only solution from macro-economic policy is to reverse austerity – and renew the fiscal expansion which stopped dead in its tracks just under ten years ago.  Even Johnson and Sunak seem to have understood that.

What does this mean politically for their new government?  Ten years of recovery from the financial crisis (much faster in other countries than the UK) have already lasted several years longer than most economic upturns, and a recession is overdue.  If it occurs – as seems more than likely now – the conventional expectation would be that the government’s popularity would slide.

But will it?  After all, Johnson, Sunak and Dominic Cummings have a ready excuse: the semi-fake news of attributing it all to the virus which came over from China.  The Remainers – or Rejoiners – might lose the opportunity next year to demonstrate that their predictions about Brexit were not fear-mongering at all.

The clamour will arise from Brexiteers that this is nonsense.  An economic crash may have been predictable well before the end of 2019, and yet when it happens they will say it had nothing at all to do with Brexit, or even austerity: it was entirely due to an Act of God.

What did Fascist Rome ever do for the Greeks?

A small corner of Europe celebrates Italy’s 1930s heritage

I am sitting on a shaded bench, almost alone in an Aegean public garden, happy to eat a couple of windfall mandarins in lieu of lunch.  This nameless little refuge, near the harbour of Kos, is open for just three hours a day during the week. 

In the corner, beyond the trees, is what looks like the foundation wall of an ancient stone building, unmarked and unexplained.  Signs elsewhere suggest it was a Roman bathhouse, the North Thermae – one of several such places in the town.

Numerous similar town-centre plots were left open to the public for relaxation, and also for future archaeological work, after a devastating earthquake in Kos in April 1933.  This delightful one was perhaps too small to be among the excavations carried out soon afterwards.

The Agora at Kos

Kos is the capital and the main port and tourist town of the island which shares its name, halfway down the Dodecanese chain in the south-east of the Aegean Sea.  At the time of the earthquake (in fact from 1912 until 1947) these islands were ruled by Italy, most of that time a Fascist state led by Benito Mussolini

It should be no surprise to find ancient remains in Greece, but I did not expect to see so much in a town which lives very well off the simpler attractions of the sun, the sea and pleasure craft.

Archaeological parks

Besides numerous well-marked ‘archaeological parks’ in the central area, other small plots with ancient remains are scattered around the town, and open to the public all day.  Many of them have no other indications, maybe because they were not excavated and therefore the nature of the former structures has not been identified.

But a huge amount of work was done between the big earthquake in 1933 and the outbreak of war in 1940.  And the people who got it done were the Italian occupiers.

The earthquake destroyed the old town centre next to the castle and harbour, exposing the remains of an ancient town below it.  In the authoritarian manner of Fascism, a new centre was built further away from the castle, leaving large areas to be explored systematically over the years that followed.

They include the agora, or forum, of the ancient town, which was founded in 366 BC and previously best known as the home of Hippocrates, the medical pioneer.  It was one of the biggest forums in the ancient world.

They also found the old port, fortifications, a large gymnasium, a misnamed ‘Nymphaeum‘ (actually public lavatories with marble columns) and later Roman remains such as bathhouses and the 36-room house of an important citizen, which was partially reconstructed and is now a very well-arranged museum.

The Gymnasium at Kos

Next to that house, a Roman Catholic cemetery contains large memorials dated 2002, which commemorate – in Greek, Italian, English and German – 103 Italian officers who were executed on October 9th, 1943, in the early days of the German occupation of Kos.  The Battle of Kos came one month after Italy had surrendered to the Allies.

Many splendid mosaic floors as well as statues, pots and coins were found here and there in Kos.  Much of this is displayed in a purpose-built Archaeological Museum in the rebuilt town centre.  Some of the ancient buildings were also reconstructed, at least partially, but they fell again under later tremors.  For this is a major seismic zone: in Roman times alone, the town was hit by big earthquakes again in both 142 and 469 AD.

Offices for the Fascists

The replacement town centre was built in an elegant Italian style, with houses, shops and a surviving kindergarten, still in use as a primary school.  A central square provided party offices for the Fascists on its west and a mosque on its east, flanking a fine market hall and the Archaeological Museum.  All were designed by Italian architects.

But other, damaged mosques were duly demolished.  A Greek Orthodox church, built in the centre only in 1932, survived that earthquake, but it too is now closed due to damage from a more recent tremor.

Besides that mosque I found no evidence of the long centuries spent under Ottoman rule – of Turkish residents or Islam – or even of the millennium or so Kos spent as part of the Byzantine Empire, ruled – as later by the Ottomans – from the city successively known as Constantinople, Byzantium and Istanbul.

The Market Hall in Kos

If it was not obvious anyway, this all provides clues as to the Italians’ motives.  Besides putting an Italian gloss on a distant corner of the Aegean Sea, these excavations redounded to the glory of ancient Mediterranean civilisation – and above all, the Roman Empire, which was central to Mussolini’s mythology.  The town’s ancient Greek features were investigated as much as the Roman ones – but the latter, being more recent, were more accessible.

Job done – and then abandoned

All of the archaeological information about Kos can be read on numerous panels by the pavements, with descriptions in Greek and English and photographs taken before 1933 as well as of the 1930s excavations, accompanied by plans and artists’ impressions of the ancient buildings.  Much of this excellent presentational work was financed by the European Union.

The panels lavish praise on the Italians – servants of a Fascist state – who rebuilt the town so painstakingly and imaginatively, and also set aside the archaeological zones and did the basic excavations.

Indeed it is hard to imagine any modern Far Right government embarking on such a civilised project even in its own country, let alone another one that it occupied.  That seems to be the measure of how far the current Far Right’s horizons have fallen, even from the grim standards of the 1930s.

But there is another conspicuous silence: about the Greek state and its activities throughout the seven decades since it absorbed the Dodecanese Islands.  In Kos there is a strong sense of a job done to the highest professional standards by foreigners – and then abandoned 80 years ago.

And yet what a centre could be made here for information and research, tracing the development of a major Aegean town through nine centuries of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, if only someone with suitable authority and enough money to dispense could take the initiative.  Archaeological techniques have moved on a long way and it is a shame if they are not applied in this historic place again.

But no doubt many ancient sites await excavation all over Greece.  After several years of enforced austerity, the country is probably in no fit state to take this any further for now.

Drafted in Kos, June 2019; edited and posted in Brighton, February 2020

‘I would scorn to be a slave, even to an idea’

A piece of juvenilia here!  Below this, I have typed in a school essay I wrote in 1972, not long before my 18th birthday.  Though the product of a teenage mind (with a major historical error in the second sentence), I enjoyed re-reading it and I think that overall it has aged pretty well.  My teacher assessed it to be ‘very good.’

I think it is not just a period piece.  Nearly half a century later, I am struck by two things in particular:

  • the way it chides politicians for ‘failing to see that it is this very sustained [economic] growth that has brought on many of our environmental problems.’  It is quite sobering that a schoolboy was able to see that so many years ago; and yet, as the crises of the climate and biodiversity deepen, most politicians and mainstream commentators remain ‘enslaved’ to the same baleful idea even now;
  • the fact that in Edward Heath’s Britain, it was also possible to write, in all seriousness, ‘that we are anyway moving towards socialism without revolution’ (and not receive any comment on this from my teacher!).

The essay’s title was chosen by the teacher – it is a quotation from a character in the novel we were reading in class.  I offer the essay unedited, for whatever it is worth.  It is the length of a newspaper opinion column.

‘I would scorn to be a slave, even to an idea’

– Joseph Conrad in Under Western Eyes

Human slavery has long been thought immoral by western society.  Feudalism in western Europe died with the Middle Ages.  Subsequently peasants relying on subsistence farming may have been slaves to the land and the weather, but they have not been at the beck and call of human masters.  One has a degree of choice whether to remain on the land or not, but to be treated as the thing of another man has been seen as the denial of God’s great gift, free will.  All one’s human dignity, so important to Renaissance and post-Renaissance man, is reckoned to have gone; one is humiliated.  Hence the feeling that one ‘would scorn to be a slave’ – it would be such a shame, a degradation, that one could not bear it.

But how can you be a slave to an idea?  Slavery to a man comes when he has absolute control over your body, your property and your actions; sometimes – at least in principle – he may even direct your thoughts.  Slavery to an idea comes when it not only controls, or motivates, your actions, but also governs all your other thoughts.  You no longer see the idea as your servant, helping you to achieve certain ultimate ends; it itself is now the guiding principle of your life.  For ideas, like machines, ought to be the servants of humanity.  They should be the product of reasonable thought about what our objectives must be and how we should reach them.  We ought to use them as means to our goals and be free to discard them when circumstances change.  They must not appear to be the goals themselves.  A good example of ideas getting such supremacy over men as to enslave them is seen in modern official economic thought.  Aims such as high growth and high productivity are no longer seen as means to material prosperity and therefore happiness but as ends in themselves.  After decades of worrying how to achieve the means, politicians have become enslaved to them and see them as ultimate goals of policy.  They now concern themselves over Britain’s place in the ‘growth league’ and the degree of change in labour productivity, while failing to see that it is this very sustained growth that has brought on many of our environmental problems, and that with a million unemployed, the average working man ought to be producing less – then there would be more jobs needed for the same production.  These politicians fail to register that circumstances have changed and that these are no long even valid routes to universal happiness; and they are certainly not happiness itself.

It is significant that they have ‘become enslaved’ to these ideas after ‘decades.’  You do not suddenly become the slave of an idea in the way that you can of a man.  First of all you yourself have to conceive it, and you are unquestionably its master then.  It can only gradually take over your mind.  It is this which is the most insidious aspect of slavery to ideas.  Since the change is so gradual, you are not likely to notice it – as yet politicians have not grasped just how they are trapped by the idolization of their policy of growth.  You will be likely to accredit the troubles brought on by this enslavement to other causes.  Imagine a revolutionary Marxist.  Somebody points out to him that the proletariat are no longer oppressed as they were in Marx’s day and that we are anyway moving towards socialism without revolution.  His reaction is very likely to be not a reappraisal of his political thought and a realization that Marxism is no longer valid, but possibly even a hardening of his views resulting from a determination to resist this ‘bourgeois propaganda.’  He is a slave to Marxism without knowing it.

But however unaware you may be of your enslavement to an idea, this enslavement is still your fault.  It is the result of a refusal to think clearly and objectively, if not at first, at any rate subsequently.  It shows a lack of self-control (the slave is too proud to renounce his ideas and so deifies them instead) and, ultimately, weakness.  It is therefore all the more pathetic.  When slave to another man you can maintain your dignity, even if your free will is removed: you can remain clear-headed about long-term objectives for mankind and preserve your ideals.  But when you are enslaved by an idea, you are mentally helpless, and you have, if unwittingly, lost at least some of your dignity.

If, then, he is helpless about it, can the slave of an idea scorn his predicament?  As I have already suggested, he does not know it exists – the modern politician cannot see the muddle-headedness of his macro-economic views, nor the Marxist the irrelevance of his doctrine today.  And since the idea governs its slave so closely, he is not likely to be detached enough to make observations on his condition.  If he could see the position he was in, no doubt he would scorn himself for it – such a circumstance is all the more shameful since it is your own fault.  But he would be likely to try to do something to change it; this a slave to another man cannot do.

Combating climate change – don’t look at me! *

I am certainly no angel when it comes to environmental action – for example, I have taken far too many flights in the course of my life.  I have been lucky enough to do a lot of international work and so to some extent this has been unavoidable, but I know it isn’t right.

However, when I heard of Unit-E – as Good Energy used to be called – soon after moving into my present house in 1997, I realised that this was an easy and effective way to reduce my carbon footprint.  I would not even have to instal any solar panels or windmills for myself!

A few years later I transferred my source of gas to Good Energy too, because I prefer dealing with this company than the big beasts of the energy market, which are only interested in money.  Maybe I should have converted my heating, cooking and hot water supply to electricity instead, but I didn’t.

Not long after transferring my electricity supply I scrapped my car.  This was a little odd since one of my reasons for buying this house was that it had a garage at the back as well as a couple of parking spaces where a front garden should be.  But after a while I discovered that living here, I had only driven 300 miles in a quarter, and so there was little point in continuing with the vehicle.

Now I walk or take a bus or train everywhere and I can’t imagine even wanting a car any more.  Why put up with the hassles and expense of driving when I can sit in a comfortable train seat and read a book or watch the world go by?  But I realise that I am fortunate to be in a position to choose.

Besides that, I buy organic food as much as I can, compatibly with my dietary preferences, knowing that the field rotations it requires help to sequester carbon from the atmosphere by fertilising the soil with manure rather than minerals or chemicals.

Nevertheless, I can see that restoring the climate and biodiversity are huge tasks which will require strong action by governments – far stronger than any hitherto – since we humans are fallible creatures.  Only the most acutely conscientious among us will do everything that we ought to off our own bats, so we need to be placed in a position where we have little or no choice.

  • This is a slightly edited version of something I’ve written to Good Energy (my energy supplier) since it asked its customers to tell them a bit about why they chose that firm and what other steps they are taking to combat climate change. They promised a prize draw for everyone who wrote in!